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October 7, 2006

COMIC: 'Our Blazing Destiny' - Welcome to the End?

[Our Blazing Destiny is a weekly comic by Jonathan "Persona" Kim about our society, cultural postdialectic theory, and video games. And about leaving unfinished plot lines!]

"What's going on? Is this closure? Will there be a next part??"


[Jonathan "Persona" Kim is sometimes a character animation student at the California Institute of the Arts, other times a ninja illustrator, but in his heart, a true comic artist looking for his destiny in the sea of stars. His path on the torrid road of comics include a quarterly manga on The Gamer's Quarter and his website on the awesome collective Mecha Fetus. There'll be a new design for his page uploaded this week!]

Blip Festival Turns NYC Chiptune Crazy

ymck.jpg We've kinda known about this for a bit, but now it's official - there's an amazing 4-day New York chiptune festival, the Blip Festival 2006, due to go off from Nov. 30th to Dec. 3rd of this year.

Here's the blurb: "THE TANK is pleased to present the Blip Festival, a four-day celebration of over 30 international artists exploring the untapped potential of low-bit videogame consoles and home computers used as creative tools.... An exploration of the chiptune idiom and its close relatives, the Blip Festival is the biggest and most comprehensive event in the history of the form, and will include daily workshops, art installations, and nightly music performances boasting an international roster larger and more far-reaching than any previous event of its kind."

But the Nullsleep and friends-curated list of artists performing is just insane - lots of awesome Japanese artists like Kplecraft (previously released on my own net.label Monotonik), Hally, Portalenz, even the great YMCK, and then all kinds of wildcards - Virt, Neil Voss (yes, the Tetrisphere N64 composer!), and even classic Dutch game musician Jeroen Tel from Maniacs Of Noise. Plus there's Bud Melvin (slide guitar and chiptunes!), Cory Arcangel, and plenty more. Basically unmissable.

Interactive Fiction Comp, Rah Rah Rah

zork.png Not sure that we've mentioned that the 12th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition now has all its entries available for download - well also, eToychest has a neat interview with IFComp organizer Stephen Granade.

Some good questions in here: "What do you say to the gamer who says "If I wanted to read a book, I'd read a book?” Stephen: "I'd agree with them. IF isn't a book, and it doesn't replace a book. What IF does best is let you be a part of stories that wouldn't work nearly as well as a book. What IF does is, in fancy game terms, give you agency. You drive the story forward, so you're responsible for what happens."

There are also some good beginner int.fiction recommendations: " Let's see. Emily Short has done several games that are designed to be easy for new players to pick up, including Bronze and City of Secrets. Andrew Plotkin's Dreamhold is aimed at new players, although its puzzles are very tough." And also: "As for games that aren't aimed at new players.... Photopia is beautiful, and well worth playing. For many people it's one of the highlights of their interactive fiction experience. I'd also recommend Anchorhead, a work of Lovecraftian horror. The setting is great and the story moves along at a good clip."

A Quantum Leap Into The RPG

quantumrpg.jpg It's worth pointing out the uber-feature at sister site Gamasutra, in the form of the Gamasutra Quantum Leap Awards for RPGs - always controversial, but hey, it's just voted by our readers - and we like 'em!

It's explained: "In September 2006, the editors of Gamasutra asked its readership of game industry professionals to chime in and vote for which game in the role-playing genre "brought the genre forward" in the biggest way - whether it be an early game that helped define the RPG, or a more recent one which took those core ideas and developed a more rewarding experience than before."

As for the Top 5 - we couldn't possibly tell you, go check it out yourself. But there's been much discussion, not least on Slashdot Games, regarding the results, though my favorite Slashdot reply queries the entire name of the series: "Am I the only one that can't stand it when people use "quantum" to mean big when in fact it implies discrete (since it refers to indivisible things)?" Almost certainly.

October 6, 2006

EDOC Laundry Meets... CSI!

edoccsi.jpg Over at the ever-smart ARGN.com, they have news of a surprising appearance for an alternate reality title in a prime-time TV show, hah.

The site explains: "Not content with spreading its artistic, mysterious, cottony fingers across your chest to spread its message, EDOC Laundry's coded T-shirts are taking a starring role on CBS's CSI:NY on Wednesday, October 11." How so? "EDOC Laundry captured the attention of co-creator and executive producer, Anthony E. Zuiker, who found the concept of clues to a murder mystery captured in the everyday clothing item of a t-shirt a compelling idea. He worked to script an episode of CSI:NY, "Hung Out to Dry," using the EDOC Laundry theme, collaborating with the fashion line's designers to create 4 new t-shirts to incorporate into the mythological murder mystery."

Sounds like a blast: "Watch raptly as Gary Sinise and the other cast members stare inexplicably at the trippy t-shirts left on the victims by a rabid serial murderer who spent entirely too much time with Edith Hamilton's Mythology and his sister's Barbie dolls as a child." Oh, and also on ARGN, there's also a nice write-up of Cathy's Book, a pretty neat ARG-related teen novel.

COLUMN: 'The Gentleman Nerd' - Why I Fear the Awesome Power of ... Memoir '44

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

Memoir 44I was never one for order and discipline. I suppose you could say that I was the kind of kid who was more interested in looking up girls' dresses and causing as much trouble as I could. I think I set a school record for demerits and suspensions, but I’m sure some ill-willed little son of a bitch will come along and break that one day. These are things that either put a young man into the army or keep him out. I was one of the latter.

Even though I never served my country, I was always infatuated with those who did. I guess my interest piqued when I was in my early twenties and my room mate was a history major specializing in World War II. Many drugs were taken while talking about Rommel, Mannstein and Patton or playing East Front II in hot seat mode. So when I saw Memoir ’44, I had to get it. I don’t do drugs anymore, so I’ve had to improvise with wave after wave of pure corn liquor buffeting my brain like a rock being swallowed by the sea. It was on one such nautical evening that I tried out my new game for the first time.

Memoir '44 is a game based on World War II and its many delightful battles. The board is hex-based and comes with different tile sets to change the layout of the terrain to suit different battles. Once the board is set, the players place their troops as indicated by the scenario and play begins. Each player takes turns using cards to move his pieces and rolls special hit dice (think the HeroQuest dice) to do battle. The amount of dice you use is based upon distance from the target and terrain modifiers. There is no defense. So, overall, it's a pretty easy game to learn.

Memoir 44Brian set up the board and read the rules while I commented on how awesome the different figurines are. Shortly afterwards, we placed units and drew our cards. This is where the complaining begins. You see, as much as I love Brian, he hates rolling dice. Well, he hates rolling dice if they don’t roll what he wants. We’ve played plenty of games of Runebound and Arkham Horror, but the dice rolls were in his favor, or at least not as cruel as they are to him in Memoir ’44.

Wait a second, I’m sorry, did I say Memoir ’44? I meant to say Random ’44. That’s what it’s referred to in our conversations. Personally, I’m quite fond of it, but you know, I always win.

I must admit, that if it were me, I’d probably be pretty upset too. You know, you can only claim that it’s your awesome strategy that’s making you win so many times before everyone starts noticing how drunk you are. That last statement isn’t only about me, it’s a universal constant. Like pi and how FOX cancels great TV shows and replaces them with crap. That’s enough philosophizing for one day. Let’s get back to the bitching.

Memoir 44The dice are only the tip of the furious iceberg; the foundation is in the card drawing. You see, you have to draw cards and use them to move your troops. Some of these cards have special abilities and different little tricks that can be used throughout the game. If you think that Brian hates dice, well you’re right, but he also hates drawing random cards… except in other games. So, basically, other than the actual board itself, the plastic figures and the container, Brian absolutely hates every part of this game.

You know what? If I had a deeper belief in the spiritual life of objects, I’d almost say that it hates him too. What if that particular copy of the game is someone Brian wronged in a past life? What if it’s a malicious spirit? Man, now I’m kind of spooked to be in the same room with it.

Oh well, I bet someone on eBay would be willing to pay top dollar for a haunted board game.

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for Gamasutra, GameSpy and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]

English Attitude, Substitutes Deployed

londongames.jpg Well, astute GSW readers may have noticed that, though a lot of posts this week have been 'made' by me, it's actually AlistairW who has been filling in with the text and witticisms, after I shoved him a bunch of links to put up.

This is because we've been covering the London Games Festival out here for Gamasutra - and it's my home town, too - and it's been pretty insanely busy. But there's a full round-up of our coverage over at Gama, including plenty of neat game biz-related info.

Some of the most interesting lectures? Probably LucasArts' Chris Williams showing off 'Jar-Jar In Carbonite', alongside some very neat tech demos, as well as a relatively penitent Peter Molyneux discussing tips for indie developers in light of the Lionhead experience. Anyhow, go check it out, and we should be back to 'normal' soon, yay.

October 5, 2006

MMOG Nation: When Men In Tights Fight

['MMOG Nation' is a regular bi-weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column is about the brewing MMOG fight between Marvel, DC, and City of Heroes.]

Like God of War's Ares, World of Warcraft is an unmistakable figure on the horizon. The rest of the Massive industry seems, for the most part, to be milling about in an unfocused manner at the feet of this genre giant. Last week at X06 we had the first real sign that, while the market is currently disoriented, it won't always be this way. The announcement of the Marvel/Cryptic/Microsoft alliance, and the possibilities of the Marvel Universe Online (MUO), sets the stage for a very interesting niche showdown. Sometime in the next few years, we'll be seeing a three way battle over the superhero Massive market ... and it's almost certain that one of the contenders will lose. Today I'm going to discuss the three contenders in the battle, give you a sense of the odds for and against each game, and describe why I think this particular tussle is a great sign for the MMOG player.

[Click through for more.]

Tickets, Tickets Please

First off, let's meet the fighters.

The battle for the reigning superhero MMOG begins with the only challenger already in the ring: NCSoft's City of Heroes (CoH). At one point not too long ago I probably would have described the game as Cryptic's City of Heroes', but times have changed. Even as far back as April, Creative Director Jack Emmert had publicly stepped back from the Lead Designer role. Matt Miller, CoH's current lead designer, laid out plans for the game in a letter to the community. If you read between the lines, the future seems clear. "We have a full team of programmers, artists, designers, and producers devoted to creating and maintaining the best experience in the 'City of' world of games. This team is, and will remain completely separate from other teams working on other games at Cryptic." CoH will be a Cryptic game in name only. With about 1% of the marketshare sewn up in their superhero game, NCSoft would be crazy to just let it drown. So, they'll keep the lights on, even as Cryptic moves on to other things. For the immediate future, at least, CoH players have nothing to worry about.

The DC Universe MMOG, currently in the works at Sony Online Entertainment, was announced as part of the sale of The Matrix Online. Considering how well TMO is doing, SOE is obviously putting a lot of faith in the success of a DC Universe title. All things considered, they're probably right to see the game as an almost sure hit. Aside from the obvious star power of characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, they've got veteran comics man Jim Lee as Creative Director. Best known for his work on Batman: Hush, he's sure to bring a lot of first-hand world experience and 'DC reality' to the project. The best I could find as regards a release date was December of 2007. As that was on IGN, and we know almost no details about the game at this point, it's really anyone's guess as to when it will actually come out. My money is on early to mid 2008.

Undoubtedly a result of the settlement of Marvel's suit against Cryptic, the unlikely MicroMarvelCryptic alliance has only just made their intentions public. The suit was settled last December, so that's the earliest this game began development. The creators have as much as said it's still very much in the planning stages. The only thing we know for sure about the game is that it's going to be coming out of Jack Emmert's brain, and will feature pretty much every piece of content from the Marvel Universe you can imagine. My wild guess as to when this game will come out? Mid to late 2008 ... something of a rush to ensure they can compete with the DC Universe product.

Can't Enjoy the Fight Without a Program

So, now that we know who is involved, what are their odds?

City of Heroes, at first glance, is the true wild card here. On the one hand, it is well established. By the time either one of its competitors launches, it will have been in the hearts and minds of Massive gamers for at least three years. The live team already has content planned out until the end of 2007, meaning that enthusiasts are going to have plenty to sink their teeth into between now and then. They've done a great job of keeping the game's technology current, with City of Villains being one of the few titles that actually supports the PhysX card. It also looks beautiful, and planned technology upgrades should keep the game looking current even after the era of Vista games begins. On the other hand, they're not DC or Marvel. As much as people may like the Paragon City mythos, we've been reading about Spidey and Supes for decades now. Compare Statesman with Captain America or Superman in a room of comic readers, and you're going to disappoint any expectant CoH fans. In the long term, though, brand identity may not even be the biggest roadblock in CoH's path. Unless there are plans in the works I'm unaware of, City of Heroes/Villains will be the only one of the three to lack compliance with the next-gen consoles. The PS3 and 360 are huge forces in the gaming industry. Not being a part of that action could, ultimately, prove to be CoH's kryptonite.

From a brand perspective, it's hard to argue with the assets that DC brings to a party. I've always been more of a Marvel man myself, but c'mon ... Batman? Holding the keys to the baddest-ass of all the badass superheroes is great; DC happens to have an entire League of interesting characters to just waiting to have their day in the Massive sun. Likewise, Sony Online is a proven quantity in the world of Massively Multiplayer games. Like it or not, Everquest was the western Massive game for many years. They've learned a thing or two since 1999. They know what it takes to design, test, and most importantly run a Massive title, and with Sony's backing they've got all the money they need to do it.

The key here is what will the gameplay be like? If it's ultimately City of Heroes with Batman and Superman, players are going to feel cheated. As a licensed game, how far can the development team take in-game events? How far can players go to change the world around them? Will we be able to play villains at all, or is this going to be a good-guy only club? How will the named characters fit in? Will we get to fight alongside Superman? Can we join the Justice League? Can I be Batman's next ward? If the answers to at least a few of these questions are not 'yes', they've got problems before a single Beta tester enters the gameworld. What's the point of playing a DC game if you don't get to meet Superman?

From a cynical perspective, I also have to wonder: are we going to get EQ SOE here ... or are we going to get SWG SOE? Are the makers of the DC Universe game going to be the player-oriented, considerate designers who have honed Everquest into a precision instrument? Or are we going to get the folks who took one of the two most powerful sci-fi licenses in American meda and flushed it down the toilet?

All these gameplay and corporate questions go double for MUO. Jack Emmert has said they've been given 'full' access to the Marvel Universe. They used the word 'awe' to describe their feelings at the amount of the amount of information they've been given. Cryptic was included in this year's storyline planning session, and the plan is to keep them upraised of world-changing events as they happen. So, at the very least, the Marvel title is going to have an interesting backdrop against which to play. They have also made comments that indicate the PC game and the 360 game will not have the exact same gameplay. Different experiences on the console and PC would go a long way towards pleasing players; PC gamers won't be able to complain they are struggling with 'sluggish console controls', and console players won't whine about the unfairness of mouselook in PVP. As we've heard nothing similar out of SOE one can assume the PS3 version will simply be a port of the PC game.

Above all, Cryptic seems to be a highly capable company. CoH's gameplay has flaws, to be sure, but that game is rock solid dependable, gorgeous to play, and it has some of the most 'balanced' gameplay you can point to in today's market. As long as Jack doesn't try to pull off a Spider-man costume at any industry events, I think they're the perfect choice to make this game.

Again, though, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. What will gameplay be like? Considering the number of trademark powers in the world, how close to trademarked characters can players approach? IE: Can I be a wall-crawler? How about eye beams? Umm ... fireworks? Marvel also has the reputation among comic fans of being somewhat more angsty and 'teenagery'. Assuming for the moment that they're using the non-Ultimate version of the Marvel Universe (because that opens up a whole 'nother kettle of fish), how 'edgy' are they going to make the world? On the design side, despite Cryptic's obvious skill, their previous experience may actually be something of a downside for some gamers. City of Heroes, as good as I personally think it is, has its fervent detractors. For some people, no matter how different the game actually is, MUO is just going to be 'City of Heroes with The Hulk'. Cryptic and Emmert are going to have to take pains to make sure Marvel Universe Online is different 'enough' from CoH to calm the worries of anxious fanbois. It's a dangerous fence to walk, and I don't envy them.

Before we move on to the broader picture, there's a larger fight on the horizon that may intrude on this little masked mashup. With both licensed games committed to a different next-generation console, the ultimate fate of these two games also rests with prevailing consumer opinion. At the beginning of October, 2006, Sony looks to be in a tough spot. Microsoft is moving from success to success, and the Japanese powerhouse is struggling just to catch up. A year from now, though, who knows what the market will look like? Once the launch window jitters are ironed out and everyone can buy Sony's hardware, things may look very different. Sony has proven their dominance of the console industry for two generations running, Microsoft has a year's head start ... and then there's that Wii thing in the corner. That particular battle is outside of the scope of this article. Just the same, someday that fight will impact this one, and it's worth keeping it in mind.

A Rillllly Great Shew

So why is this corporate dogfight good for Massive gamers? Well, first and foremost it gets even more of our comic-nerd cousins interested in the genre. Any of them that haven't already tried City of Heroes will now be looking forward to a title based on their comic universe of choice. They may try out CoH, they may wait until the license games are released; either way there are going to be a lot of Massive-related conversations going on at local comic shops in the months ahead. More players in the marketplace is a good thing for everyone in the food chain, so that attention is much appreciated.

As the battle heats up, these machinations are likely to draw some attention from the non-gaming press. Despite the overall media ignorance on things both Massive and comics related, your average reporter is likely going to have heard of Superman. Having something besides pole-dancing Night Elves to talk about on the nightly news is a big step up for popular media coverage; again, any new blood the market can hold would seem to be a good thing.

The real reason this fight is promising, though, is that it is our first real niche fight since WoW hit the market. None of these games are going to try to unseat World of Warcraft. They're going for a totally different niche in the marketplace. As details begin to emerge about the license games, and players move back to CoH as a result of hero-related MMOG coverage, positive buzz about a non-fantasy niche in the MMOG market will work its way into the brains of venture capitalists, managers, and producers. With other powerhouse titles outside of the leather loincloth genre on the way (such as Tabula Rasa), this tussle may be the turning point in the industry's tiresome attitude towards setting.

Change, then, is ultimately what this fight represents. New players in the Massive space have announced themselves. Perhaps for the first time in a long while, jaded gamers can look up from the ruddy glow of Molten Core and see a light on the horizon. There will be flames on message boards, debates about design choices, and analyzing of screenshots. Most important of all, there will once again be passion in the eyes of Massive gamers tired of companies promising 'Everquest ... but different!'. In the end, what every Massive gamer wants is not a hot elf chick. It isn't phat loots or cybering, guild drama or farmed gold. Massive gamers want to have fun. They want to feel powerful, like they have real choices to make and an impact on the virtual world around them. They want to feel like they're part of a community. And, of course, they want to wear cool costumes.

However this fight turns out, in the end I fervently hope that it is the players who ultimately win. Until next time, true believer.

[Michael Zenke is also known as 'Zonk', the current editor of Slashdot Games. He has had the pleasure of writing occasional pieces for sites like Gamasutra and The Escapist. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog. ]

Visiting Day Gets PSP Homebrew Outing

visiting_day.jpgWe’ve talked about Mike Bithell’s PSP homebrew title Visiting Day before on GSW - simonc enthusiastically called it a “seriously fun super-simple indie title” and noted that “we'd love to see a 50-mini-game version sold commercially”. For those who came in late, though, it’s a great mini-game collection with some very awesome art that is not only freeware, but can be tried out on Bithell’s website in a Flash version too.

Well, the very, very good news is that the game is out of beta stage, finished and up on the site all ready for you to download to “memory card for those moments at the bus stop”, as Bithell says.

Even better is his acknowledgement of our previous comments. “I would absolutely love to make the large scale version that GameSetWatch called for. I have many ideas...” he says. Anyone interested in helping him fulfil this dream should visit his site and get in touch with him pronto!

[edited by alistairw]

COLUMN: 'Cinema Pixeldiso' – 8 BIT

['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that spotlights movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with an emphasis on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week’s selection is a documentary that explores the world of art that has sprung forth from the medium of video games and which will have its world premiere later this weekend.]


http://www.gamesetwatch.com/8bit01.jpgVideo games have been around long enough that most of us can't even remember a time when they weren't. Everyone has either grown up with a 2600, NES, or whatever else machine in our homes, or at least knew someone who had one, and more than likely when we weren't playing games, each of us were talking and thinking about them well after the power was turned off. Looking back, we now have fuzzy warm memories of our favorite games and all the things relating to them, hence why video games have become a part of us, our identities, even our culture. Naturally, anything so pervasive in people's lives will become the subject of analysis and self-expression via art, and that is what 8 BIT is all about.

[Click through for more.]

8 BIT is one of the first real documentaries of its kind; previously there's only been assorted offerings from PBS and other cable channels that tried examining the medium, but most are nothing more than just sloppy, factually inaccurate, and at times downright condescending infomercials produced by people who seemingly have zero grasp of the subject matter. This new film on the other hand simply presents to the viewer individuals who either grew up with video games, or are intrigued by them on a certain level, and have thus created works to express their attachment and/or fascination.

Hacker's Delight

Things are kicked off by a brief but fairly decent rundown of the history of video games, and immediately transitions to an explanation of the demo scene, tracing the humble early years of software piracy, which led to game publishers to employ copy protection methods, and said hackers finding means to overcome such measures. Along the way they decided to create electronic calling cards to go with each cracked game, such as an intro screen that included their name (often a pseudonym since the practice was all very much illegal) and some bits of flashy graphics and sound. Over time these bits, or "demos", become increasingly elaborate, until folks began just creating them by themselves, which somewhat resembled music videos. This would also serve as the root of the art from video game scene as we know it today.

From there the film goes into the chiptunes scene, which consists of people who create music from Game Boys, Nintendo Entertainment Systems, Commodore 64s and other electronic devices, which is pretty old and archaic tech by today's standards. The definite highlight of the entire film are its interviews, which are particularly enjoyable in this early part; presenting the story of chiptunes are a number of key figures from it's world, including those from the New York scene, such as Bit Shifter, Glomag, Bubblyfish, and Nullsleep (real name Jeremiah Johnson, who's also a GSW contributor), and even performers from other parts of the world, like Bodenstandig 2000 from Germany and Team Tendo from France (who wear furry costumes.. one is a cougar, the other a groundhog... even when performing).

The appropriation of children's toys to produce music for kids that still haven't grown up is both fun to hear about and even watch; aside from the interviews, 8 BIT features performance footage from various shows. It even includes a glimpse at the crowd, which are mostly pastey white kids more than happy to bop their heads up and down in the dark to beeps and boops from a Game Boy. And aside from hearing their work, the audience are taught how its created: Coray Arcangel goes over all the differences in sounds between all the classic systems (also pointing how they are all so technically superior to the much sought after Moog synthesizer among the musically hip, but are no where near as expensive), Nullsleep explains how a piece of chiptune is composed, Bit Shifter demonstrates how to execute a tune via Little Sound DJ, one of the primary pieces of software that Game Boy chiptunes artists utilize, and even its creator Johan Kotlinski is spotlighted (he even plays a song).

So What Is Art?

The movie then decides to dig deeper into the realm of video games as "art". Things start off fine with Cory Arcangel (who's the mind behind Super Mario Clouds, which is a hacked Super Mario Bros cartridge with all the graphics erased except for the clouds) as he explains the process involved in modifying NES carts. But soon we begin to hear more from hardcore artsy types, and even though their message and work are for the most part quite compelling, much of it comes off rather cold and even a bit condescending. It's a direct contrast to Arcangel and all the chiptunes folks, whose work are much more warm and approachable (despite the tinny sounds an old NES makes), because ultimately the artists themselves are considerably more relatable. It also helps that they don't feel the need to be overly verbose when expressing their thoughts, like Tom Moody, who again makes some excellent points, but comes off so stuffy and highfalutin he causes eyes to roll and his words to go in one ear and directly out the other. Though Tom does end up providing one of the films funniest moments when he describes chiptunes as "tuneless" and "not interesting melodically" and the film instantly cuts to Nullsleep in-between songs at a performance mentioning how some guy on his blog complaining about the previous evening's show by stating that the music had no tune, with more than a hint of annoyance in his tone. To conclude Tom's character assassination, it should also be noted that in the film he is listed as both a visual artist and a "blogger".

But still, Moody and others manage to bring up several excellent points about the art scene's usage of video games as a source of inspiration, even language; it's pointed out how the 8-bit "look", referring to the visual stylings of early video games, which was borne out of technical limitations and necessity back in the day, is now a conscious choice by contemporary artists. There's also plenty of discussions behind the meanings and emotions behind the style; for some, its mostly a means of conjuring up nostalgia for the viewer while for artists it offers self-imposed restrictions. The role of the player in relation to the game, such as game identity and narrative, is examined up as well. John Klima asks rather bluntly "Do you play the game or does the game play you?" which defines the challenges that game designers, and artists, must face in terms of presenting a definitive experience, which often clashes with player's actions since they are not always in line with what was intended.

The realm of Machinima, which is the use of a gaming engine to illustrate a story, much like a movie, is brought up unsurprisingly, yet what actually was is Eddo Stern's analysis, mainly because it's quite refreshing, yet a bit puzzling given his background and his own attempts to play around with the gaming space to create art. Also interesting was hearing about the hard core gamers’ reaction to one particular piece, in which an artist goes around a game of Counter Strike, and instead of attack enemies he runs around posting anti-war propaganda. It was noted that they didn't "appreciate" the exercise, and it really would have been nice to follow up on that sentiment, but sadly it is not.

Yeah... That's Art Alright

Around this point, the film is either going to connect or perhaps annoy the viewers. There's a sentiment that the gaming masses are like the general public, unable to comprehend or appreciate art, and this documentary might add credence to such a notion for some; a piece called Prepared PlayStation is presented, in which Alex Galloway takes a regular off the shelf PlayStation 2 and an off the shelf PS2 game, turns the game on, applies some rubber bands to the controller, and lets the game "run itself", which mostly means a game's character running around in an endless loop, is sure to get more than a few "Well I could have done that..." reactions. Another piece by Mary Flanagan called Domestic, in which she modded Unreal to resemble a childhood structure on fire which the player must attempt to extinguish via coping mechanisms from her own childhood (such as romance novels for example) will either grab people or make them scratch their heads.

8 BIT does not ask its viewers to judge the artists or their work, but given the framework in which everything is presented, especially near the end when a slowly increasing stream of dense technical terminology and arty-farty babble begins overwhelm, to the point that word "postmodern" is literally used eleven times in just one single sentence (or at least it feels like it), and especially when you compare it to the more down to earth offerings from earlier, one almost can't help feel a bit disappointed and frustrated.

Still, there are some fascinating elements sprinkled about, yet there's often no follow-up at these pivotal moments either, such as when Paul Johnson mentions how one of his first game related pieces in a museum was dismissed by critics due to its medium, and is also mentioned that people played the games just for the sake of playing, which Paul sounded almost disappointed by, hence why his later games involved just the gaming playing against itself.

Final Score…

Plus there's more to the game/art scene than just just chiptunes and fine artists hacking games to express a point of view. You have video game inspired comics, graffiti, even fashion, to name just a few. But that's obviously asking for a lot, and the filmmakers should be commended for covering as much ground as they did, as well as the manner in which they went about in doing so. The entire film is very easy to follow, with concepts and ideas flowing and connecting to each other seamlessly. And you honestly can't say about most films and television specials that have come before it. The editing is excellent, as is the use of illustrations and footage from games to paint various pictures, and each of the interviews, despite one's personal opinions of what is said, help to drive the filmmaker's intent. And that is to catalogue and document this emerging art scene. In the end, despite its problems, the good definitely outweigh the bad. 8 BIT is the start of something, and a very good one at that.


8 BIT premiers this Saturday, October 7th. in New York City at the Museum of Modern Art. For more information, such as purchasing tickets or to find out if the movie might be coming to your city (according to Justin Strawhand, one of the film's creators, it is hoped that a tour may occur in the future), check out the official website for the film.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]

Second Life Goes Fishing

second_life_fishing.jpgLike fishing? Like virtual world Second Life? Boy, are you in luck! No longer do you have to actually go to all of the trouble of going outside to sit by some water for hours and probably not catch anything: now you can do it all from the comfort of your own home!

According to the official Second Opinion newsletter, content and game developer within Second Life Neo-Realms Entertainment has recently announced their latest effort: Neo-Realms Fishing. “We thought 'All MMPGs really need fishing,'” says designer Steven McCall, known as “Sweegy Manilow” within Second Life.

Neo-Realms have been holding fishing camps since 2004, and have used the money generated to fund their game, which features “various rod and bait types, an xp and levelling system for the rods” as well as “fishing quests, reward points redeemable for prizes, and daily multiplayer tournaments for prizes and money”.

[edited by alistairw]

MIT Goes Futuristic With Entertainment

ipod_tv.jpgDirector of Comparative Media Studies Program and Full Professor of Literature at MIT (and subject of a past interview here at GSW!) Henry Jenkins has announced on his blog MIT’s The Futures of Entertainment conference. The free event will be held at MIT on the 17th and 18th of November, and “is designed to bring together leading thinkers from across the entertainment industry to speak about core issues around media convergence, transmedia storytelling, user-generated content, and participatory culture”.

According to Henry, “speakers confirmed so far include The Long Tail's Chris Anderson, Flickr's Caterina Fake, DC Comic's Paul Levitz, Warner Brother's Diane Nelson, Big Spaceship's Michael Lebowitz, social networking researcher danah boyd, television scholar Jason Mittell, and many others, including representatives from MTV, Cartoon Network, Bioware, and other leading companies in this space.”

Of special interest to GSW readers should be the Not the Real World Anymore panel, which discusses virtual spaces as “platforms for thought experiments” and as new places for “considering questions of community and connectivity”.

Sounds like an interesting couple of days, so register early, as they say, to avoid disappointment!

[edited by alistairw]

October 4, 2006

GameTap Digs Into Time Warner License Vault

bub.gifTime for another update from the guys at PC subscription service GameTap - this time they’ve declared it “Cartoon Week”, and they’re using their supreme licensing clout to get a hold of some of the biggest names in cartoon-based franchise games. This is particularly cool, of course, since most licensed games fall into some sort of legal grey area after a few years.

Fortunately, with GameTap’s Time Warner parentage, it means titles like Bugs Bunny in Double Trouble for the Game Gear, and The Powerpuff Girls: Mojo Jojo's Clone Zone, Earthworm Jim 3D and Scooby-Doo! Showdown in Ghost Town for PC are back on the market.

Plus, there’s the awesome (though blindingly difficult, from memory) Adventures of Batman & Robin for Genesis, and, to top it all off, the arcade version of Bubble Bobble. Sure, Bub and Bob aren’t actually cartoon characters, but who’s complaining?

[edited by alistairw]

Games.Net Gets Totally Played Out

played_out.jpgGames.net have recently put together what they’re describing as “the first gaming-oriented sitcom ever”, Played Out. It’s the story of “two eligible bachelors” and “three snarky game consoles”, Two, Cube, and Jeff, the Xbox360 all living in an apartment. The catch? Come this November, either Two or Cube is going to be replaced by a newer model.

“We imagined what would happen if the current generation consoles had an opportunity to fight back before they are cast into retirement,” says co-writer, co-creator and co-lead Brian Stone. “Personifying the game systems as living things with feelings and personality quirks will also give us the opportunity to satirize the game industry a little while we deliver a little information.”

The first episode is probably the most successful of the two up at the moment – the second gets a bit preachy regarding the various pros and cons of the PS3 and Wii, and nods towards the corporate masters at GamePro just a little too often for comfort.

Arguably, even that isn’t as annoying as Games.net’s video player, but if you can get past that, it’s an interesting watch, if not quite as funny as it wants to be.

[edited by alistairw]

Genuine Arcade Controls For Xbox Live?

xboxarcadecontroller.jpg For anyone trying to play Frogger on your Live Arcade who just can’t do it because the damn controller isn’t right, fear not! Salvation may be at hand! RetroBlast brings news of a controller built by Ed Farias of Arcade-in-a-Box that uses a modded Xbox controller, but puts it all in the familiar shell of an arcade stick.

“I'm telling you,” enthuses RetroBlast. “The classics just aren't the same without the proper controls. Once you try the real deal, you'll see what I mean.”

Still, apparently Ed’s not convinced there’s a market out there for it, suggesting that his time might be better served putting out kits that users can finish themselves. Mind you, if you’re of the home-soldering persuasion, why not bypass the kit all together and try out this handy tutorial that teaches you to build your own arcade stick out of a wireless controller?

What have you got to lose? Well, other than a $40 wireless controller, that is…

[edited by alistairw]

October 3, 2006

Game Reviewing After Manual Writing - A No-No?

galciv2_box.jpgJournalistic vested interest is s touchy subject – more so in business circles than gaming ones, mostly, but it still resonates pretty strongly. In 1996, then-CGW columnist Martin Cirulis called outed author of PC Gamer’s review of PC title Ascendency as the author of the game’s strategy guide, too, noting that he probably had a vested interest in the game selling more copies, so the guide would also fare better in stores. While most would question whether that might really be the case, it’s undoubtedly an instance where the conflict of interest should have been declared.

Now, writes Tom Chick, he’s criticised one of the co-writers of the manual for Galactic Civilizations 2 for also reviewing, in rather an uncomplimentary light, Sword of the Stars on 1up.com. But is it really the same issue? Or is it complicated, and invalidated, by the fact that Cirulis is Sword of the Stars’ developer?

Who better to answer those questions than Chick himself, who just happens to be the author of GalCiv2’s manual, and said review? “Yes, I wrote the manual for Galactic Civilizations 2,” he says. “No, it didn’t affect my opinion on Sword of the Stars, a game I honestly dislike. I freely grant that I have a conflict of interest doing any writing on the subject of Stardock’s games, but I and my editors don’t think it should prevent me from writing about strategy games, sci-fi or otherwise.”

The last word rests pretty capably in the hands of CGW editor-in-chief Jeff Green. “The notion that there is a "conflict of interest" here is ludicrous,” he notes. “And I'm surprised that someone as magazine savvy as Martin would resort to such a lame tactic just because he didn't get the review he was hoping for.” Ouch.

[edited by alistairw]

VF.TV - More Fun Than You Might Think

virtuafighter5.jpgIt’s all thumbs up for Virtua Fighter 5’s kinda bizarre VF.tv service, according to NeoGAF. The VF.tv unit is displayed in Japanese arcades along with the game itself, and features online ranking, plus broadcasts: one which shows impressive combos pulled off by actual players around the country, “complete with replays in slow motion to see how to do them”, plus player introductions and replays of ranked matches.

Even cooler, though, is the fact that the matches replayed have automated commentary, and by the look of videos like this one, it’s actually good.

But by far the best aspect is described by NeoGAF as “The Ownage!” The actual name is unknown, apparently, but the basic gist is “they take one match where someone got owned hardcore and show it nationally! The beatdowns are usually so bad that the name of the guy who's getting owned is usually blocked out so you can't see it.” Ouch.

Given my complete lack of fighting game skills, remind me not to play Virtua Fighter 5 in a Japanese arcade anytime soon.

[edited by alistairw]

Measuring Gaming Success In Libraries

library_gaming.jpgJenny Levine’s Shifted Librarian blog has recently been asking some pretty interesting questions in regards to gaming in libraries, most of which boil down to the primary question of what is holding libraries back from allowing gaming into their buildings. Fellow librarian Ivan Chew suggests the answer might be a “lack of concrete measures (of the outcomes from implementing gaming)”.

“Do we use the same outcomes we do for other groups that meet in the library?” Asks Levine. “Is there a way to equate the literacy of the number of books a kid reads in the reading program versus the literacy a kid needs to advance playing a video game? Does starting with Dance Dance Revolution show the obvious physical benefits of gaming, allowing us to move the discussion to the mental and learning benefits of gaming?”

It’s an intriguing issue, and one that doesn’t seem like it’s going to be solved by just pushing a copy of Brain Age into the hands of anyone who doesn’t understand the positive outcomes that are possible through gaming – though that would be a good start.

Personally, I have rather fond memories of playing Pitfall! and Centipede at my local library. Mind you, the fact that it was 1990 suggests the games might not have been there through any admission gaming’s positive effects.

[edited by alistairw]

Everything Old Is... Old Again?

burgertime.jpgThere’s a very interesting piece by Paul Hyman on the Hollywood Reporter site at the moment talking about the retro gaming phenomenon that seems to be going on, and getting an idea about just who is profiting from them. GameTap and Xbox Live Arcade are both put under the microscope, with Stuart Snider, VP and General Manager of the former noting, "It was our belief that there's an audience out there who wants to play these games on their PC at any time of day, any day of the week”.

More so, he adds, “one of the best features of GameTap” is that the games are untouched from their original versions – something with which Greg Canessa from XBLA disagrees with, remarking that they prefer to “improve” the games that are on their service.

But the most interesting comments come from Director of Game Design and Development at the Rochester Institute of Technology Andrew Phelps, who comments that he sees the current retro trend as a backlash against mainstream games. “For instance,” he says. “When you play Grand Theft Auto or The Sims, the experience takes a while. But retro games are faster, you get to the next level in a minute or two, and the feedback is practically instantaneous. While the more intricate, AAA games are fine for some people on some occasions, other people, especially non-hardcore gamers, just want some immediate, short-term fun”

However, he also notes that the trend is cyclical: “People will get tired of them for a while, come back to them again, and then stop for a while”.

[edited by alistairw]

October 2, 2006

>$100,000 Per Year For Indie Game Sales?

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/kudos.gif Thanks to Juuso over at GameProducer.net for pointing out an interesting post about indie game sales stats, where-in Cliff Harris at Positech Games, reveals "$113,160.53" in sales from his PC titles in a year.

Of course, Cliff's Positech Games do make some of the more impressive one-man-band styled games around - as his background explains: "Cliff Used to work for a UK company called Elixir, who did Republic and Evil Genius. He left before they went bust. After that he worked at Lionhead as an AI / Game coder for 'The Movies' When that game finished he left to work for himself fulltime. At the start of 2006, Cliff worked for Maxis on a 'gameplay prototype' for the 'Sims' franchise. He is now working on an original 'life sim' game.Buy his games quickly, Cliff has bills to pay!"

Nonetheless, this shows there's some viability even coming into the market at a PC indie game level - this is certainly true at the Xbox 360 Live Arcade level, of course. However, if you look at the sales statistics category on GameProducer.net, you'll see that many of the games make much, much less money than that - as is to be expected in an infinitely elastic market, I guess. Anyhow, good luck to Cliff in the IGF this year with Kudos!

Go Go Dot Fighters Go!

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/dotf.gif Remember we were hyping Dot Fighters, the PC dojin fighting game from the maker of the completely awesome 'ArmJoe' Les Miserables-based fighter (!).

Well, Indy Gamer has the scoop - a playable version of the game is now released, though "Your Windows XP/2000 operating system has to be set up to run Japanese software in order to play Dot Fighters."

Watch carefully in the Indy Gamer post comments, though - there's a new version of the game already, and it's password protected but smaller. Also, IndyGamer's Tim claims: "For a game with a smaller file size (40MB) but similar gameplay and just as good, try Light Destiny." Though it's not dotty like Dot Fighters, aw!

They Came From Hollywood, Direct

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/tcfhol.jpg It is, after all, 'the game that wouldn't die', so it's nice to see that GameTunnel has an interview about PC monster game 'They Came From Hollywood' up, quizzing Lars and Sparky at Octopus Motor about the game that will be done... eventually! Actually, fairly soon, by the sound of it.

There's some fun stuff about inspirations, which apparently isn't so much King Of The Monsters: "TCFH is inspired more by Crush, Crumble, and Chomp, an Epyx game from 1981. And "The Creature That Ate Sheboygan" board game by Greg Costikyan. But it's a well loved theme there have been lots of monster vs. city tabletop, pen & paper, computer and arcade games."

And, of course, they have the infamous 'Godzilla stomp!' dance mat mode: "The dance pad works with the simpler gameplay mode because of the limited interface. We've modeled the command structure of the dance pad footwork to mimic the monster's actions, so it's got something of a puppet feel to it. Left Right Left Right Arrow lets you walk forward, Forward Arrow to stomp, etc. I think kids (of all ages) are going to have a smashing time with it." Dude, where's my monster suit?

@ Play: Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Blue & Red Rescue Team

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

The Fushigi no Dungeon games, the name translating to “Mysterious Dungeon,” are perhaps the greatest commercial success that roguelike games have found in the world. A Japanese series that began as a spin-off of Dragon Quest IV (that’s the one with Torneko, a.k.a. Taloon, the Merchant) the series soon grew past its licensed origins by introducing the character of Shiren the Wanderer, a very Japanese man living in a very Japanese world, and his talking weasel Kappa. Shiren’s fate is to forever wander forward through dungeon levels (and strangely maze-like fields, forests and swamps too), unable to travel backwards on his quest – just like Rogue, once a level is left it can never be returned to on the character’s current life.

Although Shiren is popular in Japan, and the Shiren Fushigi no Dungeon games seem to be the most like-rogue of the bunch, the series (and by association its developer Chun Soft) has been notoriously slutty about the licensed properties it’s tried to mold into rogue-likeness. In addition to DQ4, there have been Chocobo FnD games, a later game featuring Yangus from DQ8, and another with characters from Tower of Druaga.

The Tragedy of the Dungeon

By most accounts the Shiren games seem to be the best, with all-original monsters and items designed from the ground up to be roguelike in quality. But while we’ve gotten many of the above titles in English localizations, we’ve never seen an official translation of any of the Shiren games in the United States, and likely (awfully, terribly, shamefully), we never will. Not only are the games extremely Japanese (just a few examples: the music is all Asian, places are illustrated with a Romantic regard for nature, there are Shogun monsters that leave Japanese-style ghosts, and food rations have become rice balls), but while roguelikes are a genre of games that have always had a tremendous impact on the computer and video game industry, publishers are still wary of copying too closely because of their necessary "permadeath" feature and difficulty.

We’ll be looking at Shiren and his wandering ways eventually (until then you can read fellow GSW columnist Matthew Williamson's excellent take on it), but it happens that we’ve gotten a new spin-off Fushigi no Dungeon game in the US just this past week, so I’m going to talk about that for now.

pmdrt1.jpgIt’s the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: (color) Rescue Team games, for (system), where (color) means either Blue or Red, and (system) is respectively the DS or Gameboy Advance. They are the first FnD games to utilize Nintendo’s incredibly popular Pokemon franchise, featuring all 380 of the monsters from each of the four tiered incarnations of that series.

Gotta Beat the Snot Outta 'Em All

This is a great idea, as roguelikes are made or broken from the variety of their monsters, and if there’s one thing Pokemon has it’s variety. There are Pokemon dragons, Pokemon bugs, Pokemon ghosts, Pokemon robots, Pokemon fairies, Pokemon plant-monsters, and Pokemon cats, dogs, mice, birds, ferrets, foxes, horses, monkeys, weasels, snakes, ducks, fish and cows. And all of these monsters have their movesets from the games more or less intact, which is an amazing feat of design considering that Fushigi no Dungeon games have a very different style of play than the Dragon-Quest-like Pokemon games. Some of the moves are evil in a way that seems very roguelike, and it is amazing that those moves have been transferred mostly intact instead of being diluted in an effort to balance them. Destiny Bond is a move that causes the target to take all the damage the user takes. Spite drains one move of all its uses, potentially a great penalty indeed in a marathon dungeon crawl.

The Fushigi no Dungeon games are also known for having lots of bonus dungeons to explore after beating the main quest, places where special rules are in effect. In this game there turns out to be more theme dungeons than normal ones. Some of those dungeons provide some of the traditional roguelike disadvantages that are otherwise missing in this game, like starting without items, money or prior-gained experience points, and that’s a bit interesting at least.

pmdrt2.jpgBoring Like Snorlax

That’s the positive. Unfortunately, there is plenty of negative here. Worst of all is that the roguelike item ID system, which usually makes an appearance somewhere in the Mysterious Dungeon games, seems to be completely absent here, even in the bonus dungeons. All items appear to be recognized automatically, which removes a tremendous amount of strategy. The game even contains "bad" items that no player would want to use, items that usually exist to provide a risk to ID-by-use, but if he knows what they are on sight why bother? There could still be an unknown item dungeon later on, as while I’ve "beaten the game" I have yet to finish all the extra dungeons. But I’ve been playing the game for a good while now, and as so much of it is, despite the tremendous potential, a fairly boring slog through random mazes, I’m just about to give up looking for it.

Yeah, it’s boring. While I have complaints about the way various game reviewers have treated the game – they show an appalling ignorance about the history of computer games – the biggest thing they find the matter with it is completely accurate: it is so boring. There is almost never a sense of real danger to be had during the main game. Unlike traditional RPGs, roguelike games rely on their difficulty. Players must always feel like they are a mere few turns away from the grave. If the game weren’t hard, there’d be no need to rely on those random, powerful items found lying around to survive. If the player can just smack all his foes into submission then the stuff is not needed, but it is that stuff, the good and bad, that make them awesome.

Adding to the ambient ennui is the game’s unwillingness to properly punish players for dying. Players who run out of hit points are evicted from the dungeon with no money and some of their items, but no experience points are lost at all. It’s like if, in Rogue or Nethack, players got to keep their levels through all the games they ever played. The game’s structure encourages players go through earlier dungeons multiple times, but when the player gets up to level 30 or higher it’s a meaningless formality. If the enemy Pokemon were able to harm the player in permanent ways other than killing him, say by destroying items, then it would at least be a little perilous. But they don’t.

The interesting thing about all this is that Chun Soft, originator and maintainer of the Fushigi no Dungeon series, has proven several times in the past that they get it. They indeed know what it is about roguelike games that makes them work. The first Shiren the Wanderer is a truly interesting game, and the closest thing to a direct successor Rogue has had since Hack. For them to take the formula they have milked successfully so many times and rip the supports out from under it like this can be no accident.

Why did they make the Rescue Team games so easy/boring? The answer is simply, it’s the license’s fault. The core Pokemon games have many surprising design strengths, enough so that they are embraced by many older players, but they are still targeted at fairly young kids. But this is not a kiddie game. Roguelikes require a certain purposefulness of play that twelve-year-olds are unlikely to put up with, but older gamers will probably prove more than a match for the game’s lightweight challenges until the epic final dungeons are unlocked, and few are going to stick with it long enough for that. Even smart young players, the kind who would be willing to devise the kinds of inventive tactics that proper roguelikes support and reward, will find that they succeed at least as often by using the same attacks and moves over and over, just like every other RPG they’ve played, and probably will ever play. In short, Pokemon Mysterious Dungeon is a great idea, executed by people who know what they’re doing, but ultimately destroyed by a failure to respect the player's intelligence.

The same thing, when it comes right down to it, that’s wrong with most of the rest of the video game industry.

The Fushigi no Dungeon games, while quite close to Rogue, fall a little further from the tree to be considered roguelike by some people simply because they have graphics other than ASCII characters. Next time we’ll be looking at a game where the connection is much less obvious: it has fanciful graphics, real-time play, very little that could be called combat, and even an excellent two-player co-op mode! Yet in character it is completely, obviously, marvelously Like Rogue. For its identity (assuming people don’t guess it in the comments), you can either read a helpfull scroll or return in two weeks.

Screenshots scavenged from Nintendo's promotional page for the game.

October 1, 2006

Game Store Bloggers Go MTV

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/bandito.jpg Well, we reported on them a few weeks back, but the ever-smart Stephen Totilo at MTV News has written up a proper story on the 'Day in the Life of Video Games' game store bloggers.

Some fun insight in there: "These days, the games people ask about the most are "Grand Theft Auto" and "Bully." And people talk next-gen systems. Sorry, Nintendo fans, but that doesn't mean the Wii. "A lot of what we get is, 'What's going to be better: 360 or PS3?' " Whitman said. He punts the question when people ask."

Also: "At least Post and Whitman are aware of the ratings. "A lot of parents actually don't even see them," Whitman said. "They just bring the game up and ask what's in the game." As most gamers know, descriptions of a game's content appear on the back of the box of every game. Post said he's had parents express surprise to him that M-rated games such as "50 Cent Bulletproof" and "25 to Life" include foul language. "They're just surprised that they'll allow language like that in the game.""

There Is Still... There!

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/there2.gif Tony Walsh at Clickable Culture has passed on some neat info about virtual world There, which used to be the 'big 2' competitor with Second Life before they both kinda blew their first round of venture funding - at which point, There converted to 'serious game' firm Forterra but spun off the social/consumer bit, which is now making a bit of a comeback. Complicated!

Some pretty interesting stuff in there: "* "We are still larger than 'that other place' and will continue to be." [Wilson presumably refers to direct competitor Second Life] "Free There lowered the barrier and got us more people into the funnel and into the world.".. * ThereIM, an avatar-based chat system interoperable with There, AIM and YIM, will be available in 2007..."

Also, all this virtual world tech is getting a bit, uhh, old, hence: "We are actually going to be building a brand-new terrain engine for the product… we're actually working with the guys at Forterra [former There-makers] to build a new terrain engine from scratch… One important objective I gave them was 'Make the competition lie awake at night.' They are being paid to deliver it by the first quarter of 2007. The terrain engine we have today is just bad. They are going to rebuild it from the ground up."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': GamePro's Moral Majority

['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.]

With realism in video games ever-increasing, the rating system unevenly enforced in game shops, and everyone from the Federal Trade Commission to some lawyer dude from Florida picking on innocent ol' Take Two Interactive, the reputation of our hobby is being assailed upon from all sides. Perhaps, however, all we need is a PR boost of a different sort to turn the tide. Isn't there anything that us dead-tree enthusiasts can do about these attacks?

Well, the last time video games faced scrutiny for their violence, one noble publisher stepped up to clear their name. They wanted to show that games weren't some horrible plague, that gamers are perfectly well-adjusted, and games are just as wholesome as corndogs and Hummers. They did this...by publishing a newsletter for the parents of gamers.

playright9311.jpg   playright9402.jpg

PlayRight, a subscription-only magazine published bimonthly for (I think) four issues from 1993 to 1994, made no bones about its target audience. "With thousands of video games on the market," stated a 1993 advertising flyer, "how can parents keep up with their kids' games? They can't. They have to stay ahead of them. That's why GamePro, the industry's leading game players magazine, has taken the lead once again with GamePro's PlayRight Newsletter...the first video game publication written expressly for parents."

GamePro! I knew they wuz rattin' on us! Mom confiscated my friend's copy of Mortal Kombat II and it's all GamePro's fault!

As you might expect from the above, the target audience of PlayRight were parents (and, in particular, mothers) who were scared. Yes, scared of their kid going straight home from school and playing video games all evening, then presumably growing up to become socialists. Written mainly by GamePro editors LeeAnne McDermott and Wes Nihei, each issue includes reviews of nonviolent games (pointing it out Christian Spotlight-style whenever a game has particularly bloody scenes), pieces on game companies engaging in public-service activities, and Q&As with people like child psychologists. The first two issues also include a sheet of nine "PlayRight PlayTime" tokens, the idea being that you'd give your kids these tokens as a sort of allowance for video-game time.

The style of the newsletter is never that overbearing, with one exception: the "Potential Concerns" column in the reviews. Here's what this helpful box has to say about the top hits of '94:

NHL Hockey '94: "Electronic Arts removed the fighting action, so players no longer duke it out over disputes."

Cool Spot:: "Overt commercialism may be a concern."

Prehistoria (a multimedia CD-ROM about dinosaurs): "Animated dinosaur battles are realistically graphic and bloody."

playright9404.jpg   playright9406.jpg

For fans of obscurity, the first issue of PlayRight has two can't miss features. One is a two-page spread on Raya Systems, maker of Captain Novolin, Bronkie the Bronchiosaurus, and other disease-fighting Super NES games. "I recently sat in on a focus group of 12 asthmatic kids for Bronkie," recalls Raya director of development Aaron Baker in the article. "The minute the kids saw how the game worked, their faces lit up. They said their friends didn't understand why they couldn't do things like pillow-fight."

The other is "Parents in the Know," a one-page article covering three "industry insiders" who talk about how they deal with their kids' gaming habits. One of these insiders is none other than Howard Phillips, ex-Nintendo Fun Club president and (at the time) Director of West Coast Creative Development for Absolute Entertainment. (Did you know he has two daughters? I didn't.) Here's his take on game ratings circa 1994:

"Who should rate the games -- Sega or Nintendo? Players? Rental stores? An industry watchdog group? People answer the question differently depending on what information they want out of the rating. For me, therein lies the key. I think that the more information available the better. I do not suggest, however, that we rely on one source alone. We should encourage previews and ratings from a variety of sources, and we as individuals choose which ones to listen to."

GamePro apparently agreed with Phillips, because even when the PlayRight newsletter ended, the name lived on in a GamePro column that commented on the violent particulars of T- and M-rated games. I remember the staff occasionally debating whether to keep the PlayRight page in, but it managed to survive in the mag all the way up to 2004, when declining page counts presumably made it impractical to continue. I guess it lasted that long because it was a unique feature among game mags, but man, I don't think anyone at all actually read it.

Of course, maybe I should have kept my mouth shut -- now that I've spilled the beans on the removal of PlayRight from GamePro, maybe IDG Entertainment will get sued for pushing violent games on children. Sorry, guys.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]

World Of Warcraft In South Park!

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/sparkwow.jpg Oop, was a bit slow on this (seeing as we're not really a _pro_ blogging site, actually!), but WorldOfWarcraft.com is noting that the 'season' premiere of South Park will feature World Of Warcraft later this week.

There's a video link, and Kotaku has a link to the handy YouTube version, if you don't want to download - as they comment: "Check the preview for a sneak peek at Wednesday's upcoming ultimate crossover for night elves and the boys who love them."

This is particularly interesting because it looks like Blizzard is completely in on the joke - at least, they got a teaser ahead of time, and seem to be cool with it. Does this mean that MMOs are actually treated in an adult, sensible manner, or does the plot involve addiction and hilarious permadeath? Only time will tell!

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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