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December 19, 2009

COLUMN: Design Diversions: Stay Classy

team-fortress-2-preview1.jpg [‘Design Diversions’ is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by writer Andrew Vanden Bossche. It looks at the unexpected moments when games take us behind the scenes, and the details of how game design engages us. This time - musings on class, from Dungeons & Dragons to Team Fortress 2 and beyond.]

Dungeons and Dragons was the manual video game, with calculations done by hand and images drawn with imagination and graph paper. D&D has been the bible for both game and world design in the RPG and all of its many sub-genres. D&D’s influence is only becoming more widespread, and more games than ever are taking a page from its most defining concepts.

Class, or the ability for players to specialize and customize their characters, has become increasingly popular in genres outside of the RPG. Class is a great tool for allowing players to customize their game experience according to their strengths and expectations, which is big draw in all kinds of games. One genre that has seen a particularly pronounced increase is the FPS, especially since the release of games like Team Fortress 2. This may be because class was integral to the sort of teamwork encouraged by early Dungeons and Dragons.

Gary Gygax’s vision of D&D was very nearly like a team sport. When he and the many others working at TSR created the first character classes, they made them with the intent that they would be used like a team. Players were supposed to work together and compliment each other, and class-based design was meant to encourage this team effort problem solving. A successful group relies on each other, and compensates for the weaknesses in other members. What’s wonderful about class based design is that it creates a feedback loop in which the classes encourage good teamwork, and teamwork encourages exploration and mastery of the classes.

If Guns are Classes, is Ammo EXP?

Plenty of single player games are getting in on the class action, and there are a lot of advantages to the approach for the individual, from basic convenience to the flow of gameplay. In older games everyone started out the same, and part of the experience was running around until you found your favorite gun. Games like TF2 let you start out with them. This is a small difference, but it means more time with teammates and less time spent equipping yourself.

Different guns are quite comparable to different classes, and in TF2 they are still the most defining features of each individual class. Games like Unreal Tournament made have started everyone out the same, but each gun was wildly different and fairly well balanced so that players could pick weapons equal to the situation or their playstyle. In practice, players would self-select even without more strictly defined classes.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the experiment in monotony called instagib, in which the only weapon is an instant hit instant kill weapon. This led to a game that was more or less a point and click adventure for the hyperactive. While in a sense it levels the playing field by making everyone the same, it means that there is only one way to win: point and click the fastest. When no other skills are important, only those talented or interested in that particular skill will enjoy playing.

Minimize and Maximize

Different weapons and abilities allow room for players with different kinds of skills and interests. Where TF2 really becomes different is in the inherent class advantages, those minor or major adjustments to basic things like speed and health that can make a big difference in how the character is played, along with their weapon. While they may have weaknesses, each classes is more or less guaranteed to be very good at a particular aspect of the game.

This sort of personal min/maxing almost feels like cheating, which might be why it’s so appealing. Further increasing personal strength at the expense of weaknesses is what optimizing is all about, and in team games like TF2, you also have friends to cover for your weaknesses. In a way, it’s much more fair, because players (in theory) only have to fulfill the role they find most enjoyable.

This concept of min/maxing was something that grew out of the character design method of D&D. Depending on the character a player wanted, they could throw all of their weakness onto an irrelevant stat and turn themselves into a monster. TF2 characters are premade with this design in mind, so there’s less room for play customization, but less worry about game balance.

Each Class is a Different Game

D&D is famous for being abusive in the respect of min/maxing but there’s actually nothing wrong with the approach taken by the players. The classes in TF2 are designed to take advantage of their strengths. Of course, in order to be well balanced, there needs to be equivalent strengths and weaknesses among the party members. Having no weakness makes for poor play, and this is something that needs work, but there’s nothing wrong with optimization.

For example, the Heavy has both high damage weapons and huge health pool. His chaingun was even specially designed to require less work to aim. He is balanced by being very slow, and because of this is dependent on medics or backup from friends. A player that enjoys slowly advancing on the enemy, playing defensively, or charging in with friends will find it very easy to ignore these weaknesses because the player knows how to compensate for them, and isn’t interested in the kind of playstyle they prevent.

When a class fits a person’s playstyle, their weaknesses feel less pronounced. If the Heavy player values strength over speed, he won’t feel cheated or weak by a slow character. If they player did, they could simply switch to something like a Scout. In the same round of TF2, each player may be playing what amounts to a different game depending on their class. The Spy sneaking behind enemy lines is playing a stealth mission, while the Scout is playing a race against the enemy flag carrier.

Team Effort

The other important part of the class based system is that it originated from a game that was always meant to played as a group. Team fortress continues this philosophy, forcing coordination through class design just as Dungeons and Dragons did. D&D was never intended as a single player game; Gygax’s minimum was three (two players and one referee). It was a game about teamwork, and it is this philosophy that makes class work so well in a team game.

The classes in D&D aren’t simply meant to be different play styles. Each is meant to provide unique advantages, fulfill certain roles, and compensate for the weaknesses of others. Coordinating this is where the social aspect of the game comes in, which was something Gygax was also concerned with. In the D& books he wrote at length about how important proper social behavior for players—something that’s more of an issue now than it ever was.

Scouts, for example, are the most mobile class, which makes them fantastic for capturing objectives. However, engineers can set up sentries that are extremely difficult for scouts to get by on their own. In turn, there are classes that can easily get by sentries, but will have a comparatively hard time capturing the actual objective. Of course, the engineer now needs more teammates to deal with the increased threat, and it escalates from there. Because you can change class constantly in TF2, the game encourages players to adapt to the situation, break deadlocks, and shift to help on teammates in trouble.

Gygax took a bit of a curmudgeonly attitude; he felt that players that went against the team spirit of the game should meet a swift death deserving of their selfishness, and that eventually enough appropriate ends would convince them of the error of their ways. It is not a dissimilar method. Class based gameplay means that the gap of skill can be overcome with appropriate class synergy; in other words, teamwork.

Teamwork is extremely important to any team based game, or team based anything for that matter. What class accomplishes for game design goes beyond just letting players focus on their strengths. It encourages, even forces players to complement each other.

[Andrew Vanden Bossche is a freelance writer and student. He has a blog called Mammon Machine, which discusses videogames for the most part, and can be reached at [email protected]]

Best Of Indie Games: Walker, Space Explorer

[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 delights in this edition include a brand new 2D platformer from Nifflas (Knytt Stories, NightSky), a Wario Ware-type arcade game for the browser, a score-based vertical shooter with achievements and multiple ships to pilot, a short interactive fiction game, a 3D action extravaganza that features a glowing tiki totem, and a puzzle game about breeding green frogs to beat each level.

Here's the highlights from the last seven days:

Game Pick: 'Saira' (Nifflas, commercial indie - demo available)
"Saira is a non-linear 2D puzzle platformer in which levels are separated into worlds that you can travel to at any time, although every journey uses up your ship's energy and the batteries must be charged first before you can embark on another trip. The objective of the game is basically to search for parts that could be used to build a teleporation device, so that you can reunite Saira and her friend Bobo who is on a distant planet somewhere in the galaxy."

Game Pick: 'Obey the Game' (John Cooney, browser)
"The elephant is back for another twisted yet beautiful gaming experience in the form of Obey the Game. This time around he's participating in a Wario Ware style minigame-a-thon, but with a catch - if the game tells you to DISOBEY the objective, it's opposites time! There aren't that many different tasks to undertake, but the fact that there are actually two different ways to win each one makes for some frantic play."

Game Pick: 'Walker and Silhouette' (C.E.J. Pacian, freeware)
"Walker and Silhouette is a short interactive fiction game about a pair of detectives named Nate and Ivy, working together to solve a case for the Oldchester Criminal Investigation Department. The interface is an easy one to use, and all a user has to do is to click on a highlighted keyword to investigate further or progress the story forward. Writing is solid, the storyline is intriguing, and there are some clever puzzles designed just for the single keyword system."

Game Pick: 'Irukandji' (Charlie's Games, commercial indie - demo available)
"Irukandji is a score-based vertical shooter that currently contains only one level to play, although by beating the game for the first time you do get another ship that can be used for your subsequent attempts at unlocking more achievements. There are multipliers and power-up items to collect, and you can also destroy enemies with your special missile weapon."

Game Pick: 'Igneous' (Going Down in Flames, freeware)
"Created by a team from DigiPen and entered into both the main IGF competition and the student contest, Igneous is the story of one tiki totem's frantic rush through an erupting volcano and it's quite literally a face-melter. It's a pretty short experience with around 15 minutes of play, but there is also Impossible mode which does what it says on the tin. Honestly, you won't have felt a rush like this is a good long while and that final level is incredibly epic."

Game Pick: 'Endless Frog Kids' (James Andrews, browser)
"Endless Frog Kids is a puzzle game centered around the mating habits of our green amphibian friends, mixed together with a cautionary tale that is told using charts and graphs. You need to have a Java-enabled browser and also an open mind to play, as the game might possibly offend some players with its innuendos and sexual undertones."

December 18, 2009

BioShock 2 Paper Foldables

Brooklyn artist Bryan Green (of Paper Foldables fame), who also created the brilliant CommanderVideo papercraft featured here last month, produced these five new paper foldables for the characters of BioShock 2. I'm amazed that even in this boxy form and cartoonish style, they look just like their video game counterparts.

2K Games's Cult of Rapture site has posted downloadable PDFs for each of the characters, so you can print, cut out, and fold them yourselves. Community manager Elizabeth Tobey adds, "The sky's the limit on how big these guys can be - as long as you have paper large and sturdy enough to support the final figure." So, if you want to create a giant stand of a creepy Little Sister to keep in a bedroom corner to watch you at night, no one's stopping you!

[Via @fort90]

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of December 18

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 Guerrilla Games, Tencent 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:

Guerrilla Games: Senior Environment Artist
"Saving the environment is easy - just hit CTRL-S. Making the environment convincing and awe-inspiring at the same time is a far more interesting challenge. As a Senior Environment Artist at Guerrilla, you'll work with the Level Designers to create cutting edge architectural designs, themes and compositions. You'll become part of a highly talented team, acting as a mentor, problem solver and source of inspiration for the people around you."

High Moon/Activision: Senior Sound Designer
"High Moon Studios is looking for a talented Senior Sound Designer to design and implement audio assets for a high-profile, action-packed title for PS3, Xbox 360 and PC. The individual will frequently collaborate with the audio team, game designers and producers to push the bar for creating a sonically rich, high-quality game. The ideal candidate must be passionate about making great games, be a strong problem-solver and an effective communicator."

Telltale Games: Senior Lead Tester
"Telltale is currently looking for an experienced Senior Lead Tester to join the team! The ideal candidate will have management experience, an eye for detail, strong analytical skills and a background in computers. In addition to management responsibilities, the Senior Lead Tester will also regularly test Telltale’s PC and console products. "

Sledgehammer Games Systems Engineer
"Check out our brand new studio, headed up by industry veterans Glen Schofield as Vice President and GM and Michael Condrey as Vice President and COO, the leaders of the Dead Space franchise. They are joined at Sledgehammer Games by many award winning developers from across the industry. Sledgehammer Games is actively recruiting top industry talent to join their development team. Our studio based in sunny Foster City and is walking distance to plenty of restaurants and shopping, or one of our two free gyms."

Tencent Inc.: Business Development Manager: Gaming Licensing
"Tencent U.S. currently seeks a candidate to work on business development for online games, directly reporting to senior management. Candidates must demonstrate strong ability to think independently and strategically and should be highly knowledgeable of the online gaming space in both the U.S., China and globally."

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.

Dracula Cha Cha: Tomena Sanner For The Holidays, Vampires

If Konami's Tomena Sanner is, as my friend described it, "like Canabalt but with more dancing", then Lobo's new one-level game Dracula Cha Cha is like Tomena Sanner but with a dapper Dracula and a Christmas theme. In fact, the developer says the look and concept were "proudly stolen" from the strange iPhone/WiiWare game.

Like Tomena Sanner, Dracula Cha Cha has you pushing only one button for all the different actions -- jumping, doing the twist with a green-skinned Santa, and playing rock-scissors-paper with a reindeer. It's pretty much the best Christmas game ever (not counting other better Christmas games). Lobo says he might produce more stages if no one has sued him by the time the end of January rolls around.

You can download Dracula Cha Cha for free from the Retro Remakes forum. And while Tomena Sanner isn't available yet on WiiWare, it's already on sale through the App Store for $0.99.

[Via IndieGames.com]

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Developers

[Continuing our 2009 retrospective, Chris Remo rounds up this year's top developers, based on factors beyond simply the quality of their games. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, Top 5 Console Downloadable Games, and Top 5 Major Industry Events.]

Development studios primarily earn their reputation on the strength of the games they release, and rightly so. But many studios make a name for themselves beyond that, based on interaction with their fans, impressive post-release support, strong first impressions, or succeeding in genres or business models that are traditionally particularly challenging.

These five studios fulfilled some of those criteria. Eligible groups released at least one game during 2009. Only specific development teams, offices, or divisions were considered; entire publishers were not.

Top 5 Development Studios of 2009 (listed alphabetically)

Harmonix Music Systems (The Beatles: Rock Band, Rock Band Network)

In addition to having kicked off the current wave of music-driven video games, Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems has stayed at the forefront of it through its ambitious but relatively restrained stewardship of the Rock Band franchise.

The company's sole internally-developed retail release this year, The Beatles: Rock Band, was a cut above the rapid-fire band tie-ins that populate the genre, serving as a self-contained tribute to an iconic band that built on the design framework the studio has perfected.

But more broadly, Harmonix's stewardship of the mind-boggling voluminous and diverse Rock Band song catalogue has ensured the franchise's increasingly-broad appeal. It's a lineup that ranges from The Who to Roy Orbison to The Zombies to the Pixies to Alice in Chains to Lucinda Williams, totaling more than 1000 tracks across individual downloads, bundles, and full albums.

And that number will only increase with the full launch of the Rock Band Network, a suite of community-driven tools allowing musicians to create their own Rock Band-compatible tracks. The software is already available, so when the marketplace opens up, it should start with a healthy stock.

Naughty Dog (Uncharted 2: Among Thieves)

Aside from garnering considerable praise for its action-adventure sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Naughty Dog set a particularly strong example this year for its desire to document and demonstrate its development practices to its fans and to the rest of the game development community.

On the public-facing side, Naughty Dog developers -- not just marketers -- produce a surprisingly high number of behind the scenes videos discussing its design philosophy, development goals, and general studio culture. Staffers also participated in multiple extensive real-time chats with fans, answering questions about all aspects of the project.

The company also addressed its development peers, sending staffers to demonstrate extensively at shows like Game Developers Conference and Develop; the company is planning to give numerous talks during GDC 2010 drilling down deep into Uncharted 2's production.

Rocksteady Studios (Batman: Arkham Asylum)

London-based Rocksteady Studios' first effort, the 2006 shooter Urban Chaos: Riot Response, was relatively well-received, but generated little attention. With its followup, this year's Batman: Arkham Asylum, the studio created a new first impression for itself overnight, establishing a top-notch reputation on the back of one of 2009's most acclaimed releases.

What's more impressive about the feat is that Arkham Asylum succeeds where nobody else has. It's tough enough to make a truly great licensed game -- after all, the segment doesn't have much of a quality threshold, and it's been demonstrated that tie-ins can sell well regardless -- but it's even harder to make a truly great Batman game. For over two decades, the dark knight's video game presence has been, with few exceptions, abysmal.

But Arkham Asylum is highly playable, strongly evocative, and inventive from a design standpoint, showing that all the license needed was the right caretaker. IP owner Warner Bros. clearly agrees, having recently announced Rocksteady will be hanging on to the caped crusader for another round.

Runic Games (Torchlight)

Seattle-based Runic Games hit the ground running this year. Starting with an open-source renderer -- already an unusual choice -- the startup churned out its highly-polished debut effort Torchlight in only 11 months.

The Diablo-esque action RPG was widely praised as fun and addictive in the way the genre strives to be, but it's Runic's approachability and receptiveness to feedback that has particularly distinguished it beyond its development prowess. Developers from the company have made an effort to respond to fan concerns and suggestions, provide information and context, and participate in a heroic number of community interviews and podcasts.

In a particularly famous incident, the studio set a bar for accessibility concerns. Mere hours after a forum member mentioned that one of the game's camera effects left her unable to play sections of the games due to an uncommon eye condition, a Runic developer patched in a user toggle for the option -- at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning, no less.

Valve Software (Left 4 Dead 2, DLC for Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead)

Valve goes to great lengths to share its philosophy on ongoing post-release content with the rest of the development community, but it still arguably acts on that philosophy better and more frequently than anyone else, supporting its games long after their ship dates with free content (at least on the PC) in an era when day-one paid DLC is becoming the norm.

But that's most evident with the two-year-old multiplayer shooter Team Fortress 2, which has played host to a dizzying (and seemingly neverending) stream of new content, gameplay tweaks, and almost joke-like additions. It's almost a totally different game than it was at launch; it's seen more persistent evolution than some MMOs.

The game's fundamentally tongue-in-cheek premise of warring corporate entities provides a perfect canvas for the studio's continuing content insanity, as documented by its consistently hilarious blog. Case in point: the game's Soldier and Demoman classes are currently locked in a community-wide war that has seen the Demoman equipped with a new shield and claymore (the sword kind).

Developer Honorable Mentions

Ace Team (Zeno Clash)
BioWare (Dragon Age: Origins)
Dejobaan Games (AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity in it)
From Software (Demon's Souls)
Rockstar North (Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Ballad of Gay Tony, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars [co-developed with Rockstar Leeds])
Telltale Games (Tales of Monkey Island, Wallace & Gromit's Grand Adventures)
Twisted Pixel Games (The Maw, 'Splosion Man)

Ms. Pac-Man Before The Bow, Lipstick, And Mole

As briefly mentioned in our recent post on General Computer Corp., the Ms. Pac-Man arcade game was based on Crazy Otto, an unauthorized mod kit GCC created for Pac-Man. The game was never released and was instead sold to Midway, which changed the sprites and its hero before sending it out to arcades (Both companies eventually transferred the rights to Namco to avoid a lawsuit.).

Though the original Crazy Otto was thought lost, someone from the MAME project has kept in touch with GCC co-founder and former engineer Steve Golson, and a playable dump of the game could be available soon, according to a report from Rotheblog. Perhaps we'll even see it at California Extreme next year, which is also slated to debuted another unreleased GCC project, Nightmare?

Game Informer actually put up several interesting videos from Crazy Otto's October 12th, 1981 prototype version yesterday, which shows the game's attract mode and a couple animations before Midway changed the sprites.

SFIV Keychain Arcade Sticks: Here Come Three New Challengers

Way more exciting than Capcom's forthcoming Super Street Fighter IV follow-up, online trinket seller Strapya has updated its line of SFIV Action Voice Command Key Chains. The tiny arcade sticks, which yell out special moves when you input their commands with the stick and buttons, were previously available for only Ryu, Ken, Dhalsim, and Chun-Li.

The mini controllers are now available for three other World Warriors: Guile, Sagat, and Akuma/Gouki. So, if you've always had trouble pulling off Yoga FLames and Dragon Punches, you can just get the Guile keychain to do his relatively simple Sonic Booms and Flash Kicks. Or you can get one for a friend as a Christmas gift -- they're already on sale for $13.40 each.

Mountain Maniac TV Commercial, PixelJam updates

This didn't occur to me before but makes perfect sense to me now: with PixelJam's games released by Adult Swim and featured on the cable network's site, the channel promotes the indie web releases with TV commercials. So, don't be surprised if you see a spot for the addictive, Pachinko-like Mountain Maniac the next time you're watching The Venture Bros.

Pixeljam recently redesigned its site and shared its future plans, revealing that its two most recent titles, Sausage Factory and Mountain Maniac, are part of a four-game series called the 8-bit Rejects. The next two releases from the set will be Turbo Granny and Cream Wolf, both of which have fantastic titles and are meant to be "in poor taste".

The developer says it also has a winter-themed pinball game releasing in early 2010, an iPhone title in mid-2010, and a sequel to its Gamma Bros. shoot'em up that "won't be out any time soon. Of course, I'll keep an eye on those projects and will let you know if any news comes out on them.

[Via IndieGames.com]

COLUMN: @Play: The Berlin Interpretation

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a monthly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre. This time - a look at definiting Roguelikes through 'The Berlin Interpretation'.]

Last time when covering Dungeon Hack, I noted that it doesn’t quite fit up to all of the most common definition of a roguelike. While it has random dungeons, hack-and-slash gameplay, and even items that must be identified, it is a first-person game.

And not even an Ultima Underworld kind of first-personness, but the same kind of discrete, right-angled rotation, corridor-centered perspective and step-based movement used in the Wizardry games, which were many years old by that point. And it was a real-time game, too!

For me, the game is obviously rougelike enough to be covered here, since we’re more concerned with what it is that makes roguelikes fun to play than adherance to a laundry list of similarities. But for those who are interested in such classification, we have the Berlin Interpretation.

Arrived at last year at the International Roguelike Development Conference, starting from a document over at Temple of the Roguelike, the Berlin Interpretation is a set of feature descriptions that fairly well encapsulates what a lot of people consider when they think of roguelikes. It covers both graphical and gameplay elements, and has the added advantage of not being posed as a mere checklist. They recognize that some games that are probably roguelike do not meet the exact description presented by the list, and so it is divided into High and Low value factors.

We’re going to take the game through several unusual cases we’ve covered in the past: ToeJam & Earl, Shiren the Wanderer (SNES version) and Dungeon Hack. We’ll also compare Nethack, Dungeon Crawl and Diablo to the list as controls. Let’s have a look!

The original text of the Berlin Interpretation can be found at RogueBasin.

To fold together how roguelike each of these games is, we rate them on a scale from 1 to 5. At the end we add the scores together can compare them to each other. Please note that this system is essentially arbitrary and probably counter to the intended use of the system. I’m using it just to give us a value to compare. This methodology probably wouldn’t stand close observation. For example, I myself have a problem with ASCII graphics being given any kind of priority. So there you go.

High value factors

Random environment generation
The game world is randomly generated in a way that increases replayability. Appearance and placement of items is random. Appearance of monsters is fixed, their placement is random. Fixed content (plots or puzzles or vaults) removes randomness.

Dungeon Hack: 5, levels are surprisingly good, though a little same-ish
TJ&E: 4, levels are fairly complicated but more same-ish until later on
Shiren: 4, levels have more pizazz but some levels are actually static, or drawn from a pool of possibilities
Nethack: 4, its level generator is aging a bit. The “fixed content” thing works against Nethack, which has lots of that.
Dungeon Crawl: 5, the best generator of those presented here
Diablo: 3, good generator visually, but less varied than the others due to a comparative lack of gameplay-relevant dungeon features

You are not expected to win the game with your first character. You start over from the first level when you die. (It is possible to save games but the savefile is deleted upon loading.) The random environment makes this enjoyable rather than punishing.

Dungeon Hack: 2, offers permadeath as a custom option, but unless it’s on for everything it doesn’t make much difference
TJ&E: 4, has a system of lives, but the game is hard enough that many are lost at higher levels and there are no continues, so it works out the same
Shiren: 4, the between-trip continuity options work slightly against it
Nethack: 5, good ol’ permadeath. Note that Nethack contains Discover Mode, which lets players revive after death endlessly, but a Discover win doesn't count as a win to either the community or the high score list.
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 2, Diablo 2 introduced permadeath in the form of Hardcore Mode

Each command corresponds to a single action/movement. The game is not sensitive to time, you can take your time to choose your action.

Dungeon Hack: 2, game is a mix of turn-based and real time. Real time wins, generally.
TJ&E: 1, not turn-based at all
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

The world is represented by a uniform grid of tiles. Monsters (and the player) take up one tile, regardless of size.

Dungeon Hack: 4, at first the game doesn’t look it, but really it’s the same as most roguelikes, just first person instead of overhead view
TJ&E: 1
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

Movement, battle and other actions take place in the same mode. Every action should be available at any point of the game. Violations to this are ADOM's overworld or Angand's and Crawl's shops.

Dungeon Hack: 5
TJ&E: 4, due to mail order
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 4, due to shops
Diablo: 4, due to shops

(It seems a unfair to punish games for not including a signature feature of Hack, but it's in the description.)

The game has enough complexity to allow several solutions to common goals. This is obtained by providing enough item/monster and item/item interactions and is strongly connected to having just one mode.

Dungeon Hack: 2, each class typically has only one solution to a given kind of problem, but often different classes have their own solution. This is against the spirit of the document though.
TJ&E: 4, a lesser variety of solution than other games, but still offers many ways through different situations depending on presents on-hand
Shiren: 5
Nethack 5, and more, it is Nethack’s great strength
Dungeon Crawl: 4, solutions are less universal than in other games
Diablo: 1, most solutions come down to killing things with either swords or spells

Resource management
You have to manage your limited resources (e.g. food, healing potions) and find uses for the resources you receive.

Dungeon Hack: 3, most resources have only one use, but it does make the player rely on them
TJ&E: 4
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 4, Nethack doesn’t hold the player’s feet to the fire as much as predecessors Hack and Rogue
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1, its shops break scarcity

Even though there can be much more to the game, killing lots of monsters is a very important part of a roguelike. The game is player-vs-world: there are no monster/monster relations (like enmities, or diplomacy).

All except TJ&E: 5
TJ&E: 1, the players can only fight monsters using certain presents, and further receive no experience for it

Exploration and discovery
The game requires careful exploration of the dungeon levels and discovery of the usage of unidentified items. This has to be done anew every time the player starts a new game.

Dungeon Hack: 5, surprisingly, the dungeon has a lot of character, there are several important features generated, and the items are much like in Rogue
TJ&E: 4, held back a little from presents being the only kind of item
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 2, item ID is faked. Dungeons have some important random features scattered about though.

crawljelly.gifLow value factors

Single player character
The player controls a single character. The game is player-centric, the world is viewed through that one character and that character's death is the end of the game.

Dungeon Hack: 5
TJ&E: 5 in single-player, 4 in two-player mode, the game’s two-player mode is a big part of its appeal actually, but it does fall outside the realm of the document. Even in two-player mode the game is still very roguelike-ish, just with a second player played by a second person. Still, many games are played in one-player mode.
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5 in single-player, 2 outside of it. It beefs up of monsters in multiplayer games necessitating teamwork, which might be good game design but isn’t roguelike so much. Diablo is so strongly focused on multiplayer that I’m rating it as 3 in the aggregate scores.

Monsters are similar to players
Rules that apply to the player apply to monsters as well. They have inventories, equipment, use items, cast spells etc.

Dungeon Hack: 2, no inventories, limited abilities
TJ&E: 1, enemies are very limited compared to players
Shiren: 3, monsters have no inventory, but move much like player
Nethack: 5, intelligent monsters are extremely flexible
Dungeon Crawl: 4, monsters use weapons and armor but only a small number of magic items
Diablo: 1, monsters are simply enemies

Tactical challenge
You have to learn about the tactics before you can make any significant progress. This process repeats itself, i.e. early game knowledge is not enough to beat the late game. (Due to random environments and permanent death, roguelikes are challenging to new players.) The game's focus is on providing tactical challenges (as opposed to strategically working on the big picture, or solving puzzles).

Dungeon Hack: 1, tactically light
TJ&E: 3, getting around opponents through evasion is challenging and fun, and evading danger is a big aspect of any good roguelike. There is little actual combat though.
Shiren: 5, arguably the game’s strongest feature, there are many dangerous situations that can only be escaped through clever use of the tools at hand
Nethack: 4, after the mid-game, many characters can bulldoze through most situations
Dungeon Crawl: 5, tactical combat is a focus of the game
Diablo: 3, focuses on the bad parts of hack-and-slash but still pretty good

ASCII display
The traditional display for roguelikes is to represent the tiled world by ASCII characters.
(I don’t place a lot of stock in this one myself.)

Dungeon Hack: 1
TJ&E: 1
Shiren: 1
Nethack: 5, has an ASCII mode available
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 1

Roguelikes contain dungeons, such as levels composed of rooms and corridors.

Dungeon Hack: 5, actually has excellent dungeons, its level builder is among the best
TJ&E: 1, its weird land-and-space levels may be dungeon like, but they aren’t dungeons
Shiren: 3, many of its early areas are outdoors. If that sounds petty, well, it is, but it’s a rather petty criteria.
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5, Diablo 2 introduced non-dungeon play environments

The numbers used to describe the character (hit points, attributes etc.) are deliberately shown.

Dungeon Hack: 5, HP bar can be switched to numbers and the PC, as a D&D 2E character, flaunts its statistics
TJ&E: 1, only score is visible numerically
Shiren: 5
Nethack: 5
Dungeon Crawl: 5
Diablo: 5, it places a strong emphasis on increasing your stats however you can, usually through equipment

Totals, counting low-value factors for half:

Nethack & Dungeon Crawl (tie): 57.5
Shiren Super Famicom: 54
Dungeon Hack: 42.5
TJ&E: 33
Diablo: 29

The maximum score is 60, the minimum is 12. These scores seem to me to be fairly consistent with the rogue-likeness of each of these games. Most games that, subjectively, have nothing to do with roguelikes would probably score in the low 20s at most, with lots of them coming in at 12. Rogue itself would probably get a 56 or 57, the only thing it lacking being monster similarity to the player (monsters there don’t have inventories).

It seems to objectively be a good measure, but I wonder. Is it possible to devise a game that seems roguelike subjectively, but purposely fails most of the tests of the Berlin Interpretation? Spelunky might be a good game to hold up against it as an edge case. We may come back to this later....

EDIT: Fixed an unfortunately typo.

December 17, 2009

The 'Miyamoto Never Had To Work For Press Like This' Shirt

Some backstory on this in-joke shirt: If you read Gamasutra's feature interview with Spelunky developer Derek Yu last week (and if you didn't, you should!), titled Pondering Indie Spirit, you might have seen the embarrassing but hilarious comment thread that actually had little to do with the topics discussed in the article.

In the comment section, indie developer Adam Coate lamented the lack of press coverage for his own title, Flytrap for Xbox Live Indie Games, criticizing Gamasutra for devoting a feature on what he described as a "Boulder Dash clone". A heated discussion followed involving other indies, gaming journalists, and Spelunky defenders, and Coate eventually posted the following:

"I apologize for my negative first impression, but after having spent a year of my life struggling to survive while I create a game that even my girlfriend didn’t believe in (which changed once she saw how blind playtesters reacted to it), it’s a little disheartening to just be completely ignored by the world. Miyamoto never had to work for press like this."

Orbus Gameworks president (and maker of the Meggy Jr. roguelike) Darius Kazemi described the statement as "simultaneously heartbreaking and legendarily self-delusional", and after some goading by Crayon Physics Deluxe dev Petri Purho to create a shirt based on that last sentence, he actually produced one with Matthew Wasteland!

And that's how the "Press Like This" shirt was born. Kazemi advertises, "Show everyone just how hard life is as an indie game developer! These real-life words succinctly capture the drama and the pathos of the struggling auteur." It's available for both boys and girls in several sizes and colors, and you can even purchase a "Macmillan Special Edition Stein" with the phrase!

Now that you know a little bit about the shirt's history, go read the 100+ comments that spawned its creation. The part where someone demands that Coate return his wife's GameCube game alone is worth spending half an hour reading the thread.

Valve Chooses Its Own Propaganda Poster Favorites

Earlier this week, I shared with you several stellar submissions from Valve's Team Fortress 2 propaganda poster contest, a competition pitting fans of the game's Demoman and Soldier classes against each other. The publisher counted more than 11,000 entries by the time it stopped accepting submissions.

Valve announced the top three posters, each of which receives customized in-game items. The grand prize-winning artwork was chosen for its excellent design and for capturing the spirit of a propaganda poster with a catchy slogan: "Give 'Em the Boot Right in the Fruit".

There are also 25 other runner-ups that the company will reveal later. I've included the first-, second-, and third-prize posters below, as well as two other impressive pieces picked out by Super Punch. The "We Can Do It" parody definitely deserves some recognition!

J.Axer's Dapper Topper's "Give'em The Boot" (first prize):

Amber's Rad As All Hell Item's "That Blue Devil" (second prize):

John Freeman's "Do The Right Thing" (third prize):

Anneka Tran's "TF2 propaganda":

Bob Strang's "We Can Do It":

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Console Downloadable Games

[Continuing our 2009 retrospective, Ryan Langley of sister site GamerBytes ranks the Top 5 Console Downloadable Games of 2009 from his perspective. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, and Top 5 Major Industry Events.]

Do you remember the launch of Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360 back in 2005? On offer, it hosted games like Gauntlet, Joust, Smash TV and Bejeweled 2 -- titles that most of us had played before and all limited to their 50MB file size.

But there was a little gem stuck in there called Geometry Wars, and that addictive little top-down shooter has shaped what the Xbox Live Arcade -- and digitally downloaded console games -- have become today.

Four years later, PlayStation Network and WiiWare have joined the mix -- as well as DSiWare and PSP Minis. We’ve got games hitting 2GB in size, we’ve got a digital-only Battlefield game that has sold well over a million copies, and we’ve got individual indie guys like James Silva (Dishwasher: Dead Samurai). The industry has certainly changed its perspective.

And just the leaps in quality are amazing. Just try to go back and play Jewel Quest on Xbox Live Arcade – it’s a mess of an interface, limited by the ideas of the time and the file size. We’ve come a long way. Just for consoles, we’ve seen over 250 games this year for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare.

And 2009 has been a testing ground of sorts. Xbox Live Arcade began the year with a test of player’s wallets with the rise of the $15 game -- producing variable results. The PlayStation Network showcased many stylish games, with Flower and Noby Noby Boy headlining the world of the strange, while WiiWare’s arguably best tactic was mining our childhood memories with Contra Rebirth and Excitebike: World Rally.

Now, as the year comes to an end, we're choosing five favorites. Every person will have a different experience, but these 5 titles were the ones we had the most fun with:

5. Defense Grid: The Awakening (Hidden Path Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)

Sure, Defense Grid first came out on the PC late last year, but it’s still one of the best 'tower defense' games that has been released, and its XBLA conversion is excellent. The mixture of strict placement levels and levels with path creation were a ton of fun. It becomes a puzzle game in some respects, but can also be played in all kinds of ways, depending on what you're in the mood for.

I’ve played many Tower Defense games this year – South Park Let's Go Tower Defense Play! for XBLA, Ninjatown on DS, Defender Chronicles, 7 Cities, Star Defense, geoDefense Swarm and The Creeps on my iPhone, and I still feel Defense Grid beats them all.

Even though you don’t control a guy on the field like PixelJunk Monsters, the controls for Defense Grid fit great with a console controller. The stages were challenging without feeling unfair, and the game is filled with plenty of modes to keep me interested.

And I haven’t even mentioned the raspberries.

4. Peggle and Peggle Nights (PopCap Games, Xbox Live Arcade / PlayStation Network)

Yes, Peggle came out back in 2007, but the Peggle spirit lives on, and made a perfect transition to consoles this year.

What makes the XBLA and PSN versions even better is online Leaderboards. People have been addicted to besting scores on the PC by trading YouTube videos, but nothing beats the simple Leaderboard structure that the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 allows.

Another huge addition was Peg Party mode, a four-player variant of Peggle which again makes you think more about hitting those pegs as best as you can -- something not usually supported in PC games of this style.

3. ‘Splosion Man (Twisted Pixel, Xbox Live Arcade)

A simple platformer is exactly what I’ve wanted for the longest time on Xbox Live Arcade, and Twisted Pixel delivered. The keep-it-simple-stupid mentality of Sonic The Hedgehog has long been lost on Sega, but indie darling Twisted Pixel was able to find that magic with ‘Splosion Man.

‘Splosion Man is just what an Xbox Live Arcade title should be – it makes no attempts to emulate a retail title within a smaller package, has a simple and interesting control scheme -- and of course, is just really fun.

2. Shadow Complex (Chair Entertainment, Xbox Live Arcade)

Chair Entertainment’s Undertow on XBLA was a bit of a downer – a simple underwater shooter that wasn’t really that entertaining for me. It’s amazing to see how far they’ve come with the release of Shadow Complex.

A game that harks back to the days of Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night but with a next-generation twist, Shadow Complex delivered in spades, and it was a lot of fun along the way.

It's just little things that keep you going -– like showing how well your friends are doing at booting robots across the room, or seeing that rocket canister in the background that you know you’ll be back for later.

1. Trials HD (Redlynx, Xbox Live Arcade)

Before Trials HD came out, I was tester at a video game company. I had access to pre-release games on Xbox Live Arcade via a test system, and one of those games was Trials HD. When we stayed back late to test a build, we would bide our time by playing Trials. When our game was basically finished, the artists had a brief quiet period, so they started playing Trials HD. All day.

RedLynx has created one of the most addicting, fun and frustrating games ever, and you don’t get bored of it. You may press that restart button 300 times, but that’s not going to stop you from beating that level.

The Leaderboards integration is fantastic, showing off everyone in your friends list in the corner so you can make sure you’re that little bit ahead of them. It’s addicting to try and beat your own score as well as your friends'. And with the level editor and downloadable content coming, RedLynx is able to pile on the replayability over time -- even more reason to vote it our top console downloadable game of the year.

Honorable Mentions

Battlefield 1943 (DICE / EA Games, XBLA / PSN): For those like me who’ve never tried a Battlefield game before, 1943 is a fantastic way to test the waters, and now has me far more interested in Bad Company than I ever was before.

Banjo Tooie (4J Studios / Rare, XBLA): The Nintendo 64 did its best to make Banjo Tooie playable, but the framerate was so iffy that I didn't want to complete the game. The XBLA version fixes everything and adds more to the game -- and is a blast the whole way through.

Swords & Soldiers (Ronimo Games, WiiWare): Conceptually, real-time strategy games sometimes have issues on consoles, but wonderful, cartoony art direction and a really clever gameplay adaption, this WiiWare title from the original creators of De Blob was decidedly slept on.

Critter Crunch (Capybara Games, PSN): Though not my favorite puzzle game this year, Critter Crunch is notable for making the puzzle genre actually look striking. No “blocks” or “gems” -- you’ve got your bugs and your Biggs and that instantly makes me more interested.

Death Tank (Flat Games, XBLA): I was a huge fan of the original Death Tank on the Sega Saturn, and the new version certainly delivered. Its only problem was the lack of players, likely due to the higher (1200 MSP) price, which is kind of sad.

Bit.Trip series (Gaijin Games, WiiWare): Amazingly, all of the first three titles in this series from the Santa Cruz-based indie were released during 2009, and while they're bite-sized, they're also adorably retro, well-constructed, and a lot of fun to play through.

Dishwasher: Dead Samurai (Ska Studios, XBLA): Proof that one guy can do just as well as a full studio. Solid design and excellent entertainment twinned – can’t wait for what’s next from this guy.

Flower(ThatGameCompany, PSN): Certainly one of the more interesting games this year – you’ll be seeing it in a lot of Top 10 lists in the next couple of weeks. It does what it intended to do, but I feel there were more fun games out there over the last 12 months.

LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias (Frontier Developments, WiiWare): While it does simply expand on the mechanics of the original Lost Winds, it’s still one of the few Wii games out there where I really enjoy the Wii remote controls. Plus, it’s also still the best-looking series on WiiWare.

Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (Capcom, XBLA / PSN): My favorite fighting game finally goes online, and was a ton of fun – until you run into a Sentinel / Cable / Storm combo, of course. It’s still as delightful as it was back in the early 2000s.

The Maw (Twisted Pixel Games, XBLA): Twisted Pixel’s debut game brought a solid 3D platformer to the Xbox Live Arcade, and much like ‘Splosion Man, it knows exactly what it is – a well-crafted $10 game.

Mushroom Wars (Creat Studios, PSN): A very simple strategy game which really surprised me. It has a particularly addictive quality to it, and plays like I like my real-time strategy games – rushing the enemy.

Bonsai Barber (Zoonami/Nintendo, WiiWare): Martin Hollis' debut title for WiiWare wasn't what you might expect from the GoldenEye co-creator - but a really interesting 'few minutes per day' play style and time-unlockable elements meant that it was both innovative and beguiling. Good use of Wii controls, too.

Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge (EA Games, XBLA / PSN): Surprisingly ignored by the general populace, Red Alert 3: Commander’s Challenge is the perfect way to get console players to try RTS controls on their system. For $10, you can get a quick taste. It certainly proved the series on console to me, and I will be eying a copy of Command & Conquer 4 for the Xbox 360 next year.

Shatter (Sidhe Interactive, PSN): A fantastic revision of the classic bat-and-ball game that brings it to the next generation from the New Zealand-based dev. Arkanoid Live was a disappointment, but Shatter exceeded my expectations.

Trine (Frozenbyte, PSN): A wizard, a thief and knight must bind together through some beautiful side scrolling action. An evocation of classic gameplay styles with some intelligent updates.

2010 Game Developers Choice Awards Open For Nominations

Organizers have announced that the 2010 Game Developers Choice Awards, the most prestigious honors in the world of video game development, are now open for nominations through Jan. 4, 2010.

In its tenth year of honoring the best games and developers, the Game Developers Choice Awards -- the leading awards voted on by developers, and created for developers -- has adopted a new voting methodology.

Nominations - as always - are selected by any game professional worldwide, simply by submitting ballots via the Game Developers Choice Awards website. (Submitters are required to log in with a Gamasutra.com username and password so professional developer status can subsequently be verified.)

Category finalists and Special Award winners are selected by the 20 person-strong Game Developers Choice Awards Advisory Committee, including notable industry veterans from Harmonix, Valve, PopCap, Ubisoft, BioWare, and more.

Starting this year, winners are now being selected by the Game Developers Choice Awards-specific International Choice Awards Network (ICAN), which is a new invitation-only group comprised of 500 leading game creators from all parts of the video game industry.

Choice Awards organizers believe that, in tandem with their goal of having the most focused, impartial awards in the game industry, this additional voting transparency will further boost the awards' reputation.

The 2010 award categories are open for nominations to any member of the video game community until January 4th, combining both Regular and Special Award nominations, are:

Regular Awards

- Best Audio
- Best Debut Game
- Best Downloadable Game
- Best Handheld Game
- Best Game Design
- Best Technology
- Best Visual Arts
- Best Writing
- Innovation Award
- Game of the Year

Special Awards

- Lifetime Achievement
- Pioneer Award
- Ambassador Award

The ceremony, produced in association with the Game Developers Conference, will take place on Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm. The ceremony, which is open to all game developers, is held immediately following the Independent Games Festival Awards, and will be hosted in North Hall D of San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.

“Since its inception in 2001, the Game Developers Choice Awards have come to represent one of the highest honors in game development," said Meggan Scavio, event director of the Game Developers Conference. "We're humbled by the incredible talent that is showcased in the awards, and consistently awed by the amazing gameplay experiences we see every year. I can't wait to see what games the development community will be honoring on March 11th.”

To submit a nomination ballot for the Game Developers Choice Awards, visit the official Choice Award website. For further information and to register for GDC, please visit GDC's official website.

CMU Group Shows What's Beneath the SurfaceScapes

The official Microsoft Surface blog published the second half of its interview with one of the CMU students working on SurfaceScapes, the Dungeons & Dragons virtual tabletop gaming application, and with the Q&A shared a video demonstrating the team's progress adapting the pen and paper RPG for the large multi-touch screen after an extra eight weeks of work.

Some of the improvements you'll see here since the first demonstration clip posted last October include support for story slides, action points, adding new players in between battles, NPC miniatures, and more. The video also shows the Dungeon Master's interface on a separate laptop.

At the end of the video, the CMU group hints that they plan to show off more of SurfaceScapes at PAX East next March.

[Via Kotaku]

WFMU Webcasting Blip Festival 2009

Blip Festival 2009 kicks off tonight, and while most of us are miles and miles away from New York City and unable to attend, thanks to modern technology and the endless wonders of the internet, that doesn't mean we can't watch our favorite micromusicians perform at one of the year's biggest chiptune events.

Radio station WFMU (91.1 in Jersey City) will host a live webstream from the three-day concert this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Leading up to Blip Festival, WFMU has brought in several slated acts like Patric Catani and Je Deviens DJ En Trois Jour to play songs live on their Sound and Safe program. You can listen to those performances here.

For those of you actually attending the event, make sure to stop by at "Post Your Blips" section of the official Blip Festival 2009 site to share your pictures, videos, and impressions.

Pong Prom: Competitive Slow Dancing

If you already have trouble slow dancing and need to watch your partner's feet while shuffling around, this probably isn't for you! Designed by the Dept. of Covert Athletics, this art project allows a couple to play a game of Pong, displayed on each others' chests, while wearing specially designed hoodies.

The hoodies have patches of conductive fabric on the shoulders, hips, and cuffs, as well as an accelerometer attached at the back of the neck, all communicating with a LilyPad Arduino to control the game. To move their game paddle left and right, players have to tilt their partner accordingly.

The group plans to eventually put up instructions on how to create your own Pong Prom setup, but for now, you can read more about the project and see close-up photos of the hoodies at the Dept. of Covert Athletics's site.

[Via Technabob]

This Week In Video Game Criticism: The Minimal Approach

[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 looks at minimalist game design and real vs. fictional in games.]

Reader and contributor Eric Swain does a fantastic job of sending me links, this week being no exception. In the week before last, Daniel Bullard-Bates writing for the criminally underrated ‘Press Pause to Reflect’ blog discusses Mitch Krpata’s own piece on the minimalism of Uncharted 2 which we linked in TWIVGC a few weeks gone.

Bullard-Bates expands on Krpata’s thesis and looks at other games that do (or don’t) ascribe to a similar minimalist game design aesthetic.

The Borderhouse blog continues steaming ahead, and I was pointed towards an excellent post about ‘character versus gameplay’. Relating an anecdote where a player picked a character they identified with only to be frustrated by the unique rules applicable, the author discussed the void between character and gameplay:

[The in game character] may have represented her in the way she would like to be perceived, but [that character’s] rules/style didn’t represent her as a player. This disconnect may have lead her to have a poor experience with the game because the game didn’t reward her for how she likes to play.

Denis Farr continues his obsession with BioWare’s Dragon Age: Origins, turning the spotlight of his personal blog’s series on LGBT characters onto Zevran. Looks like no one will be winning the TWIVGC pool this week.

After a protracted absence, The Runner finishes its lengthy jog. For our more recent readers, The Runner is a first-person account of Mirror's Edge that blends image, story and game critique together into one big delicious mix.

Charles J Pratt writes about ‘The Jungle of the Real’ and the blurry, contested line that separates the ‘real’ from the ‘fictional’ in a game. He particularly notes:

There is a way in which part of every game is real. Perhaps rules are arbitrary, but what’s more important is that the consequences of those rules are not. When we play a game we pretend that we have certain constraints on our behavior, but the actions we take and the decisions we make as a result of those constraints are not pretense. Instead they are the explorations of the logical space of possibility that’s generated by the arbitrary rules we’ve adopted.

LB Jeffries wrote a piece at the Moving Pixels blog about the novels of Philip. K. Dick and what they can tell us about our relationship with video games.

Elsewhere, Richard Clark at Christ and Pop Culture writes about the 2009 that was, and ‘How gaming changed us’ – essentially, it’s one person’s picks of some of the trends that have cropped up time and again this year.

Conversation across the blogspohere is a wonderful thing, so here’s Eric Swain responding to Danc of Lost Garden’s post we linked to last week. Those are fighting words!

Finally, Matthew Burns-nee-Wasteland seems to have taken up Duncan Fyfe's mantle for unconventional, non-essay style criticism, this week explicating an all too believable situation from a game developers point of view in 'Soft Body Dynamics'.

December 16, 2009

Get Lamp Preorders Now Open, Premiering At PAX East

Digital archivist Jason Scott has opened preorders for Get Lamp, his forthcoming documentary on the history of text adventure games and their creators. The Textfiles.com maintainer, who also directed 2005's BBS: The Documentary, has worked on the project for three years and expects to release the Get Lamp DVD in March 2010.

Get Lamp features interviews with dozens of developers who were instrumental in shaping the 30+ year history of interactive fiction and text adventures games (e.g. Steve Meretzky). Scott says he shot more than 120 hours of footage for the film, and spent "many hours editing, planning, contacting parties, and doing all the behind-the-scenes work that comes with putting together a top-quality product."

He was able to find time for the project and his other computer history pursuits thanks to a successful pledge drive at donation-ware platform Kickstarter, which brought in $26,658 to fund his 3-4+ month sabbatical from his day job as a computer administrator. Scott rewarded benefactors with access to updates on his projects, comiplations of his Textfiles.com site, and DVD copies of BBS and Get Lamp.

As for preorders on the two-disc Get Lamp DVD, the director is offering them for $30 (a 25 percent discount off the planned $40 price) until December 30th. He says that the early cash he receives will help him build up money for a good production run, make deposits to the duplication firm, and order wrap-in objects to include with the packaging.

Scott also recently announced that the documentary will premiere at the inaugural PAX East convention in Boston, Massachusetts next March. After the film is screened, he plans to host a Get Lamp panel and will be hanging out with many of the people he interviewed for the documentary. You can watch an old trailer for Get Lamp released back in 2007 below:

You can put in your preorder and find more information on the documentary at Get Lamp's official site.

GDC 2010 Reveals First Summit Sessions and Keynotes

[We're just in the process of announcing lots more GDC 2010 sessions, and here's the first set of Summit keynotes and notable talks -- with lots more neatness coming down the pipe.]

Organizers of next March's Game Developers Conference 2010 in San Francisco have revealed keynotes and first sessions for Summits, with notables including Facebook's Gareth Davis (Social & Online Games Summit) and Spider's Randy Smith (Independent Games Summit).

Taking place March 9-10th, the GDC Summits highlight the leading edge of game development in emerging and notable areas including; iPhone Games, Social & Online Games, Game Localization, Mobile/Handheld Games, Independent Games, Artificial Intelligence and Serious Games.

Of the major Summits, Facebook's platform manager Gareth Davis will deliver a keynote at the newly formed Social & Online Games Summit titled 'How Friends Change Everything'. It will discuss Facebook's massive disruption in who plays games, as well as how games are best discovered, distributed, designed and monetized on the service.

In addition, Randy Smith, owner and game designer at Tiger Style will keynote the Independent Games Summit. Tiger Style is the developer of the critically and commercially successful iPhone game, Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor, named by Apple as their top-rated game of 2009. Smith, who is also a veteran of Thief creator Looking Glass, will deliver a broad keynote address, 'Increasing Our Reach: Designing to Grab and Retain Players.'

Alongside these notable announcements, all of GDC's market-leading Summits have announced initial lectures, with a large number of new speakers and topics now confirmed for the event.

Other notable featured talks at the one and two-day Summit events include:

- Experimental Game AI: Live Demos of Innovation - Richard Evans, Maxis; Steve Rabin, Nintendo; and more (AI Summit)
- Club Penguin DS: Elite Penguin Force - Post Mortem - Patricia Pizer (GDC Mobile/Handheld Summit)
- Advanced Localization Methods for Japanese Games - Peter Fabiano, Capcom; Ryoichi Hasegawa, Sony; and more (Localization Summit)
- Code of Everand: Designing The Serious Casual MMO - Kevin Cancienne, Area/Code (Serious Games Summit)
- Falling to Your Death: The Canabalt Postmortem - Eric Johnson, Semi-Secret Software (iPhone Games Summit)

"We're thrilled by the content already programmed for this year's summits at GDC 2010 and there is so much more yet to come," said Meggan Scavio, GDC event director. "Like last year, the summits are an outlet to explore the emerging segments of our industry and these keynotes highlight exactly that mission."

GDC 2010 as a whole returns to San Francisco on Tuesday, March 9 through Saturday, March 13, 2010 for five days of lectures, panels, summits, tutorials and roundtable discussions on the most comprehensive selection of game development topics taught by leading industry experts.

Alumni registration for the show ends December 22, 2009 and Early Bird rates end February 4, 2010. For more information about the 2010 Game Developers Conference, including the eight summits, visit the official Game Developers Conference 2010 website.

Matt Hazard Memorabilia Auctioned For Child's Play

A few interesting items showed up on eBay recently: Matt Hazard memorabilia from the action hero's decades old games like Adventures of Matt in Hazard Land, Haz-Matt Karts, Choking Hazard: Candy Gram, You Only Live 1,317 Times, and Matt Hazard 3D. A total of four actions have popped up, each offering t-shirts, drink coasters, and friendship slap bracelets, all '80s artifacts from Marathon Software's heyday.

This would probably be believable if Marathon Software actually existed and if the Matt Hazard series made its debut some time before February of this year. Those of you familiar with the faux-retro Matt Hazard franchise, from its PS3/360 "revival Eat Lead to its upcoming PSN/XBLA downloadable Blood Bath and Beyond, likely already suspected something was amiss, though.

The fabricated collectibles are for a good cause, as the seller plans to donate all of the proceeds from the auctions to Child's Play, the gaming industry-supported charity dedicated to donating toys and games to sick children in more than 60 hospitals worldwide. You can find links to all four of the auctions here.

The Best Of 2009: Top 10 Overlooked Games

[Continuing the 2009 retrospective, our very own Brandon Sheffield examines his take on the top 10 Overlooked Games of 2009. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, and Top 5 Major Industry Events.]

This was a tough one. Usually I'd come up with a list like this with a snap of my fingers, but the changing face of journalism, coupled with better PR and more avenues of release meant that most games that deserved recognition got it.

Who would imagine that I’d be living in a world where Demon’s Souls was one of the most talked-about games of the year, at least in games journalism? With sales to boot?

But not everything decent made it through the cracks. Here, we present 10 titles that deserved more recognition than they got (I avoided indies, as choosing just a few to add to a list of 10 would’ve been completely unfair to all the rest).

These include some titles from larger publishers that should’ve known better – and niche publishers that should’ve known better to boot. Special thanks to Chris Remo, Kris Graft, and Leigh Alexander for suggestions:

10. UniWar (Javaground - iPhone)

Javaground’s UniWar is a hex-based strategy game for iPhone that didn’t get nearly enough play. While Hudson was providing inferior ports of Military Madness to XBLA (and a decent port to Android), UniWar took the tried-and-true formula to the next state, with simple tweaks and clever unit pairings.

This was one of my favorite iPhone games of the year – it wasn’t amazing, but it provided a solid tactics experience in a year where that was really difficult to find on a handheld. Unfortunately it didn’t really get picked up by the masses.

9. House of the Dead: Overkill (Headstrong Games/Sega - Wii)

With more swearing than an American porno, HotD: Overkill rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Its over-the-top exploitation film love, married with the classic light gun gameplay was too much for some people. But it was not too much for Gamasutra’s Kris Graft, who loved this game to pieces and put this on our list.

I do welcome the return of the light gun genre, and Headstrong did an excellent job of recognizing what was good about the genre from a gameplay perspective. Shame the “hardcore” Wii userbase doesn’t really seem to dig the old lightgun thing.

8. Raiden Fighters Aces (Seibu Kaihatsu/Gulti/Valcon – Xbox 360)

This was one of my personal surprises of the year. With Raiden, you pretty much figure you know what you’re getting, and to some extent I did. But there was so much more there under the surface. Raiden Fighters Aces got me to fall in love with scores again, through its perfect implementation of arcade fun. Big explosions, chunky pixely graphics, and ridiculously responsive controls, it’s the best I could hope from a shooter, in this day and age, or any previous.

I found myself going back to attempt single credit playthroughs, because the game essentially teaches you itself. Far from the bullet-hell shooters of the current era, RFA winds up being more accessible and more inclusive than even modern indie shooting games. Well worth a spin, especially given the value price in the West.

7. Alive4Ever (Meridian - iPhone)

Chinese developer Meridian hit it out of the park with Alive4Ever, but it was understandably somewhat glossed over. It’s one of many twinstick Smash TV-style shooting games on the iPhone, so is easily dismissed. But the responsive controls, and more importantly the different missions - from rescuing survivors, to defeating enemies in specific ways, to harvesting gold - kept the missions fresh.

The game is plain fun, and when you layer on a level system with various upgradable weapons, accessories, and attributes, you’ve got a game that really caters to the “just one more” voice in all of us.

6. The King of Fighters 98 Ultimate Match (SNK Playmore – Xbox Live Arcade)

This is another one that I totally understand people skipping over. The fighting genre is niche to begin with, and SNK releases so many KOF variants and ports that nobody but the hardest of the hardcore can keep up. But KOF 98 UM is a rebalanced version of the most popular KOF ever, with new characters to boot.

The game feels more kinetic and more explosive than ever, and the balances really help make the game work much better in versus mode. But in the shadow of the arguably regressive KOF 12, 98 UM really didn’t get the chance to shine. If you like fighting games and have ever wondered what KOF was all about, this is the game to start with. It showcases almost everything that is good about the series.

5. Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax/Konami – Wii)

The Silent Hill series has taken some serious knocks, after the third. Most recently development shifted to the West, and for better or for worse, it seems here to stay. Double Helix dropped the ball on Homecoming, and Climax’s Origins didn’t fare much better – but the latter developer got a second chance with Shattered Memories, a reimagining of the original, and it works quite well. Though it doesn’t have the scares of the PSX game, it does have thoughtful puzzling and a very well developed UI.

I’ve argued about this with the developers in person, but the blue iced environments just don’t have the scare factor of the original rust-colored chainlinked worlds of Silent Hill for PlayStation – but the newest entry is the best Silent Hill in years, and it seems most have written off the series entirely at this point.

Shattered Memories is worth a shot for fans of the adventure genre more than the survival horror genre. Fans and critics alike will discount the game based on the downturn in the legacy - but if you can get past the arguable lack of horror, you’ll have a nice game experience on your hands.

4. Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble (Spike/Atlus – PSP)

Here’s a protip if you want to get on the overlooked list – release a good, but very niche handheld game for $40. That will assure almost nobody will play it in spite of its quality, as is the case with Kenka Bancho: Badass Rumble, the third in Spike’s awesomely irreverent look at the world of highschool delinquents, released for $10 too much by Atlus in the U.S. (and not at all in Europe, so far).

This third person action game has you starring as an ambitious young gangster (bancho) who lacks street cred. As you progress, you use your eye beams to stare down other gangsters, (unfortunately staring at peoples’ butts and crotches has been severely de-emphasized in this, the third entry in the series. It was rather hilarious.)

Crouch on the ground like a hooligan to regain your power, and engage in smack talking battles to raise in ranks and achieve dominance without fighting (of course, you do wind up fighting an awful lot). The ridiculous humor, fun action, and B-level nature of this game would have you singing this game’s praises to your pals – if only it weren’t priced out of most people’s “sure, I’ll try that” range.

3. Little King’s Story (Cing/Marvelous/XSEED – Wii)

There have been many theories as to why this game didn’t get the popular reception it should have, in spite of overwhelming critical approval. Marvelous blames its own lack of brand appeal. The development lead, producer Yoshiro Kimura worries that the game might appear too kiddy for more sophisticated audiences. But the fact is, this bizarre Pikmin-like game had way more to offer than most people realized.

It came from the mind of the creator of Chulip (Kimura), a game in which you must kiss people of all genders in order to make the world a happier place. In Little King’s Story, you play as an unintentional king who must unite the land, in an increasingly bizarre adventure full of game and culture references, both obvious and obscure, which charmed the pants off of journalists, but they got it for free.

Those who had to pay kept their pants firmly affixed to their belts, and didn’t shell out for the title. Which is a shame, because if any third party Wii game was trying to make something to fit the core audience while pleasing the casual, this was it.

2. The Saboteur (Pandemic/EA – 360/PS3/PC)

It sure feels odd to put an EA game on the overlooked list, but here I go. This is the final release from a whole Pandemic Studios, and in my opinion, their best game. I’ll admit to not being a huge fan of the studio’s last work, but this one hits the right chords. It’s a GTA-like in which you throw Nazis to their doom (that’s fun), while liberating Paris (well, Paris is awesome), and driving sports cars and running around on rooftops (I’ll admit, I have a mild videogame rooftop fetish).

Like Infamous, Prototype, and Assassin’s Creed before it, The Saboteur features parkour as a main method of getting around (it’s admittedly the worst of the bunch at it – still fun though), and uses the player’s abilities to get into some interesting situations. One of my favorite aspects is sneaking, in which you can sucker punch, garrote, or otherwise stealthily disable a Nazi and then steal their clothes to blend in and engage in subterfuge. Throwing a Nazi off a building, stealing his clothes, then blowing up his sniper roost has a certain kind of satisfaction associated with it.

The icing on the cake though, is the Will to Fight mechanic. The world of The Saboteur is black and white when controlled by the Nazi, and in color in areas where the French resistance is strong. This works surprisingly well – in the black and white areas, the main color you can see is the red of Nazi insignia – on armbands, on buildings, and on every Nazi target you can blow up with dynamite (you do a lot of this).

This not only shows you an easy list of targets, it actually feels oppressive. There are enemies everywhere, and in fact they’re the most visible thing in the environment. The environment changes back to color in real time as you destroy more Nazi installations – it’s subtle, but for me the mechanic really works.

If only the tone of the game had been more serious they could’ve really had something there. But still, the game is good, I’m still playing at 12 hours in, and it got neither the recognition nor the marketing budget it deserved. It’s not perfect by any stretch, and it does have some dastardly design choices at times, but it’s most definitely overlooked for its quality. And a fitting final effort from a studio that exists now in name only.

1. Cryostasis (Action Forms Ltd./Aspyr/505 Games/Zoo Corp. – PC)

Ukrainian developer Action Forms Ltd. has released good games before - Chasm was well received, and the company’s other games have done rather alright. But Cryostasis, an FPS survival horror game, of a sort, is Action Forms' magnum opus. I have absolutely no doubt that if the game were released on home consoles, this would be one of the more talked-about games of the year, but the curious shape of game journalism means most of us tend to ignore PC games in favor of the dedicated console experience. As it stands, this game hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves.

What’s so special about Cryostasis? A few things. First, it gets across the idea of cold (and for that matter warmth) incredibly well. Cold is your enemy, and also very tied to your health. The game takes place on a huge ship that’s been wrecked in the North Pole – and the prior inhabitants have come back to life as horrific shadows of their former selves. You have to battle the cold, as well as the actual enemies, in order to stay alive.

In this game each encounter matters, in true oldschool survival horror style, avoiding huge waves of enemies in favor of important dedicated battles. The main “gimmick” of this game is the ability to dive into the memories of dead crew members you find, during which time you can attempt to avert the deaths of these characters. If you’re not convinced, try on one of the more unusual brain dives for size. Mild spoilers included, but none that are really tied to the main story.

You come upon a meat locker. There, you have the ability to dive into the memory of a slab of beef. You become a cow in a field – there’s really not much you can do, other than die. But later, you have the ability to play as the ship’s butcher. You can choose not to kill the cow – by not killing the cow, not only is that particular slab of beef no longer present in the meat locker, the butcher lives, because he was crushed to death by that very beef slab.

You don’t want to play this game? Sure you do.

Dracue Releases Gunhound Demo

Doujin game developer Dracue have released a trial version of its upcoming PC run'n gun Gunhound. It's a Japanese title from a small team, so you might have difficulty deciphering its story or configuring the controls, but the game looks very playable otherwise.

As I brought up before, the game is reminiscent of Masaya's Sega Saturn import Assault Suits Leynos II -- the above video of Gunhound's first stage definitely bears a close resemblance to the beginning of Leynos II. The clip and demo also treat us to more of the sidescroller's excellent Castlevania-esque soundtrack.

The full version of Gunhound will release on December 18th ¥6,090 ($67.89) disc edition and a ¥4,080 ($45.48) downloadable version. You can download the demo at Dracue's site -- just click the bottom right blue button on the menu.

[Via Mecha Damashii]

More Minimalism: Mario And Friends

Remember that set of minimalist video game character images featured here several months ago? The collection broke down familiar faces like Pikachu, Kratos, and Street Fighter's Vega into simple shapes and colors as an experiment to show how recognizable their designs are with gamers.

Spurred by recent attention from video game sites, illustrator Ashley Browning (an artist for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe) added four new iconic designs to the set -- Mario, Wario, Luigi, and Waluigi. I never noticed the differences in Mario and Luigi's mustaches, but I totally see it now!

Ashley's selling several of his previous designs (Donkey Kong, Jigglypuff, Kirby, Pikachu, and E.Honda) as t-shirts. He used to also sell posters, but those don't seem to be available anymore. You can see the full collection of "video game minimalism" artwork on his Flickr set.

Pixels in Motion: Arkedo Series 03

Just a week after unveiling the game to us last week, Arkedo has put out a brief video preview of 03 Pixel!, its latest Arkedo Series title developed in collaboration with officemates and Maestro developer Pastagames.

Though the clip shows less than a minute of footage, there's a lot to love here: sulking trees in the background, a cat hero that closes his eyes and opens his mouth while pouncing, a special meow attack, and the blithe "la la la lala"s in the soundtrack. The footage also kind of explains what Arkedo meant by "zoom[ing] in pixels to find the way out".

Pastagames and Arkedo expect to submit 03 Pixel! to Xbox Live Indie Games in a week or so after they finish polishing the 2D platformer.

[Via GamerBytes]

Interview: Twisted Pixel Talk Splosion Man's Musical Collaboration

[Here's a fun discussion/interview with the folks who worked on the soundtrack for Twisted Pixel's excellent Splosion Man for Xbox Live Arcade -- nice to see detailed discussion of audio influences and carefully collaboration.]

One of the most important aspects of a game is its soundtrack, but working collaboratively and effectively with composers can be a challenge.

Twisted Pixel co-founder Josh Bear and freelance composer Joshua Mosley talked to Gamasutra about their collaboration, which resulted in the soundtrack for recent XBLA hit Splosion Man, from inspiration to production.

"Character design is really important for us here at Twisted Pixel," says Bear, "so when creating Splosion Man, I knew we needed the right type of soundtrack to go along with the characters, especially Splosion Man himself. I had met Joshua Mosley at a GDC party some years back and had been waiting for the right game to work with him on. Based on his demo tracks and personality, I thought he would be perfect for the game."

Mosely found the project as appealing as Bear suspected he would. "When Josh told me the concept of their new title, I knew right away that I had to do the music for it," he said. "Very early on, Josh knew the direction he wanted to go in, so based on our initial conversation I submitted a theme and he loved it."

The Creative Process

Bringing him in "very early in the development cycle", says Mosely, gave him a chance to into the process to get a sense of the character and game at the same time the developers were making those realizations allowed him the best creative latitude. "They were still in the concept art phase, and I believe they had one rough animatic to show how the gameplay would look. Our next conversation was a journey into the mind and character of Splosion Man. He has no concept of right or wrong, he is just happy to have been created and desperate to be free. The more I listened the more I began to hear the musical voice of the character emerge.

Bear says, "When I was originally figuring out what I wanted to do with the music in the game, I knew it might be difficult to describe through just email or even over the phone. Joshua didn't even have a build of the game to play, so it was very important that our collaboration together could hold together through not just phone calls, but with example pieces of music from all types of media. Instead of just coming up with very specific directions, we would both talk it out with each other and figure out what it was going to be."

Says Mosley, "Other than the few pieces of concept art and some of Josh Bear's direction, I was on my own. I began to move forward with the score. I really wanted to get the coloring and tone right for this game so I went back to all the character traits of Splosion Man; what was going through his mind, what makes him 'tick'."

Fortunately, this give-and-take process had good results, says Bear. "I learned that Joshua could take direction and do his best to create what I wanted, but also add his own touch so it would make it something personal for him. I would recommend that developers working with a composer should give specific direction and inspiration, but let that composer do what they do best and add to that direction so it becomes theirs.

"The fact that Joshua was excited and eager to create something awesome, even though Splosion Man was a small downloadable game, made it that much easier. We never once thought of it that way... the music just needed to be fun to listen to and reflect the style and humor of the characters in the game, regardless of the overall scope and length."

The Source of Inspiration

Mosley says that it comes down to character. "I decided I wanted this score to be driven by our lovable and manic main character. This is all not too common in games. There were so many possibilities and it was great because Josh gave me some excellent direction but also a lot of free reign.

Says Mosley, "Overall I wanted to take the gamer places that you wouldn't quite expect. For instance, you will have a guitar riff going, that transitions you into big choirs 'ahhs', then a jazz vocal scat to big epic horns. This score is very eclectic in that sense. And I wanted to do that on purpose as to personify Splosion Man. He is a very 'freeform' sort of character with no set rules or guidelines.

"I did have some great creative references of some old titles for instrumentation ideas. When approaching the color and orchestration for the score, I wanted to bring something of a fusion of instruments and styles to the palette. Josh and I both agreed we didn't want a Looney Tunes 'cartoony' sound. I drew inspiration from current works like Michael Giacchino's The Incredibles score, Thomas Newman's Wall-E and older pieces like Peter Gunn and the old great spy shows of the '60s.

"The music had to capture the chaotic nature of the character as well as a sense of escape and adventure. It also had to be driving. So along with utilizing the full spectrum of the orchestra I wanted to have some 'glitchy' drones and drums, some rock grooves, and some techno beats to send it in forward motion.

"If Splosion Man had an instrument of choice, it would definitely be the electric guitar. So I also wanted to make sure that was used liberally throughout the score. Splosion Man's theme became centered around a 6 note riff and an ostinato figure of a minor 2nd intervals."

Moving into Production

Bear notes that the Xbox Live Arcade size limit increase between development of The Maw and Splosion Man gave them room to work with -- but there was a bigger issue, he says. "Even though memory wasn't as big of an issue as it could have been, budget was. The budget for a downloadable title is much smaller than a retail game, and Joshua and I had to be smart in how much we could create for the game with the budget I had.

"Part of the creative process was to develop 45 second looping themes that could be repeated over and over without the player getting bored or annoyed by hearing the same thing. This in itself is a difficult thing to do and takes a lot of time and talent. Joshua was up for it though and spent a lot of time planning out tracks before fully fleshing them out, so we knew what would work before he got too far ahead."

Says Mosley, "After we got the theme and tone of the score locked, in I continued on to one cue after the next. I actually started from Level 1, writing each cue in sequence. Twisted Pixel gave me three major milestones; one for each stage. It was a three month long process. I began in February and wrapped in April. I would turn in each cue as I finished them.

"The three stages in the game have slightly different environments. Since the entire game takes place making your way out of Big Science Laboratories, I wanted to music to be reflective of the subtle changes in the environment and send you into a different feeling.

The 45 second looping cues didn't make this easy, says Mosley. "To accomplish this there definitely needed to be a lot of melodic movement and some solid riffs. Every eight bars or so in each cue, I made sure to change textures as well as introduce new riffs and state the themes in variation. Finally the end of each cue always lands on a dominant or leading tone so you don't feel its resolve until the beginning of each cue. That was really my only limitation on the score."

"Josh and I talked a lot about how real instruments could add a lot to the music, and why it was important, even for a downloadable game like Splosion Man," says Mosley. "I was excited they were on board with using live players. At the end of each stage I would send all cues to be approved by Twisted Pixel. The feedback on every cue was positive. This is a composer's dream, of course. No revisions!

"I thought 'This is going a little too well. Something is going to come up,' but it didn't. I know it had a lot to do with being in sync from the beginning by laying a good foundation. After I was given the green light to record, I would part out the charts for the flutists, send stems out to the guitarist and bassist, and conduct the vocalist at my studio. I did the same process after every stage. It went very smooth and helped streamline the process."

"The budget on downloadable games for live players is obviously smaller, but we made it work. Thankfully I was set up to track the players and vocalist so I didn't have to hire a studio and engineer. I made sure to manage session time with the live players wisely. We managed to cram each stage into two hour sessions. It was a challenge that they all definitely met. In total I was able to bring on five vocalists, two flutists, a guitarist, a bassist, a sax player and I actually covered all the trumpet work." Using friends and family -- and playing the trumpet himself -- helped, says Mosley.

The Final Result

You can listen to the entire Splosion Man soundtrack on its official YouTube channel.

Both Mosley and Bear wanted the music to be a key element in the game -- usually, they say, the music in downloadable titles isn't often or noticed by players.

Says Bear, "Something that was really important to me from the get-go was that we use real instruments. Not that going entirely synthesized is a bad thing, but I love the sound of real instruments and I thought it would go a long way to make the game sound better than most downloadable titles."

"Another great idea from Josh was to have an interactive element to the score," says Mosley. "The idea was to have a guitar layer trigger, playing the leading line whenever Splosion Man sploded. It turned out great and I believe it enhanced the gaming experience. It was not just background music.

"If I had to pick a favorite cue it would have to be 'Go to Light Speed'. It was for one of the levels where you are trying to escape the rising nitroglycerin. It has a little of everything, and great performances by the flutist, sax player and jazz vocalist," Mosley says.

You can download the whole score, including John Deborde's and Matt Chaney's contributions, at the Splosion Man website. You can also visit Mosley's official site.

December 15, 2009

Post Script: A 'Post-Post-Apocalyptic Tale Of Humanity And Inhumanity"

Game journalist and GSW contributor Lewis Denby let us know that the first episode of Post Script, his experimental Half-Life 2: Episode 2 mod that looks to tell a "post-post-apocalyptic tale of humanity and inhumanity", releases in just a few days, December 18th to be exact.

Each of the planned five episode follows one of several characters recalling the second end of the world. Denby describes the concept: "Post Script examines the nature of society, how it shapes us and how it’s shaped by us. It asks how we respond to astonishing hostility and unexpected love. It raises big questions, but there’s a decent chance it won’t get round to answering them."

He compares the mod's storytelling to Tale of Tales's The Path but with a few lightweight environmental puzzles to solve as players contemplate about how the whole world "fell out of existence completely." You can learn a little bit more about Post Script at its official site and read an interview with Denby on the game's story at Games Modding.

Austin-Bergstrom Airport Hosts Video Game History Exhibit

If you find yourself spending a few hours on a layover Austin-Bergstrom International Airport some time between now and January 26th, 2010 make sure to explore the concourse between Gates 7-12 for "Behind the Screens", an exhibit promising a historic peek at the video game industry with original art and artifacts from early titles.

The collection, which is on loan from University of Texas's Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, features original sketches, story boards, and illustrations from classic video games, mostly from Austin-based developers like Origin Systems and Ion Storm.

Some of the specific items on display include a paper punched taped used to record the code for Richard Garriott's first published game Akalabeth, a rare prototype cartridge for Ozark Softscape's lost M.U.L.E. sequel Son of M.U.L.E. (Genesis), and design documents from Warren Spector's Deus Ex.

The exhibit also has a section dedicated to unreleased games, like a 1997 copy of a proposal for an unidentified title that "illustrates the high level of time, resources and staff involved with a project that never came to the public eye." The airport notes that great care was taken into the project's sound effects and music, with original scores provided by sound designer George "Fat Man" Sanger.

You can find more information on "Behind the Screens" and other ongoing exhibits at the Austin-Bergstrom Airport's official site.

[Via Mathew Kumar]

Best of FingerGaming: From Dragon's Lair to H.A.W.X

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

This week, FingerGaming highlights recent releases like EA's iPhone version of Dragon's Lair, the aerial combat sim Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X, and Namco Bandai's expanded port of Pac-Man Championship Edition.

Here are the top stories from the last seven days:

- Dragon's Lair and Cobra Command Bring Classic FMV Action to the App Store
"With a number of interactive movie games already available in the App Store, two more 1980s-era laserdisc arcade games have now been ported to the iPhone -- the FMV shooter Cobra Command and the Don Bluth animated adventure title Dragon's Lair."

- Apple Reveals Top-Selling, High-Rated iPhone Games of 2009
"In its new 'Rewind 2009' feature released today on iTunes, Apple has listed the year's top-grossing games for the iPhone and iPod Touch, including titles like The Sims 3, Flight Control, and Cooking Mama."

- Top-Grossing Game Apps: Dragon's Lair Sees Big First-Week Sales
"EA's iPhone port of Dragon's Lair sees fast sales in its first week of release, as Call of Duty: World at War Zombies takes top honors for the third week running."

- Rockstar Games Premieres on iPhone with Beaterator
"Grand Theft Auto series developer Rockstar Games has released its first iPhone title. Beaterator is a port of Rockstar's formerly PSP-exclusive music making application, developed in cooperation with music industry producer Timbaland."

- FingerGaming's Top 5 iPhone Games of 2009
"FingerGaming rounds up the top 5 iPhone games of the year, sifting through the highly competitive market to recognize Rolando, Eliss and more."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Donut Games' Traffic Rush moves up to the top of today's free app charts. Adult Swim's holiday-themed Amateur Surgeon Christmas Edition takes second place in its debut week, while Slime Ball finishes third."

- Aerial Combat Sim Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X Premieres for iPhone
"Following up on this week's release of Driver, the aerial combat title Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X is the latest Ubisoft property to see an iPhone port, thanks to a continuing partnership between Ubi and prolific App Store publisher Gameloft."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"Doodle Jump rockets to the top of this week's paid charts, after a recent update added a new holiday-themed graphics skin. Bejeweled 2 climbs up to second place, as Finger Physics takes third."

- Pac-Man Championship Edition Now Available in App Store
"After a successful debut on the Xbox 360 in 2007, Namco Bandai's retro remake Pac-Man Championship Edition sets its sights on the App Store. The iPhone version of Championship Edition boasts a number of new challenges not found in the original console release."

Capcom's Werewolf: The Apocalypse Prototype Released

Back in 1995, Capcom announced a team-up with role-playing game publisher White Wolf to produce a Werewolf: The Apocalypse adaptation for PS1 and Sega Saturn, the first in a planned series of video game collaborations. The project followed a previous partnership for Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game, a pen and paper RPG combining the fighting franchise with White Wolf's World of Darkness rules.

The adaptation was created by Capcom Digital Studios (Capcom Production Studios 8, CPS-8), the company's now defunct Western developer, which also put out titles like Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, Maximo vs. Army of Zin, Final Fight Revenge, and Final Fight: Streetwise.

The Werewolf: The Apocalypse game never made it to stores, but a playable prototype ROM for the Saturn version finally appeared and is now available to download, thanks to Sega Saturno and Hidden Palace, the same communities that raised money to obtain and put out other previously unreleased titles like Virtua Hamster and X-Men: Mind Games for the Genesis 32X.

While the game looks rough (Why does it take so long to kill enemies?), it shares a few similarities with Beam Software's excellent Shadowrun for SNES, not just due to its pen and paper origins but also because of its semi-isometric view and ruined city filled with random guys trying to murder you. It also appears at least a little more fun than what I remember of Werewolf: The Last Warrior (minus the rad U.S. ending).

Capcom, of course, went on to release its own wolf game series several years later. Thankfully, Okami looks and plays nothing like Werewolf: The Apocalypse , though in-house developer Clover Studio didn't fare any better than Capcom Digital Studios.

[Via Unseen64]

Paranormal Activity: Ghost Busters-style Augmented Reality Game

Augmented reality games company Total Immersion is showing off a new attraction that family entertainment centers, malls, and theme parks can install: an interactive haunted house. Titled Paranormal Activity (it doesn't seem to have any relation to the film of the same name), the attraction arms users with Ghost Busters-style equipment and sets them loose to blast evil spirits.

"Before entering in the attraction, guests are equipped with a backpack and a video gun (with an infrared camera, one LCD display and a trigger)," explains Total Immersion. "Guests have to use the video gun to progress inside the horror house and find ghosts. As soon as the ghost is found, guests have to shoot it to collect point and succeed their mission."

Imagine how creepy the haunted houses would be with characters/monsters like these!

[Via Arcade Heroes]

Subject Delta: Boris Vallejo, Julie Bell Paint BioShock

2K Games has posted its fourth and final installment for its BioShock 2 Artist Series, a collection of works inspired by Rapture and its inhabitants. Famed fantasy/sci-fi artists Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (married to each other) contributed this piece titled "Subject Delta", painting a scene of the underwater city in their own distinct style.

While 2K Games hasn't announced any plans to sell prints of "Subject Delta", it offers high resolution versions of the art (as well as other works in the series from concept artist Craig Mullins, Penny Arcade illustrator Mike "Gabe" Krahulik, and Invader Zim creator Jhonen Vasquez) as wallpapers for your computer, iPhone and Blackberry.

On the topic of BioShock and 2K Games, the developer is hosting a "Splicers Unite" event this Saturday at Boston's Faneuil Hall. There aren't many details on what to expect from the get-together, but the studio advises attendeeds to dress their best for a "Rapturian cocktail hour."

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Major Industry Events

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, our very own Kris Graft examines the top 5 games industry events of 2009 -- at least, from our perspective. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, and Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009.]

2009 was another year full of notable events in the games industry, some more unexpected than others. It's the evolving landscape of the games industry that facilitates the most interesting developments -- expanding markets, new ways to deliver games, the rise of social networks, and new packaged good strategies will provide new opportunities for more big events in the years ahead.

But here are five of the most notable events of 2009, chosen because of their potential or immediate impact on the parties involved or on the industry as a whole:

5. Doom and Fallout In The Same House

When Bethesda Softworks parent Zenimax announced in June that it would acquire fiercely independent Doom and Quake creator id Software, pretty much everybody was caught off guard. Even id's resident programming maverick John Carmack couldn't have predicted the acquisition: "I would've been shocked too, if a year ago you said Zenimax would acquire id Software," he told Gamasutra shortly after the deal. "First of all, I would've said, 'Who?'"

But once the initial surprise of the deal wore off, the synergies made sense: Bethesda had recently ramped up full-scale publishing of its own titles, meaning it could save 18-year-old id the trouble of striking publishing deals on a per game basis. With Doom 4 in development, Carmack thinks that Bethesda can "change the world" with the game, if Bethesda's resurrection of Fallout is any indication.

Bethesda is also a well-capitalized company -- a good thing for the security of an independent loner like id Software, which by itself could find itself in serious trouble if one of its high-budget games were to underperform. With Bethesda and Zenimax backing id, we should keep a closer eye on the Doom house, which is already ramping up its growth, at the same time promising it will maintain its creative identity under the umbrella of Zenimax.

4. OnLive, Gaikai Promise To Change Distribution

The announcements of remote server-based game services OnLive and Gaikai brought the buzz-term "Cloud Computing" to the games industry in a major way in 2009. And if the services work as advertised once they launch, they could change the way that we get our video games.

While they differ in important ways, the idea is the same: a game's audio and visual processing is done on a remote server, which then streams that to a user's computer. Control input from the user is sent to those remote servers, which purportedly relay information fast enough to reflect that input in-game in real time on a user's screen.

That kind of technology would mean that a user wouldn't need high-powered local PC hardware that is capable of running high-definition 3D games, because the remote server would be handling all of the processing.

The business model for OnLive, expected to launch yet this winter, will be subscription-based. OnLive already and support from several major game makers including EA, Epic Games, Take-Two, Ubisoft, THQ and others.

Gaikai is a cloud-based service fronted by industry stalwart David Perry. While it also uses remote servers, the business strategy is different -- game publishers would use Gaikai's tech so that users can go directly to a publisher's website, click on a game, and play it within a web browser.

The implications of such services could be huge: publishers could deal more directly with their consumers, used game sales going forward would be non-existent and there would be no more need for expensive PC hardware and game consoles. All you'd theoretically need is a broadband connection and willingness to pay for and receive games in a non-traditional manner.

And while there is definitely skepticism on whether or not such services will work as advertised -- cost and lag are two important issues -- the basics of the services do work. It's just a matter of seeing how they perform under real-world circumstances.

3. Electronic Arts' $300 Million Playfish Buy

Electronic Arts' $300 million acquisition of social network gaming studio Playfish is a deal that marks a major change for one of the industry's publishing giants -- perhaps the biggest change in EA's 27-year history.

The November buy represents megapublisher EA's gradual yet deliberate shift from packaged goods to service-based digital products. Playfish is a key part of that shift, as the London-based studio is responsible for the popular Pet Society and other games that are playable on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace. EA is already talking about using Playfish's know-how to bring popular EA franchises over to the social space.

Unfortunately, this shift from a packaged goods focus to online comes at a price. The same day that EA announced the acquisition of Playfish, it also announced it would be cutting 1,500 jobs. These cuts -- about a year after EA announced 1,000 previous layoffs -- included the shutdown of Mercenaries house Pandemic, a studio that EA acquired in fall of 2007.

Just days after the Playfish and layoffs announcement, EA CFO Eric Brown was candid about the publisher's motives behind the moves. "It's no coincidence that we simultaneously announced a cost reduction in connection with the acquisition of PlayFish, because that represents, in our mind, a very important shift to digital direct," he said.

Moving forward, EA will still be a major player in the packaged goods market with games like Mass Effect 2 and Dante's Inferno coming up, but EA hopes to significantly bolster that business with Playfish-related initiatives and other digital-direct opportunities such as downloadable content, digital distribution and subscriptions. And with BioWare's upcoming MMORPG Star Wars: The Old Republic on the way, we'll likely see another important step in EA's efforts in the online arena.

2. Modern Warfare 2 Deploys, Delivers Big Sales

Anybody who keeps tabs on the games industry knew that Activision and Infinity Ward's Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 would be a big commercial success once it released on November 10. But the true commercial impact of the game didn't begin to sink in until the sales reports started pouring in.

First there was the report out of the UK that claimed Modern Warfare 2 sold 1.23 million units on day one in the UK alone. Then Activision said that the game raked in $550 million in its first five days worldwide, as Activision CEO Bobby Kotick boasted that the game is "largest entertainment launch in history and a pop culture phenomenon." The game drove Call of Duty franchise sales to over $3 billion, Activision later said.

When November sales numbers from NPD Group came in, we saw the impact the game had on the U.S. market -- between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions Modern Warfare 2, the title sold over 6 million copies in its opening month

By comparison, Infinity Ward's last hit, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, released on November 6, 2007, and sold around 2 million units in the U.S. during its opening month. That game has sold over 13 million units to date, a milestone that its proper sequel is on pace to pass, despite a little controversy.

1. The Motion Controller Announcements

We knew about them in advance thanks to the leaks, but when Microsoft's Project Natal for Xbox 360 and Sony's motion controller for PlayStation 3 emerged with concrete details at E3 in June, we got a glimpse of where the console makers want to take gaming.

The controllers are an acknowledgment that improvements to video game hardware need to be more than just a boost in horsepower every five years. It's also an acknowledgment that Nintendo had the right idea with the Wii.

But these new controllers have potential to capture new audiences with an approach different to Nintendo's. Like the Wii, Microsoft's strategy is also aimed squarely at the mass market, but Project Natal will incorporate a 3D camera with a built-in mic in an effort to make gaming more accessible for the average person. With the release of Project Natal, Microsoft hopes to redefine the Xbox 360 experience by offering high-definition controller-less gaming.

Sony's to-be-named motion controller is more akin to the Wii's setup -- it incorporates a wand-like pointer combined with a camera that enables depth-sensing. But Sony isn't positioning the motion controller as a mass market grab, but an alternative means of control that can get more core gamers to accept motion control.

Game publishers are counting on the two control solutions to act as re-energizers for the current console cycle, helping push the Xbox 360 and PS3 beyond the typical five-year console lifecycle. An extended console cycle is a scenario that would have the most immediate, widest-reaching impact on the games industry, and the new motion controllers are poised to be the impetus behind such a scenario.

But the proof will be in the software, and 2010 will paint a clearer picture about whether the new motion controllers are boom or bust.

Other notable industry events of 2009 include:

World of Warcraft's rocky transition between Chinese operators
Musicians object to Band Hero
Disney Buys Marvel, Wideload
Epic Mickey Revealed
Warner buys Midway for $33 million
Square Enix acquires Eidos
Mark Jacobs leaves Mythic

December 14, 2009

Gamasutra Asks Readers To Vote For 'Game Of The Decade'

[Just a note from our big sister site Gamasutra, where there's a gigantic comments thread, despite the nominations being via a private submission form, heh. But check it out for ideas, and then go vote...]

Gamasutra is asking its users to vote for their 'Game Of The Decade' -- the video game title that they think was the absolute best of the last ten years, from January 2000 to date.

While the site's editors continue to round up their Top 5s of 2009, a set of lists that will end with a Top 10 Games Of The Year next week, it's handing over the ten-year game list to its readers.

Any user with a valid Gamasutra user account can respond to the question - anonymously, if they wish - naming a game released this decade for any console, handheld, PC or online platform, and why they believe it outdid any other.

The final article will include a ranked list of the most-referenced games, but also an extensive list of 'honorable mentions' which include particularly persuasive write-ups.

(Respondents are welcome to use sites like GameRankings to remind themselves of release dates and specifics on highly-rated games from this decade.)

Thus, the question, which can be answered at the official Question Of The Week page until the end of Tuesday, December 22nd, is:

"Gamasutra is asking its users to vote for their 'Game Of The Decade' -- the video game title that they think was the absolute best of the last ten years, from January 2000 to date. Name the game, and then explain why it mattered to you and what differentiates it from the multitude of others released in the last decade?"

The best responses will be compiled into an article to be published on the site between Christmas and New Year, and users can either respond publicly, with their name and company specifically cited, or answer anonymously if they wish.

Unofficial Guide to Blip Festival 2009

With Blip Festival 2009 kicking off in Brooklyn this Thursday, you might need a guide to keep track of all the acts performing at the three-day chip music concert, as well as a primer on the non-music attractions and shows planned around the event. Thankfully, Zen Albatross has a thorough break-down of all the micromusic-related happenings in NYC this week.

There's a lot to keep track of before Blip even begins -- on Wednesday, the Silent Barn in Ridgewood will celebrate the grand opening of Babycastles, a new indie games arcade, with a free performance by Australian chiptune artist Little-Scale and a chipmusic soldering workshop presented by Loud Objects. Adam Atomic (Canabalt), Ivan Safrin (Owl Country), Tristan Perich (Killjet) and Kyle Pulver (Jottobots) will all appear at the opening to show off and discuss their titles.

Also make sure to leave your schedule open for afternoon screenings of 2 Player Productions's Blip Festival documentary Reformat the Planet on Friday and Reformat the Planet 1.5 on Saturday. And after Blip Festival 2009 is over, you'll still have two separate other chiptune shows to look forward to on Sunday from acts like Unicorn Dream Attack, Anamanaguchi, Starpause, and many others!

So, if you want to get the most out of Blip Festival 2009, make sure to print out Zen Albatross's guide for event info, times, and directions.

Creepy Augmented Reality Avatars

Artist duo Reed+Rader (Pamela Reed and Matthew Rader) came up with these supremely odd, animated GIFs of avatars brought into the real world for online magazine Spiral Mag. There's no explanation provided for the dancing characters, but it doesn't look like something I'm capable of understanding even with a description of the project.

It's a lot like Burton Posey's console avatar business cards, except instead of Miis or Xbox Live Avatars, you have a frightening little figure that can has a chance of hopping out of your hands and scurrying away before you can scoop it up again, only returning later that night to murder you. This actually sounds like a good horror movie idea; why hasn't someone made this film yet?

[Via today and tomorrow]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Evolution of the Holiday Buyer's Guide


Now that all the holiday issues are out from everyone, the wave of Christmas gift-giving buyer's guides is finally over for the year.

These guides are something I always dreaded writing during my editor days. They take a metric ton of time to collate, much more than when you're writing typical previews or features. You spend forever tracking down assets and figuring out what's appropriate for the guide. Then, once it's all done, you look back over the proofs and wonder to yourself (or I did, at least): "Is anyone actually going to use this? Are people besides the PR folks I talked to reading these things?"

So gift guides are always a challenge to writers, but still they come out every year, all clockwork-style and such. For example, Game Informer's December '09 issue has an eight-page guide (which is available online as well) that features games, hardware, DVDs, toys, and assorted pricey video game merchandise. It's well-executed and nice to look at, sure, but it's also not drastically different from any other gift guide you can see in competing mags, which also sport a lot of 'em.

Curious, I wondered if these print-mag gift guides have changed much in tone over the years. So, naturally, I went to the oldest video-game magazine in my collection -- the first issue of Electronic Games, dated winter 1981. Game Informer in 2009 has a "Holiday Buying Guide"; Electronic Games in 1981 had a "Holiday Gift Guide." There's one difference there, I suppose.


A few humorous comparisons:

Most Expensive Item
1981: The Champion Sensory Challenger, a standalone chess computer ($375, or $877.25 in modern dollars)
2009: A replica costume and sword for Altair from Assassin's Creed ($1111.50)

Most Embarrassing Item If Someone Actually Bought It For You
1981: A vinyl Space Invaders jacket "for the gamer who truly matters"
2009: Star Wars-themed "chopsaber" chopsticks

Most Inappropriate Gift
1981: A portable electronic horse-race analyzer
2009: The Tauntaun sleeping bag

Best Cheap Gift
1981: The $50 Casio wristwatch that actually plays a game (ooooh)
2009: The $25 remote-control Warthog

Conclusion: In 28 years, game-mag holiday gift guides have not changed at all. Yet they're still a huge pain in the ass to write. What happened to progress?

[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.]

Propaganda Posters For TF2's Demoman, Soldier

Escalating the conflict between Team Fortress 2's Demomen and Soldiers (a war that decides which of the two classes receives an extra weapon when the game's next update releases), Valve is hosting a propaganda poster contest with prizes like a unique in-game item engraved with the winner's name.

The company plans to reveal the winners and post a gallery of entries next Wednesday, but dozens of user-created submissions from both sides of the war have already showed up online. Of course, I've picked seven of my favorites and shared them with you after the break. Go, Demomen!

AgentScarlet's "Enlist Demoman":

Derek Gangi's "Demoman Propoganda":

Fenomena's "Kaboom":

IgnisSolus's "Slay The Tyrant":

WhatThe's "Long Live The Bomb":

Flufflesthepancake's "Tf2- Propaganda Poster":

Tom Ball's "TF2 Propaganda Contest Entry":

Wadjet Discounts Games, Donates Proceeds To Charity

Independent studio Wadjet Eye Games, who you'll know from fine PC adventure titles like The Shivah and the Blackwell series, has halved its prices on not only the above titles, but third-party releases like The Adventures of Fatman, Super Jazz Man and Downfall.

The company is donating 10 percent of the proceeds from the holiday sale to the Get-Well Gamers foundation, a California-based public charity that, similar to Penny Arcade's Child's Play, brings electronic entertainment to children in healthcare facilities.

To further entice gamers to pick up an adventure title and send their money to charity, Wadjet is also offering access to a public beta of Puzzle Bots, its forthcoming puzzle adventure game from Erin Robinson (Nanobots, Spooks) and the studio's Dave Gilbert, to its holiday shoppers.

To get the discount, just head over to Wadjet's site, pick out the game(s) you want), and drop in the following promotional code when prompted: "HOLIDAY".

[Via fort90]

Beat It Turns Pixelart Cities Into A Rhythm Game

One drawback with the detailed, bustling cities created by talented pixelartists like eBoy and Army of Trolls is that you don't actually get to play with the video gamey scenes, controlling its wandering sprites or managing its chaotic blocks.

Glu Mobile's recently released iPhone game Beat It!, however, gives you some interaction with the isometric environments. The title is "part beat machine, part rhythm (re)creation", asking you to match beat patterns with different instruments and a variety of musical styles, such as Electro, Hip-Hop, House, and Rock.

Beat It! features more than 50 different animated stages with "retro pixelart backgrounds" that become even more eccentric as you progress through the game. It also features a Freestyle mode that allows you to create your own beats. You can grab it from the App Store now for $2.99.

[Via Lunker]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

As another week disappears haplessly towards the horizon, 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.

There's some really interesting -- and hotly debated -- material in here, including the tenth anniversary of Ernest Adams' Twinkie-centric game designer goofs column, plus chats to indie star Derek Yu and Arkane founder Raphael Colantonio, and some neat longform pieces on iPhone and social games.

My faded stars:

- Pondering Indie Spirit: Derek Yu Speaks
"Spelunky creator and independent figurehead Derek Yu talks about the broadening definition of "indie" and why he's "very happy" with that definition being "kind of gray.""

- From New To Arkane: Ten Years Of Development
"This October, Lyon and Austin-based Arkane Studios celebrated ten years of creating games. Gamasutra talks with founder, CEO, and creative director of the Dark Messiah Of Might & Magic developer and BioShock 2 contributing studio, Raphael Colantonio, about the company's past, present, and its major upcoming title."

- iPhone Development: Everything You Need To Know
"iPhone developer Brian Robbins with Riptide Games gives a helpful rundown of the basics of iPhone game development, from signing up for the Dev Program to marketing tips for a finished game."

- Building the Foundation of a Social Future
"Game designer Tony Ventrice identifies and examines the three key features of social gaming: a persistent society, a consistent sense of discovery, and virality."

- The Designer's Notebook: Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! X
"Veteran designer Ernest Adams reviews nine more game design mistakes, ranging from psychic AI as exemplified in Oblivion to magic perfect cover in shooting games to the ongoing reliance on grinding in MMOs."

GCG: Applying For Game Development Jobs - Square Enix's Perspective
"What are game employers looking for when hiring in today's market? Square Enix LA studio head Fumiaki Shiraishi talks about his views on important job skills for today's developers."

GCG: The Role of Interpretation in Prince of Persia
"Recent Warren Wilson College graduate and modder Finn Haverkamp deconstructs the controversial plot of Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia to see if it functions as intended."

December 13, 2009

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Handheld Games

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Brandon Sheffield reveals Gamasutra’s top 5 handheld games of 2009. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC games.]

This was an interesting year for handheld games, maybe even more for hardware than for software. Two new console iterations were released –- the DSi and the PSP Go, from Nintendo and Sony respectively -- and Nintendo announced a third DS model, the larger-screened DSi LL.

On the software end, despite many strong releases it was hardly a banner year. The luster of the new consoles has worn off, and developers are settling into their niches.

It’s at times like these when the more dedicated or core-oriented titles rise to the fore, and by and large, that’s what we celebrate here in our top 5 handheld games (which for our purposes does not include iPhone games, discussed in a separate Top 5).

Here are Brandon's picks for the top five handheld games of the year:

5. Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! What Did I Do To Deserve This? (Acquire/Nippon Ichi, PSP)

Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! is a weird little game. It turns the classic RPG model on its head, and makes you the lord of the underworld. You create a dungeonous path through which heroes will venture, trying to capture your demonic Boss Character and drag him back to the surface.

To stop him, you essentially manage a delicate ecosystem, created through your digging. Lower level monsters spread nutrients through the dungeon, growing larger monsters, who in turn consume the lower level monsters. It’s almost Sim Ant RPG, and the chunky graphics, irreverent humor, and thwarting of would-be heroes is an addictive and maddening construct.

The game, directed by Samurai Western stalwart Haruyuki Ohashi, was available on a download-only basis in North America, making it a good PSP Go candidate if ever there were one. This genre-spinning title makes it on our list for its weird premise, solid execution, and for flying in the face of convention.

4. Henry Hatsworth in the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, Nintendo DS)

Henry Hatsworth represents the efforts of an indie sensibility (Kyle Gray of Experimental Gameplay Project fame) in a corporate world (EA Tiburon), and for that alone it should get some applause. The game is decidedly oldschool, and makes clever use of both screens in a frenetic action/puzzle hybrid.

Players control the mustachioed explorer Hatsworth on the top screen, in classic action-platforming fashion, while defeated enemies appear on the bottom screen in the “puzzle world,” threatening to bleed back into the top screen to take revenge. Player switched between the action-platforming world and the puzzle world in a constant tug-of-rope of enemy elimination and stage progression.

The 2D graphics were detailed and sublime (thanks Jay Epperson), the humor was irreverent, and the excellent music by Gene M. Rozenberg and Peter Lehman et al is still available for free download via the Hatsworth site. It was too hard, and nobody really bought it, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best!

3. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS/PSP)

Chinatown Wars shows that Western developers can take the handheld market seriously. As the DS and PSP have aged, it feels as though many developers have skewed their efforts to the younger set. Rockstar Leeds has taken it the other way, making a very large, very well put together game for older audiences.

Though sales haven’t matched the blockbuster status of GTA on consoles, the game received near-universal critical acclaim for returning the series to its top-down roots, and bringing a new, core experience to the PSP and DS.

On the PSP, the game is accompanied by a huge score of over 200 songs, including, surprisingly, traditional Chinese music alongside the usual hip-hop fare. The chunky 3D graphics (led by art director Ian Bowden) are appealing and scaled properly for the console, and for the GTA fan, there’s lots to like here. It’s as though Rockstar Leeds took the innovations of the III-and-up GTAs and squeezed them into an oldschool top-down package, bringing together the best of both worlds.

That fans didn’t support the game as much as they might have is distressing, but that does no damage to the quality of the game itself, which is well-deserving of a place on our list.

2. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)

You might not have heard of this one yet, but for my money, it’s the best DS game this year. The game fits into the Might and Magic universe, but really goes off in its own direction. The art style, driven by art director Nathan Vella, is pixel-based and very nice looking, straddling the line between Japanese and European pixel art styles, with elves, demons, and knights aplenty. But the real attraction is the battle system, devised by creative director Kris Piotrowski.

Players move their characters across a map grid ala Puzzle Quest et al, and battles are fought in traditional puzzle-style wells. Friendly units drop on the bottom screen, enemies on the top. You arrange your units into vertical formations for attacks, horizontal for defensive walls. The game gets a bit more complex than that, with larger units requiring more supports, but that’s the base of it – your units must fight through the enemy ranks to get at the opposing player at the other end of the screen.

Clash of Heroes switches it up by taking you through multiple characters, each with different native powers and units, including devastating attacks unique to each, while also giving you game-changing items to collect and the occasional gameplay switch (such as hitting buttons on the opposite screen in certain orders, escort missions, etc). This is Capy Games’ first boxed product, my personal favorite handheld game this year, and number two on our list.

1. Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)

This was only a Shin Megami Tensei game in the U.S., but fans flocked to it nonetheless. The game had an interesting premise – the main downtown areas of Tokyo have been sealed off, and within 7 days, everyone inside the sealed area will die. It’s up to you, and your devil-summoning pals, to survive the incident in this branching-path, non-linear storyline.

Though the art was by Atlus’ second-tier team (with less Kazuma Kaneko and more Suzuhito Yasuda), and the music was lackluster, the tactics-meets-dragonquest battle interface felt fresh (thanks to designer Shinjiro Takada), and the story kept users engaged. Like Persona 4 before it, the game set message boards ablaze with strategies, tactics/story comparisons, and general JRPG love.

Atlus has continued to prove that it’s one of the only companies trying to push the JRPG genre forward, and is doing so much to the delight and expansion of nascent Western audiences. SMT: Devil Survivor was one of the best, most complex, and most interesting core experiences on the DS, and for that it makes our number one.

Honorable mentions:

Scribblenauts (5th Cell, Nintendo DS) – The truest sandbox game on handhelds.
Crimson Gem Saga (IRONNOS Software, PSP) – Very nice high res 2D RPG.
Half-Minute Hero (Marvelous Entertainment, PSP) – Very nice low res 2D RPG.
Peggle Dual Shot (PopCap Games, Nintendo DS) – Horrifyingly addictive game that should not be allowed near anyone. Not on the main list only because it’s largely a port.
Monster Hunter Freedom Unite (Capcom, PSP) – Millions of Japanese fans can’t be wrong!
Little Big Planet PSP (Media Molecule/SCE Studios Cambridge, PSP) - It’s LBP on the PSP, innit?
Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box (Level 5, Nintendo DS) - Puzzles n’ such. Diabolical indeed.
Rhythm Heaven (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Push the buttons, get de riddims.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo, Nintendo DS) – Good game, but iterative.

Postmortem: Behind The Scenes Of Brutal Legend

The latest issue of GSW's sister publication Game Developer magazine includes a postmortem of Double Fine Productions' Brutal Legend, written by studio executive producer Caroline Esmurdoc.

Brutal Legend, a unique heavy metal-themed action and real-time strategy game, was the second original title from San Francisco-based Double Fine, founded by noted ex-LucasArts game designer/writer Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts).

After over four years in development, including a widely-publicized break with former publisher Sierra-cum-Activision, the game was released by Electronic Arts on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 this October.

These excerpts from the December 2009 issue of Game Developer reveal various "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" highlights from throughout the creation of the game, revealing how the company used effective management to overcome publishing woes and a "content explosion."


For Brutal Legend, Double Fine adopted agile development, hoping to eradicate the rampant crunching that defined Psychonauts' development cycle -- and it worked:

"Prior to starting work on Brutal Legend, the Double Fine team had spent the previous 5 years developing Psychonauts -- the last two years of which consisted of a giant, grueling crunch wherein the company lost its initial publisher and nearly shut its doors before ultimately releasing the game.

"When the euphoria of having shipped our first title wore off, it was apparent to all of us that Double Fine did not develop games the way other studios did, and that a different system of product development needed to be put in place. The main cause of Psychonauts’ horrifying crunch was due to our continued development of the game features even after the levels were built. With each improvement to the game mechanics came a corresponding rework of all of the levels. Lather, rinse, repeat. Double Fine, and notably Tim, needed to play the game, live it, breathe it, let it steep over time, and iterate continuously on what makes the game fun and funny.

"After research into methodologies, we were drawn to the advantages of agile software development and decided to adopt Scrum. Within the first few months of Brutal Legend development, the team was practicing Scrum, and the initial payoffs were impressive. Scrum’s emphasis on features over systems, on rapid prototyping and iteration, on cross-disciplinary teams, on people over process, and on the creation of a potentially shippable piece of software every sprint/milestone made the game playable at a very early stage in development.

"By month one we had a renderer, terrain, and a playable character (Eddie Riggs), by month two Eddie could drive his hot rod (the Druid Plow) around the terrain, and by month three Eddie could run over endless numbers of headbangers with his Druid Plow around a terrain height field. Hilarity ensued.

"We applied Scrum not only to meta-game creation, but to micro-projects as well. At the very start of the development process, we had no idea how to make an RTS, and had no suitable engine with which to make one. We solved both problems by creating prototypes with an off-the-shelf PC engine and with which a number of our team members had some familiarity: Unreal 2.5.

"The design demands of Brutal Legend were such that trying to develop the game using an existing FPS engine would have proven difficult, but having the initial access to the flexibility of Unreal Script meant we could test some of our early RTS ideas right on our development PCs. This approach allowed our designers and gameplay programmers to be immensely productive right away, while the programming team went to work building our new engine. This very early glimpse at the design challenges we would face during development, and the opportunity to iterate on something quickly with Unreal Script, gave us invaluable direction into how to architect our new engine and critical insight into the mechanics that would come to define Brutal Legend."

Content Avalanche

Content creation: the bane of HD-era video game development. Double Fine faced a particularly difficult content challenge, as the volume of content unexpectedly increased exponentially nearly overnight:

"Brutal Legend is not a small game. Fortunately, we thought we knew what we were facing and invested heavily in data/build infrastructure. What went horribly awry was that we both underestimated the total content push and, more importantly, didn't anticipate the huge content spike at the very end of production.

"From the start of the game through the end of 2008, both our rate of data churn and data growth were fairly steady and corresponded roughly to increases in staffing and team productivity. This was expected and planned and supported by the technology. But then, in January 2009, everything exploded. All at once. After three years of development we had accumulated about 2.5 GB of optimized/packed game data. Less than four months later, we’d jumped to over 9 GB.

"The central cause of this was a very large increase in asset delivery from a number of teams simultaneously. For example, we went from 0 localized files to about 100,000 in a matter of weeks. We received the high resolution video assets for the Jack Black intro and all our main menus in one heap. We made a late decision to contract additional audio work, and new ambiences and sound effects were quickly added to the game. And so on.

"This simultaneous significant increase across a number of types of content put a massive burden on our entire infrastructure, in particular our build machine, Perforce server, and network backbone. To exacerbate matters, we started to see cascade effects—where a massive hit to one system (such as a check in of 10,000 .wav files) would bog down Perforce, causing a bottleneck in all of the dependent systems (like our build server and individual check ins) and these bottlenecks would then cause other bottlenecks.

"These large content dumps also put significant strain on our runtime systems. The per-line memory overhead in the voice system was not prepared to handle tens of thousands of lines, causing us to panic about our ability to even fit on a dual layer DVD. Across the board, these unexpected increases in content caused ripple effects throughout our IO, memory, and processing profile. And because the rate of increase was both high and unexpected, the engineers responsible for wrangling these systems were pulled from their assigned work and redirected to emergency firefighting.

"Moving forward, we will be much more cognizant about working with content creators to proactively estimate the total amount of data that they plan to create and to factor these numbers into our technical designs to ensure that we meet the final needs of the product. Additionally, we plan to invest more in scalable data infrastructure in the hopes that we can be better positioned to bring new capacity online quickly should it prove necessary. With those improvements and a little luck, hopefully content avalanche handling will be something we brag about in our future projects."

Double Fine Gets Served

And, of course, Double Fine had to contend with the infamous three-way conflict between it, new publisher Electronic Arts, and former publisher Activision, which inherited Sierra's publishing contract before letting the game go:

"In June 2009, Activision Entertainment Holdings, Inc. filed suit against Double Fine, claiming breach of contract and seeking a preliminary injunction to stop the release of the game by Electronic Arts on Rocktober 13. Less than 2 months later, the case settled out of court. I can't talk about any of that in this article, or any article really. I bring up getting sued as something that went wrong because of the impact the between-publishers transition and subsequent lawsuit had on the development of Brutal Legend.

"Let’s go back a little bit. We had been working collaboratively and successfully with various groups at Vivendi for two years until Vivendi merged with Activision and we lost touch with both publishers while a lawsuit percolated. The merger announcement and subsequent diminution in publisher contact with Vivendi personnel, especially after such a previously harmonious relationship, caused internal unrest and morale dips among the team. Company meetings often included frustrating discussions about what little we knew about the current situation at our publisher, and what the various possible outcomes would mean for Double Fine.

"This demoralizing uncertainty lingered for months, during which time the leads continued to motivate the team to hit their scheduled milestones while watching our coffers run dry in the absence of any publisher payments. We learned Activision was not going to be publishing Brutal Legend through an official press announcement issued by Activision that listed the games they would be shipping, ours conspicuously absent. Again, the team was abuzz with anxiety—and the official hunt for a new publisher began, distracting Tim, myself, and various team leads during an already intense development period.

"Even after the game was re-signed with Electronic Arts, we enjoyed only a brief reprieve before the legal communications began among Double Fine and Activision and Electronic Arts. Most of the team was shielded from the drama that unfolded between December 2008 when Electronic Arts announced that they had picked up the game for publication and July 2009 when the lawsuit settled. But Double Fine’s leadership was not, and the distraction and stress took its toll on individuals and on our deliverables.

"The lawsuit was filed just as the game went Alpha, with a stipulation that it be heard prior to Gold Master being submitted—relegating Tim and myself and a cadre of team leaders to the unenviable job of information gathering, declaration writing, lawsuit reading, witness interviewing and all around non-game-making during the crunchiest, most critical time of development. The lawsuit took its toll on the team, on the company, on our product and on our optimism. Wrong, any way you slice it."

Additional Info

The full postmortem of Brutal Legend explores more of "What Went Right" and "What Went Wrong" during the course of the game's development, and is now available in the December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a roundup of governmental game development incentives, Front Line Award finalists, a piece on the art of creating believably flawed characters, and our regular monthly columns on design, art, music, programming, and humor.

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 this edition as a single issue.

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