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December 12, 2009

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Game Biz Trends

[Continuing our 2009 retrospectives via Gamasutra, Christian Nutt examines the year's most notable game business trends, from the iPhone game gold rush through music games' decline to the rise of social network gaming. Previously: Top 5 iPhone games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC games.]

Every year, new trends arise, and business decisions are made. Some of these decisions set the trends; others reinforce or vainly attempt to catch them. What once seems to be certain becomes deeply difficult to understand -- and new ways of thinking arise.

Looking back, then, at 2009 reveals not just broad trends, but shifting, complicated and evolving situations that can't easily be boiled down.

As we review five of the biggest trends in the market for 2009 -- complicated by the economic cooldown and the explosion of platforms, audiences, and delivery mechanisms -- perhaps we can find patterns that help sort out the randomness of the sprawling world of video games:

5. The Day the Music Died

Music games were the savior of the industry in 2008. Plastic guitars flew off of shelves into the hands of eager gamers -- and unlike many fads in gaming, which come and go cyclically, this one made everybody happy. Who doesn't like to play Rock Band with friends?

Still, sales are down this year. Significantly. Activision says that's not true, or won't be, but it seems hard to believe. The range has expanded beyond Guitar Hero to encompass DJ Hero and Band Hero but sales of the latter have been tepid and DJ Hero just isn't making the right impression, nor is it selling particularly well.

And though The Beatles: Rock Band has done well, how much is it benefiting Viacom when it might not break even? And with ugly stories like the Scratch dust-up (Genius sues Activision), Band Hero shenanigans (No Doubt and Activision sue each other), and the sad and pathetic Kurt Cobain tale (Courtney Love sues Activision) the genre has lost some of its charm.

There may simply already be enough plastic guitars in this world.

4. The Rush of the Engines

This console cycle has been extremely challenging from a technological perspective. Many studios have come to rely on third party engine technology to deliver games to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

The shining star of that space has, of course, been Unreal Engine 3. It is used extremely widely, generally well-regarded, and flexible enough for many implementations. But as technology has matured, other multiplatform engines have arisen. Some are internal (like Square Enix's Crystal Tools, which will make its public debut next week when Final Fantasy XIII ships in Japan.) But many are reaching wider than that.

Terminal Reality (Ghostbusters: The Video Game) has begun licensing its technology, the Infernal Engine to solid results. Vicious Cycle's Vicious Engine was reborn in a PS3/Xbox 360 incarnation this year.

Even Capcom may be getting in on the act, in a shocking turn for Japan, with its powerful MT Framework possibly being used externally. It drove Resident Evil 5, among other titles, so that's hard to argue with. Unity is expanding to service the Xbox 360. Ready At Dawn is moving into the space. And with other players like Emergent, Unity, Crytek, and Trinigy in the space, engine market is exploding.

This is great for developers -- viable choices and competition are great for everyone. And tearing down the technological barriers of development -- even a little -- will only benefit gamers as well, as more ideas can be brought to light faster (and at lower cost.) This is a vital trend, and if the current console cycle is as extended as some think, there is a potential for a real flowering built on the back of these technologies.

3. The Widening Net of Digital Distribution

The same day that EA announced that Playfish acquisition, the company also announced plans to lay off 1500 developers. Within days, Pandemic, fresh from shipping The Saboteur, had been closed, with around 200 losing their jobs at that studio alone.
That was no coincidence, says EA SVP and CFO Eric Brown. The market is shifting to direct digital distribution to customers -- and whether it's via Facebook, Steam, or the PlayStation Network (to name just a few possible outlets), it's becoming a focus of all major companies.

But 2009 does feel like the year it really arrived, in a sense. Sure, Steam has been around for several years. But it's become increasingly clear that shrewd marketing and competition from services like Direct2Drive and Impulse, as well as a highly savvy audience, is making digital the delivery mechanism of choice for PC gamers.

Xbox Live Arcade has around for some time, too -- but Shadow Complex broke records this year. It wasn't just for downloads; it was also that intangible relevance that Shadow Complex had to gamers. There was no question that everyone was playing it when it arrived. It simply was the game of the moment.

And, of course, though success has been limited at best, Sony released a direct-digital only device this year -- the PSP Go. Say what you will about the execution, but the system is an important marker: it's the first time a device in the console market has been purely digital, and following on from 2008's echochrome, it also marks the release of digital-only games (such as underground hit Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman!) for a device that was intended to rely on proprietary discs upon its release.

Digital took a number of important steps this year. There is still much progress to be made. But in 2009, it shifted to a completely normal means of delivery for all gaming markets, and that makes it a watershed moment for the movement.

2. The Rise of Social Games

At the beginning of the year, many game developers, to speak broadly, were suspicious of Facebook games and running to the iPhone with arms open. Well, we know the difficulties that lie Apple-ward, and we are now duly shocked by the size of the opportunities that have appeared in the social gaming space.

The market grew beyond predictability. Zynga, its leader, is now flush with enough cash from successes like number one and number two games FarmVille and Cafe World to rent a huge "we're hiring!" billboard on the San Francisco Bay Area 101 freeway during a recession. The other major player is Playfish, whose Pet Society and other hits led to a massive acquisition by Electronic Arts. Big numbers: big possibilities.

Just like the iPhone, however, what it takes is talent and execution to break through -- a simple concept done right and tweaked obsessively. And with revenue possibilities that are tremendous, thanks to a huge audience -- over 350 million users on Facebook alone -- it's an alluring place.
Appealing enough to lure big traditional develpoment names like Brian Reynolds -- who went to Zynga not just for the cash, but the opportunity to serve such a huge audience and to rapidly iterate on games. Says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza, "A standard console game developer, if he has a 30-year life cycle, he's going to get out maybe 15 titles, and that's it. You've got 15 shots to make your decisions correct." Facebook offers opportunity for quicker bursts of creativity and instant user feedback.

Of course, we can't ignore that the growing pains have lead to some unseemly situations where monetization is concerned (and let's not even go into the whole cloning issue, or the annoyingness of viral wall post spam.)

These difficulties just help highlight that it's a tough market to get right -- and with the rapid increase in sophistication and resources of the big players, it's getting tougher to break in. Still -- small, dedicated teams with the right ideas can hit the ground running. The rules are still being written. The opportunity is there to make your mark -- and your money.

And with so many developers laid off by EA and the various studios that closed in 2009, you have to just wonder if many will find their way into the world of social gaming. Even doubters may be forced, as demand shrinks for packaged triple-A goods, as the console download services, PC, and iPhone are glutted with choices, to confront the future of a large segment of games and gamers.

1. The Wicked Way of the iPhone

When the App Store launched in the back half of 2008, there was an instant gold rush mentality. Developers scrambled to deliver novel and exciting games and applications to a seductively large and savvy userbase. As the iPhone became the number one mobile phone in the U.S., dollar signs started appearing in more and more peoples' eyes. Lured by success stories like that of Steve Demeter of Trism fame, strong hardware capabilities, ease of development, and a receptive user base, development soared.

In November, Apple announced that the App Store had exceeded 100,000 applications, including over 18,000 games. There's a lot of competition out there -- a lot of noise, too; it's tough to stand out from the crowd. Suddenly a grassroots movement became acquainted with clones, and independent developers -- hoping for a more egalitarian platform -- were forced to learn the value of marketing.

And the phrase "race to the bottom" became an endless refrain at conferences like GDC Austin's iPhone Summit. Some developers, like Adam Saltsman (Canabalt) don't think it's necessary to rush to 99 cents -- something still hotly debated as of this writing. And with Apple adding in-app purchases for free titles, the landscape is even more complicated.

The trend is not that the iPhone is hot. That's last year's trend. The trend is not that the iPhone is a wasteland. That's clearly not true. The handset and its brother, the iPod Touch -- now supported by gamer-targeted marketing -- are still immensely popular, and despite tremendous piracy, there's money to be made from an audience that huge. The truth is that the iPhone is complicated. Creating a game that stands out, and is good enough, and simple enough, and engaging enough, and priced right, and people know about is a nail-bitingly tough thing to hit on.

The trend is: people woke up to both the possibilities and the challenges of the iPhone this year, and it's provoked some of the most interesting, exciting, and disheartening discussions of the year.

Best Of Indie Games: Maniac Mountain, Marooned Island

[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 goodies in this edition include a new release from the creators of Gamma Bros, an arena shooter set in a scientific laboratory, an exploration game about one's journey to the moon, and a difficult platform game that will have you tearing out your hair.

Other highlights include a puzzle game where solving levels require shifting bits of a level around, a Halloween-themed shooter with pumpkins, witches and ghosts, an adventure game about a boy in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a 2D platformer that is clearly inspired by early Megaman games.

Here's the highlights from the last seven days:

Game Pick: 'Mountain Maniac' (Pixeljam Games, browser)
"In Mountain Maniac you control a man with a hammer whose single aim is to destroy the town at the foot of a mountain for points. He does this by smashing boulders with his instrument of doom, sending them down the mountain Pachinko-style while crushing everything that stands in its way. Occasionally the police force or a yeti might try and stop him, but you can use the mallet to protect yourself by swinging it at them as well."

Game Pick: 'The Experimental Chick' (Slowfoot, freeware)
"The Experimental Chick is a mission-based arena shooter in which you have to destroy surrounding red blocks and break out of the laboratory that you've been held captive in. Men in biohazard suits will appear out of these walls and try to prevent your escape, but you have a gun that can be used knock them unconscious and destroy any of the robotic contraptions that they've deployed to stop you."

Game Pick: 'Dreamside Maroon' (Terraced, freeware)
"Dreamside Maroon is an exploration game that puts you in control of the scarf-wearing Aster who is on a journey to reach the moon. He does this by guiding the growing tendril of a vine with his lantern, occasionally lighting up lanterns to attract fireflies and eventually collecting them for a temporary increase in speed."

Game Pick: 'Saut' (Mabi Games, freeware)
"Saut is a dark platformer in which you need to tactically time your jumps so as not to end up down one of the many pits - using only one button, of course. Oh, and it's amazing fun. Graphically it reminded me a lot of Boss Baddie's Lunnye Devitsy - there's a lovely atmosphere about it all, especially helped along by the great soundtrack."

Game Pick: 'NeonPlat' (Jayenkai, freeware)
"NeonPlat is an arcade platformer where points are scored by using balls to bowl enemies off the screen. Platdude can double or triple jump in the air (with the right power-ups), climb ladders, paint over floors for points and slip below platforms, but he can never carry more than one ball at a time."

Game Pick: 'Continuity' (Ragtime Games, browser)
"Continuity is a puzzle platformer in which you have to arrange pieces of a level while playing to reach the key that will unlock the exit door. You can switch between sliding tiles and moving your character around at any time, although players won't be allowed to pass from one card to another if the corridors going out of each don't match."

Game Pick: 'Ulitsa Dimitrova' (Lea Schönfelder and Gerard Delmàs, freeware)
"Ulitsa Dimitrova tells the story of a seven-year old boy named Pjotre who lives in St. Petersburg, running around the streets and doing things that young children of his age are taught not to do. There is no inventory to manage nor an objective to achieve, but the game does end if you let it idle for a couple of seconds."

Game Pick: 'Pumpkin Patch' (Pixel Licker, freeware)
"Pumpkin Patch is an arena shooter in which you have to protect fellow pumpkins in your patch from being stolen by ghosts or eaten by creatures. The game features only four different types of enemies and protecting the patch for thirty days can wear you out after a while, but Pumpkin Patch will fit the bill nicely if you're looking for a slightly mindless arcade game that doesn't require much of a strategy to play."

Game Pick: 'Nezumiman' (Fishman, freeware)
"Nezumiman is a 2D platformer created in the same style as early Megaman games, where you are in control of a rodent who has to defeat the evil Dr. Gyoniku and his henchmen. Ratman can jump, shoot, slide, and earn special abilities by beating the boss characters in each of the eight levels included. The save feature will come in handy if you need a short break or two between sessions as well."

December 11, 2009

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 11

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 2K Marin, Koei Canada 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:

2K Marin: Multiplayer Systems Designer
"2K Marin is looking for a dedicated, passionate and personable Multiplayer Systems Designer to join us on an exciting unannounced project. As a Multiplayer Systems Designer, you'll be in charge of taking high level goals and translating them into game systems and moment-to-moment experiences."

Guerrilla Games: Lighting Artist
"Ready to set Guerrilla alight with your awesome lighting skills? As a member of the lighting team, you will collaborate with level designers and environment artists to literally light the way for gamers, so they can enjoy our games to their fullest. You will work with our cutting-edge deferred rendering engine, adding lighting to levels and cut scenes using both real-time and pre-rendered solutions. You will take concepts created by our visual design team and turn them into reality within our levels, working closely with the art director to ensure that our vision is achieved."

Blizzard Entertainment: Dungeon Artist, World of Warcraft
"Blizzard Entertainment is seeking exceptionally talented dungeon artists for our World of Warcraft team. You should have extensive experience modeling and texturing diverse game environments across a broad visual range, applying a solid grasp of form, color, and light. Senior applicants must possess a variety of skills, including illustration, modeling, texturing, animation, and concept drawing. The ideal applicant will work well in an environment of peers, providing motivation and inspiration to others, while displaying a strong passion for making great games."

Edge of Reality: Systems Engineer
"Edge of Reality is a veteran cross platform console studio based in Austin, Texas. Most recently, we worked closely with BioWare to release Dragon Age PS3 & 360. We also work with The Sims Studio, a part of the EA Play label on various projects. We have been fortunate enough to be part of several hit titles. As a result of this success, the studio has a stable future. Edge of Reality is completely independent. As such, we are free to work with any publisher, on any platform."

Koei Canada: CG Animator
"As a CG Animator, you will be working primarily on character animation for our current project "Warriors: Legends of Troy" with our CG and Development staff. You are able to meet deadlines, be responsible for the work given to you, and as a result be involved to see the project through to completion. As it is an action game, you are interested in the action genre of games. The ability to communicate in both English and Japanese is required."

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.

PlayStation Museum Remembers PS1 Pac-Mans With New Postmortems

The PlayStation Museum -- which, as its name suggests, serves as a virtual museum for all things PlayStation -- announced the recipients of its annual Game of the Year Awards, holding up Namco's Pac-Man World 20th Anniversary as the Game of the Year, Hammerhead's Jinx as the Import Game Of The Year, and Namco's cancelled Pac-Man Ghost Zone as the Unseen Game of the Year.

To honor those titles, the site posted developer interviews for the titles, and in the case of Pac-Man World 20th Anniversary and Pac-Man Ghost Zone, shared stories on the games' origins and postmortems written by the original designers. The never-released Pac-Man Ghost Zone has some particularly interesting revelations:

The Japanese home office was nervous about us making a Pac-Man game, so they told us that we couldn't use the real Pac-Man. Design Director Bill Anderson came up with a solution: A kid gets sucked into an old arcade machine and turns into Pac-Man.

That way we could tell Japan 'You are not really playing Pac-Man.' But that solution never sat well with the team - we wanted to play the real Pac-Man! Along with the ghosts, the game's enemies took inspiration from the story where you fought things like angry capacitors and flying RAM chips. All very tech-y (what can I say, we were in Silicon Valley in the late 90's!).

Make sure to look through the early concept artwork for the two Pac-Man games, too (I've included a couple after the break). One other thing to watch out for -- to celebrate the PlayStation's 15th anniversary, the PS Museum will feature a cancelled PlayStation game and its development history each month until September 2010. Some of the planned games include Jet Moto 2124 and Neversoft's Exodus!

GDC 2010 Reveals First Conference Lectures

[As you may or may not have spotted, I'm now helping oversee GDC events too, so extra disclaimers apply, but I have to say I'm stoked about this initial line-up for GDC 2010.]

Game Developers Conference 2010 organizers have announced its first set of Main Conference lectures for the March 9th-13th event, with Uncharted 2, Braid and Brutal Legend-specific talks already confirmed.

An initial set of talks for the Audio, Business, Design, Production, Art, and Programming tracks for next March's event are now viewable in GDC 2010's schedule-building app or via the official Game Developers Conference website.

Organizers of the industry-leading San Francisco-based event will be highlighting track-specific talks gradually over the next few weeks, but some of the notable lectures already posted include:

- Among Friends - An Uncharted 2: Among Thieves Post-Mortem (Production Track)
In this postmortem, Naughty Dog co-lead game designer Richard Lemarchand examines what went right and wrong in the creation of the critically acclaimed PS3 title, "...in expanding our gameplay through the use of new traversal, combat and AI technologies, introducing characters that shed new light on our hero Nathan Drake, and tackling our first foray into multiplayer in four years."

- Rock Show VFX - The Effects That Bring Brutal Legend to Life (Art Track)
Two of Double Fine's key employees -- lead platform programmer Peter Demoreuille and technical/VFX artist Drew Skillman -- will discuss the making of the visual effects for action-adventure Brutal Legend, covering "the design and most commonly relied upon features of our particle rendering, simulation, effects timeline and climate packages."

- Scoring Hell: How We Created the Score for EA's Dante's Inferno, from Inception to Final Implementation (Audio Track)
In this notable audio lecture, composer Garry Schyman and EA audio director Paul Gorman discuss "an exploration from both the composers and audio director's point of view" on making sound for EA's upcoming action title Dante's Inferno, including working with choir and orchestra in London, tech info, and implementation issues.

- The Implementation of Rewind in Braid (Programming Track)
Braid creator Jon Blow explains in his lecture description regarding his indie hit: "In Braid the player can rewind time at will... the game design required the player to be able to rewind a large amount of gameplay (30 to 60 minutes) and the memory of this gameplay had to fit into a small space (40 megabytes on consoles)." In this technical lecture, Blow will explain the intricacies and practicalities of doing just that.

- Why Owning Your Own IP is a Bad Idea: Giving Up Your Rights for Fun and Profit (Business Track)
Foundation 9 VP Chris Charla presents an interesting argument: "Conventional wisdom says you should always own your own IP. In the games space, we argue that the conventional wisdom is no longer valid. For independent developers to maximize their chance of popular and commercial success (and getting action figures made of your characters!), retaining ownership of your IP may be the worst decision you can make."

Alongside the full set of announced lectures thus far comes news on reduced conference pass prices for GDC 2010, with the introduction of optional lunch packages. Attendees now have the option to purchase lunch provided by the Moscone Center based on their GDC week schedule, or to find their own lunch alternatives.

Game Developers Conference 2010 will also play host to the GDC Expo Floor, the GDC Career Pavilion, the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival and the 10th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards.

Alumni registration for GDC 2010 ends December 17, 2009 and Early Bird rates end February 4, 2010. For more information on the 2010 Game Developers Conference, visit the official GDC 2010 website.

JSRF Wall Graphics Let You Vandalize Your Home

If your love for Jet Set Radio Future still hasn't dulled since you first picked up the Xbox game years and years ago, Philadelpha startup LTL Prints has teamed up with Sega of America to offer a new line of products that might interest you: a collection of nearly 100 wall graphics for original artwork and character cut-outs from the graffiti game.

The graphics, which you can apply multiple times on various surfaces without having to worry about damaging your walls, windows, or doors, come in sizes ranging from twelve inches to seven feet tall. The prices scales with those sizes, starting at $19.95 and reaching $164.95 -- very expensive, but where else are you going to buy high-quality, licensed wall decorations for an eight-year-old game that bombed at stores?

If you drop several hundred dollars on the wall graphics, plaster them over your walls, put on a pair of rollerblades, and throw on Cibo Matto's "Birthday Cake" on a nearby boombox, you can pretend you're really skating around a cel-shaded Tokyo-To and tagging futuristic structures.

"Jet Set Radio Future blurred the lines between art, culture, music and video games," says Cindy Chau, who manages Entertainment Licensing at Sega of America. "We are extremely excited to be partnering with LTL PRINTS to bring larger than life-size wall graphic versions of the characters and artwork from this classic video game to real-world walls everywhere."

Column: 'Diamond in the Rough': Sexualization in Video Games

mass-effect.jpg['Diamond In The Rough' is a regularly scheduled GameSetWatch-exclusive opinion column by Tom Cross focusing game narratives and the ways that play, gaming, and narrative mix. This week, Tom continues last column's examination of the sexual politics behind games by examining game designers' (and gamers') reactions to certain games.]

Video game designers, PR companies, and gamers are deeply worried about sex.

Now hear me out: the average “mainstream" game is both obsessed with a peculiarly fragmented (but extremely popular in mainstream culture) version of hypersexuality, and deathly afraid of more realistic, meaningful sexual connection. There's a reason our games are filled with snarling, emotionless (aside from their totally straight love for their buddies) bros and women being crushed under the weight of their hypersexualized characterization.

People are very worried about sex. The worry may vary in its shape, orientation, and direction, but it is still something that makes a lot of people very nervous. They're very worried about thinking about sex. They're worried that thinking about sex, or consuming certain representations of sex will show them to be any of a number of deviant, unpopular, stigmatized representations of sexuality (or worse, to be party to those sexualities themselves).

Video games culture (at its most “hardcore”) is, after all, already a shunned, de-masculinized (in the public eye) subset of white guy culture. White men who are dorks or gamers have struggled to build up some new brand of masculinity (which will never be as good, white, and manly as proper mainstream masculinity, and white guy geeks know this) around their deplored hobby, and, as always, once they solidified that identity, they needed a new Other, a new group to define as being less than and harmful to the grand, old tradition of white male gaming. In the kingdom of the white gamer, anyone obviously not white and/or male, or anyone professing to enjoy sexuality not strictly in line with white heterosexuality is both a worry and a threat.

500x_fromabove.jpgConfusion, Desperation, Dehumanization

There’s a reason why the gaming press’ (and gamers’) reactions to NieR’s possibly intersex character are so shrilly uncertain and alarmed.* They are worried that something that they think brings their own sexuality into question will be part of a game they play, and that they will subsequently have to accept that sexuality as something that exists and can be commonplace (the Other becoming in any small way the Normal is definitely high on any list of peoples’ fears).

At the same time, many heterosexual gamers are desperately trying, every day, to prove that they are really interested in sex, because they are totally not like those gay/bi/cis/not traditionally straight/not-white/etc. people (play XBL or Call of Duty to find out how worried they are). There are so many different kinds of sex and sexuality to avoid, it's a wonder people even play games with "sexy" stuff in them in the first place. It’s also surprising that companies work so hard to inject this “sexiness” into their games: they are dealing with a volatile, reactionary mainstream audience. Of course, “sex sells,” as long as it is designed for the straight white viewer, and when calibrated properly, can appeal to worried, pointedly, carefully heterosexual people.

Which is why designers normally don't do anything more than throw a few “sultry” big-breasted women into a game to appeal (so they hope) to the easiest to please of gamers. It's why they make sure their games are peculiarly non-sexual, despite all their to-ing and fro-ing about sexy women. Your average game (if it features any romantic or sexual tones or scenes, which are quite different from the vapid display of female flesh so common in games) will play out like this: a hero or heroes will do their thing. They'll do it (and mostly, they'll all be men), and be very good friends with each other. Maybe they're comrades, soldiers, best, old friends, or family.

But suddenly, a problem arises. What problem? They might be gay (after all, they are very good friends). Or maybe they might be too open about themselves with each other, making them unfit for proper masculinity. So a new element is needed. One that makes them both straight and the Right Kind of Man. We could call it a Beard, but in this article, we'll call this new element "Women."

wallpaper_gears_of_war_08_16001.jpgWomen, Beards, and Keeping Things "Sexy"

Women are tricky. You need them to prove your hero’s straightness, but you can't have them be too powerful, smart, or likeable, because then your audience might A) like the female character over the male characters, B) feel threatened by the smart/strong/interesting female character.

So you turn her into a cutout, a representation of a representation of a woman, so far removed from what actual, interesting living women are like, she might as well be a robot. Then you make sure that she is “very sexy.” You do this by hypersexualizing her, emphasizing various physical attributes and character tics, so that she is denigrated, turned into a walking, talking re-affirmation of the player's (and just as importantly, the male hero’s) masculinity and heterosexuality.

You make sure that she has no character, that she is weak and annoying, or pitiable, or constantly in need of help, and you make it clear that she is sexually available to the player (implied) and to one of the male characters (implied, but also shown, sometimes).

Video games are, of course, just aping their older relative, film. Take a look at films both old and new: from Transformers to Casablanca, movies have carefully built up a bank of screen women who exist to titillate and tempt the audience, even as they reinforce their own uselessness and expendability.

This is all very well for our hypothetical designer. Following this set of tactics, we get the Russian Sexy Lady (who is, in the end, proved to be pathetically chasing after a Man’s Love) from inFamous, all of the female characters in Alpha Protocol (as seen in previews, at least), all of the female NPCs in Risen (depressingly), and many other games. Of course, it isn't always this blunt. Sometimes it's subtle.

Tomb-Raider-Underworld-Lara-Croft-1677.jpg"Strong" Women and Disidentification

Sometimes we are given "strong women" (although that too is now a meaningless term, used by producers and PR types to say "oh yeah, we have a female hero"), who are quickly made available/inferior to the audience on a physical and visual level (think Lara Croft's various idling animations and advertising campaigns, especially the box art for the recent Underworld, which depicts her as a headless body). Other times, women are the subject of systematic, vicious in-game violence at every turn, so there can be no doubt about their place (GTA IV springs to mind).

We don’t need studies to tell us the obvious: overwhelmingly, the characters available for player-identification in video games are men. If video games are more successful when they create characters that players can identify with and transpose their experiences to and from, then it is obvious that it’s safer to make male characters (and characters that facilitate male gaze and male identification) that represent what the hardcore, heterosexual mainstream wants (this is, of course, ignoring the fact that in actuality women and people of color buy many more games than PR people and video game companies want to believe).

Tomb Raider and the like (from Drakan to Perfect Dark Zero to Heavenly Sword) are subversively designed to help male gamers to disidentify with the female heroine. Those of us who want to empathize with and identify with these women can, but that’s not what they’re designed to aid the player in doing (unless a smart, sure hand like Valve’s or Naughty Dog’s is at the wheel). Everything about the average, exploitatively designed video game heroine is angled towards her delegitimization and subjugation.

Of course, these tactics aren't just used on heterosexual women. Off the top of my head, I can think of the same kinds of denigrating, stereotyping tactics being used upon black people (any game with black people), gay people (to a lesser extent, because they're almost too scary to straight gamers to put in games), and various other marginalized groups.

balladofgaytony.jpgGay Tony, Acceptance, and The Price of "Inclusion"

When such groups are included in games, they have to be both lionized and defanged. After all, it’s all well and good to say that your game revolves around a gay character (and it sure looks good when you put it in your title, a la Ballad of Gay Tony, even if that game focuses on Tony’s best friend and partner), but you, as a designer, can’t leave it at that. The game has to constantly deflect and delegitimize (in certain dramatic, narrative ways) that portion of the story.

Even an article like Gus Mastrapa’s “The Ballad of Gay Tony: Who is the Man,”** which argues for the game (and Rockstar’s) maturity and admirable stance on the portrayal of gays and minorities in games, must admit that Rockstar has created all of these characters with extreme reservations.

He lauds the game for its "better-than-most" history, when compared to other video games, including Rockstar’s stupid, offensive earlier games, one of which (GTA IV, as opposed to its expansions) only included two prominent gay characters. One character existed only to be killed; his characterization in the game revolved solely around his homosexuality and the ways that his orientation allowed hero Nico Bellic to kill him. The other, Bernie Cran, spends most of his screen time acting out typical homophobic stereotypically "gay" methods of expression and socialization. He's characterized as weak, effeminate, and useless.

Mastrapa argues that Rockstar is trying to create less offensive, alarming minority caricatures, but he also cannot deny that they still work to keep such undesirables at arms length: "There's no hanky-panky happening, even though every jerk in Liberty City likes to infer as much. Luis is profoundly heterosexual. At first, tales of his prowess come secondhand. Dude has a reputation. But just in case the player (or anybody else in Liberty City) doubts Luis' manhood, we see the man pick up and hook up with a club-goer in Maisonette. Luis makes some Hot Coffee right there in the club; then, fairly suavely, gets back down to the business of security. But you gotta wonder: Is Luis (and, behind the scenes, Rockstar) putting on a show -- maybe overcompensating a little?”

It’s telling that Mastrapa uses the main character’s rejection of the word “nigger” as a derogatory slur as an argument for the game’s good intentions. It might be a sentiment that most people would not disagree with, but that’s why Rockstar can make it: it’s a safe “liberal” and “progressive” thing to say. Even the worst denizens of XBL might (but many don’t) hesitate to use such words in the presence of people who have experienced such racism first-hand.

To say this, is, of course, to ignore Rockstar’s continued, gleefully expressed misogyny and anti-Semitism, to pick the most obvious targets. If Rockstar is to be commended for this game (and forgiven for their previous sins), then the industry as a whole is in terrible shape. How many decades behind the rest of America are video games right now?

ss_preview_21.jpg.jpgSexuality, "Mature" Content, and Actual Maturity

Whenever a game goes against the grain and tries to create characters and situations that aren't horrible and offensive, it's amazing, if it’s done well. It's incredibly unexpected and welcome, even if, when compared to most games, it’s a cold comfort. What happens more often is that marginalized groups are presented at their most clichéd and stereotyped; they are offered up as people the player can laugh at and ridicule freely, knowing that the designers, and the society that the designers and players live in, has their backs.

It's also why it isn't surprising that the Prince and Elika (I'm going to assume that disapproval on her front was a little quieter) are so alarming to people. They represent a kind of sexuality seldom seen in games. That this kind of portrayal is positively quaint when compared to those seen in other medias is telling of video games’ (and video gamers’ and designers’) inability to accept even the tamest of interesting, mature sexual situations. Again, let us not forget that this inability does not extend to "sexy" and "mature" content as can be found in such laudable titles as Warrior Within and The Witcher, games whose "mature" sexual explorations often fell flat on their faces.

There are mistakes in the story and writing that surround the Prince and Elika. There are bits that people miss, and conversations that get played at the wrong time. Yes, their relationship is not as smoothly, palatably designed as some. In fact, when you look at Among Thieves, Nolan North’s other recent voice-acting effort, you see a game that gets away with high levels of sexual innuendo (and worse, genuine emotional connections between less-than-stereotypical adults!). How do they do it?

(This article is a companion to those articles that precede and follow it, but it is also in many ways a primer and an initial discussion of sex and sexualization in games. I would be remiss if I didn't link to every single blog and site that focuses on these issues (in much greater detail). Forgive me, then, as for now I will just link to The Border House, an excellent collective blog and resource for those interested in having more such discussions. If you follow that link, please be polite and courteous.)

* Nier Kotaku article: http://kotaku.com/5360369/niers-hermaphrodite-character
** “The Ballad of Gay Tony: Who is the Man?”: http://www.crispygamer.com/features/2009-11-05/the-ballad-of-gay-tony-who-is-the-man.aspx

[Next week, Tom will turn the same lens on Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and examine that game's successes and failures. Tom Cross writes for Gamers' Temple and Popmatters, is the Associate Editor at Sleeper Hit, and blogs about games at Delayed Responsibility. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

Rockin' Android Reveals PS3 Ports For Doujin Shooter In Podcast

I wasn't aware of this until this week, but Rockin' Android, the curious publisher specializing in localizations for obscure "doujin" shooters from Japan, has started its own podcast and is now in its third episode.

The company's Adam Milecki hosts the audio show and is typically accompanied by some interesting guests -- the second episode brought in Rockin' Android CEO/president/founder Enrique Galvez, while this latest release features Kurt Kalata from the excellent Hardcore Gaming 101 and David Heineman from retro gaming site RacketBoy.

Along with discussions on 3D versus 2D titles, copyright issues with fangames, and iPhone gaming, Episode 3 contains an interesting revelation on Rockin' Android's plans for future console ports of its doujin shooters.

"We just recently completed a contract with Sony," said Milecki. "They are porting a few of our games to the PlayStation 3, and they will be available eventually to download on the PlayStation Network."

He adds, "That’s including Acceleration of Suguri. And I believe Gundemonium is another one. We are very excited about that. That's a big thing for a little new company like us. I believe in the case of Suguri, they're even bumping up the resolution, so it's going to be an HD version, stuff like that."

You can learn more about and watch videos for Gundemonium and Acceleration of Suguri in the post we compiled earlier this year for upcoming Rockin' Android releases.

[Via Hardcore Gaming 101, Siliconera]

15th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition Winners Announced

Organizers for the 15th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp 2009), a contest centered around short text adventures lasting under two hours, recently announced this year's winners: Rover's Day Out, Broken Legs, and Snowquest.

Since it's unlikely that you'll recognize those titles unless you follow the Interactive Fiction community, I gathered blurbs for the top-scoring titles. Note that you can play all 24 of the submitted entries for free, though you'll need an interactive fiction interpreter to run many of them (suggestions included in the link above).

Jack Welch and Ben Collins-Sussman's Rover's Day Out, voted the top game of the bunch, was hailed by The Onion A.V. Club as "an engrossing science-fiction experience to rival the genre’s best short stories". Here's a short description for the title:

"Three hundred years ago, the Brazilian Space Agency discovered a rocky exoplanet only 38 light years from Earth. With a surface temperature of 1200 Celsius and nine times Earth gravity, it's hardly the sort of place you'd take your dog walkies. Most days."

Sarah Morayati's Broken Legs has you following teenage brat who will do anything to get ahead in her audition for Bridger Conservatory:

"You are Lottie Plum: '18' year-old actor, singer, dancer -- in short, a future star! And this is your big break, Lottie Plum -- remember that name -- a callback here at Bridger Conservatory. That's why you're here in the waiting room with the other wannabees who didn't get weeded out during first auditions. You're carrying a resume, a water bottle and your handbag. You're wearing a black camisole, a short skirt and your way-too-old character shoes.

Unfortunately, you've also got a frog in your throat. Aargh! This can't be happening! You need to get this audition at any cost! You'll do anything: bribery, trickery, sabotage! Eliminate your competition, Lottie! Tonight, there's gonna be some broken legs."

Eric Eve's surreal Snowquest, IFComp 2009's third highest scoring game:

"You've been on your quest so long you've almost forgotten what it is all about, but now you are nearing your destination -- if only you can stay alive long enough in this frozen wilderness to reach it."

You can read more about the competition, its rules, and the prizes that the winners received at IFComp 2009's official site.

For Your Little Wander: Shadow of the Colossus Mobile

Back when the Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 mobiles from Etsy seller SaltyandSweet were making the rounds on video game blogs, I admired the industrial designer's craftsmanship but thought to myself, "Why would you want to hang zombies and firearm-toting dudes around your baby? Aren't there laws against that?"

SaltyandSweet introduced two new laser-cut mobiles for the holiday season, and while the BioShock-inspired piece (below) still looks dangerous, what with the Big Daddy's huge drill and the Little Sister's syringe, the Shadow of the Colossus mobile looks like a perfect toy to hang over your infant's crib, implanting dreams of slaying giant colossi into his or her horned head.

Both of the new items are now available to purchase from SaltyandSweet's Etsy shop -- make sure to put in an order before December 16th if you want a mobile in time for the holidays (December 18, with expedited shipping)!

[Via Wonderland]

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 iPhone Games

[Continuing our 2009 retrospectives, sister site FingerGaming's EIC Danny Cowan rounds up the top 5 iPhone games of the year, sifting through the highly competitive market to recognize Rolando, Eliss and more. Previously: Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games.]

Since opening last year, the iTunes App Store -- the mobile storefront for iPhone and iPod Touch games and applications -- has grown exponentially in size. The App Store boasted more than 10,000 available apps at the end of 2008. One year later, as of this writing, that number has risen to more than 112,000.

Developers rushed to the platform after witnessing its potential as a gaming device. Some indies became overnight success stories, generating thousands of dollars in daily revenue. Soon, even big-name industry publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision turned their attention to the platform, eager to capitalize on its growing market.

App Store developers now face tougher competition than ever before. In addition to competing against high-quality offerings from established publishers, many independent developers now wage a race to the bottom among themselves, pricing their offerings at cutthroat rates in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on Apple's daily sales charts.

In this highly competitive market, it takes a truly exceptional game to stand out from the crowd and earn the recognition it deserves. These are the five best titles released for the iPhone and iPod Touch this year:

5. Skee-Ball [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Freeverse)

Throw a wooden ball up a ramp. With skill, you'll land it in one of the cups at the end of the lane, earning points. After throwing nine balls up the ramp, the game ends. Get a high score and you'll earn tickets, which you can redeem for pointless prizes.

So what's the big deal, here? Why was such a simple game charting as one of the App Store's top sellers for months on end? Skee-Ball isn't innovative by any means, but it manages to so effectively translate an arcade mainstay to the iPhone's touch screen that you'll find yourself hopelessly addicted, very quickly.

Everything here is rich with authenticity. The physics are spot-on. The sound effects are unmistakable. The touch-and-drag controls are satisfying, and redeeming tickets to add to your collection of cheesy prizes never gets old, even after months of playtime. You'll boot it up with the intent of only playing a round or two, only to find yourself playing it several minutes later with no intent of stopping -- a hallmark of any great mobile game.

4. Rolando 2: Quest for the Golden Orchid [App Store link, Apptism web link] (ngmoco/Hand Circus)

The original Rolando debuted at the tail end of 2008, introducing iPhone owners to a new take on the puzzle-platforming genre. Rolando 2 improves upon the first game in every way, adding a smooth 3D graphics engine, more levels of play, and several new gameplay mechanics.

Rolando 2 makes heavy use of the iPhone's hardware features for control input, yet it does so in a way that seems neither gimmicky nor half-baked. The little Rolandos roll and slide in precise response to tilting the iPhone, and all touch screen input is simple and satisfying.

Perhaps moreso than any other game on the platform, Rolando 2 aptly demonstrates the iPhone's unique properties as a gaming platform. There's also a great amount of gameplay variety to be found here, so even after the initial novelty wears off, players will want to see the lengthy quest through to the end.

3. Edge [No App Store link, Apptism web link] (Mobigame)

Edge is one of the best games you can buy for the iPhone...if you can find it. A drawn-out legal battle between Edge developer Mobigame and the supposed trademark owner of the word "edge" ensures that Edge's availability in the App Store -- either under its original name or as the recently retitled "Edgy" -- is sporadic at best, thanks to a seemingly unending cycle of complaint, removal, and reapproval. As of this writing, Edge is not available for purchase in the App Store.

Assuming that you are able to grab a copy while it's available, though, you'll find that Edge is an engaging puzzler requiring fast reflexes. Players guide a multicolored cube through a series of isometric environments, flipping it in one of four directions to progress. Obstacles, traps, and shifting environments fill every level, and the more difficult challenges require the player to delicately balance the cube on its edge in order to progress.

For all its critical acclaim, it's a shame that many iPhone owners are unable to experience Edge for themselves, due to its continuing legal troubles. Here's hoping that a solution arrives soon, so that developer Mobigame can get its due, and so that every App Store user can play one of the best iPhone games of 2009.

2. Eliss [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Steph Thirion)

There's nothing else like Eliss on the iPhone, or on any other platform. In Eliss, players must group together circular planets and drag them to safety in a harsh interstellar environment. Dropping one planet on another results in a single bigger orb, while placing two fingers on a large planet and dragging them apart results in two smaller dwarf planets. It's a very tactile experience -- you'll often find yourself placing multiple fingers from both hands on the screen at once.

Eliss was a very challenging game when it launched in the App Store earlier this year. The difficulty level ramped up very quickly, and it proved to be quite a challenge for new players. Since then, however, developer Steph Thirion has studied player feedback and has bridged the challenge gap by adding new levels that range from easy to moderate difficulty, making the experience much more pleasant and better-paced.

This change -- one that turned a game that was merely good into something truly special -- was made possible thanks to the ease in which App Store developers are able to update their applications after release. By listening to feedback and implementing customer suggestions, iPhone developers are free to polish their applications until they shine.

1. Space Invaders Infinity Gene [App Store link, Apptism web link] (Taito)

Space Invaders Infinity Gene takes the basic gameplay of its 1978 arcade progenitor and evolves it rapidly throughout the course of gameplay. Players start out facing a single wave of invaders marching slowly in predetermined paths. Soon, Infinity Gene transforms into an intense vertically scrolling shooter in which every level adds a new set of challenges.

Infinity Gene's biggest success, however, is its control scheme. While many iPhone shooters released this year suffer from awkward virtual d-pads or imprecise tilt-based controls, Infinity Gene takes a different approach. Your ship autofires. You control it by touching any part of the screen and dragging your finger in the direction you want to go. It's simple. It works.

Infinity Gene is both a fantastic retro revival and a exceptional vertical shooter in its own right. This is high praise on any platform, but to achieve such heights on the iPhone is nothing short of remarkable.

Honorable Mentions: Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor (Tiger Style), Soosiz (Touch Foo), Tap Tap Revenge 3 (Tapulous), Zen Bound (Secret Exit), and Metal Gear Solid Touch (Konami).

December 10, 2009

eBoy, Amnesty International Create 'Poverty Is Modern' Poster

As part of its "Poverty Is Modern" campaign, Amnesty International commissioned advertising firm Air and pixelart group eBoy to create a massive but intricate scene featured on the organization's "1 Million Clicks Against Poverty" site.

The artwork seeks to demonstrate that people living in poverty "not only suffer from destitution but they are also trapped, excluded, without any chance of having a word to say and threatened with violence and insecurity."

eBoy is selling a 46.8×33.1 inch poster version of the art for €22 ($32.40), donating €4 ($5.80) from each poster sold to Amnesty International. You can see the full, giant artwork here (NSFW graphic pixel violence and nudity).

[Via Otakumag]

Sega Saturn Game's Insane Special Edition Set Sells For $3,400

Some of the video games special edition bundles we see in the U.S. might seem expensive and odd -- Halo 3's Master Chief helmet and Modern Warfare 2's night-vision goggles for example -- but they're nothing compared to what Kenji Eno and his old company WARP bundled together for Enemy Zero's release on Sega Saturn.

Along with a copy of the 1997 survival-horror game, the package included a branded towel, a full leather outfit worn by one of WARP's "companion girls" at the developer's 1996 Tokyo Game Show booth, a replica of the gun used by the game's star, a mystery Sega Saturn-stamped CD-R, and more (see the full list after the break).

The set was so huge, it came in a crate and was priced at ¥200,000 ($2,264). WARP only produced 20 of the bundles, and Eno personally delivered each one to the buyers on a flatbed truck. They made a pretty big deal for a game that received mostly awful reviews!

According to GameSetWatch contributor Kevin Gifford, one of the 20 creates, #8, appeared on Yahoo! Auctions in Japan recently, eventually selling for ¥300,000 ($3,396). The winner didn't even receive a visit from Eno! You can see the full set below:

Special edition set's contents (as cataloged by Gifford):

  • A copy of the “regular” Enemy Zero special edition
  • A full set (leather outfit w/gloves, hat, tights, EO-logo badge and earrings) of the outfit worn by the companion girls at WARP’s 1996 Tokyo Game Show booth, designed by Yasushi Nirasawa
  • A towel embroidered with the EO logo
  • A model of an “enemy” corpse, complete with bodily liquid
  • A metallic bookmark
  • A flyer and ticket to an Enemy Zero art exhibit held in 1996
  • A set of press releases for Enemy Zero (back when these were faxed around instead of emailed)
  • A VHS video of Enemy Zero music clips
  • A large 3D lenticular sheet
  • A set of stickers
  • An Enemy Zero T-shirt
  • A replica of the gun Laura uses in the game, again designed by Nirasawa
  • Actual design documents used in developing the game
  • Floppy disks, envelopes, and paper bags with the WARP logo
  • A Sega Saturn-stamped CD-R (contents unknown)

GameSetBaiyon: 'An Audience with Hirokazu Hip Tanaka'

[Continuing our series of interviews between Japanese musician and artist Baiyon and other industry notables, as masterminded by GSW writer Jeriaska, he catches up with classic Metroid and Mother musician Hip Tanaka to chat about his history in the game biz and current thoughts on the industry.]

A Kyoto-based graphic artist and DJ, Baiyon has presented on his art and music direction for Q-Games' PixelJunk Eden at various venues around the world. Earlier in 2009 he gave talks at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, the CEDEC Developers Conference in Tokyo, and the Korea Games Conference.

In this interview on the subject of music and gaming, Baiyon sits down with Creatures, Inc. president, Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka. A game composer since the early days of the 8-bit Famicom console, Tanaka has also performed live techno remixes of his music from Dr. Mario at 5pb's EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event in Tokyo.

This discussion, posted in Japanese to GAME Watch, begins by shedding some light on Hip Tanaka's musical influences, from New Wave to reggae. Offering background on the making of such classic Nintendo Famicom scores as Metroid and Mother, the conversation provides a unique look at the state of music in videogames from the perspectives of two innovative audio designers.

Baiyon: Can I start by asking what has appealed to you about performing at the EXTRA Hyper Game Music Event?

Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka: Seeing as I began working in games 29 years ago, back in 1980, an event like this one allows me to catch a glimpse of people who have listened to my music over the years, people of different generations.

When I began in this field, no one talked about "videogame music." There wasn't much conversation between game designers, either. It really took gatherings like this one to allow game creators to get together, have a drink and talk casually about their lives.

Last year when I attended EXTRA, I spoke to a lot of people in my field for the first time. We got to chat about gaming trends and the various disappointments we've encountered over the years. It was eye-opening. While at Nintendo, I needed to be focused only on my own work.

In terms of your live performances and what you do in sound design, what do you find to be the big differences between the two?

Nothing beats hearing your music in a live performance at full blast. Whether it’s videogame music or any other type of music, there's something about the joy of witnessing a crowd getting enjoyment out of it. Working in the studio by contrast is serious work, but there are these almost transcendent moments. What I mean is that there are times when something you never expected would come from you emerges in your creative process. When you get your groove on and you have a spontaneous breakthrough, it can be a real joy.

Do you rehearse extensively before live performances?

No, not at all. In terms of my own experience performing music from my laptop, I find it's best to leave room to ad-lib. What I prepare for in advance is the order of the set list and the general duration of each track, but that's the extent of it. I find the success of the performance itself often depends on how much you're physically involved in the experience.

Some say you need a live instrument to perform on stage, but I have a different view. I was watching a show back in the '80s and there was this keyboard player who put his hands up in the air in the middle of a song, but the sound of his instrument kept going. Instead of thinking, “Hey, I've been cheated,” my feeling was that I ought to rethink the meaning of live music.

Is this opinion in contrast to mainstream assumptions about what makes rock rock?

It just means there isn't the need to think up these divisions between live instruments and electronic music.

I've read that you like New Wave and club music. What categories of music do you enjoy most?

There are so many. Maybe too many to mention here. (laughs)

For instance, what led to your appreciation of reggae?

I think I was 18 or 19 when I was first exposed to it. I remember hearing dub reggae for the first time while having pasta at a restaurant. I was eating, and I remember there was this deep reverberation at one point in the song. The echo was sounding and my body was instinctively following the rhythm while I held the bowl in my hand. I turned to the waiter and said, "What is this?" He said, "It's Jamaican music."

There was a bass player named Jah Wobble in the group Public Image Ltd. that I liked at that time. His performance style was influenced by reggae music. First I began listening to British reggae and eventually moved on to Jamaican reggae, listening to a lot of it in my '30s.

Incidentally, what do you think of On-U Sound Records?

I've listened to it, of course. However, once you've paid close attention to Jamaican music, On-U is On-U.

Have you ever been to Jamaica?

Not yet, but I've gotten to play with Sly and Robbie twice, and it was incredible.

I've heard you used to be deeply into the club scene. Where would you go?

As you can imagine I used to go to a lot of reggae clubs, rare groove and acid jazz clubs, occasionally hip-hop as well. What I like about hip-hop is the use of rhythm. The same is true to some extent with reggae, but the flexibility of hip-hop allows it to be generated quickly. In the studio it feels like all it takes is a few minutes spent on the kick drum, then polishing off the vocals. Whenever I listen to hip-hop music, I'm amazed by the improvisatory quality and how quickly the various elements are tied together.

Have you applied these experiences to your videogame music?

That was only natural. The use of rhythm in Balloon Fight and Wrecking Crew was an homage to Sly and Robbie.

To be honest with you back then I had a lot of reservations about the use of music in games. I was sort of embarrassed by it. The background music would just keep on playing over and over. I thought it was annoying. My feeling was that the audio should be more in line with the sound effects that you had control over as the player, so that there was a more unified sound to the game. I was kind of in love with the idea of a game whose audio was totally composed of sound effects.

This concept was on my mind while making Metroid. The idea was for there not to be a strong melody line until the game was completed, and that gave you as the player a sense of accomplishment. You were playing this game with its dark-sounding music, battling for weeks on end. Hearing this melody at the end of the game would then feel so rewarding.

That's the kind of thing I wanted people to experience. Others were telling me it needed to sound upbeat, that playing games was meant to be entertaining. After Dragon Quest, people expected to hear beautiful melodies in games, so it was difficult for them to appreciate my perspective. These days there seems to be a general understanding that the audio design wasn't just about "game music," but creating an environment for the game through the use of sound, though it took twenty years for people to be brought around to my side of the argument.

Your audio for Mother often sounds like experimental or electroacoustic "musique concrète." Even the effect for the telephone is distorted, as if the sound were melting. It offers a different kind of experience from what you find in other games from around that time.

It was never a matter of approaching the task on the basis of "this is game music." The first step was to establish the rules that governed the audio for this world. There were considerations in terms of how time and space were related, how characters were associated with one another, and how the concepts of good and evil were represented.

In Earthbound, Giygas is presented as the embodiment of evil. As a consequence, your proximity to his influence, for instance when you are face-to-face with enemies, is reflected in the sound effects and music. By contrast, I wanted there to be a kind of spiritual nuance to the "Your Sanctuary" locations.

It's almost like foreshadowing the story through the use of sound?

That's right. You can't expect the text to completely explain everything.

Do you consider all audio elements together, including the sound effects?

I’m always conscious of the interaction between the melody and sound effects. No matter how faint it might be, every sound has a certain pitch. The effects might be clashing with each other, but it's up to you to find the most pleasing combination.

Because the NES had limitations to its memory capacity, sometimes an audio channel would fall out every time a certain effect sounded, for instance in shooting games. As a result I often left a short pause before the note to emphasize this effect. I both designed the sound and input the data myself, which was an unusual way of doing things. Most companies had an audio team and programmers handling separate tasks.

It was surprising to me to hear that you were both writing music and managing the sound data.

I did everything, from sound to programming. When Nintendo was in its early phase there were musicians doing both.

Are there different requirements for an RPG game, where characters are expressing their emotions, when compared to a more straightforward puzzle game?

They're very different. RPGs are dramatic, requiring you to create music that corresponds with the characters’ emotions. The music for an RPG can help make subtle emotions more pronounced. Puzzle games, while not so emotional, still need to provide a sense of excitement. It's comparable to riding a roller coaster, where one minute there's a feeling of danger and then you're at ease. An RPG might involve a kind of sound that complements complicated emotions that can't be expressed directly in words.

Which do you find more fun?

They're both a lot of fun. But making a career of writing game music, it's good to have a stab at games in that genre of RPGs. In fact, I wouldn't mind having another chance at it. While certain circumstances make it difficult, I've always loved creating this kind of game and I think it would be a lot of fun.

In my own case, I often start off with the intention of expressing certain emotions. But making music for a puzzle game, I'm left wondering what to do. It feels weird imbuing the gameplay with emotions that are foreign to the game itself. I would like to try my hand at both kinds of games.

I've only seen what you've done with PixelJunk Eden, so I think it would be interesting to hear your approach to a different style of game soundtrack.

I'm feeling that it might be time for me to create music that goes beyond capturing an atmosphere, but also suits a dramatic context.

It would be particularly fun to make sound effects for a game like that because it adds to the storyline.

You feel sound effects have a direct influence on the gameplay as well?

Yes, especially if the game director is involved in planning synchronicity between these components.

I should mention that on PixelJunk Eden I collaborated with Q-Games president Dylan Cuthbert. For years he was at Nintendo, of course.

I met Dylan just after he arrived in Japan, having developed 3D games in England. He had an immense interest in music. Even now as the president of a company he's still able to relate to everyone around him in a casual way.

Let's say you were asked to create some form of music for your next project that nobody had ever heard of... what would you do then?

A song that's completely unlike anything else? I think it's enough to make sounds that are fresh, that make your body move. Any sound that undergoes development from beginning to end is music as far as I'm concerned. If it's not clear that there's any beginning or end to it, then maybe it's better just to call it noise.

Music is mysterious, and a simple rhythm can call back old memories, while the same song feels completely different depending on your situation. The possibilities are endless.

[This article is available in Japanese on GAME Watch. Image courtesy of Baiyon.com. Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Photos by Jeriaska.]

GDC 2010 Announces Major Social & Online Games Summit Line-Up

[As we start to wend out way towards GDC 2010, you'll start to see quite a few announcements from my colleagues on the Summits and Tracks line-up, many of them quite neat, we hope. Here's the first, on the Social Games Summit...]

The new Social & Online Games Summit at GDC 2010 has revealed initial speakers for the March 9th-10th event, including Zynga, Playfish and IMVU execs talking Farmville, Spore Worlds and more.

The major new three-track Summit, taking place on the first two days of Game Developers Conference 2010 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco next March, has been designed to educate and inspire on the rise of socially connected gaming.

As the Summit advisors, which include notables like Metaplace's Raph Koster, Habbo's Sulka Haro, Playdom's Steve Meretzky, and Playfish's Sebastien de Halleux, explain: "Today we see that many of the most popular games in the world are played on social networking services such as Facebook, MySpace, and hi5. These games are capturing tens of millions of mainstream users, people who do not consider themselves gamers."

GDC 2010's Social and Online Games Summit has been engineered to sit at the intersection of multiple converging trends, "bringing together leading thinkers and businesspeople to provide the attendee a snapshot of the industry and where it is going."

With other major lectures and keynotes to be announced soon, a number of significant talks have been revealed on the Summit homepage. These include:

- Rapidly Developing Farmville: How We Created and Scaled a #1 Facebook Game in 5 Weeks
In this lecture, Zynga's Amitt Mahajan will discuss "lessons learned and techniques used developing Farmville, a Flash game that was developed in just over a month, and then went on to become the #1 application on Facebook." Both fast iteration and back-end technical issues will be discussed in-depth.

- Why Are Gaming Veterans Flocking to Social Gaming?
A panel of core and casual gaming heavyweights, including Zynga's Brian Reynolds, Playdom's Meretzky, and veteran creators Noah Falstein and Brenda Brathwaite "will discuss what prompted them to join the social gaming revolution, what's unique about the industry, and how the 'old rules' do and don't apply." Never shy about going out on a limb, they'll also share their predictions about social gaming's future and what it means for the broader gaming industry.

- From Casual to Social Design: What to Pack
Playfish's Jeferson Valardes, a studio director for the London studio of the Pet Society creator, is using this design-centric lecture to discuss how "many assumptions have to be challenged" for social games, but "some of the core and casual mantras can be applied." As he explains: "This presentation is intended as a rough guide on what to pack from your past experience when moving to this fresh new frontier, and is based on personal experience."

- From the Box to the 'Book: Bringing a Retail Franchise into the Social Gaming World
In this talk, Maxis' Caryl Shaw and Area/Code's Demetri Detsaridis will discuss the process of taking a AAA brand, conceived of and optimized for the traditional retail environment, and extending it into the world of social gaming, with particular reference to creating Spore Islands for Facebook: "the first social game based on familiar game-industry IP that's not just an advertisement, or a brand-awareness campaign, but a legitimate platform extension."

- Lessons from the Inside: Building and Optimizing a Virtual Goods Business
IMVU vice president Lee Clancy's company has been working with virtual goods for some time, as IMVU's 40 million registered users purchase a wide range of user-generated items, from clothing for their avatars to furniture for their virtual rooms. These items drive 85% of IMVU's revenue, and he'll discuss, via "real-world examples and data-driven learnings", practical insights into the virtual goods market.

Other topics covered the Social & Online Games Summit, which can be attended via All-Access or Summit-specific GDC 2010 passes, will include the secrets of virality, the next generation of mass market multiplayer, and the ways in which virtual worlds are changing to meet the demands of an ever-growing audience -- plus opportunities for new players in both mature and emerging markets.

Arkedo, Pastagames Premiere 03 Pixel! Screens

Arkedo Studios treated us to an early look at 03 Pixel!, the latest project from its line of experimental Arkedo Series titles (02 Swap! and 01 Jump!) for Xbox Live Indie Games. The Big Bang Mini developer plans to spend a couple weeks to polish this game, but I imagine its release won't be too far off.

Like 01 Jump!, 03 Pixel! is a 2D platformer with blocky graphics, though its glowing blue pixel environments/sprites presents a very different aesthetic. Arkedo says the game includes a feature enabling you to "zoom in pixels to find the way out", which I don't quite understand but sounds intriguing nonetheless.

How is it that a studio with only five guys developed three distinct games in such a short time span (01 Jump! released in early October)? Well, Arkedo tells us that this latest project is actually a co-production with Pastagames, a studio it shares offices with. Pastagames's Hervé Barbaresi actually came up with the concept for 03 Pixel!, a revelation that blew my mind.

Pastagames is the same French developer that just put out Maestro: Jump In Music in Europe (no U.S. publisher announced yet, unfortunately), which I recently described as "the most interesting Nintendo DS import this year." Definitely look into it if you're a fan of rhythm games.

You can see screenshots from Arkedo Series 03 Pixel! game below (click for larger versions):

[Thanks, Mister Raroo!]

Boulder Bash: Pixeljam's Mountain Maniac

Pixeljam, the wonderful indie studio that brought you rad "neo retro video games" like Dino Run and Pizza City, have released another new title with Adult Swim Games, Mountain Maniac, which you can play for free online right now.

It plays a lot like pachinko (or The Price Is Right's Plinko game) but instead of dropping balls into a loud machine with bright flashing lights, you're terrorizing a small town at the foot of a mountain by knocking down a boulder, directing the giant rock into smashing cars, trees, animals, and even small aircraft along the way.

Mountain Maniac also has your crazed character battling sherrifs, SWAT teams, and bomb-dropping planes in between stages. And if you're not careful and accidentally hit Bigfoot with the boulder, he'll come up the mountain to teach you what for, meting out his own form of mountain justice.

[Via Digital Tools]

Cave Story Creator Releases Akantares

Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya, the Japanese game developer who single-handedly designed, programmed, and composed Cave Story, put out a new game called Akantares. It has a simple premise -- shoot your computer-controlled opponent five times, using the gravity of surrounding orbs to guide your shots across the field.

While it's not a big adventure like Cave Story, nor does it have the celebrated indie game's charming characters and story, Akantares serves as a nice distraction while we wait for Nicalis to finally release its Cave Story WiiWare remake (wasn't this initially announced for late last year?).

If you download Akantares, be prepared to deal with a couple Japanese prompts asking you to type in your profile name and then select your profile. You can grab the PC game from Pixel's site.

[Via TIGSource]

This Week In Video Game Criticism: The Uncharted Comedy

[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 comedy, Uncharted 2, and a re-evaluation of game genres.]

Onwards, to this week’s articles worth reading. David Wildgoose of Kotaku Australia uses a Gamasutra interview with a trio of the games industry’s leading comedy writers to spin off into a discussion of how and why some games manage to pull off humor, while so many others fail.

From Critical Distance editor David Carlton comes this winning trifecta of recommendations: The first, of a vintage slightly older than this week, is by Terri of Geek Feminism -- who discusses the always interesting issue of ‘casual versus hardcore’. The second, by Danc of Lost Garden, concerns ‘three false constraints’ that bound the current discussion of the future direction of video games. He notes that ”…single player game mechanics may never become a populist technique for saying meaningful things about the human condition.”

Third and finally, Carlton recommended this strange video game oddity. Someone has written the equivalent of a small novel about their time spent playing Far Cry 2 in an ‘ironmode’ style. Why would anyone ever do such a thing?

Elsewhere in video game blogs, Dan Bruno this week has an alternative take on genre, positing that “a video game genre elucidates how and where a gamer’s skills will transfer between similar titles.” An interesting way of looking at it.

Let’s get a pool going – when will the next TWIVGB without a post about Dragon Age: Origins be? Not this week, as Denis Farr in his GayGamer column writes about “Romancing Zevran” in a discussion of the romantic options for gay male characters in Dragon Age: Origins.

Jim Rossignol pointed out this week that zombies are getting a bit passé as generic ‘guilt free’ videogame enemies. His half-serious suggestion is that giant robots could be the next big thing, but my money is on aliens coming back into fashion. Maybe we could get a second pool going?

If you’ll recall, last week I mentioned that the new blog Borderhouse was one to watch. For those of us watching they certainly haven’t disappointed, coming up with a plethora of interesting things to read this week. Here’s one, taking a look at the phenomena of the platemail bikini, but there’s a bunch more also worth taking a look at.

Cary at the 'Play Like A Girl' blog saw an allegedly questionable advertisement by Sony for Uncharted 2, and was quite annoyed with it. She says: “…No, this is not the most horrible commercial in the world but it is an enforcement of some very strong and very persistent stereotypes. All I'm saying is, life's good outside of the mold.”

Dan Kline writes about replayability, and how most definitions of ‘game’ don’t come close to mentioning that a game must be “replayable” -- and yet he rightly notes that many people consider it an important part of what makes a good game. A lot of food for thought in here.

In Andrew Vanden Bossche’s latest Game Set Watch column, he writes about what makes Faith from Mirror's Edge a memorable character.

Have a look at this; Trent Polack has transcribed a conversation from the early days of film. It’s well served by its brevity, and I initially thought it was some sort of parody. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott has been playing Assassin’s Creed II this week and he wonders about dialect and language, specifically: “When Shakespeare says we're in Milan, what does that mean? Are we all, audience included, now Milanese too?” I have no problem with reading subtitles and foreign language films, in fact often preferring them, and I’ll take authentic performances over dubbing any day.

Lastly, lots of people and outlets are doing or have end-of-decade lists, and Mitch Krpata is no exception, with a list over on Insult Swordfighting that's worth perusing.

December 9, 2009

Microsoft's Surface Team Follows Up With Tabletop Gaming Project

For those of you who missed the compelling idea when it was first featured here last October, SurfaceScapes is a virtual tabletop gaming application that uses the Microsoft Surface's multi-touch screen to help immerse players and handle various aspects of tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Seeing the buzz behind SurfaceScapes, which was created by several Carnegie Mellon University students enrolled in the college's Entertainment Technology Center program, the Microsoft Surface team followed up with one of the application's developers, Michael Lewis, to learn more about the project.

Along with talking about how the idea originated from a conversation with Penny Arcade's Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik, Lewis describes the team's goal for SurfaceScapes:

"The goal was really to explore how to enhance table top role playing games. Role playing has been brought to computing in the past, but Surface offers a unique opportunity for maintaining a lot of the traditional roles and expectations of table top gaming, while still enhancing it in significant ways.

That said, Surface allowed us to really explore the possibilities of merging physical objects with virtual interfaces and we've spent a lot of time learning how to best utilize that, and working out some of the problems that arise when creating new interfaces for a traditional table top game."

You can read the first half of the interview on the Microsoft Surface blog. The second half, which looks at the project's design experience and progress, will be available in the near future.

Hip Tanaka(s) Releases New Single About Being Hip Tanaka

Creatures Inc. president and legendary video game composer Hirokazu "Hip" Tanaka -- whose 8-bit resume includes titles like Metroid, Kid Icarus, Tetris, and Mother/Earthbound -- has debuted a new music single that has nothing to do with games but is bizarre enough to warrant your attention.

Titled "Tanaka Hirokazu no Uta", or "The Hirokazu Tanaka Song", the song has Hip Tanaka leading a chorus of ten other guys named Hirokazu Tanaka, all of them singing about being named Hirokazu Tanaka, specifically about "how the name was picked for them and that they didn't pick the name themselves."

The Tanakas partnered with online import music store HearJapan to release the single (along with karaoke and a cappella versions) exclusively through the shop a week before it appears elsewhere. HearJapan points out that the music's upbeat chiptune backdrop is reminiscent of Hirokazu’s work on the Mother series, a comparison that seems spot on!

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Controversies

[Already racking up the comments over on Gamasutra, Leigh Alexander looks back on the year's biggest controversies, rounding up the news stories and scandals that generated the most buzz. Previously: Top 5 PC Games.]

Generally, video games are fun, touching or sad; the video games business is just business. But there are always more complex news stories that surface from among the daily reports of publisher revenues and franchise sequels -- with such a passionate community of players and creators in the industry, controversies always get a major share of buzz.

Now, let's look back on 2009 to reflect on some of biggest controversies; here are the news stories and sagas that got us really talking and thinking this year.

5. Brutal Legend's Love Triangle

Gamers were saddened when Brutal Legend, the joyous heavy metal opus from fan-favorite designer Tim Schafer, was unceremoniously dropped from Vivendi's publishing slate in its merger with Activision -- it was a creative risk that lacked franchise potential, according to the company.

So when the game found a new publisher in Electronic Arts, everyone cheered it as the de facto avatar of the creative and quirky, creating a narrative that pitted Brutal Legend against the ills of big corporate. And that plot only thickened when Activision sued, ostensibly to hamper the game's release by claiming it still had the rights.

Ultimately, of course, after a countersuit by Schafer's Double Fine and a settlement in court, EA launched the title.

But almost as fun as the success story was the visible show of ill will, albeit good-humored, between the rivals -- EA's comment that Activision was behaving "like a husband abandoning his family and then suing after his wife meets a better looking guy" was nearly as delightful as Schafer's own timely reference to pop star Beyonce's homage to single women: "Hey, if Activision liked it, then they should have put a ring on it."

4. Richard Garriott, Fraud Victim?

Famed Ultima Online forbear Richard Garriott returned from his much-publicized trip to space to find his latest project, NCsoft's Tabula Rasa, had become little more than a heavy drag on the publisher's finances, and declared he would leave NCsoft to pursue other interests inspired by his stint as an astronaut. That was last year.

Early in 2009, Tabula Rasa shut its doors with a bang, and that's when the surprise came: Garriott's claim that his was no peaceful resignation, but a force-out grossly misrepresented by NCsoft. Garriott now claims he'd objected to his dismissal but was forced to leave -- and that the company re-categorized his termination as "voluntary" so as to impact his stock options.

He claims he was forced to choose between exercising his options in "one of the worst equity markets in modern history," or take the risk that the company would refuse to honor them later. Garriott now claims he's lost "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in costs and taxes, and has sacrificed "millions of dollars in value" having lost two-and-a-half years of his options period.

3. The Complex Orson Scott Card Issue

Swaths of gamers couldn't wait for Epic and Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex, a refreshing return to the exploration-driven "Metroidvania" style of gameplay many remembered fondly from a simpler time. That was until some began to take a closer look at the personal philosophies of author Orson Scott Card, friend to Chair lead Donald Mustard and writer of the fiction from which Shadow Complex was derived.

The problem? Card is vocally against gay marriage, and is in fact an active political opponent to it as founder of the National Organization for Marriage, a group formed to address "the growing need for an organized opposition to same-sex marriage in state legislatures."

Those who believe that same-sex couples should have an equal entitlement to marry as heterosexual couples balked at the idea of allowing such an active opponent to profit even in small share from their purchase of Shadow Complex; game fans on the popular NeoGAF forum discussed and debated the issue, and Gamasutra's own Christian Nutt took a close look at the proposed boycotts.

Political beliefs and causes are highly personal. But as state governments across America begin to consider the issue, passions and polarities are increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and news. More importantly than arriving at a "right-or-wrong" answer for Shadow Complex was the fact that a wider world issue had reached gamers, generally more likely to get up in arms about far more insular issues.

It may or may not be appropriate to politicize video games, but the Shadow Complex controversy got everyone thinking about the places where our entertainment medium of choice and issues of wider relevance can overlap.

2. Who's The Ultimate DJ Hero?

Developer 7 Studios started out with the kind of story that makes small developers everywhere take heart: A rep for publisher Genius Products visited the cash-strapped studio -- still reeling from the Brash Entertainment collapse -- and stumbled upon "a labor of love" tucked away in "this audio engineer's closet of an office," and was swept away.

That little one-man experiment, or so the story goes, was a turntable controller, and from that discovery was birthed the project that would become Scratch: The Ultimate DJ, an inventive concept that sought to leverage the tide of the music game boom in the direction of DJ music with the help of legendary musician-producer Quincy Jones.

No sooner had the team announced their project, however, than things got ugly very quickly. Activision, monarch of the music genre with Guitar Hero, wanted to put out a turntable-equipped video game too. Claiming it was helping out a cash-strapped studio -- and indeed, Activision had given 7 Studios staff contract work in the past to help them stay afloat -- the publisher purchased the developer.

Genius Products and partner Numark didn't quite buy the charity act and found the timing a little too coincidental, and it wasn't long before the pair slapped Activision -- along with its former collaborators 7 Studios -- with a lawsuit, alleging conspiracy and claiming 7 Studios was making it hard for Genius to get its assets back. According to Genius, there was a plot afoot to keep Scratch from launching before Activision's own DJ Hero.

There was a restraining order, and a countersuit from 7 Studios claiming it was Genius' "unsavory business practices" that caused Scratch's delay, and the costs kept ramping up: Activision reportedly shelled out at least $350,000 in legal fees, while Genius and Numark had to put up a $2 million bond to have Scratch's source code returned.

Genius and Numark say they still haven't gotten back everything that's theirs, but plan to finish the game anyway with a new developer, Commotion Interactive, for release in the year to come. Just before the release of DJ Hero, Activision gave some 30 developers at 7 Studios their walking papers, saying it wanted to focus the studio more on music games. Unfortunately for all involved, most analysts think the music game heyday has passed; although DJ Hero generally received a strong critical reception, its sales were only modest.

1. Modern Warfare 2

Where popularity goes, scrutiny follows, so perhaps it's to be expected that the biggest game of 2009 was also the most controversial -- not just one, but three of 2009's scandals emerged from this title alone, and that's excluding the silly back-and-forth over whether to put the "Call of Duty" branding on it or not. First, there was the revelation that PC gamers would have no dedicated servers for the game's multiplayer -- and PC gamers can always be relied upon to sound their displeasure the loudest when they end up with the short end of the stick. Just one of several online petitions received 234,351 signatures.

Infinity Ward revealed details of IWnet, the matchmaking service unveiled in place of dedicated servers, but they still weren't enough to please vocal PC fans, many of whom permanently soured on the game. Then, fresh on the heels of the dedicated-server debacle came F.A.G.S, an unbelievably ill-conceived marketing video designed as a fake PSA warning against grenade spam -- but offending many for its frathouse-homophobia brand of humor.

And if that weren't enough, there was, of course, "No Russian," the game's much-buzzed sequence wherein the player must accompany his enemy in an airport terrorist attack on civilians. Certainly the implications were offensive to Russians, but the critical consensus, encapsulated here by Rock Paper Shotgun's Kieron Gillen, was that the scene -- heavy-handed and inappropriately following an adrenaline-fueled snowmobile chase -- missed the mark so badly that it was offensive to gamers.

Of course, none of it seemed to hurt the game's record-breaking, 4.7 million-unit day one launch; probably, the most likely damage was done to the blood pressure of Infinity Ward community manager Robert "FourZeroTwo" Bowling, the one who had to field all the drama (and who incidentally appeared among 2008's top controversies, too).

Other controversies this year: Gamers decry EA DICE's Battlefield Heroes price restructure, possibly indicative of just how EA plans to shift to a primarily-digital revenue model; Tim Langdell angers the development community with his vigilant ownership of the word 'Edge' in game-related trademark form; WoW goes dark in China as it battles government regulators; Steam rivals call Steamworks a 'Trojan Horse'; 3D Realms and Take-Two brawl over Duke Nukem.

Best of FingerGaming: From Song Summoner to Mirror's Edge

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

This week, FingerGaming reviews Tecmo's retro roguelike The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures and interviews Edge developer David Papazian, as well as checking out the top free and paid iPhone games of the week.

The site also looks at FTC recommendations on mobile game ratings, and highlights recent releases like Song Summoner and Hills and Rivers Remain..

Here are the top stories from the last seven days:

- Top-Grossing Game Apps: Monopoly Takes On Call of Duty
"Boosted by Black Friday discounts, EA's Monopoly and Tetris move up past Bejeweled 2 to take second and third place in today's top-grossing app charts. Call of Duty: World at War Zombies finishes at first place for the second week in a row."

- Interview: David Papazian and Mobigame Post-Edge
"Papazian discussed with FingerGaming, among other things, the new talent they've brought on board, the interesting stopgap that is Cross Fingers, and the space within the App Store for true independents moving forward."

- Song Summoner: A Music-Based Strategy RPG from Square Enix
"Song Summoner's gameplay is heavily influenced by the player's music library. Players can use songs stored on their iPhone or iPod Touch to build an army of creatures to battle the game's hordes of mechanical beasts."

- FTC Targets Mobile Games Industry in Report on Violent Media Marketing
"In a report to the U.S. Congress regarding the entertainment industry's marketing of violent material to children, the Federal Trade Commission noted concerns with the widespread availability of age-inappropriate content in Apple's App Store and other mobile storefronts."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"iFarm sees a drop in popularity after last week's chart-topping debut, falling to fourth place in today's rankings. A demo version of PressOK's physics puzzler Finger Physics rises up to take its place at the top."

- Review: The Isle of 8-Bit Treasures
"While the game is by no means as big or as deep as Nethack or Rogue, it's a fantastic example that proves that roguelikes are possible on the iPhone. Thanks to the 3 classes, I can see many hours spent hack-'n-slashing away in 8-bit dungeons."

- Paper Toss Developer Earns $125,000 in Monthly Ad Revenue
"The six-member team at Backflip Games has earned more than $1.75 million from its iPhone apps in the company's first seven months of business. The team attributes its success to effective use of in-game advertising and cross-promotion."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"Last week's top title JellyCar 2 drops to tenth place in today's rankings, as Black Friday sales boost a number of other titles up the chart. EA's classic version of Monopoly takes first place this week, with Tetris trailing close behind."

- Square Enix Releases iPhone Strategy RPG Hills and Rivers Remain
"Hills and Rivers Remain offers real-time strategy action with a JRPG coat of paint. Early impressions have likened the experience to Galcon, with an added dose of drama via between-level cutscenes."

- Mirror's Edge Coming Soon to App Store
"While the 2008 console version of Mirror's Edge was distinctive for its first-person platforming, the iPhone edition adopts a side-scrolling viewpoint. Mirror's Edge will include 14 levels when it launches in the App Store next year."

Video Game Zine exp. Back on Sale

I meant to write about exp., the new zine from Canadian video game journalist and oft GSW/Gamasutra contributor Mathew Kumar, when its first issue debuted last month, but the magazine was a quick seller and every copy was accounted for by the time I thought to commit a post to it.

After a second print run, the 32-page zine is on sale again, featuring experimental articles all penned by Kumar, including "Punch Out!! (A failed poem)", "Metal Gear Ac!d (An absurdly complex DIY boardgame for one)", "Red Faction Guerrilla (A dream of a spaceship)", and more.

He says the pieces are less reviews and critical essays, and instead are intended to "reflect the thoughts had while playing." You can purchase the first issue for $5 (before shipping) through the exp. shop. Kumar adds that these issues will never appear online, so grab a copy before it sells out again!

Weapon Of Choice Dev Reveals Shoot 1UP

We've seen a lot of inventive takes on the decades-old shoot'em up genre lately -- Broken Garden's Bible-inspired ships, Lose/Lose's "feature" that deletes your files, Boss Rush's premise allowing you play as an end-stage boss, Retro/Grade's reverse rhythm-based levels, Zeit²'s time-traveling mechanics, etc.

Nathan Fouts of Mommy's Best Games, the developer behind Weapon of Choice and the upcoming Grapple Buggy, added a new titles to that list, Shoot 1UP, a shmup that treats 1UPs as power-ups, immediately giving you an extra ship to control, Galaga-style, whenever you grab an extra life.

As you earn more and more 1UPs and expand your fleet, your weapons will upgrade, too. You can also pick up other kinds of power-ups, like "Ghost", which temporarily doubles your on-screen fighters. If that's still not enough ships for you, Shoot1UP also feature a two-player cooperative mode that allows you and a friend to command up to 60 crafts at a time.

Mommy's Best Games expects to release Shoot 1UP to Xbox Live Indie Games in January 2010. You can watch a trailer for the title after the break:

[Via GamerBytes]

IGF Mobile Announces Record Entries For 2010 Competition

[We're announcing entrants for IGF Mobile today, and not only are there a record amount, there's a bunch of really interesting titles for iPhone and other handhelds in there - go check them out.]

IGF Mobile organizers have revealed record entries for the third annual handheld indie game contest, with 172 games entered in total, a 65% increase on last year's competition.

This follows a similarly all-time high number of submissions for IGF's Main and Student competitions, and means over 650 entries in total for the leading independent game competition.

This year's competition -- the sister event to the main Independent Games Festival -- is showcasing independently-developed handheld games for all mobile devices including Apple's iPhone, other cellphone and smartphone OSes, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and other handheld devices.

The full list of 172 entries for 2010's IGF Mobile, including a number of interesting and previously unannounced titles, is now available to view on the competition's official website.

Previous successes for IGF games include Apple's App Store creating a special Store section just to highlight the IGF-nominated iPhone games from 2009's IGF Mobile competition, which included acclaimed titles such as Fieldrunners, Real Racing, Zen Bound and Galcon. In addition, last year's IGF Mobile 'Next Great Mobile Game' winner Reflection has been signed by Konami for Nintendo DSi.

IGF Mobile finalists will be announced on January 22nd, 2010, and will each receive one All-Access pass to attend the 2010 Game Developers Conference. Finalists will compete for $5,000 in prizes, including notable awards for design, art, and technology innovation in mobile game development.

This year, winners in each category (with the exception of 'Best Game') will be announced before the show, on February 8th, 2010. Each category winner will receive $500 in spending money to come to the 2010 Game Developers Conference in March 2010 and showcase their mobile game, alongside their GDC pass.

The five category winners will exhibit their games in a special area of the main IGF Pavilion, the winners will then compete for the coveted IGF Mobile Best Game award, worth $2,500. The prize is presented on stage during the main Independent Games Festival Awards, preceding the Game Developers Choice Awards ceremony on March 11th, 2010.

For a complete list of IGF Mobile 2010 specifics and to check out this year's entrants, please visit IGFMobile.com.

Timetrap Sends Out A Gust Of Emberwind

Emberwind, the 2D platformer starring a diminutive gnome that likes to ride owls in shoot'em up stages during his spare time, is now available for PCs and Macs. Swedish indie developer Timetrap self-released the game yesterday for $12 (with a $4.99 eSellerate fee).

In Emberwind, you defend the city of Grendale from armies of gremlins and their leader CandleFinger (one of the more useful villains to have around during a blackout). Along with firing cannons and beating people with your cane, you can take to the skies on an ancient snow owl to blast away at, um, clouds.

You can purchase and learn more about Emberwind from its official site. Timetrap has also made available a demo with unlimited play time.

GameSetContest: Raroo Fun System Challenge - The Results!

GameSetContest Results Logo[Last month we held Mr. Raroo's first GSW contest, in which we asked readers to pitch a Raroo Fun System game in hopes of winning a free download of Arkedo's JUMP! or SWAP! In typical Mister Raroo style, the contest winners are announced in an atypical manner. Don't worry. The rest of us at GameSetWatch are as befuddled as you are!]

The latest issue of Japanese gaming magazine OK! Game! Score! lifted the lid on six new Raroo Fun System games that are currently in development and expected to release sometime in 2010. Intriguingly, the issue also provided a rare glimpse at three titles that have been cancelled. Preorders for the upcoming games began this morning, and as expected lengthy lines of fans gathered outside Awesome Onion game store locations.

We sent GameSetWatch’s Japanese correspondent, Shiichi Okuma, to provide coverage on what has turned into one of the largest gaming-related events of the year. Okuma interviewed many of the individuals standing in line to hear their opinions and expectations of the upcoming Raroo Fun System game barrage. Spirits were high amongst the preorder lines, and a handful of fanatics even came dressed in Police Chicken, Roger, and Mister Raroo costumes.

Angry Walter

Angry WalterIt’s uncommon for Raroo Games to let a second party developer handle one of its top franchises, but that appears to be the case with Angry Walter, the direct sequel to this past year’s smash hit Hungry Walter. Unknown developer Midodok is credited with production, though at this point nobody seems to know anything of the company beyond their name. OK! Game! Score! describes Angry Walter as follows:

Yes, the Walter of Hungry Walter fame is back--and he's ANGRY! The premise of this game is simple: make...Walter...ANGRY!

Some possible mini stages:

1. Move Walter's burger.
2. Poke Walter in the belly.
3. Kiss Walter's girlfriend.

Kazushige Sasaki, better known as “RFS_Maniac” on popular gaming message board GEONEF, says Angry Walter is his most anticipated game of the coming year. “I was a little worried because Raroo Games isn’t directly handling the development, but since they are still publishing the game, I have high hopes. I’m glad Midodok appears to be doing something beyond a rehash of the first game.”

Lalia Leapwell and the Lecherous Lemurs!

Lalia Leapwell and the Lecherous Lemurs!P.F. Studio’s latest title is certainly going to help fill a noticeable void of traditional platformers on the Raroo Fun System. Though introducing a new intellectual property can be risky in the current economic climate, OK! Game! Score! had a hands-on session with the game and complimented its creative level design and gameplay mechanics. The magazine’s description:

Laila's husband-to-be, Lucky, lands lad-napped by a gang of lecherous pirate-lemurs, leave it to Laila to save the day!

While Laila can't use force (She's a firm believer in peaceful resolutions; also, Lemurs are endangered -- and cute!) it's lucky for lithe Laila that's she's a world renowned gymnast, acrobat and athlete!

Pole-vault over pirate traps, backflip your way around guards, and do sweet tricks on Uneven Bars luckily and inexplicably scattered just about everywhere you go! Can you make it to Lucky before he finds himself lost in lemur-love-limbo!?

Tom Dodgers, perhaps best known for his over-the-top game reviews on his site Frantic Knob, provided a shockingly positive response when asked what he expected of the game. “P.F. Studios has yet to disappoint, though naturally my expectations for Lalia Leapwell may be artificially inflated by the fact that their past titles have all pushed the envelope of platforming when compared to the mindless typhoon of tripe that clogs the shelves of retail outlets.” Okuma reports that Dodgers asked what site his quote would appear on then let out a snort when he heard the name “GameSetWatch.”

Sword Dancer: Kill with Rhythm

Sword Dancer: Kill with RhythmMuch like traditional platformers, there has been a serious lack of fighting games on the Raroo Fun System, but the latest title from developer A.X.E.L. appears to be changing that. Sword Dancer: Kill with Rhythm looks to be the Raroo Fun System’s first possible Mature-rated game, something which fans of the system seem to be embracing. OK! Game! Score!’s preview of the game:

A Rhythm fighting game based on attacks with swords and shield defenses. Every stage has a song that has beats that must be used by every character to perform attacks and defenses.

During the span of the song, the players switch between attacking, defending and sword duels. Depending of which note a player hits to attack, it will result into a high, medium or low attack -the same for the defender-, making the game a delicate combination of timing and strategy, while fighting with the time limit imposed by the length of the song.

Okuma caught up with Shawn Betterhowser, internationally known as being a long-time editor for now-defunct game magazine Popular Playing Weekly. Betterhowser, a self-proclaimed “Raroo Fun System Devotee,” seemed slightly skeptical of Sword Dancer, but his overall outlook was hopeful. “When I first read that the Raroo Fun System was going to be home to a mature fighting game I thought, ‘Really? Is the RFS the right platform for this game?’ But after hearing more about the unique rhythm-based gameplay, I think it might be a surprise hit in 2010.”


DYNAMITE!!!Indie developer Mike Schiller is bringing a revamped version of his popular Flash game DYNAMITE!!! to the Raroo Fun System, much to the delight of system owners. Being completely rebuilt from the ground up, DYNAMITE!!! is rumored to ship with a special modem adapter that will allow players to upload their scores for each stage to worldwide leaderboards, thus making it the first Raroo Fun System game to include an online component. Schiller declined to comment on the reality of the modem adapter of if it will affect the price of the game, but even if the online aspect doesn't make it into the end product, OK! Game! Score!’s description has put the game at the top of preorder lists:

You are Joe Dynamite, a contractor whose job it is to demolish abandoned buildings. Unfortunately, your budget is very limited (Joe is a spendthrift, after all), and you only have the budget for one charge of dynamite per job. Place the dynamite in the spot on the building to do the most structural damage.

Buildings become more and more complex as the game goes on, and each blast is rated on a scale of "Dynamite." to "DYNAMITE!!!!!" Its 255 levels of building-blasting mayhem! A decent programmer might even be able to insert procedurally generated bonus levels and a building builder for unlimited replay possibilities!

So, something like Red Faction: Guerrilla, without all of the nasty combat or parallels to terrorism. With very limited ammo. In 2D.

Yumi Masayuki, a hardcore BankQuest player who gained infamy by being one of Japan’s all-time top Happy Health Toilet Seat users, almost glowed when asked about DYNAMITE!!!. “I can’t wait to play this game!” was all she had to say before she excused herself and made her way to a nearby women’s restroom. But as she was walking away from the line she gave a thumbs-up gesture and yelled “DYNAMITE!!!”

Roger Takes Science (R.T.S.)

Roger Takes ScienceLast year’s Roger Passes Geometry was a bigger-than-expected seller, much to the delight of developer and publisher Raroo Games. The second game in the Roger series, helmed by developer Absolutely Orland, sees everyone’s favorite nerdy student returning, this time in a strategy game. OK! Game! Score!’s rundown of the game makes it sound very promising:

The game takes place in a chemistry classroom, where students have to divide themselves into the strongest possible lab groups. You have to corral the smart kids to your ever-expanding lab area-of-influence in real time, all while making sure the stupid kids stay at their bunsen burners. You do this, of course, with a vast array of chemical compounds including:

* Super-slippery juice: sends any student sliding along his current path
* Super-sticky juice: Freezes even the fatest students in their tracks
* Sodium pentathol: Makes stupid kids masquerading as smart kinds reveal themselves as fools.


It’s fitting that schoolteacher Masa Takahashi was in line to preorder the game. “Sometimes my students think it’s funny that their instructor is maybe more into games than they are, but it’s also a good way for me to break down some of the barriers that exist between students and teachers. I can’t wait to trade strategies with my students—after all of our coursework for the day is done, that is!”

Gotcha Gacha Gato!

Gotcha Gacha Gato!In what may possibly be the Raroo Fun System’s answer to the addictiveness of a collection-based game like Pokémon, Gotcha Gacha Gato is every obsessive-compulsive gamer's dream game. The game’s developer, Griffin Games, has hired two (still secret) character designers from one of Japan’s top animation studios to create the game’s collectible characters. The description from OK! Game! Score! provides more insight into this highly-anticipated title:

Join the Gachapon Bandito himself, Gotcha Gato, in his journey to collect every capsule toy ever! Spin your coins correctly and bounce them around obstacles to fit them in the Gachapon dispenser. You must, however, watch out for silly little kids looking to steal your beloved trinkets! Features include:

Hundreds of unlockable characters--dozens in every stage! Each with unique characteristics to add hours of play.

Stylish monochrome graphics!

Travel to over twenty Awesome Onion stores in Gotcha Gato's quest to collect every capsule toy!

Perfect to play for five minutes or five hundred!

Gotcha Gacha Gato’s development was partially funded by Awesome Onion, where the game will be sold exclusively. However, this corporate tie-in doesn’t worry hardcore Raroo Fun System fans like Nina Yee. Yee, creator of the influential gaming fanzine Extra Lives, seems anything but worried about the involvement of Awesome Onion. “Awesome Onion was the first store to sell the Raroo Fun System and is still the number one source for the system and its games. Without Awesome Onion there would be no Raroo Fun System, so a pairing like this only makes sense.”

Diaper Disaster!! (Cancelled title)

Diaper Disaster!!Robo-Z Software’s newest title appeared to be pretty far along in development when the plug was pulled on the project. The developer describes the game as follows:

You're a parent who loves videogames, and your baby loves watching you play.

You are playing a series of minigames. The better you play, the more excited your baby gets and the more his/her diaper starts filling up.

Bank your points by taking a game break and changing a full diaper. Wait too long and you'll have an epic explosion all over your new sweatpants.

With development so close to completion, it seems strange that the game should be cancelled instead of simply released. But a preview from GameHater’s Gregory Danish written earlier this year may help solve the mystery. “The gameplay is solid and the underlying experience is fun, but I can’t help but be disgusted by it all the same. Watching the baby’s diaper get larger and larger is repulsive in and of itself, but when the diaper explodes, the game crosses the line in acceptable taste. I think I’ve said enough for now. I’ll save my bile for the final review once the game is released.”

Job Hunt 2009 (Cancelled title)

Job Hunt 2009Developer Klein, Inc. licensed the Police Chicken: Interrogation Specialist engine to create Job Hunt 2009, leading some game journalists to speculate that the game would feature very similar menu-based gameplay. Insiders believe the game is actually complete, but OK! Game! Score! reports the project is officially cancelled all the same. The game is described as follows:

The economy is in the crapper and you just got laid off. You have been with the company for a long and don't have any experience for anything else.

So the goal of the game is go and find a job. You will have to talk to different employers to try and get hired. You will have to choose the right things to say to the employer. If you say the right things then you have the job, if you don't back to searching again. When you get hired you actually get to play the job. From there you work yourself up to gain experience.

The premise is promising and would make for some interesting scenarios, but it is believed the game hits too close to home for many unemployed gamers that are struggling during these difficult times. Kenny “HealthFoodHobo” Crenshaw from RockOnRaroo previewed the game earlier this year, and his impressions lead one to believe the game may just be too depressing to sell well. “The game design is solid, but boy, is it ever a downer to play. Maybe if Klein, Inc. were to make it more comical it would be easier to play, but let’s face it: Joblessness is no laughing matter.”

JACK-A-THON (Cancelled title)

JACK-A-THONGiven its premise, it’s not surprising that the breaks were put on JACK-A-THON early into its development. The game’s developer, Levy Unlimited, reportedly based the title upon the middle school experiences of one of the game’s lead designers, but having a true story as the basis for JACK-A-THON didn’t save it from controversy. When the game was first announced at E3 this past year, an Internet petition was started to boycott the game because of its premise of playing jokes a boy from Saudi Arabia, not to mention rumors that the game would include a masturbation minigame. Levy Unlimited’s initial press release describes the game as follows:

The premise is there are five friends in a neighborhood somewhere in America. They are all good friends,but jokers as well. So when one friend (we will call him Majid) comes from Saudi Arabia, the joker friends play a variety of jokes on him, from the "new deaf friend,” to the ultimate summer ending joke called "Jack-A-Thon."

Bradley Shackford, editor-in-chief of Game Creator magazine, visited Levy Unlimited earlier this year to have a look at JACK-A-THON and his impressions provide some information as to why the game was canned. “In my opinion, JACK-A-THON is being developed for the wrong console. I don’t know what Raroo Fun System owners would be interested in this. There certainly exists a market for darker humor, but it’s not the same people who purchased Galaxy Intruders. It’s too bad, because the game could actually be entertaining if the content were toned down a little.”

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

December 8, 2009

Channel 4 Commissions Cletus Clay Dev For 'Consumer Self-Esteem' Game

Cletus Clay developer Tuna Technologies announced a deal with Britain's Channel 4 Education to produce Cover Girl (working title), a game that explores "consumer self-esteem" by delving into the world of magazine and advertising airbrushing and manipulation.

In the game, players take on the role of a desk artist in a publishing house, where they're asked to "enhance" photographs for fashion magazines with different challenges. Cover Girl's intention is to help players understand the methods that publishers use to sell magazines and and that advertisers used to sell beauty products.

"Beauty is a terrible thing: an enormous industry, a fleeting thing to have (if we have it at all) and nowadays, mostly an unnatural product of digital manipulation," says Channel 4 commissioning editor Alice Taylor, who also runs the fantastic Wonderland video game blog.

She continues, "The daily visual barrage of sculpted abs, cow-length eyelashes, unnaturally long thighbones, skin without follicles: what is it doing to the nation's self image, we ask ourselves?" Channel 4 and Tuna hope the game will help teens understand how media and images are designed and manipulated to pull in consumers.

Cover Girl is expected to launch in Summer 2010.

Panic Unearths Atari 2600-Style Art For Its Mac Software

Providing a rich but fictional backstory of its failed foray into the video game industry during the early 80s, Mac software developer Panic debuted a set of recently unearthed artwork from that era, originally created for the packaging of its four Atari 2600 games.

The company says it found the items -- "empty, perfect-condition, never-used game boxes, and amazing heavy promotional posters once given out during a lavish CES party" -- in a forgotten corner of an old storage space. And now it's selling the sets of cardboard boxes and 19¾" x 19¾" posters in its online store!

The artwork actually corresponds to Panic's software releases -- Transmit, Coda, Unison, and Candybar. The five-armed, red-faced confectionist on Candybar's artwork is especially terrifying, but I love Transmit's box, not just for its warm hues, download/upload arrows, and truck icon, but because Transmit is the best damn FTP application I've used in 10+ years.

More shots of the boxes, posters, and even an old magazine advertisement with screenshots of Panic's forgotten games after the break:

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 PC Games

[It's that time of year again for 'Top X Of The Year' articles, as cross-posted from big sister site Gamasutra. First up -- our own Chris Remo reflects on the year in PC gaming and selects his top five titles -- including Torchlight and Empire: Total War -- plus several honorable mentions.]

In more ways than physically, the PC is something of a black box. Gaming's only true open platform can be a tough nut to crack for developers. Its install base is ostensibly enormous (Steam alone, just one of its many communities, numbers over 20 million gamers) but success on the PC can be elusive, and it lacks the plug-and-play simplicity of its console cousins.

Triple-A big-budget action experiences have clearly found their place on consoles, and those games are becoming less common on the PC (although sometimes they're just a few months late). But the platform is increasingly emerging as fertile ground for an astonishingly wide breadth of games that don't fit that particular mold.

This year's best offerings included games that play to the system's strengths -- either by demanding high levels of input precision or by being so accessible that only minimal computational hardware is required, and everything in between.

The PC in 2009 saw a front-loaded schedule. It was the first half of the year that was most densely packed with ambitious and quirky exclusives, bolstered by some notable multiplatform standouts in the fall.

As a result, the PC's year in gaming ranged from Empire: Total War's grand strategy to Dawn of War II's RPG-like strategic micromanagement; from Dragon Age: Origins' epic fantasy to Torchlight's bite-sized lootfest; from The Sims 3's single-player interpersonal relationships to Left 4 Dead 2's online zombie-killing cooperation.

This year, the strongest case yet has been made for the PC as the affordable gaming platform, despite its costly image. Cutthroat competition between digital distribution operators (with more on the way) has resulted in nonstop rotating deep discounts, without the permanent devaluation that comes with retail's bargain bins. At any given moment, the PC gamer has access to amazing deals on a wide array of games, from the most mainstream to the most obscure.

Finally, it's worth pointing out the originality on display this year; of the 15 games highlighted here, more than half hail from newly-created properties. And take heart, PC fans: nearly all had PC as the lead development platform, with the majority exclusive.

Top 5 PC Games of 2009

5. Torchlight (Runic Games)

Torchlight offers proof that a game's pedigree makes a huge difference. When you put the founders of Diablo creator Blizzard North in the same room as the guy responsible for Fate, you get the most fluid and addictive action RPG since the mighty Diablo II itself. (Well, first you apparently get a public beta of another game. Then you get a new studio and Torchlight.)

What makes a good loot-driven action RPG is hard to pin down -- there have been several solid efforts in the genre over the last decade, but until Torchlight, none of them resulted in the same satisfied, sleep-deprived nights to which Diablo II subjected me beginning in 2000 and lasting longer than I would like to admit. And it's certainly not a complete coincidence that neither of them have featured the wonderful music talent of original Diablo composer Matt Uelman until now either.

Impressively, Torchlight succeeds even without a multiplayer component, an omission that was worrisome when first announced but which ended up detracting little from the game's charmingly cocaine-like old-school dungeon-clearing. And its system requirements are soft enough that the game's option screen even includes a "netbook mode"!

4. Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly)

Grandeur is the touchstone in the Total War series, and The Creative Assembly more than lived up to that reputation with its latest entry, Empire. Encompassing a massive geographical scope during a period that was immensely formative in modern civilization, the game's many systems interweave to create an incredible historical narrative -- or a plausible portrayal of what might have been. And as is customary for the series, its extensive automation options mean Empire stays accessible without forcing a reduction in depth. It's a game of uniquely PC scope.

In a creative medium so dominated by fantasy, science fiction, and Rambo-esque combat theatrics, there is something laudable about a developer like The Creative Assembly that pursues an entirely different, and more accountable, kind of wish fulfillment. Such ambitious depictions of vast swathes of history rarely receive such lavish production values.

The game's launch was unfortunately marred by technical issues for many users, some of which have reportedly persisted. But The Creative Assembly hasn't abandoned the game, even after announcing next year's Napoleon: Total War: Empire's long-promised multiplayer campaign enters beta today.

3. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve)

Last year's excellent Left 4 Dead (which ranked #2 on the 2008 list) demonstrated how much room for exploration is left in the multiplayer shooter arena. A genre-defying mashup of round-based multiplayer and cooperative campaigning, it carved out a unique place for itself in the unforgiving marketplace of online gaming.

Left 4 Dead 2, which famously sparked an ultimately short-lived protest against its year-later development cycle, demonstrates the abilities of a team that, having worked through the establishment of a successful subgenre, has been able to explore the space in a deeper, more confident, more fleshed-out way. Its setting reflects a more perceivable geographic progression, its levels house a broader array of inventive gameplay conceits, and its mode and playstyle options are more numerous.

Along with Valve's neverending Team Fortress 2 content and the pseudo-episodic Half-Life 2 series, Left 4 Dead 2 provides yet more evidence that Valve understands the value of iteration better than most.

2. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Relic Entertainment)

Real-time strategy doesn't occupy the same headline-grabbing position it once did (except when StarCraft II is delayed again, anyway), but for the past decade, Relic Entertainment has been creating some of the most progressive, fun RTS games around. A few years ago, it received well-deserve acclaim for Company of Heroes, and this year it continued to take liberties with established strategy game design in Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II, which pushes even further away from the base-management norm to great effect.

The single-player campaign, which can be played solo or cooperatively, offers an engaging persistent loot and leveling system informed by Diablo and its ilk, with the map and control mentality of an RTS -- a formula that pays off. And the multiplayer mode is a heavily teamwork-driven action-strategy experience that can seem initially unfamiliar, but whose fast pace and roots in well-established gameplay underpinnings lends it to quick learning.

Like a couple other games on this list, Dawn of War II is an admirable reminder that design risks can pay off, and there's no such thing as permanent standardization for a genre.

1. Dragon Age: Origins (BioWare)

Dragon Age is a game full of compelling contradictions. Its gameplay paradigm is a revival of the kind of systemic, arcane PC RPG that BioWare previously revived in the late 90s with Baldur's Gate -- but its finely-tuned modernization and playability deflect anachronistic impenetrability. At first glance, its setting seems like forgettable boilerplate fantasy -- but that surface level belies a slate of unexpectedly engaging and believable party members, and well-integrated undercurrents examining its world's class and race relations.

These days, not many multiplatform games feel so intrinsically native to the PC as Dragon Age. Some elements play equally well on any system -- characters, dialogue, situations, choices -- but the intended feel of the game is best conveyed with a mouse and keyboard, and the more complete UI. Using the mouse wheel to seamlessly scroll between the modern chase cam and the old-school remove-the-ceiling top-down view is oddly satisfying in its own right, and is endlessly practical as the game flows between exploration and tactical combat. Characters can be direct-controlled, clicked-and-dragged, given automated tactics; as with the narrative situations, player choice is the name of the game.

Dragon Age's pre-release marketing implied tired, shallow characters and situations. The game itself has an uncommon smartness and genuineness. Rarely have I grown as attached to virtual characters in video games, or developed distaste for them based on something other than poor writing. Even better, they convincingly engage in their own independent banter as you lead them around the world. The game and its setting aren't devoid of cliche, not by a long shot; but few games offer such a volume of well-conceived interaction and observation. (Those driven to the game solely by its current angry-bloodbath television campaign are likely to be confused by the thoughtful experience with which they are presented upon startup.)

Like Fallout 3, last year's winner, Dragon Age promises a life beyond its shipped content with official PC modding tools (and the inevitable paid content). And yet again, it's great to see the characteristically PC-derived traditions of player-driven systemic worlds available in many genres and on multiple systems. But Dragon Age is still best experienced on the platform that gave rise to its kind.

Honorable Mentions (listed alphabetically)

AAaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity (Dejobaan Games): Many hours were spent playing this surprisingly compelling BASE jumping simulator, which brilliantly conveys the fun Dejobaan must have had making it.

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady Studios): It's the first good Batman game possibly ever, and it's supremely playable, setting the template for good multiplatform PC conversions.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Infinity Ward): In the end, Infinity Ward's proprietary online backend isn't ideal in all respects, but it gets the absolutely top-shelf multiplayer across well enough.

Dawn of Discovery/Anno 1404 (Blue Byte/Related Designs): This city builder's preoccupation with economic micromanagement pays off in satisfaction when you get everything running like clockwork.

League of Legends (Riot Games): One of several companies hoping to inherit the Defense of the Ancients crown, Riot has crafted a tight, polished (and free) strategy/RPG effort.

Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap Games): It turns out turret defense design hadn't been exhausted; PopCap makes a strong, playable argument here for conciseness of design.

Risen (Piranha Bytes): This deep RPG inherits both the ambition and the slight jankiness of its Gothic forbear, still doing cynical roleplaying better than most.

The Sims 3 (Maxis): If you want what The Sims does, the original series is still the only real choice around, and this entry is admirably polished and expanded.

Tales of Monkey Island (Telltale Games): Impressively, Telltale has made one of gaming's most resolutely stagnant genres feel much fresher, while keeping a venerable license largely intact.

Trine (Frozenbyte): This clever single-player-cooperative (or same-screen) sidescroller offers fun platforming innovation, pretty visuals, and a wizard.

Zeno Clash (Ace Team): Don't try to figure out what the hell is going on, just enjoy the imaginative surrealism and brutal first-person face-punching.

Game Developer December Issue Showcases Brutal Legend Postmortem

[Just a note that he December 2009 issue from our colleagues at Game Developer magazine is now available, including an exclusive postmortem of Double Fine's Brutal Legend and a host of the customarily neat high-level analyses and columns.]

The December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, the sister print publication to GameSetWatch and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has shipped to print and digital subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats.

The cover feature for the issue is an exclusive postmortem of Double Fine's heavy metal adventure Brutal Legend. The article, crafted by executive producer Caroline Esmurdoc, offers insight on the challenges and successes experienced by the independent studio. It is introduced as follows:

"Brutal Legend is Double Fine's sophomore effort, and like its first title Psychonauts, was fraught with publisher shifts and new platform adjustments. Here, the team discusses testing bots, lawsuits, metal gods, its use of middleware in conjunction with homegrown tools, and the problem of real time strategy on consoles."

Also featured in the issue is a roundup of government-sponsored game development financial incentives:

"A number of national and regional governments around the world offer tax rebates, grants, and other perks to game developers. In this feature, compiled from a longer Game Developer Research article, we outline the major institutions in the Western world that could help you make your next game on the cheap."

In addition, Virtual Heroes art director Takayoshi Sato discusses the importance of imperfection in believable art:

"Modeling characters in 3D is an art in the true sense, and it's quite a challenge to make these characters appear realistic. Takayoshi Sato, who created all the original Silent Hill CG by himself, finds that adding flaws helps to create something believable -- but those flaws can't be random. They must be carefully tied to the character's personality and backstory. Here, Sato shares his thoughts about the creation of compelling characters in games, something more than your average vacant space marine."

And as usual, our regular columnists contribute detailed and important pieces on numerous areas of game development -- this issue, we include Bungie's Steve Theodore on the unknown, Neversoft's Daniel Nelson on aim assist, Maxis' Soren Johnson on difficulty versus frustration, LucasArts' Jesse Harlin on musician unions, and Matthew Wasteland with his monthly humor column.

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

Wisdom Tree Creates Online Arcade For Christian NES Games

Christian games developer Wisdom Tree, best known for its unlicensed NES games with oddly colored/shaped cartridges, has made its infamous catalog of Bible-inspired Nintendo titles ("designed for the Christian community") available to play for free online.

The games available through Wisdom Tree's catalog include Joshua & The Battle of Jericho, three-in-one game Bible Adventures, Zelda clone Spiritual Warfare, Exodus, Bible Buffet, King of Kings, and Sunday Funday, the last of which could be the last commercial title released for the system, hitting Christian Bookstores around 1995.

I hope the company eventually puts up Super 3D Noah's Ark, its Wolfenstein 3D SNES conversion that has players throwing fruit at animals instead of shooting bullets at Nazis.

[Via @gdri]

Dark Tower Game's First Chapter Now Live

Chapter One (For Callahan!) of Discordia, the online experience based on Stephen King's revered Dark Tower novels, is now online and available to play for free. The Flash game features 3D objects and environments by Brian Stark, artwork by Dark Tower series illustrator Michael Whelan, and a story by Robin Furth (King's personal research assistant and the author of The Dark Tower: A Complete Concordance).

Discordia starts you off in the shoes of a Tet Corporation agent investigating a bloody scene at the Dixie Pig restaurant (featured in The Dark Tower VI: Song of Susannah). It plays mostly like a hidden object game, charging you to search for magical items and character orbs that unlock some great art/wallpapers and flavor text, but there's at least one point-and-shoot segment, too.

The game's official site share this description:

"The project started as a small add-on concept for the then new Dark Tower Official Web Site. Over time, Discordia evolved into a progressive storytelling platform that leverages cutting-edge technologies to chronicle the war between Tet Corporation and Sombra/NCP. Exploring the behind-the-scenes conflict between the two companies, Discordia introduces long-time Dark Tower fans to new characters and numerous mechanical/magical items developed by Mid-World's Old Ones.

Over the course of our adventure we will visit many locations, both those familiar to Dark Tower fans and others which we only glimpsed in the Dark Tower novels. While we may not see Roland and his ka-tet in this adventure, the development team has remembered the faces of its fathers. We have done our best to honor the original Dark Tower series while simultaneously mapping new and exciting Dark Tower territory."

I didn't get too far in the game, mostly because I'm terrible at these hidden object titles, but I've included a few screenshots from my playthrough below.

IGF, ACMI Partner For Independent Games Festival Showcase

IGF organizers have announced a third collaboration with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne to show a 'Best Of The Independent Games Festival' exhibition through February 2010.

The major Melbourne, Australia center for the public exhibition, display and preservation of Australian and international screen content, located in Federation Square, is beginning the exhibition starting Tuesday, 8th December 2009.

The exhibit features a selection of playable finalists from the most recent 2009 Independent Games Festival competition (created by Think Services, as is this website), and the games that can be played for free include:

Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang)
Machinarium (Amanita Design)
Brainpipe (Digital Eel)
Musaic Box (KranX Productions)
Cortex Command (Data Realms)
Osmos (Hemisphere Games)
Pixeljunk Eden (Q-Games)
The Graveyard (Tale of Tales)
Night Sky [formerly Night Game] (Nicalis)
Eufloria (Alex May and Rudolf Kremers)

The exhibition is open from 10am to 6pm, admission is free, and the 'Best Of The Independent Games Festival' exhibit will run until the 14th of February 2010.

Interested parties can watch the exhibition trailer on ACMI's official site, as well as visit the 'Best of the Independent Games Festival 2009' information site at the institution's website.

MGS4, Blazing Angels Envisioned By 6th Graders

As one of her assignments for the Afterschool Comics Workshop she runs, graphic novelist Raina Telgemeier (Baby-sitters Club, Smile) asked her 6th graders to create a short comic based on their favorite video game.

Most of the 11 year olds seem enamored with Kirby, but a couple used chose "high definition games" for their inspiration, like Alessandro with his Blazing Angels strip (above) and Nuriden's Metal Gear Solid 4 scene (below). Wait, aren't these titles rated Teen and Mature? Should they really be playing these games?

Anyway, you can see all five of the comics at Life Meter. And if you liked the two I've shared with you in this post, make sure to head over there and leave the students feedback!

GameSetLinks: The Pac-Man Cupcake Invasion

[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.]

Aha, a new week, and another chance to look at some GameSetLinks, these having been compiled in the last week or so from simple random web surfing of various kinds. They're kicked off by Kyle Orland's neat game media stories round-up, which is customarily incisive on some of the matters you should be talking about in the space.

Also in this set of linkage, discussion on how reviewers should deal with enforced offsite game review periods, as well as Toronto indie yummy pics, a music label royalty statement with interesting game implications, the making of classic title Syndicate, and other things besides.

Bleep bleep bleep:

Press Pass: Q4 Roundup > Kyle Orland > 12/3/2009 8:53 AM | Crispy Gamer
A nice round-up of interesting stories, several not covered here on GSW (eg. the IGN music game hub.)

The Making Of: Syndicate | Edge Online
Another excellent look at a game's construction, this time the classic Britsoft title.

Game Design Advance - Heather Chaplin audio interview
The latest in a series of intriguing audio chats with notables over at GDA.

Game On, Indie Enthusiasts! | Level Forty Two
Nice write-up of an indie game get-together in Toronto - with Pac-Man dessert, to boot.

Reviewing A Game On Their Terms: The Increasingly Prominent "Review Event" - Kotaku
A good McWhertor piece on custom review events for major games, and whether there are bias issues involved in doing it that way.

Too Much Joy» Blog Archive » My Hilarious Warner Bros. Royalty Statement
Just interesting from a 'how big companies work with creative artists' angle, and therefore very interesting with relevance to games.

Destructoid - Rev Rant: legitimizing games
'There are two groups of gamers: those who don't care whether games are ever recognized as a legitimate artform by the mainstream media, and those who do. I belong to the latter group, and, in the above video, I try to explain why. Maybe you'll agree with it, maybe you won't. What can you do, right?'

December 7, 2009

Smithsonian Planning 'Art Of Video Games' Exhibition

The prestigious Smithsonian American Art Museum will host a six-month exhibit on "The Art of Video Games" beginning in March 2012, examining the interactive medium with the respect reserved for film, animation, and performances.

Unlike exhibits that present art inspired by video games, guest curator Chris Melissinos (chief evangelist and chief gaming officer at Sun Microsystems) and the Smithsonian hope to "examine comprehensively the evolution of video games themselves as an artistic medium".

"From the Atari VCS to the Playstation 3, The Art of Video Games will show the development of visual effects and aesthetics during four decades, the emergence of games as a means for storytelling, the influence of world events and popular culture on game development, and the impact that the games can have on society," explains the museum.

The exhibit will feature multimedia presentations with game footage, developer/artist video interviews, big prints of in-game screenshots, and historic consoles. Keeping with the video games's interactive appeal, the museum plans to have a selection of systems available for visitors to play and invites the public to choose what title they feel represent particular moments in the medium's overall timeline.

You can find more information on "The Art of Video Games", which runs at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from March 16 to September 9th in 2012, on the museum's official site.

[Via Kotaku]

Pyramid Scheme: Games As Rows Of Blocks

Similar to Alaskan Military School's 15-pixel video game interpretations, Argentinian illustrator Haz posted his own set of minimalist images re-imagining popular video games scenes with around 30 rows of colored bricks stacked into a pyramid.

I'm unsure about the symbolism of the pyramid structure for this particular project, but it seems to effectively display the games Haz picked out -- Out Run, Super Mario Bros., Wonder Boy, and Mortal Kombat. No Silent Hill, unfortunately! You can see slightly higher resolutions of Haz's work on his "Proyecto Piramides" Flickr set.

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: How Solium Infernum Raises Hell

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This time, he looks at underworld PC strategy game labor of love Solium Infernum.]

Hell - now there's a setting for a video game. Hell lets a game's artists and writers run naked and wild and free, and in just-released indie strategy game Solium Infernum it also happens to tease out some hugely intelligent design ideas. I'm glad for that, because it balances out the damage done to my precious brain every time I see footage from Dante's Inferno. Man, that game. You take not only a nonviolent epic poem but the single most nightmarish and psychedelic setting known to Western civilization and you use it to make... a God of War clone? Are you kidding?

By contrast, Solium Infernum is a turn-based, play-by-email creation, and it's my second favourite game this year. Good year for demons, I guess.

Despite the hex map Solium Infernum isn't quite a wargame. It's all about prestige. The story of any game of Solium goes like this: Satan's missing, and the Infernal Conclave are meeting to appoint a new ruler of Hell in, oh, some 40 turns. It's an unknown number that changes every game. Each player (AI or human) controls an Archfiend of some reknown, and the Archfiend with the most Prestige points when the conclave meets at the end of the game is appointed the new ruler of Hell.

Reputation is everything, making it a game of personality and public relations, back-room deals and threats. So, having to fight a war is useless and to be avoided. But winning a war, or being the Fiend with the balls to start one? Yeah, that might be worth your time.

The principle way of getting Prestige is taking control of the places of power scattered randomly across the map. The Halls of Avarice, the Tree of Woe, the Gates of Hell and so on. March one of your legions over to it, successfully do battle with the demons inside and it's yours. Nice! But about 10 turns into a game all of these places will have been taken, which is, of course, when the lot of you start hungrily eyeing up your neighbours' places of power.

But you can't (publically) attack another player without the Infernal Conclave's OK. That's where diplomacy comes in, which in Sol Infernum comes down to either poking or stroking egos. Your options are: Demand something of another Archfiend, insult them, or send them a gift. If you make a demand and the other player doesn't hand it over, you lose prestige but then get the chance to start a short, Conclave-sponsored war known as a vendetta. Insult someone and you'll take prestige from them, unless they rebuke the insult by declaring a vendetta against you. As for gifts, if a player accepts a gift (usually resources of some kind) then they lose the ability to insult or make demands from the gift-giver for a while. But you can also humiliate any emissaries sent to you bear gifts, which acts like an insult. Tricky, tricky.

But then, of course it's tricky. This is Hell. Nothing is simple, everything is skewed and maddening and all of it requires not just attention but thought. As a strategy game Solium Infernum's demand for actual brains shouldn't feel like a breath of fresh air, but it does. Hellish, choking, scalding hot, ash-filled fresh air.

Another example of Solium's tasty cruelty is how you acquire new Legions (armies), Praetors (champions), artifacts, relics or manuscripts. You can't just buy something, you have to check out a marketplace known as the Infernal Bazaar to see what's available, then place blind bids on what you want. There's only one of everything, but new stuff appears fairly regularly.

Naturally this creates the subgame of trying to figure out what your opponents might bid on and second guessing them. And even the resources you're bidding with have a twist of their own; the four different types (souls, ichor, hellfire and darkness) are acquired randomly when you demand tribute from your minions, meaning you're almost always working with a deficit of at least one type. Demanding resources from another Archfiend is even worse because they'll actively be trying to give you what you don't need. There's no safe way to trade, either. Nothing's stopping you from entering discussions with another human-controlled Archfiend and agreeing to send each other things, but, well. That requires an amount of trust it's unwise to have in Hell.

Worse still, resources are acquired and spent in 'card' form, so you don't just have 4 ichor, you might have a card worth 3 ichor and another card containing both 1 ichor and 1 hellfire. The ramifications of this are quiet and terrible. If you're playing a charismatic Archfiend you'll get valuable resource cards as tribute from your minions, which is great until your neighbour with his war-like Archfiend comes knocking on your door and demands 4 resource cards. Unlike everyone else you don't have the option of handing over some useless crap to placate him. The cards you're holding would fund an army. And just wait until the Archfiends with high prophecy ratings mange to read your charisma stat, because then they'll come calling too, licking their lips with tongues like whips.

Which is the main reason Solium's such a good game for scheming. Whether your demon's vocation is war, amassing resources, stealing, bribing, arena battles, knowledge, artifacts or whatever else you choose to develop, it's all hidden from everybody else. So you watch your opponents, you bite your nails, you wonder about their stats and tricks and secret objectives and doubly secret alliances. You start plotting because you know everyone else must be. Eventually you'll start questioning your own friends, doubting your own cards. It's great. You start to go a little mad, down there in the dark.

The second reason the lot of you start scheming like Disney villains is because your Prestige points are right there next to your name, so any high-risers naturally become the targets of invasions, insults and theft. Winning is something to be done on tip-toes. It's fascinating and deeply psychological, and it makes you remember what strategy actually is.

All the strategy games on the shelves these days, everything from Company of Heroes to Supreme Commander to the Total War games, they're all guilty of demanding play which is either too fast, too large-scale or has too many variables, all of which weaken the role of strategy and hand more power over to the speed of your mouse-clicks or your knowledge of the game.

Solium Infernum, like Cryptic Comet's Armageddon Empires before it, is the opposite. It's enormously restrictive. Not only are you constantly battling a huge dearth of resources, but you only get very few 'orders' every turn. 2 in the early game, perhaps as many as 4 in the late game. Want to move a unit? That's an order. Want to give a gift to another player? That's an order. Want to bid on something at the bazaar? That's an order, and sorry buster, don't you know you ain't got any orders left? It's time to sit back and see if any of the other players chose to screw you over this turn.

Being restricted in how much you can do is not a bad thing, not in a game with as much colour as this. It simply makes every choice agonising, and, hey, that's what strategy is supposed to be in the first place! Sorry, had you forgotten?

More than any game I've played in years Solium Infernum nails the sensation of staring at a screen and losing yourself in the cold glory of a difficult decision. It doesn't matter if you're winning or you're better at the game than everybody else. Because everyone has such a strict order limit, two players ganging up on you will almost always be able to outmanoeuvre you. Conversely, it doesn't matter how bad your position is, either. Thanks again to that order limit everyone tends to harass the lead players instead of wasting time keeping the losers down, and one well-timed event card can tip the playing field utterly. The event cards are also slightly skewed towards helping the underdogs. The Beast Has Arrived means every player with a place of power gets an entire legion randomly gobbled up, for example.

But before I put one hand on your back and steer you slightly aggressively to the page where you can buy Solium Infernum I should probably remind you that the only multiplayer it offers is play-by-email. That's where all the players take their turn and send their 'turn' file to a host, who processes your moves then sends you a master turn file back.

But it's not really a problem. The joy in Solium Infernum is in mulling over decisions that are capable of making appearances in your head while you're cleaning, exercising, cooking dinner, having sex, attending an important job interview or performing open heart surgery. These are beautiful decisions, ones which shouldn't be rushed. Much better to have a game that drifts on for the better part of three weeks than to guiltily complete your turn as quickly as possible. Besides, slow games mean you all get to send covert emails to one another offering alliances, knowledge and services. And you get to scheme that much more.

I guess I should also mention that the interface is awkward and there's no tutorial, so you'll need to read the manual. But since I've already mentioned the hexes and you're still reading, I'm thinking that won't matter to you. I'm also thinking that I like you. I bet we'd be friends if we ever met. I think you'd like me. You know what else I think you'd like? Solium Infernum. I think you should buy it. You can buy it right here. I'd lend you the cash, but I think I left my wallet in my other, uh, article. Probably quicker you just buy it yourself.

[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Every Game Ever. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]

Umloud Charity Event To Rock San Francisco, Think Services Sponsors

[Just wanted to put in a good word for this week's Umloud in San Francisco, since it seems to be a mighty fine event, and Think Services/GDC is now one of the sponsors, so you have even less excuse for not going and getting your socks rocked off.]

The organizers of charity Rock Band event Umloud! have announced final plans for this Wednesday's San Francisco event supporting Child's Play, with GSW parent Think Services and the Game Developers Conference stepping up as Gold Sponsors.

The event, to be held at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco this Wednesday, is an annual fundraiser event for Child’s Play Charity, a “gamers’ charity” started by Penny Arcade’s Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik that provides toys and games to Children’s Hospitals around the country, including Oakland Children’s Hospital.

The spiritual-successor to last year’s successful Funde Razor, and hosted by gaming industry veterans Chris Kohler (Wired), Joe Markert (Gamehelper), and John “Seg” Seggerson (Telltale Games), Umloud! will hit the DNA Lounge in San Francisco, California on December 9th.

It will feature a full-blown Rock Band 2 main stage set up courtesy of Harmonix Music Systems, where "you and your band can melt the face of San Francisco clean off at one of the hottest music venues in the city, all in the name of charity!"

Doors open at the DNA Lounge at 7:00pm and the party will last until 2:00am. There is a suggested donation of $10.00 upon entry to the event, and all attendees will be entered into a raffle with prizes and limited edition gaming swag, courtesy of participating sponsors.

There are also 'band package' tickets and opportunities to donate to Umloud if you can't make it in person.

"Umloud! is one of our core community fundraisers at Child’s Play. We rely heavily on the efforts of video game community, and events such as Umloud! form the backbone of that support," said Kristin Lindsay, Project Manager for Child’s Play Charity.

More information on the event is available at the official Umloud! website.

Canabalt Dev Discusses App Store's 99¢ Problem

Semi Secret Software's Adam "Atomic" Saltsman, the developer behind one-button hit Canabalt (now available for iPhone for $2.99), posted an informative essay on his Gamasutra blog about the App Store's "99¢ Problem", arguing that in some cases, pricing your game at a buck is "far more risky" than charging $1.99 or more for it.

He presents a sample outline for a three-person, eight-week project (totaling to 24 weeks/six months). In a best case scenario with all the developers requiring around $5,000 per month for living expenses before taxes, he estimates the iPhone game would "need to recoup about $30,000 in net revenue just to break even, much less earn a little extra to put toward the next project."

Saltsman compares that against the three bottom pricing tiers with a very optimistic prediction of 50,000 copies sold in the first two months, taking Apple's 30% cut into account:

  • 50,000 copies x $0.99 = $49,999 - 30% = $35,000
  • 50,000 copies x $1.99 = $99,500 - 30% = $70,000
  • 50,000 copies x $2.99 = $149,500 - 30% = $105,000

He explains that with this scenario, selling your game for only 99¢ would mean it would have to jump to the App Store's top ten downloads to make its development worth your while. Selling it for $1.99, however, means you can get into the top 100 and still make enough to get by or even to fund your next project:

"Lest I somehow forget to belabor this point even more, the situation I'm talking about here is not a worst case scenario, or even a likely scenario; this is a best-case, just shy of winning the lottery situation. 99.95% of developers never do this well on the app store (top 50 or thereabouts), much less breaking out into the top 10. And I cut so many corners figuring out that $30,000 number that it's not even funny. A little bit of feature creep, a little bit of health insurance, and that could very easily be $50,000 or $60,000 if not more.

But...what if you have a good idea? A great idea? The best idea of the year? If you think you have made something that is so hopelessly compelling, so brutally addictive that it can't help but succeed, yes, I believe the only way you can reach the top 10 in the app store is by selling it for a dollar. I can't and won't dispute that.

You have to keep in mind, though, that as the sales scale up exponentially on that ranking chart (which is why you want to be in the top 10 in the first place) the competition scales up as well. Getting into the top 100, or the top 50, you don't have to beat Flight Control or Hook Champ or Fieldrunners or any of those great games."

You can read the full essay on Saltsman's Gamasutra blog.

Virtua Fighter, Viewtiful Joe Star In 'The TV Show'

In this amazing music video for Manabe Takayuki's "The TV Show", director Sugimoto Kousuke skillfully blends over a dozen different animation styles. It begins as an entertaining concept, cycling through the different channels, but then Kousuke throws characters from one scene into another until the whole thing turns into a giant brawl, shootout, and dance-off.

One of the animation styles you should immediately recognize takes its inspiration from the low-polygon models of Sega's Virtua Fighter. Capcom's Viewtiful Joe also seems to make an appearance in the form of a laser blasting superhero -- I doubt this tribute was intentional, but the Vs across his forehead and chest make the resemblance undeniable!

[Via The Daily What]

Proudly Hang Your Moustachio Gong Show Achievement On Your Wall

Never mind that you had to cheat and use an adrenaline shot to prove you were as strong as Moustachio, a mere Pistachio with a mustache, in his Gong Show strongman game at Left 4 Dead 2's Dark Carnival.

Your friends won't know that you used a little pick-up to get the Gong Show achievement (unless they've played the game themselves, that is), so they won't question whether you deserve to have this painting hung in your living room.

Julia Dennebaum, the same artist behind the Fat Princess portraits, painted the muscled nut on 8x8" acrylic and is selling the piece through her Etsy shop for $50. Now you can prove to everyone who visits your home that you're as strong as Moustachio!

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

As another week wends to its inevitable end, 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 notable things this time around include interviews with Sonic alumnus Naoto Ohshima and Heavy Rain co-creator Guillaume de Fondaumiere, as well as an interesting piece surveying gamers about microtransactions, a Splosion Man postmortem, a new Game Design Challenge, and various other reasonably intriguing pieces.

Some people got it:

Out of the Blue: Naoto Ohshima Speaks
"Sonic the Hedgehog character designer Naoto Ohshima expounds upon the early days of Sega's mascot, recollects design choices in the Saturn game Nights, and explains why it's important to make games that are 'just a little new.'"

What Gamers Think About Microtransactions
"As game developers grapple with making microtransactions more appealing to Western gamers, Daniel Kromand interviews a group of gamers to gauge the effectiveness -- and ineffectiveness -- of current microtransaction practices."

Postmortem: Twisted Pixel's Splosion Man
"Twisted Pixel, the Austin, Tex.-based studio behind The Maw, explains what went right and what went wrong with the fast-paced development of the XBLA game, Splosion Man."

Shattering The Boundaries: Sidhe's Big User Testing Gains
"Gareth Griffiths, user experience expert at Sidhe Interactive, explains how the studio broke down, tested, and rebuilt the brick-breaking genre with the PSN game Shatter."

Heavy Dreams: Pushing Interactive Narrative
"Quantic Dream's ambitious upcoming PS3 title, Heavy Rain, looks to change the definition of "interactive movie." The studio's co-CEO Guillaume de Fondaumiere explains how he thinks Heavy Rain can show people that games can be truly meaningful."

GCG: Adaptive Difficulty
"Brunel University masters student David McClure here investigates the concept of adaptive difficulty -- games that adjust their challenge as players engage with them."

GCG: Game Design Challenge: The New Sound
"The music genre is slowly going down in popularity. What might bring it back but innovation? Marry your exciting and innovative gameplay concept to music in our latest design challenge!"

GCG: Results from Game Design Challenge: Sidekick
"Mario has Luigi and Sonic has Tails, but can other characters use sidekicks? Our latest competition invited entrants to design a sidekick for popular gaming heroes -- and here are the results."

December 6, 2009

Analysis: Clone Games & Fan Games -- Legal Issues

[What are common misconceptions around the legality of 'clone' and fan games? Attorney Mona Ibrahim looks at the issue in an interesting analysis piece that originally ran on big sister site Gamasutra.]

There are a few misconceptions in the indie development community concerning the definition and legality of clone games. Some take it as given that a legal clone can be a fan game, including many of the same visual and sound elements as the original.

Others believe that because some game companies don't enforce their IP rights against fan game developers, all fan games must be legal. Some may even believe that a game is simple and general enough to not warrant IP protection. This entry is designed to dispel some of the confusion and inaccuracy surrounding clone games and fan games.

Let’s say you’re a huge fan of Zelda, you’re a programmer and competent indie developer, and you and your friends want to create a tribute game to the world of the Hylian race, Princess Zelda, Ganon, and, of course, Link.

In your game you will likely create something akin to fan fiction as far as your storyline and script, and you want to implement the same characters in some way because you are, like most of us, somewhat attached to those icons.

Obviously you want to use similar game rules and mechanics. Can you? Should you? What legal complications will arise, what risks are involved, and how can you avoid threats from the very entity to intend to honor?

Defining A “Clone”

According to Wikipedia, a video game “clone” is a game that is “very similar” to or “heavily inspired” by another game. This is woefully vague from a legal perspective. A “legal” clone is one that does little more than implement unpatented game mechanics, rules, operations, and physics.

Some “ideas” for games may also fall into the legal clone category for the simple reason that they are so common or vague that they no longer warrant copyright protection as unique expressions—for instance, a platformer or RPG with a male protagonist seeking a kidnapped princess is so common to the genre as to constitute scenes a faire under Copyright law.

On the other hand an illegal clone relies heavily on the creative content of a game—namely the trademarks and trade dress of a game product, as well as the unique audiovisual and scripted elements of that game. Note that game clones containing patented mechanics may also run afoul of intellectual property law.

Layers of Protection

Games aren’t all about code. Just because you wrote your clone or fan game from scratch does not guarantee that it is legal. The intellectual property contained in a video game is truly vast. For instance the copyrights alone may include (but are by no means limited to):

Audiovisual display
Sound recordings
Voice recordings
Background drawings
Sprite drawings
Musical compositions
Source Code
Object Code

Furthermore, you have trademark, trade dress and unfair competition claims in the original work to worry about, including:

Game name
Company name
Character names
Character appearance and clothing
The game’s look and feel
Game packaging

And last but not least, you may even have some random claims out of left field by game actors/SAG members, including:

Name and likeness
Privacy rights

If you use any of this in your “clone” game, you may draw unwanted attention and create a legal risk for yourself. The Tetris Company has relied on several of the above-mentioned rights, including "look and feel" under both trademark and copyright law, to enforce IP rights against games that closely resemble its product.

Furthermore, the risk of legal action isn't limited to clones of video game products. Creating a video game clone of board games, card games, and the like could create just as many problems. One famous example is the suit brought by Hasbro against the developers of Scrabulous, a well-known Facebook application.

As far as programming and code goes, commonplace commands are exceptions to the general rule of copyright protection. This is notable only because the most frequent argument I’ll hear concerning a person’s clone or fan game is that the “code is different” or that they “created the game from scratch”.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t really care, and is not on your side here if you relied on or used any of the other elements noted above. Even if you create the images, sound recordings, etc. from scratch, if those same components are clearly derived or ripped off from the original game, all your hard work may mean absolutely nothing from a legal perspective.

Protecting your Clone/Fan Game

You have a few choices here:

1. Make a “legal” clone. Rely on unprotected game elements, mechanics and processes that are so common and prolific in the game industry as to no longer warrant protection, copyright, patent or otherwise. If you’re unsure whether your particular idea falls into that category, contact an attorney.

2. Ask permission. Yes, this does put you on the owner’s “radar”, but show some respect. If you’re making a clone or fan game, at least be sincere about it—obviously you enjoy the game, so show some respect to the game’s creators and publishers and inform them of what you want to do.

If they say yes, you have carte blanche right to use whatever you’ve told them you wanted to use in your product. If they don’t respond, you have a good faith laches/waiver defense. In English this means that the company/publisher has waited, with knowledge of the fact that the infringement was going to happen, until you’d already put yourself past the point of no return as far as production and distribution, before acting.

Generally this conduct is frowned upon by the Court and is therefore treated as a “waiver”; otherwise the Court will honor your laches defense—this is especially true if notice to the company came in the form of a request for permission.

If the company says no, you’ve probably chosen the wrong IP to clone.

3. Come up with your own game. This is probably the best approach. If another game has inspired you, that is a wonderful thing. Let that propel your own creativity and make something unique that is truly worth playing.

[Mona Ibrahim is a Trademark, Entertainment & Media law attorney based in Seattle, WA. She is Of Counsel with Imua Legal Advisors and her practice emphasizes copyright and trademark dispute resolution, IP registration, entertainment & media transactions, general business transactions and employment law. Mona is an avid gamer and is dedicated to serving the gaming and game development communities by providing education, helpful strategy, and legal assistance when necessary.

THE INFORMATION IN THIS ARTICLE IS FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES ONLY. The content of this article is not legal advice. It only constitutes commentary on legal issues, and is for educational and informational purposes only. Reading this article, replying to it via comments, or otherwise interacting with this article does not create an attorney-client privilege between you and the author. No information you provide in the comments portion of this article shall be deemed confidential.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/5/09

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

gp-1001.jpg   gp-09holiday.jpg

It's December, and an extremely unlikely bout of snow in Houston has made me yearn for some idyllic age when it was just me, my dog, some hot chocolate, and a stack of Nintendo Powers by a roaring fire. I have only a couple of those things handy (I'm too afraid to actually try using my fireplace, which has been empty for about a decade), but my attention is diverted right now anyway with all the big and important things going on with modern game mags.

For one, this week marks the debut of the John Davison-run GamePro, which released both its January '10 issue and a winter buyer's guide a few days back. Davison is quick to warn that the real changes to the print mag are reserved for next month, but already you can see some of his trademarks: features that put developers front and center; reviews that treat video games as forms of expression and rate them more seriously in realms outside twitch playability; that sort of thing. (That and, of course, the classic Euro-mag "sticker peeling off" cover graphic on the buyer's guide. I haven't seen that one lately.)

I like what I see in GP's BioShock feature, and if Tae Kim's MW2 review that Davison's touted both online and off is any indication, than the age when hardcore gamers finally read GamePro for non-ironic reasons may be pretty close at hand. Davison faces a pretty unique challenge among modern editors, though, since GP (at 94 pages this month) is the smallest of the U.S. print mags. If he can find a way to make GP's print side unique despite that disadvantage, I'd call him brilliant -- and I think he's up to it.

Click on for a look at the other game mags of the past fortnight.

Game Informer December 2009


Cover: 200th issue (8 covers)

The second issue of GI's big redesign is also the 200th overall, something they've been celebrating over on the website a fair bit as well.

They did not screw around with the cover feature. There are no game features and no retro section in the back of this edition; instead 48 out of the 140 pages are devoted to 200th-issue festivities. Most of it is a "best 200 games ever" roundup which is entertaining but a little predictable -- though I'm admittedly jaded 'cos lots of game mags have done features like these over the years (I helped with EGM's once). The second part, a collection of stats and famous quotes from GI's past, is far more interesting to me, a treasure trove of insightful quotes and hilarious excerpts. (Did you know that GI called the hero of Halo "super trooper Master Sergeant" in their 2001 review?)

Other neat bits include interviews with Penn Jillette and the folks behind Spike's Video Game Awards, both of which are on the site now.

PC Gamer January 2010


Cover: Star Wars: The Old Republic

I didn't get the Holiday '09 issue of PC Gamer in the mail for some reason, and I failed to notice until it was too late to buy a copy at the bookstore. Whoops!

But I didn't put PC Gamer near the top of this column just to whine. As officially announced on Saturday, EIC Gary Steinman is moving from PC Gamer back to his old stomping grounds at PlayStation: The Official Magazine, where he'll be EIC. I'm not enormously surprised by this -- it always seemed to me that his true passion lies with the consoles anyway. But he's really reinvented PCG during his tenure, showing how a computer mag can still be engaging and enthusiastic in an age when no computer gamer isn't on the Internet. I hope whoever takes over PCG continues that tradition, and I hope Gary's tenure at PTOM is long and fruitful -- as it should be, 'cos it seems like 2010's really going to be the year of the PS3 (finally).

Anyway, this issue is mainly a wrapup for '09 reviews, with two extensive features that both are pretty engaging, although (as even Gary admits) there isn't anything all that original about The Old Republic. The issue's also packed with an Old Republic poster that I'll be putting on my mag-room wall, like I always do with freebie calendars. (The wall's getting a bit cluttered now. It's probably time to pitch the old ones.)

Tips & Tricks Video Game Codebook February 2010


Cover: Halo 3: ODST

This is the first issue since T&T announced it was segueing to eight-times-per-year publication, and as promised, there are now three strategy guides per edition (ODST, Scribblenauts and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2) instead of two.

The mag also comes with a poster for Scribblenauts and one-half of Halo Legends. One-half? "You'll have to pick up our next Codebook to get the other half," says the editor letter. "It'll be worth the wait, though, because when you put them together, the result will be twice as big as the Scribblenauts poster...and there will be another complete poster on the front!" It's...an innvoative idea, I'll give them that.

Edge Christmas 2009


Cover: Dust 514

I had read a bit about this cover game in EON, the Eve Online-exclusive mag I mentioned last month, but Edge's approach is a lot more interesting, showing how CCP is going between Iceland and China with the dev team and how the game will connect meaningfully with Eve.

The feature dovetails with the Region Specific section in back devoted to game developers in Iceland, someplace you wouldn't really expect to have a lot of game action, and it's certainly a fascinating place.

An extra bit of trivia: The review section brings Edge's first 10/10 of the year, awarded to Bayonetta -- we've had a bit of a decline in scores after the mag gave 10's to three titles in 2007.

Play December 2009


Cover: Darksiders or Reflex: MX vs. ATV (2 covers)

Both cover features are review/interview packages written by Mr. Halverson. Both are classic Play. Not much else to say about this one.

Retro Gamer Issue 70


Cover: Monkey Island

A massive roundup for the series is the top offering this month, complete with a few words with co-creator Ron Gilbert.

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

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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

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