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February 27, 2010

COLUMN: Alt Space: A Step Too Far

GSW%20Ubi%201.jpg['Alt Space' is a regular GameSetWatch column by critic and writer Phill Cameron, discussing the relationship between the personal computer and gaming. While attempting to keep a calm head about things, he's taken some time to have a look at the new form of DRM Ubisoft are implementing in their future releases.]

The idea of Digital Rights Management is something that's either completely avoided or at least treated with a healthy distance by the media in general. It's a difficult subject to approach, because we're here to look at the games, not the packages they come in, per say. It's analogous to complaining about an overly-strict usher in a cinema and saying that the film is bad because of it. The only problem with that is that here it's a case of the usher coming with every copy of the game. It has become part of the product, and because of that we arrive at the tricky situation of being forced to talk about it.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem. So far we've seen DRM come in various shapes and sizes, from the oft criticized Starforce and SecuROM services to the mostly accepted Steam platform from Valve. They're there, but for the most part they're mild annoyances that you can ignore, or in Steam's case, you accept and work with. Essentially, they're there to make it that bit more difficult for the pirates to crack the games, and in doing so they reduce the quality of the product the paying customer can enjoy, without being so ubiquitous as to be a constant source of frustration.

However, in the past few weeks Ubisoft have announced and implemented what I think is the most intrusive and thoroughly unacceptable form of DRM yet to be seen. Starting with The Settlers 7 and Assassin's Creed 2, all Ubisoft games will come with a 'service' that does a list of things.

Firstly, it provides, or rather defaults to, cloud saving for all your games. As an option, cloud saving is a wonderful thing, allowing you to play the same single-player game over multiple PCs, but the fact of it is that most people only play their games on the one platform, and so having cloud saving forced upon them is, at the very best, redundant. Cloud saving is only a default option though, and can be turned off in the settings. The main problem with it is when you've got no Internet, you've got no save games to load.

GSW%20Ubi%204.jpgDon't worry though, Ubisoft have thought ahead. Another 'feature' of this service is that your games have to be online. As in, you cannot lose connection with the Ubisoft servers at all during your play time. In the case of the Settlers 7, it'll automatically save your progress when you disconnect, meaning you've just got to wait till your connection re-establishes before continuing. In the case of Assassin's Creed 2, as PC Gamer have confirmed, if you drop connection you lose all progress since the last save point. With the prevalence of dodgy wi-fi connections, less-than-reliable ISPs and even the unconfirmed stability of the Ubisoft master servers, this could mean a huge amount of frustrated PC gamers.

There's a cynical side of me that just sees all this as a 'lesser of two evils' situation. Ubisoft force an incredibly unwanted system upon us, there's a huge backlash against it, and they propose something slightly less horrendous and everyone accepts it, because, by god, it's not quite as bad as they were saying. We're pretty much beyond that opportunity though, because this system is already in their two closest releases. So either they're going to be back-tracking soon, or this service really is here to stay.

It's important to understand that this isn't the developers' fault. This is purely Ubisoft as publishers placing this down. We're not seeing this purely coming out of one of their studios; it's a universal thing, placed on every single one of their PC games. It's all about their bottom-line, and completely not about what they think of the PC gaming audience. They think piracy is hurting them, however well or mis-informed they might be about that, and this is their move to counter that.

And it might work; part of the DRM is that the online connection is required because they're not shipping the entire game with the disc; part of the code is supplied by their servers, which is the reason for the constant online connection. The game disconnects when you do because it simply can't run without being online. It's not like it makes everything all right, but at least there's a reason for it.

GSW%20Ubi%202.jpgThe problem is, it's not a reason that we, as consumers, can appreciate or even notice. It's not there for our protection, it's there to stop people who aren't us (the paying customers), from getting their hands on the game. All we know is that we've shelled out money for something that's, at best, a dodgy piece of software. It's completely unrealistic to believe that it's going to be anything other than that.

Recently, PC Gamer managed to have a talk with Ubisoft about the technology. They claim that 'The real idea is that if you offer a game that is better when you buy it, then people will actually buy it. We wouldn't have built it if we thought that it was really going to piss off our customers.' While it might be tempting to call them naive or blindly optimistic, the base theory there is sound; if you offer a better service than the pirates, you'll have more people buying the game. The problem is that here, with Assassin's Creed 2, we're not getting a better game when we buy.

There's an interesting flip-side to this. With Command & Conquer 4, EA are implementing a system that's similar in effect to what Ubisoft is trying to implement. In a recent interview with GameSpot, one of the lead developers of the game, Samuel Bass, stated 'As a nice side effect, since C&C4 requires players to be online all the time in order to prevent cheating, we'll be shipping without any form of DRM.' It's easy to take that completely out of context and laugh at the doublethink of the statement, but EA are actually doing something somewhat clever with this.

With C&C 4, they'll be introducing a persistent ranking system that unlocks units and other goodies that will allow you to play the game with ever widening strategies and tactics. Essentially, the game has to be online all the time so that it can give you new stuff to play with. It's essentially turning C&C 4 into a sort of pseudo-MMO that allows it to sneak under the radar of all those Angry Internet Men who get so worked up about DRM. It's not like you'd complain that World of Warcraft requires a constant internet connection, is it?

What I'm trying to get at is that this is a carrot/stick scenario. Ubisoft is whacking us with a pretty huge stick, while offering us no carrot to munch on to forget about the pain. Cloud saving is not even close to approaching a reward for the punishment of being constantly online. It's a cheap trick to try and make us accept that we have to be connected at all time.

Sure, there might be the very, very occasional time when you want to play your game on another PC, or perhaps your hard drive is wiped and your saves are rescued by the ever-vigilant DRM, but people aren't going to care. All they'll know is that the game they paid money for is stopping them from enjoying themselves because someone's using the microwave again. Or maybe your cat got frisky with your network cable.

GSW%20Ubi%203.jpgTo compete with the pirates, publishers need to embrace the customers rather than punishing them. The main problem that they face at the moment is that the service offered by the pirates supersedes the service they themselves provide. When the pirates can provide a game completely DRM free near instantaneously, the developers and publishers need to make it so that the customer gets a better service because of that.

Things like regularly updating your game are a start, even something like Bioware did with the recent MassEffect 2, where paying customers got access to two pieces of content just for buying the game is a step in the right direction. Burdening your players with cumbersome pieces of software isn't going to endear you to them. It's just going to make them more likely to go for the inevitable pirated version, free of mandated internet connection and all the malware that DRM is so often seen as.

[Phill Cameron has begged work off multiple different sources, including the mighty Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the wonderful Resolution Magazine, and the ever stalwart Reticule. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.]

Best Of Indie Games: Playing With Just One Button

[Every week, IndieGames.com: The Weblog co-editor Tim W. will be summing up some of the top free-to-download and commercial indie games from the last seven days on his sister 'state of indie' weblog.]

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top independent PC Flash/downloadable titles released over this last week.

The delights in this edition include a pair of Gamma IV showcase entries, a clever puzzle platformer with just one level to play, a single-button arcade game created in the span of a week, and a real-time strategy game that features both marines and zombies in the same package.

Here's the highlights from the last seven days:

Game Pick: 'Attack of the Paper Zombies' (Alex Vostrov, freeware)
"Attack of the Paper Zombies sees a small group of marines going it alone against a horde of the undead. Each level contains a number of enemy hives from where the bad guys spawn, and the job is to fight your way through the masses, take down the hives and capture the points, securing the area."

Game Pick: 'This is the Only Level Too' (John Cooney, browser)
"This is the Only Level Too is the sequel to a puzzle platformer released by jmtb02 late last year, featuring a new set of thirty stages to beat and more achievements to unlock. The objective here is to guide a blue elephant towards the exit pipe safely, but in order to achieve that you would first have to unlock the door which blocks your path to freedom."

Game Pick: 'Pax Britannica' (No Fun Games, freeware)
"Pax Britannica is a hotseat multiplayer RTS game created for the Gamma IV competition, in which up to four players can command their own factory ships and send out fighters, bombers and frigates to attack their opponents' armadas. The type of craft manufactured and shipped out is dependent on how long you hold down the assigned button before letting it go."

Game Pick: 'Girlfriend vs Boyfriend' (Shaun Pauley, freeware)
"In Girlfriend vs Boyfriend you play as the guilty partner who had just been caught ogling at another woman, and as a result of this your other half will try to chase you down and punish you for committing the act of unfaithfulness in her presence. Objects on the roadside will be thrown at you to hamper your escape, but you can knock these things away at the cost of stopping for a short moment for your girlfriend to catch up with you."

Game Pick: 'Wavespark' (Nathan McCoy, freeware)
"Wavespark is a simple one-button action game created by Nathan as part of his weekly game release initiative, where your objective can be anything from reaching checkpoints to scoring bonuses depending on which game mode was chosen by the player."

February 26, 2010

Reminding Western Gamers About Patchwork Heroes

Eastern Mind is convinced that One Million Ton Bara Bara -- or Patchwork Heroes, as it will be called when it releases in the U.S. this spring -- is "possibly one of the most interesting games to appear this year" and just as important as other big Sony-published PSP titles like Loco Roco and Patapon.

The site even published a great introduction to the game with lots of screenshots (similar to its other wonderful previews for interesting PSP imports like My Summer Holiday and Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 3), story details, and a run-through of four different levels.

Despite its rave impressions for Patchwork Heroes, Eastern Mind noticed a lack of enthusiasm from North Americans and Europeans for the game. To combat its depression over Western audiences ignoring such a great title, the site produced a cute comic about the upcoming U.S./Europe release using graphics from the game (best viewed by hitting pause on the slideshow, then hitting the arrows).

Oh, and while you're reading about Patchwork Heroes, check out this fantastic cover art for the game's 30-song soundtrack -- with music composed by Hideki Sakamoto -- releasing in Japan on March 24th.

Jet Moto 2124 Retrospective, Syd Mead Designs

Bringing its all-terrain jet hover bikes to space, 989 Studios planned a fourth entry to its Jet Moto series on the PS1 during the late 90s. Jet Moto 2124 had racers tearing across tracks set on Mars colonies and other futuristic settings with new features like slingshot grapples, trampolines and teleporters.

The game never made it to stores for a number of reasons including lackluster reviews/sales for Jet Moto 3, a new company president that didn't see the value in a fourth Jet Moto, and needed changes that required another 6 months of work. Thankfully, PlayStation Museum was able to gather some of Jet Moto 2124's developers for details on the project and a postmortem.

Along with offering insight on Jet Moto 2124 development process, design influences (e.g. Akira), and what went right/wrong with the project, PSM's article discusses contributions from Syd Mead, the famous industrial designer who worked on such film projects as Blade Runner, Aliens, and Tron. You can several pieces of concept art of the game's stages and bikes after the break.

PSM also posted a great Jet Moto 3 article with comments from 989 Studios's former president Kelly Flock and an interview with former programmer on the project (under developer Pacific Coast Power and Light) Ming Lee, the latter of which includes info on the game's engine and other technical details.

Round-Up: Gamasutra Network Jobs, Week Of February 26

In our latest employment-specific round-up, we highlight some of the notable jobs posted in big sister site Gamasutra's industry-leading game jobs section this week, including positions from ArenaNet, Sucker Punch and more.

Each position posted by employers will appear on the main Gamasutra job board, and appear in the site's daily and weekly newsletters, reaching our readers directly.

It will also be cross-posted for free across its network of submarket sites, which includes content sites focused on online worlds, cellphone games, 'serious games', independent games and more.

Some of the notable jobs posted this week include:

ArenaNet: International Project Manager
"ArenaNet is seeking to hire an International Project Manager for a job opening on the International Product Team. The primary function of the International Project Manager is to manage and coordinate international projects for the ArenaNet Business team and to act as a primary contact for Asian partners. Other areas of responsibility include managing product localization, market research and data analysis."

Konami Digital Entertainment: Technical Artist
"Tencent Boston is a premier game development studio led by industry veterans that are driving the creation of world class online games for a global audience. We are a division of Tencent Inc., one of the largest internet companies in China. For more than 400 million people Tencent is the internet encompassing portal, shopping, community and entertainment services. We are right in the middle of one of the most dynamic and fast growing game markets in the world and we are looking for outstanding individuals with passion, talent and a team focused mindset."

Ready At Dawn Studios: Lighting Artist
"Successful candidates are able to demonstrate both a strong aesthetic sense for lighting, as well as understanding of how to effectively lead the player through real-time environments and gameplay scenarios. The lighting artist is expected to research and adapt to new techniques as they emerge and to propose lighting related improvements to our general art pipeline and proprietary tools and engine technology."

Sucker Punch Productions: Studio Recruiter
"Do you have experience with particle editing in a 3D package or in a 3D engine? Are you ready to bring that ability to execute outstanding FX to our games? Strong sense of dramatic FX and understanding of how to recreate them in a particle editor required. Texture skills required."

Volition: Experienced Project Manager
"Volition, Inc., a video game studio located in Champaign, Illinois, is seeking an experienced Project Manager to manage various areas of development on one of their exciting game teams. Volition is an established game development studio owned by THQ, Inc. and has created the Saints Row, Red Faction, and FreeSpace franchises."

To browse hundreds of similar jobs, and for more information on searching, responding to, or posting game industry-relevant jobs to the top source for jobs in the business, please visit Gamasutra's job board now.

Road To The IGF: Closure's Tyler Glaiel And Jon Schubbe

[In the latest Road to the IGF interview with 2010 Independent Games Festival finalists, we speak with designer Tyler Glaiel and artist Jon Schubbe about Closure, a finalist in both the Excellence in Audio and Technical Excellence categories.]

Closure, first introduced in a Flash version, is a puzzler that challenges a very basic principle of gaming: That light is always good and darkness is always bad. In Closure, that which is illuminated exists, and that which isn't, doesn't, producing no end of brain-bending environments.

Here, programmer, designer, producer and director Tyler Glaiel and artist Jon Schubbe discuss their design and inspirations -- and the upcoming expanded version of the game's subtly sinister undertones.

What is your background in making games?

Tyler: I've been interested in game development pretty much my whole life. When I was young, I used to draw levels for Mario and Sonic on big sheets of paper and pretend to play through them in my mind, and thought, "man I wish I was the one who designed these games, cause I have so many ideas".

I got to play around with actually making a game when I was 11 (using Flash 4, titled "Pigeon Pooper"), and have been practicing and evolving my skills ever since.

Jon: One of the first games I made was an RPG Maker game called Book of Miseries and Mysteries (Copyright 2002 Jon Schubbe Inc) and from then on, I've been making personal Flash animations and games for Newgrounds.com in my spare time.

What development tools did you use?

Tyler: I use flash all the time for prototypes and web games. The new version of Closure is written in C++ (XCode on the Mac, Visual c++ Express on Windows). And I'm powered by Coffee™.

Jon: Adobe products get me by.

How long did you work on the game?

Tyler: The Flash prototype took two months to make. Following that, we've been working on the new version for about nine months so far. There is still a year or more to go to finish it up, and business stuff can move pretty slowly at times.

What gave you the inspiration to do a game that worked with light and dark contrasts, and how did you come up with the main concept?

Tyler: In most games that have "dark levels", there is a very distinct separation between darkness and light. It's usually "Dark = Bad, Light = Good", or in stealth games, it's flipped.

I hate that dumb division between the two, so this game sorta plays with how, in some situations, you need the light, and in others it just gets in the way. The concept was just an idea that popped into my head during brainstorming.

One thing I noticed about it when I played it was the odd little touches that gave the world in-game more of a sense of place, rather than simply being a puzzle-oriented geometric landscape. Can you talk about that, and why were there mailboxes?

Jon: Tyler's past puzzle games have mostly been very simple, abstract, graphic design-looking. For the Flash version of the game, I came in to animate a character and draw environment assets to enhance the experience and give the game a vague storyline.

Mailboxes are used to represent the fact that you are on a road outside people's homes, and eventually leading you into a forest. In our latest new version, being created from the ground up, I am animating and drawing all new graphics for the new game.

I will also be essentially decorating the landscape this time, creating a whole new abstract appearance for the new game, as opposed to the old geometric pattern in the Flash game.

The title is very distinct. In what ways does it relate to the game concept, and did you mean to give the experience of playing it such a subtly sinister overtone?

Tyler: The word "Closure" means about 500 different things. The way to advance through levels is to go through a door (closing and opening a door), and the storyline and plot deals with closure to an extent, but the main reason the title was picked was because of the gameplay.

I read Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics", and he had a chapter on "closure", and about how it's how the brain connects images together, or how if you see two parts of a bridge obscured (by darkness, per say), your brain connects those images together.

He had a panel in that chapter where he wondered if stuff he couldn't see disappeared (behind him), and the reason the brain actually remembers that there is something there is through the process of "closure". I was like, whoa, that fits my game, except I'm forcing people to ignore that instinct.

That's where the name comes from (and is a way more interesting story than where the idea came from, but everyone always cares more about the idea's inspiration for some reason).

It's also funny, cause the word can mean so many different things, the number of puns that have come about during it's development, like "foreClosure", "bringing closure to Closure", and others too.

Jon: Blair Herter from X-Play: "These two guys were in a relationship at one point and 'Closure' is what they didn't have have in their relationship."

If you could start the project over again, what would you do differently?

Jon: The project IS being started over again! The new version of the game is the one that was entered into the IGF! From the old one, I am including lots of hi-def artwork and smoother animation for loads of new levels with new mechanics and sound.

Tyler: Yeah, the Flash version had a lot wrong with it. I could go over it in super detail everything that went wrong, but it would take PAGES. Luckily, since only two months were invested in it, it was completely painless to just start from scratch for the big version.

No more Flash (it's slow), HD so there's more room for designing interesting levels and creating interesting mood and plot, less "guesswork" puzzles and more "thinking" puzzles, less lag, and more mechanics to allow for more variety of puzzles without resorting to some of the cheap tricks theFflash one did to extend the game. Physics, water, spotlights, and more. It's kinda nice to work off of a base project like that that got a ton of feedback.

Were there any elements that you experimented with that just flat out didn't work with your vision?

Tyler: There were a lot of levels I had to trash, and a couple stuff in the Flash version that just wasn't an interesting enough mechanic to redo in the new version. We've yet to implement our riskiest idea though, so stuff remains to be seen.

Jon: As far as graphics go, I'm experimenting with different styles of black and white, keeping the style of the atmosphere as close as possible to the first game, while improving it vastly. Some things that don't work at all with the atmosphere is sometimes my cartoony drawing style to things gets in the way.

I'm keeping the drawings right on the edge of cartoony and creepy to create a unique look for the limited black and white palette of the game.

Have you played any of the other IGF finalists? Any games you particularly enjoyed?

Tyler: I've played Super Meat Boy, a little bit of Rocketbirds' demo, Star Guard, Today I Die, Tuning, and a bunch of the student winners too (Puzzle Bloom, Continuity, and Spectre). Super Meat Boy is great, so is Today I Die and Tuning, and I'm really excited for this year's selection, since there's a ton on the list I want to try, like Vessel and Monaco.

Jon: Of course! Meat Boy's Flash version was a lot of fun because I love masochistic platforming. Shank is a fun game with sweet combos and I like the comic book ink-shaded look to it. It complements the over-the-top action.

I've also played Tuning and Today I Die, which are fantastic abstract experiences compared to your every day 'video games'. I've also played Puzzle Bloom in the Student Showcase, and it was a very fun and challenging experience.

Spectre is another I've played from the Student Showcase and it has a cool unique art direction and way of storytelling. Heroes of Newerth I haven't played, but I have played DotA, a WarCraft III mod that HoN was based off, so I could probably predict that game is amazing too.

What do you think of the current state of the indie scene?

Tyler: It is great. Two years ago all I knew about the indie scene was Gish, Alien Hominid, and Castle Crashers. Then I got involved in it a little (after realizing that what I've been doing for so long IS indie development), and it's been one hell of a ride since then.

It's crazy the people I've met and the places I've been since then, and it doesn't look to be getting stale any time soon.

Jon: I think it's great! There's a lot of dispute over the definition of 'indie' but I think people know deep down that combining the various personal situations people are in as they make the game, and the final product, they can judge whether or not it is 'indie' by intuition for themselves.

[Previous 'Road To The IGF' interview subjects have included Enviro-Bear 2000 developer Justin Smith, Rocketbirds: Revolution's co-creators Sian Yue Tan and Teck Lee Tan, Vessel co-creator John Krajewski, Trauma creator Krystian Majewski, Super Meat Boy co-creators Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, Sidhe's Mario Wynands, who worked on Shatter, Daniel Benmergui, creator of Today I Die, Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng, executive producer on Shank, Star Guard creator Loren Schmidt, Miegakure developer Marc Ten Bosch, Joe Danger creator Hello Games, and Limbo partner Dino Patti.]

Datapop's Chiptune Acts, Fundraising

Austin chip music show Datapop returns for a two-day party during SXSW week -- March 16th and 17th -- with 12 international 8-bit acts, many of which we've featured here before: Anamanaguchi, Bit Shifter, 8BK-ok, Henry Homesweet, IAYD, Je Deviens DJ en 3 Jours, Nullsleep, Random, Sabrepulse, Sievert, Starscream, and Trash 80.

Flying all those musicians (and a few visual artists as well) from their U.S. hometowns, UK, France, Stockholm, and Sweden will be expensive, so organizers are hoping to raise $3,000 to cover travel costs through Kickstarter. So, far, they've received $2,452 in pledges with only four days left to go, so they're almost there!

As no Kickstarter fundraiser is complete without incentives, donators will receive exclusive MP3 compilations (with rare/classic songs from past and present Datapop artists), Datapop 2010 VIP access, shirts, drink tickets, movie tickets to the Alamo Drafthouse, LSDJ .sav files from Datapop artists, and more depending on your pledge amount.

You can watch a couple videos of Nullsleep and Bit Shifter performing at last year's Datapop after the break:

Monaco Plans IGF Award Burglary, GDC Shoot-out

In demonstrating his level editor for Monaco, Pocketwatch Games's top-down co-op stealth game, indie developer Andy Schatz share a startling sequence of events that might occur at GDC should Super Meat Boy win this year's Seumas McNally Grand Prize at IGF 2010 (a prize that four other titles, including Monaco, are in consideration for).

The above time lapse video shows Schatz re-creating a floor from the Moscone Center, GDC's home, with Monaco's's stage editor, then kicking off a heist with four disgruntled and scheming thieves. The ending, however, is bloody and violent; you might want to bring a bullet-proof vest to GDC this year! (disclaimer: organizers don't actually expect a firefight to break out at the show)

Rhombus! Adventure Time As Super Mario Bros. 2

As the launch of Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time with Finn and Jake animated series on Cartoon Network nears, Fredarator Studios has been building up hype for the offbeat cartoon by posting production artwork and fanart on its Tumblr blog.

In this piece submitted by pixel artist Alex Campos, Adventure Time's stars -- Jake, Finn, Princess Bubblegum, Ice King, Rainicorn, and others -- are dropped into the title screen of Super Mario Bros. 2, itself a bizarre entry for the platformer series. Now someone needs to make a ROM hack of Doki Doki Panic with Adventure Time characters.

If you've somehow managed to not watch Adventure Time in the past four years, I've included the original animated short after the break. Cartoon Network expects to launch the series this April.

[Via .tiff]

Interview: Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor, The Independent Farmer

[Between feeding chickens and making games, Gas Powered Games' Chris Taylor has been talking to our own Kris Graft about the "go ask mom and dad" relationship between independent game studios and major publishers.]

Chris Taylor has a farm. It's not a big farm, but on that farm he has chickens and horse that he tends to daily. The animals rely on him for food, shelter, and for a few lucky chickens, cuddling - sometimes. The animals are completely domesticated and dependent on handouts.

In some ways, they're a lot like so-called "independent" game studios.

With over two decades in the game industry, Taylor has seen a lot. As creative director and co-founder of independent Redmond, WA-based Gas Powered Games, home of titles like Dungeon Siege, Demigod and Supreme Commander, he has experienced the hardship and toil along with the success.

Now, in the midst of a new project, Taylor wants to remind himself what it means to be independent: to have control of his destiny - to fetch his own chicken feed. He asks, "If you have the freedom that you wouldn't have if you were an internal studio or culture, then why not take advantage of that?" It's a question that he's apparently been asking himself.

"We [independent studios] don't have to go to a committee or a group of executives or people that are going to run a competitive analysis or a market study. I can go from my gut," he says, "which is 22 years in the business, believe it or not, since May 1998, and I can decide if I want to make something. And I can just go ahead and make it."

Taylor says that independent studios often don't leverage their independence in creative or business areas as much as they could, or should. His own GPG has been guilty of under-utilizing the ability to do essentially whatever the hell it wants.

"What we often see, especially being an independent these last 20 years, is that we'd keep our concepts quiet, we wouldn't tell anyone, we'd go out and talk to the publishers, and that might mean 10 or 20 publishers at best, and they decide whether they like the concept or not," he says.

If no publishers bite, then there's no funding, and then there's the common mindset for a studio that it's best just to ditch the idea it was working on. "So even though we were an independent studio, or the industry was full of independent studios, there was still this 'go ask mom and dad' mentality to it, which to me doesn't really sound independent," Taylor says.

When mom and dad said "no" to 2007's original Supreme Commander, GPG found itself in a position where it could have either given up or soldier on. Before THQ decided to publish the game, another publisher dropped the title while it was in development.

Taylor and GPG decided to take its fate into its own hands. "We went and got a magazine cover. We moved ahead and said 'We're making this game.'" says Taylor. That August 2005 PC Gamer magazine cover -- which declared that the creator of Total Annihilation was returning to change the face of the real-time strategy genre once again -- created new energy around Supreme Commander. THQ picked it up.

Taylor is following his own advice with Chris Taylor's Kings and Castles, which the studio announced just prior to the upcoming release of this March's Supreme Commander 2. He's not keeping Kings and Castles a secret. It's still very early in development, there are no publishing or distribution deals as of yet, but it's already out there. GPG last week launched a video blog that will be updated weekly that gives fans a behind-the-scenes look at the development of Kings and Castles.

The video racked up 20,500 hits in its first day-and-a-half. "That says to me, wow, the world really cares ... which means we need to continue," says Taylor. A video blog can grab attention from not only fans, but also business partners. And, Taylor says, it's fun to make vlogs. "This business is hard, there's resistance pushing you back, and you have to bring that storm and go forward. How do you do that? You capture human energy."

Although there are important pieces to the puzzle missing, GPG knows where it wants to go with Kings and Castles. It's targeted at PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for digital distribution, and will sell at brick-and-mortar retail and online retail for a global release.

But the studio is still planning on how it will reach those objectives. GPG is considering possible distribution and publishing partners for worldwide territories, as well as attracting funding partners. Make no mistake - being independent also means finding business partners on your own, and GPG hasn't forgotten that.

It's all part of Taylor's renewed mindset on the idea of independence, the realization that in many ways, independent studios should embrace their ability to take calculated risks instead of playing it "safe" all the time, because in reality, safety is a bit of a myth anyway.

"We've always been kind of been like that [independent-minded], but it's always been kind of halfway. We decided ourselves that we'd make Dungeon Siege, we decided to make Supreme Commander, we did Demigod. We've always been like this," explains Taylor.

But halfway isn't enough. Maximizing the ability to make one's own decisions can be the difference between being the farmer and being the livestock. "Independent developers have the ability to maneuver. Think of us as the little ship that gets to maneuver around the big ships. If we don't exercise that ability to maneuver, then we're just giving up on a major strength."

February 25, 2010

DJ Corsten's Spins Pulse to iPhone, PC

Renown DJ Ferry Corsten and developer Virtual Fairground (Club Galactik) have partnered to create Pulse, a new rhythm game for iPhone and PC in which you can play and compose dance tracks. It will also feature seven new music tracks produced by Corsten exclusively for the music title.

In Pulse, players tap the screen (or keyboard) to the beat of the music to reach song samples, play notes to those samples, then integrate those samples into their song. Depending on how closely gamers follow the beat, they'll be able to access more elaborate samples and layer them with their track.

The iPhone version is expected to come out on March 27th, while the release date for Pulse's PC edition, which will include additional online cooperative and versus multiplayer modes, is still unannounced. Both versions will include a feature that allows players to post their scores to Twitter and Facebook.

"I was trying to combine my music and games for quite some time," says Ferry Corsten. "Then I met the guys from Virtual Fairground who showed me a demo of Pulse. With my experience and their game design skills we have been able to shape Pulse into both a great game and something that makes you feel like a DJ. I can't wait to see Pulse in the hands of players."

Hopefully, this will turn out better than that awful horror movie with the same name that came out several years ago. I can't believe I paid money to see that.

IGF, Direct2Drive Announce Finalists For $10,000 D2D Vision Award

[Once again, IGF download partner Direct2Drive is awarding $10,000 to a neat indie title at the Independent Games Festival awards in a couple of weeks time, and here's the rundown on the titles competing for the D2D Vision Award - including a couple of games that weren't Main Competition finalists but are still awesome titles.]

Independent Games Festival organizers and sponsor Direct2Drive have announced the finalists for the D2D Vision Award, with games including HurricaneX2 and Nyxquest competing for a $10,000 cash prize at the IGF Awards on March 11.

Digital game distribution site Direct2Drive, the event's official download partner, set up the Vision Award in 2009 to "honor independent developers whose games present the new ideas and concepts that will help spark innovation in gaming."

The winner, picked from the five finalists -- all indie games from the more than 300 IGF main competition entries -- will be presented live on stage by IGN on-air personality Jessica Chobot at the 12th Annual Independent Games Festival Awards.

The awards themselves take place on Thursday, March 11 during the 2010 Game Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, CA. The winning team will receive a $10,000 prize from Direct2Drive.

The five finalists for the Direct2Drive Vision Award for this year are:

- HurricaneX2, a 3D martial arts brawler from You Yun Tech.
- Joe Danger, a build-it-yourself stuntman simulator from Hello Games.
- Nyxquest: Kindred Spirits, from Over The Top Games, which challenges players to fly, aim and shoot through a world inspired by Greek myths.
- Super Meat Boy, a platform game from Team Meat starring a lovable cube of meat who must race through dangerous obstacles to save his girlfriend.
- Max and the Magic Marker, a puzzle platform game from Press Play with a unique “magic marker” drawing mechanic.

More information about the finalists can be found on Direct2Drive’s D2D Vision Award website, and the digital distribution site has concurrently released a "Best of Indie" PC game bundle of IGF nominees and winners from previous years.

That bundle, released today and only available until March 12, includes ten games, including Osmos, Machinarium, Cogs, Braid, and many more, and is priced at $29.95 -- a savings of more than 75 percent relative to buying the games individually.

"The future of gaming hinges on the ability for developers to constantly innovate and entertain players of all types," said Direct2Drive digital content VP Sutton Trout in a statement. "Indie developers are continuously generating the new ideas and concepts that will help drive gaming forward. The Vision Award is one of the ways for us to recognize the community and these five incredible games."

Koichi Sugiyama Came Up With Dragon Quest Overture In 5 Minutes

Dragon Quest's "Overture" is instantly recognizable to almost anyone with any familiarity with the franchise, as it's used prominently in dozens of main series games and spin-offs starting with the very first release. There's even a Dragon Quest Best Dance Mix album that you can grab with a Trance remix version of the music!

In a recent interview with Famitsu translated by 1UP, Dragon Quest composer Koichi Sugiyama, who was already a celebrity in Japan for his TV/film work long before he began working on video games, reflected on his 24-year history with the series and revealed that he came up with the melody for the iconic overture in just five minutes.

"It took about five minutes between getting struck with the idea and coming up with the melody [for the overture]," Sugiyama said. "People get surprised when I say I did it in five minutes, but I'd like to think I did it because I had fifty-odd years of living experience up to that point. You could say it really took me fifty years and five minutes."

The veteran composer also shared an interesting story on how Enix initially sought him out to work on its game soundtracks:

"I've always liked video games, and long ago I played a game called Morita Shogi which Enix released on the PC-8801. I wrote down my impressions of it in the little questionnaire postcard in the box, and my family sent it back to them without me realizing it.

Whoever received the note recognized my name and gave me a phone call asking if I could compose some music for them. I said yes, and that was how I began making game music."

See? There really was a point to filling out those silly questionnaire cards that came with your games. You could've been a renown video game composer if only you'd sent yours in!

COLUMN: Battle Klaxon: Yes, It Really Is Called VVVVVV

['Battle Klaxon' is a monthly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This month: cruel-to-be-kind indie platformer VVVVVV.]

This time last year the very hippest of the games industry's hip were trying to keep their cool while getting their asses handed to them by indie platformer Spelunky. Part masterpiece, part disasterpiece, Spelunky was and is a game about things going wrong. It's intricately designed to allow you to screw up in a thousand and one forehead-slapping ways, at which point it dumps you all the way back to the start. This is a game so mean that players discover by themselves that the damsel in distress is a viable projectile for fending off monsters.

Now? Now it's the year of our Lord 2010, and we have a new indie platformer with a retro aesthetic and rockin' chiptunes to enjoy. It's called VVVVVV. Like Spelunky, it's mean as a feverish mother in law and utterly brilliant, but unlike Spelunky VVVVVV isn't about hiding from death. It's about turning and facing it. You're no longer Spelunky's cautious, cute, chibi Indiana Jones, but the bold Captain Viridian.

Spelunky was a tease. It had you jumping at shadows and ducking danger, and it giggled as you fumbled with its fat mass of button-presses and items, it snorted every time you accidentally fumbled your weapon into a snakepit. VVVVVV's more zen than that. In VVVVVV you know you're going to die, as all heroes must, and you know you're going to do it with your head held high and no more than three keys on your keyboard.

Pay attention! This could be the best $15 you spend all month.

Here's Captain Verdigris' bad situation: his ship has mysteriously marooned itself in a strange new dimension, and the rest of his lovely crew (Verdigris, Victoria, Vermilion, Vitellary and the lovely Violet) have been scattered all around it. Your mission is ONE: To rescue and re-unite your dear crew. TWO: To explore this odd place. THREE: To escape it. All of them pretty tall orders for a little guy who can't even jump.

But wait! What Captain Verdigris can do in this dimension is flip gravity. Assuming his feet are on solid ground, the tap of a button causes him to either instantly fall up to the ceiling or back down to the floor. He can also move left and right, but that's it. In terms of acrobatic platforming capabilities that puts Verdigris somewhere between Miner Willy, Q*bert and a balloon charged with static electricity. Yet one of the reasons VVVVVV is worth playing is how its potent size and variety blooms out of this single, simple mechanic.

In short, it plays a lot like the final exam of a star pupil at Games Development Academy. You imagine developer Terry Cavanagh swaggering up to his desk, tiny black leather jacket slung over his shoulder, flipping his test paper over with a stroke of his hand. Eyes dusted with stories and sex scan the page.

"Design a platformer where the player is restricted to three actions: Moving left, moving right, and a third ability of your choice which is NOT jumping."

Cavanagh swivels his head and spits as he reads. What is this? This is nothing.

He pulls the chair back from the desk and sits in one smooth motion.

The world of VVVVVV is divided into little more than hundreds of perfectly square rooms. Play works like this: You, the player, walk into a room, surveying it with a pro gravity-flipper's trained eye. You probably smirk at the room's irreverant name which can always be found at the bottom of the screen. The solution of how to cross these rooms is sometimes obvious, sometimes unclear, and sometimes obvious yet such an unbelievable dick that you start groaning before you've even made your first attempt.

Yet soon you've beaten the room, you're stood at the other side of it and then you're eagerly sliding into the next one, which will also contain an idea, a challenge, and a funny name. In VVVVVV Terry Cavanagh's created something that plays like a chocolate box of game developer creativity. You're not struggling through levels, you're popping ideas into your mouth one after another.

The other interesting thing about VVVVVV is, as I mentioned before, how it treats death. Kieron Gillen beat me to most of this when he talked about the game on Rock Paper Shotgun, so I'll paraphrase. VVVVVV strips the punishment from death. You only ever get dumped as far back as the beginning of each room, and this reset happens quicker than it takes you to speak even the most unimaginative of swearwords. The result is that VVVVVV's trickier rooms play like a strange gaming sweatlodge where the only things that exist are you, death and this distant opportunity for success.

There are rooms in this game where you can and will die more than a hundred times before you triumph, and that's stressful, almost hateful, but never, ever tedious. You willingly lock yourself into this recursive loop of trying and failing, inching your way closer and closer to success, catharsis, release and (more literally) the other side of the room. Every room a tiny cycle of life.

This peaks in one entirely optional chamber known as Veni, Vidi, Vici. I won't spoil it. If you're interested, Kieron writes a great deal about it in the above link. What I'll say instead is this: VVVVVV's take on death is actually counterpoint to Demon's Souls, and games developers should be taking onboard the philosophies of both games.

Demon's Souls is an action game that won acclaim from gamers and journalists alike for possessing the cast-iron balls required to force the player to risk everything, from experience points to progress to items. The fact that these things were always at stake when you played turned a cruel game into a riveting one. It didn't matter if you were backtracking and had seen the level before, or were stronger than the enemies surrounding you, or didn't find the design of whatever segment of level you were in particularly interesting, because always you had this spectre of death peering over your shoulder. The game played for keeps.

VVVVVV is the exact opposite. It scythes the backtracking, boredom and fear of loss from the action experience, allowing players to exist forever in the scorching heat of insurmountable challenges, death-defying jumps and split-second dodges, and balances the shortened playthrough time by adding secrets, trophies and time-trials.

Both are forms of development which speak the same message: difficulty does not have to be a tiring, audience-limiting affair. To think of it as such is a failure of imagination and creativity, as nonsensical as assuming a game can't be gripping if it's easy.

A demo of VVVVVV can be found right here, alongside an option to buy the game for either PC or Mac.

You know, if you like it.

(You'll like it.)

[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him in the damp Irish city of Galway, as quinns108 on Twitter or at quintinsmithster at gmail dot com.]

Minimalist Street Fighters Return As iPhone Covers, SSFIV Preorder Bonuses

Remember that collection of "videogame minimalism" artwork by SCEE's Ashley Browning that simplified an assortment of game character faces? Capcom is now offering several of the Street Fighter characters (Ryu, E. Honda, Blanka, and Sagat) as iPhone covers given out as preorder bonuses for Super Street Fighter IV in Europe.

European gamers without an iPhone can instead opt to receive one of four limited edition Street Fighter shirts modeled after in-game outfits (Guile and Ryu shown above) or a downloadable pack of alternative "Super Classic Costumes" (e.g. Fei Long has a Green Hornet outfit, Blank wears a pink Dan dogi). It's a shame there's no minimalist Vega iPhone cover!

[Via Joystiq]

Neo Geo Museum Looks Back At 20-Year-Old System

To honor the super expensive but much-salivated-over Neo Geo console's 20th anniversary, SNK Playmore has posted a Neo Geo Museum site to remember the 24-bit AES/MVS. Along with a retrospective article taken from the latest issue of Japan's Arcadia Magazine, NGM offers a full listing of every Neo Geo release and a small collection of Japanese advertisements (a couple featuring mysterious mascot G-Mantle!).

The real highlight for me, though, is the selection of shirts printed for the anniversary; the neat tee above features a shot of an MVS machine on the front and a listing of all the titles sold for it on the back. There's also a totally nerdy shirt with a famous Fatal Fury misprint from Gamest magazine that called the game 飢餓伝説 (Legend of Starvation) instead of 餓狼伝説 (Legend of the Hungry Wolf).

Neo Geo Museum is available in both English and Japanese, so you can still enjoy the site even if you don't understand the in-joke t-shirts!

[Via Andriasang]

Game Over: Hard Life For Gauntlet's Wizard

Painter Jeremy Tinder has shared another piece from Giant Robot SF's returning video game-themed art exhibit. While his last work offered a totem pole re-imagining of Super Mario Bros.'s cast, this watercolor twists a familiar Gauntlet phrase in a new (and very depressing) way. Times have not been good for Blue Wizard.

The third annual Game Over exhibit kicks off at San Francisco's Giant Robot store and gallery this March 12th, the same week as the 2010 Game Developers Conference -- it's just a short drive from the Moscone Center, too!

[Via Gamefreaks]

This Week In Video Game Criticism: Drive Down Mulholland To Bayonetta

[We're partnering with game criticism site Critical Distance to present some of the week's most inspiring writing about the art and design of video games from commentators worldwide. This week, Ben Abraham looks at Bayonetta, Mulholland Drive and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, among other notables.]

Eric Swain has continued his tireless efforts of scouring the video game blogosphere for our collective benefit. In a yin-yang pairing, The Game Overthinker proudly proclaims “I heart Bayonetta”, while Gunthera1 writes at The Borderhouse after having played the demo of the game with some friends and concludes that “the game is the perfect visual example of male gaze”.

Swain also had a reaction to the Final Fantasy VIII “Squall's Dead” theory, which he and I encountered for the first time this week, comparing the idea to a similar reading of Mulholland Drive. (Confession time: I’ve never seen Mulholland Drive.) Swain also asked this week, ‘Where is the last 1/3rd of Brutal Legend?

Elsewhere, G. Christopher Williams brings his best game this week with two pieces at PopMatter’s Moving Pixels blog; “Is Suda51 the Alfred Hitchcock of Video Games?” as well as ‘How games might challenge the tyranny of authorship.’

Jim Rossignol had a remarkably busy week, announcing his follow-up book to 2008’s This Gaming Life. I for one can’t wait for the as-yet untitled work. Rossignol also talked about online communities, the site Rock Paper Shotgun as a community, including a bit about how the infamous Sunday Papers regular feature ties into and reinforces the community.

Kirk Hamilton finds out what it would be like “If my games could talk”, with important implications for any backlog of games.

With Bioshock 2 and other sequels having now had time to arrive and settle, sequels in general became a hot topic this week -- with both Mitch Krpata and Michael Abbott talking about the proclivity of the industry towards game sequels. Krpata’s piece, ‘Why we need sequels’, appeared just hours before Michael Abbott’s ‘Sequel 101’, so you’d be forgiven for thinking they were working from the same playbook. As always, great minds think alike.

In ‘On my shoulder whispering’, The Brainy Gamer's Abbott begins with an exploration of the classical roots of modern tales of heroism and conflict, and ends up talking about how Bioshock 2 resonated with him on the themes of fatherhood.

David Carlton has been thinking about the changing dynamic that spoilers have with respect to shorter, independent games. It made me rethink my own policy, as it is something that I wrote about earlier this week for my own online diary/blog.

In other notable blog posts, Chris Livingston wrote about S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat this week, recounting an exciting dynamic and emergent story. I actually had a very similar experience at a similar point in the game, having been playing it this week myself (and it is glorious).

Mike Schiller wrote about ‘Video games & art as inspired by Autechre’ - electronic music versus electronic interaction.

Jamin Brophy-Warren -- former WSJ-er and editor of Killscreen Magazine -- wrote at the excellent Killscreen on Good blog about how games are one of the worst media industries for accessibility.

Finally, I want to know when The Atlantic gained such a stable of excellent bloggers that talk about video games. This week A. Serwer wrote an entry called ‘Welcome To Rapture’ and Evan Narcisse hit a homerun with “Wrex in Effect, or, Deep Space and the Negro/Injun/Krogan Problem” (thanks to Kate Simpson for the latter article).

February 24, 2010

Retro Gamer, GamesTM Issues Now On iPhone

Despite its focus on the past, Retro Gamer is looking to current technologies to keep the magazine alive, and is now available on the iPhone. Fans of the publication can download a Retro Gamer Magazine app for $1.99, read the latest issue, and buy back issues for $4.99. There are also options for purchasing 6-month ($21.99) and 1-year ($49.99) subscriptions.

Those of you in the U.S. who've spent crazy bucks on subscriptions or single issues at Barnes & Noble will immediately notice that it's much cheaper than the crazy prices you've been paying for import copies. I wonder if Retro Gamer will be able to get its Videogames Hardware Handbook on the digital store? I spent $20 for that "bookazine" last month.

Those of you who scoff at the idea of reading the magazine on such a small screen (dismissing its zoom, scan, and bookmark features), keep in mind that this will be even better on the iPad! In fact, this is now my primary reason for wanting the Apple device now: cheaper issues of Retro Gamer. All it requires is an initial $499 minimum investment.

GamesTM, another UK-based magazine from Imagine Publishing (which is working with PixelMags for these apps), also has a $0.99 app for the iPhone with an option to buy back issues.

[Via Retro Gamer]

GDC 2010 Adds Civilization V, Hecker, Harmonix Talks

[It's insane that there's less than two weeks to go to GDC 2010, and my colleagues on the show are still highlighting a few last-minute neat talk additions - here's the first set.]

As the Game Developers Conference 2010 pre-show registration deadline approaches, organizers have confirmed talks from Spore's Chris Hecker and The Beatles: Rock Band's UI director, as well as a premiere of Civilization V's engine tech.

The near-final additions are helping to round out the March 9-13 event at San Francisco's Moscone Center, which includes two days of summits -- spanning iPhone, indie, social games and more -- and three days of main conference content.

In particular, the freshly highlighted lectures for the show (organized by this website's parent company) include the following notable talks:

- Presenting a lecture called "Achievements Considered Harmful?", former EA fellow (Spore) and current Spy Party developer Chris Hecker tackles an intriguing angle on a major trend: "Achievements, awards, and rewards are ubiquitous in games these days... Unfortunately, more than 50 years of psychology research seems to indicate achievements may be doing subtle but irreparable harm to players and their feelings about playing games."

- In the sponsored lecture "Firaxis' Civilization V: A Case Study in Scalable Game Performance", Firaxis, 2K Games, and Intel "present the world premiere game engine and technology sneak peek of Civilization V, launching this fall." Along the way, according to the talk, "you'll learn how Firaxis developers have used the newly released GPA 3.0 PC platform tools and Threading Building Blocks to offer Civ V playability on myriad systems."

- "The Art of Interface Design at Harmonix Music Systems" is a talk by Harmonix's Kevin McGinnis discussing "an evolution over the years of how the company develops their user interfaces." The description explains: "Using games in their catalogue like Rock Band and The Beatles: Rock Band, a detailed visual thread of preproduction style boards, UI animation mockups, and tool development will be shown in describing their process."

- Finally, in "Guild Wars: The Artists' Vision", NCsoft West's chief art director Daniel Dociu will "explore the role of concept art in the game development process." Referencing art from the award-winning online game franchise, the presentation "will focus on the practical aspects of integrating concept art into game development, such as building an art team, working with game developers, and how art goes from concept to technical implementation."

Other recently confirmed GDC 2010 talks include Blizzard design, Shadow Complex and PS3 Motion Controller lectures, plus notable talks on Deus Ex 3's "cyberpunk renaissance" look, Silent Hill producer Akira Yamaoka's ethos, and Batman: Arkham Asylum's art direction.

Organizers also detailed a talk by Metroid creator Yoshio Sakamoto, confirmations of Peter Molyneux and Pixar lectures, and a keynote from game design legend Sid Meier (Civilization).

More information about GDC 2010 is available on the official Game Developers Conference weblog, and the GDC Schedule Builder has a complete list of more than 400 lectures for the event. Regular discounted online registration for GDC 2010 is only available until Thursday, March 4 at 1pm PT.

Valet Hustle Raises Gay/Lesbian Rights Awareness On iPhone

While Valet Hustle initially seems like a standard Diner Dash-style game in which you park cars and pick up customers outside of nightclubs and restaurants, developer Factory Games took an interesting approach to the story for its debut iPhone game: both of its playable characters, Ren and Akira, are gay.

The two protagonists both have wealthy Japanese businessmen as fathers, and both were expelled from boarding school after they were caught kissing another student of the same sex; upon hearing the news, their respective fathers order them to take over the family's parking valet company. As players progress through the game's levels, they'll learn more about Ren and Akira's personal lives.

The game features an electronica soundtrack (with an option for custom tracks), 3D cutscenes, and six levels set in Tokyo and New York. As an added bonus, Factory Games is donating a portion of the proceeds from Valet Hustle sales to the Human Rights Campaign, which is devoted to campaigning for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equal rights.

"It's cool to have been involved in the creation of Ren and Akira, two characters who triumph over prejudice by simply being themselves," says Lulu Magdangal, who served as the story development consultant on Valet Hustle. "I can only hope that Valet Hustle is the start of a trend and more game companies embrace both the gay and lesbian communities."

Introduction for Ren:

[Via Wonderland]

Sound Current: 'Kenji Kawai - Game and Anime Intersections'

[Continuing his 'Sound Current' video game interview series for GameSetWatch, Jeriaska talks to acclaimed Japanese film and game composer Kenji Kawai about his work on soundtracks spanning Folklore for PS3 in the game space, through Ghost in the Shell: Innocence and The Sky Crawlers in the film domain.]

Among anime film composers working today that also write music for videogames, Kenji Kawai is among the most internationally recognized. For instance, Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, for which he wrote the score, was the first animated film to be a finalist for the Palme D'Or award.

The film is one in a series of collaborations with director Mamoru Oshii, which includes the anime motion picture The Sky Crawlers. A game adaptation for the Wii, titled Innocent Aces, has recently been localized by Xseed, featuring a game score by sound studio MoNaca.

Kawai's contributions to videogame soundtracks include 2007's Folklore for Playstation 3, a collaboration with Hiroto Saitoh and SuperSweep musicians Shinji Hosoe and Ayako Saso. His most recent film Assault Girls, which opened in Tokyo last month, takes place within a virtual reality game environment.

In this interview following the reception of Sky Crawlers: Innocent Aces in North America, Kawai offers his perspectives on the intersection between music for Japanese animated films and videogames, based on his own experiences writing scores for both media.

Kawai-san, thank you for joining us for this discussion. When compared with your experience as a film composer, what challenges would you say are unique to writing music for games?

Composer Kenji Kawai: Technically it's not that different from making music for films, but I'd say the hardest part is finding where to situate the loop. You generally have to write much more music for a game than you do for a movie.

Previously it's been rare to see a recognized film composer enter the game industry, although that appears to be changing. Some critics have said that movies are a form of art and games inherently are not, but what is your opinion?

It can be difficult to determine what's art and what's not, but I do think that medium aside, art is something that brings enjoyment to the audience. I treat any production the same. For Folklore, the director went out of his way to request my participation, so that's why I joined.

Over the years you have had a very productive working relationship with the film director Mamoru Oshii, leading to The Sky Crawlers film. How did you two first come to collaborate together?

I met Oshii for the first time on The Red Spectacles. I was an unknown back then, but he asked me to work on the film. I think he was intrigued by the little recording system I had installed in my house and thought it might save the production some money. They had a very small budget for the film. Luckily he was happy with the results and I've been working on his films ever since.

The Sky Crawlers film animated by the studio Production I.G. is based on a series of novels by Hiroshi Mori about a group of immortal fighter pilots. It is said that the writer only gave his consent to the adaptation upon learning that Mamoru Oshii was involved. As a composer what interested you most about the story of The Sky Crawlers and the director's approach to the adaptation?

The feedback that I received from director Oshii was that he was interested in hearing a harp performed on the soundtrack. However, the challenge of just how to implement that idea was left up to me, and it was a puzzle to solve. As soon as I saw the images of the sky and clouds prepared for the film, it inspired me to write the score.

Your most recent film with Mamoru Oshii is Assault Girls, set in a futuristic virtual reality game. Did having events unfold within a game environment in any way influence your choices as a composer on this film score?

It was difficult to find the right sound for the film because of its minimal use of dialog and numerous abstract images. One particular scene features a close-up of a snail that lasts over 40 seconds. I told the director the shot was too long. “But it's acting!” was his response. Well, respectfully, it looks to me like it's just taking a long time to move.

Concept art from Folklore for Playstation 3

One thing that is often mentioned about your academic background is that at one point you were studying nuclear engineering at Tokai University. How did this experience lead to a career composing music?

I did go to college hoping to get a degree in nuclear engineering. It turned out to be harder than I expected. My home was far from the university and I began cutting classes more and more frequently. Sure enough, my grades turned out poorly. I remember one of my professors took me aside one day and said, "I'm sorry to have to put it to you this way, but this isn't for you." So I dropped out of college after just a year and a half.

When later you joined a fusion rock band, did you feel that you were further along toward accomplishing a goal more within your reach?

Muse wasn't formed in an attempt to accomplish something in particular. Some of us were at a rehearsal studio one day and happened to see a poster advertising a contest where the first place winner received a car and a cash prize. Those of us there spontaneously decided to form a band. We were hoping to win, and as luck would have it, we ended up placing. To this day I still have a fondness for fusion.

After having struggled for some time to discover a calling, when did you first get the sense that you had broken through as a musician?

That would be when I was working on the video series Patlabor. Around that time I gradually began to articulate my own personal style.

There is a haunting female chorus that appears in the intro of both Ghost in the Shell films. Was there a particular motivation behind finding this sound that so many viewers associate with the films?

At first the director had requested primitive drum sounds. I felt it would be even more effective if there were a chorus on top of it, something in a Bulgarian style. There are folk singers with very distinctive voices in Japan, and that's who we found for the vocal roles.

It turned out to be quite different from my original concept of a Bulgarian style. This vocal section was extremely challenging to get right because Japanese folk songs traditionally do not have a chorus. They aren't set to these particular rhythms, either.

Directly after the movie was released I noticed no one mentioned the music. That made me a little worried. Now that I think about it, I guess no one could critique it because it was such an unusual kind of music that no one had ever heard before. Innocence was basically a direct continuation of Ghost in the Shell, so I retained almost the exact same style.

Innocence has a dreamlike sequence which takes place in a mansion fashioned after a music box. This is one example of many from your films in which music is bound together with the storyline and visuals.

Oshii asked me to create the sound of an "enormous music box," but obviously such a thing doesn't exist. We actually had to go about creating a disc-shape music box and record the sound of it. We then added the sounds of cylindrical bells and a Thai gong. Rather than relying on electronic reverb for the vibration and echoing effects, we went to a huge stone quarry and played the sound of the music box from the speakers, then recorded it. It was a lot of work and the weather was bitter cold, making it quite an ordeal.

[This interview is available in Japanese on Game Design Current and in French. Translation by Kaoru Bertrand. Facilitated by Emi Okubo. Images courtesy of KenjiKawai.com]

Best Of GamerBytes: An In-Depth Look At January Sales

bladekittenupdater.jpg[Every week we round up the top news and interviews of the last week from console digital download site GamerBytes, featuring new information about Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, WiiWare, DSiWare and PSN Minis.]

A bit of a quiet week this week. In fact, only 2 major news stories made it out - the fact that Midway's XBLA titles have been removed, and Krome Studios have announced a new title for the PlayStation Network.

But that allows us to have full view of our monthly analysis of Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network sales. To find out what did well last month, give them a look.

Gamerbytes Originals

In-Depth: Xbox Live Arcade Sales Analysis, January 2010
In-Depth: North American PlayStation Network Sales Analysis, January 2010

Store Updates
XBLA Update - P.B Winterbottom, Plus Cheap Battlefield 1943
NA PSN Store Update - Cheap Marvel Vs. Capcom 2, PSOne Games And More
EU PSN Store Update - Wounded Dragons, Alien Zombie Death, Minis Month, Deals Galore And More
NA Nintendo Update - Ace Attorney 2, Sonic & Knuckles, Prehistorik Man, Scrabble Classic And More
EU Nintendo Update - Flight Control, Phoenix Wright, Tales Of Monkey Island 5 And More

Microsoft (Xbox Live Arcade, XBL Indies)

Midway Titles Removed From XBLA
You cannnot download Ultimate Mortal Kombat III anymore.

Sony (PlayStation Network, Minis)

Blade Kitten Episodic Platformer Announced For PlayStation Network
"Krome Studios has announced that their title Blade Kitten will be released this spring in an episodic form, heading exclusively to the PlayStation Network."

Crystalis Cover And Other Game Boxes Remade

Similar to Covered, the popular blog in which artists redraw classic comic book covers in their own style, illustrator Lamar Abrams has re-created several boxes for Japanese video games, adding a lot of his playful personality to the serious covers.

Here we have his update of the NES packaging for SNK's forgotten NES RPG Crystalis (larger version after the break); the green monster lurking in the background is my favorite of the re-imagined elements. Video game comic community Life Meter has several more Abrams pieces for titles like Soul Blader (a.k.a. Soul Blazer in the U.S.), Time Soldiers, and Kaizou Choujin Schbibinman 2. More, please!

505 to Zoe Mode: You're the One That I Want (to Develop the Grease Wii Game)

Italian publisher 505 Games announced its choice for the developer of its upcoming Wii game based on iconic film/musical Grease: Zoë Mode, the Brighton-based Kuju Entertainment subsidiary. 505 also revealed Big Head Games (Elefunk) as the studio behind Grease's Nintendo DS edition.

Zoë Mode seems like a perfect choice for the project, as it has a long history of working on music-based titles like Singstar (Rocks! and Pop Hits), Guitar Hero song packs, Disney Sing It, Dancing With The Stars, and most recently XBLA charity game Chime.

Neither 505 or Zoë Mode have revealed much about the licensed game save that it will "take fake full advantage" of the Wii's motion-sensing controls and microphone (not sure if they mean Wii Speak or a third-party accessory) for casual/family-targeted gameplay. As long as there's a scene in which we can serenade Frenchy with "Beauty School Drop Out" as an angelic Frankie Avalon, we're good.

"Grease is an iconic brand that has spanned generations and we are thrilled to be charged with the responsibility of bringing the Grease legacy to a new medium," says Zoë Mode's General Manager Ed Daly.

Men's Panic: Cho Aniki Zero Music Videos

As Aksys prepares the digital download-only PSP release of Cho Aniki Zero for North America this Spring, "neo psychedelic rock band" IDATENTAI put out this animated music video in Japan for the lead single off its album for the testosterone-filled shoot'em up.

The animated video stays true to the Japanese series's wackiness with semi-nude, brawny men flying around and a live action cameo of oiled up hunk "TopGun Tom". There's even an exercise video version for the promotional song (after the break) that features TopGun Tom performing Jowan Lifts and Hyper Media Squats!

I'm having trouble deciding which I enjoy more: this set of Cho Aniki Zero videos or Namco Bandai's surreal infomercial for Muscle March.

[Via Original Sound Version]

GameSetLinks: The Amplitude Of The Datastorm

[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.]

You will see an occasional GameSetLinks out of us, even with GDC coming up and schedule being all kinds of crazy, so here's the first one in a while, headed out with Spiderweb's Jeff Vogel on getting somewhere in the indie game business - fine advice indeed.

Also in here - some curious Harmonix music licenses, discussion of EmoGame, some totally retro demo-scene goodness, why Playfish did the right thing by partnering with IP powerhouse EA, and various other neat things besides.

Stop stop stop:

The Bottom Feeder: Three Tips For Getting Started In the Indie Gaming Biz
'Let me say something here, and I don't want to put too fine a point on it. You need sleep to live.'

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Playfish's Smart Move in the Facebook Gold Rush
Interesting analysis - suggesting 'outbranding' with EA brands will be Playfish's route to success: 'Another flavor of spending your way out of the clouds. Specifically, license IP/Brands, from games or elsewhere, can help your title stand out in a crowded space.'

Apocalypse POW!: Retro Flashback: EmoGame
'EmoGame and its sequels were particularly enjoyable and novel because not only were they clever and well-designed from a gaming perspective, but they were also predicated on a staunchly devoted and surprisingly well-informed knowledge of pop culture.'

Royalty Network Revealing New Harmonix Project? - bemanistyle.com
Very interesting, Harmonix requesting some hiphop and trance tracks? PLEASE let it be the return of Amplitude.

Sonnez Les Jeux Video: During which part of playing a video game does the actual "playing" occur?
'During which part of playing a video game does the actual "playing" occur? Unfortunately, the answer to this question, like the answer to too many other questions, is: It depends.'

Talking of demo-scene, here's some awesome products of an oldskool party in Scandinavia, including a MP3 on the C64 (!).

San Diego Reader | Sweat Like a Rockstar
Local alt.weekly has a go at the Rockstar San Diego story. 'According to an employee who calls himself “Captain Anonymous,” it’s a workplace that might as well be in Pyongyang, North Korea; he told me, “Employees are being surveilled, and the last person to speak anonymously whose identity was presumed (not proven) was fired.''

February 23, 2010

Video Games On Black Velvet

Tucson-based artist Kyle Kulakowski specializes in video game-inspired black velvet paintings, a medium that uses black velvet in place of canvas, allowing vibrant colors to pop out more against the dark background. You've probably seen a kitschy black velvet piece of Elvis or Jesus sitting in a local thrift store at some time or another!

Kulakowski specializes in painting scenes from classic video games like Pac-Man and Joust (which look great when lit by a black light) as you'll see past the post break, but he also has a couple for more modern titles like the Psychonauts piece above -- noting that Psychonauts is the only video game to prominently feature black velvet paintings.

The artist is selling a few of the pieces on display at his deviantArt profile (contact him for prices) and is available for commissioned work.

Demoscene Bash: Blockparty Returns This April

Cleveland's Blockparty returns this April 15th-18th alongside hacker conference Notacon, now in its fourth year running (out of five promised annual editions) -- making this the longest running demoparty in North America to date. To prepare for the show, organizers have set up a Block Party 2010 site with details on the event.

For those of you still unfamiliar with the demoparty concept, Blockparty 2010's organizers break it down: "set up a stage, invite programmers, artists and musicians from around the world to enter competitions, watch in amazement what comes out, and then hand out prizes to the best of the bunch."

As with previous shows, Blockparty 2010 will feature competitions like demo, HiRez, textmode, music, photography, wildcard (generally animated short films or short visual productions) and more. Returning attendees will want to check out the site for info on the new competition machine, rules, and category changes.

The show will also have seminars and presentations like Guybrush's "Proce55ed Synaesthesia for fun and profit". You can find information on registering for Notacon 7 and Blockparty 2010 (around 135 out of 400 tickets are already sold as of this posting) at the Notacon site.

[Via Demoscene.us]

Opinion: Sweating the Small Stuff - What's Still Wrong With Games

[In this development-oriented opinion piece, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield lays out some all-too-common bugbears that have plagued games for too long.]

With 2009 come and gone, we enter a new decade of new challenges. But some of the old pet peeves still linger in modern games, and most of them can be fixed now. We needn't wait until 2011!

Lack Of Stereo Downmixing

I still play games on a two-speaker television, and so do a whole lot of other folks. Until the entire world has 5.1 surround sound -- which might take a while -- there needs to be a viable two-speaker option.

It surprises me how many big-budget games have this problem. Just the other day I was playing Army of Two: The 40th Day, I didn't realize until halfway through the intro cinematic that there was a narration track, because it was buried so low in the mix.

The in-game cut-scenes were a bit better, but not by much; critical dialog about what to do and where to go was hard to hear unless I turned my character to the side of the character speaking. From blockbusters like Far Cry 2 to smaller titles like BlackSite: Area 51, games continue to ignore the default audio setup of the average consumer.

Contextually-Different UI Buttons

You know those Windows Mobile smartphones that map the same buttons to different options in different contexts within the same program? And you know how everyone hates that? Consider that when designing menus and user interfaces, because a lot of games look a lot like Windows Mobile.

I love Dragon Age: Origins -- I put more than 60 hours into the Xbox 360 version -- but its menus are atrocious. Switching which buttons do what depending in whether I'm in a store or in the field, not allowing use of items in organizational menus but setting them to a separate subset of a different menu wheel -- these are not great ideas.

It says something about the maturity of our industry that a game can have an interface with that level of inconsistency and still be critically and commercially successful -- and which I will play through to completion anyway.

Poor Texture Streaming

Storage has increased over the years, in terms of physical disc media size as well as RAM and hard drive capacity. So why are we still waiting several seconds for normals and textures to properly appear in many big-name titles?

Texture pop runs rampant through the industry, even when it comes to the largest and most accomplished companies. Some teams can do it, some can't. It does depend on what type of game you're making at times, but really, I'm not sure there's a context in which a studio absolutely couldn't fix this, given the time and dedication.

No Tutorials

It's amazing that in this day and age, some games still don't offer proper tutorials. Tutorials that are fun and properly integrated into the narrative are ideal, but even something that just tells me how I should play would be great. Some games simply throw you to the wolves.

To pick on Dragon Age again, the game presumed a certain level of knowledge which, when combined with the confusing menus, led to me not knowing how to use an item to heal my injuries until about 10 hours in. I just decided to fiddle with menus until I could find the option. The game did inform me that I should heal, but gave me no indication of how I should do it.

Some players made fun of the gated tutorial in Halo 2, in which you had to independently test your left and right analog sticks before proceeding into the single player campaign. But just last week I played Left 4 Dead 2 with a person who had never touched a twin-stick first-person game before. For him, such a tutorial would have been useful. Even though he intuitively knew where he wanted to go and where to aim, never having used both sticks before, his learning curve was very steep.

Long Load Times On Consoles

I thought I'd end with something to make everyone feel a little better about themselves, because this is tough to fix, and it's easy to shift the blame onto console makers. Load times are incredibly difficult to get rid of, and I don't expect they'll go away anytime soon. But there are things we can be doing with background loads, loading during cut-scenes, using more advanced streaming, or even reusing or recombining assets as is often done in open-world games.

In the old days, we used to fear the "juggling monkey," the animated monkey that appeared on the loading screens of old Neo Geo CD games. Back then, we were waiting for several of megabytes of data to load. Iin the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 era loading came down a bit, but now it feels like I'm staring down that old juggling monkey once again.

High Fives For A New Future

Games are getting more engrossing, more varied, and more complex, and I think the industry is moving in impressive directions. Every once in a while, though, it's good to take stock of the things we still haven't fixed before we move on to what's next. And this was only a fraction of what we need to work on. As luck would have it, there are only so many words I can fit in one article!

Heavy Rain Ad Shows Off Multiple Paths, Water Damaged PS3

With Heavy Rain releasing this week, Europe's PlayStation Blog is sharing the PS3 exclusive's TV advert that will run in several countries over the next few weeks (with variations for each region, naturally). Playing on the game's Origami Killer villain, the commercial uses paper cutouts to illustrate Heavy Rain's branching narratives.

The music accompanying the clips of Heavy Rain scenes is quite dramatic; I half-expected it to turn into Clint Mansell's over-used "Lux Aeterna" song from Requiem For a Dream. Also, I hope Sony knows that its warranty won't cover the water damage caused to that PS3 for leaving it out in the rain.

Break Out Your 32X: Soulstar X Prototype Released

A couple years before Core Design debuted its seminal Tomb Raider series, the UK studio put out Soulstar, a mostly forgotten Star Fox-esque shoot'em up with a 3D perspective for the Sega CD. Players piloted a spacecraft that transformed into three different vehicles: a Strike Craft, Turbo Copter, and Strike Walker.

Core Design planned two ports for the game, one for the Jaguar CD and an enhanced Soulstar X edition for the 32X, both of which were cancelled. The 32X update was slated to include multiplayer support, updated graphics, and a faster experience. Though Soulstar X was only previewed in promotional videos and magazines years ago, someone recently stumbled on a prototype and auctioned it off to collectors.

Just when I'd given up hope that I'd never get to play this game that I never even heard of until last week, Spanish Sega community Sega Saturno -- which has been instrumental in releasing other lost prototypes for Werewolf: The Apocalypse, Virtua Hamster, and X-Men: Mind Games -- has obtained the prototype build and released the game to the public for others to try out.

You can download the prototype and see scanned pages from old magazine previews (revealing Soulstar X's high-end rendering technology to create photo-realistic enemies!) at Sega Saturno. I've also included a video preview from this goofy Virtua Fighter 32X promotional clip (skip to 05:45) below:

[Via Unseen 64]

Best of FingerGaming: From Plants vs. Zombies to Noby Noby Boy

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

This week, FingerGaming covers PopCap's "flower defense" title Plants vs. Zombies, Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi's virtual playground Noby Noby Boy, and Capcom's upcoming port of Street Fighter IV.

Also in here - top-grossing iPhone games, the top sellers for free and paid App Store game titles, as well as notes on Rolando 3's cancellation as free-to-play rules at Ngmoco, and much more besides.

Here are the top stories from the last seven days:

- PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies Comes to iPhone
"The zombies are coming, and your gardening skills are your last line of defense against an army of the undead. Players must skillfully plant 49 different kinds of flowers to slow down, confuse, and eventually destroy the approaching hordes."

- Katamari Damacy Creator Unleashes Noby Noby Boy in App Store
"Noby Noby Boy is a game about stretching a little worm-like fellow (named BOY) as far as possible. Players can either stretch BOY manually in the application itself, or enable a GPS tracking mode, which virtually stretches him during physical travel."

- Top-Grossing Game Apps: Plants vs. Zombies Leads in Premiere Week
"PopCap's Plants vs. Zombies takes top honors in its first week of release. Activision's Call of Duty: World at War Zombies also sees a successful week, with sales boosted by a recent content-expanding update."

- Street Fighter IV Coming to iPhone in March
"After testing the App Store waters with safe bets like Cash Cab and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?, console games publisher Capcom is set to make a major commitment to the iPhone and iPod Touch with an upcoming port of its hit one-on-one fighter Street Fighter IV."

- OpenFeint X Offers Social Features for Free-to-Play iPhone Games
"Social gaming infrastructure developer Aurora Feint announced the launch of a private beta for OpenFeint X, a social platform focused on free-to-play, microtransaction-supported games for the iPhone and iPod Touch."

- Rolando 3 Canceled as ngmoco Shifts to Free-to-Play Model
"ngmoco co-founder Neil Young confirmed that development for the company's anticipated puzzle-platformer Rolando 3 has ceased in the wake of the company's shift to a free-to-play release strategy for all of its upcoming titles."

- Top Free Game App Downloads: Sunday Lawn Takes First Place
"Donut Games leads this week's chart with its recently released grass mowing sim Sunday Lawn. Last week's chart winner Red Ball drops to seventh place, as a trial version of Digital Chocolate's New York 3D Rollercoaster Rush premieres at second."

- Industry Veterans Crane, Kitchen Launch Smartphone Publisher AppStar Games
"Activision co-founder David Crane and Garry Kitchen announced the formation of AppStar Games, a publisher focused on 'small footprint' titles for smartphones, wireless tablets, and handheld consoles."

- Namco Brings iPhone Hit Flight Control to Mobile Platforms
"Namco Networks has partnered with iPhone developer Firemint to bring the popular air traffic management sim Flight Control to Java, Windows Mobile, Brew, and Android platforms in July."

- Freeverse App Store Sales Top Five Million
"Freeverse's most successful App Store titles to date are Flick Fishing and Skee-Ball, each of which surpassed one million sales units last year."

Tick Tock, Mr. Bubbles

Inspired by the recent release of BioShock 2 and Michael Parker's inventive clock part paintings, Thomas "ImaginaryThomas" Girard created his own cute homage to the first-person shooter. I've seen dozens of crafts paying tribute to the game's Big Daddy and Little Sister characters, but this one's certainly unique!

ImaginaryThomas is a self-described tinkerer who enjoys creating art pieces out of "junk, bits, pieces and various miscellania". He has several curious miniature robots that are well worth checking out and are available to purchase through his Etsy shop (the BioShock 2 piece is unfortunately not for sale).

Column: 'Homer In Silicon': Echoes from the Underworld

['Homer in Silicon' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Emily Short. It looks at storytelling and narrative in games of all flavors, including the casual, indie, and obscurely hobbyist. This week she looks at Echo Bazaar, a social game using Twitter, by Fail Better Games.]

Echo Bazaar, a web-based card game by UK firm Fail Better Games is a social grind game. Gameplay [here's a review with screenshots] consists of choosing trivial tasks to improve one's stats at four skills: Dangerous, Watchful, Persuasive, and Shadowy. Grinding also typically produces loot of some kind, which can be sold at the Bazaar for weapons and stat-improving hats and other similar trinkets; and players can also work on short-term and long-term goals (called Ambitions).

Success at these tasks depends on chance and your existing stats, which means that you can increase the likelihood of success on a particular challenge by devoting more effort to stat-building beforehand.

There are only a certain number of actions available in a given day, with a maximum of ten available at any given time; that number can be increased by tweeting an ad for Echo Bazaar (once per day at maximum), or by purchase. That structure means that gameplay is more or less a resource-management problem, with more resources available for real money. The player's agency is all about deciding which goals sound interesting enough to spend actions on.

That's not the description of a game I would expect to like. I have little patience for games that are mostly grinding, and I also like to be engaged with a game when I'm playing it, focused on the story and structure -- and then done when I'm done. Games that force you to string out the gameplay over many days tend to attenuate the pacing to the point of tedium. (I've yet to find a real-time game like Virtual Villagers that I get along with either.)

I had some of those issues with Echo Bazaar, too, but I'm still playing with it.

So far Echo Bazaar is a game almost entirely about setting. The premise is that London has at some stage -- perhaps during the Victorian Era -- Fallen. It is now an underground, infernal environment, where mushrooms instead of flowers decorate the hats, where bats and weasels are the most common sorts of pet, where the demonic and the undead can be found at afternoon tea. Con artists wear lace gloves to increase their plausibility. The vestiges of old London -- the street signs, the currency -- are forbidden and are rapidly being censored away.

The idea of an alternative, semi-demonic London is not exactly novel, but Echo Bazaar's version continues to appeal to me for two reasons.

First: the quality of the prose. Even very text-oriented games aren't always solid in this department. The writers of Echo Bazaar use concrete nouns and active verbs. They don't abuse adjectives. They have a sense of rhythm.

An example:

"Unfinished Men are Clay Men who lack something - sight, a voice, a hand, conscience, obedience. You can't really tell a crippled Clay Man from an Unfinished Man, except that ordinary Clay Men are never criminals. The distinction, unfortunately, often evades Constables and citizens alike."

Notice the way the number of syllables increases through the elements of the list, "sight, a voice, a hand, conscience, obedience". Notice that that list doesn't end with the obviously chilling "conscience", but with the more interesting "obedience". Notice how "Constables and citizens alike" sounds much better than "both Constables and citizens", because "alike" gives us a firm ending on an emphasized syllable.

This is not pyrotechnic prose, with lots of flashy words and obvious rhetorical figures. It's something better: it's disciplined.

The structure of Echo Bazaar really requires that the text be worth reading, because the short descriptions of missions and their outcomes (and of objects to buy at the Bazaar) are the chief reward for interaction; there are illustrations, but they are more limited in number and contribute more to style than to content.

Moreover, the text comes in small pieces, from a single sentence to a short paragraph. Not every one of these pieces is individually memorable, but most are fairly effective, hinting at a larger world and more depth than the player can immediately see.

The second point: despite my apprehensions, the world building feels reasonably consistent. I was afraid on first playing that it would be a grab-bag of images and concepts that had struck the authors as cool, with no connecting tissue. After playing for several weeks, I'm still not certain how much core world-building was done, but the new tidbits that I learn do seem to fit; the structure doesn't feel slapdash.

I think an engine like this could be used for something plottier. So far, though, such plot as there is is provided by the various long-term and short-term goals. These are pretty linear: the player has little control over how their pursuits turn out, only on whether they make progress.

Characters tend to be generic archetypes rather than specific individuals, too: you're generally casing "a jeweler's shop" or making up to "a rich widow", not robbing or seducing a specific person. This makes the story feel oddly lonely even though most game activities are about social interactions of one kind or another.

So it's the writing and the world that keep me tinkering around with Echo Bazaar weeks after I was initially invited to look at it. I am still having fun dipping into the environment it provides, and the daily time investment to do so is slight enough that I can forgive the slightness of the gameplay.

Disclosure: As a reviewer, I received free in-game currency (ordinarily available for pay), enabling me to see more of the game more quickly.

[Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

February 22, 2010

CMU's Jesse Schell On Designing Outside The Box

Carnegie Mellon University professor Jesse Schell delivered a riveting "Design Outside The Box" presentation at DICE Summit last week, in which he delves into the "big, strange, and terrifying" world of Facebook games and discusses the psychological tricks behind the success of unexpected breakout hits like Webkinz, Club Penguin, and Mafia Wars.

Our sister-site Gamasutra posted a great write-up with key quotes and excerpts from the talk, but G4 has now put up a video of Schell's presentation, allowing you to enjoy his entertaining delivery on the magic behind trend-changers and on the value of "realness" rising in video games ("We live in a bubble of fake bullshit, and we'll do anything to get to what is real.").

You can read more of Schell's thoughts on video games, books, and many other topics at his personal blog.

Nippon Ichi, Idea Factory Brings Jigsaw Puzzles To Arcades

Though you might have ever heard of them, Disgaea developer Nippon Ichi Software has put out a number of jigsaw puzzle/battle titles in Japan (one of them, Jigsaw Madness for PS1, actually made it to the States under XS Games), the last of which was 2008's Jigsaw World: Daigekitou! Jig-Battle Heroes for the Nintendo DS.

Nippon Ichi teamed up with frequent partner Idea Factory (Generation of Chaos, Spectral Souls) to produce what looks like an adaptation of the DS game for Japanese arcades titled Jigsaw World Arena. Like the dual screened version, JWA features Disgaea's Etna as a playable character, as well as the super cute/delicious cat-bread.

As its playable characters imply, JWA is far from your traditional jigsaw puzzle game; its unconventional setup centers on multiplayer puzzle battles that have you racing against up to three other opponents to pick up puzzle pieces and drop them into their appropriate spots. With each correctly positioned piece, you build up a power meter for special attacks.

Idea Factory has been running JWA location tests in Japan for several months now, but it recently demonstrated the game at last weekend's AOU 2010 amusement expo. While it's doubtful that either Nippon Ichi or Idea Factory will ever announce this for the U.S., you could always import the DS game (it should be playable on U.S./European systems)!

[Via Arcade Heroes]

Hip Tanaka to Join Baiyon for In the Collaborations Single

Kyoto-based artist Baiyon has just announced the third installment of his collaborative music series. This time the art and music director of PixelJunk Eden will be joined by legendary Metroid and Dr. Mario composer Hirokazu Tanaka, performing under his live music handle "Hip tanaka.ex."

Previously Baiyon has teamed up with Shane Berry and August Engkilde for the first two volumes of In the Collaborations. The singles were published on the musician's private label Descanso.

Baiyon will be discussing the music series next month at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where he will also be collaborating with Naughty Dog's Richard Lemarchand (Uncharted 2) on a session entitled "Micro or Massive: It's Fricking Tough to Achieve a Vision."

In an article for GameSetWatch, Baiyon conducted an interview with Hip Tanaka on the musical influences underlying famous tunes for the NES. The talk followed a similar discussion with Keita Takahashi on Noby Noby Boy, and a roundtable chat at GDC 2009, as part of the GameSetBaiyon interview series.

In the Collaborations 3 is due out on iTunes in time for GDC in early March.


Mario Kart, Joey Logano Finishes Fifth At Auto Club Speedway

Driving a vehicle decorated with Mario Kart Wii logos and characters, race car driver Joey Logano and the No. 20 GameStop Toyota finished fifth at yesterday's Auto Club 500 race at the Auto Club Speedway. Commentators speculated that he would've placed much higher if he'd received more useful items instead of the banana peel at several critical item boxes.

Though he didn't finish first, the 19-year-old driver described the race as a significant victory for the team. "The first time I came here was last year and we sucked," said Logano. "We ran 35th to 40th the whole time. Last time we came here we ran probably 20th to 25th and this time around we were within the top 10 and sneaked out a top-five there at the end. You got to be pleased with that."

Logano's car displayed a BioShock 2 paint job last week at the Nationwide Series, when he disappointingly finished fifth after leading most of the race for 130 laps. GameStop will sponsor 21 of the racer's 35 races this season, with 19 of those left to go.

A Slow Trailer Through The Seasons For IGF Finalist

Even if it weren't a finalist for the IGF's Nuovo Award this year, there are plenty of other reasons to feature this new trailer for Ian Bogost's A Slow Year here, chief of those arguments being its lead platform, the Atari 2600.

In a recent interview with UK-based PC game site Rock Paper Shotgun, Bogost described A Slow Year's premise of game poems for the different seasons, which draws on Imagism and the Atari 2600's limitations for inspiration:

"A Slow Year is a set of four small games about attention and the experience of observing things. I wanted to explore the kind of condensation and compression one usually finds in poetry, particularly in Imagism, but also in those poets’ inspirations in east Asian literary traditions, including the haiku. I’ve been calling them “game poems,” and the four of them together form a little collection, like a chapbook.

... each of the four games is limited to 1k in size (4k is a standard Atari ROM size), and each represents a season of the year. As games, they each offer a challenge about a familiar, banal idea: watching leaves fall or prolonging a morning cup of coffee, for example. They’re all played in the first person, but in unfamiliar ways.

One requires first-person coffee drinking. Another involves closing one’s virtual eyes in the game. As poetry, they evoke rather than clarify. As images, they are visually evocative in spite of the apparent primitiveness of the Atari as a platform. I hope the game makes the Atari seem beautiful."

Bogost will release A Slow Year as a "limited edition cartridge and poetry set" for the Atari 2600 later this year, and also plans to put out PC and Mac versions via a custom Atari emulator.

Carmack Gets Lifetime Achievement Honor At 2010 Choice Awards

[Here's the final announcement regarding the Game Developers Choice Awards, run by my GDC colleagues -- great that John Carmack will be at GDC to get the Lifetime Achievement Award, and Warren Spector is hosting this year, giving things a nice creator-centric focus once again.]

The 2010 Game Developers Choice Awards, the highest honors in video game development, will bestow John Carmack, the technological patriarch and co-founder of id Software, with the Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the art and science of games.

The Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes the career and achievements of developers who have made an indelible impact on the craft of game development, as Carmack has done for his more than two decades of groundbreaking technical contributions, and his role establishing the first-person shooter genre with landmark titles like Doom and Quake.

The recipient is chosen by the elite Choice Awards Advisory Committee, which includes game industry notables such as Ben Cousins (EA DICE), Harvey Smith (Arkane), Raph Koster (Metaplace), John Vechey (PopCap), Ray Muzyka (BioWare), Clint Hocking (Ubisoft), and many others.

Former Game Developers Choice Lifetime Achievement Award recipients include Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright - who will be presenting the award to Carmack at the ceremony on March 11, 2010 during Game Developers Conference 2010 in San Francisco - and other legendary game creators.

John Carmack and his team at id Software, the company he co-founded in 1991, pioneered real-time 3D graphics in game, setting the pace and the standard for other developers to follow. Carmack and his colleagues at id are credited with essentially creating the modern-day first-person shooter (FPS) genre with the PC game Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, and helping to popularize networked multiplayer gaming on PCs with the release of Doom in 1993.

id has gone on to create other major FPS and action game franchises such as Quake, and Carmack and id Software are currently in development of a number of projects, including the free-to-play, web-based title Quake Live, the upcoming new franchise RAGE, and Doom 4.

As a largely self-taught technology purist, Carmack has devoted himself to pushing the limits of hardware and software. He's helped to set the technical and gameplay standard for modern 3D gaming - and in the process, created some of the most popular video game franchises in history, which is why he's being honored by the Game Developers Choice Awards this year.

"It's no exaggeration to say that John Carmack and id Software have had a monumental influence on all modern 3D games, but especially the first-person shooter genre," says Meggan Scavio, Event Director of GDC. "John is one of the key figures in the history of video games, and we're delighted to be giving him the Lifetime Achievement award this year.”

Alongside this announcement, Awards organizers are delighted to reveal that Warren Spector will be hosting the Game Developers Choice Awards this year. Spector follows in the footsteps of previous much-loved figures who hosted past Awards such as Double Fine's Tim Schafer and Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin.

Spector has been developing role-playing and computer games for over 20 years, working at seminal studios such as Origin Systems and Looking Glass Studios, where he produced System Shock. He later founded Ion Storm’s Austin studio and directed the development of its genre-bending, award-winning game Deus Ex. He then oversaw development of Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows. Spector founded Austin's Junction Point in 2005, and the now Disney-owned studio is working on the much awaited Wii title Disney Epic Mickey.

Presented by the Game Developers Conference (GDC) -- part of the UBM Techweb Game Group, as is this website -- this year's awards ceremony, held immediately following the Independent Games Festival Awards, will be hosted on Thursday, March 11, during GDC 2010 at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.

For further information about the Choice Awards, please visit the official Game Developers Choice Awards website. For further information about GDC and to register for attendance, with pre-show registration ending on March 4th, please visit the official Game Developers Conference website.

Voxels And Goldfish: Flipper Hits DSiWare

DSiWare continues to push out indie gems that hardly anyone notices (see Glow Artisan and Escapee GO!), this time releasing Flipper, a 3D puzzle platformer built with an attractive voxel engine by Goodbye Galaxy Games -- a one-man outfit comprised of Dutch developer Hugo Smits (partnering with Paul "pietepiet" Veer for the graphics).

In the game, you lead a young boy through 20 stages across four different worlds, avoiding enemies and overcoming a range of obstacles while trying to retrieve his stolen goldfish Flipper. The voxel engine has you altering the environment with different power-ups; you can blast holes in the stages, build platforms, or restore sections you've obliterated.

Priced at 500 Nintendo Points ($5), the game is a steal, especially when you consider that Flipper was initially intended as a retail game before its original publisher went bankrupt. Luckily, Smits was able to partner with Dutch company Xform to save the colorful platformer and publish it as a downloadable title on DSiWare.

You can watch a trailer below and see screenshots at Flipper's official site. Smits has also maintained a great development blog for Flipper that shares a lot of insight on his design decisions and hopes for the game. North American DSi owners should be able to purchase the game starting today.

GameSetNetwork: Best Of The Week

As we compile larger stories from elsewhere on our network, here's 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.

Highlights include an immaculately detailed NPD analysis for January 2010 from Matt Matthews, an interview with Square Enix CTO Julien Merceron, a neat in-depth piece on crunch, Silent Hill character artist and art director Takayoshi Sato on making video game characters with feeling, and more.

(Besides these pieces, a number of us were at the DICE 2010 executive summit in Las Vegas this week - you can check out the Gamasutra write-ups of talks spanning Bobby Kotick to Randy Pitchford.)

Go go go:

Ten Vicious Years: A Retrospective Interview
"North Carolina's Vicious Cycle (Robotech: Battlecry, Matt Hazard, the Vicious Engine) was founded 10 years ago, and in that time the company and the industry have changed drastically -- Gamasutra spoke to its founders, Eric Peterson and Wayne Harvey, to find out more about that journey."

The Dust of Everyday Life: The Art of Building Characters
"Silent Hill character designer and CG artist Takayoshi Sato examines the art of creating believable computer-generated characters in this in-depth feature, originally created for Game Developer magazine."

The Art Of International Technical Collaboration At Square Enix
"When Square Enix acquired Eidos, it didn't just get IP and a distribution network -- it got a Western understanding of game technology in a generation where Japan has lagged, and new group worldwide technology director Julien Merceron here speaks about taking the helm of this global organization."

A Closer Look at Crunch
"Dave Prout approaches the oft-discussed topic of crunch from a different angle as he searches for the root cause. "When a team is already in production without a compelling, fun gameplay experience, it's in trouble," he says."

NPD: Behind the Numbers, January 2010
"Gamasutra analyst Matt Matthews reviews NPD Group's January 2010 sales figures, which reflect evergreen Nintendo-published titles and how Sony is headed towards a single-platform focus."

GCG: What Are Game Designers Trying to Do?
"Educator Lewis Pulsipher offers an analytical breakdown of the possible aims designers have in mind when creating games."

GCG: Concurrent Programming in the Design of a 3D Game Engine
"UC Santa Cruz senior and independent game developer Jarret Tierney covers the ins and outs of developing parallel programming in a paper written as part of his studies."

February 21, 2010

COLUMN: "The Magic Resolution": Waggle The Left Stick

gsw360pad.jpg['The Magic Resolution' is a regular GameSetWatch column by UK-based writer Lewis Denby, examining all facets of the experience of playing video games. Having played the PC version of From Software's Ninja Blade, Lewis discusses console to PC game conversions, and what can go horribly wrong.]

I recently played the PC version of Ninja Blade. The Xbox 360 original released around a year ago, and the PC version - launched in North America late last year - finally hit the UK last week. The day I spent reviewing it became one of my least favorite of the year so far.

Ninja Blade is an insane game. It's generic and predictable, but you almost suspect it wants to be, and it magnifies those genre quirks into something utterly overblown and ridiculous. I'm not really into that anyway, and even without the impenetrable wall of PC-specific problems, I still don't find Ninja Blade to be anything above utterly mediocre. That's fine, though - a lot of people will be okay with the game's approach. It's okay for players to disagree over a game's quality.

Except, I must admit to being completely dumbfounded by the handful of positive reviews this PC version has received. That's because, as a PC game, I found it to be borderline unplayable. With a 360 pad plugged in, it basically works - aside from a couple of controller glitches here and there. But to what extent is it acceptable to release a game for one format, while essentially demanding you use the controller from another one?

Just as a quick guide to what we're dealing with here: when you create a new save file at the start of Ninja Blade on the PC, it warns you not to "turn off your console." Yes, Ninja Blade is one of those conversions: not so much converted as made to perfunctorily run on a different machine.

In-game, you're asked to press A, B, X and Y in various sequences as part of Ninja Blade's extraordinary abundance of quick-time events. Whether you have a 360 pad plugged in or not, the game captions these button icons with text describing the PC equivalent controls. Only it doesn't always do that. Sometimes, you're left staring at a giant, pulsating, green letter A, and no idea what to do with it.

It's true that many PC gamers now have a 360 pad set on the desk next to their mice and keyboards. And there are games on the PC that I would never have dreamed of playing without a gamepad. Batman: Arkham Asylum certainly relies on the ease of combo-chaining that a more traditional PC set-up simply would not be able to provide.

But the PC version of Arkham Asylum still gave you the very reasonable option of playing it with that format's default control mechanism. The game remained entirely playable, and the on-screen prompts adjusted depending on which input you'd opted for. The latest Tomb Raider, for all its quirks, was another hero in this respect, seamlessly altering its instructions and icons the second you plugged in or removed that 360 pad.

With that pad plugged in, Ninja Blade becomes more than playable - and although I have heard reports of controllers glitching and not recognising, I only experienced a couple of minor problems myself. The game, while uninspired, effectively does work as a game. It's fit for purpose.

But, actually, is it? That label on the front tells me it's a PC game. The minimum system requirements don't mention a 360 pad. I can play it, because I happen to have one, but what if I didn't? Would I still be stuck on that first level, trying to work out what on Earth the game meant when it told me to waggle the left stick? And would that be my fault for not owning something increasingly widespread in PC gaming, or the fault of those responsible for such a catastrophic port?

I can't help but feel it's the latter. When you're creating a game for a particular format, it makes absolutely no sense not to optimise it for that format. And there's this nagging, though perhaps overly dramatic, voice in my head that says: that product is not fit for the purpose for which it's sold. It is described as a game for my PC. Unless I own a peripheral designed for a different system entirely, one not mentioned in the game's accompanying literature, I cannot progress past the first level.

Picking specifically on Ninja Blade might be a little cruel. It's happened a great many times before, with conversions of some of the finest games around. Resident Evil 4's PC release famously omitted a menu option to quit the game, such was the laziness of the conversion. There have been countless occurences of this type, and there will undoubtedly be more. And it's time we start getting a little bit irked about it, each and every time the issue crops up.

But these good reviews of Ninja Blade? Bizarre. I cannot understand them. I've yet to read a review that doesn't at least mention the sloppiness of the conversion, but I have read a couple that suggest it doesn't really matter. Try as I might, I can't get behind that. It's a PC game that doesn't work properly with PC hardware. Whatever Ninja Blade's merits as a game may be, it utterly fails as a product.

[Lewis Denby is editor of Resolution Magazine and general freelance busybody for anyone that'll have him. If he'd been paid for such a shoddy conversion job, he's not sure he'd be able to live with the guilt.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Video Adventures Unearthed

['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.]


Now would be about the time to write another Mag Roundup column, but since I've received only one new game magazine in the past two weeks (oh US Postal Service, why hast thou forsaken me), I'd instead like to show off some of the game-media archaeological work I've been up to lately.

Frank Cifaldi pointed out to me earlier that Google has incorporated the archives of the Milwaukee Journal, the Wisconsin evening newspaper that was folded into its hometown rival and renamed the Journal Sentinel in 1995, into its news search. Why should you care about this? Because it means that Google's put online a nearly-complete run of "Video Adventures," a weekly game-biz column written by longtime Electronic Gaming Monthly editor Ed Semrad for the Journal between October 1983 and December 1991.

Semrad, described as "a Milwaukee-area technical writer and video game whiz" in his Journal bio, provided some surprisingly in-depth industry coverage for his hometown paper. His first column dove immediately to the then hot-button topic of programmers embedding their names into their work (the first Easter eggs), and after that he settled down to a steady diet of console hardware and game reviews. Very timely ones, too; since he was writing on a short-lead weekly deadline, Semrad's column is a great way to tell exactly when your favorite classic-era games were released...and when the industry started falling apart in the mid-80s.


Video Adventures had a bit of an eccentric schedule for much of 1985, perhaps owing to the fact that there was simply nothing to write about. "It is hard to believe that the video game industry has come to an end," Semrad wrote in his April 27, 1985 column. "Just a few years ago the big companies like Atari, Coleco and Mattel were making hundreds of millions of dollars [...] Who would have believed that the end would come so quickly?"

Semrad reviewed The Dam Busters for the Colecovision in that April column, a title he rather dramatically called "the last video game made." Lucky for his newspaper-writing gig, then, that Nintendo showed off the NES at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show two months later, releasing it to test markets in mid-October 1985. Semrad was one of the first (and only) mainstream reporters to cover the system from its release, and he had some very prescient things to say about it: "Overall, if anybody can bring video games back, Nintendo, with its new fourth-generation game system, will be the one. The games I saw in June equal or surpass most computer games not only in playability but in graphics. With the robot, light gun and 17 games Nintendo is giving its best shot."

The column grew more regular as the NES ballooned in popularity, of course, and by the time the TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis rolled around, Semrad had a picture next to his bio and more space to work with than a lot of his compatriots in the monthly video-game mags. His stuff is really well written, too, and there's little doubt that his Journal work is part of the reason why Steve Harris hired him on for EGM.

Sadly, Google News doesn't make it terribly easy to browse through individual columns. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty, use the advanced search, choose the Journal as your source, then search with generic video-game terms and see what happens. Let me know if you find anything else juicy!

[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.)

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