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December 5, 2009

Sound Current: 'Yokohama's MediaMix '09 - Game Remixers Unite'

[In his latest 'Sound Current' column for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska visits a Japanese music fan convention to discover the most interesting, often unofficial game music-related CDs and merchandising on sale there.]

Twice a year, fan remixers of videogame music exchange CDs at the Music MediaMix Market, or "M3" for short. Most recently, Yokohama’s Osanbashi Hall was host to the event’s aisles of booths run by professional and aspiring musicians.

More modestly sized than the comparable Comic Market festival, the single-day meetup caters exclusively to the musical side of fan service. Several dozen circles, or informally run organizations, turned out to the 24th chapter of the gathering's history with pressed arrange albums for sale.

This report takes a look at a cross-section of the remixes, covering everything from classics like Challenger to recent releases like Mamoru Has Been Cursed. Including comments by participants, the report offers various perspectives on the objectives that fuel creativity in the doujin remix music scene.

Outside Japan the art of game cover music is largely a geographically decentralized phenomenon. On occasion you can catch The Megas touring the States, 8 Bit Instrumental live in Brazil, or Mutherpluckin' B rocking in Sweden, but it's unlikely to see them together with other videogame-inspired music bands. By contrast, M3 is held twice a year in the Tokyo area, attracting dozens of cover bands and game remixing circles from all over Japan.

This latest M3 at Osanbashi Hall, an auditorium overlooking the sea from a boat-shaped structure in upscale Yokohama harbor, promised to be a voyage of visitors’ imaginations. Perhaps also of the contents of their wallets, as all manner of music CDs and multimedia DVDs were available for purchase. While these products often constitute a violation of copyright, game companies tend to look the other way when M3 rolls around, so long as the doujinshi (amateur products) remain commercially non-competitive.

That is not to say that all participating booths are run by hobbyists. Game composers from SuperSweep had on hand copies of the recently released Mamoru Has Been Cursed Arrange Soundtrack, music to the Xbox 360 port of the game. Its composer, Yousuke Yasui, was in attendance. So too was SamplingMaster Ayako Saso, who has participated in M3 for years and whose contributions to Tekken 6 Original Soundtrack will be published as part of a three-disc album by Sweep Record on December 12. "It's been over two years since the production of Tekken 6, so I had almost forgotten about it" says Ayako Saso. "Then I played it on the Xbox 360 and realized my song was in there. I recall I was going for a mix of Tekken and Noh theater."

Rekka Katakiri came to Osanbashi Hall with a new rumba album for sale, part of her CLOSED/UNDERGROUND circle. A voice frequently heard in anime, the musician has also collaborated with Shadow Hearts composer Yoshitaka Hirota on the image album Kinema in the Hall. "I believe that human connection is among the most important things in life," says the vocalist. "It makes it all the more meaningful to be given the opportunity at this kind of event to meet people who say 'I love the music of Rekka Katakiri.'"

Bridging the gap between mainstream and underground, techno music label luvtrax had on hand albums whose song titles and NSFW album covers brought new meaning to the word "hardcore." Run by quad, the artist has DJ'd, written chiptunes and mastered 5pb Records albums including Yuzo Koshiro's Best Collections and Nobuyoshi Sano's DG-10 projects. The breadth of these activities echoes the overall diversity of M3's musical identities.

In addition to remixed music from videogames, M3 features audio created using retro game consoles. Tsutomu Outani brought with him copies of VORC Records' previous remix compilations, including Squarewave Surfers ~ Memory of 8 Bit, an album of international chip music creators' arrangements of famous beach songs.

For a recent VORC release, Saitone chose to remix Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" and "Thriller" in an 8-bit style. The arranger cites as a primary motivation the desire to introduce those unaccustomed to 8-bit music this distinctive style of expression.

"I've always been a big fan of his," Saitone says of his MJ EP. "I found myself even more absorbed in the process of adapting his music than in working on my own. An essential part of Michael's music is the quality of his voice, so I spent time thinking about how to emulate it using only non-vocal sounds."

Joining Saitone in Stockholm, Hally performed together with idol/graphic designer/vocalist Julie as the unity JulieHally. "I'm so pleased to have helped with forming the foundation for this genre," says Hally, who produced the chip music arrangement album Chiptuned Rockman. "I am glad to be serving as a bridge between the chiptune scene here and those existing overseas." When asked about his impressions of gatherings like M3 and Comiket, Hally says his feelings are mixed. "Our company was formed to sell chip music based on covers and remixes. We try to distinguish ourselves from doujin groups that do the same but without first licensing the music."


Yousuke Yasui and Ayako Saso of the prolific SuperSweep studio

With some CDs priced as low as 300 yen, others were being given away by their makers. Danjyon Kimura had a four-track album of original compositions created on a hacked Game Boy for those who stopped by his booth. "The Game Boy music of some time ago may have been simple," he says, "but there were so many inspired songs for it." The last track on the demo, "taketonbo," has an especially catchy rhythm along the lines of Hirokazu Tanaka's end theme to Super Mario Land, which Kimura says is among his top ten favorite tunes.

Meanwhile musician *4C* was selling copies of his latest installment in the irreverent dance music series "Sprite." Intended to introduce listeners to techno, house and trance mixes, the chaotic potpourri of musical influences run from Nintendo console triangle waves to JR line announcements, Street Fighter II tunes to "Take on Me" by a-ha (which, incidentally, has never sounded better).

“Yoshicore” from Sprite Volume 4 envisions Super Mario World taking place on the stroboscopic floor of a Shibuya dance club. "I'm proud to see that people like me are achieving their aims and emerging as DJs," says *4C*. "Our label's first event is planned for February 13 in Tokyo, and it ought to get some media coverage because there's going to be cosplayers all over the place."

To stand out from the crowd, it helps to be as clever and original with arrangement concepts as possible. Ebisen's "East Breaks in Thousand EP," for example, incorporates the six-second "Amen break" sample in four assorted game themes. The Wilhelm scream of breakbeat, the Amen break has miraculously touched every corner of hip-hop since the advent of sampling. "The end theme from Front Mission is a favorite of mine," says Ebisen, "but I couldn't find anyone to arrange it, so I went ahead and did it myself." The track sees Noriko Matsueda's melancholic lament for a war-torn battlefield, arranged for piano and strings, swiftly transitioning into a mechanically sped-up drum solo.

Some consider M3 a valuable way to engage with Japan's game music industry without having to weather the pressures of a competitive market. TMZ of Trichromatic went pro before switching his focus to design and publishing ten years ago. He sees his album "wired" as a method of exercising his skills. "Every one of the originals represented on the album are great pieces of music," he says of Trichromatic's latest. "I tried to retain their essence while arranging from a different perspective so as to give the tracks a fresh, new personality. " The album invites listeners to come for the trance remixes of Persona 3 and Saga Frontier II melodies, then stay for “wired,” an original composition.

For over twenty years the music of the Mega Man series has inspired amateur musicians to give Elec Man electronica makeovers and do Wood Man live and unplugged. Takana of the circle Colis Postal set out to treat the Blue Bomber to arrangements of elliptical, dreamy club mixes.

"Mega Man is called Rockman in Japan," says the musician, "so the title 'RockLove' carries a double meaning. It's about the love of Mega Man and the love of rock music clubs." The arrange album showcases active Tokyo DJs, a collaboration with sound house Right Stuff.

Takana mentions that licensing was a concern during the making of the album. "Just after we began distributing the CD, we received word that other circles were being forced to suspend sales of their Mega Man arrange albums. We contacted the company owning the publishing rights and received permission to sell CDs, but it could have easily turned out that this project was never released."

Members of circle “Artificial Heart” hoisted above their heads two laminated oversized posters for their latest offerings, rock arrangements of Smash Bros. and Mega Man X. The dust jacket of “We Will Rock You” depicts X, Zero and Doctor Wily reenacting the front cover of a Queen album. Listening to the cross-fade track on their homepage, a soundbite of the tongue-in-cheek glam rock voice acting can be sampled.


Artificial Heart promotes its two latest albums "Party" and "We Will Rock You"

The arrangements of classic game themes represented at M3 ran all the way back to the early days of home consoles, such as Lunatic Gate's “We Love 8 Bit,” including dance tracks inspired by Raid on Bungling Bay, Shadowgate and Challenger. FMPSG's Burning Stone offered on track “Paradise Planet” a time-warped look at Motoi Sakuraba’s hard rock style circa Valkyrie Profile through the lens of 8-bit famicom hardware.

A collection of circle earth Japan's best works were on display, spanning seven years of remixing. Revisiting Ketsui, Dracula X, Ys and Super R-Type, the album includes primarily high intensity electronic tracks, mixed and remastered using T-Racks software. Since the material was selected from various releases, some made with Recomposer/98 files installed on an old-fashioned NEC PC-9801, the archival process was no small task. "This album covers much of the music that has inspired me most since I was young," says Nijeil, "spanning nearly half my life." The circle's next album will arrange music from Super Nintendo racer F-Zero, due out at December's Comiket.

As might have been expected, M3 included many an offering to the shrine of Final Fantasy. Dynastess was selling the latest installment of the Music Fantasy Tactics series. SunnyVale had a Final Fantasy dance music compilation called Materia Blue, including super cute FF VII vocal covers and matching Yuffie Kusaragi cover art. Taking prog rock and metal as their inspirations, Sound Factory Carolina offered a drum and bass rendition of Ryuji Sasai’s Final Fantasy Mystic Quest as part of the Sound Legacy compilation.

Luna of Lunatic Gate brought to Osanbashi Hall the second edition of RPG-themed "Battle Syndrome." Much of the album, which has no breaks between tracks, never strays from 190 beats per minute. "The opening is a passage from 'Decisive Battle' from Final Fantasy VI," says Luna. "Since it's slower than the source material, the track has been named simply 'Battle Theme.'" Every Final Fantasy fight theme from the 8 and 16-bit eras has been covered by the Battle Syndrome series, except for one. Luna invites listeners to figure out for themselves which track remains to be remixed.

"Ever Green" by EtlanZ features pristine electronic arrangements from various classic Square Enix titles, the first album by the musician on updated synthesizer hardware. "I've been making music as a hobbyist for close to eight years," says EtlanZ. "It seems like you can always find someone to talk with about games, but game music is another story. I'm grateful to the event staff for making it possible for so many like-minded people to communicate with one another."

The delightfully named Magical Trick Society had a collection of Squaresoft remixes titled “Folktale Recollection,” including pastoral flute and steel string arrangements simulated on synthesizers. Magical Trick's "Lead Into Genesis" pays homage to self-taught game composer Shinji Hosoe with arrangements of his first score, Dragon Spirit. Sticking close to the source material while incorporating contemporary instrument samples, the tribute underscores how the composer’s passion over time led to the creation of an influential record label.

F-Zero Mode by Churchmode, a jazzy tribute to the ever-listenable F-Zero, shifts the pedal-to-the-metal thrill ride into mellow low gear. The album takes as its priority shedding new light on tunes you thought you already knew. The circle's "Paradox of Persona" remixes music by Shoji Meguro from the Atlus RPG series. Artist Splice, who dressed in Persona cosplay at Comiket to promote the fan arrangement album, says that what is most enjoyable about M3 for her is the chance to expand upon the experience of arranging game music by interacting with other enthusiasts.


frisbee and splice of Churchmode with Paradox of Persona -Ash of MEGAMI TENSEI2-

While the turnout at M3 remains strong, at the same time an economic recession cannot help but touch a community whose activities rely on having free time. Furthermore while previously many hobbyists dreamed of someday breaking into the industry, more recently many also fear that game companies will begin cracking down on unlicensed tributes.

More popular circles with aspirations of being signed can be heard wondering aloud whether their remix albums will be frowned upon by potential employers. It’s a situation that cannot help but discourage innovation in videogame arrangement. The feelings of uncertainty at events like M3 stand out in contrast to optimism felt across the Pacific, where Capcom endorsed Arizona rapper Random's Mega Man 9 remix album and Metroid Metal performed live at PAX.

Regulations are not firmly in place in Japan guaranteeing the safety of homage from legal action, and uneasiness remains when it comes to what it means to be doujin. Uncertainty notwithstanding, M3 continues not only to function but to outshine remixer gatherings elsewhere in the world. It's the place for the most inspired tributes and imitations the real world has to offer—dust jackets, liner notes, jewel cases and all.


[Images courtesy of VORC Records, Music Fantasy Tactics, Lunatic Gate and Aerophonon. Translation by Yoshi Miyamoto. Photos by Jeriaska.]

Best Of Indie Games: Two's Company, Three is Too Many

[Every week, IndieGames.com: The Weblog co-editor Tim W. will be summing up some of the top free-to-download and commercial indie games from the last seven days 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 delight in this edition include a platformer that features time-rewinding game mechanics, an arcade game based on the idea of collecting confectionery, an underwater action game that is challenging yet fun, a paddle game by sfxr creator DrPetter, and a 2D platformer centered around the adventures of a fire-breathing dragon.

Here's the highlights from the last seven days:

Game Pick: 'The Company of Myself' (Eli Piilonen and Luka Marcetic, browser)
"A platformer which implements the game mechanic seen in the likes of Chronotron and Time Donkey. Our storyteller Jack must reach the door on each level by using past copies of himself as platforms (and later on, vice-versa). Some of the puzzles are pretty fantastic and require a great deal of concentration and logic to figure them out. Towards the end of the game a few of the puzzles which involve precision timing are a little frustrating, but there's nothing too hair-wrenching. All in all, a lovely afternoon distraction."

Game Pick: 'Magic Planet Snack' (Elephant Kiss, freeware)
"In Magic Planet Snack you are a wizard who turned himself into a worm by accident, and has to travel through the cosmos to devour wizards on other worlds for points. Gathering orbs will power up your hyper gauge, and once that is full all edible objects on screen are transformed into confectionery for your worm to chew on. Things like trolls, lava and satellites should be avoided, and there is also a proper ending that you can reach by consuming the rival wizards in the other worlds."

Game Pick: 'Saintrooper' (Yamoto, freeware)
"A challenging exploration platform game that takes place mostly under water, where your character has to swim up for air often or collect oxygen tanks to prevent from losing valuable hearts. One key feature of the game is that you have the ability to grab on to walls and climb upwards by jumping off a vertical surface. By firing downwards during a freefall, it is even possible to reduce the falling speed and soften the impact of your landing."

Game Pick: 'Pylo Noveau' (Grif and Omnilith, freeware)
"A solid platformer made with the Game Maker engine, featuring four lengthy levels to play in the first demo build released. You play as Pylo, a dragon with fire-breathing ability that can be further upgraded whenever you collect a red gem. The developer has promised four times the content in the final version, but don't let the incomplete tag discourage you from giving this game a try."

Game Pick: 'Deflectorpool' (DrPetter, browser)
"In Deflectorpool you control a paddle used to bounce balls coming from the top of the screen. Scoring is done by collecting balls of the same color with the round attachment connected to the bat. The more balls you string up before changing colors, the more points you gain from a higher combo count."

December 4, 2009

Grand Theft Archie: Riverdale Run

Initially revealed in June 2006, but still nowhere to be found, Archie's Riverdale Run is an open-world 3D adaptation of the Archie comic series from FXLabs Studios, an outsourcing and game development studio out of Hyderabad, India. Even if the PC title never releases, at least we weren't deprived of the trailer's "I'm Driving Through Riverdale" song.

Archie's Riverdale Run allows you to play as all of the franchise's primary characters -- Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, and others -- exploring the town on foot and in different vehicles. You also get to complete missions, attend a school dance, and drive around in one of the most unexciting vehicles to ever appear in a video game.

As Heavy.com points out, it doesn't look like you get to carjack any Riverdale citizens, pick up prostitutes, or lead cops in dangerous 120 MPH+ car chases unfortunately. We'll have to wait for someone to make a video game adaption of Archie Meets the Punisher for that.

Gaijinworks Helping Rebuild Sunsoft Brand In U.S.

Japanese developer Sunsoft, fondly remembered for its 8/16-bit titles but largely absent in North America for most of the past decade, announced its intentions to reinvigorate its gaming brand in the U.S. with the help of Victor Ireland's startup Gaijinworks.

As part of its planned resurgence, Sunsoft is re-launching its official web site for the U.S., where the studio plans to post information on current releases, upcoming games, and more. The company says it will also host special promotions offering "exclusive, limited edition premiums" that both new and old Sunset fans will appreciate.

Sunsoft USA's first release -- or re-release, in this case -- for its comeback will be Blaster Master, the developer's cherished but infamously difficult platformer/metroidvania/run n' gun for the NES, originally shipped in the U.S. in 1988. The classic game is slated to hit Wii's Virtual Console shop later this month with a price of 500 Nintendo points.

The company says it has more titles coming to the States, including a particular title that Ireland believes will please old-school fans of his old video game publishing house Working Designs (Lunar series, Arc the Lad Collection). Outside of localizing Hudson's Miami Law for DS, Ireland's new company, Gaijinworks, has been fairly quiet since it opened in 2006.

Though Sunsoft has a catalog of nearly 100 titles to pull from, several of its best known games are tied to licenses, like Batman and Gremlins 2. It has several releases based on original IP, though, like Neo Geo fighter Waku Waku 7 and the excellently composed Journey to Silius.

"My relationship with Sunsoft and [Sunsoft CEO] Yoshida-san goes back more than 15 years, and when this opportunity presented itself to help Sunsoft return to the US console market, it was a natural fit for both our companies," says Ireland.

He continues, "This first Wii release is a great start, but there is one upcoming announcement in particular that will demonstrate just how serious Yoshida-san is about rebuilding the Sunsoft console gaming brand here. Game fans are going to be pretty happy when they hear about it – I know I was."

[Via Macstorm]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 4

In our latest employment-specific 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, Firaxis Games 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 this week include:

Crystal Dynamics: Lead Designer
"Crystal Dynamics is looking for a talented, innovative lead designer on future AAA title development for Xbox 360 and PS3. We're looking for a candidate who is driven, passionate about making games, willing to take risks, confident that the risk is worth taking and has a solid design background to make it happen. The candidate we're looking for will have current multiplayer, systems and technical experience and excels in highly collaborative, team environments."

THQ/Kaos Studios: Environment Art Supervisor
"We are seeking an experienced Environment Art Supervisor with the skills and passion to drive the designing, organization, modeling, texturing, dressing and lighting of realistically-grounded game worlds. Candidates should have a very strong sense of visual design and an amazing attention to detail. Candidates should be able to build and light environments from scratch by relying on a combination of photo-reference and concept art."

TimeGate Studios: Live Producer
"The Quality Assurance Manager is primarily responsible for managing and directing the quality assurance team. The Quality Assurance Manager reports to the Producer, reports to other lead positions, and provides reports on game quality to the rest of the development team as needed."

Blizzard Entertainment: Lead 3D Character Artist, Next-Gen MMO
"Blizzard Entertainment is looking for an exceptionally skilled lead 3D character artist for a team focused on next-generation massively multiplayer online games. The ideal candidate has extensive experience modeling and texturing a diverse visual range of characters and creatures at a senior or lead level. A solid grasp of form, structure, color, and light for both 2D and 3D art assets is essential."

Firaxis Games: Senior Server Software Engineer
"This role is responsible for developing and maintaining a live game service, database and web server. The game service primarily communicates and synchronizes game state changes to custom clients. The game service must also communicate state changes with a persistent database and include advanced database caching techniques required for latency-sensitive game-play."

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.

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Gaslight and Cog

['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 Shadow in the Cathedral", a commercial interactive fiction game by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold, released by the text adventure game publishers at Textfyre.]

I have a soft spot for steampunk; have done ever since I read The Iron Dragon's Daughter at an impressionable age. So it's with mixed pleasure and annoyance that I've watched the style become ubiquitous and diluted, until it means nothing more than an aesthetic of gears, ironmongery, and jugendstil curves.

"The Shadow in the Cathedral" is set in a steampunk universe, but not in the same steampunk universe that everyone else is puttering about in. This is not The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, with its airships and cloudy vertical cities. It's not the oily, clanking, boiling environment celebrated by Vernian Process.

This is a universe in which clockwork is not merely a means to an end, but a religion, a cult. Time is not only measured but made possible by the existence of cogs and winding key and pendulum. Newton, Babbage, and the swiss watchmaker Breguet are saints. The Goddess of Klockwerk visits good children at Newtonmass.

The Difference Engine, the holy grail of steampunkery, is a mystical object: if you can just encode your question properly, it can answer anything there is to know about the universe. This is a game partly written for young people -- Textfyre's target market is middle-schoolers -- but it does not feel dumbed down.

In developing this world, "Shadow" makes an argument for text as a living gaming medium -- not because it offers settings that would be difficult or expensive to render (though it does), but because there is so much attitude about the world that could not be captured effectively with visual images.

An obvious example:

"One thing's sure: she's a beautiful lady. Long gleaming hair like fresh oil, cheekbones arched like pinion arms."

It's a set of similes unlikely to come into anyone's mind when looking at a picture of a beautiful woman, unless one's mind already belonged to the world of Klockwerk.

The child protagonist, Wren, has been serving in the Abbey and has absorbed a surprising amount of mechanical knowledge, an assortment of odd social rules, and an ethical system based around orderliness and precision workmanship. These tidbits filter out at just the right rate.

There are hints that the cult of clocks, and the society built around it, are not wholly positive: the conformist ritual of the monks, the venal sins of their superiors, the poverty on the streets, the pervasive sexism. Observing a squat and humorless lady, Wren thinks:

"I've heard the monks mutter that it takes a certain kind of woman to work clockwork... What they mean, I don't know, but I guess this prim and awkward-looking woman must have it since she tends one of the most important machines in the world."

It takes a deft touch to do this: Wren observes and does not explicitly comment on the monks' attitude, but nonetheless suggests to the reader ("one of the most important machines in the world") that perhaps that attitude should not be taken at face value. And there is other evidence in the game to undercut the idea that a technically competent woman must also be an unappealing one.

Occasionally the prose is a little more verbose than I might like, but that's a matter of stylistic difference. The content is observant and memorable. These strengths don't stop at the world-building. Take these lines from a scene description early in the game:

"But instead there's nothing but a single desk, some books, and a lot of wrought iron decoration - hooks, candle-brackets, ink-wells - all made from a single sweeping line of iron that curls around the floor and walls like a wandering pen-stroke."

One could render those hooks, candle-brackets, and ink-wells in graphical form, given sufficient time and determination, and lay them out around the room. But the extra image, the image of the pen-stroke, is something no picture could convey. It accomplishes the poet's task of making the description more vivid than the thing described.

Conversely, of some sinister tubes that may have been used for blood:

"The insides of the tubes are the colour of burnt bacon."

Disturbing, somehow, but not disturbing in the default way, and the slightly queasy wrongness is not something you could get across with a picture.

Or take the moments of humor that explore the logical implications of this world, faintly reminiscent of Pratchett:

"The telescope is made of finely-moulded brass stamped with the crossed lightning of the Weather Guild. Often accused of non-mechanism - weather's just too temperamental - they tend to build machines that are overly complicated, like the ratchet-and-piston umbrella they sell in the Cathedral Yard market..."

The sense of a richly-imagined universe works itself out through all the puzzles and all the set pieces of the game.

Puzzles that involve figuring out mysterious machinery are common in adventure games of all stripes, but "Shadow in the Cathedral" has its own distinctive style and does not leave the player feeling like he's just encountered a text version of Myst. The machines tend not to be handwaved as mysterious black boxes; instead many of them are described in exacting detail so that you can understand just how they are supposedly working.

Even where complex machinery is not involved, many solutions turn on understanding some essential physical principle or other: the uses of levers, pulleys, counterweights, and contained gasses have rarely been so extensively explored in a game.

Throughout "The Shadow in the Cathedral" I had a sense of delight at being allowed really to get my hands on the fun stuff, the mechanisms and whirligigs that give steampunk its aesthetic appeal. I was particularly pleased by a sequence that involved repurposing some weather-monitoring machinery. ("'Precipitometer'," Wren explains, "is a fancy name for 'thin bucket'.")

It was all so much fun that I'm tempted to recount all the good bits until I've spoiled the thing completely.

"Shadow" has many other virtues, and a few flaws as well. Flaws first: there are a handful of moments when I needed to turn to the hints because something was not sufficiently clear from room descriptions; there were bugs, not numerous but noticeable, which I hope Textfyre will remedy for future versions. And it is only fair to mention that the end of game leaves some important questions unresolved, to be handled in a sequel yet to come.

But even with all that, "The Shadow in the Cathedral" is one of the best pieces of interactive fiction released this year. In its richness of plot and setting it reminded me most of Jimmy Maher's The King of Shreds and Patches. The pace is strong, and there is a surprising amount of action for IF -- chases, hiding places, confrontations, parkour-like scampering over surfaces not designed to be scampered. A lot happens. It took me seven or eight hours to play through, and I probably could have spent more time than that looking around. (And I did restore to several points in the game in order to have a closer look at things.)

It's a solid adventure story, suitable for young adolescents but not at all limited to them, and it tells that story in a way that only text really could.

[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. She notes: 'Disclosure: I played a free review copy of this work.']

Fight! MSD Shows Off FlashPunk Framework

Chevy Ray Johnston, the indie developer behind Ludum Dare 15 highlight Beacon and addictive iPhone game Skullpogo, has been working on a neat project called FlashPunk, a free ActionScript library designed for creating 2D Flash games.

It reminds me of Adam "Atomic" Saltsman's Flixel, the ActionScript library used to create titles like Canabalt and Queens. Johnston says his goal with Flshpunk is to provide "a fast, clean framework for prototyping and developing games", handling elements like sprite rendering/animation, player input, collision detection, framerate, and more.

He hasn't posted the library yet, but he's posted regular updates on Fight! Mechanical Shooting Device, a arena-based survival shooter that shows off the engine. Johnston is working with Paul "Pietpiet" Veer (Flipper for DSiWare) and composer Magnus "SoulEye" Pålsson on the Game Boy-esque title.

[Via Pixel Prospector]

Fig. 8 Developer Looks To The Stars With Eon

Having abandoned its episodic platformer Liferaft after working on the project for more than six months due to challenges with its development, indie developer Intuition Games is now showing off a smaller but still compelling Flash-based project: Eon.

Based on the trailer above, this puzzle game seems like a mix of Auditorium's stream-sculpting mechanics and Orbital/Orbient's atmosphere/lo-fi space setting. Here, you direct a current of colored bits, using markers that pull from the flow and minding nearby black holes, to different circles, filling them until everything explodes.

Intuition's Mike Boxleiter recently wrote an interesting post on the game industry focusing more and more on polishing gameplay, noting that while Eon's rules and mechanics were completed in 30 hours, he spent a month polishing the game:

"People want their experiences with their games to be smooth, easy to jump into and without any sharp corners, and I’m not standing on a pulpit looking down on the unwashed masses, I totally fall into this trap. ... The industry seems to be a lot more focused on releasing more and more polished games rather than innovating on gameplay, which makes sense from a business standpoint.

It’s easy to see where there was clunky UI or where bad wall-hugging hurt player experience in Gears, it’s not so easy to see how people will react to a totally new game mechanic, especially when you remember that it’ll have to be polished up to the level the consumer expects. The cost of creating something new is so high at this point that it’s very very hard to justify."

The Iowa-based studio is currently looking for a sponsor for Eon, which it describes as "a particley puzzle game set in the 80s, when space was still a mystery". While the game isn't available to the public yet, you can try out Intuition's other remarkable titles: Fig. 8, Gray, and Effing Hail.

[Via TIGF]

Microsoft Office, Facebook Gaming Collide: Ribbon Hero

Microsoft filed a curious trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office this week for something called Ribbon Hero, which sounds like a mix of Activision's music game series Guitar Hero and, um, ribbons?

I wasn't familiar with the term in a Microsoft context, but Wikipedia says the word identifies "an interface where a set of toolbars are placed on tabs in a tab bar", which you'll find at the top of Microsoft Office applications and Windows 7 programs like Paint and WordPad.

The trademark's description for Ribbon Hero classifies it as software for training users on business application software and game software for computer user training:

"providing online training in the nature of tutorials and 'how to' demonstrations in the field of business application software; educational services, providing training and educational materials in the field of business application software; entertainment in the nature of competitions in the field of business application software user skills; and providing recognition and incentives by the way of awards and contests to demonstrate excellence in the field of business application software user skills"

Istartedsomething.com, which dug up the trademark filing (and mocked up this perfect post image), also discovered that this is a prototype project from Microsoft Office Labs for a social game on Facebook:

"If you use the Ribbon Hero Facebook application, Microsoft stores your Facebook ID and the ID of your primary Facebook network. When you connect to Facebook, you can choose to share your scores with your friends. This will make your Facebook profile picture and overall score appear in your Facebook friends’ Ribbon Wars leaderboard.

In addition, your overall score will be counted towards your primary Facebook network’s average score. Your Facebook friends will be able to click on your profile picture in Ribbon Hero, and then see how many points you have on each challenge."

I wonder what other Facebook apps the Microsoft Office team has in the works? PowerPointVille? Outlook Wars?

[Via Technabob]

In-Depth at Korea's G* 2009: The West is Rising

[Our own Brandon Sheffield was at the recent 2009 G* show in Busan, South Korea, and has been filing stories from there on the neat Korean market. In this show rond-up, he looks at G* in-depth, discussing major Western draws like StarCraft II, NCSoft's 'next big thing' Blade and Soul, and the show's changed focus.]

This year, Western games are making decisive inroads into Korea. That's just one major takeaway from Gamasutra's recent visit to South Korea's G* (G-Star) event this year, where we got a close view of the differences between the Korean market and the rest of the world.

G* is South Korea’s answer to E3 or the Tokyo Game Show, a largely consumer-facing event with its own mini-conference and B2B section for those looking to make deals.

The show took place from November 26-29, including two weekdays that were somewhat more business oriented, and a weekend for consumers to gawk at the latest goods. We were on hand to get some sound bytes from notable developers, as well as a general lay of the land, and where the Korean and Western markets meet.

Background

I’ve been studying the Korean game market for some 10 years now, and the industry there has gone through no small set of changes. The native game industry in Korea was initially arcade-dominated, eventually moving to PC packaged games and the odd console title.

Now, everyone is finally discovering the Korean industry as a microtransaction-based online game powerhouse -– and it’s this business that G*, put on by Korean business promotion agency KOCCA, celebrates.

This is my third G*, but the first ever in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city after Seoul, where the show usually takes place. Being in a new city for the first time, the city of Busan is much more inclined to embrace the show, with banners all around the convention area and beyond, and related partnerships, including the city’s own ICON game conference (which, in full disclosure, I did not attend).

The New Show

The show this year is smaller than previous years, but doesn’t actually feel that way, by virtue of taking place in a venue more appropriate for its size. Busan’s BEXCO is smaller than Seoul’s KINTEX, allowing the conference to comfortably fill the space without feeling buffered out, as last year’s show did.

Most of the big players were here in some form -- with smaller booths perhaps, but some of the booths in previous years were unnecessarily large, on the scale of N-Gage handheld-era Nokia at E3.

In the past, I’ve questioned the value of this show to the consumer -– a large number of the games on display are available for open beta or even regular play well before they hit the show floor.

While this is still true, it seems that the show is coming to terms with this, realizing that the value for attendees (remember that this is first and foremost a consumer-facing show) may be more in the pomp and circumstance than it is in the games.

Age of Conan had a huge booth, complete with models, lots of swag, and spinning bottles of free alcohol for happy attendees. Bags, baubles, posters, and more filled the eager hands of the largely middle and high school-age crowd.

The Games

The focus this year was on fewer larger titles, with a plethora of smaller offerings in between. It was a better balance than in previous years -– last year in particular felt like the NCsoft and Nexon show.

This year, some Western games made inroads, such as the aforementioned Age of Conan, and Warhammer Online, but the biggest Western draw was of course StarCraft II. Huge lines and excited crowds were the norm for the Blizzard booth, and in this case, it was the first time almost anyone could get their hands on the title. This is the sort of thing that really draws people in, so was a key victory for the conference.

A pseudo-Western draw was the newest installation of FIFA Online, and to a lesser extent, NBA Street Online. These two titles are developed by NeoWiz for EA Korea, sports games custom-fitted into the microtransaction model.

FIFA had an especially large crowd -– and a crowd is what it was, not a line, as nobody seemed prepared for the rush -- so the kids just crowded on in to get a look (though all of them had undoubtedly played it before).

Of course, not everyone is pleased with Western games tackling the Asian market. Korea is already crowded with native online games of various shapes and sizes, and more competition in a crowded market makes some people nervous. But they say competition is a good thing in the end -– the cream rises to the top.

On the Korean side, the biggest draw was unquestionably Blade and Soul, NCsoft’s Next Big Thing after Aion (which also had a significant presence), with art direction from famed illustrator Hyung-Tae Kim (Magna Carta).

Blade and Soul wasn’t playable at the show, but attendees queued up for 45 minutes on the business days, to say nothing of the weekend. The console-esque big budget RPG looks very casual-friendly, with its action-oriented gameplay, simple interface, and gorgeous art.

The rival big title -- more notable because it was actually playable -- was TERA, from the unfortunately-named Bluehole Studio, which a designer friend said was the single most impressive game he played at the show, and also gathered large crowds. The game had an open beta in early August, but this is the first time any foreign visitors could touch it.

As per usual, the show devoted a small portion of its space to console and arcade games, this time putting these two much smaller areas of the Korean game industry next to each other in the back of the hall. Most console games were already released, and thus were not a fantastic draw. On the arcade side, the most intriguing games were two lightgun offerings from RASSEN -- Vulcan M, sporting a ridiculously huge cabinet mounted with a minigun, and a duck hunting game that had two projection screens stitched together, and overkill automatic weaponry. As could be expected though, the majority of players were simply getting some freeplay time in on Jubeat.

Impressions

Overall, G* seems to be coming to terms with its size. It’s a smaller show than it has been, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It seems more focused now, and in Busan, has a clientele that may be more interested. The weekend crowds didn't quite meet the throbbing pulse of humanity that one sees at the Tokyo Game Show, but the number of people in attendance was still impressive.

The business area seems a good place to get some meetings done, away from the hustle and bustle of the show floor, but not so far away that a wandering licensing scout (or journalist) couldn’t wander through and make appointments with whomever they pleased.

Though there were a lot fewer game developers in attendance than previous years, due to the event being in Busan (the vast majority of Korean game development is done in Seoul, on the other side of the country), some in-the-trenches folks said to me that this year looked like the one they’d actually want to see.

December 3, 2009

New Media Manitoba Profiles Local Indies

To promote Manitoba's media professionals and advertise the province as a creative hotspot, local industry association New Media Manitoba commissioned production company BlinkWorks to shoot a series of story-based profiles on eight studios in the area.

"The main goal was to create an exposure tool for these companies and the industry on a whole," explains BlinkWorks James Swirsky. "In this arena of New Media, Winnipeg has some really exciting stuff going on, but not nearly enough people know it. That sentiment was the basis for this project."

The studio interviewed local companies from a variety of industries -- video games, software development, animation, comics, web sites, advertising, etc. The video above is an interview with Alec Holowka, founder of Infinite Ammo (Marian, Paper Moon). I've included a profile with another game outfit, Complex Games, after the break.

New Media Manitoba will debut the full 45-minute production at a sold-out Digital Media Showcase event tonight at Winnipeg's IMAX Portage Place Downtown. You can watch more of the profiles on BlinkWorks's Vimeo page.

Muramasa's Guerrilla Marketing In Italy

With some UK retailers refusing to stock Muramasa: The Demon Blade due to preconceptions that the Wii title won't sell, Rising Star Games, Muramasa's publisher in Europe, is turning to more creative solutions to get the word out about its release in Europe.

In Milan, Italy, the company's big guerrilla marketing idea was to dispatch a mini-dragon and a team of samurais up and down the city's Buenos Aires shopping district, yelling out, "Muramasa" -- a tactic that seems even less effective than just shouting "beautiful, ukiyo- styled graphics" or "hardcore 2D action for Wii".

At the end of this video, it looks like the street team set up a free sushi/play session event, which I guess makes up for dudes screaming "Muramasa" at you. I'd forgive anyone that yelled at me, however random or malicious their shouting might have been, if there's free food involved in the apology.

GameCareerGuide Game Design Challenge Results: Sidekick

[This is kinda a fun one -- our education focused sister site GameCareerGuide asked its readers to submit ideas for sidekicks to existing game series. Who would they be? How would they work? Here's some possibilities...]

The decision to add a sidekick to a game series is not one to be taken lightly -- it changes the dynamic of the entire game, and if you get it wrong, you risk irritating players with a needless addition.

That said, the rewards can be strong. What would Mario be without Luigi as a foil? Adding Tails to Sonic 2 allowed the players to redefine what the game's gameplay could be and bring a second player into the mix.

Our education focused sister site GameCareerGuide asked its readers to submit ideas for sidekicks to existing game series. Who would they be? How would they work? The results are here, and here are excerpts from some of the winning entries:

Frank Forrestall, Freelance Concept Artist - Crash Bandicoot
Forrestall skewers the sidekick concept with a Crash Bandicoot sequel co-starring a lineup of questionable partner characters. These varied misfits introduce a number of intriguing mechanics, and ultimately become the focal point of gameplay.

Dean Ray Johnson - Grand Theft Auto IV
Dean Ray Johnson suggests the introduction of a street youth as a partner in crime in Grand Theft Auto IV. The character's age may provoke controversy, but he would undeniably make the experience much more convenient for the player.

Karel Moricky, Game Designer at Bohemia Interactive - Splinter Cell
Sam Fisher's weakened mental state is explored in this unusual Splinter Cell sequel, in which Fisher partners with his own damaged psyche for a series of co-op missions. The ending sequence is particularly inspired.

Honorable Mentions
Andrew Swain, Art Institute of Vancouver, God of War: Homer & "Homer"
Enrique J. Gil Izquierdo, Localization Engineer, EA Integration Studio, DOOM: Mr. Pinky
Vladimir Villanueva, Artist, Megaman ZX: Rush
Peter Konneker, Brigham Young University, Kid Icarus

To read the entire list, head over to GameCareerGuide's feature, which contains the full text and art of all of the above entries.

This Game Still Sucks, But Now You Can Wear It

Remember David Creighton's "This Game Sucks" shirt, a cheeky take on how characters like Mario and Blanka would react to playing video games based on our tedious lives as office drones? Back when I featured it last August, it was just a tee design, something to admire but unavailable to actually wear.

The artwork received an exceptionally high average score of 3.89 out of 5 from the Threadless community, though, and the online shop is now selling the shirt. In fact, Threadless's current holiday sale has the tee discounted from $18 to $12, so grab one for the gamer in your life soon if you want to save a few bucks.

Come Get Some: Duke Nukem, MGS, And Splatterhouse Figures

Jin Saotome, custom toy artist extraordinaire, is selling a new batch of video game-inspired action figures, each painted and assembled from a variety of other toys, brought to life like some kind of G.I. Joe Frankenstein.

The mini Duke Nukem above, for example, was pieced together with Rise of Cobra editions of Lt. Stone and Zartan, 25th Anniversary General Hawk, and Logan's upper body from X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Saotome also pens a blurb for each of his creations:

"When aliens arrive, things go to hell, and the world is on it's knees....there's only one man to call, Duke Nukem. While others run in fear Duke is at home waist deep in alien guts blasting away with the biggest, baddest weapons he can gets his hands on. And when he's out of ammo he uses those hands to tear off limbs and beat his opponents into submission with them!

When Duke heard Cobra was causing trouble he couldn't wait to jump into the fray. Now it's a no-holds-barred match against Duke and Cobra with the Joes left to catch up to the action!"

Saotome's Duke and other custom figures are currently up for auction on eBay. You can see more of his recently crafted toys, like Splatterhouse's Rick Tayor and Metal Gear's Solid Snake, Liquid Snake, and Psycho Mantis below:

[Via Toycutter]

Game Developer Launches 'State Of Game Development' Survey

Game Developer magazine's editors have launched the 2009 State Of Game Development purchasing survey, with an all-access GDC 2010 pass as incentive for completing the questions.

The survey covers topics such as company size, market sectors worked in and tools used, and should be filled out by any current professional game developer. Select results will be published in an upcoming issue of Game Developer magazine and made available in a Game Developer Research report..

In appreciation of the time and effort taken, once participants complete the survey, their name will be entered into a drawing to win one All-Access Conference Pass to Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2010.

However, besides the name registration to win the prize, this survey is anonymous. None of the information presented will be associated with any individuals, with overarching trends being the overall point of the survey.

You can now access the 2009 State Of Game Development purchasing survey, which takes approximately 5-7 minutes to complete.

Classic Dungeon: 2D Dot Game Heroes

Continuing the trend of producing new RPGs with old school graphics, music, and tropes, Disgaea house Nippon Ichi Software announced Classic Dungeon for the PSP, releasing in Japan on February 18th.

Like From Software/Silicon Studio's 3D Dot Game Heroes, it's an action RPG, and it even has a logo and a character creation tool that looks directly inspired by the PS3 game. In the above trailer, you can see the pixel editor to create familiar characters like the Disgaea series's Laharl and Prinny.

Classic Dungeon has you controlling blocky heroes (e.g. knights, mages) and clearing dungeons, which sounds your typical RPG fare. The character growth system, however, has a unique twist, as Andriasang explains:

"You place your characters on a chart, with your primary character in a central spot and the other characters in surrounding support sports. The primary character is the one that you control when entering the dungeons.

The support characters grow alongside the primary character, advancing differently and earning different skills depending on the structure of the chart you're using, their position on the chart, and on job of the primary character. As the primary character explores the dungeons, the support characters will come in for assists, acting as shields if you're about to incur damage from an enemy or trap.

When not in a dungeon, you're able to freely swap characters between support and primary roles. Additionally, the game offers a variety of charts, some allowing you to set more support characters, and some giving added effects to certain slots."

The game will also include ad-hoc co-op multiplayer, as well as an option to switch between standard and 8-bit soundtracks (Sega's 7th Dragon has a similar feature). NIS hasn't announced plans to release Classic Dungeon in the U.S., but I suspect they will eventually seeing as they were to bring over the Holy Invasion Of Privacy, Badman series.

GameSetLinks: Food For Beat 'Em Up Thought

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

As the week wanders on, it's time for another set of GameSetLinks, this time headed by one of the reasons I continue to enjoy 1UP quite a lot - the quirky features that surface there-in, this one about the delicious edibles that you find as pickups in a lot of classic games.

Also in this round-up - replayability and games, a Street Fighter champion interviewed, an iPhone game article that leads to the true enlightenment within the comments section (sorry, Tom!), and a number of other neat links that you might not have seen.

Damn yes:

Fine Foods of Beat-Em-Ups from 1UP.com
'An artistic tribute to the pavement-based delicacies in our favorite retro action games.'

Games Aren't Numbers: Inventions And Inventors
'The greatest game can be ruined by the worst player. Players have just as much of a duty to play a game well as games have a duty to provide opportunities.'

Welcome to Special Round: Konami Sure Seems To Hate You, Pop'n Music Fans
More detail on Konami's Pop N Music semi-mangling from somebody who knows.

Super Shigi Unveils “Musical” RPG, Melolune « Play as Life
'Game music composer Laura Shigihara (supershigi) caused a delightful ripple in the game community with her soundtrack for Pop Cap’s game, Plants vs. Zombies... Recently, she submitted her very own RPG to the IGF.' Interview ensues...

Game Design, Psychology, Flow, and Mastery - Blog - MIGS: Brenda Brathwaite
Sirlin: 'Is my criticism invalid because there can't possibly be a game about a serious issue like that that is replayable 1,000 times? When you make the game about the statement, rather than the GAME, does it even make sense to talk about replayability?'

Daigo Umehara: The King of Fighters Interview | Eurogamer
Neat Simon Parkin interview with the Street Fighter mega-champion.

Four reasons the iPhone is a terrible gaming platform | Fidgit
Worth reading for the iPhone recommendations in the comments - v.useful.

December 2, 2009

Polytron Offering Free Fez Tracks

Polytron's highly anticipated, IGF award-winning platformer Fez isn't expected to hit Xbox Live Arcade until early 2010, but you can download and listen to three previously unreleased demo tracks made for the game right now!

The Montreal-based indie developer released a free three-track EP with songs composed by chip musician artist 6955. You can download the songs directly, grab a torrent (helping Polytron save on bandwidth fees) or purchase a cutely packaged 8cm CDR, limited to only 250 copies.

If you chose that last option, make sure to pick up a shirt while you're browsing Polytron's online shop. You can get a 15 percent discount if you use this coupon code before December 11th: POLY15.

Merch'Em Up: Diecast R-Type Model

Japanese toy manufacturer A-Label plans to release this beautiful model, a diecast replica of R-Type's "Madou Gokin RWF-9A Arrow Head" fighter craft in Japan next March. Unwilling to wait until then to take your money, import shop NCSX is already accepting preorders for $129.90 (!).

5.11" long, significantly larger than the shoot'em up ships in Yujin's Shooting Historica sets, this figure features a fully painted body, a purple cockpit canopy, and a Force Unit pod directly in front of the craft, protecting it from incoming blasts and any junk you want to throw at it while simulating a space battle at home.

The RWF-9A comes mounted on a gray plastic base that prevents your $130 toy from flying out a nearby open window. You can see more photos of the model, painted and unpainted, after the break.

COLUMN: Design Diversions: The Video Game as a Picture Book

[‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly 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. This time -- a look at Mirror's Edge and what makes a memorable game character.]

Mirror’s Edge should have been a picture book. It was the game that should have been seen, not heard, the game that could have been art if it didn’t have a plot. Mirror’s Edge shows what happens with games tell a story like a movie instead of a game.

There is more emotion in a half second of Mirror’s Edge gameplay than in its entire script. While it's disappointing that the dialogue couldn’t live up to the standards of the art direction and gameplay, this is DICE’s success, not their failure. Faith’s movements are highly detailed, from the impact of landing to blur of acceleration, and it is these little details that bring the exhilaration, panic, tension, and joy of flying from rooftop to rooftop to life. This wordless story was the real Mirror’s Edge.

Unfortunately, this story was buried underneath an assumption that stories need words, and a lack of commitment to the same level of quality in the game’s art direction as its writing. While it is tempting to say that biggest problem with the videogame narratives is the writing (and it is a big one), in the case of Mirror’s Edge the words aren’t just poorly chosen, but unnecessary.

Video games are mixed media. Taking advantage of all the different options is one thing, but there are no bonus points awarded for using all of them. Passage, for example, made players contemplate death with pixels alone, and the experience would not have been greatly enhanced with words (HOW ABOUT THINKING ABOUT SOME DEATH). Thankfully, Passage is more subtle than that. Mirror’s Edge achieved something very close to that level of depth with its gameplay until it was promptly smothered with a cliched plot and undeveloped characters.

Games With Character

Games don’t always need stories, but that fact seems forgotten most of the time, especially in AAA titles. It's easy to see where the temptation to fall back on it comes from. Narrative does more than just justify the game world and glue it together for the player. Good stories make the world come to life, and frankly, they're entertaining. So it has become standard to use the same techniques used in film to keep players interested in their games.

Iconic characters also play their part in selling games, although Mario and Sonic are both a testament to how you don’t need to have a story to have an iconic character. In fact, Mirror’s Edge has quite a bit in common with those games (at least in their early incarnations) with its emphasis on jumping and speed. It's a shame then that

Faith herself was supposed to be a bold step forward for heroines; tasteful, independent, and not overly sexualized. While she is these things, she is ultimately just built out of less offensive stereotypes rather than the depth of real person. Her somewhat irrationally violent personality is, disappointingly, all too common in videogame heroines. Again, Mirror’s Edge seems to step forward only with its visuals: Faith’s character design is far more revolutionary than her personality.

One Liners

So what makes people like Snake, Mario, or even Duke Nukem so much more iconic and memorable than Faith? Duke is actually the best example since he, unlike Faith, he has no contrived backstory, no past trauma, and only tenuous motivation. Yet Duke Nukem, of all people, has more depth of character than Faith and all he had to do to get it was wear sunglasses and say “It’s time to kick ass and chew gum, and I’m all out of gum.”

That line, in all of its glorious stupidity, is Duke in a nutshell. It’s hilarious, and Duke is one of the few protagonists to this day that gives a running commentary on the action. He is memorable because he has personality, and that shines though in what he does and how he talks. One of his early 2D games started with him going on Oprah promoting an autobiography titled "Why I’m So Great". That little scene tells you everything you need to know about Duke, and he doesn't need to talk about his past because he is so very present.

This is why Duke, conceived as a satire of action heroes, is still a more fully developed character than Faith. Protagonists do not become deeper the more of their family members are killed off, and relatives are certainly not a shortcut for actually developing bonds between characters. Faith’s relationship with her sister is supposed to be her motivation for the entire game, but they barely exchange more than a few sentences. “She’s my sister." Oh, that explains why Faith blew up buildings, ran from helicopters and killed dozens of police officers. No, there’s no need to articulate their relationship at all.

The Story With Words

The plot is supposed to build up some sort of shadowy final adversary (not helped by the fact Mirror's Edge was planned as a trilogy), while showing players that no one in this world can really be trusted. But both of the characters that do the betraying are so casual about their treachery, so unrepentant, that they come off as merely greedy. The twists are melodramatic, since they seem to have the luxury to betray Faith out of greed rather than survival. Rather than conveying the feeling of a society turned against itself out of fear, they reek of Saturday morning cartoon villainy.

It’s not just that the scenery and gameplay conveys the world with more depth and subtly than the narrative does. Sure, the plot could have been fixed with better writing, but it never needed any writing to get its point across in the first place. Ironically, Mirror’s Edge is a brilliant example of why games don’t need narratives, not only for gameplay, but for art as well. After all, music and the visual arts find the inclusion of a narrative to be quite optional, and both can tell a story without the use of words at all.

The Story Without Words

The real story of Mirror’s Edge is told through the constant presence of police and cameras, the propaganda in the elevators, and the sensation of running itself. Mirror’s Edge is wonder of visual design, and nothing else looks quite like it. The stark colors and blazing sunlight paint a picture of a city that is as beautiful as it is unnatural. All of these elements contribute to the game’s conflicting themes of repression and freedom. By running and weaving through the rooftops, it feels as if Faith could almost escape to the sky, if gravity didn’t always brings her back.

This sensation is entirely visual and gameplay driven, and best of all, occurs in real time as the player goes through the game. In contrast, Faith just sort of vaguely describes a history of protests and riots against a mayor that seems dedicated to taking away freedom without a clear reason. Since the mayor is never seen in the game, it’s hard to really understand why, although this narrative given by Faith provokes that very question. This empty premise stands out when the world itself so vividly conveys the feeling of oppression. The history lesson is really quite superfluous, and doesn’t really convey anything that we don’t already know other than the breaking apart of Faith’s family, which is dealt with so shallowly that it is hard to care about.

In fact, games may have greater potential as non-narrative art. The fact that there is more emotion in a gameplay than story is not a bad thing. It’s a testament to the inherent strength of video games. Mirror’s Edge could have articulated the struggle for freedom in a repressive society through the act of running alone, and that is art in the way only a video game can be.

Gaijin, Robotube Collaborate For Blip Fest-inspired Game

Bit.Trip series developer Gaijin Games, which is sponsoring NYC's upcoming three-day Blip Festival 2009, announced a collaboration with Robotube Games (Bloktonik, Zyrx) to create a video game inspired by the three-day chiptune event.

Though the event is titled "Battle of the Brands", the two companies will work together to create a game that isn't necessarily based on their existing properties in just one day. The studios say they'll eventually release the end product to the public, even if they fail miserably.

If their experimental project turns out to be anything like the super-stylish rhythm action titles in the Bit.Trip series, I'm sure many of Gaijin's cultish fanbase will appreciate it. Both groups plan to update their sites, blogs, Twitter feeds, and Facebook pages throughout the game's development.

Also, don't forget that Blip Festival 2009 is less than three weeks away (December 17-19th)!

Pixelart Blocks And Arcade Buildings

On the topic of pixelart, Italian illustrator Totto Renna created this impressive piece, a city populated with familiar video game sprites, a smaller scale version of Gary J Lucken's pixelart poster for Edge susbcribers. Though not as massive as that work, I find this art's concept of living and working inside giant arcade cabinets very charming, a dream I hope to one day see fulfilled.

Titled "Gamecity", the art was featured at Zemo98's Over The Game exhibition last week in Seville, Spain, which sought to showcase "fresh game art, game related video installations, streetart and of course computer games". I included a cropped section of the work below, but you can admire the full piece on Renna's site.

Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery Unveiled

After teasing their collaboration for several weeks now, developer Capybara Games (Critter Crunch, Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes), singer-songwriter Jim Guthrie, and pixelartist/animator Craig "Superbrothers" Adams (Alpinist) posted this teaser video for their project, Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and no surprise, it looks/sounds amazing.

The Toronto-based indie artists describe Sword & Sworcery as "a brave experiment in I/O cinema, "a choice cut of myth and dreams", and "a crude videogame haiku about life, love & death". Those phrases sound right up my alley, and if there was a newsletter regarding the topics, I'd subscribe in a heartbeat -- in fact, there's a Superbrothers email list you can join.

Superbrothers explains the project's title:

"With regards to the intended meaning of the project name, the following is presented for your consideration: SUPERBROTHERS = a safe and reliable cure for the eyes; SWORD & SWORCERY = a fantasy subgenre characterized by swashbuckling heroes; EP = aka Extended Play, a vinyl record or digital download containing up to 37 minutes of music."

Considering the talent of all the parties involved, I doubt this will disappoint. You can read more about the project on its official site.

This Week In Video Game Criticism: A Far Cry From Burnout

[We're partnering with game criticism site Critical Distance to present some of the week's most inspiring writing about the art and design of video games from commentators worldwide. This week, Ben Abraham discusses Far Cry 2, Burnout Paradise, and what not to do in game journalism.]

Quintin Smith is a games journalist type, and here’s part 2 and part 3 of his advice to future games journalist types, “What not to say”.

Elsewhere, Paul Bauman -- writing on his Destructoid blog -- says that "gaming... appears to be entering the awkward, slowly evolutionary, 'teenage' phase of its development". It’s an interesting point he raises about the emerging bifurcation in game development, and argues that the indie game scene’s rise has contributed to, "…some very productive and encouraging moments of critical dissonance where expectations developed in one arena have been brought to bear upon the other."

This is something I had never really thought about before. For example – it makes sense to me that I’d bring the lessons and expectations about games I’ve gleaned from Passage, World of Goo, et al. to bear on any reading and analysis of, say, Gears of War. But there are a lot of people who’d balk at the idea, I’m sure, and that’s kind of interesting in itself.

Steve Gaynor wrote this week about whether games should bother trying to get out of the ‘cultural ghetto’, saying: "And then I start to wonder, seriously, why do we care if the world at large cares about us? Why do we need the cultural legitimacy merit badge? And I start to wonder if it's not all just insecurity on our part. And if maybe we're not seeing the value and beauty of the space we're in because we're too busy looking over the fence at Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles."

On GameSetWatch, Emily Short writes about HBO’s efforts at telling a story through interactive media in the HBO Imagine website. The takeaway: "…my real point is this: interactive storytelling -- even when it's not meant to be a game -- still needs a game designer. It needs someone who will think about what the reader/player is supposed to do, and what that action means, and how it contributes to the story being told."

There are two pieces this week from Michael Clarkson on Dragon Age: Origins, the first an examination of the segregation tactics employed by the game's numerous races and cultures.

The second piece is about social rigidity in the game. and how the game’s story says one thing and the game’s mechanics say another: "To varying degrees this kind of social rigidity appears in almost every social group in the game (except the elves). Through its dialogue and plot, Dragon Age: Origins repudiates these systems, but in its mechanics it supports them."

In a longer, freeform editorial, Gamasutra’s editor-at-large, Chris Remo, goes ‘Looking for Meaning in Games’.

In another notable article published this week, Trent Polack writes about why Far Cry 2 is his game of the decade, and as any that know me will attest, I can’t disagree.

Please excuse the auto-fellatio of linking to something from myself, but I noticed a few people seem to have found it interesting, so that’s good enough for TWIVGB. Here’s a lengthy treatise on all the things I could find to criticise about Left 4 Dead 2 from my personal blog. The fact that so many are trifling issues speaks volumes.

David Carlton writes a big essay about his experience with Burnout Paradise, particularly noting the expansion content: "I doubt, if Big Surf Island hadn’t come along, that I would have chosen to invest the time in the game that I needed to get to where I appreciated the range of what it offered for me."

And lastly for the week, I wanted to point readers to a brand new group video game blog called The Borderhouse, dedicated to "breaking down borders in virtual worlds, online games, and the web." If its roster of writers is anything to go by, it should be quite the one to watch.

December 1, 2009

After These Messages: TV Show Title Screens

For his last chiptune project, Levi "Doctor Octoroc" Buffum produced an entire album of classic Christmas songs arranged in the style of classic NES games. Titled 8-Bit Jesus, the holiday CD offered tracks like "Super Jingle Bros.", "Carol of the Belmonts", and "Have Yourself a Final Little Fantasy".

Doctor Octoroc is now teasing his next release, After These Messages, an album filled with 30 chip music covers of television show themes from '80s/'90s sitcoms, cartoons, series. The themes confirmed so far for the CD include Airwolf, Cheers, Fresh Prince, Diff'rent Strokes, Gummi Bears, Heathcliff (!), Law & Order, Night Court, Thundercats, and Tales From The Crypt.

To promote "After These Messages", the artist plans to put up a Flash player with streaming tracks and title screens for imagined NES adaptations of the shows. I've included several of those screens after the break (some of the text looks uneven after I resized the images). I also embedded a preview of the Airwolf track:

[Via Game Music 4 All]

MyDsReader: Homebrew Text-To-Speech For The Blind

Glasgow-based group Robomotic revealed MyDsReader, a new homebrew project designed to help visually impaired users read documents with text-to-speech (TTS) Nintendo DS software. The application uses Flite to read e-books in several formats: PDF, Word, TXT, and DAISY.

As project head Paolo Di Prodi explains in the demonstration above, the software is a much cheaper alternative to devices like the $1,500 Intel Reader. Purchasing a Nintendo DS Lite and a homebrew cartridge to run MyDsReader will only set you back around $150.

The team hopes to implement both touch and voice commands, an email client enabling you to reply with voice clips, and an agenda for planning your day and taking notes. You can read more about MyDsReader on Robomotic's site and download an early build of the application from SourceForge.

[Via Hack a Day]

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Massively Modern Warfare - Guns, Goals and Evolution

I want one of those pony titles so bad.[“Play Evolution” is a column by James Lantz that happens sometimes and discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution through goals in Modern Warfare 2.]

FPS games have undergone a weird, subtle, and totally pervasive change in the last few years. Every big budget FPS now cocoons the actual shooting part in an MMO shell. It's hard to tell where this trend started, but it's been increasingly present in FPS games in recent years – most notably in the Battlefield series and the Call of Duty/Modern Warfare games. The now combination MMO-FPS nature of these shooters brings up two major questions: what made this MMO-structure so quickly envelop every major FPS, and what effect does it ultimately have on the games that choose to use it?

The simple answer to the first question is that MMOs are incredibly popular. The carrot-on-a-stick leveling system gives people constant short-term goals and a concrete long-term goal and keeps people playing. It also rewards time as much as it rewards skill, so casual players or less skilled players will never actually go down in rating and get discouraged, as they could in Chess, Go, Starcraft, or other games that use a ELO-style rating system (which adds or subtracts points from your rating depending on your rank relative to your opponent's rank and whether or not you lost the game).

In an MMO, you're always making progress, you always have an easy short-term goal and a distant long-term goal. Many of an MMO-system's advantages over a skill-based system are obvious – for instance, it helps keep casual players playing and it helps players create short-term goals that they can complete in a single sitting.

It also has some less-obvious advantages. For one, I would guess that it also helps keep hardcore interest as well, because it helps players who play the game obsessively to have a more concrete goal in mind than "getting good." For some players, getting good works just fine as a long term goal - but it can often create a sort of trap for players who are hardcore enough to take the game seriously and want to play competitively but aren't quite skilled enough or don't have quite enough time to devote to the game so they just stop playing.

These are all good reasons for FPS to adopt the MMO-style system, but where did it come from in the first place? To answer this question, and to shed some light on the other questions I've asked, let's take it out of the specific case of MMO-style goals for Modern Warfare and Battlefield and into the more general case of how goals affect how we play games and how, therefore, gameplay evolves.

Goals and Pseudo-goals

A game's goal provides a greater context for each individual decision, and ultimately is the driving force behind how people play the game. However, people don't always have the game's goal in mind when they make each individual decision – in most cases, people use pseudo-goals which stand in for the game's goal but are much more useful when discussing strategies or making split-second decisions. For example, the goal of Starcraft is to destroy all your opponent's buildings. Moment to moment, however, most people aren't thinking about how they can destroy all their opponent's buildings but thinking about how they can destroy their opponent's army, or their opponent's production capabilities.

These are pseudo-goals: handy stand-ins for the actual goal, because most of the time the actual goal overcomplicates things and isn't useful to consider. In a game where time is an important resource, it's much more efficient to think about how many zealots you need to build to match your opponent's zergling-lurker ratio so you can kill his army and win than it is to think about how many zealots you need to build to match your opponent's zergling-lurker ratio so you can kill his army and then have an army left over and then go into his base and kill all his buildings.

In Starcraft, these two pseudo-goals are usually identical to the actual goal of the game. 99% of the time, when you kill your opponent's army, he's going to surrender because he can read far enough ahead to see that you're going to raze his base in five minutes and he's helpless to stop you. So why even talk about these pseudo-goals? What difference do they make? Well, what makes them important is the other 1% of the time, where you end up sneaking your armies to each other's bases without fighting, and the real goal of the game – to kill all the other player's buildings – actually comes into play. It's these 1% of games that make the pseudo-goals players often use not equivalent to the game's actual goals.

In fact, some of the most clever strategies are those that subvert the pseudo goal and remind everyone what the real goal of the game actually is. For example, Warcraft 3's goals and pseudo-goals are basically the same – you're trying to destroy your opponents base, but you basically win if you can take out his army and keep yours intact, so the pseudo-goal has become to win in a army vs army fight. However, the trickiest strategies bring the game back to the goal of killing your opponent's base. One such strategy involves building strong siege units and making them invisible, and then razing your opponent's base while he still has an army but is unable to see and counter your units.

Another, more popular one involves building a massive amount of defensive towers around your resources and building very few units, essentially turning the game into a test of patience that can last hours. This transfer from pseudo-goal to real goal shows just how much even a slight change in the definition of a game's goals in the player's head can change the way the game actually plays drastically. This is true even if these strategies end up having hard counters – they still affect the metagame.

For example, a player might always buy invisible-revealing items after the invisible-seige strategy becomes popular, which makes it completely pointless. However, the popularity of the strat has made buying invisible-revealing items an interesting choice – the strategy is no longer popular because it's so easily countered, so do you really need to buy that invisible-revealing item, or can you save the money and take the risk but end up ahead if your opponent buys one and you don't?

His K/D is going to be so highStrategy games aren't the only games with pseudo-goals, however. First person shooters (FPS) have them too, and they're equally important. In a strategy game, you can measure individual skill by wins and losses because it's usually only played with two players. Most strategy games extrapolate those wins and losses into a fairly accurate ranking, which becomes an explicit, overarching goal for most players. FPS games, however, are often team games – so it becomes much harder to give an accurate measure of individual skill. An excellent Counter Strike player might lose several games in a row because he's on a team with several bad players, or a bad player might win several games in a row on a team with good players. So unless you take an average of your total wins and losses over a long period of time, it's hard to get an accurate measure of individual skill. However, most people like to see how good they are, or if they're getting better. They want a goal equivalent to ranking in a strategy game. Enter the Leaderboard.

In Deathmatch modes, the leaderboard is equivalent to the game's real goal. Because the game is based entirely on kills, and the leaderboard places people in order of kills, being on the top of the leaderboard at the end of the game always means you've won. So the leaderboard bring a way to measure individual skill into the game. It gives players a tangible pseudo-goal (topping the leaderboards) that is usually equivalent to their actual goal (helping the team win). However, the two goals aren't always equivalent in non-Deathmatch modes.

In Team Deathmatch, for example, the leaderboard is a pseudo-goal that's very close (but non-identical) to the actual goal of the game. In Team Deathmatch, the goal of the game is to reach a certain score before the other team does. You score by a point when your team kills an opponent and vice-versa. In most games, leaderboards are arranged by pure kill count – that is, the player who has killed the most enemies is the highest. However, your net value to the team in Team Deathmatch is usually not your pure kill count but your kill/death ratio. For example, a player who has 12 kills and 1 death has scored his team 12 points but lost his team 1 point by giving the enemy team a point for killing him, so he has a net value of about 11 points. A player who has 23 kills and 30 deaths, on the other hand, has a net value of about -7 points, but is ranked much higher on the leaderboard than the other player.

So, most of the time, your kill/death ratio is a more accurate measure of your individual skill than your pure kill count. However, even kill/death ratio is a pseudo-goal – a skilled player might play a scouting role, figuring out where the opponents are by risking himself and therefore ending up with a negative kill/death ratio but giving his team valuable information. Another player might get one or two kills without a single death, and have an infinitely large kill/death ratio but not actually help the team out that much. Despite these irregularities, leaderboards are often a fairly accurate measure of individual skill. The real goal of any given game of Team Deathmatch is still to have your team to win, and a loss is still a loss, the leaderboard still gets wiped at the end of the round.

However, what happens when we introduce stat-tracking across games, and make your total kills and deaths public and permanent? Suddenly, instead of leaderboards being a rough attempt at measuring your skill, they are a measure of a second explicit goal itself – and not only that, but a second goal that can contrast with the first goal, as in the examples talked about above. So, instead of hierarchy like in Starcraft or Chess, where there is one overarching goal and a win is always a win despite possible pseudo-goal losses, you have two real, explicit goals that often conflict and end up with players playing what are really two completely different games in the same space.

Some players are playing and trying to maximize their kills or kill/death ratio – playing the leaderboard game – while other players are just trying to do everything they can to help the team win each individual game – playing the "original" game. In fact, one player can often switch between playing the two – sometimes trying to help his team win, maybe in more competitive games –and other times simply trying to improve his overall stats, even at the cost of his team's victory. One interesting thing is that even though these goals will sometimes produce contradictory optimal strategies (getting one kill and hiding might be great for your kill/death ratio but doesn't really help your team), neither one is really wrong. Both are explicit, real goals. Neither is a pseudo-goal. Basically, these people are playing two entirely different games.

Why Goals Matter

This argument raises several questions. First, how much do slightly different goals really change a game, and second, what are the ramifications of having two games being played in the same space? To the first question, I would say absolutely yes. A small modification of the game's rules may look superficial at first, but can lead to cascading consequences in the metagame that ultimately change the way the game's played entirely. I think it's easier to see if you imagine an even smaller change than changing the goal. For example, imagine changing a marine's health in Starcraft by 5 points. At first, this change seems so small. However, it might allow a new strategy that was previously not viable before, which would then create another strategy which was ridiculous before but countered the now-viable strategy, which would lead to a new counter-strategy to that, and so on, creating a completely different possibility space of strategies.

For a more practical example where changing the goal slightly actually does effect the game significantly, look at the difference between strategies in tournament poker and cash-game poker. Everything besides the goals of the two games is exactly the same, yet playing tournament poker is very, very different from playing cash-game poker. For another practical example, visit the message boards of any game that has stat tracking and see how many arguments you can find about whether win/loss record or kill/death ratio or assists per game is the most important stat in determining individual player skill.

After each match, the game rewards you for your achievements with 'acolades,' which you pretty much always getBefore we discuss the question of ramifications, let's bring this back to our specific example of the modern FPS. In particular, let's talk about the biggest modern FPS out there that embraces the MMO-style system like no other, Modern Warfare 2. Modern Warfare 2 has stat tracking separate from both the MMO-style leveling system and the individual games, so it still creates the two often contradictory goals of having good stats or winning games, and has, therefore, two games being played in the same game space. However, the MMO-style leveling creates a very large third goal which is not equivalent to either of the previous two.

In fact, the MMO-style leveling is, in some ways, an evolution of the original leaderboard – it mostly takes into account pure kills and does not subtract points for deaths at all. So, players who are ultimately trying to optimize their climb up the ranks will be playing an entirely different third game, where the goal is to get the most kills as possible at the cost of everything else, which often clashes with both the kill/death ratio goal of permanent stats and the individual game-instance goal of having your team win (even though there are bonus points for winning, the two goals aren't always the same).

So what are the implications of these three different games being played at the same time in the same game space? Well, there are several problems with it. First, it splits the community and makes it hard to transition from one sub-community to another. In Call of Duty 4, competitive play is radically different from casual play, because all competitive play is about winning individual matches, while most casual play is about maximizing your kill/death ratio. Someone who wants to go from casual to competitive has to actually relearn a lot of things to understand how competitive players play. By contrast, being competitive in Chess or Starcraft is a smooth transition - casual players play the same game as competitive players, so if you get good enough playing casually you simply become a competitive player by definition.

Second, it severely limits the practical value of trial and error in become a good player. When you start playing Chess, you can become better much more quickly simply by playing possible moves that look good over and over and seeing which ones end up with you losing and which ones end up with you winning. In Modern Warfare 2, players will often have several different goals in the same game space, so it's difficult to actually see whether what you're doing works or not towards a particular goal. Finally, it's just frustrating if you're trying to play the game in which the goal is to have your team win the individual game instance and other people are playing poorly towards that end but very well towards another end, like having a high pure kill count and leveling quickly, and vice-versa.

Even aside from the dissonance of having several games played in one space simultaneously, the MMO-style unlock system creates other problems, most of which can be boiled down to its time-based nature (as opposed to the skill-based nature of other goals). Because one of the main goals in the game is time-based, players aren't rewarded as much by the game for improving in skill as they are by simply playing. Whether this is really bad or not, however, is a debate for another article.

So what are the net effects of the MMO-style system on the evolution of a game? It creates a strong sense of progression – people in general definitely seem to like it – but maybe it affects a game's evolution problematically. It's good because it's addictive like an MMO – it gives you bite-sized chunks of what would otherwise be a difficult learning curve to competitive play, it lets you feel accomplished after every session, and it makes you feel good like unlocking an achievement makes you feel good – after nearly every game. How can more stuff to do be bad? But it's possible that Infinity Ward is sacrificing a lot of clarity about the actual goal of the game for these flashy, constant rewards – and with that clarity, maybe, ultimately, deeper play.

If you own Modern Warfare 2, and you play the online multiplayer, consider your own experiences. When a game is over, you probably feel good when your team wins and you probably feel less good when your team loses. But that's probably only a part of what really matters. You're probably also thinking about whether you got a good kill/death ratio and where you are on the leaderboard. You're probably hoping you got a sweet title for that kill to put on your callsign. I know I've often been excited to get a really cool title – much more excited than I would have been just to win the game. So, in the end, what's the real goal? To win the game? To get a good kill/death ratio? To earn titles? Which game are you actually playing?

[James Lantz is a starving writer/designer who has played more MW2 in the last few days than is healthy. He also writes a blog, of course.]

Best of FingerGaming: From Monopoly to Labyrinth 2

[Every week, we look at 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 covers upcoming titles like Sega's sequel to its early iPhone hit Super Monkey Ball 2, and highlights the recent releases Monopoly and A.D.D.

Also detailed are the site's regular weekly looks at the top free and paid apps and the highest-grossing apps of the week, alongside other coverage from the burgeoning iPhone market.

Here are the top stories from the last seven days:

- Top-Grossing Game Apps: Call of Duty Takes Top Honors
"Call of Duty: World at War Zombies overtakes PopCap's Bejeweled 2 in today's top-grossing app charts. EA's Monopoly also sees big first-week sales."

- Riptide Reveals Gravity Sling In-App Purchase Sales Figures
"According to Riptide's sales data, the free-to-play, DLC-supported Gravity Sling has met with 'limited success' so far. The game's overall conversion rate stands at 1.91% -- one in 50 users chooses to purchase the 99-cent upgrade."

- Classic Original Monopoly Released for iPhone
"EA has developed an iPhone adaptation of Parker Brothers' original real estate-trading board game Monopoly, which now joins the company's upgraded Monopoly Here & Now in the App Store."

- Super Monkey Ball 2 Coming Soon to App Store
"The upcoming Super Monkey Ball 2 boasts an overhauled and more responsive control scheme, along with a selection of minigames adapted from the console Super Monkey Ball releases."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"PlayMesh's Farmville clone iFarm tops the App Store's free app charts in its first week of release. Last week's chart leader Touch Pets Dogs drops to third this week, as a free version of Finger Physics takes second."

- Adult-Themed Microgame Collection A.D.D. Finally Approved for Sale
"After an unusually lengthy review process, Apple has finally granted its approval, and IUGO's mature-rated twitch-action title A.D.D. is now available for purchase from the App Store."

- Illusion Labs Announces Labyrinth 2
"Illusion Labs announced that it will publish a sequel to its wildly popular marble-rolling puzzler Labyrinth by the end of the year. The sequel will feature a variety of new gameplay elements and a multiplayer mode."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"JellyCar 2 continues its three-week run as the App Store's top paid app, as inXile's offbeat trivia title The Impossible Quiz! moves up from eighth place to take second in today's results."

Custom Arcade Stick Gift Cards

Here's a neat gift idea for the arcade devotee or fighting game fan in your life: gift cards for a custom arcade stick. Online shop Arcade-In-A-Box now offers $25-$300 cards that can go towards purchasing a joystick setup for Xbox 360, PS3, or a combo unit supporting both.

After buying a card online, you'll receive a certificate you can print out and tuck into a holiday card or stocking --or if you're lazy, you can just forward it in an email. Your happy friend/spouse/relative can then use that certificate to create a stick with their ideal buttons, layout, artwork, and more.

The custom controllers are expensive, running anywhere from $147 to $299, but that's around how much you'd spend on a personal stick from someone on the Shoryuken forums (last I checked, at least), and AIAB uses high-grade Sanwa/Seimitsu parts. Plus, if your gift recipient wants to decorate the stick with a painting of Chuck Norris as Jesus Christ, AIAB will probably do that.

Part Sliding Game, Part Platformer: Continuity

In Continuity, each stage is broken into different squares that you slide and rearrange to find the right path for your character. Some levels offer as few as three segments to navigate, while others challenge you with 15 tiles, scattering multiple keys around the maze for you to gather (I haven't advanced far enough to see if there are even more complex stages.).

Despite the game's calming music, it can get frustrating at times when dropping through a pit doesn't work out like you expected, forcing you to restart all the way at square one instead of allowing you to respawn in your current tile. Other than that problem, though, it's very fun!

The creative puzzle platformer was developed by Ragtime Games, a group out of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden. Continuity features around 30 levels, according to sister-site IndieGames. You can play the IGF 2010 Student Competition Entrant for free here.

Gamma Announces 'One Button' Theme For GDC 2010 Showcase

[We're excited to be working with the Kokoromi folks on hosting the latest Gamma event at Game Developers Conference 2010, and here's the latest info on the theme and submission guidelines - looking forward to seeing entries.]

Montreal’s Kokoromi collective has announced its theme for Gamma 4, with game makers challenged to make "innovative, experimental new games played with just one button" to be showcased at GDC 2010 in San Francisco.

As recently announced, Kokoromi is partnering with Think Services' Game Developers Conference to bring the fourth edition of its renowned Gamma game showcase to GDC 2010 next March.

Comparable to a longer-form, targeted version of the 'indie game jam' concept, previous years’ themes have included Gamma 01: Audio Feed (games driven by live audio), gamma 256 (games with extremely small pixel dimensions), and GAMMA 3D (games using red-blue stereoscopic 3D). Standout games like Passage, Paper Moon, and Super HYPERCUBE resulted.

This time around, the Gamma organizers have framed the competition as follows: "Gestural controls, multi-touch surfaces, musical instruments, voice recognition—even brain control. Games are moving beyond the iconic hand-held controller, and into the future. But is the secret to good games found in high-tech interface hardware? Kokoromi proposes that game developers can still find beauty in absolute simplicity."

Taking place on the evening of Wednesday March 10th, 2010, the Gamma 4 kickoff event bridges the end of the Independent Games Summit and the start of the main GDC. The playable games will be revealed at the Mezzanine, a venue housed in a historic two-story warehouse near Mint Plaza, in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa district. The curated games will be featured on large projections, and accompanied by live DJs.

Following the opening event, all the games will be playable for all in a dedicated booth on the Game Developers Conference Expo floor from Thursday, March 11th to Saturday, March 13th. In addition, game creators who are selected for presentation at Gamma 4 will also be awarded GDC 2010 All-Access passes.

Game makers around the world now have from December 1st 2009 until January 31st 2010 at midnight Pacific time to complete and submit their single-input creations. Full submission rules and guidelines are available at the official Gamma 4 web page.

3D Video Game Heroes

Since video games with volumetric pixels are in vogue right now, you might appreciate this set of voxel scenes inspired by 2D games, created by Dutch designer and illustrator Metin "Sevensheaven" Seven for his "Inside Video Games" collection.

Along with arcade classics like Pac-Man and Galaga, Seven recreated pixels from lesser known '80s titles like Konami's Amidar and Universal Games's Lady Bug. My favorite of the set, though, is his simple interpretation for Monty On The Run (below). It's a lot like Tibori Design's work, but this collection has a several tributes to Western titles.

You can view Seven's video game artwork and other voxel-based pieces in his Flickr set. He also sells prints for each of the scenes, if you fancy one enough to hang it on your wall.

[Via Pixelkitsch]

GameSetLinks: The Invaders Of Metacritic

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

As the week wends on, time to hit the GameSetLinks once again, starting out with Steve Gaynor discussing the place of games in media (and maturity) in typically whipsmart fashion, closed followed by Robert Ashley's latest wonderful podcast.

Also in this set of links - a Cifaldi romp around random Spectrum games, plus Kim Pallister discussing Metacritic, Ars Technica looks at first-party bloggers, and rather more things besides.

An experienced chaser:

Fullbright: The middle child at peace
'The urge to outgrow what is already our little brother is only a sign of insecurity; the urge to overtake our big brother, to destroy and subsume passive media, is vanity.'

A Life Well Wasted – Episode Five: Help
'Robert Ashley helps people in videogames instead of helping people in real life, meets a comedy group who spend hundreds of hours every year playing the most boring videogame ever created, talks to a guy who quit playing games for a year, and profiles the best selling pinball designer of all time.'

Ars Technica: The first-party bloggers who connect devs and gamers
Neat concept, not sure anyone says anything very cutting, except maybe Jeff Green, who is _interesting_ to be EA EIC. Via Arne360.

1UP's Retro Gaming Blog : It's Random Speccy Time!
'While most people spend their internet procrastination time reading the news or seeing what their friends are doing on Facebook or whatever, I like to dig through lists and databases of video games and come up with strange crap I've never heard of. And for my money, no system had more strange crap I've never heard of than the ZX Spectrum line of computers.'

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Correlation vs Causation, and the MetaCritic MetaQuestion
'So the meta-level question about metacritic is whether you believe it serves as a focus group, or as a marketing tool. I beleive its the former, but choose your own opinion and proceed accordingly.'

Interview: Space Invaders Exhibition | Edge Online
An interesting Liverpool-based game exhibition's curator gets quizzed.

Remembering 7th Street: A Spatial Documentary - News Games: Georgia Tech Journalism & Games Project
'Remembering 7th Street: The Virtual Oakland Blues & Jazz game was developed by UC Berkeley journalism professor Paul Grabowicz and architecture professor Yehuda Kalay.'

November 30, 2009

Exploring The Halls Of General Computer Corp.

Though it now sells laser printers, in the early '80s, General Computer Corp. created memorable arcade games for Atari like Food Fight and Quantum (as part of a three-game settlement after Atari filed suit against the company for creating an unauthorized Missile Command mod kit, of course).

GCC also was responsible for producing the mod kit that would eventually become Namco's Ms. Pac-Man, developing the VCS ports for titles like Ms. Pac-Man and Vanguard, and handling the Atari 7800's chip design. For those of you who'd like to learn more about the important company, you should definitely study this collection of photos uploaded by former employee Steven Szymanski.

The gallery includes images of not only the GCC's games and staff, but also shots of the company's fire pole meetings (the pole connected two floors and enabled employees to "move quickly downstairs"), holiday parties, server rooms, factories, arcade/research lab, and even convention visits to expos like CES and MacWorld.

Each photo includes a few sentences to color the scene, like the shots of Activision, or "the enemy": "At that time Activision was the only company who really rivaled us in talent. I remember at this show I ran across an Activision engineer who started chatting me up. I noticed he had a small sheet of paper. It turns out it was a list of GCC engineers who they were supposed to try to recruit. The only thing that bothered me was that we didn't think of it first."

Rotheblog, which tipped us to Szymanski's gallery, notes that an unreleased prototype for Nightmare, GCC's third game created as part of the Atari settlement, will make an appearance at California Extreme next year. As if you needed more reasons to attend, right?

This Is Eno

Yes, I'm pretty much posting this because of the hilarious and ridiculous parody image. Noted Japanese musician and experimental game developer Kenji Eno (D series, You, Me, and the Cubes) will perform with three other DJs at Tokyo night club Departure Lounge this Thursday. Perhaps they'll treat the crowd with a few Michael Jackson covers?

You can download and listen to a live performance of music from Newtonica, the iPhone series Eno co-developed with Route24's Kenichi Nishi, at the artist's promotional page for the event. Anyway, I'm real happy for your poster, Kenji Eno, and I'mma let you finish your set later this week, but Saitone had one of the best Japanese tributes to Michael Jackson of all time. OF ALL TIME.

[Via Eastern Mind, Route24]

Opinion: Red Faction: Guerrilla's Accidental Symbolism

[Currently writing the 'This Week In Video Game Criticism' series, Ben Abraham is also contributing exclusive GameSetWatch analysis from time to time - starting out with this commentary on unintentional themes in the latest Red Faction game.]

Video game blogger Nick Dinicola noted recently in an essay on 'The State of Social Commentary in Videogames’ that, “as more effort and thought is put into video game narratives, there’s also more effort put into avoiding any social commentary.” Volition and THQ's Red Faction: Guerrilla tries incredibly hard to avoid making unsavoury comparisons to things like the Iraq War, bloody revolutions and other less-than glamorous realities when it comes to struggles for dominance and freedom.

And yet it cannot escape the fact that it is itself a game about violent resistance against an oppressive military junta occupying Mars (the planet, not the confectionary maker). The EDF treat the peaceful inhabitants little better than slaves, are clearly in the pocket of Big Business and similarly appear to be controlling the government, having at the very least the government’s blessing for a pogrom of civilian annihilation.

So why does the game blanche at the thought of examining the serious side of its mindless fun? As we’ve seen more recently with Modern Warfare 2, there is undoubtedly a market for games that deal with serious issues like terrorism, murder and atrocities. Wherever the answer lies, it’s clear that a large number of people working on this game went out of their way to stamp out any kind of meaning or message that the game could be construed as conveying about thorny issues like terrorism and the questionable merits of violent resistance. In our post-modern society.

However, we know that meaning does not rest solely in the hands of the creators, so I’m going to point out some of the things that I noticed that either slipped through the net, or were simply happy accidents of the development process.

Setting up a conflict as being between opposing forces of unambiguously good and evil is one of the easiest ways to pre-emptively put out the fires that could arise from saying something thoughtful about the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter. It’s telegraphed from the outset that the Earth Defence Force is unmistakably the bad guys (they even go so far as to kill your brother for no reason in something like the second cut scene just so you’re sure).

There is no grey area, Red Faction good; EDF bad. And once you’re convinced that the enemy is the ultimate evil in the galaxy it becomes remarkably easy to justify doing horrible things to stop them. It’s ‘the ends justify the means’ argument and Red Faction Guerrilla employs it liberally, and only escapes an examination of the very real consequences of this ideology by virtue of its nature as a videogame.

More abstractly however, RFG has a particular quirk with regards to its treatment of the ‘morale’ of the zones of Mars. It tells you how well you’re doing in your efforts to evict the EDF this metric displays an odd inclination that I found rather fascinating. There are a number of ways to increase a zone’s morale; chiefly among them is scoring kill streaks of enemy soldiers, and optional ‘Guerrilla actions’ often also award some level of morale. Basically, killing lots of enemy soldiers is the quickest way to boost a zone’s morale.

This is all well and good when the EDF are still ‘oppressing’ a zone since there’s plenty of soldiers around to beat up on to raise the morale of your own troops. However once you’ve cleared a zone of EDF, their level of control having dropped to zero, they moves out and give over the areas to the Red Faction. When this occurs there’s little action to be had in a zone besides the odd unfinished Guerilla action like bravely destroying some abandoned EDF buildings.

A strange and counterintuitive thing then occurs in the newly liberated zone: morale begins to drop. Wait a minute there Volition – you mean to tell me that since having the people’s necks lifted out from under the oppressive boot of the EDF they are now less happy than before? Could it be?

Have we uncovered a secret statement that Volition are making about that most perverse of elements of the human condition, that is, the ability to find something to complain about in any situation? Have the civilians of Parker, Dust, and Oasis become so blasé and, dare I say, practically bourgeoisie in their newfound freedom that they are actually becoming unhappy? Well, no. But it is nice to pretend.

The real explanation is that, as in life, people occasionally die even when they aren’t being oppressed by a malevolent military organisation. And when they die in Red Faction Guerrilla, morale drops. If it were at all intentional it would be quite the profound statement to be making about human nature.

More insight into the human condition is also revealed, if once again accidentally, by a tactic the Red Faction employs when referring to EDF soldiers. For those who have played along at home, you will recall that most of the time the Faction refer to the EDF as “drones”, and you’d never know that you were actually fighting other human beings unless they occasionally appeared with their helmets off in the cut scenes. The Red Faction employs the commonly utilized tactic of ‘Othering’, often employed by cultures, social groups and other communities to de-humanize outsiders and non-members. By calling the EDF soldiers ‘Drones’ they avoid having to admit that they are fighting other humans – the Red Faction, in their minds at least, turns them into robots.

For the longest time I wasn’t actually sure that they weren’t just robots as you need to be looking rather closely to discern that you are killing hundreds and thousands of fellow human beings. The repetitive, faceless EDF armour-slash-uniform certainly doesn’t help with that impression, nor does their mechanical shouts and death cries. Certainly Volition has gone to a lot of effort to hide the humanity of the EDF from players. After all we wouldn’t want them troubled by petty notions such as empathy or understanding.

At the conclusion of the game, the Red Faction predictably wrests control of Mars from the armoured fist of the EDF, and another strange and contrary happening occurs - The Red Faction becomes the new Establishment and it’s really quite boring. When there’s no one left to fight the game gets tedious incredibly fast. No wonder the EDF wanted to crack heads since it is so dull being in charge of a Mars at peace. Most governments are not oblivious of this fact, as they know how easy it is to use a common enemy to stir up support for a cause that threatens a nation – it’s called the rally effect (or Rally Round the Flag Syndrome).

Before then, however, while the fight is still in progress Alex Mason, the player’s character, becomes the symbol for the resistance by virtue of his near invincibility. You could say that Alex Mason is the flag the Red Faction would have people rally around; his/your death only results in a dip in morale, a mere blip, and while this is almost certainly a product of contemporary game design and accessibility, it’s quite possible to read Mason as a ludic metaphor for the immortal nature of revolutionary ideals. That Volition may not have intended this to be so is largely irrelevant – as I said; the work is out of its creators hands now.

Lastly, and in one of my favourite aspects of RFG (aside from the procedural destruction naturally), the final boss whose name is entirely forgettable and unimportant is no harder to kill than any other elite solder of the EDF. To me, this was such a refreshing change, and it also just happens to be a convenient metaphor for the frailty of man. If Alex Mason is the undying ideals of the revolution then the big bad boss at the end is the face of real humanity. If I wanted to stretch this metaphor to its very limits – and I do – I’d say that in your quest to free humanity, you pretty much end the game by killing humanity itself it.

And that’s one of the most complex pieces of socio-political, even philosophical, commentary in a game ever. What a pity that it was all unintentional.

GDC 2010 Announces Level Design, Indie Studio Tutorials

[You'll see this mentioned on the official GDC Blog too in due course, but content is just starting to get announced for next March's event, as run by my colleagues, and even the relatively overlooked tutorials are looking neat already.]

Game Developers Conference 2010 organizers have announced the first set of tutorials for the March 9th-13th, 2010 event, with an all-star level design tutorial day and a full-day session on 'building an independent dev studio in 2010' among the initial tutorials revealed.

The GDC tutorials occur on the first two days of the event at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, alongside the high-profile GDC Summits that span areas such as iPhone games, social gaming and independent games.

Notable, now-confirmed tutorials for next March's GDC include 'Level Design in a Day: Best Practices from the Best in the Business', being held on Wednesday, March 10th, and including Bethesda lead level designer Joel Burgess, Epic Games lead leve designer Jim Brown, and other notable professionals from Zipper Interactive, Kaos Studios, and more.

As the officlal description notes: "In this intense day-long tutorial, attendees will gain deep insights from some of the most experienced level designers in the industry. The tutorial will cover every aspect of the level design process, from basic navigation and object manipulation tips and tricks to best practices for encounter design and level flow." This year's session focuses on Unreal Engine, but also includes learning applicable industry wide, and subsequent years will focus on other notable game engines.

Also notable this year is 'The Best of Times The Worst of Times: Building an Independent Dev Studio in 2010', a full-day tutorial which takes place on Tuesday, March 9th. Some of the notable industry professionals participating include Ready At Dawn's Didier Malenfant, Krome's Robert Walsh, Bungie's Harold Ryan, and Wahoo/NinjaBee's Steve Taylor, all important principals in their independent developers, as well as lawyers including Jim Charne, David S Rosenbaum and Nixon Peabody's Dan O'Connell Offner.

As the description notes: "The big console dev deal no longer dominates the developer landscape. New formats and delivery systems introduce uncertainty and turmoil in the developer marketplace -- but also provide unprecedented opportunity. Our panel of experienced games industry lawyers and successful developers will discuss the state of the industry in 2010, how deals and publisher demands have been changing since GDC 2009, the nature of game dev deals today, and how studios must adjust to the realities of the business during these changing times."

The full information on Game Developers Conference 2010's tutorials, which have limited and fixed seating availablity, are available at their official website, and passes are now available for the event.

Get Your Smokey On: iPhone Game Guest Stars Smokey Bear

Appearing for a brief PSA before retiring to his cave where he'll hibernate for the winter, Smokey Bear lent his likeness to iPhone game publisher People Operating Technology for Wildfire Fighter, hoping to raise awareness about forest fires.

In Wildfire Fighter, players use the iPhone/iPod Touch's touchscreen to direct helitankers and airtankers to put out raging fires scattered across an area near a small town. While refilling water at a nearby lake and flying over wildfires, players need to avoid harsh winds and airborne collisions.

The game includes a donated media placement from Smokey Bear -- which People Operating Technology says is a first for the platform -- reminding players, "Only you can prevent wildfires." Wildfire Fighter also offers a link to the Smokey Bear mobile site for players who want to learn more about fire safety.

In The Year 20XX: Megadeth Man

Illustrator Basilio Mendez created the artwork for this four-color poster (Metallic Silver, Blue, Darker Blue, Black), which re-imagines Capcom's Blue Bomber as a bloodied and bearded heavy metal hero, for a Megadeth show in Fort Lauderdale last week.

I doubt Iron Forge Press will sell any prints or merchandise (e.g. shirts, hoodies, mousepads) based on the art due to licensing issues, but perhaps someone around Fort Lauderdale had the foresight to gather up these posters after the show to sell on eBay?

You can see more of Basilio Mendez's concert posters and other work (some of which is not safe for work) on his MySpace page, which, of course, automatically plays heavy metal music as soon as the site loads.

[Via Gamefreaks]

Puzzle Quest 2 Releases For DS, XBLA Next Spring

Three years after first appearing on Nintendo DS and PSP, puzzle/RPG hybrid game Puzzle Quest will see a sequel for DS and Xbox Live Arcade next Spring, courtesy of D3 Publisher. If you're concerned about your favorite console not receiving Puzzle Quest 2, remember that the original was eventually brought to every home, handheld, and mobile platform under the sun.

Since Puzzle Quest's surprise success in 2007, developer Infinite Interactive has turned its focus away from its Warlords strategy series, working on a Revenge of the Plague Lord expansion for XBLA/PSN/iPhone and a string of other similar puzzlers: Neopets: Puzzle Adventure, Puzzle Quest: Galactrix, Puzzle Kingdoms, and Puzzle Chronicles.

This first full follow-up features four classes: War Mage, Inquisitor, Barbarian, and Assassin, each with their own twists in the game's storyline. Players are tasked with reclaiming "the once peaceful village of Verloren from the evil clutch of the demon Gorgon". Once again, combat and other activities center around matching three or more gems on a puzzle grid.

Along with a Story Mode, the sequel offers Instant Action, Tournament, and Multiplayer modes. You can see several screenshots and artwork for Puzzle Quest 2 below:

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

It's the end of another week, so it's time to go through the top full-length features of the past week on big sister 'art and business of gaming' site Gamasutra, plus our GameCareerGuide features for the week.

Some of the notables include interviews with the Japanese iPhone music app creators at Yudo and Capcom's Monster Hunter creators, as well as postmortem of time-traveling shooter Darkest Of Days, Ken Rolston on RPG design, and GameCareerGuide features on design and iPhone game creation:

Gamasutra Features

Art-Media Innovation: Yudo's iPhone Success, Natal Dreams
"Gamasutra sits down for an in-depth interview with Beatmania co-creator Reo Nagumo and former Q Games exec Reo Yonaga (Lumines) to reveal their new, thus far iPhone-centric developer Yudo, as well as possible plans for console titles and hopes for Microsoft's Natal."

Postmortem: 8Monkey's Darkest of Days
"In this in-depth postmortem, developer 8Monkey Labs explains the creation of PC and Xbox 360 time-traveling shooter Darkest Of Days, outlining exactly what went right and wrong in the creation of the ambitious title."

Book Excerpt: Game Engine Architecture
"Gamasutra presents an excerpt from Jason Gregory's Game Engine Architecture; the book contains a huge amount of data on specifics to consider when developing a game engine."

No Laughing Matter: Making Humor Work in Games
"Gamasutra speaks with Overlord's Rhianna Pratchett, Sam and Max's Chuck Jordan, and Leisure Suit Larry's Al Lowe about what needs to be done -- and what isn't being done -- to make games funnier."

The Ways Of A Monster Hunter
"Monster Hunter Tri producer Ryozo Tsujimoto talks to Gamasutra about bringing an online-centric game to the Wii and making the hit franchise more appealing to the "very sophisticated" Western gamer."

Gamasutra News

XPEC: Idea For Bounty Hounds Online Came From PSP Piracy
"XPEC's idea for PC MMO Bounty Hounds Online came from an unusual place - rampant worldwide piracy of the earlier Bounty Hounds for PSP, the company tells Gamasutra at Gstar 2009 in South Korea."

Opinion: The Top 5 iPhone Dirty Secrets
"Susan Lambert of Avatarlabs, an iPhone developer, lets loose her five dirty secrets of the iPhone -- advice for developers and others still trying to get a handle on the explosive phenomenon."

Rolston: Physical And Virtual Artifacts Crucial To Narrative Designer's Job
"A good narrative designer must "find artifacts that feel in the mind like they're touchable" in order to make fictional games worlds come alive, says longtime Elder Scrolls RPG designer Ken Rolston."

GameCareerGuide Features

Playing Styles, and How Games Match One Style or Another
"In a detailed design article, academic Lewis Pulsipher discusses different game play styles, and how today's games have adapted to suit them."

Excerpt: iPhone Games Projects
"Interested in creating a game with a streamlined, elegant interface? iPhone developer Joachim Bondo explains the thinking behind his chess app in this book excerpt."

November 29, 2009

Interview: Zenimax Asia's Takahashi on Bringing Western Games to Japan

[In this rather unique interview, Zenimax Asia's Tetsu Takahashi tells our own Brandon Sheffield about localizing Western games like Fallout 3 and Bully to Japan for the Bethesda division, and why $200k for localization should be "the least of your costs."]

Western games have traditionally not sold well in Japan. There have been a number of theories as to why -- for instance, the lack of a PC market in Japan to inform players that Western-style titles are fun, or simply cultural differences.

Sony famously puts giant eyebrows on Ratchet in order to sell Ratchet and Clank games in the country. Does it work? The game sells well, but whether it’s because of additional eyebrows is debatable.

As the entire world moves toward HD games, and even Japanese companies must create games for the PS3 and Xbox 360 as well as the Wii in order to survive, Western-style games are coming under a lot more scrutiny in Japan.

Microsoft Japan localized original Xbox titles by simply releasing them with Japanese manuals, and only subtitles on the cutscenes -- if players were lucky. Companies need to do a lot more than that to succeed, but it’s been argued that the market is too small to warrant the effort.

It’s the “cart before the horse” problem of deciding whether you invest to build the market, or simply try to cater to the market that’s there, spending as little as possible to make a profit. HD games are rising, and more Japanese game players are starting to realize that Western games can offer them something, as more Japanese companies trend away from core game experiences.

There are only a few third party companies that localize Western content into Japan, and Tetsu Takahashi, currently in charge of Bethesda sister company Zenimax Asia, has worked at many of them as a Western to Japanese localization boss - most recently Fallout 3.

In this extensive interview, we discuss the trials and tribulations of the Western localizer, with numbers of many prominent titles, demographics of the hardcore player in Japan, and the trouble with Z ratings:

Can you give a little background on yourself?

Tetsu Takahashi: Before I joined Bethesda, I was with a company called Spike. I was there for about two years. Before that, I was at Capcom for about four and a half years.

In Japan or the U.S.?

TT: In Japan. All this time, I've been doing nothing but localizing Western titles. For Capcom, I did GTA 3: Vice City, the first Call of Duty, God of War, stuff like that. At Spike, I did Oblivion, which is basically the reason I'm here now.

What is the market like for Western titles in Japan these days? Is there much of one?

TT: It's a lot better than when I started doing this. Back then, if we could sell 10,000 units of a triple A title, it was great. But now, for example, Oblivion, we sold about 150,000 units between PS3 and 360. Fallout 3, we did -- well, it's still selling, but right now we're at about 30,000. Obviously, GTA has done like 100,000. Now we're seeing some interesting numbers. It's getting better, but it's still small. I think there's still room to grow.

How big do you think the third-party high definition publishing market is in general? I know there are a few companies doing it. How much consumer demand is there for this kind of stuff?

TT: I think the consumers are waiting for good, new stuff. There just aren't too many of them. I think a lot of the reason is because of market conditions. It's difficult for local developers to make next gen stuff. It used to be that they could recoup their costs by selling only in Japan, and if they sell something out West, it was like icing on the cake.

So, in that sense, there are a lot less local high def games, which I guess opened up doors for Western companies. I think the demand is there. 360 has done a lot better than the original Xbox. PS3, especially with the price cut, is doing better. I think the demand is still there.

When I was a kid, it felt like all the best console games came from Japan. Now, the best games don't necessarily come from Japan anymore, though there are still good ones. I wonder if there are those consumers in Japan that feel that way as well.

TT: I think numbers are growing with what we call Western game fans. There has always been like a negative, almost allergic reaction to Western games in Japan in general, but that's going away a little bit. I think the Western companies, they've studied Japanese games in the past years.

They've learned from it. They've done a lot of innovative stuff, especially on PC, which is now a big plus for them on high definition. Japan, we didn't have the PC market. It was okay back in the PS2 days when we had to make something small that would run on PS2. But the second we went into next gen, we lost it. [laughs]

Other Western localizers

How did ZeniMax Asia start publishing other company's titles (such as Rockstar’s Bully)?

TT: I've been doing a lot of licensing for other publishers, and it's an extension of that. We've actually done two.

Bully and 50 Cent.

TT: Right. But, you know, if there's something good out there and it's a good business opportunity, we'll do it.

I guess you sort of just answered that, but is that something you plan to do going forward?

TT: Yeah. We're not going to pick up obviously anything that doesn’t fit the market, of course.

Yeah. There are couple of other companies are doing it. Obviously Spike, and then other companies like CyberFront and Russell.

TT: I don't know if Russell is still around. Are they?

Yeah, they're releasing Infernal: Hell’s Vengeance on 360 and a bunch of PC games, like Left 4 Dead 2.

TT: I think people, they're not -- I shouldn't say this. A lot of companies are having difficulty making money on their own titles or developing their own next gen stuff. Obviously, licensing is one of their options. I think if you look at Konami, they're going to be publishing... what's that title. Darksiders.

Oh yeah, Darksiders. And Square Enix is doing Call of Duty. What was curious to me is looking at CyberFront and Russell. They're traditionally Galget companies (visual novels in which you try to date girls). I was trying to figure out why that would be? Do you have any speculation?

TT: I think it's just a business decision. They don't have a history of developing their own next-gen stuff. It takes time.

My suspicion was that with those kinds of Galget titles, you port it from PC to console, and you have a kind of small expectation. You don't spend too much money on it, and you expect only a small return of investment. That's true for the games they usually do, and I thought perhaps maybe Western titles, they can think of it similarly.

TT: Especially with licensed games, there are usually guarantees to stuff like that, but it's still controlled. You're buying something that's already finished. So, the return may not be big, but the risk is also manageable in those cases. In that sense, it's sort of the same.

In the U.S., we have a few companies like that. Like Atlus in the U.S. is doing it, and Nippon Ichi America does that kind of thing, localizing Japanese content on a smaller scale. It seems like there are some parallels with CyberFront doing that here.

TT: I think there are two philosophies. One is you do something quick and fast, and make a little money, which is fine. What I've always been trying to do is really create a Western game market, you know what I mean? I'm sure in the West, there's more than one place like that. It's good for them, but it's not necessarily good for the Japanese games market.

How do you go about creating a market for Western games?

TT: For example, Fallout, it's a huge game. We get full localization, voice and everything.

Oh, wow.

TT: We always make sure to invest I think more than other companies in marketing. A lot of times, there's issues with the rating board. When you want to turn it around real quick, what you usually do is you listen, you bend over backward and do whatever. I try to fight it as much as I can. You know, bring the content as close to the original as possible.

Localization Matters

Right, I was actually going to ask, what kind of localization trouble have you experienced? And how much work can you really justify on it before it becomes two expensive for return.

TT: Localization isn't as expensive... It really depends on what your expectations are. If you're only planning to ship 10,000 units, you can't spend that much. I think that's... If you set your targets a little higher, at the end of the day, $100,000, $200,000 in localization costs is a small part of your costs.

I don't see that as costly as a risk. It's more of an investment to make sure that you hit that number (of shipped units). So, I guess to answer your question, it really depends on what your expectations are for the title. If the cost of your localization is enough to make or break your deal, then you probably shouldn't be doing it anyway. [laughs]

That’s a fair statement. In terms of actually altering content, how much have you had to do? I can imagine... Well, didn’t Fallout 3 get a Z rating in Japan? (Considered more extreme than the ESRB’s M rating, because many stores won’t carry games with a Z.)

TT: Yeah, it got a Z rating. We almost didn't get rated. [laughs]

Right, because you can kill civilians and stuff like that.

TT: Well, you still can. But the biggest issue was the "Power of the Atom" mission. You blow up the bomb, and blow up the whole town. That part, we had to cut.

So, you had to cut it entirely?

TT: Yeah. The mission is still there, but there are always two routes to the missions. We had to close that part of the mission. But we kept a lot of the decapitations in. The only alterations we made was that part and also humans... Human decapitations we had to cut. Mutants and ghouls and all that are still there.

What other kinds of things have you had to change in your post titles?

TT: It really depends from game to game. And actually, it sort of depends on your strategy for the title. Fallout, we chose to take the Z rating and try not to alter the content as much as possible. But for another title, you may decide to take out decapitations, make it a D and make it more accessible to the market.

For example, for Oblivion, we changed nothing. It's exactly the same. For the earlier GTAs, it was stuff that you probably couldn't even notice. We had to take down a poster from a room, stuff like that. When you first talk to the rating board and also to the platform holder, you usually start with these huge lists. And obviously, during negotiations, you're going to have to give up one or two.

But we try to not necessarily fight it but to make them understand why all these things are necessary in the context of the game. I don't think the rating board or the first parties are unreasonable. I think you just have to work a little bit harder to get them to understand. There are cultural differences...

How important do you think having a lower rating actually is on the high-end consoles considering the demographic?

TT: The actual users, their average age is probably in the upper 20s to lower 30s. So, in that sense, it shouldn't make a difference. But having a Z rating will mean that a lot of stores simply won't carry them. We can't air TV commercials from a certain time in the morning until like 11.

So, after 11 PM is okay, but not in certain prefectures. We can't get outdoor ads in train stations and stuff. It makes it difficult to advertise and to promote to the mass.

Isn't there a prefecture that actually has banned Z games entirely?

TT: Well, they can't ban it, but the...

The sale of it?

TT: Yeah. I don't know what the English translation is, but anything that's Z rated is tagged as harmful content to the youth. Basically, it's like porn. It has to be shelved in a certain way, stuff like that.

Creating the Market Through Hardware

What do you think the HD platform holders need to do to kind of expand the market here, like Microsoft and Sony?

TT: I think Sony, the first step, along with price.... Really from my standpoint, I would like for them to have more support for Western third-party publishers. Of all the games that I've ever done in the companies that I've worked for, I've never had any financial support from them, marketing support, stuff like that.

I guess it's justifiable because the numbers aren't great, but it's sort of unfortunate. In general, just more support. Just sell the hardware.

What about Microsoft?

TT: Microsoft. They've done a lot better job with... I don't know if they did a better job with the 360 or not. Maybe it was just the fact that the PS3 wasn't nearly sold out. It's good hardware, really. I think it's better, to be honest with you. I think they've done some things right like bringing a lot of local content to the console. But also, I think they've under-advertised the Live part of it.

Yeah, I remember last year, they were trying to advertise Live at the Tokyo Game show, and they were giving out points. I think they were giving out a free card for 200 Xbox Live Points. 200 Points is... You can't buy anything with it. It's like nothing.

TT: That's great. You can buy a theme. [laughs] They should have handed out like one month Xbox Gold. Yeah, I don't know what they're doing. I'm going to get in trouble saying this, but I think there's too much control from Seattle.

They tried with the Blue Dragon, Lost Odyssey, and stuff. I guess probably what they should be doing is helping support more third parties.

TT: Yeah. But they're doing that now. I think Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey were important. I believe they were supposed to be launch titles, but it was important to have big local content at launch. Obviously, RPGs are the biggest genre here still. But now, Namco Bandai and Square Enix are bringing good titles. They've done well.

Can you give kind of a recap of the state of the market?

TT: I think in general, the Japanese market is tough. As you said, it looks like the whole market is just kind of shrinking, withering away. But having said that, at the same time, I think that opens new doors for Western titles and publishers.

If there are people out there that are thinking of coming to Japan, It might be the right time. But again, it is a really different market and a tough market. If they want to come to Japan, I think they're going to have to...

Fight for it.

TT: Yeah. And invest a little planning money. A lot of companies have come and gone. Activision.

Electronic Arts is still here.

TT: Yeah, they're still strong. EA's a big company. The only people that are here are EA, Ubi... They're the two big publishers. Codemasters has an office. I don't know why. Disney. They have Disneyland. And us I guess.

It's kind of a small group. Do you guys support each other at all or not? I mean discuss stuff?

TT: I know my staff doesn’t much... Because of the business that I was in, I've always had contact with all these companies, their head offices and what not. So, I guess the answer is not really, but maybe we should.

GameSetLinks: The Eternal Miyamoto

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

Continuing into the weekend with a freshly excavated set of GameSetLinks, this one starts off with Daniel Primed looking at Eternal Darkness from a design critique point of view. (And isn't it time for a franchise update for ED?)

In any case, other highlights in here include a discussion on Miyamoto's design flow thoughts (any excuse to use the above 'official Nintendo Photoshop' from Mr. Iwata's GDC presentation, cracks me up every time), plus 0D Beat Drop, online games in Turkey, Mega64's PAX panel and other fun randomness galore.

Link link link:

Daniel Primed:: Gaming Analysis, Critique and Culture » Evaluating Eternal Darkness
'If we’re to evaluate Eternal Darkness then it’s fundamental that we judge it on these two points, the contextual and the construction of puzzles and other mechanics.'

0D Beat Drop (XBLA) comments - bemanistyle.com
A thoughtful critique of the Arc System Works-published musical puzzler, which I suspect is getting a tad slept-on, though is a little 'constrained' design-wise.

Game Design the Miyamoto Way: Flow and Difficulty « Desert Hat
'Miyamoto argues that a game is better if you have to start the level again because it increases the level of intensity and makes the game more enjoyable.'

The Top 25 Games You Missed This Year: 5-1: Games: UGO
A really smart and interesting list by Chris Plante - including Moon (DS) in the Top 5, interestingly.

ICO Partners » Blog Archive » Online games in Turkey
'As more Asian and American eyes are turning to the European market (since market is less mature and the Chinese market is increasingly closed), Turkey is emerging as a rising star of the European region for online games. The country has the second biggest population of the region, and a majority of them are young (60% are under 35) and educated.'

The Remedial Lexicon (Part 1) « REMEDIAL WASTE
Startlingly grumpy, also slightly Gamasutra-baiting, but fascinatingly misanthropic.

YouTube - Mega64: PAX 2009 Panel Q&A
To give you an idea of the Mega64 fanboy I am, yes, I'm in the audience for this video, somewhere or other. Sadly they cut off the opening cinematic, which was all kinds of OTT awesome. But you get the idea, huh?



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

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