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December 26, 2009

Interview: Level-5 On White Knight Chronicles And RPG Gamer Taste

[Our own Christian Nutt talks to Level-5 (Professor Layton, Dragon Quest IX) manager Yoshiaki Kusuda on the dev's PS3 debut, designing RPGs in Japan, and the benefits of game creation outside of Tokyo. ]

What's up with the difference between Western and Japanese RPGs -- and their audiences -- anyway? Professor Layton and Dragon Quest IX creator Level-5 might be in a position to know.

The developer is finally planning to release its first current-gen game, White Knight Chronicles, for the PlayStation 3 in Europe and North America early next year, with Sony publishing.

White Knight Chronicles, which launched on PS3 in Japan on Christmas Day, 2008, has been through a long localization and improvement process -- what was primarily an offline RPG at launch has had its online mode boosted in quality and features and expanded through patches. The overseas version will include all changes made to the Japanese version over the last year.

The game has a uniquely Japanese conceit -- the player creates his or her own character who is not the hero of the story in the single-player mode, but, instead, is just a member of the hero's party -- the hero being a pre-set character, Leonard -- a typically brash, young Japanese RPG protagonist. However, when the player goes online, it's to form a party of these neglected create-a-heroes and play with others.

It's all a bit weird, isn't it? We spoke to Level-5 development manager Yoshiaki Kusuda about distinctly different RPG styles, the process of addressing two kinds of audiences, and the benefits of developing outside of Tokyo.

It's been a long time since the Japanese release of White Knight Chronicles, and you've since added what seems like a lot of content and made some changes. Can you talk about the thinking behind delaying the title and adding this content for the Western release?

Yoshiaki Kusuda: This is partly because we really value the international market and the users outside of Japan and we would like to focus on it. In addition to that, White Knight Chronicles has features of an online game, and it has been easier for us to receive feedback from users, and based on that user feedback we have made a lot of improvements and additions by way of patching.

Above that, the Dark Cloud series has become very popular in the overseas market or international market, so therefore, in releasing White Knight Chronicles in the international market, we really wanted to make it in the form of the second wave of features, which are currently available in the Japanese market today.

This game is the first Level-5 game, I think, that has had really a strong online component, which means that suddenly you're running a service; it's not the same as just releasing a game. What kind of challenges has that presented, and what kind of lessons have you learned since you released the game in Japan?

YK: In reference to the operation or the administration of the online side, Level-5 is working closely with Sony Computer Entertainment. In fact, this game is a first for Level-5 in many ways: it's the first PS3 title; it's the first RPG with online elements, and it's the first time for us to provide services in the form of online gaming support.

It's been really challenging for us, but at the same time we have been learning a lot because, with the online element, we have been able to receive feedback from the users real-time compared to the other games that we have launched in the past.

What is really interesting and surprising to us now is that the players would find very different ways of playing the game. They wouldn't follow the ways of playing anticipated by us before the release, so we find that there are many different ways of playing the game, which is a very good experience for us.

When you say "different ways of playing the game," do you mean in terms of how they progress through the quests, or enjoying activities outside of the stated goals? What is that teaching you about user behavior and how you should design future titles?

YK: Yes, exactly. Some players wouldn't proceed with the quests in a linear way from the start one to the goal and so forth. In White Knight Chronicles, we decided to give a high degree of freedom in terms both of the character creation, appearance, or skill set up of combos and so forth, but because of the high degree of freedom we find that some users have a lot of discussions of what kind of playstyle is ideal in the game and so forth. We find it very interesting, and we learn a lot from this.

Some Western users have been perhaps frustrated with the lack of freedom in Japanese RPGs compared to some of the Western RPGs -- obviously also many enjoy the Japanese style, so it's not one or the other. Is this feedback teaching you something about that the audience expectations, even inside Japan, may be different than you anticipated?

YK: I would say that different users have different tastes in different areas of interest because, as an RPG, White Knight Chronicles has a story -- of course -- but at the same time it has online elements. On top of that, we provide online communication elements with, for example, Geonet or Georama and so forth; so I would say that the options would be a lot more for the users to choose from, but different users may have different areas of focus or interest.

Some people say that they are only interested in proceeding with the story, or there may be some others who are really devoted into Georama, or there may be some others who only use the blog feature of the game, and so forth. So I think that there should be a lot of different areas of interest among users.

It's interesting the game has two lead characters; the story mode has Leonard, and then the online mode has your own player avatar. It would be more typical, I think, at least for a Western-developed game, to just have the creatable character across the whole game -- why did you proceed the way you did?

YK: Sorry I'm giving a lengthy answer, but in fact in order to answer your question, I need to talk about one basic concept for White Knight Chronicles. When we decided to create a PS3 title, we decided that one of the basic concepts of the game should be an online introduction RPG because, among the PC users, many have already been accustomed to online games; however, among the PS3 and other console users, there are many people who say that they don't like online games.

So one of the challenges or the theme for us at the time was to see how smoothly we could draw these people into the realm of online games. In order to do so, we could include many features. In playing an ordinary online game, you have to log onto the lobby, look for people who might be interested in partying up with you, discuss what kind of quests you are going on, and so forth, which might be quite troublesome for some people who haven't played any online games before.

In White Knight Chronicles, you can play the story mode, and then maybe between some events you might want to go on for just a couple small quests; and then for these people, we provide the matching system with which you can gather together and meet up with other players and set off on the quest. So, from the world map, you can easily go into the online mode to go for a quest; and then, after completing the quest, you can go back to the world map in a casual manner.

It's not just an online game solely with avatars, so for many players it would be interesting for them to proceed with the story where Leonard, the protagonist, rescues the abducted princess, but at the same time, by lowering the barrier for these people to the online game, we thought that we would draw many people into the online game and make sure that these two worlds are combined with a linked world to each other.

So your own avatar, which is created for the online mode, also participates in the adventure with Leonard in the story mode; and then this avatar -- your avatar -- would leave the team for awhile to set off on online quests.

Did you ever consider making the main character of the story being the player character rather than Leonard, who is a defined character?

YK: It would be very interesting if we could do it successfully, but, as the story unfolds, the characters -- especially the main character, the protagonist -- would be very important. In fact, in story mode, your avatar hardly speaks because, if the avatar speaks in a totally different way than you would conceive, you would find it very difficult to sympathize with the avatar, although it's supposed to be pretty much you.

So if the protagonist is not a set-up character but you could create the protagonist, it would happen the same way, because as the story unfolds you might think that the other character you created would not say this thing or would not behave this way and so forth, which might ruin the story; so for the story, we thought that it's better to give a specific name with a specific kind of characteristic to the protagonist, rather than allow players to create their own characters to play the hero.

Some games let you pick and choose what you want to say, and it's like a role-playing game with the emphasis on the role-playing; whereas some games -- obviously like this -- have a well-defined character, and it's more like a film or something where you can enjoy a story.

There's a lot of debate, I think, inside the industry of which is the better tactic to go with. Is the story-driven approach, the defined character approach, the creative approach that Level-5 finds best, or is it something that is defined by user expectations? That's what I'm curious about; what inspires Level-5 to make the decisions they make creatively on a game like this?

YK: Basically, in creating a scenario, we think what kind of character would be the most appropriate for the story, and then we have a lot of discussions within Level-5 to decide on one character.

And to change track completely, what's it like to be based in Fukuoka? There are not many studios there compared to Tokyo.

YK: In fact, the city of Fukuoka is an ideal mixture of an urban city and countryside; living in Fukuoka, you don't feel the stress of commuting everyday on a crowded train, but when you want to do shopping or dining out, it is also convenient, with a lot of shops and restaurants in the neighborhood. It's a town where you feel the least stress, I would say, which is very important for creative types of jobs, and we believe that it's really essential to provide an environment that wouldn't pose a lot of stress on creators so that they can make the most of their talents.

GameSetLinks: The Pixel Skill Ceiling

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

Continuing with these recently dredged set of GameSetLinks going back a few weeks, we kick off with author Steve Poole's set of the top games of the decade, always a nice starting point for an ensuing apocalypse of commentary - there's one of those lists coming up on Gamasutra next week too, uhoh.

Also in this set of links - Tynan Sylvester on the concept of the 'skill ceiling' in games, more info on the almost completely mythical, MST3K-related Darkstar, Edge on the making of the MUD, and lots more things besides.

Advanced technology:

Steven Poole: Colossi
'Everyone seems to be compiling lists of the best games of the decade, so here, with minimal special pleading or argumentation is mine'

Tynan Sylvester: Skill Ceiling
'People talk about the depth of games a lot, but it’s tricky to figure out exactly what that means. I’ve been thinking about a new way to measure the depth of games. It’s the Skill Ceiling.'

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: iPhone TouchPets post-mortem talk at PAGDIG
Some really interesting figures in here: '850k people have downloaded and connected. Peak server load has been about 25k people.' More than that playing at once (doesn't connect all the time.)

Satellite News - The official Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan site » Darkstar Survey
The 9 years in production MST3K-related game coming out soon? With console versions to follow? We'll see, eh?

Apocalypse POW!: Warning: This Game Is Canon
We've mentioned these before, but I never mind linking to Barkley Shut Up and Jam Gaiden - and one of the co-creators' games is entered in the IGF this year.

My 10 Best Gaming Moments of the Decade « Save the Robot – Chris Dahlen
Hey, I'm involved in one of them - neat!

The Making Of: MUD | Edge Online
Nice historical piece.

December 25, 2009

Download Videogaming Illustrated Issues

Video games collector site Digital Press has started posting downloadable PDF issues from Ion International's early 80s magazine Videogaming Illustrated. The bi-monthly publication debuted in August 1982 under several variations of its original title (Videogaming and Computer Gaming Illustrated, Video and Computer Gaming Illustrated) before that magazine was killed off in March 1984.

The selection of PDF images is still incomplete, but you can already grab seven different installments full of classic video game advertisements, previews, and feature articles like "Astronaut Defends Videogames" (April 1983) and "The Videogame Which Takes Six Months To Play" (Dec. 1982). You can download the Videogaming Illustrated issues here.

[Via Stonic]

GameSetPics: 2009 Game Company Xmas Cards - WB to Namco

After the first and second parts were posted pre-Xmas, we're finishing up (for now!) our round-up of the most fun game publisher and developer 2009 Christmas cards we got into the offices of GDC, Game Developer magazine, and Gamasutra.

Reminder: our full Xmas card archives, including cards from 2006, 2007, and 2009, are available on GameSetWatch. We took a break in 2008, but the C&VG folks, the Joystiq chaps, and the GamerTell guys were on the ball last year.

[UPDATE 2: There's still a GamerTell gallery with 2009 cards, but Kotaku just posted a bunch of 2009 holiday cards they got, including some we don't have up - thanks, Stephen and Kotaku folks. Also, Crispy Gamer rounded up a number of the electronic cards, and 1UP has photos of their cards.]

In any case, here's the third and final Xmas set for 2009 - we'll round up stragglers and Japanese New Year cards in the, uh, New Year:

  

The Warner Bros. holiday card showcases their move into games with a bunch of their franchise characters, including those from Batman, F.E.A.R., Scribblenauts and the Lego games, hanging out and playing a cute retro game featuring... themselves? Blimey.

Square Enix's card is themed around - what else - Final Fantasy XIII, which just launched in Japan, and features the game's protagonists posing in fine form alongside a pleasant holiday greeting.

Take-Two's card references the upcoming 2K-published Mafia II with a sinister mafioso Christmas scene, complete with references inside to the 'silent night' they hope you will all have. Yes, we're officially scared.

  

One of our favorite cards for this year, the folks at LA indie dev Giant Sparrow, currently fleshing out IGF paint-splatter flecked student finalist The Unfinished Swan into a full game, crafted a special handmade card with black paint and cut-out swans. V.cool.

  

Nintendo's holiday card has another of those neat cut-out effects that people seem to be using a lot, and is obviously themed around New Super Mario Bros Wii and its perennial cast of quite adorable characters. It's a me, holidays!

This is the only electronic card we're featuring in the round-up (sorry to others who we neglected on this front!), but it's a cute Pac-Man 30th Anniversary holiday scene from Namco Bandai, and it was sent to me at an opportune moment, so there you go...

The Japanese import publisher NIS America sent out one of its customary Japanese-style postcards with all kinds of characters, including plenty from fan favorite series Disgaea, hanging out with panache.

Ending with a bang, the holiday card from the Japanese indie devs at Nigoro (the folks behind upcoming MSX-inspired WiiWare platformer La-Mulana, as well as period slapping drama game (!) Rose & Camellia) cook up some gorgeous retro artwork for their game. And that's all, folks.

[If you'd like to be featured in our late Xmas card round-up or add us to your list for subsequent years, our HQ address is on the parent company page, mark c/o Gamasutra or GameSetWatch.]

Virtual Tours For R-Type: Flash of the Void

Irem Corporation recently introduced R-Type: Flash of the Void, a 3D minigame version of its 2D shoot'em up franchise, to its online lounge in Japan's PlayStation Home. For those of you who haven't had a chance to check it out but are still curious about the attraction, Psyvariar has posted a photo tour of the minigame and Irem's virtual space.

Along with exploring the hangar of R-Type ships and the official gift shop, the photo set includes shots of Irem's festival area and the prizes you can win there. One of the prizes is a virtual R-Type fighter model that you can display in your PS Home apartment! It's not as impressive as the real thing, but it's much cheaper!

If moving images are more your thing, I've also embedded a three-minute video from R-Type: Flash of the Void below:

[Via @shmups]

Doctor Popular's Hackedivision Pitfall Cover Art

Illustrator, game designer, and professional yo-yoer Brian "Doctor Popular" Roberts created this watercolor and ink remake of Activision's Atari 2600 cover art for Pitfall. Inspired by the comic book recreations at Covered, he added a few details like the broken ladder rung, underground human remains, and the scorpion's lobster claws, while keeping the art as colorful as the original.

"Pitfall was one of my earliest video game addictions," says Roberts. "As a longtime fan of the 'platform game' genre, I’ve always considered Pitfall to be the godfather of the genre. Although it’s not technically the oldest side-scrolling game, I feel that modern platformers more closely resemble Pitfall than Donkey Kong. The art on all the classic Activision games were great and usually worked the Activision rainbow into the art in interesting ways."

He continues, "I particularly like the art on the Pitfall package and enjoyed having an excuse to study it more. One of the surprising things about this classic cover is that the protagonist is the least interesting thing on the whole image. I doubt that was on purpose, so I was glad to add a little more depth and excitement to our swinging hero."

Roberts says he painted the piece over a week's worth of BART rides, but you can hardly tell it was painted on a train! You can compare his version with the original below:

Best Of 2009: Top 10 Games Of The Year

[Closing out big sister site Gamasutra's look back at 2009, its staff presents a list of the top 10 games of the year. 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, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Developers, Top 10 Indie Games, Top 5 Disappointments and Top 5 Game Companies.]

No year-end retrospective would be complete without a look back at the top games. Gamasutra staff together selected what we feel were the finest, most groundbreaking and impressive games of 2009.

Our individual staffers also chose honorable mentions, personal picks that didn't fall within our group top ten, but that we nonetheless wanted to single out.

Without further ado, we present our Top 10 Games of the Year:

10. Retro Game Challenge (Namco Bandai, Nintendo DS)

Retro Game Challenge isn't really just one game. It's a compilation of brand new retro games wrapped in a clever metanarrative that traps the player in 1980s Japan, forced to master a slew of cartridges. The games start basic but reach the NES' early '90s peak -- starting out with classic arcade titles and culminating in Haggleman 3, a ninja action game with the complexity (and quality) of later era NES games like Castlevania III or Ninja Gaiden II.

Retro Game Challenge doesn't just ape retro games shamelessly. No, what it does is ape them lovingly, with a real attention to detail and sense of exuberant fun. This is a compilation that can remind you why you once cherished Galaga (via its knock-off, Cosmic Gate) or illustrate why Japanese kids were so crazy for 2D shooters like Star Soldier (thanks to RGC's Star Prince). There's even a full-featured Dragon Quest-style RPG, Guadia Quest, to play through -- in addition to three Haggleman games and racer Rally King.

Each game is enjoyable in its own right. The attention to detail is impressive, the understanding of what made 2D gaming compelling to a generation of kids is apt, and little touches make the games accessible to gamers unwilling to put up with the truly archaic. It's all wrapped into a sly, charming story (based on cult Japanese TV show Game Center CX, though you need not be a fan to play). Retro Game Challenge is always charming and engrossing, has a lot of variety, and is an obvious labor of love on the part of its developers.

9. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II (Relic Entertainment, PC)

Despite the shrinking of the real-time strategy genre since its heyday, Relic Entertainment has consistently turned out some of the most inventive and clever RTS games around. Dawn of War II is one of the studio's riskiest, and that risk paid off.

Relic went full-bore in the direction it's been heading in its recent games, dropping traditional base-building entirely to point a laser focus at squad-level tactics and fast-paced resource management. Even then, the single-player and multiplayer components are almost entirely different games: the campaign shares much in common with the persistent "just one more level" character progression of Diablo-esque dungeon crawlers, while the multiplayer is a lean, stripped-down, team-based action/strategy hybrid that draws from Relic's own Company of Heroes as much as from class-based multiplayer shooters.

It's an unlikely but inspired melting pot of genres and mechanics that speaks to Relic's long-term RTS innovation. And the Vancouver studio has kept support for the game strong, with patches and free additional content this year, and a full expansion in March.

8. Plants vs. Zombies (PopCap, PC)

PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies took the tower defense genre and turned it on its side with its six-row, horizontal gameplay. Like other PopCap games, Plants vs. Zombies became a huge time sink this year -- if you were willing to sacrifice a crop of potatoes to ward off a horde of zombies determined to cross your lawn and invade your home.

Plants vs. Zombies is a success for a few reasons. First, it's a weird, unique premise. People hear "Plants vs. Zombies" and their interest is piqued because they're already wondering how the two things can possibly be at odds. Secondly, the wonderful art style of the game takes something horrifying -- mutated self-aware killer plants and reanimated human corpses -- and turns it into something you would see on a Saturday morning cartoon.

Once players are drawn in, it's hard to escape the game's addictive, accessible gameplay, which takes the staples of real-time strategy games like resource and unit management, and artfully condenses them into something a six-year-old could understand. While it is accessible in that regard, Plants vs. Zombies is still entertaining to a wide range of audiences. PopCap said shortly after the game's release that it estimated over half of all Plants vs. Zombies buyers fell in the "hardcore" category. We guess that's just the magic of zombies at work there.

7. The Beatles: Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV, Xbox 360/PS3/Wii)

It’s not surprising that a music game would make our Top 10 for 2009. But with band-specific music titles sometimes being no more than glorified song packs (sorry, AC/DC, Van Halen), what made this much-awaited Harmonix and The Beatles collaboration shine?

Firstly, the art direction was absolutely supreme – from the wonderfully created intro cinematic through to the subtle stylization given to John, Paul, Ringo, and George. Certain other music games have strayed a little too far into the Uncanny Valley at times, but these characters, featured in carefully dressed sets reflecting particular stages of their careers, just felt right.

Of course, the gameplay works, even with only incremental additions, and the multi-part harmonies were a good technical addition – and vital for a band like The Beatles. And overall, the game was a fully formed, lovingly crafted experience, with the 'dreamscapes' filling out the otherwise drab studio visuals a particularly nice touch.

Perhaps it helps that The Beatles have such diverse – and now mythologized - set of audiovisual shifts. Playing through them felt like a mystical, magical journey. And, last but not least – well, it’s about the music, dummy.

6. Flower (ThatGameCompany/Sony, PlayStation 3)

A lot has been said about Flower over the last year – perhaps too much, at times. But the game, created by ThatGameCompany, took a different approach to games, and to game development, and made it work. The company is very iterative and prototype-based in its approach, and the dynamic duo of designer Jenova Chen and president Kellee Santiago have emerged from indie obscurity and into the media spotlight, while still retaining a different view on what games should be.

Flower exemplifies this view – its non-violent, non-competitive gameplay remains attractive and compelling (if linear), and the integration of sight, motion, and sound make for a cohesive product. Indeed, for a time Flower (a PlayStation Network exclusive) was one of the PlayStation 3’s major selling points, discussed alongside Metal Gear Solid 4. The game made motion control work on the PS3’s Sixaxis controller in ways that no other really did (you could make an argument for Warhawk, I suppose).

The game has received numerous awards and accolades since its early 2009 release, and we feel they are deserved. Though some might argue that the premise is pretentious, it makes you feel good to tell those who decry video games for their violence about a title that allows you to play through the dream of a flower – and that they might actually enjoy it, too.

5. Batman: Arkham Asylum (Rocksteady, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only the best Batman game to date, but to many, it's the best superhero video game of all time. Developed by UK-based Rocksteady, Batman: Arkham Asylum went beyond Batman's penchant for butt-kicking and batarangs (both of which are implemented masterfully, by the way) and explored the disturbing -- and sometimes moving -- pieces of his psychological makeup.

The game is essentially built around a very solid core fighting mechanic that allowed for perhaps the most intuitive and effective 3D beat-em-up we've ever seen. A simple system made up of one-button counters and attacks, combined with directional input, let players feel like they were part of a Batman comic or film, or even a kung fu movie, in which a highly-skilled martial artist is able to incapacitate waves and waves of thugs using only his well-trained body.

The feeling of improvisation during fight sequences added to the experience -- you could master the timing of the controls, as evidenced by challenge room high scores on the game's leaderboards, but button-mashing is also extremely satisfying for more casual players. Throw in some unlockable moves and gadgets that make you feel like an ever-evolving human weapon, and you have a solid base upon which to build several layers of badassery.

Among those layers are villains like the maniacal Joker, hulking Bane, spunky Harley Quinn, sexy Poison Ivy and the enigmatic Riddler. And of course, there's Scarecrow, who acts as a means to uncover Batman's background in some amazing ways, portraying a vulnerable side to the incorruptible crime fighter. With Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 confirmed, we're anxious to see just how Rocksteady, with its focused approach to game design, can improve upon the original.

4. Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve, Xbox 360/PC)

Left 4 Dead 2 is perhaps not the "best" game released in 2009, but it is unquestionably the game many people will be playing well into 2010. Left 4 Dead’s multiplayer co-op game set a new standard for the cooperative first person experience, and L4D2 takes it a step further. Though the systems are slightly more complicated, they are layered in such a way that they really work – and inspire greater teamwork than ever before.

The game wants you to combine its tools in clever ways to stay alive, and makes you feel clever for doing it (even if some hints are given in the form of achievements). On top of that, new modes like Realism, which takes away your superhuman ability to see your teammates (and health, and weapons) through walls, changes the dynamic even further. And on top of the more cerebral interworkings of the various poultices and weapons upgrades, you’ve got melee weapons, which allow you to slice and dice your way to freedom – you’ll wonder how you ever did without it.

On top of the systems, the game is simply more fun to play than ever, and looks completely gorgeous (especially when not in split-screen). The lighting, the set pieces, and even the enemies are rendered superbly, even if zombies to get a rather unfair free ticket out of the Uncanny Valley. The AI feels even sharper than before, and the game simply throws you into a hostile world with a bunch of interesting tools, and sees how you’ll work it out. Giving the player agency is something we're all in favor of.

3. Demon's Souls (From Software/Atlus, PS3)

A focus on accessibility and intuitiveness in game design has helped make gaming friendlier to a much wider audience... and then there's Demon's Souls, mercifully there to remind us that not all challenge is bad.

So detailed is the steeply difficult melee combat design and so logical are the worlds and their enemies that in discovering their way through the game -- even through repeated deaths -- players have the rare and deeply satisfying experience of meaningful learning.

The game also deserves major props for its creative approach to death, which tasks players with reclaiming their bodies. It implements an inventive multiplayer system, too, by which anonymous ghosts can help one another through battle assistance or simple messages scrawled in eerie runes.

The most addictive game experience of the year reminds us not to be so quick in ditching tradition in favor of one-touch inputs and gesture-controlled simplicity, as there's still much joy to be found in detailed, complex gameplay.

2. New Super Mario Bros Wii (Nintendo, Wii)

Almost since the beginning of the Wii generation, Nintendo took hard knocks from core fans for "abandoning" them. Thanks to New Super Mario Bros Wii, Nintendo deserves credit for addressing, even if slightly imperfectly, several of the major criticisms against it in one joyful, faithful swoop.

The game design essentially makes the difficulty level malleable for each player, depending on how many players who join and what kind of challenges they take on -- attacking the perception that Mario's gone too easy for single-players.

At the same time, the multiplayer is expressly designed to make players talk and interact, which in practice can give the dominant paradigm -- remote interaction over Xbox Live or PSN -- something of a run for it. These brilliant little victories abound, and the impressive result is a current-gen Mario that truly is for anyone and everyone.

1. Dragon Age (BioWare, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)

BioWare once reinvigorated the Dungeon & Dragons-inspired line of PC fantasy RPGs with Baldur's Gate. After a decade of evolutions, the studio has attempted to bridge the gap between that early milestone and its modern refinements.

Dragon Age: Origins succeeds both in that goal and as a masterful, ambitious roleplaying game in its own right. On its surface, it seems full of the same dwarves-and-mages-and-elves dynamic that's been so thoroughly mined, with stock visuals to match. But as you explore the game's considerable volume of content, its fascinating subtleties begin to reveal themselves -- class, gender, and race roles form the underpinnings of a compelling world without becoming too heavy-handed.

On the personal scale, Dragon Age features some of the most affecting and entertaining character interactions in gaming, implemented dynamically and seamlessly. Party members idly chat amongst themselves -- affably, dourly, indifferently -- and comment on the player's own choices. The game's overarching story is nothing special; it's the context and the personal moments that count, and they count for a lot. Rarely are virtual characters so believable.

The game itself demonstrates an impressive RPG design fluency born of hard experience, particularly on the PC where it fluidly shifts between a modern third-person RPG and an old-school top-down dungeon crawler at the player's whim. It strikes a satisfying balance between intricacy and intuitiveness, rewarding player investment but not becoming overbearing.

The remarkably diverse origin stories that serve as the subtitle's namesake just add further personality and depth to one of the most surprisingly unique RPGs in recent memory. With Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare has succeeded in reprising its own revival.

Honorable Mentions

In addition to our team top ten, each member of our core staff has chosen honorable mentions, personal favorites that didn't make the final aggregate list:

Simon Carless, Global Brand Director, Think Services Game Group

Uncharted 2 (Naughty Dog, PlayStation 3)
Ratchets up from its predecessor on every level, and brings carefully-plotted filmic narrative into games without feeling trite or overly guided to me. Multiple thumbs up.

Trials HD (RedLynx, Xbox 360 Live Arcade)
Perhaps my most-played title this year, it improves the genre of physics-based motorbike trick/race games with an awesome cacophany of microchallenges and mini-games. This is how fast, sharp play for a new millenium should be.

Assassin's Creed II (Ubisoft Montreal, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
That craziest of things -- a carefully reverent freeform romp through Renaissance Italy with practically transcendent art and carefully iterated gameplay.

Brandon Sheffield, EIC, Game Developer Magazine

Street Fighter IV (Capcom, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3/PC)
Capcom’s reinventing of the franchise, alongside developer Dimps, took 2D fighting back to the masses, proving that it can – and should – be popular again.

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes (Capy Games, Nintendo DS)
It’s a Puzzle/Strategy RPG with far more organized randomness and more strategic head-to-head play. And it was good enough for me to beat twice!

Devil Survivor (Atlus, Nintendo DS)
DS strategy meets Dragon Quest battles, with an interesting branching story. It's the game made just for me! (Well, maybe not the punishing difficulty on the last day...)

Leigh Alexander, News Director, Gamasutra

Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars (Rockstar Leeds/Rockstar North, Nintendo DS)
Blah blah, who cares whether M-rated content can sell on the DS or how many units Chinatown Wars sold or what Michael Pachter thought about its numbers? It's still one of the most stunningly-designed DS titles I've ever seen, all the more impressive as Rockstar's first.

Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (Climax Studios, Wii)
Shame it was released just a bit too late for the holiday hype window, and often either incorrectly pegged as a simple "Wii-make" of the original old title or overlooked by franchise diehards for its liberties -- this reimagining of Silent Hill is an absolute must-have for every Wii owner, from the rare brilliance in its implementation of Wii controls to the fun and clever little ways it responds to the player's behavior.

Noby Noby Boy (Namco, PlayStation 3)
So you don't really know what you're supposed to "do" besides free-form play -- good. Games need more of this kind of simple, colorful pleasure, and seeing players strive to collectively "reach" the outer planets of the solar system prompts a warm, whimsical twinge we hardly ever get from games anymore.

Christian Nutt, Features Director, Gamasutra

Flight Control (Firemint, iPhone)
Instantly accessible, oddly addictive, and thematically neutral -- its inclusive yet appealing theme is probably a big part of its success. It's a snappily-executed, 99 cent hero.

Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure (EA Tiburon, DS)
A great example of synthesis -- it pairs two genres (platforming and puzzling) with cleverness and great success. This is a game that learned from the classics yet still has its own clever personality, and also represents a budding of unique talent in a huge studio.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona (Atlus, PSP)
A remake done right: the game's pace was quickened, its interface was brought up to date, the translation was completely reworked, and once-excised content was restored. The result is a highly playable new version of an unfairly overlooked cult classic.

Chris Remo, Editor-At-Large, Gamasutra

Brutal Legend (Double Fine Productions, Xbox 360/PlayStation 3)
Double Fine's ballsy genre mashup has snappy writing, a bad ass soundtrack, great vocal performances, some of the most breathtaking environments in gaming memory, and Ozzy Osbourne.

Empire: Total War (The Creative Assembly, PC)
The latest Total War takes on the period arguably most formative to our own world, depicting the colonial era in grand style. Games can depict history like no other medium can, and The Creative Assembly's work feels important.

Torchlight (Runic Games, PC)
Remember how Diablo insidiously ensnared you, coaxing you yet one floor deeper into its seemingly endless dungeon even though you had to be at work in three hours? Torchlight is like that. With the guy who made Diablo's music.

Kris Graft, Senior Contributing Editor, Gamasutra

Forza Motorsport 3 (Turn 10, Xbox 360)
Sure, it's aimed mainly towards automobile enthusiasts, plays best with an expensive steering wheel controller, and takes the "bigger, better, prettier" route to racer design, but if you're a gearhead gamer, this is a must-have.

Infamous (Sucker Punch Productions, PS3)
An original superhero game, Infamous gives players a great sense of continuous evolution and increasing power. It's a fine departure from the developer who brought us Sly Cooper.

Borderlands (Gearbox, Xbox 360/PS3/PC)
This gun-loving loot-fest is tough to put down when playing alone, but is even more magnetic when you have three friends to play with. A great multiplayer game with a vibrant art style.

December 24, 2009

Clash of Heroes's Rare Alternate Title Screen

After years of working on mobile and downloadable titles, Toronto-based indie studio Capy put out its first retail release this month, Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes for the Nintendo DS, but there's one special build for the addictive puzzle/RPG game that you won't find in stores.

According to one of the game's developers, his 5-year-old loved the game so much that he drew a title screen for the game. "He's been a big fan and a great tester, so I decided to make a special build with his drawing," says Buckets. "With a little help exporting the art from [Capy president and co-founder Nathan Vella], we were able to play what is arguably the best version of Clash in existence!"

As you can see below, the alternate art is an epic piece. It's a shame it wasn't included in the final build.

GameSetPics: 2009 Game Company Xmas Cards - Denki To Hudson

After yesterday's start, we're continuing to round up the most fun game publisher and developer 2009 Christmas cards we got into the offices of GDC, Game Developer magazine, and Gamasutra. Why? We think scanning them and making them available online is a neat Xmas-y thing to do. And we're pretty much game nerds, so we love the custom artwork.

Reminder: our full Xmas card archives, including cards from 2006, 2007, and 2009, are available on GameSetWatch. We took a break in 2008, but the C&VG folks, the Joystiq chaps, and the GamerTell guys were on the ball last year. This year, there's a a GamerTell gallery, but please comment or ping us if you know of other outlets showcasing cards, or have some you've scanned yourself.

In any case, let's get straight on with this second (of three) sets of Christmas cards from various friends and colleagues throughout the world:

  

The fine folks at Scottish indie developer Denki, currently making the wordgame-tastic Quarrel for Xbox Live Arcade, went for a special card featuring one of the in-game characters (we discover when opening the card!) peering through a Christmas tree, with bonus Scrabble-y holiday greeting writing.

Los Angeles-based Naughty Dog, fresh off the triumph of Uncharted 2, put together their holiday card featuring all of that game's protagonists and antagonists (with bonus skeleton with submachine gun!) carousing contentedly and wishing everyone a happy holiday. As indeed they should.

This is a fun card that I suspect might confuse some, since they might consider it's about 15 years late and got stuck in a time warp. Nope, in fact it's the holiday card for the unofficial PlayStation Museum, which is currently digging out all kinds of PS1 game prototypes and presenting info on them for public display.

Capcom Japan's card is a straightforward holiday greeting that includes nods to some of the company's most anticipated games of the next few months, including Super Street Fighter IV and Lost Planet 2.



The LucasArts and Lucasfilm holiday card is actually featured on StarWars.com already, where they note: "Designed by artists Harrison Parker and Kelly Smith, the card appears to be a gingerbread cookie tin which opens to reveal several Clone Wars characters in gingerbread form, complete with cookie-dough "ghosting" on the reverse of the interior panel." If you look closely, you'll see the embossing pattern has slipped on ours (though the card is still cute anyhow) - but misprints are clearly a Star Wars collector windfall in future years!

  

Finally for this set, Hudson's holiday greeting comes in a typically explosive form, as you might expect from the creators of the perennial Bomberman, which they doubtless hope many of you will consider playing as alternative post-Christmas dinner entertainment. Just be prepared to counsel your uncle after he blows himself up yet again.

[If you'd like to be featured in our late Xmas card round-up or add us to your list for subsequent years, our HQ address is on the parent company page, mark c/o Gamasutra or GameSetWatch.]

Hydorah For The Holidays: Shoot'em Up Demo Released

Spanish indie developer Locomalito (8bit Killer) released a PC demo for Hydorah, his upcoming horizontal-scrolling shoot'em up inspired by classic shmups, not just in its 16-bit style graphics but also in its design. This preview build only includes the game's second level (one of 17 stages), but the absence of a checkpoint system should give you enough challenge to make this last a bit.

Locomalito says the final release will feature "short and intense levels, fantasy spacial landscapes, unlockable weapons, secrets, and a large library of enemies and bosses." Though Hydorah was obviously influenced by similar titles like Gradius and R-Type, the developer says he also took some design cues from non-shmups like Castlevania and Turrican.

You can download Hydorah's free demo from Locomalito's site, where you'll also find a dozen screenshots for the title.

[Via IndieGames.com]

Masters Of The 8-Bit Universe

Jude Buffum, whose pixelart we've featured here many times before, created this "Battle Bones" piece for Gallery 1988 and Mattel's upcoming "Under the Influence: Masters of the Universe" show, opening January 8th in Los Angeles. The tribute will display re-interpretations of He-Man and friends from more than a 100 artists.

"As a product of the eighties, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was a big part of my childhood, so I was super excited to be a part of this show," explains Buffum. "One thing I love about the characters is that they are so iconic and colorful that they can be reduced to very few pixels and still read."

Gallery1988 sometimes sells limited edition prints of artwork it's shown in its galleries -- perhaps there will be an opportunity to buy one of "Battle Bones" once the show's ended?

Interview: Kill Screen & The Evolution Of Game Magazines

[In this GameSetWatch-first interview, writer Lee Bradley sits down with Jamin Brophy-Warren to discuss the imminent debut of Kill Screen, a magazine that is trying to take a distinctly different approach to print writing about video games.]

"We're so concerned about the minutia that we've missed the much more interesting question of 'how does this game make me feel?'"

Kill Screen is the ambitious new magazine from ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Jamin Brophy-Warren and collaborators such as Chris Dahlen. Launching in January, it's a project that promises a fresh approach to games journalism. Rejecting the established cycle of news, previews and reviews, Kill Screen aims instead to provide literate, thoughtful pieces on the people, culture and meaning of the medium. In Brophy-Warren's own words, "We want to be what early Rolling Stone was to rock n' roll or Wired was to tech. We want to look like the Fader and walk like the Believer." It's an enticing prospect.

To achieve this lofty goal, Brophy-Warren has enlisted an impressive line-up of talent. Kill Screen's 'Issue Zero' boasts the work of writers from the likes of the New Yorker, GQ, The Colbert Report, PopMatters and Paste.

As the names of these publications may suggest, many of the contributors do not usually write about games. Indeed some, such as The Colbert Report's Rob Dubbin, have never written on the subject. "But that's kind of the point," says Brophy-Warren. "We wanted to get people who didn't necessarily have an encyclopedic knowledge of games, but people who wrote well and games were merely one possible piece of their portfolio."

It's an editorial approach that hints at a broader dissatisfaction with the current scope of video game coverage. "I see a lot of items, but I want to see more stories," says Brophy-Warren. "A lot of video game writing is focused on the now and there's an arms race for news. There's nothing wrong with that, of course, but that leaves a lot to be developed in terms of narrative.

"I want more stories like Daniel Radosh's The Beatles: Rock Band piece and Esquire's Jason Rohrer profile. That's the writing that really matters. Those are pieces I'll go back to and read, because they help me make better sense of my world. With a lot of game sites/blogs/whatever, everything matters, so nothing really matters at all."

So with a focus on long-form profiles and reflective pieces, will Kill Screen will forgo video game criticism entirely? Not at all, says Brophy-Warren. But he's keen to outline how Kill Screen will do things differently. "I find a lot of games criticism horribly boring," he says. "They read like CNET reviews -- a complete focus on the technical aspects of the game. That works well for a reviewing a flat-screen television, but it's a terrible way to write about games. If we continue to buy into the delusion that games are merely software and should be evaluated solely on their graphical fidelity and feature set, then we cannot expect the medium to go forward.

"So if you mean criticism as it's widely practiced in game writing, then absolutely not. But if you mean writing that is critical of games as art form, then of course. But only insofar as that is a feature of good writing in general. I think everyone who's interested in Kill Screen should read Gay Talese's interview with the Paris Review on the art of non-fiction writing. That's what I'm interested in."

Admirable stuff, but Kill Screen isn't just relying on its editorial ambitions. The magazine is an aesthetic and physical experiment as much as a textual one. Indeed, such is Brophy-Warren's focus on elegant, clean design that he "bristles" at the idea of ads "spraying juvenilia all over my lovely pages." A high-end, lavishly produced journal, Kill Screen is the type of project that he believes publishers have shied away from in recent years, much to the detriment of the medium.

"Most publications have had it backwards," he says. "People read newspapers not just for the stories, but for the relationship with the object itself. And so the smaller and cheaper you make it, the less you're respecting the love and dedication of your readers. You're telling them: 'This thing you adore is truly worthless.' And then they start to believe you.

"The commodifying of the written word is a given. It's worthless. And I say this as a writer. What I mean is that written words are infinitely distributable across a myriad of platforms so the reading of those words has a lower value. But, and this is our presumption, there is value in an expensive product with high production value. People pay for physical objects everyday. We are not living post-singularity yet. As long as there are tactile experiences to be had, there will be value in the held thing."

Of course, for all the magazine's grand plans there is a chance that there just isn't a market for such a product, something Brophy-Warren openly admits to worrying about, but the early signs are positive. With interest and momentum gathering, independent funding -- at least to a breakeven point -- secured via Kickstarter and Issue Zero complete and ready to go, things seem to be shaping up, thanks to the ambition on show.

December 23, 2009

Triumvir Opens Preorders For Shadaloo Psycho Brigade Gear

Finally, a new line of clothes to replace my Wu Wear wardrobe! Triumvir debuted its new line of Capcom-licensed clothing for its Shadaloo Psycho Brigade brand. The Shadaloo (not to be confused with "the shoobadoop"), for those of you who don't follow the Street Fighter series' story, is the crime syndicate run by Mr. Psycho Crusher himself, M. Bison.

The gear is similar to Fangamer's more subtle merchandise, opting to present a stylish set of militant apparel with logos alluding to the fictional organization, instead of doing something obvious like slapping a mushroom on the center of a bright green t-shirt, writing in big letters "1UP" underneath the design.

"What I wanted to do with Shadaloo Psycho Brigade was to create an unorthodox approach from the 'video game/anime x clothing line' genre that we are used to seeing here in the USA," explains Triumvir's creative/art director Brian Chen. "... In my opinion it is more about the concept of the Psycho Brigade character than the clothing itself, because the clothing was created for the character."

As a result of the thought put into the items (and the quality of the materials/construction), the Shadaloo hats/vests/shirts/tees/etc. are probably priced higher than what you're used to seeing with video game apparel. The Psycho Brigade “Cold Weather” M-65 Jacket with its Shadaloo unit/flag patches, for example, is $200. Preorders over $100 receive a free Pyscho Brigade Folded Skull Cap, at least.

I've included a few of my favorite pieces from the collection below, but you can see the full line on Triumvir's shop. Orders are expected to ship on January 8th.

Festive Wallpapers, Level Pack For LocoRoco: Midnight Carnival

If you're still having trouble getting into a Christmas mood, the European PlayStation blog might have the cure for you: holiday-themed LocoRoco: Midnight Carnival wallpapers for your computer and your PSP. The U.S. PlayStation blog also put out backgrounds for the game, and they're near identical except for one slight difference (see after the break).

While you're thinking of LocoRoco, don't forget that Sony released a new Midnight Carnival level pack in the U.S. with three different stages: Shamplin 3, BungaBongo 1, and BuiBui Fort 3. Even if you don't own the game, you can still buy and play the level pack so long as you first download Midnight Carnival's free PSN demo first. Neat!

The Best Of 2009: Top 5 Game Companies

[In the latest in big sister site Gamasutra's look back at 2009, Christian Nutt presents a list of the top companies in the business -- and what got them there this year 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, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Developers, Top 10 Indie Games, and Top 5 Disappointments.]

We've already covered the top five developers of 2009 -- and a fine crop of studios it is. But there's more to the world of games than development skill, and there's more to Gamasutra than recognizing it.

No, in a challenging year and a splintering market, there are several companies that stood out as companies. Some are developers, and some are not -- but the point is that just as studios deserve to be recognized for their fantastic games, so do industry companies that do exceptionally well.

Here's our pick for a list of the top companies influencing the game biz this year, and what made them so vital:

Top 5 Game Companies of 2009 (listed alphabetically)

Apple

Apple has done tremendous things for the game industry this year. While we all now recognize that the iPhone has not been the faultless goldmine that developers hoped for in late 2008, the platform is still empowering real developers to make really interesting games and make real money in the process.

Apple isn't a passive participant in this process, either. While the workings of the App Store can be oblique to the inexperienced, and the approvals process for apps is opaque, the company supports developers by promoting apps not based on budget or ad buys, but quality and buzz. Big hits can come from indies, not just major publishers. And someone at Apple is knowingly promoting games like Tiger Style's Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor and Firemint's Real Racing as "best of 2009" games over shinier, better-marketed titles from bigger companies.

The company also chose 2009 as the year to truly take gaming seriously from a marketing perspective: it started advertising the iPod Touch as a gaming device on TV, in print, and on billboards. Apple spokespeople have also continuously talked tough about the company's competition in the mainstream handheld gaming space -- Nintendo and Sony. And it has introduced improvements to the hardware and to the market, including new versions of the iPod Touch and iPhone, and enabling transactions in free apps, something many had been asking for.

While its approvals and other processes could stand to become more transparent, Apple has opened up a huge new market for games and shaken up the stagnant mobile gaming space completely.

Epic Games

Epic Games continued its dominance in current generation engine licensing -- no surprise, that, as the house that built Gears of War has had no trouble signing up licensees for its popular tech since the start of the Xbox 360's reign as the top console for hardcore gamers. In the face of increased competition coming to market, the firm has held strong.

And to increase its market share, and in the face of free toolsets being distributed by its competition, Epic this year made the intelligent decision to offer Unreal Engine 3 for free. While you can't release a commercial product built under these licensing terms, this move doesn't just get indies working with Unreal. It also ensures that Unreal will continue to march into schools -- training the next generation on its tech.

And though the acquisition took place last year, this year is when it paid its dividends: Chair Entertainment's Shadow Complex came out to massive acclaim and sales, proving conclusively not only that the right developers and game can make a tremendous success of Xbox Live Arcade, but that Unreal Engine 3 is the right tool for that job: a double win for Epic.

Its Epic Games China subsidiary's Titan Studios also launched Fat Princess for Sony's PlayStation Network, showing that Epic knows how to play both sides of the hardcore console audience. Also, as the name implies, it shows that the company is not ignoring Asia but, instead, embracing it -- with localized versions of its tools that specifically incorporate enhancements aimed at genres, such as MMOs, popular in Asian markets.

Unity

From an academic project to an engine contender -- Unity has become a major player in the market as of 2009, and there's more to come. Like Epic, Unity moved to launch a free version of its toolset, which is more flexible than Epic's implementation -- the free version of Unity can be used commercially. In the wake of that, the company reached 33,500 registered developers in November.

Important, too, was Unity's announcement that it's moving into the Xbox 360 market. XBLA, as we said above, is a tremendous market for developers to tap into, and while Unity might be considered lightweight for a full-fledged Xbox game, its tech fits into the downloadable space well.

Of course, that's proved by its success on the iPhone -- where Unity is one of the leading engine solutions. And while there was a brief, serious hiccup for Unity on the platform this year, it was quickly fixed by the Unity team.

And the company opened up a new UK office under the stewardship of former Criterion man Graham Dunnett -- expanding its capabilities beyond its San Francisco and Copenhagen locations. 2009 has been a majorly up year for Unity, and as the web and iPhone continue to rise in importance, and as Unity's support for Wii and Xbox 360 help bolster it, the engine becomes a more and more major player in the market.

Valve

Valve, the only company to cross over between the Top 5 Developers and Top 5 Game Companies, is one that many admire greatly. Writing about why Valve is so great is frankly getting kind of boring. But it's still worth exploring it -- and also exploring precisely why the company is the only one to make both lists, because that's key to its success.

Nobody doubts that Steam is an excellent platform. Some developers are less thrilled than others, but with indie titles like Zeno Clash getting their due thanks in no small part to the seamless digital distribution of the Steam platform, it's hard to argue that it is not a net positive. In addition, the service's cloud features, including game-saves, are innovative and value-additive. Its popularization of frequent discounts and has created a positive disruption to the PC business model, and the service's overall popularity with its user base has hastened the move toward digital distribution.

Notable, too, is the release of Left 4 Dead 2 -- not just because it's a great and highly successful game, but because the company adapted beautifully from its notoriously slow release model to one much more in line with today's market. It also rolled with the punch of a boycott -- turning the ire of fans into a major marketing coup by flying in the organizers of an online petition against the game's release, and turning them back to the community full of praise for the title.

And, of course, the whole reason that L4D2 thing blew up in the first place is because of Valve's peerless reputation for running its games as services. Its users have gotten so used to meaningful downloadable content and post-release support that their main complaint about L4D2 was that the first game's support would be truncated. Take, for example, Team Fortress 2 -- two years old, it's still getting major updates.

Valve's reputation as an excellent developer and a great service provider are intertwined. The company's success at producing amazing games like Portal feeds its reputation with gamers, driving them toward its Steam service; its success as a service provider builds confidence in its game releases. Other developers can't parlay their goodwill into other revenue streams -- but Valve can, and that makes it a savvy contender.

Zynga

Of course, the shining star of performance this year has been Zynga -- the company which rode the social gaming trend to the top of the revenue heap, creating the most popular games on Facebook and reaping the microtransaction-based rewards.

Sure, plenty of people don't like to hear it. There's the obvious and disheartening question of the fact that the company's games are largely unoriginal from both a design and theme perspective. So goes the trope: Harvest Moon begat Happy Farm begat Farm Town became FarmVille -- a copy of a copy of a copy. And there's no doubt that the company's strength in marketing is what has drawn players to its particular executions of popular social gaming themes.

But execution is not to be underestimated, says Zynga VP Hugh de Loayza: "Our games are pretty distinctively different from the traditional Asian farm games. A shooter is a shooter, so a harvest mechanic is a harvest mechanic. But the story you wrap around it is different. The other thing to pay attention to is that you've got a service that you're running." It's obvious the company is doing something right with its generic-seeming games. And there's more to the service than strongarm user acquisition tactics -- though they're indubitably a key part of the strategy.

And there's no doubt that this rapid growth has caused some growing pains -- unethical offers got FishVille banned from Facebook, though the game did come back.

But the company has managed to attract great talent from the traditional games space, and secure secure significant funding, no small feat in today's economic climate.

Yes, people love to hate Zynga and the social games market (check the comments on that last link.) And that hate is comprehensible. But Zynga proves that, in the short time since the phenomenon has emerged, a business can be built on it. While we can never say "yes, this one will be a long-term success," Zynga is the power player in the market and the absolute company to watch out for, and is also one of the most meaningful and disruptive success stories of 2009.

Honorable Mentions

Zenimax, parent of Bethesda, deserves a shout-out for its acquisition of id Software. The lawsuit with Interplay is a bit of a black mark, though, and so were Wet and Rogue Warrior (it's time to sort out your non-internally developed games efforts, guys).

Also worthy is Square Enix -- not only did the Japanese company successfully acquire Eidos this year, it also shipped the most popular game in its massive Dragon Quest series and instantly became the PS3's record-holder for units sold in Japan with Final Fantasy XIII.

[Apple image taken from Wikimedia; uploaded by user Nurmib. Used under Creative Commons licens

GameSetPics: 2009 Game Company Xmas Cards - Twisted Pixel To Rare

Well, it's that time of year again where video game companies send out their Christmas cards - some of them very cool, actually - and so here at GameSetWatch, we thought we'd break out the scanner and bring back a holiday tradition - neat game developer Xmas card scanning! (It's nice to showcase the often-custom artwork to the world, especially if it arrives in physical form and isn't posted online anywhere.)

The alert among you may recall that GSW did just this in 2006 and 2007 - lots of cool cards there, and links to other people scanning them. But we skipped it in 2008, partly because we were too freakin' busy - but also because there were lots of other outlets, including C&VG, the folks at Joystiq, and the GamerTell guys on the case.

This year, it seems to have been a lot quieter on the scanning front, but I did find a GamerTell gallery with a number of neat Xmas cards in it. (Comment or ping us if you know of other outlets showcasing cards, or have some you've scanned yourself.)

Anyhow, having pooled the GDC, Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra office's cards for this good cause, we'll be showcasing some of the best cards we got across multiple posts today, tomorrow, and Xmas day. Here goes:

  

The awesome Austin, TX-based indie studio Twisted Pixel, creators of The Maw and 'Splosion Man, sent along this card, complete with 'Season's Meatings' salutations and Splosion Man himself handing out all kinds of slabs of raw flesh for the holidays. Also, if you're going to put hilarious gurning employees and Die Hard references on the back of your card, don't expect us not to scan it, yay:

Anyhow, what's up next? Ah yes, something a little more... austere:

This postcard is from Sony Computer Entertainment Japan, and continues the subtle snowflake/holiday season-like effects with Sony icons that the company has sent out in previous years. Neat.

The nice folks at Natsume's U.S. office have made Harvest Moon a big part of their business, so it's no surprise that their Xmas card features plenty of sheep, chicken, and vegetables -- with some bonus Xmas elves and naughty monkeys.

Zoonami's Bonsai Barber for WiiWare was one of the most under-rated games of the year for us, and Martin Hollis' Cambridge, UK company's Xmas card features the main characters hanging their hair-cutting implements from the Christmas tree for everyone to admire.

Finally for this batch, and not too far away geographically of course, the chaps at Rare sent over this card featuring the famous Rare logo swathed in holiday trappings, with lots of cute ephemera scattered around it. Hints on their next games anywhere in there? No idea, we'll leave that to the legions of conspiracy theorists out there, but it sure is a cute card anyhow. More cards soon...

[If you'd like to be featured in our late Xmas card round-up or add us to your list for subsequent years, our HQ address is on the parent company page, mark c/o Gamasutra or GameSetWatch.]

Famitsu Explains Darius's 'Burst', Hosts Live Zuntata Performance

To promote the Darius Burst's release in Japan this week, Taito teamed up with Famitsu to create a page separate from its official site to share details on the PSP game's impressive but expensive preorder bonuses, previews of the bosses, and short interviews with series composer Hisayoshi Ogura and Taito's in-house band Zuntata.

The latest update to Famitsu's Darius Burst site has three new videos demonstrating some of the game's mechanics. In the above clip, you can see why Taito added "Burst" to the game's title, as the burst gauge is a vital feature that helps you quickly eliminate waves of enemy ships and make short work of bosses.

Famitsu actually held an event for the release last night, in which it previewed Darius Burst, showed superplays (expert playthroughs) for Darius Gaiden and G-Darius, interviewed developers, and hosted a live performance from Zuntata. Fortunately, KoshitsuVideo captured some choppy video of the Zuntata portion (the band starts playing around 2:30):

[Via Shmups forum]

Forever Hero: Segata Sanshiro Figures

I'm upset that I came across this video far too late to send it to friends as a Christmas gift suggestion, but I'm holding onto hope that Santa has this blog in his RSS newsreader and will leave a Segata Sanshiro statue in the stocking hung over my fireplace.

Sega Toys manufactured this tribute to the Sega Saturn mascot -- the least they could do after he sacrificed his life to save the company's executives from a missile attack -- some time around 1998. Though the packaging has English text like "He Became Legend" scattered around, I don't think I've ever seen this in any North American shop.

The back of the box reads: "SEGATA SANSHIRO is an authority of justice who guides young men to SEGASATURN Do. He hates to things by halves! In pursuit of SEGASATURN Do, he practices asceticism and keeps challenging various things day and night!!"

The Saturn Junkyard, which stumbled upon the above video, also has photos for another Segata Sanshiro figure, which came with an inflatable bop bag!:

[Via GamOvr]

Mobile Castlevania's Soundtrack Saved From The Shadows

Castlevania: Order of Shadows has always seemed to me like an odd game in Konami's vampire-slaying franchise, not just because it's the oft-forgotten mobile installment but also because of the people who worked on it.

Though series producer Koji "IGA" Igarashi was involved in its creation, Konami contracted several Western developers to work on the game.

Tyrone Rodriguez, now at Nicalis working on the Cave Story WiiWare remake and Night Game, was the lead designer on Order of Shadows. And Vincent Diamante, who composed the music for Thatgamecompany's acclaimed PSN game Flower, also worked on the mobile title's soundtrack for Konami.

Diamante has uploaded every song he composed and arranged for Order of Shadows online ("delivered by a collection of Roland JV patches"), including a couple tracks that didn't make it on the final game. You can hear the full soundtrack, one of the few saving graces of a mostly panned game, on his YouTube playlist. Highlights below:

Castlevania: Order of Shadows - "Title (Roland Mix)":

Castlevania: Order of Shadows - "Dancing the Stairs Away (Roland Mix)":

Castlevania: Order of Shadows - "Imposing Wall (Roland Mix) (unused track)::

[Via Nobuooo]

Interview: Gaijin's Roush Talks Retro Inspiration, Indie Reality

[In this interview, our own Christian Nutt talks with Gaijin Games art director Mike Roush about the studio's popular retro-inspired WiiWare series Bit.Trip -- now in its third iteration -- the Santa Cruz company's vision, and the indie landscape.]

Mike Roush, director of art at Santa Cruz, CA-based Gaijin Games, has made a splash with the retro-influenced aesthetics of the Bit.Trip series -- Beat, Core and Void -- all released for WiiWare by Aksys Games.

The company, has only three staffers -- Alex Neuse on design, Chris Osborn on programming, and Roush -- yet has shipped three downloadable titles and built a community of fans.

In addition to the series' hip, retro style, we talked to Roush about the company's history, philosophy, and influences -- and how he sees the landscape of the digital download gaming market for indies.

(And if you're looking for more Gaijin, you can read Gamasutra's postmortem of Bit.Trip.Beat, the studio's first game, which ran earlier this year.)

What made you decide suddenly to start doing this?

MR: Well, Alex is a great talker. It's kind of an interesting story. I was going to move to Oakland and be with my girlfriend, and try to get a job up in the San Francisco/Oakland area.

When I was going to join Gaijin Games, Alex's pitch was, "We're going to make Pong with music." So, it's not a very big selling point, but Alex's enthusiasm won me over and essentially made me stay there, in Santa Cruz, 80 miles from Oakland.

So your girlfriend wasn't happy?

MR: No. Well, she wasn't happy for six months, but then she moved down to Santa Cruz, so it all worked out. But essentially he was like, "We'll make a company. We're going to make great games. We're going to have a lot of fun." It's basically my trust in Alex.

Bit.Trip became a series very quickly. Was that always planned?

MR: Yes. The six-game series was planned from day one. We wanted to do the series, because there is a giant story here with all six games, and they all tie in. So we planned the series from day one.

We were a little concerned about doing a big series, just because people lose their interest. But the games are so different that we're not losing people's interest. And I think it's going to make a set of games stronger. Also it gives us a chance to make, essentially, a game with almost a two-year development, in stages, and that was really appealing to us, too.

You stake out this aesthetic and basic concept, but then you can just build around it. What are the advantages of doing it that way? Are there, for example, tech advantages or art advantages?

MR: Sort of. Having the basic beat system in there is something that carries over. For the most part, I don't really reuse any of the art because I want it to remain fresh for the player, because the player is what we really care about. So I would say in a lot of ways it's sort of a disadvantage, because each game is so different that we don't really get to reuse a lot of our tech or the art.

We're sort of rethinking. I mean the basic principles are there, but there's not a huge advantage to it, especially the way our next three games are planned out. We want to keep everything different, so there's not a whole lot of advantages to that, I don't think.

That's funny. And honest.

MR: Well, we want to keep quite a bit of transparency with what we do, and that honesty and interaction with people, I think is why people like Gaijin Games.

How's your relationship with Aksys? I'm sure there has been a lot of discussion whether to go direct or whether to work through a publisher.

MR: Yeah, we are very happy with Aksys. It's rare for a publisher to be so flexible. They put a lot of trust in us. When they put that trust in us, we perform better. We don't want to disappoint. We don't want to have deadlines that we don't meet. That is something that was very important to us. If we would have gone with a more well‑known publisher, we feel that our artistic vision would have been compromised. Working with Aksys is absolutely fantastic.

I think part of the danger with working with a large publisher is also that you are a smaller piece of their pie. Do you find that to be the case, also?

MR: Aksys wants to have a relationship with us. They have BlazBlue, obviously, that they've published, but they give us all of the attention that we ask for.

Why did you start with WiiWare rather than Xbox Live Arcade, or multiplatform even?

MR: Essentially we all just got off of a Nintendo project, so we were all very familiar with Nintendo's process and tools. That was a main selling point for Nintendo. Also, Alex is a huge Nintendo fanboy. So, it has been a dream of his to work for Nintendo for a long time.

Above and beyond that, they have really good tools for indie developers to get their game and their vision out there quickly. We were able to make Beat in three and a half months and start a company. Now, that isn't to say that we couldn't do that with another platform, but in Nintendo a lot of the things were set up for us already, and we had the knowledge.

Are you happy with the performance of the games commercially?

MR: We are happy with the performance of the games. We have had some critical success which is very pleasing. WiiWare -- I think it's a great service. I'm seeing a lot of very good games coming out for Wii.

Super Meat Boy, I think is something that's very exciting and that's kind of like [representative of] Nintendo's openness. Having something like Super Meat Boy on WiiWare, I just think that's really exciting, because Nintendo is a very open company on that aspect. They don't mess around with your creative vision.

Xbox Live Arcade pioneered the downloadable games model, and it also still seems like XBLA gets the largest share of attention relative to WiiWare -- what do you think?

MR: I think WiiWare is still a young service, for one thing. We do a lot of work to promote our game. And we have a lot of interaction with the public. If a kid in Ohio emails us, we respond instantly. It is not to say that these other companies don't do that, but we really push the game. We try to really make a presence out there.

Also another thing that helps us is we do have a series. It's not like this, "oh we made one game." We always have something. Every couple of weeks we have something to share with the community, and that's really helped.

When it came to now making Core and then Void, were the development cycles the same length? Or has it changed as you got into the process of making these games?

MR: So far, the development cycles have all pretty much been the same. Beat was three and a half months, but we were also building our company. We started development on Void in the first week of E3, so that whole week was out of the development process. I can't recall if we went over and made up that extra week, but I think that they've all been relatively the same.

Can you squeeze more out of that period of time, or has it been a pretty consistent production process?

MR: Well that's actually, back to your other question, one of the things that making these games in a series has done, is we know it better. And we know the process better. So, we are able to do things faster. The process is getting faster and faster because we can get results quicker, just because we know the series and we know the style. We know what the gameplay is like.

I feel like there is some inherent cleverness to this series concept. Teasing out what the advantages are is actually pretty interesting.

MR: Well, when we first pitched it to our friends, one of our friends, who works for a pretty big company, he sat there and he looked at us and he laughed. We're like, "What's going on?" He basically told us that this might be the most brilliant thing he's ever seen.

Because part of our philosophy is, we're going to design a game that's fun in the time we have. We sort of designed this game around our limitations. And it's also a tool. It's going to be a two-year dev process for the whole series, and we're building on to the bigger and better games that we want to make as Gaijin Games.

Is the ultimate goal to stay in download, or to move on to larger projects? I mean, by the time you finish this series, the landscape is going to have evolved in terms of from where it is now.

MR: Yeah, for sure. We want to continue making bigger and better games and Gaijin Games is going to evolve to do that. We're very careful how we're going to do this. Basically, we don't want to make products that suck.

Now, does that mean we're going to stay with Nintendo? I don't know. My guess is we like Nintendo and Nintendo treats us very well. But one of our core philosophies is we want to be a semi‑green company and having digital downloads is a green practice.

That is to say, are we ever going to release a disc game? I don't know. Maybe. If disk games are around in five years and we have to make a game that's going to be four gigs then we might release a disc game. But we do want to stay a digital distribution as much as we can.

Well, the scope of what you can do digitally, also even on the console side, is evolving. Obviously, Shadow Complex came out and was the biggest XBLA launch ever, and it's a really sizable, full‑featured game compared to what the service started out with.

MR: That game's 800 megs. Well, I'll tell you right now, we were downloads of 40 megs. So we kind of chuckled around the office because, as an artist, I will take up all the space. Like, if you were to give me 39 megs of that 40 megs I would fill it up in a month. And so we are very interested in making bigger, better games. But we're cautious about it and we want to take the right steps. Our priority is the end user.

Does the retro art approach feed well into the size limitation or is it a pure aesthetic approach?

MR: We get this question a lot. You would be surprised how much space I was able to fill up with this retro look. We get reviews that people say, "Oh, it's just all 2D." I mean, the whole thing is 3D. I did the whole thing in 3D.

If you sort of look at how much is going on in all the animations, which aren't super stellar animations, but if you look at all the stuff that's happening with camera fly‑throughs and stuff, it didn't really help the download size -- if that's what you want to know. And also we are music games and music takes up a lot of space.

The retro aesthetic is a totally valid aesthetic, and it has a lot of cachet right now.

MR: Yeah, and that was another thing I wanted to try to get away from. Right off the bat we were like, "Oh, we're going to go full Atari‑style." And I was like, "That's cool but there's a lot that's in that style now." I wanted to have an individual style that was kind of bred from the Atari style but was sort of uniquely ours.

It's funny and fun in Beat, when you get down to the low level and it's completely black and white.

MR: Yeah. It's scary. It's funny too, because people say, "Oh in Bit.Trip you only get one life" but it's just not true. When you level up, you get a new life. You've earned a life.

Well it's like Rez. Don't know if you intentionally modeled it on Rez...

MR: Yeah. We definitely did. Rez was one of our main influences actually. We definitely drew from Rez and Guitar Hero. We drew from them because they're super badass games.

It's funny how it seems like Rez didn't get its due back when it originally came out but then it seemed so in sync when Rez HD arrived on XBLA. It seems like the aesthetics of games have sort of also caught up to what Rez was trying, because Rez was really different, aesthetically, when it came out.

MR: Yeah. It was so far ahead of its time. I mean it is kind of funny. It's like all of a sudden there was sort of like, this retro backlash, and then Rez HD comes out and it just hit.

How many people are in Gaijin now?

MR: It's still just the three of us.

Is it your goal to keep it tight‑knit?

MR: My guess is that we will remain relatively small. We definitely have plans on growing. My vision for an art team, even if we were working on a bigger title, would be to have four artists that are super tight and super in sync with each other. I can't speak for Chris or Alex, but I definitely know that Chris feels the same way.

For Alex, I think, he's so open with getting input, that having the whole team help out with the design and the making of the game, we're able to remain small, because we all have so much input. I think we will grow, definitely, but we will always remain a small studio.

What I find interesting about Bit.Trip.Beat is that it's a really simple core gameplay concept. Does that help from an audience standpoint?

MR: Yeah. Alex has the philosophy of working from the controller to the television. He also wants players to sort of play out his vision that he's designed for them instead of just having them make their own experiences.

Having a simple mechanic is just so much more beneficial because it limits the process, and by limiting it in some weird way you can be more creative. And the funny thing about Beat is there are really only like five places that you need to be. I have watched people just freak out -- but it's like you only really have to be one of five places at one time.

It is hard to be that analytical as a player.

MR: Well, I will let you in on a little secret. I have never finished Beat. I can't beat my own game. Then with Core, I am just terrible at Core. So, it is to say that I made the game, and I still have problems processing it and figuring this stuff out.

Does that ever worry you, or do you think it's just because of your personal skill?

MR: Well, it doesn't worry me personally. I feel that even not being able to complete Beat myself, I still have so much fun with it, and part of that fun is that I can't beat it. It's still just a challenge. I will beat it someday, absolutely.

December 22, 2009

Homebrew DS Remake For C64's The Detective Game

Headsoft, the same homebrew team that released Manic Miner In The Lost Levels and Warhawk DS, has completed another unauthorized remake of a classic title: Sam Manthrope and Argus Press Software's The Detective Game, originally published for the Commodore 64 in 1986.

As with the original game, The Detective takes place in London in 1974, placing you in the role of a Scotland Yard investigator looking to solve the murder of a rich aristocrat. While looking for clues at his mansion, you learn that someone is killing off the departed noble's friends, relatives, and employees. To beat the game, you need to collect 10 pieces of evidence and identify the murderer.

The remake features new graphics and music, and is adapted for the Nintendo DS's two screens -- the moving question marks in the second screen seem distracting, though. The group also created new packaging with original art (complete with a "Not Official Nintendo Seal), in case you want to print the designs and decorate a blank game case.

I've included videos from both The Detective and The Detective Game below so you can compare how the games look. You can download The Detective's ROM for free at Headsoft's site, and you can play it in either a Nintendo DS emulator or on an actual system, provided you have a homebrew flashcart device.

Drink-Serving Adult Mario, Bartris

As part of a recent residency in Vienna, tinkerer Kyle Machulis developed a couple projects for local robotics cocktail party Roboexotica. One of those projects is Adult Mario, which uses a combination of the original Super Mario Bros. playing on an NES emulator, a Phillips amBX system, and a Trance Vibrator to provide "an interactive immersive version of Mario [that] also serves you alcohol".

With the setup, the fans spin as you run and the lights change from blue to red when you hop on an enemy. Killing an enemy also drips a tiny bit of rum into a nearby cup, while collecting coin adds coke to your drink. If you die, however, Adult Mario dumps water into your cup. The vibrator buzzes when you jump onto the flagpole at the end of each level, vibrating longer if you jump to a higher position.

Machulis also developed a similar modification for Tetris called Bartris, which I've included a video for below. Though Roboexotica in Vienna has already passed, he plans to bring the two setups to the upcoming Roboexotica in San Francisco on February 17-18, 2010. You can find more details on the event here.

Best Of 2009: Top 5 Disappointments

[Continuing big sister site Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Kris Graft looks at the top 5 major disappointments of the year -- spanning game retail failure through approval process difficulties and beyond. 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, Top 5 Major Industry Events, Top 5 Developers and Top 10 Indie Games.]

2009 brought many welcome surprises and accomplishments that the video game industry can be proud of -- whether it's the ever-broadening definition of "gamer," the proliferation of risky indie video games, or just the higher profile that the industry has today in general.

But not everything in 2009 was worth celebrating -- some very notable shortcomings occurred this year, from continuing third party issues with the Nintendo Wii, to slowing retail game industry sales.

Perhaps the worst thing about our top five picks for disappointments is that all of them are still open-ended problems that have yet to be solved...

5. Ongoing Third Party Wii Hurdles

For some time, Nintendo management has been fighting a PR war against the perception that Nintendo platforms are inhospitable for third parties. In 2009, Nintendo honchos continued to wrestle with that perception. Nintendo president Satoru Iwata noted in January this year that there were 30 third-party Wii titles that have sold over 1 million in the U.S., up from just 12 in March 2008.

At the time, he predicted a trend that third-parties would become increasingly successful on the platform -- a prediction that occurred just months after Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aime said, "I will be able to say our licensees 'get it' when their very best content is on our platform. And with very few exceptions today, that's not the case."

We'd venture to say that Fils-Aime still wouldn't think third parties "got it" in 2009, with "very few exceptions." We saw third party Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 titles regularly top the charts, but we never did see a third-party Wii game lead monthly sales this year in the U.S.

2009's high-profile M-rated Wii third party titles didn't seem to fare that well. The sales performance of Madworld, House of the Dead: Overkill, and Dead Space Extraction not only cemented the console's reputation as cold towards third parties, but also seemed to show that the console, like previous Nintendo platforms, isn't friendly towards more adult-focused content.

What third-parties do get the Wii? Capcom apparently gets the Wii, releasing successful iterations of Resident Evil. Take-Two gets the Wii with Carnival Games. Before it went into bankruptcy, Midway got the Wii with Game Party; Activision with Guitar Hero; Ubisoft with Rayman: Raving Rabbids; Namco Bandai with Wii Ski and Active Life; and THQ with Big Beach Sports, apparently. All of these are million-selling third-party Wii titles -- some of them not exactly known for their high-production values.

Who "got it" this year specifically? Electronic Arts had success in the West with EA Sports Active, which released in May this year. The workout game has sold around 1.8 million units and is the publisher's best-selling Wii game to date. EA CEO John Riccitiello insisted: "Third-parties can do a lot better on the platform with the right support from Nintendo. They've always been first party-centric, and they're learning how to be third party supportive. The Wii is not gone."

However, the EA CEO added, "But if [Nintendo] maintains a $199 [price] and doesn't innovate, they're going to have a hard time competing with what's already been announced from Microsoft and Sony [their motion controllers]." And seems like there may already be issues, as Gamasutra's Matt Matthews recently illuminated with a study of U.S. retail game sales.

Matthews noted an estimated 34% Wii market share of all U.S. retail games in November 2008, dropping to 29% in November 2009 -- as the Xbox 360 overhauled the Wii, rising to 37%. If you consider that Nintendo's own first-party games are included in that 29% total, and the relative flood of Wii titles thanks to ease of development, it looks like the Wii game market may be markedly tougher going forward.

4. Clunky Digital Platform Approval Processes

In 2007, industry stalwart and Space Giraffe developer Jeff Minter described Xbox Live Arcade's extensive approval process as "soul-crushing." For many other XBLA developers, it might not be quite that dramatic, but the process for gaining approval to many digital services -- including the iPhone App Store, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, and others -- certainly could have done with continued optimizing in 2009.

There's a contrast in the issue, but it tends to be strict, specific technical requirements that trip most developers up. Surprising holes can open up -- such as an issue with the Unity engine for iPhone -- that can exclude or disapprove entire classes of titles.

For the much more exclusive Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network approval processes, developers have to jump through various greenlight hoops and meet strict technical requirements before hitting the storefront for each release. This stops poor quality or significantly broken games from appearing, but leads to extremely long approval processes at times -- sometimes difficult for indie studios to afford.

But let's not just pick on console approval processes. The iPhone App Store, with its 100,000-plus Apps and more than 22,000 games, has an approval process that is "starting to crack from the seams" thanks to the sheer amount of content flowing through it, Kimmo Vihola, CEO of Minigore developer Mountain Sheep told Gamasutra this year.

While the barrier to entry is much lower, the result of the 'gold rush' on iPhone is that approval times for the App Store can range from a couple days to six weeks, he said. In addition, games do get 'stuck' in the approval process at times, it appears.

And as digital distribution becomes more prevalent, these issues look like they're going to persist for some time.

3. Devaluation of Games

The App Store made the term "Race to the Bottom" a common phrase among video game editors covering the iPhone gaming market. But might that just be rank snobbery from those who don't understand Apple's radical free market approach?

We're not just talking about the avalanche of 99 cent software, although that is at the root of the predicament of value perception on iPhone. We're also seeing impressively fully-featured games that might sell for $20-$30 on a PC or other platform sell for a measly $5-$10 on the App Store.

Ian Bogost, video game designer and academic, wrote about this skewed value perception earlier this year on Gamasutra. He said that a person may buy a $5 magazine, read it for a bit, then leave it on an airplane with no qualms. Or a badly prepared coffee might cost $1.49, and you'd just trash it without much of a second thought.

But people buying games off of the App Store have different value expectations for games as opposed to a cup of coffee, and in 2009, that skewed perception was not in favor for higher game prices, much to the chagrin of iPhone developers. A September analysis by UK site Pocket Gamer found that the average price for a top-100 iPhone game was $3.20; a top 10 game was $1.89.

But what else should we expect? The App Store encourages this Race to the Bottom with its storefront, which lists games according to unit sales. Of course, when a game is listed at 99 cents as opposed to $10, the 99-cent game is already at a distinct advantage over more expensive games, and likely to land a higher billing. (Apple did add a 'highest-grossing games' chart with a lower billing in 2009, however.)

Obviously, low price points can be great for consumers, and there are games that have seen admirable success at the 99 cent price point. But even at rock-bottom prices, consumers still aren't guaranteed to bite, and the market becomes even more hit-driven than normal, as devs cut prices to vault into the Top 100. As Bogost noted, "Apparently 99 cents is a risk worth taking on a cup of coffee, but not on a sophisticated, long-form video game worth ten times more on another platform."

2. Market Broadening Is Hit-Driven

The "Long Tail" was supposed to be a driving factor behind the expansion of the video game market -- more people would play a wider array of games across easily accessible digital platforms, and everyone could make a good living satisfying those niches.

While we continued to see an expansion of the video games market, it turned out that the Long Tail had a limited impact on the games industry's broadening in 2009. Companies that had enough marketing and advertising resources to turn a game into a hit are the ones that drove expansion.

Even in a digital world, it's the sales-leading companies that grab more market share. Just take Activision Blizzard with World Of Warcraft, Zynga with Farmville and Mafia Wars, and even -- on a more conventional retail front -- Nintendo with Wii Fit (and just about all of their other internal titles).

Just because there's more choice doesn't mean that people will buy games more evenly, as consultant David Edery has been pointing out and a recent The Economist article defined particularly well across all creative media.

As the magazine noted, under a subheading called 'The Tyranny Of The Hit': "As sales become ever more concentrated, it is becoming both more urgent and harder to establish a foothold near the top of the market. A book or film that fails to attract a mass audience tumbles quickly into the depressed middle."

It's this danger that even larger games are increasingly falling into, which is why you're seeing executives like Take-Two's Strauss Zelnick recently commenting: "The demand for top-tier products is okay. The demand for lower-tier products is not so clear... The safest place to be is in triple-A."

And if you think the same thing isn't happening on digital platforms - check out the swift hit status of Zynga's latest Facebook games, thanks to heavy cross-promotion with existing hits like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, as well as Electronic Arts and Gameloft's domination of the iPhone's top revenue games charts.

1. Retail Video Game Sales Down

We started this year well aware of 2008's ugly economic environment, confident that video games could weather -- or even flourish -- during tough financial times in the new year.

Early in 2009, there were reports that video games would even benefit from the credit crunch, as people may opt to stay home for cheaper entertainment, rather than venturing outside for expensive trips or meals out.

That seemed to be the case at first. January U.S. game retail sales were up, as were February's. NPD called it a "fantastic start." But that growth would not be sustainable, as the next six consecutive months would see U.S. retail video game industry sales revenues decline. The excuse of tough year-on-year monthly comparisons, while legitimate to an extent, couldn't explain the ongoing shortfalls.

The recession was affecting even the resilient games industry. Through November, video game sales were down just over 12 percent from 2008. NPD analyst Anita Frazier said following the results for that month that "Breaking even [with 2008] seems more out of reach."

But 2008 video games generated a record-breaking $22 billion at U.S. retail (up 23 percent from 2007), which does make for a truly a tough comparison, particularly when the economic odds are stacked against this and virtually every other industry.

In particular, the rise of the online game and digital distribution -- not tracked at all in these high-profile retail charts -- has birthed suggestions that social network gaming (FarmVille), free-to-play online games (MapleStory), digitally distributed titles (Steam), and subscription MMOs (World Of Warcraft) are more than compensating for the retail slump.

But in an industry that has gotten so used to such strong growth over the years, recording an annual retail game decline can be labeled as nothing other than disappointing -- and it is in no way clear that digital is completely making up for the loss.

Best of FingerGaming: From Ridge Racer to N.O.V.A.

[We round up the week's top news and reviews from sister iPhone site FingerGaming, as written by editor in chief Danny Cowan and authors Louise Yang and Jonathan Glover.]

This week, FingerGaming highlights recent releases like Namco's Ridge Racer: Accelerated, EA's street racing sim Need for Speed: Shift, and Gameloft's Halo-like FPS N.O.V.A.

The site also checks out the top free and paid iPhone games of the week, as well as examining an update to hit title Canabalt, and other notable App Store debuts such as SNK's Metal Slug.

Here are the top stories from the last seven days:

- Top-Grossing Game Apps: Where's Waldo? Beats Call of Duty
"Activision's Call of Duty: World at War Zombies drops to second place in today's rankings, as Ludia's iPhone adaptation of the Where's Waldo? series of puzzle books climbs up to the top."

- Gameloft's N.O.V.A. Now Available for iPhone
"Gameloft's sci-fi first-person shooter N.O.V.A. turned heads when it was revealed earlier this year, both for its impressive graphics and because of its obvious similarity to Bungie's Halo series."

- EA Releases Need for Speed: Shift for iPhone
"Shift is a sim-styled street racing title that features a lineup of 20 licensed cars. Each vehicle can be customized in both performance and in appearance -- players can choose from a variety of spoilers, rims, and specialized paint jobs."

- Top Free Game App Downloads for the Week
"Donut Games' Traffic Rush tops the free charts for the second week in a row. RuneScape developer Jagex comes in at second place with its debut iPhone title Bouncedown, as Storm8's iMobsters takes third place."

- Canabalt Updates with Global Leaderboards, New Obstacles
"Think you've finally beaten your Canabalt addiction? Think again. Semi Secret Software has rolled out a Canabalt update that includes new gameplay elements, a new music track, and global leaderboards."

- Ridge Racer: Accelerated Premieres for iPhone
"Accelerated features much of the same drift-heavy racing that defined previous entries in the series. In a controversial move, however, Namco has locked the majority of the game's content away as optional in-app purchases."

- Top-Selling Paid Game Apps for the Week
"Where's Waldo? tops the paid app charts in its debut week. The recently updated Doodle Jump drops to second place, as Bejeweled 2 follows at third."

- SNK Playmore Premieres in App Store with Metal Slug Touch
"Metal Slug Touch is simplified take on SNK's run-and-gun franchise -- one that could be better suited to the iPhone's capabilities. Players control the Metal Slug vehicles using the accelerometer, with an on-screen button triggering alternate fire."

PIPER: Roguelike-dedicated Handheld

While not as low-tech as the Thumb Stadium, the hardware for this handheld PIPER (a recursive acronym for PIPER Is a Portable Embedded Roguelike) console won't outclass the Game Boy, either. The system features a 4 MHz-speed microcontroller, 8KB code flash ROM, 368 bytes of variable RAm memory, and a 128x64 pixel LCD.

Powered by three AAA batteries, PIPER is designed to run a "light" roguelike game that you can program into the system. Pic-Rogue, the first roguelike designed to fit the portable's low memory requirements, features 25 randomly generated levels (six enemies and three traps each), 25 monster types, 13 spells, seven special attacks, and six abilities (e.g. HP, AC, power).

The developer behind the project isn't selling the system but has made available PIPER's circuit schematics and PCB layout/construction, as well as Pic-Rogue's source code. The hobbyist also notes that he or she is redesigning a smaller version of the 12x8x1.5 cm handheld with four times more memory, and might consider selling the custom portable in the future, too.

[Via Temple of the Roguelike]

Minter Shows Off iPhone Shooter Prototype

Llamasoft founder Jeff Minter showed off his latest progress with developing a game for iPhone, and while it doesn' feature the impressive "goatflow" manipulation previewed in his engine demonstration last month, its tentative title, Attack of the Mutant Oxen, sounds promising!

This clip shares "a prototype of a bit of the first level", in which you tilt the iPhone to maneuver around and shoot at planes, occasionally throwing fruit at them. Minter notes that nothing in the video is final, as both the graphics and the name are placeholders.

"[It] starts out very Time Pilotty as you can see, but it'll have more complex missions on some levels than 'just shoot the planes then warp', and it'll get a bit Star Forcey as well along the way," adds the British developer.

In related news, Llamasoft announced that it's added online scoreboards for all of Gridrunner Revolution's play modes, viewable in-game and on the company's site. Also, the studio has discounted Gridrunner Revolution and Space Giraffe to $10 each for the holiday season ($14.99 for a bundle including both titles) -- the deal is available right now when you buy direct from Llamasoft, and Direct2Drive should put it on sale soon, too.

Glen Brogan's Pinball Pin-up

You might already be familiar with Glen Brogan's work -- the illustrator's recent t-shirt design for "Mario's Closet" has picked up a lot of press from major video game blogs, and it's likely to be voted up for a production run at Splitreason.

That Mario tribute isn't his latest gaming piece, though. He posted the above pinball girl last weekend as part of a pinup drawing contest to win an original painting from Bill Presing, known for his own cartoony pinup girls. Brogan didn't win, but I still wanted to highlight his excellent art.

It's actually a great complement to another one of his earlier works, a "Girl Gamer" arcade pinup available to purchase at Split Reason as both a baby tee and an art print. You can see the full piece after the break.

GameSetLinks: Say Hello, Wave Offworld

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

Having just completed the first GameSetLinks trawl in a couple of weeks (don't ask how long it takes - lots of hours!), I handed over a few neat visual links to Eric, and now have another 35 misc. links of gaming goodness to parcel out.

Some of them you may have seen before - this set is some of the more obvious ones - but they are still well worth checking out as we head into the holiday season, from Brandon Boyer's spot on alt.game picks to the Slate end-of-year game retrospective pieces.

More value:

The Boing Boing 20, pt. 2: the best indie and iPhone games of 2009 Boing Boing
Another excellent list from Mr. Boyer.

Gamasutraが選ぶ「2009年 見過ごされたゲームTOP10」 - Game*Spark
Cool, Inside Games in Japan picked up our list of under-rated games and added videos.

Slate's year-end gaming club. (1) - By Leigh Alexander, Jamin Brophy-Warren, Mitch Krpata, and Chris Suellentrop - Slate Magazine
Yep, this thing, with our own Leigh and some other neat folks, in multiple parts.

Charlie Brooker: why I love video games | Technology | The Guardian
He came from game writing, and Brooker, normally curmudgeonly, is evangelizing it again. In a curmudgeonly fashion. Hurray.

Media: A world of hits | The Economist
Fascinating long-form piece on the world getting more hit-driven, at least in some areas: 'Although small films can do astonishingly well (the latest is “Paranormal Activity”, a cheap thriller that has sold more than $100m-worth of cinema tickets in America alone), they do not do so at all dependably.'

The Boing Boing 20, pt. 1: the best console and handheld games of 2009 - Boing Boing
Even if Offworld is semi-no more, this list is good juju from Mr. Boyer.

No Comment | Edge Online
Cute piece from Hello Games on how your game gets discussed on forums.

December 21, 2009

OneBigGame: Chime Tutorial, Full Tracklist

I missed this back when the UK studio originally uploaded it earlier this month, but Kuju subsidiary Zoë Mode shared this tutorial video for Chime, its Xbox Live Arcade music game created for video game industry charity/publisher OneBigGame.

In this clip for the puzzler, you can watch/hear the player remixing and laying out pieces of Philip Glass's "Brazil". Other tracks slated to appear in the game include Moby's "Ooh Yeah", Fred Deakin's (of Lemon Jelly) - "Disco Ghosts", Markus Schulz's "Spilled Cranberries", and Paul Hartnoll's (of Orbital) "For Silence".

Chime will feature five different levels, three difficulty modes (based on time limits), and a free-play mode. Zoë Mode plans to donate more than 60 percent of the game's price to OneBigGame (which sends its donations to charity partners Save the Children and Starlight Children’s foundation). You can learn more about the puzzler and follow its development at Chime's official site.

2010 IGF Announces Jury For Nuovo Award

[We're trying to do something different with the Nuovo Award at the Independent Games Festival this year, and here's info on the jury which is even now discussing what's new and different among IGF entrants.]

Organizers of the 2010 Independent Games Festival have revealed jurors for the $2,500 Nuovo Award, which is intended to honor abstract, shortform, and unconventional game development which "advances the medium and the way we think about games."

The IGF's Nuovo Award, which was won (when called the Innovation/Nuovo Award) by Jason Rohrer's acclaimed abstract multiplayer title Between in 2009, allows more esoteric 'art games' to compete on their own terms alongside longer-form indie titles.

For the 2010 Independent Games Festival, the IGF Main Competition judges, numbering over 160 in total, will recommend games entered into the IGF Main Competition this year to be considered for this award.

But a separate panel of notable game and art world figures will decide the finalists and winner for the Nuovo Award in juried form, mirroring similar, artistically important awards in other industries.

Organizers have now announced the full jury for the award, which will be given out during the Independent Games Festival Awards on the evening of Thursday, March 11th, 2010 during Game Developers Conference 2010.

It consists of the following individuals:

- Clint Hocking (Creative director of games including Far Cry 2 at Ubisoft Montreal and GDC Advisory Board member.)
- Eric Zimmerman (co-founder of New York-based independent game studio and Diner Dash creator Gamelab, teacher, game designer, and co-author of notable game book Rules Of Play.)
- Eddo Stern (Los Angeles-based artist and game designer behind machinima and interactive art exhibits like Tekken Torture Tournament and Waco Resurrection.)
- Frank Lantz (Veteran game designer and co-founder of crossmedia game company Area/Code, behind games like Parking Wars, Sharkrunners, and Spore Islands, and Director of the NYU Game Center.)
- Rod Humble (Head of The Sims label at major publisher Electronic Arts, as well as art-game practitioner with games like The Marriage and Stars Over Half Moon Bay.)
- Jason Rohrer (independent game developer of Passage and Between, which was the IGF’s Innovation/Nuovo Award winner in 2009.)
- Carl Goodman (Senior Deputy Director of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, one of the first museums in the world to collect and exhibit video games.)
- Marcin Ramocki (director of the film ‘8 BIT: A Documentary about Art and Videogames’ and widely worldwide-exhibited new media artist.)
- Mare Sheppard (co-creator at Metanet Software of IGF winning indie game N -- subsequently expanded into Xbox Live Arcade hit N+ -- as well as the upcoming game Robotology.)
- Jesper Juul (author of the MIT Press book ‘A Casual Revolution’, game design-centric writer and visiting professor at NYU.)

The five finalists for the IGF Nuovo Award will be announced -- alongside a jury statement detailing reasons for picking the finalists and honorable mentions -- on January 4th, 2010 on the official Independent Games Festival website.

Eroge Characters Comment On Hentai Game Restrictions

Commenting on regulations enacted by Japan's Ethics Organization of Computer Software (EOCS) earlier this year to prevent the sale of erotic video games (eroge) with content simulating forced sex, developer Softhouse included a couple notes in its latest Japanese release about the ban.

In Shinobi Ryuu, players follow several ninja/samurai clans filled with warriors who somehow end up having presumably consensual sex. Before players can even start the hentai PC game, though, they're greeted with this disclaimer:

"All the characters appearing in this game have gone through special training and all actions carried out are done on the basis of mutual agreement. Even if you’re a inhuman person who believes that fictional characters in creative works do not have human rights, please do not ignore this.

We also thank all the kind people who see a character in the story saying phrases such as “help me” and take it as a real call for help. However, even though you are worrying for the characters in the story, these are all lines spoken from a script.

They are not saying all this from the bottom of their hearts. We are sorry that they have put in so much effort into their acting that some people will confuse it as something that is really happening. This game is a fictional story."

Players are also reminded about the new eroge restrictions in the game's story, too, as Softhouse sarcastically programmed this casual conversation between two of Shinobi Ryuu's characters, as translated by Canned Dogs:

Surprised Suigen Ninja: I’ve recently learnt something that surprised me.

Listening Suigen Ninja: What is it?

Surprised Suigen Ninja: We, fictional characters, apparently have human rights.

Listening Suigen Ninja: Huh?

Surprised Suigen Ninja: There are apparently some special people that will get angry and show sympathy for us if we get raped. And they’ll start lobbying for us too.

Listening Suigen Ninja: Wow, we even can’t do anything ourselves without a creator or a player but we have human rights.

Surprised Suigen Ninja: Surprising isn’t it?

Listening Suigen Ninja: Yeah. But since they acknowledge that we have human rights, I wonder if they’ll acknowledge that we have the right to vote too. Our creators will work hard to do some political manipulation.

You can read Japanese eroge developer Softhouse's full comments at Canned Dogs.

Opinion: Virtual Items, Digital Snake Oil?

[Virtual items are the subject of much contention. Are free-to-play games devaluing retail products? Are they changing the industry? In an editorial originally published in the December 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine, editor in chief Brandon Sheffield weighs in.]

Early this month, I was having a discussion about free-to-play games and virtual items with Raigan Burns of Metanet Software. He was arguing that virtual items represent the equivalent of digital snake oil -- you’re paying for a few altered lines of code.

It’s a question of degrees, because all games are lines of code after all, whether they be many or few. And in fact Metanet’s latest game, N+, is primarily sold via digital distribution on Xbox Live Arcade. In many ways it's a larger, more involved virtual item.

But I understand his point very well. The idea of paying money for something that a designer maybe spent an hour tweaking, or which an artist only adjusted the colors on, just doesn’t sit well with me.

This is rooted in our consumer-oriented society. Ultimately all value is perceived. Why is a diamond more valuable than cubic zirconia? Mostly because we say so. As a society we’ve decided that between these two similar subjects (though the latter is synthetic), one is worth more, and the other less. Meanwhile both are worth more than food, which we actually need to survive.

Food, air, and water have intrinsic value, because we can’t live without them. Aside from those stand-out examples, our entire value system is fabricated -- so depending on one's desire to have these things, they're worth as much as or more than anything else. It’s quite relative, and in a society in which most of us actually do pay for the water we drink, this perception of value is very important to a lot of people, including, I’m dismayed to say, myself.

Dr. Sheffield’s Cure-All

For me, if there’s an object I can own versus a digital version, I’ll go the ownership route every time. I still buy CDs, DVDs, and records, and prefer physical copies of games I really enjoy over digital ones. Over time I’m letting go of this -- after all, my enjoyment of these media is not based on their physicality, but rather the data contained on them. Still, I find much more value in a full game I can purchase that has physical weight than I do in a game that must be purchased in bits and bytes.

For a lot of people, that need for the physical simply isn’t there, and that’s why the individual is the most important part of perceived value. For someone playing MapleStory who really wants that purple sword because it matches their outfit, that sword is possibly one of the most important things that person could buy.

Raigan’s point was this: "Goods like a paperback novel, a pen, or a shovel might have a resale value that's close to zero, but they still have some sort of ‘functional’ value in that they can be used for some purpose. For example, I can read or write or dig a hole.

"In comparison, most virtual goods are purely useless. Of course, I'm referring to Animal Crossing 'cool yellow shirt'-type goods; something like a really good sword in WoW would actually be useful, because it will allow the owner to farm gold more effectively and then sell the gold on the black market or whatever. But even that is a contrivance, the developer could easily modify a variable to let the player do a lot more damage, they don't 'need' the sword -- it's an artificial constraint imposed by the developer."

"This is typically benign in ‘normal’ games because it's done in the service of gameplay, but once you enter virtual goods land though, the rules are designed to extract more money out of people rather than to provide people with an enjoyable experience. This seems very different and possibly awful."

A book or a physical version of a game may lose its value after it’s completed once, unless you plan to go through it again, much like a virtual item. Still, I do agree with Raigan mostly, and my discussion of perceived value was partially to be contrary. But perceived value is also exactly the reason this model is working. There are people for whom the physical element of the purchase isn’t important. They’re paying for added fun, and if that fun is in the form of a yellow shirt, so be it.

That’s perhaps the most important part: For those who play these games, these items aren’t perceived as designed to extract money, they’re part of a fun experience. For instance, I’m not a religious person -- but what seems to me to be a method of controlling a populace appears to others as a way to approach the divine and achieve personal fulfillment. It’s all a question of perception.

Gimme That Olde-Tyme Religion

While the concept of paying for something so virtual initially seemed alien to me and my experience, I thought back to good old La Val’s Pizza in Berkeley, where I grew up. How many quarters did I scam out of my parents so that I could get a few more lives in Final Fight, or another go at Rampart? In essence I was renting time with the game -- the virtual items I was paying for were lives. In practice, these free-to-play games that run on microtransactions (even moreso subscription or pay-per-play games), which many core or old-school players decry, extrapolate from a revenue stream that comes from the very source of electronic games.

Anyone who’s been reading my editorials and interviews for some time (more the fool, you) will note that I’ve covered the free to play space, especially in Korea, rather extensively. In the two years since I wrote my editorial titled "Why You Should Care About Korea," that country and its business models for games have been more and more on the minds and lips of game developers around the world. One might presume I would be happy to see this model continue to gain traction among consumers, as microtransactions bleed into Facebook’s social games, and iPhone apps. I am not.

Like Raigan, I am curmudgeonly reluctant to admit the value of the piecemeal experience over the whole, finished one. But the fact is that more and more people see that free-to-play experience not as piecemeal, not as incomplete, but rather a living experience that can grow and change. Or perhaps a new kind of experience with a low required investment and barrier of entry.

And some of us fogeys may do well to recall that this model is not so different from that on which we were raised, or for the fogey-er amongst us, the games we created. The trick is how to make these virtual items actually worth what the users pay for them. But that’s a yarn for another day.

Gaijin, Robotube Slave Over Bit.Tonik At Blip Fest

As we covered earlier in the month, Blip Festival 2009 sponsor Gaijin Games (Bit.Trip series on WiiWare) teamed up with Flash/iPhone developer Robotube (Zyrx, Bloktonik) to produce a game inspired by last week's chiptune event in just one day.

The resulting Pong/puzzler hybrid, which appears to be titled Bit.Tonik, was designed as the "tasty lovechild of Bit.Trip Beat and Bloktonik", with music supplied by chip musician Glomag. Indie game review show Bytjacker was at Blip Fest and shot several videos of the two studios working on the game -- you can see a few seconds of an early build after the break.

"I’d say we did very well," says Robotube's Jason Cirillo. "We ended with some bugs and some weird gameplay issues, but I think we created a clever and fun mechanic that we’d like to further explore. I think the consensus was that we have an 80 percent finished game." Gaijin Games and Robotube plan to post Bit.Tonik online "very soon".

Fans of Gaijin Games should definitely check sister site Gamasutra today for an interview with art director Mike Roush, in which he talks about "the studio's popular retro-inspired WiiWare series Bit.Trip, the Santa Cruz company's vision, and the indie landscape."

ASCAP Wants Licensing Fees From Guitar Hero Arcade Operator

At least one Guitar Hero Arcade operator has received demands from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), to pay a licensing fee for its music game units. According to the organization, the arcade machine, which plays dozens of popular rock and pop songs like the home console versions, is akin to a jukebox and thus requires similar "public performances" fees.

The operator Mdrago has two Guitar Hero Arcade units at his bar, and though his establishment often hosts bands, it doesn't pay for an ASCAP license because the performers only play original music and not cover songs. He shared his troubles with the organization on the International Arcade Museum forums:

"My understanding was this was a legally licensed game, but ASCAP is saying that it isn't. We had one in a music venue and they are wanting us to pay a fine because they are basically saying it is used like a jukebox, but it's not because patrons are paying for the entertainment of the game, not for the listening value of the music. ...

ASCAP is saying we have to pay the $800 a year license to have it in this bar. ... We gave the lady hassling us [Guitar Hero Arcade manufacturer] Raw Thrills' number because our distributor told us that should clear it up, but it has not. ASCAP is saying they are going around the St. Louis area and is going to push every one of these out."

While Raw Thrills hasn't commented on the issue, an ASCAP spokesperson recently told GamePolitics, "ASCAP is currently in negotiations with the manufacturer for the commercial use of these machines." I wonder why this issue is just coming up now when similar music-playing arcade games like Dance Dance Revolution have been around for years?

[Via Arcade Heroes]

Arkedo Releases 03 Pixel!, Teases 04 Slash!

Big Bang Mini developer Arkedo Studio released 03 Pixel, its third Xbox Live Indie Games and its collaboration project with officemate Pastagames (Maestro: Jump in Music). The adorable 2D platformer, which we've previously shared screenshots and video for, is available for 240 MS points (around $3.10) and has a free demo.

With the third game from its Arkedo Series out the door, Arkedo is already teasing an upcoming forthcoming entry. Titled 04 Slash!, the game is described as a cross between The Legend of Zelda and Geometry Wars. I'm not sure what that would look like, but having played Arkedo's previous titles, I'm sure it will be interesting to say the least.

I know lots of people say this for the most mundane things, but I really feel like Christmas has come early!

[Thanks, Camille!]

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

As the final pre-Xmas week ends, 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.

Lots of neat things in here, including the latest NPD analysis, a retrospective of the Warcraft franchise from the Blizzard folks, a postmortem of Top Gun for the iPhone, a neat MMO design piece, some new GCG articles of note, and rather more things besides.

Go go go:

Fifteen Years of Warcraft: The Interview
"Blizzard's Samwise Didier and J. Allen Brack chart the history of the Warcraft RTS and now MMO franchise from humble beginnings, while discussing the present and future of the series, the company's evolution, and the mainstreaming of geek culture."

Rethinking the Trinity of MMO Design by Brian Green
"Experienced MMO designer Brian "Psychochild" Green pulls at the MMO trinity -- Tank/Healer/DPS -- to examine whether or not this pillar of combat design can be pulled apart, modified, or even changed fundamentally."

A Brave New Medium: Facebook versus World of Warcraft
"We speak with key figures at Facebook, ngmoco, EA, and others about interaction, interfaces, and accessibility in a digital world comprised of everything from Facebook to Modern Warfare."

Sponsored Feature: Former Game Creator Taps Unreal Engine 3 For World of Chadam
"In this sponsored feature, part of Intel's Visual Computing site, former Monolith head Jace Hall discusses Chadam, a new Unreal Engine-powered animated series using the engine for surreal, intriguing -- and initially non-interactive -- means."

Postmortem: Freeverse's Top Gun For iPhone
"Freeverse designer and programmer Justin Ficarrotta recounts what went right and what went wrong with the development of the iPhone game Top Gun, and how fans should always be in mind when working on a licensed game."

NPD: Behind the Numbers, November 2009
"Gamasutra's in-depth analysis of November's NPD U.S. game retail sales numbers looks at year-to-date highs and lows, the Xbox 360's surprising sales reversal against the PS3, Wii's 2009 individual Top 10 domination, and much more."

GCG: Game Narrative Review: Persona 3 FES
"In our latest Game Narrative Review, we take a look at the surprise RPG hit that changed the way players think about Japanese-developed role playing games with its rich and textured, and highly personal, story."

GCG: Excerpt - Foundation Game Design With Flash
"Want a leg up on working with Flash? We offer an excerpt from a book aimed at Flash novices with plenty of helpful tips on working with Adobe's popular program."

December 20, 2009

The Best Of 2009: Top 10 Indie Games

[Continuing our 2009 retrospective, Tim W. and Mike Rose of sister weblog IndieGames.com examine this year's top 10 independent games from their unique micro-indie perspective. 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, Top 5 Major Industry Events and Top 5 Developers.]

It's been an incredible year for fans of indie games. The 2010 Independent Games Festival recorded a 35 percent increase in submissions, indie games have gained more prominence and recognition in the mainstream industry, and quite a few of them even turned out to be decent commercial successes for their developers.

To celebrate the achievements of these up-and-coming game designers, we thought it'd be great idea to list out a couple of our favourite independent video games from the past twelve months.

Bear in mind that for every game mentioned here, there are twenty more that are dear to us which got left out, so we'd like to apologize in advance if your picks didn't make an appearance in this article.

Here are our picks for the top ten independent games of this year:

10. Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation (Justin Smith) [Windows, freeware - paid iPhone version available]

Created for the TIGSource Cockpit Competition - and, rightly so, the winner of the competition - Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation is what you might call 'downright genius'. Taking control of a bear just as winter is approaching, the task is to gobble down enough fish and berries and then find a place to hibernate before the snow starts to fall. All this takes place in a car. Obviously.

This is where the hilarity begins, as - and prepare for the bleeding obvious - our bear isn't the world's best driver. In fact, he's only able to grab one part of the car's controls at a time. Cue trying to accelerate with your paw, then frantically grabbing the wheel and dodging around that pine-cone tree, or that angry looking badger, or even the other bears who are, of course, driving their cars around looking for food too. Feeling clever? Jam a rock on top of the acceleration pedal and away you go - let's just hope you can stop in time. Failing at a game has never been such incredible fun, and by the time your car is brimful of leaves, stones, bees and badgers, there will be tears of laughter in your eyes. Magical.

9. Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen, Jonathan McEntee) [Flash, freeware]

A fruitful year for Edmund indeed. Spewer and Time Fcuk were great platform games, but Meat Boy is definitely the prime cut here. They've even made a map pack for it, yet fans apparently couldn't get enough of our hero and his quest to save Bandage Girl. Count on Mr. McMillen to capitalize on the popularity of his creation, as he has teamed up with Tommy Refenes to produce Super Meat Boy (the enhanced version created from the ground up) for release on WiiWare and Steam sometime next year.

SMB will be a tricky game, any way you look at it, and we'd recommend putting a few hours into getting some practice with the original Flash build first.

8. Cogs (Lazy 8 Studios) [Windows, paid, free demo]

I'm a big fan of puzzle games, and it's easy to recognize one in any community - hand them any version of Tetris, and it would keep them entertained for hours. It is from this simple concept that Lazy 8 Studios' Rob Jagnow built the solid foundation of Cogs on. All you have to do in this game is to move the tiles around a surface until the level objective is achieved, which is usually connecting one end of an object to another with a set of cogs or pipes. Sounds like Pipe Dream, yes? Even better.

The sheer satisfaction of solving a puzzle on your own was one of the things that Jonathan Blow wanted players to experience when playing Braid, and it is that same exact feeling you get in Cogs when the tiles click into place and contraptions whir to live. Sure, you can find the solutions online, but where's the fun in that?

Cogs is a game that everyone should try, regardless of whether they're fond of puzzle games or not - simply because it's one of the best puzzlers of its kind to be released in the past few years. The grandmaster of puzzle games Alexey Pajitnov has played Cogs at E3 recently, and even he couldn't bring himself to stop playing it. That is Lazy 8 Studio's bullet point, right there.

7. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard For Gravity (Dejobaan Games) [Windows, paid, demo available]

Dejobaan Games' basejumper takes the idea behind the extreme sport and turns it into one of the best arcade games of the year. Players duck, dodge and dive their way over and under floating obstacles, waving to their fans and flipping off the rest. What makes Aaaaa! so worth your time is the feeling of speed players can experience from the comfort of their living room. As scenery zooms by, the rush is simply staggering.

The game is balanced to perfection, allowing casual gamers to pick it up and enjoy that rush of streaking past buildings and deploying the parachute at the last minute, whilst also giving the hardcore players more of a challenge, with perfect paths set out in the sky for maximizing score and achieving those 5 star honours. There's also a vein of ridiculous humor running throughout which cuts the action up nicely, with relaxation videos and special announcements made at random intervals.

6. Journey to the Center of the Earth (Dot Zo Games) [Windows, freeware]

Dot Zo Games' Journey to the Center of the Earth received a whopping 75 comments on the Indie Games Blog, most of them involving the word 'wow' - and with good reason! Players guide their little explorer down into the depths of the Earth's crust, grabbing treasure, opening locked doors and fending off beasts. A treasure map gives a hint as to where each chest lies, and each area has its own unique atmosphere.

Of course, where would an explorer be without his unlimited supply of bombs to destroy enemies and provide himself with an little extra jumping power. The depth of this game (quite literally) is phenomenal, and since there is no save function, it's an experience you really need to sit down and focus on for a good, long while. Clever puzzles continuously block your way, and only the most skilled explorers will make it out safe and sound with their plunder. Platforming at its best.

5. RunMan: Race Around the World (Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson) [Windows, donationware]

The premise is simple - take control of a small, star-shaped hero as he pelts his way through worlds which appear to have been designed via Microsoft Paint. Make sure nothing can stand in his way - every wall can be bounced off, every brick and bad guy smashed and every hole can simply be jumped back out of. Then throw in a mixture of folk, blues and jazz music to
give the whole experience just that little bit more excellence, and you're away!

Many claimed that RunMan was the Sonic the Hedgehog game they'd been longing for since the blue streak turned 3D, and it's really not hard to see why - this game wants you to run really, really fast and it does everything in its power to help you achieve this goal. Our starry friend can't die, he leaves a trail of fire in his speedy wake and he shouts 'ROCK ON' as he powers along. And yet, even though it was all fairly easy - it's always going to be if the matter of death is taken away - it took really determination and skill to collect gold medals on each level. A masterclass in platforming.

4. Star Guard (Sparky) [Windows/Mac, freeware]

A platform game for people who have fond memories of classic platformers. The developer chose to use CGA-like colours for this production, and we're delighted to report that his decision to limit the palette for graphics has paid off handsomely. It looks great, controls smoothly, and there is never a period where you would not be shooting at enemies or avoiding the carefully-laid traps in every area.

Star Guard also features a checkpoint system and an infinite number of lives, making it a very accessible game to players of all skill levels. A hard mode is also included, and I've tried to speed run this platform game as a personal challenge more times than I cared to count - hours spent on trying to beat the nine stages in the quickest time possible, and without a single life lost. For that alone it surely deserves a mention in our picks, and we'll be looking forward to future retro creations from this up and coming developer.

3. Canabalt (Adam Atomic, Daniel Baranowsky) [Flash, freeware - paid iPhone version available]

The rate at which Adam Atomic's Canabalt got around the internet on its release was staggering, but not at all surprising. Here was a game that was pretty much impossible not to like, and forums and message boards went berserk with people trying to best each other's runs. What makes Canabalt such an achievement is its control scheme, which goes as follows - press X to jump.

Simple as that, yet as an experience it's so frantic, so tense... so incredible. Our hero is escaping along rooftops as the buildings around him are falling to the ground, and it's the players job to get him safely from one rooftop to the next, and repeat. Other obstacles attempt to foil his escape plans - like huge missiles falling from the sky - and there is such a glorious atmosphere to it all. Such questions as 'Who is he running from?' and 'Why is the world falling down around him?' get lost in the sheer astounding intensity - part of the tension due to your knowledge that the only end is his demise... but how far can you get before that happens? That question is one which has kept the game alive long after its release, which high score tables for the iPhone edition still being fought over. A prime example of how one-button games should be done.

2. VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh) [Flash, paid]

Terry Cavanagh has made quite a few gems lately, and while Don't Look Back, Bullet Time and Bullfist were fantastic games, VVVVVV is definitely the jewel of this crown. A simple gameplay element is introduced early on, but things quickly become challenging as each room has its own set of traps or devices that will turn everything you've learned topsy-turvy (figuratively and literally speaking). Rescuing your crew members in this retro-looking platformer might not be such an easy task after all.

VVVVVV is currently only available to play via a small donation to the developer. People who have experienced the game firsthand can attest to how good it is, and judging by the recent postings on the developer's site there are many who couldn't wait to get their hands on it too.

1. Machinarium (Amanita Design) [Windows, paid, free Flash demo available]

This is such a gorgeous, gorgeous game, we just had to use the same word twice to describe it. Amanita Design made their name with the Samorost series and could have repeated their commercial success by making another sequel, yet Jakub Dvorsky (leader of the team) chose to take a risk by creating a brand new game that had no connections with anything they've done in the past. Turns out that risk was one worth taking, as every reviewer and journalist who got their hands on Machinarium had only positive things to say about it.

The game is a true work of art, and by the end of the adventure you couldn't help wanting more. So much thought and love went into the development of the game, and thanks to Machinarium the bar has now been set very high for commercial Flash games. We can only sing praises for this one, so here's hoping we don't have to wait another two long years before Amanita Design resurfaces with their next project.

Honorable mentions:
Pathways (Terry Cavanagh) [Windows, freeware]- Such simple graphics, such a moving message.
And Yet It Moves (Broken Rules) [Windows, paid, free demo, WiiWare version soon] - Platformer with a literal twist.
Osmos (Hemisphere Games) [Windows/Mac, paid, free demo] - Relaxing puzzler which requires complete concentration.
Minecraft (Markus Persson) [Browser, paid, free previews] - Wonderful sandbox-style world builder.
Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang) [Windows, paid, free demo] - Very experimental, very atmospheric.
Time Gentlemen, Please! (Zombie Cow) [Windows, paid, free demo] - One of the best adventure games I've played. Ever.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/19/09

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

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My dog and one of my ferrets would be happy to wish you a merry Christmas and happy second-half-of-December. They would, that is, if they knew what Christmas, December, or "merriness" was, or were even paying attention to you, which they sadly aren't.

This will be my last column of 2009, since I'll be home with the folks next week and generally not thinking about video games for a little while. Things in print mag-dom this year have been largely the same as last -- low page counts, gamers proclaiming their imminent demise, the usual. It's an encouraging sign, though, that nearly every outlet is actively trying new things, from Game Informer's redesign to GamePro's campaign to shed its kiddie image once and for all. The really big efforts, the EGM remake and Future's WOW: The Magazine, both got delayed to next year, but at least we're ensured something to talk about in '10, right?

That said, click on to check out all the game mags that crossed my desk over the past two weeks. Enjoy the rest of December!

Nintendo Power January 2010

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Cover: Mega Man 10

One of the more impactful subscriber-only covers we've seen on an NP, yeah? For once, it's a lot better than the newsstand version, which is a simple clip-art collection of Nintendo icons with some neat captions. It advertises a "250 reasons to love Nintendo" 24-page feature that's packed with neat stuff, although it's a little pedestrian in design.

The reviews section takes it in the chin a little bit as a result of this, but I'm not complainin', especially because of the MM10 coverage and the three pages the editors spent interviewing Takahashi-meijin, the sort of cross-generational hero that I only wish I was.

Game Informer January 2010

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Cover: Dead Space 2

If last month's GI was a celebration of everything that's great about print mags, this month's is a reminder of the industry's problems. The book size went from 132 to 104 pages in a single issue now that Christmas is "over," and GI has a house-ad spread for their website on the inside front cover (some of the most coveted and costly adspace in a magazine, after the back cover) instead of a paid advertisement.

Now that the 200th-issue celebration is over, Issue 201 goes back to the more familiar GI format of feature, feature, feature, previews, reviews. The features were the bit that changed the least with the redesign, and like traditional GI articles, they take the kitchen-sink approach. It suits them, though, and if you're into the subject games, they're engrossing.

In the letters page, GI confirmed that retro reviews are a thing of the past in the print mag, as well as editor bios that showed each contributor's likes and dislikes. I can't say I will cry over either omission too much, although Lord knows I slaved over the 50-word bio I got in EGM when I freelanced there half a decade ago. There's a game trivia quiz in the back page again, too -- "The Game Over section will now have a few different rotating features to change things up," GI writes, "so you'll still see an occasional quiz on the final page." Hmm. I dunno. That sort of thing, I wonder if the few dozen people (ballpark guess here) who complained to GI about the quiz's absence are the only ones who actually read it. Wishful thinking on my part, maybe, but...

Official Xbox Magazine January 2010

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Cover: Splinter Cell: Conviction

Hey, Conviction's back on the print-mag circuit! The feature inside is classic Future -- big, flashy, packed with eye-catching sidebars and such. It's almost to the point, in fact, where you have to hunt for the main body-text. Almost.

Besides the MW2 blowout and Bayonetta on the disc, the main draws are a couple of funny quickies -- a profile of four annoying gamer personalities and a concept for a Toyota Tacoma designed to be a Pimp My Ride-style portable Xbox lounge of sorts.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine January 2010

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Cover: 2010's hugest games

Gary Steinman starts next month (former EIC Eric Bratcher is at Games Radar now), so nothing too drastically different this issue -- just a lot of previews, mainly. The vast cover-touted roundup is bookended by more MW2 mayhem and a bunch of quick, humorous one-off pieces like "the worst water levels in PlayStation history."

Game Developer December 2009

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Cover: Brutal Legend

Did you know that Brutal Legend cost $24 million to make? Yow! Just one of the things I learned reading this cover feature. Another: If I want to keep my sanity, I probably better not angle for a job at Double Fine anytime soon.

There's also a long, technical piece on character creation that blew most of my mind to pieces and immensely fascinated the surviving remainder of it.

Videogames Hardware Handbook Volume 1

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Ah, the final magazine of the year! Adios, 2009! This is simply a collection of hardware-oriented features from the pages of Retro Gamer magazine -- 255 pages of pure content for $20, covering everything from the NES and 2600 to more obscure byways like the Konix Multi-System. Useless if you have the individual issues, of course, but man, this volume really packs a presence on the coffee table. (It's an excellent cheapo Xmas gift for a gamer friend, come to think of it. I shoulda thought of that before the local B&N sold out of copies.)

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



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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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