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November 11, 2006

X360Zine Is All Digital, And Stuff

- The ever-ready Mr. Kieron Gillen has pointed out a new company making digital video game magazines, Gamerzines, which seems to be run by a bunch of print people trying to do the hybrid print/online thing.

He explains: An interesting one this. Gamerzines are a company who are doing online pdf magazines, made to print quality and then downloadable. They’re working on a PC Games one, but I’ve done their lead review for their XBox Gears of War review.

The format will surprise you. Initially upon looking at it you think it’s just a games magazine in PDF form, but they’re using a load of interactive and embedded elements. For example, splashes of video in the actual adverts and pop-up annotations for the box outs and so on."

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been - Thousand Arms'

thousandarmscover.png[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Atlus and Red Company’s Thousand Arms, released in 1999 for the Sony PlayStation.]

Risky business
The phrase “dating simulator” is seldom mentioned proudly among Western gamers, as it tends to conjure up images of saccharine anime romances and things unfit to describe on a work-safe website.

Such impressions paint a mostly accurate picture of the genre and its subculture in Japan, yet there are those interesting games that use dating-sim mechanics in the service of larger ideas. Thousand Arms was hardly the first to do this, but it was one of the first to bring the whole concept to North America.

While both Atlus and Red Company lent time and money to Thousand Arms, it was really the pet project of manga artist and anime creator Takehiko Ito, known for series that include Outlaw Star and K.O. Beast Century. Ito dreamt up a fantasy RPG, talked two companies into funding it, and recruited some of his anime-industry friends as staffers, including artist Hiroyuki Hataike and manga author Yuuya Kusaka. But perhaps the most important name on the project was Red Company producer Ohji Hiroi, who, at the time of Thousand Arms’ conception back in 1995, was working with Sega on Sakura Taisen, his own hybrid of strategy/RPG and dating simulator. Sakura Taisen became a phenomenon in both the game and anime sectors. Thousand Arms didn’t.

In a minor twist on convention, Ito made Thousand Arms’ hero, Meis Triumph, not a confused, tragic teenage swordsman, but rather a girl-crazed and relatively well-adjusted teenage blacksmith—a spirit blacksmith, to be specific. Rest assured that the remainder of the story’s jejune: after an attack on his hometown sends him fleeing, Meis heads for the nearest city and encounters a sweet-natured girl named Sodina, who introduces him to her blacksmith brother Jyabil and thus kicks off the game’s blacksmith-themed weapon customization. By the end of the game, Meis will traverse the world, face down an empire’s worth of enemies, and destroy a thoroughly evil would-be god.

[Click through for more.]

Based on a story by C.S. LewisInnocuous, PG-rated romance simulator

In fact, the game itself seems unconcerned with the plot, paying far more attention to the characters. Meis and Sodina’s band of allies grows to include the gynophobic warrior Muza, the tomboy pirate girl Wyna, the cynical conwoman Kyleen, the sickly blademaster Soushi, and the unstable Nelsha, who switches from a childishly introverted nerd to an angry, overdressed princess.

And that’s merely the playable cast; the supporting roles introduce Meis’ lecherous father, a frog-obsessed mechanic, a flamboyantly gay bandit, a rival blacksmith, a self-consciously observant village girl, Soushi’s deceptively nice sister, a soft-spoken (and possibly centuries-old) female blacksmith, and a five-member team of toolbox-themed goons. It’s a veritable textbook of RPG clichés, but the upbeat, comic style and Atlus’ typical solid translation help it greatly.

Most of Thousand Arms’ female characters figure into the game’s “dating” mode, couched here as a method for crafting better weapons. Meis’ attempts to court potential spirit-blacksmithing partners play out through conversations, with each girl spouting both stock questions (“Can you eat oysters?” “How do I look?”) and the occasional character-specific inquiry. While it’s all laughably disjointed by current standards, the banter’s kept afloat by solid voice work and frequent turns for the bizarre, as every question brings up two replies for Meis: one polite (“You look nice.”) and one not (“I like making secret gasses in bed.”) .

The humorous tone keeps things from becoming glaringly sexist or creepy, and if the girls’ responses are all two-dimensional, they’ve at least got their own mannerisms, desires and even unique mini-games for Meis to play. From its colorful art to a soundtrack that includes j-pop star Ayumi Hamasaki, Thousand Arms could've easily been an anime series instead of an RPG. Perhaps it should have gone that route.

Putting you at the heart of the inaction.A Thousand Arms to bore you

Whatever promise Thousand Arms might show is derailed from the game’s first battle, which kicks off what may be the dullest combat system seen in any PlayStation-era RPG. Fights are turn-based affairs, but only the lead characters from either side take part, with the rest of the party providing moral support or items.

This wouldn’t be such a bad idea if the game offered you direct control of the party leader or fighting-game special moves (similar to the ones seen in Atlus’ own Princess Crown), but attacks are handled through menus, and everything plays out with glacial tedium. With random battles popping up frequently, the game soon makes clear that it’s simply not worth trudging through another blandly designed, enemy-filled dungeon just to find the next town full of quip-spouting citizens and goofball dating opportunities.

If Thousand Arms failed, it wasn’t for Atlus’ lack of trying. In a blatant imitation of rival RPG publisher Working Designs, Atlus packed Thousand Arms with a “Collector’s 3-D Trading Card,” memory card stickers, and a mail-in offer for a free CD containing a soundtrack and outtakes (which were worth the trouble just to hear Nelsha's actress, Amanda Winn Lee, quote Full Metal Jacket). The game was even improved over its Japanese version, which had even more tedious battles. Atlus was out to make Thousand Arms a cult success, much like Working Designs had done with the Lunar games.

But there was little Atlus could do to improve the overall package, and Thousand Arms consequently fell short of its underground-hit aspirations. Reviews praised the game’s atmosphere but panned the combat, and the game's advertising, which promoted "going on dates with beautiful women," scared off as many sensitive players as it attracted open-minded (or lonely) ones. And for a final setback, Thousand Arms had to share a holiday season with Konami’s Suikoden II and Squaresoft’s competition-squashing Final Fantasy VIII.

Believe it or not, this line isn't suggestive at all when Metalia's actress reads it like she's teaching second-graders.Less than wild

Thousand Arms holds no special place as a groundbreaker. While it was a thoughtful attempt at bringing a popular vein of Japanese gaming to the West, it ultimately drew a much smaller following than other games with dating-sim elements, such as Konami’s Azure Dreams and Natsume’s enduring Harvest Moon series. At most, its only role was to herald a new direction for the North American branch of Atlus, which would go on to treat better games just as nicely as they had Thousand Arms.

It’s not hard to feel sorry for Thousand Arms. Countless RPGs are undone by boring battles, but it’s rare to see an an appealing one that could've succeeded if only it had faster, action-oriented gameplay. Thousand Arms is perhaps best taken as a flawed experiment by a team of anime veterans much better at telling silly cartoon stories than making actual games. And perhaps that experiment is best appreciated by loading a save file from the game’s final hour, warping from town to town, taking in the dating scenes and amusing townsfolk, and never, ever getting into a battle.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City.]

Gamasutra Weekly Round-Up, Nov. 12th

- As with last week, we're going to try to round-up the best features and columns from big sister site Gamasutra , if we can, because we realize that, with 80+ news, columns, and features debuting on that site every week, you may be missing a few. Here's the GSW-worthiness from this week:

- We got Mathew Kumar and Bonnie Ruberg to cover the Montreal International Games Summit, and they came back with a bunch of neat session reports - particularly interesting for GSW-ers might be Mizuguchi's keynote where he talks about his love of A-Ha's 'Take On Me' video and how it segued into his 'Heavenly Star' music clip for Lumines II. Mm, synaesthesia.

- There's some neat info in Shang Koo's 'The China Angle' column on virtual currency issues in Japan: "According to some local media reports, QQ coin circulation [from the IM/casual game company Tencent] has become significant enough to be affecting the Chinese real life money market, and China's version of the Federal Reserve Bank is already investigating the QQ issue." Virtual currency FTW!

- A chat with the Media Molecule folks also went up, with Alex 'Statix' Evan and Mark Healey happily claiming: "Don’t let the very indie Rag Doll Kung Fu fool you – our next game is going to be a full on triple ‘A’ monster." Oh also, on U.S. retail for Rag Doll Kung Fu: "The status is not brilliant. There have been some issues regarding the age rating, which caused the publisher to pull out." Interesting!

- We posted a couple of new Independent Games Festival interviews this week, too - discussing New Star Soccer 3, in which "players can also choose to pick up drug and alcohol habits, enter into relationships with money-hungry women, and alienate their family and fans", and talking about Armadillo Run, the rather smart “physics-based puzzle game which requires you to build structures to transport an armadillo across a series of levels”. Sounds sane to me.

- This week's Playing Catch-Up talks to Traveller's Tales' Jon Burton, who reveals: "Sonic R was actually [originally] a Formula One game for the Sega Saturn", and also some odd evangelical elements to the company's game design: "For the eagle eyed Christian game players, Puggsy had a room with a bible verse in huge letters and Sonic R had the Christian Ichthus - fish symbol, like on the back of cars - above the houses on the first track."

- Also added: a readable summary of the recent chat hosted by independent game portal Manifesto Games, in which MIT’s Henry Jenkins, video game theory professor Jesper Juul, game designer Santiago Siri and gameLab’s Eric Zimmerman were invited to tackle the difficult question of whether games can truly qualify as art. Much erudition here!

- Oh yeah, and budget publisher DSI has partnered with National Geographic to make a 'March Of The Penguins' DS/GBA game, which "will follow the film’s survival story while presenting the player with various challenges and obstacles". Here's a cut-scene.

Wow, and that lot isn't even including the main Gamasutra features, which include a chat with Sony PR boss Dave Karraker, an open letter to game researchers from a Microsoft researcher on making their work relevant to practical game development, a multiplayer level design feature from the Splinter Cell: Double Agent lead map designer, and... you get the idea.

Woo, It's Typing Of The Y's!

- GSW/Game Developer co-editor Brandon Sheffield has posted over at Insert Credit on a very neat little PC typing game for a famous RPG series. Read on, and he'll explain more!

"Typing of Ys was a typing tutor minigame included in the PC version of Zwei!!, similar to Typing of the Dead, et al. Well, Nightwolve, who's since moved on from the RIGG group we mentioned some time ago, has taken it upon himself to extract the tutor from the original game, translate it with the help of two fellows by the names of Wrydwad and Deuce, and naturally make it available for download."

"Check out details and downloads here. It's quite fun, and based on the universe of Ys II Complete. While you're at it, might as well check out this Lords of Thunder hack, which uses a Nightwolve tool to add a new powermetal soundtrack to the classic shooter. SignofZeta's responsible for that one."

The Edge File, Not The Rockford Files!

- We think Edge Online is probably retooling to become 'The Site That Will Rule Them All', or something (former Edge Online editor Brandon Boyer works as Gamasutra news editor now, btw), but in the meantime, they posted info on a neat new special edition Edge File paper-mag.

It's explained: "Edge presents File volume 1, the first in a series of special editions that bring together the best features, reviews, interviews and more from Edge’s long and colourful past, is now on sale. Clocking in at 260 pages, the first volume covers Edge issues 1 to 12 (1993–1994), and includes:

• Hardware features, with stories focusing on Jaguar, 3DO, Supergun, LaserActive, PC Engine and PlayStation
• Developer features, including visits to AM2, Sega, Namco, Argonaut and Bullfrog
• Game features on the likes of Microcosm, Mega Race and (yes) Rise Of The Robots
• Interviews with luminaries such as Trip Hawkins, David Braben and Jeff Minter
• Reviews of games including Street Fighter II Turbo, Gunstar Heroes, Super Mario Collection, Doom, Crash ’n Burn, Night Trap and Secret Of Mana
• The future of 3D graphics, the first ‘total reality’ ride, Retroview, and lots more."

So that's pretty neat, then, although the comments are filled with foreigners lamenting not being able to get it, ending with : "Does anybody even read these comments? Why isn't there an answer yet? A simple 'screw yourselves, fly to the UK and buy it' would do." Heh, time to set up mail order from your website, Edge!

November 10, 2006

Jag Gets Project Apocalypse, Seaplane

- GSW is your very own host for the latest Atari Jaguar news, as the launch of the Wii and PS3 approach (pshaw!), and Atari Age is pointing out that two new Jag games, Project Apocalypse and Seaplane, are currently being constructed by retro crazies.

It's explained: "Both games were demonstrated at the recent Retro Gaming Connexion in France. These titles are being developed by Orion and Mk, who previously released the game Diam Jag for free. We've uploaded the videos to our server and you can view (or save them) by following these links: Project Apocalypse (18MB) - Seaplane (10MB)."

But there's more: "In other Jaguar news, Matthias Domin has released a new Jaguar CD homebrew game titled Double Feature #1. Included are two games, ConnectTHEM and Reversi, on a fully encrypted Jaguar CD that will run on any stock Jaguar CD player."

And more: "Lars Hannig of Starcat Developments has released a new Jaguar CD game titled, Lost Treasures. Lost Treasures features 30 work-in-progress versions of various announced and unannounced Starcat Developments projects spanning a seven year period." So really, more Jaguar news than you would ever need! Thanks, AtariAge!

Want To Be An, Uhm, 'Porn Manager'?

- So, over at lovable rapscallion of a UK site Pocket Gamer, they've got a review of cellphone game Porn Manager, and we just had to link (though it seems like the only times we link to cellphone games are either a) Gamevil or b) NSFW, doesn't it?)

Anyhow, this one's funny because it definitely plays on the European predilection for management games (see Championship Manager/Football Manager, a tremendously successful franchise over there), and the review explains: "Thankfully, Porn Manager isn't really like a porn movie. In fact, it would be better to describe Porn Manager as a management game first, strategy game second and porn game last."

So what's the game about? "Keeping your stars happy so they can perform again and again, and make you more money so that you can repeat the cycle. Make money from a film, receive a new commission, invest money in new stars, invest money in new facilities to keep new stars happy and rested, pay rent and wages for current stars and facilities, shoot movie, sell movie... rinse and repeat."

The review concludes: "In fact, it shows how mature HandyGames was when making this game that you'll find yourself returning to it not because of the fact it deals with porn, but because it is a very good strategy game." So there you go!

FizzBall Fizzes Up Some Powerful Indie Goodness

- The folks at Grubby Games, who previously released IGF finalist PC indie puzzle platformer (yay!) Professor Fizzwizzle, have announced the release of FizzBall over at the Indiegamer forums.

It's explained: "Based on the classic brick busting style, Fizzball creates a pleasantly fresh update appropriate for all ages. Bounce bubbles, rescue hungry animals, and solve a mystery, all at the same time! Something strange has been scaring the animals that inhabit the forests on a group of islands. It’s up to Professor Fizzwizzle, and his bubble-like Fizzball to whisk them away to safety at the animal sanctuary. Watch as the Fizzball starts off small and then grows enormous enough to envelop large animals like cows and horses."

So yep, as a commenter notes: "Great work, very good mixture of arkanoid and katamari." Sounds wicked, and there are "...180 levels, 40 bonus levels, 60 adorable animal species, a special kids’ mode, and numerous trophies to unlock." Please patronize this neat indie PC title (that is, buy it, don't talk down to it) as soon as you are able.

Real-Life Call Of Duty 3 'Game Show'? Sure!

- Thanks to our favorite reality TV news site, Reality Blurred, we note that this weekend's episode of the Geoff Keighley-presented Game Head on Spike TV will feature a reality TV version of Call Of Duty 3.

Apparently: "The episode, “Call of Duty 3: Challenge,” features 16 “unsuspecting” gamers who will compete in physical and mental challenges that allow them “to see what happens when a game becomes a reality,” according to a Spike TV press release."

What's more: "The episode “combines the heart-pounding action of the best-selling video game franchise with the unscripted drama of the best reality TV,” and the winner gets prizes and “a trip for two to Normandy, France, the setting of so much of the action in the popular game franchise." Yes, this is vaguely disturbing, but hey, that's TV for you.

November 9, 2006

Seed's RPG Failure Spawns Intriguing Feedback

- Over at The Escapist, they have a pretty interesting interview with the creators of the Seed MMO, which explains the concept of the adventurous MMO, and why, like a lot of ambitious but quirky titles, it just didn't end up flying anywhere.

They explain: "From the beginning, Runestone's Seed was built around human interaction - the game didn't even have a combat system - and roleplaying was at the forefront, emphasized in an age when roleplay has devolved into "You can play an elf, if you want. Or, you know, an orc.""

But sadly, 'twas not to be: "That was the idea, anyway. Runestone's star burned brightly over the summer of 2006, but a troubled and buggy release (and a lack of external financial backing) laid the company low. On September 28, 2006, Runestone CEO Lars Kroll Kristensen posted a heartfelt farewell to his community." The article explains why - sometimes interesting things just aren't marketable?

MMOG Nation: The Legitimate MMOG

['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 mainstream legitimacy, or the lack thereof, seen by the Massive genre.]

Bill Gates at Xbox 1's Times Square Launch.World of Warcraft has sold a kabillion copies. Something like 1% of America is playing it, and pretty much everyone in South Korea. Great news for the Massive industry, and even better for gaming as a whole ... but why are games still not 'legitimate'? Brian "Psychochild" Green had the chance to debate that very question last weekend at the Project Horseshoe event in Texas. His ruminations on the question prompted an interesting discussion on his site, and one of the commenters linked to a fascinating IRC chat log that explores the issue in-depth.

But, to go back to WoW, where does that leave Massive games? Does a machine that makes money hats and a South Park episode make you socially relevant? Today I'm going to talk about why I don't think Massive games are 'legitimate' in America, why that isn't as true in other parts of the world, and a little bit about what I think needs to happen in order for the Massive genre to gain relevance in American society.

Oh My God. You Rezzed Kenny!

Yes, I've seen the South Park episode about World of Warcraft. Yes, I thought it was pretty funny. No, I don't think that means Massive games are 'legitimate'. Actually, as a brief aside, I'm prone to thinking that we're pretty darn close with gaming in general. Even if the now-fading "Greatest Generation" doesn't get gaming, the "Baby Boomers" raised kids right alongside console games. My mom is looking forward to giving the Wii a try, and that has to be a step in the right direction. What my mom couldn't care less about, though, is these 'online thingies'. In fact, when I discuss them with my in-laws, it's a battle just to explain the concept. "You play a game where you kill these orc guys? And it's not just you, it's lots of other people that help you out. It's ... umm ... fun?"

Screenshot from the South Park WoW episode.That, right there, is why MMOGs aren't mainstream. Even the aforementioned WoW episode skirted the very essence of the game. The plot of the episode was about the boys banding together with their friends, and then when that didn't work, coming up with a dumbass plan to make a jerk pay for being a jerk. With the exception of the amazing machinima, it was pretty much a rote episode for South Park. The first 'legitimate' Massively multiplayer game will not have you banding together with your buddies to kill kobolds. Dragon Kill Points will not enter into the equation, and acronyms like LFG, WTB, and STFU will not be the primary form of public discourse. The gap right now is too great between American culture and the culture of the noob-bashing, epic-lusting Bartle-typed ( achiever) MMOG gamer.

StarCraft Battles On TV Sounds Like Heaven To Me

There are countries, however, where this is not the case. I certainly hope that I'm not the first to tell you that South Korea is the promised land for the benighted gamer. A country where StarCraft is a national passtime, pro gamers make millions just from product endorsements, and people are willing to die for their hobby is a lot closer to mainstream MMOGdom than these United States. South Korea is perhaps the culture where this is most prominent, though other Asian nations have similar proclivities. Japan passed a law in 1991 prohibiting games in the Dragon Quest series from being released on a day that wasn't a holiday or weekend. The Chinese gaming market will quickly overtake the U.S., and is projected to be larger than some nation's GDP by 2010.

I'm not a scholar on the cultures of these nations. I'd like to apologize in advance if my analysis of South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese attitudes towards games vs. my own nation's seems grossly out of touch. The best I can come up with is that that, unlike in America, the Asian definition of 'art' is not rooted in the European vision of art as a 'plastic' thing. Additionally, the artistic imagery integrated into many Asian written languages may lend itself to seeing the visually unique more positively. As a result of both of these elements, Asian cultures may have less of a need to see art as something on a canvas or sculpted from marble.

The appreciation in Japanese culture of manga may be a natural outgrowth from this, and may also have added to that nation's wholehearted adoption of gaming and games. Perhaps from a more sociological perspective, the concept of a driving work ethic may have made nations of 'achievers' out of whole populations. The need to work hard at work and work hard at school may extend into pastime situations, where driven individuals enjoy an experience that can be quantified. It's hard to 'win' at knitting, after all, but getting your character to a new level is fairly unambiguous. These are just stabs in the dark, and if you have a better handle on this phenomenon please leave a comment below. I know U.S. culture a lot better than that of these countries.

Screenshot from a pro StarCraft tourney.I can point out some stunning examples of how MMOGs have been accepted in these cultures, though, which leads nicely into how they could work here. The biggest difference in games here vs. games out east is probably content, which I'll touch more on below. For example, in many 'traditional' Massive games in Asia, PvP and not PvE is the focus of the game. There's a reason Lineage is *still* one of the biggest names in the genre. Mostly, though, I believe that Asian cultures can more easily latch on to MMOGs as something other than 'kiddie stuff'.

Bigger than WoW or Lineage is a not-so-little game called Habbo Hotel. Essentially nothing more than a glorified chat room where you can design an avatar and play games, Habbo is enormously popular in Asian countries and is quickly becoming so in the U.S. as well. The size of Habbo's population is mind-boggling, but its popularity is easy to understand: hook people up with other people playing simple games. Make it funny, and make it fun. Not gamey enough for you? How about a Massively Multiplayer Dance Game? Audition offers the two great tastes of rhythm gaming and the Massive genre in one delectable meal. Strange, but, again, very popular.

Next Up On Oprah - Is Timmy A Griefer?

On that note, then, what will it take for MMOGs to gain acceptance in the United States? What will have to be done so that we can see games like Audition succeed here? Some art forms have had a breakthrough moment, where a single work of art or series legitimized the entire form for a certain audience. For the sake of argument I'll assume that here, and break the challenges down into three hurdles.

The first hurdle is the most basic element of all: gameplay. WoW has set the high bar for accessible Massive gaming, but even Blizzard's UI guys are thinking too esoterically for the majority of Americans. I'm going to reach for The Sims now, because Will Wright's genius is never spoken of enough. While The Sims is often lauded for its content, the game's interface is the reason that moms across America got to that content in the first place. The Sims puts it all right out there for you via context-sensitivity. There are no confusing menus, no hidden windows to muss around with. The first legitimate MMOG will not have users hunting around for the 'do stuff' button; everything will be doable just by clicking the mouse on that one guy. The goal here should be to think PopCap games instead of Gears of War.

The second hurdle, then, is content. The first legitimate MMOG (which because I'm lazy I'll now abbreviate to LMMOG) will not have you hunting rats in a sewer for the first ten levels so you can join your friends. In fact, LMMOG probably won't even have levels. Or, if it does, they'll be mostly hidden from the user. What LMMOG will be about is, in fact, going to be people. LMMOG will be like Habbo hotel in its sociability, but a real game attached. Instead of Habbo's disparate mini-games, perhaps LMMOG will be about a collaborate project? Like A Tale In the Desert without the sand, or like Harvey Smith's social justice effort described at GDC 2006's Game Designer challenge.

Unlike the GDC challenge, though, I imagine the LMMOG's collaborative project to be somewhat less socially conscious. Especially if users are allowed to direct some of the projected effort, we could see LMMOG 'raids' to swing an American Idol vote, or perhaps keep a television show on the air. Whatever the content will be, you won't be spending 8 hours in-game to kill a dragon.

WoW Coke CansThat, of course, is the last hurdle: investment. The traditional "MMORPG" which defines the Massive genre is an enormous time sink, one which most Americans simply can't stomach. If it's a good game (and there's no guarantee the first legitimate MMOG will be any good at all) some days you're going to want to play LMMOG for five or six hours, of course. Just the same, for most players two or three hours is all they'll be able to manage. There's also, more directly, the question of in-game and real world money. Monthly subscription fees are already a terrible idea for traditional MMOGs, and by the time LMMOG comes along they'll probably be long gone for orc-killing adventures too. Selling blocks of hours, or a very low hourly rate, will be how LMMOG's designers make their money. Most importantly, there will be a lot of options, for people on every end of the LMMOG spectrum. In-game currency is important to mention, too, because it's going to be a really big deal.

As much as it pains me to say it, the system used by underwhelming virtual world "There" is probably something we'll be seeing a lot of in the future. Microtransactions are already proving themselves on services like Xbox Live, and the idea of paying 50 cents for a new shirt or a buck for a new car is going to be old hat by the time LMMOG comes around. If any single LMMOG gets popular enough, I could even see a future where a kid might find nothing at all under a Christmas tree. He's dejected ... until he finds out that his parents have made him a virtual playboy in LMMOG. Tons of in-world cash (or points, or whatever), new clothes, a new virtual house, etc. In the end, that's another element LMMOG will need to come about: appeal to the consumer's greed instinct.

So, when will Coca-Cola be advertising with World of Warcraft here? Not any time soon, I'd imagine. Just the same, there's plenty of reason to think that someday down the road Massive games will take their place alongside console, offline PC, casual, and mobile titles in the vaunted halls of mainstream society. Today, South Park. Tomorrow, the State of the Union from a virtual world.

[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. ]

XNA Video Shows X360 Homebrew Goodness

- So, you may have spotted (via NeoGAF, among other places) that GameTrailers has posted an XNA promotional video [.WMV], showing off some of the games developed with Microsoft's developer tool being initially aimed toward amateur creators.

But a little commentary is required on what you see there, I think - stuff like Particle Wars is genuinely created by homebrew types, but - oh, hey, Major Nelson (the original poster) has linked to a post at the Let's Kill Dave! blog from one of the XNA architects explaining it much better!

Dave says: "The video opens showcasing a few cool community games.  In the video, you'll see the Blobbit Dash game from Cheeky's site, Sharky's Air Legends, and Particle Wars.  Then we shift into gears with the Culture demo, which is slated to be a future starter kit.  This was the game that really knocked people out at GDC 2006 (and a very family friendly game to boot!).  That is followed by Pocket Jongg (another starter kit coming) and the mesmerizing Pickture."

Next: "Then we shift into high gear showcasing Garage Game's two ventures.  The first is a quick peek at Marble Blast Ultra, which was migrated to XNA from the original Torque Engine in just a couple of weeks.  Then you see the amazing "drag and drop" abilities of TorqueX, which is the venerable Torque Engine, reenginered for XNA.  Really amazing work by a great team of developers whose single-minded focus is helping you build great games REALLY fast."

Finally: "We then shift to Spacewar, our flagship game and homage to the game that started the entire industry.  Finally, we cap it with the big surprise, the "XNA Racer" starter kit, coming with the 1.0 release to Creators Club subscribers.  Crafted by Benjamin "Benny" Nitschke and his skillful team at exDream Entertainment, you are transported to an amazing racing game that is jaw-droppingly complete." Neeto!

MTV Loves Games, It Really Really Loves Games

- Really, this is just an excuse to grab a screen from an ancient Dire Straits video, but we're actually pretty impressed by MTV's just-announced Gamer’s Week 2.0, "the second annual weeklong multiplatform celebration of video games".

The week, which starts next Monday (November 13th) on MTV, games.mtv.com, MTV2, mtvU, Xfire, and GameTrailers will "showcase the hottest in video game culture, developers, competitions, music, news, hardware and more through innovative short and long form video game programming" - and if you can handle a few celebrities and relentless hiphop stylings, there's some fun to be had.

For example, Gears Of War: The Race To Launch ("This docudrama is the follow-up to Gears of War: The Race To E3 and follows the birth of the most anticipated Xbox 360 game of 2006, Gears of War, through the eyes of the obsessive, eager fans"), and there's also a show called The Empire Arcadia, apparently about the gaming clan.

Of course, there's also some more typically MTV-esque stuff: "Nick Cannon checks in from L.A. to bring us Tiger Woods as he shows off some moves for his game Tiger Woods PGA ‘07", or "Viewers watch as Tony Hawk surprises a lucky kid at home to play Downhill Jam on the Wii and then skate on the kid’s halfpipe in his backyard".

And how about: "My Video Game Block: Austin... MTV News’ Sway Calloway explores the sights and sounds of Austin, Texas - the heart of online-world game design." The good - it's about Austin game developers! The bad - it's Sway! (Oh, we kid, we love his dreads so!) There's even a Virtual Gold doc "utilizing exclusive footage shot in China". Enough already, click through for the full lowdown.


Games.mtv.com is the one-stop-shop for all things Gamer’s Week 2.0 and is the premier destination for gamers to check out the best and latest in video games. The Gamer’s Week 2.0 site at Games.mtv.com will feature:

o Video - On-demand versions of on-air Gamer's Week 2.0 programming from MTV, MTV News, MTV2, mtvU, Xfire and GameTrailers, plus bonus content.
o Tune in - A guide to all gaming programming airing during Gamer's Week 2.0
o Online Specials – MTV specific online features, "PS3: Dissected," and "Wii: Dissected," gamer's gift guides, and Gamer's Week 2.0 special versions of regular games.mtv.com features "Peep Show," "The Dime," "Obsessed" and "Game Character Playlist."
o Games - Video and info on all the Xbox 360, Wii and PS3 games for holidays and into '07.
o News - All MTV News gaming stories, both text-based articles and video pieces, will all be available


“Sucker Free” – Weekdays at 7 PM – 8PM
MTV VJ's LaLa and DJ Cipha Sounds host a week dedicated to video games on Sucker Free by bringing Xbox 360, Wii, the PlayStation 3, and the biggest hip-hop celebs and pro-gamers battle it out, special features on gaming fashion, music soundtracks, and tons of DELL laptop and game giveaways.

Sucker Free Gamer’s Week 2.0 schedule on MTV:
o Monday, 11/13 - Xbox 360 rules the day as Sucker Free features special guest Rich Boy. Snoop Dogg gives us the 411 on his role as "commish" of the Hip Hop Gaming League. Plus the audience plays the hottest X Box games in the "Players Lounge" studio arcade like NBA 2K7, Godfather 360 and Need For Speed: Carbon.
o Tuesday, 11/14 - The spotlight falls on video game classics on Sucker Free as it features special Pro-Gamers, like Triforce from Empire Arcadia, the first fully realized urban gaming clan seeking prize money in organized competitions and arcade hustling, Dana Platt from "VOA: Valkyries of Arcadia" and David “Walshy” Walsh from Kianeto gaming clothing, and a look back at Tetris, Grand Theft Auto 3, Pacman and Super Mario Bros.
o Wednesday, 11/15 - In anticipation of the highly anticipated launch of the Nintendo Wii, this Sucker Free episode features special guests The Clipse hitting the set to premiere their latest video. Plus we debut an exclusive cut from Wii, showing off some crazy fun controllers and accessories. And our gamers get their game on in the "Players Lounge" studio arcade to play the new Wii titles including Wii Sports, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Excite Truck..
o Thursday, 11/16 - It’s all about the long awaited PS3 today as the big boss of all players, Fat Joe, crashes the set as co-host, unleash his new album. Plus Pitbull and Akon stop by, and we give you a behind the scenes look at the PS3 Celebrity Unveiling in Beverly Hills with Christina Milian, Chris Brown and many others. Also, Nick Cannon checks in from L.A. to bring us Tiger Woods as he shows off some moves for his game Tiger Woods PGA ‘07. The PS3 is locked and loaded in our "Players Lounge" studio arcade with Genji: Days of the Blade, Resistance: Fall of Man, Scarface and NCAA Football.
o Friday, 11/17 - Gamer’s Week 2.0 closes out Sucker Free with an encore guest appearance by Fat Joe and gaming guru "LostCause" from the World Series of Video Games. Finally, find out what’s hot for the holidays with Juelz Santana as the "Players Lounge" arcade room is packed with Pimp My Ride, Fight Night 3, and True Crime: NY. Sucker Free On MTV shuts it's down with the hottest hip hop music, action video games and huge Dell giveaways you don't want to miss!

TRL – Weekdays at 3:30 PM – 4:30 PM
Gamer’s Week 2.0 on TRL will feature a video game segment each day with ton of surprises and prizes throughout the week including:
o Monday, 11/13 - TRL sends a lucky fan to meet up with All-American Rejects on tour to play Xbox 360 and talk about video games on their tour bus, as well as features on new games as well as giveaways.
o Tuesday, 11/14: Panic at the Disco stops by to give the audience their first chance to check out everyone’s favorite music video game, Guitar Hero 2 as they play the revolutionary music title on MTV’s 44 1/2 screen in Times Square.
o Wednesday, 11/15 - Viewers watch as Tony Hawk surprises a lucky kid at home to play Downhill Jam on the Wii and then skate on the kid’s halfpipe in his backyard, TRL takes a visit to Virtual Laguna Beach with MTV VJ Vanessa Minnillo, and giveaways.
o Thursday, 11/16 - TRL gives one lucky gamer the chance to win a highly coveted PS3 if he can play on the brand new system for 24 hours straight on MTV’s 44 ½ screen in Times Square without stopping or falling asleep. Watch this gamer’s progress live on trl.mtv.com all night long.
o Friday – 11/17 - TRL closes out Gamer’s Week 2.0 with the big PS3 payoff for the hopeful, sleep deprived gamer.

Xbox 360: Settle The Score - Premieres Monday, 11/13 at 8 PM on MTV
“Settle The Score” is a celebrity-driven, high-stakes, videogame competition show, where two celebrities put everything on the line and go head-to-head for “pink slips” over XBox Live. Bow Wow throws down against Jermaine Dupri on NBA 2K7. This show will also air on MTV2 on Thursday, 11/16 at 9 PM.

The Empire Arcadia: Premieres Monday, 11/13 at 8:15 PM on MTV
If you think you know what videogamers are all about, you haven't met The Empire Arcadia. From the tough streets of the South Bronx comes this collective of arcade hustlers on a quest for world video game domination and fat earnings. In this reality series premiering during Gamer's Week 2.0, we follow the members of the Empire Arcadia as they smash stereotypes and gaming records while struggling to overcome enormous odds in their everyday lives as they try to become the greatest gamers of all-time.

GameTrailers Presents “Top 10 Best And Worst Video Games” – Premieres Tuesday, 11/14 at 8 PM
GameTrailers, http://www.gametrailers.com, the premier online destination for broadcast-quality video game media, presents “Top 10 Best And Worst Video Games,” a half-hour countdown special profiling the ten best and ten worst games ever created. GT’s expert panel compiled 30 nominees for each category and viewers voted for their 10 favorite and least favorite games via GameTrailers.com. Experts, comedians and celebrities will weigh-in as each game is profiled. Tune in to find out which games were gold and which were garbage. This show will also air on MTV2 on Tuesday, 11/14 at 9 PM.

G-Hole on MTV – Premieres on Wednesday, 11/15 at 8PM
Hosted by Jim Shearer and Blair Herter, the G-Hole is mtv.com's fast, funny and sharp look into video games. From user-generated shorts to previews, gamer correspondents, reviews and game culture tidbits, the show moves at a break-neck pace that mirrors the way players consume and attack their games. The show compiles short-form features that entertain and inform both hardcore gamers and weekend warriors alike. Featured segments/subjects to include world premiere looks at some of the biggest titles coming next year from Microsoft, Valve, EA, Nintendo, UbiSoft and others, Japanese arcade culture, and the best user-created content you'll never see anywhere else - plus Old Grandma Hardcore, The Gay Gamer and a few other surprises. This show will also air on MTV2 on Wednesday, 11/15 at 9 PM.

Inside the World Series of Video Games – Premieres on Friday, 11/17 at 8PM
Ever wonder who are the best video game players in the world? With "Inside the World Series of Video Games," MTV takes an in-depth look at what it takes to compete at the highest level to become a bona fide world champion. The show follows several aspiring top gamers as they vie with the best on the 2006 World Series of Video Games circuit from Sweden to China and across the USA. With over $1 Million in cash and prizes, sponsorships from companies like Intel and some top players like Johnathan "Fatal1ty" Wendel launching their own line of products, playing games on the WSVG circuit has become the best job in the world. This show will also air on MTV2 on Friday, 11/17 at 9 PM.

PlayStation 3 Shorts:

Throughout Gamer’s Week 2.0 interspersed throughout the programming across the various channels, MTV will be airing special 3-5 minute PS3 shorts that give insight into what’s under the hood of the new system, highlight the cutting-edge specs, give viewers to get up close with Blu-Ray technology, the stunning lifelike graphics, the Dual Shock design and motion sensors of the PS3 controller, the launch titles, teasing viewers with some exclusive footage from the best launch titles, explain in "everyman" terms why gamers have every reason to leave the PS3 "always on," and check out the stars who will be making the PS3 an important part of their busy lives.


MTV2 Presents: Blastazoid – Premieres on Monday, 11/13 at 9 PM
Hosted by Dico & Rake from Viva La Bam, this outrageous show will feature a mix of the best user-generated content inspired by the video game world and culture through hysterical and off the wall animation and live action shorts. This show will also air on MTV on Thursday, 11/16 at 8 PM.

Gears of War: The Race to Launch – Premieres on Monday, 11/13 at 9:30 PM
This docudrama is the follow-up to Gears of War: The Race To E3 and follows the birth of the most anticipated Xbox 360 game of 2006, Gears of War, through the eyes of the obsessive, eager fans waiting for its release and the people behind the soon-to-be masterpiece - taking viewers right up to "Emergence day." This show will also air on MTV on Monday, 11/13 at 8:30 PM.

Sucker Free - Monday-Thursday, 4:30PM - 5:30PM
Xzibit takes over Sucker Free for Gamer’s Week 2.0 to take viewers through all the twists and turns in the upcoming Pimp My Ride video game. A number of artists including Bow Wow, Pitbull and and Red Jumpsuit Apparatus stop by to customize their ride from the game.

T-Minus Rock – Weekdays, 11AM -12 PM
MTV2 checks out the Nintendo Fusion Tour's New York City stop and gets Hawthorne Heights & Plain White Tees to test drive the new Wii.

MTV2 Headbangers Ball - Gears of War Special, Saturday, 11/18 at 10 PM
Headbangers Ball goes full throttle on the much anticipated Gears of War. Hosted by Megadeth's Dave Mustaine and shot on location at Six Flags in CT where gamers gather for a chance to sample video gaming's next big title. Viewers will also get to see an exclusive performance from Megadeth of "Gears of War" - a brand new track off their upcoming album.

Rock Countdown – Premieres on Saturday, 11/18 at 7 PM
Guitar Hero spawns a sequel and a new legion of rock fans. MTV2 heads to LA and hooks up with Avenged SevenFold/ The band not only contributes music to Guitar Hero 2, they also try their hand on the controllers. Check out gameplay and of course a countdown of the most popular rock videos of the week.

TWITCH – Airs Daily
GameTrailers presents TWITCH, a short-format series airing exclusively on MTV2. The pieces feature comprehensive, video game content highlighting new releases, major events, developers, celebrities and a look at hottest trends in gaming. During Gamers Week 2.0, fresh new TWITCH segments will air each day including profiles of the top three launch titles for PlayStation 3 and Wii, as well as a look at three top Xbox 360 holiday releases and more.


My Video Game Block: Austin - Airs on Monday, 11/13 and Tuesday, 11/14
For the first time ever, MTV News’ Sway Calloway explores the sights and sounds of Austin, Texas - the heart of online-world game design. We hang with the Austinie who wrote the Xbox 360’s hottest 2006 title Gears of War, get an exclusive visit to the ultra-secretive Retro Studios where the Nintendo Wii’s hottest title Metroid Prime: Corruption is under development, and see if one Retro developer can break his 270lb bench press record. We tour Richard Garriott’s insane mansion, meet an Austin gamer who will pay $1000 to anyone who can beat him at Mario Kart, and more.

Virtual Concerts: The New Way To Launch A Music Career? - Airs on Wednesday, 11/15
MTV News covers the expanding breaking new music artists in “Second Life.” This report puts the spotlight on some of “Second Life’s” new virtual rock stars like Amy Te, aka Keiko Takamura, a college senior who turned to playing live performances in this massive online world and Frogg Marlowe, arguably gaming’s premiere virtual performer and mentor to many up-and-coming virtual musicians.

The Real Price of Virtual Gold – Airs on Thursday, 11/16
Utilizing exclusive footage shot in China by documentarian Ge Jin for MTV News, this is the first TV report of the illicit cross-continent trading of virtual gold in the wildly popular multiplayer online game World of Warcraft.

MTV Déjà Vu Gaming – Airs on Friday, 11/17
MTV News takes a look back at its coverage of the big games and systems of yesteryear to see how far gaming has come.

MTV News Goes Big Gaming - Airs on Saturday, 11/17 on MTV2 at 6 PM and on MTV at 9:30 PM
A roundup of all of MTV News’ Gamer’s Week 2.0 stories.


Xfire “Play With the Pros” Events – Monday–Friday, 11/13–11/17, 8 PM–Midnight EST
Every night from 8 PM to Midnight EST right after Sucker Free during Gamer’s Week 2.0, Xfire will run a live online gaming event giving gamers the chance to chat and play games online with Internet celebrities and pro gamers. Team 3D, Control Alt Delete, MTV News Correspondent Gideon Yago, Pure Pwnage, PMS Clan, and the writers of Joystiq.com will each be online on different days, to chat and play with gamers. Xfire is inviting its own 5.5 million users as well as the viewers of MTV’s Sucker Free to join in on the event, giving gamers everywhere a chance to play with the top players of the most popular PC titles as well as interact with some of the Internet’s biggest stars. Go to www.xfire.com to join in the action.


Machinima VJ Hits
mtvU keeps video gaming front and center all week long with Machinima VJ hits, featuring scenes from video games, manipulated to promote the week’s programming, and submitted by college students.

Special GameOrz Ball Episode: My Shot with Guitar Hero and HelloGoodbye - Premieres on Monday, 11/13
SUNY Orange Junior, Dom Attolino, challenges his favorite band, HelloGoodbye, to his favorite game, Guitar Hero II. Who's gonna lose in front of millions?

A Day In The Life Of Mark Leung - Premieres on Tuesday, 11/14
Most college kids play video games, but Babson College student Mark Leung thinks he’s living in one. Mark writes, directs, and stars as he takes a simple walk across campus means encountering Ninjas, UFOs, sadistic villains and college ladies in need of a hero.

Special GameOrz Ball Episode: Fresh Produce - Premieres on Wednesday, 11/15
Every week, mtvU’s Fresh Produce features the funniest and most eclectic batch of video clips submitted by college students. In a special gaming-themed episode of Fresh Produce, mtvU teams up with GameTrailers to present the newest in user-generated Machinima and other gaming content created by college students.

GameSetCompetition Reminder: Gears Of War

- A final reminder - we've been handed 3 copies of Gears Of War for the Xbox 360 to give away on GSW, thanks to Microsoft and Epic, and by jove, we're going to fire up the shoesaw and give them away, by hook or by crook.

Our cunningly asked question regarding the much-heralded Xbox 360 title (which is, like, out now, and half of my Xbox Live friend list is playing, even though I'm still addicted to XBLA games!), is:

"What mammal costume is CliffyB pictured wearing in the pic accompanying his recent Game Developer magazine interview?" [CLUE: You may find the same picture hanging around online, if you poke about.]

Please send your answers to [email protected] any time before Saturday, November 11th at 12 noon PST. There will be three winners randomly picked from the correct answers, the judges' decision is final, and that's that. Have fun!

COLUMN: 'Game Collector's Melancholy' - Rez

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. In the last column we discussed the Panzer Dragoon series so it seems appropriate to stay with the theme for a bit and take a look at Panzer’s Zen tripping spiritual sister Rez.]

Drop the diamond in a groove and let it ride awhile...

In the 90’s Tetsuya Mizuguchi was one of Sega’s rock star designers. Heading up the internal group AM Annex which later became AM 9, Mizuguchi oversaw a series of very successful high velocity racers including Sega Rally Championship, Manx TT Superbike, and Sega Touring Car Championship. As the century closed out, Mizuguchi wanted to move in a new direction and formed United Game Artists in 2000. Drawn to the electric pulse of club music booming out of London and Tokyo, he gathered a diverse group of artists and musicians (including ex-Team Andromeda member, Katsumi Yokota) to create games whose quirky design aesthetics would be informed by Electronica and Turntabilism.


stg1_02b.jpgOne of the most unique games to emerge from Mizuguchi’s experiment was Rez, an esoteric mix of rhythm and color. Characterized (unfairly I think) as a shooter, Rez can seem a little austere to the uninitiated. At first glance, it seems to be an artifact from an alternate future in which the Vectrex became the dominant home console. You see a simple figure traveling along a fixed path, riding a current of metronomic dance music while shooting at abstract objects that rise up from a geometric landscape. The sound of laser fire is replaced by the ticking of a snare drum and explosions are sublimated into synthesizer blips. Interesting, but nothing that is going to change your life.

However, spend some time with Rez, focus your attention and be amazed as it reveals itself to you. Iterating wire frame, laser light show images grow in complexity as you progress through the game, over saturating your retinas. The music’s relentless beat rises in intensity as overlapping synth lines stitch tighter and tighter. The targets spinning around propagate exponentially until the screen is a crazed riot of boiling color. It is at this point that your senses open and you are shot through the forehead by a diamond bullet.

Everything in its right place

stg2_16b.jpgAfter playing Rez late one evening, I went to sleep and had a strange dream in which everything that passed before my eyes was highlighted and selected. Cars, people, trees, dishes on a table, all marked and arranged by a ghostly cursor. When I woke up I had a new insight into Rez’s appeal. I realized that the game was not really about shooting things. Rather, it presents a chaotic loom of information and requires players to rapidly identify and organize the rush of sensory data pouring into their cortex, separating meaning from noise. It is a uniquely computer age experience.

Score Attack

Rez has a complicated publishing history. Arriving in Japan late 2001, Rez was released for both the Dreamcast and Playstation 2. At the time Sega of America was so busy pulling out of the Dreamcast market that they did not even bother publishing it for the aborted console, instead waiting until early 2002 to bring Rez to the Playstation 2. However, Europe received a simultaneous release for both the Dreamcast and Playstation 2 in 2002.

If you are looking for Rez on the Dreamcast, Europe is your best bet. In Japan, Rez had an initial print run that included a large number of defective discs so good copies are hard to find. Instead, search online auctions for the European version and expect to pay around $65. PAL discs will work fine in your NTSC Dreamcast although you will need a mod chip or boot disc to bypass the territorial lockout. You will also want the Jump Pack for your controller and the game features undocumented support for the Dreamcast Mouse. While you are kitting out your Dreamcast you might as well locate a VGA adapter so you can output Rez to a high quality monitor.

stg3_02b.jpgThe Playstation 2 version of Rez is more readily available. In addition to the regular game, a special package was sold in Japan which included a vibrator that plugged into the PS2’s USB port. Called the Trance Vibrator, the device throbbed and pulsed in sync with Rez’s thumping music. No one was quite sure what its official purpose was, so users were left to er... tickle their fancy in whatever manner they saw fit. Manufactured by ASCII, the Trance Vibrator was also sold separately and could be used with Disaster Report and another UGA game Space Channel 5: Part 2. The Special Package of Rez auctions for around $65. The Trance Vibrator by itself is no longer made and will fetch about $35. In 2003, Rez was reissued in Japan as a budget priced “Playstation 2 the Best” game.

A Japanese CD of remixed selections from the Rez soundtrack was published as part of the “Gamer’s Guide to...” series and can be imported for around $25. Analog loyalists may want to search for the Rez OST on vinyl.

Here in America, Rez had a small print run and made little impression on buyers. As a result, finding used copies in stores was difficult and Rez’s auction price had become very inflated. Fortunately, Game Quest Direct stepped in and arranged with Sega to reprint the game, making brand new copies available online for $44.99. A used copy of Rez can now be acquired for a very reasonable $25.

Go to synaesthesia

stg4_04b.jpgUnited Game Artists’ life span was a short one. By 2003 they were merged with Sonic Team and Mizuguchi left to form Q Entertainment, his first company independent of Sega. Since then he has been busy producing hit games for portables like Lumines and Meteos as well as the recent Ninety-Nine Nights for the Xbox 360. A sequel to Rez is supposed to be in the works for one of the new generation consoles. I can only hope that the lightning bolt of enlightenment will strike twice.

Further Reading: Go To Synesthesia... Jake Kazdal’s Journey Through The Heart Of Rez interview by Matthew Hawkins, Gamasutra, May 6, 2005

[Jeffrey Fleming is a Bay Area book dealer and writer. More of his writing on video games can be found at Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) SONIC TEAM/SEGA, 2001

November 8, 2006

Fishing For Dobsonflies In Vana'Diel

- Looks like James Mielke is back at 1UP with his new, much-delayed update of 'My Life in Vana'diel', which I think we've covered before for being completely impenetrable but adorable at the same time - and it is again!

Wait, let's excerpt some weirdness: "Despite online reports saying that at least one Voyager Sallet will drop from among the 10 dobsonfly clones that spawn, I can guarantee you that it is not a guaranteed drop. I found that out on the first night I dragged a handful of Roundabouts out to the dobsonfly's small island (which is also home to a couple of atomic clusters and a pyrodrake), when -- after we killed it -- only a few Dobson Bandanas and Jaeger Rings dropped. WTF." Indeed!

"So the next night, we repeat the process (with people willing to help out in exchange for lotting rights on any Jaeger Rings (Accuracy +4, Ranged Accuracy +4) that dropped. This time irony reared its twisted head instead, with so many items (and one Voyager Sallet) dropping at once that the sole Sallet that dropped into the treasure pool being auto-sorted into another party member's inventory. OMG." This is just so puppy dog enthusiastic that I can't help but love the piece, despite not understanding it in the slightest. Just me?

Zelda Rap Piles On The Doritos

- We promise this isn't going to turn into 'James Kochalka Set Watch', but we did get another email from the cartoonist/musician which explains: "I posted a rap song about The Legend of Zelda on my mp3 page at AmericanElf.com."

Here's the intentionally lame lyrics (Kochalka provided the accompanying illustration of Zelda with the Cool Ranch Doritos, as well as noting: " it is very difficult to come up with lyrics as lame as those in the original commercial"):

Well, The Legend of Zelda
It is the best.
Those Moblins put you
To the test.
You open up
A treasure chest,
And you gotta save
The Princess."

Further explanation from ze Kochalka beast: "The song is titled Old Skool White Rap, and is about the unique way that white people would rap in commercials back in the 80's. Directly inspired by the old Zelda television ad, it features a verse about THE LEGEND OF ZELDA as well as a verse about Cool Ranch Doritos. I'm giving the song away as a free download in honor of the new upcoming Zelda game for the Nintendo Wii."

Beyond 3DO: 'Battle Of The Ex-Next-Gen, Round 1'

3dovatariLogo2.jpg[Having gained a mid-week day pass from his 3DO-specific blog, 3DO Kid peers up from his sordid quagmire and passes judgement on games no sane man would consider. Free now to explore beyond Hawkins' dream machine, he drones incomprehensibly on... now proving, beyond reasonable doubt, that free thinking should require a license.]

The privilege of being handed a column on GameSetWatch has not escaped me. I mean to say, the scale of opportunity has not missed my attention. What, I had been wondering until very recently, am I to do with it, though? It would be a shame to waste it.

After pondering this question for weeks, I have finally come up with an idea. Like a bolt from the blue, I, 3DO Kid, 3DO fanboy extraordinaire, have had an epiphany.

The answer to the question now seems obvious: What should the worlds biggest, only and probably last 3DO fanboy do? Of cause. Settle the big one. The final fight. The old grudge. Yes - you have guessed it. I will answer the question most people thought unanswerable.

Which is better? 3DO Multiplayer or Atari Jaguar?

…I can tell without looking you are not as excited as I am about this.

...but it’s perfect! Don't pull that face - it's perfect! Clash of the Titans. The epic timeless battle continues: 32Bit vs 64bit, well 16bit, well, maybe 32bit – hmm - what ever the Jag was vs the 32bit 3DO.

Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!

I also figured I had better lay some ground rules. You know – to look fair and all. One thing did worry me as these thoughts formed in my brain, you see. How can the people trust me and more importantly trust my judgement on this? I call myself 3DO Kid – I’ve obviously backed a horse in this race.

So – in the spirit of fairness, I have decided some basic ground rules. Firstly I’ve decided to steer away from such things as: who had the coolest CEO? Sam Tramiel or William ‘Trip’ Hawkins?” And no, not because chubby, badly dressed, balding Tramiel wouldn’t stand a chance against Silicon Valley slick Trip with his Miami Vice coolness - but because it wouldn’t be fair, and not in the true spirit or the knowing of which machine is the best. In my opinion, this titanic match of ex-next-gen shouldn’t be a slagging match. Well – not initially.

Likewise I’m not going to embroil myself in the 64-bit or 32-bit debate. Again. Or which system had the most games? Or which one was it easier to play a CD on? Which console makes best use of the number ‘3’ and the letters ‘D’ and ‘O’ in its name. Oh no.

Basically, I’m not going to victimise the Jaguar because it only had 70 something games, initially no CD, and a 16 bit CPU. What I am going to do is pick games that have a rough equivalent on the 3DO and compare them.

So - ultimately fair. And fair because it’s important to be fair, and not because I’m afraid that an unfair bashing of the Jaguar will result in the unleashing of the mighty anger of the Atarians. And they will use their geek-rays on me or something.

For that you dear, dear, readers must put your faith and trust in me. Me 3DO Kid, and the voices in my head.

Each week – I’ve decided to do it weekly – ‘cos, well, I’m dead excited about the idea, I will pick two like-for-like games and compare them. “Mano a mano”, as the wise-man from Need for Speed on 3DO might say.

First problem. Where to start? Racing games? Pinball games? RPGs?

The fairest way I could figure was to close my eyes, and stick my hand in the drawer I have, a drawer marked ‘3DO games’ and pull one out at random.

Well, first time out - what happened? BC Racer. “Oh Damn!” I thought. I tried to stuff it back in but the words “Be fair” resonated in my skull. “Sod that” I thought and I tried harder and with a bit of desperation to lodge BC Racer back in the draw, but due to the mess, it fell out again – “Fine” I shouted to the ever constant voices. “So. Be. It!”

Round 1.

BC Racer versus Atari Karts.

Having already played BC Racer by Goldstar, I was under no delusions. The 3DO was in trouble in this very first round. BC Racer had been slated on its release for what it was, which was a cynical, utterly rubbish, Mario Kart clone and very little more. Meanwhile, having never played Atari Karts, a quick bit of research revealed it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as BC Racer.

So with some rapid eBay account usage and having clicked through PayPal for a few minutes, I purchased the only Buy It Now copy available and waited its arrival.

So - having now played both games for as long as I could bear – about an hour and half each, my criticisms of BC Racer remain the same as they were when I put it up on my blog.

3DO Round 1.

BCracer5.jpg It’s awful. Really, really, awful. The most delirious, insane 3DO fanboy ever, couldn’t rose-tint his way out of this. The only way to describe BC Racer by Elite is depressing. Not in a glib comedy way, like “Ohhh, this game is so bad I’m depressed” way but depressing in a very technical, very precise kind of way. The colours are depressing. The lack of visibility is depressing. The erratic controls are depressing. The pop-up. The fog. Oh heavens the fog! The jumpy frame rate. Nothing is good. Not one thing.

It is all very much, if not exactly like, a nightmare. You can’t quite see... The whole thing feels like it has been dipped in syrup. You can’t quite move. It just needs a sequence half way through where you turn up to an interview with a duck, after applying for the role of Prime minister. Only to realise you’re not wearing trousers.

Even now, as I sit and type this in, looking back, the faint memory of BC Racer feels closed, confined and restricted. I’m happy not to be playing it. The world seems a better place when it isn’t loaded.

In its defence, well, OK - the opening titles are extremely enjoyable to watch. The animated sequences are fun. The audio takes advantage of CD, the sound is actually very good.

None of which should detract us from the overwhelming tragedy of playing this enormously difficult game. Everything and I mean everything that was good, no, sorry, everything that was exceptional about Mario Kart was missed in BC Racer.

Ultimately it is a damned game and I don't say that lightly.

jag1.jpgAtari Jaguar. Round 1.

So - on to Atari Karts then. I had played BC Racer first and then switched channel to Atari Karts. It is like a breath of fresh air. It immidiately feels lighter. Breathier. Responsive. O.K - the Italian plumber won’t lose any sleep. Certainly, the track design wasn’t as good as Mario, the sense of being in a race wasn’t as good, the characters not as engaging, yada-yada-yada - but it felt nice – in comparison to the utterly appalling BC Racer. Atari Karts, having been trapped in the spongy world of BC Racer, made me happy. I could see. I could move. The power-slides, while clumsy and lacked the elegance or the point of its Nintendo counterpart, were at least consistent. Early on I won a couple of races and even in the later games I felt I was in a race.

It wasn’t perfect. One thing I want to mention about Atari Karts is the flat power-ups - the little collectible icons that give you the chance to have better grip or go faster. They are flush to the floor. What was that about? It’s dreadful. Especially since collecting these icons seems to make no sense and seems to have little or no real effect.

Add to that the music. It was tinny and chippy. The whole Atari Karts experience benefited from the volume being turned to ‘min’. Atari Karts also lacked a pretty rendered CD only introduction – yet the game doesn’t seem to have suffered any because of this. (Didn't make sense to me either!)

Still – it was better than BC Racer. Much better. Better by about a country mile.

I should mention that neither the 3DO controller or the Jaguar controller made either of these games any better. And having used the Jaguar's controller for the first time for any real length of time, this battle of the consoles is not going to be fought out on joypads - that is for sure.


So what is left? A painful, bitter defeat. Like a 32-bit Samson, I can feel my mighty powers of 3DO being cut away. Diminished. Faded. What lessons are the Angels of Retro Gaming trying to teach me? Why have their voices gone from my head? I feel quite weak now. I need a nice cup of tea, a biscuit and a bit of a sit-down. It’ll be OK next week…

Round 1 to the Atari Jaguar…

Jag 1: 3DO 0.

[3DO Kid runs the only active 3DO blog on the Internet, with the self made goal of reviewing, in one manner or another, the entire 3DO back catalogue. He's a bit crazy, really.]

Chronic Logic Gets All Kingdom Elemental

- Oh, look what email we got: "Chronic Logic has begun accepting pre-orders for Kingdom Elemental for Windows. Kingdom will be released for Windows by November 30th, 2006."

This is a new title from the creators of Pontifex/Bridge Builder and the awesome Gish, oh yes, though the game seems to have actually been made by Liberation Games and Scott Thunelius in conjunction with Chronic Logic themselves, so it's kinda a co-op dealio.

The specifics: "Kingdom Elemental is a real-time tactics game that takes place in rich and vibrant 3d environments filled with dozens of unique monsters and heroes." Also, here are some screenshots. And you can even pre-order it and then take place in the Beta test. Yay hurray!

Please, More Shining Force/Geocities Jokes, Plz

- This is a brief post to discuss why Danny 'Sardius' Cowan, also the writer of several Gamasutra columns, has an amusing LiveJournal. And this post on the new Shining Force game, my friends, is why.

Cowan references The Magic Box's preview of the game: "In this game your base is a moving fortress named "GeoCities Fort", you must defend it according to circumstances", continuing: "SIR, THERE APPEARS TO BE A CIRCUMSTANCE -- GEOCITIES IS UNDER ATTACK... THEY'VE...THEY'VE TAKEN OVER TIMESSQUARE AND ARE HEADING FOR SILICONVALLEY... IF IT'S NOT TOO LATE WE MAY BE ABLE TO SAVE AREA51 AND TOKYO."

Wait, I guess this is only funny if you owned a free website account on the WWW in about 1996. But hey, the man's not below starting PetitionOnline calls to power as well: "Best Buy, meanwhile, further ruined our shopping experience by not having a particular DVD movie in stock at the time of our visit. We hope that you will consider the fact that not having a copy of The Cat Returns in stock has effectively soured our opinion of your company and all of its employees for years to come." And as we all know - petitions work!

November 7, 2006

Japanese Game Developers - Next To Godliness?

- Want to know the personal hygiene habits of Japanese game developers? Sure you do, that's why the Japanmanship blog has been discussing them in detail this week.

It's noted: "The amount of rubbish that can accumulate on and around a [game] developer’s desk can be staggering, but there is a case to be made for keeping your desk clean, not because a clean workspace is conducing to concentration but because in Japan the one thing they like to do most is move desks."

Example? "I once worked with a guy whose desk was the epitome of rubbish, a veritable landfill of crap; empty UFO instant ramen pots, undisposed disposable chopsticks, stacks of magazines and mangas, a bedroll stuffed under his desk, plastic models and papers everywhere.. Whenever said colleague had to move desks it took him the better part of the day, carefully putting all his junk in big boxes and using a cart to wheel them to his new location, where he would unpack everything to recreate the explosion he had had before." Mm, object explosion!

COLUMN: 'Parallax Memories' – Actraiser

ACTRAISER!!!['Parallax Memories' is a regular column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Enix's 1990 Actraiser]

Actraiser can be broken up into action and simulation, and the name comes from what it does, not what it is. Using this column as an excellent excuse to purchase games that I have had interest in I picked it up on a whim at a used game store while visiting some friends in Louisiana. This was at least six months ago and between some major moving and job transitioning I put it on the back of a mental list of things to play.

While sitting around this weekend, attempting to come up with a game or item for this column I got a phone call from a friend who demanded I write about Actraiser (he also told me I'd probably get fired if I didn't mention how great the music is). After about an hour with the game I had decided that he had a pretty good idea here. Even though I had the box for the game, I was missing the manual. After the introduction where I'm told that "The Master" needs to clear the lands so that they are safe for the village I was presented with quite a few options and not a whole lot of instruction. I picked "fight monsters" and was asked if I was sure, then proceeded to get thrown into what struck me as fairly standard side-scrolling sword play.


The game is divided up so that each time you get to a new area you have to defeat a boss. Defeating them will make the land habitable for people. Once the people have inhabited the land they will usually uncover some evil creature that will result in another boss fight. The side-scrolling levels entail a fairly standard fair of fantasy characters mixed with a bit of demonology. The settings for the levels range from exceptionally generic to very beautiful.

Each level is thematic to the regions of the world that the towns are located, ranging from forests to snow-covered mountains. For a game released in 1990 it's good, and at worst, on par with contemporary levels of design. It's too bad that this level of design has been so heavily copied and retread that now it just seems old hat.There are little things that keep it fresh even after all this time. One of the touches that I liked best is that when you land after a jump the sprite will crouch for a brief moment and can be used to quickly dodge an attack or make a low attack. It's unfortunate that the rest of the action isn't as inspired. Luckily, the other half of the game is comprised of a pseudo-SimCity with its own unique flair. The action sections are mostly there to break up the pace and keep things going at a very palatable rate.


After defeating the initial boss the game opens each town up for the simulation half of the game (although it encompasses much more of your time than that action half). This is the section that got me thinking that I may not be able to play it without a manual after all. I was wrong, though; the menus (while entirely too simplistic) are well laid out and not used nearly as often as one with a knowledge of Sim games would expect. As "The Master" you pilot an angel who looks like Cupid while creating miracles and natural disasters to help the townspeople inhabit the area. The kinds of miracles you must perform range from city to city, and all are fairly simple tasks usually involving clearing grounds from obstructions.

The rest of the time, while the civilians are expanding the city, you mostly fly around in a free roaming shooter environment. Assorted enemies will come out of monster lairs and try to wreak havoc on the denizens of the current town and your job is to protect them with cupid's trusty bow and arrow. Unfortunately this aspect of the game is a bit top heavy. You do gain levels as the world's population increases, but when you start building a town you're at your weakest, and the enemies at their most copious. When you run out of health Cupid can no longer defend the cities with his arrows and you're left to just watch as they get destroyed. As the town expands the people will close up the monster lairs. Fewer enemies will appear until the town is cleared of them. This is the point where you will have to go back and defeat some new unearthed evil in side-scrolling sword play mode, and the circle is complete. Return to your flying fortress and you will do the same for all of the towns until the land is cleared of all evils and your tarnished name is cleared.


I once heard that the platforming sections are what make Actraiser great, but those really can't stand on their own. I've read claims that the simulation mode is what makes the game special because the action half is so average. Neither is the case. It is the cohesion of both elements that really makes the game so special and why it's included on Gamespot's 2003 Greatest Games of All Time list. It's like Ying and Yang, Adam and Eve, Romeo and... OK, I'll stop the duality list. To say that either element on its own could stand alone is a bold and false statement. Enix tempted fate a few years later with Actraiser 2 and completely omitted the simulation half of the game. It misses the point of what made Actraiser, and ultimately leaves the player with the impression of an average game. While I may try to argue my taste in games, it will take someone with true blind devotion to argue that Actraiser would still be great in parts rather than the sum of its whole.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter, an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]

So You Want To Be A Video Games Inventor?

- You know GSW is a sucker for scans of early video game material, right? Well, VintageComputing.com has provided the latest specimen, named simply 'So You Want to Be a Video Games Inventor'.

It's explained: "This scan came from the premiere (Winter 1982) issue of “Odyssey² Adventure Club Magazine,” Magnavox’s official monthly magazine / propaganda pamphlet for Odyssey² fans — sorta like Nintendo Power these days. Actually, “Odyssey² Adventure” is more a newsletter than a magazine, since all the issues I have are only about fifteen pages long. Nonetheless, this article is an amusing look into the world of Odyssey² game developers, straight from the horse’s mouth."

What's more: "A quick compare-and-contrast of these guys with Atari’s “pot-smoking hippie” game programmer image of the late 1970s and even today’s “early twenties slacker” programmers makes the Odyssey folks look like a bunch of straight-laced leprechaun engineers. Ralph Baer, what hath thou wrought?!"

[We also note that Ed Averett, who "basically was the Odyssey 2, writing the entire library of games, excepting some early releases: twenty-four games in four years", is one of the notably pictured designers alongside his wife Linda.]

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Size Isn't Everything

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers a little known game that pre-dates the likes of Chibi Robo by a good few years]

boku_pom1.jpgThe year was 2002 and you need to understand that Japan in November is cold, very cold indeed. At the time, the only thing between pneumonia and me was a faulty kotatsu and a kerosene heater that doubled as the fire spewing gates of Hell (it was more of an anti-personnel heater than anything usable for people without fire retardant gear). One way to take my mind off imminent hypothermia was to make a brief trip down to my local games shop and browse the surprisingly expansive collection (whilst loitering next to an electric heater obviously).

The next game I was predominantly focused upon was that of Armored Core 3 Silent Line but seeing that it wasn’t available until January the following year, I needed something mechanical to keep me busy. That something jumped out amongst the mess of the store’s shelf “organisation” (the owner mixed all the games up from various platforms, a nightmare for actually trying to find something you wanted but great if you just liked to browse). The shop keeper told me that they had something that had arrived a few months earlier that I probably would like but couldn't remember what it was called or where he'd put it.

The following box art caught my attention and I showed it to the shop keeper, to which he responded "that's the one!". I decided to part with the required cash and take it back to a loving, though very cold, home.


Its name was Boku wa Chiisai (literally translated as "I am small") and it turned out to be a rather wonderful little game. The cover of a little robot clinging to a lampshade was immensely endearing but the premise of controlling a super dinky robot within a Japanese household was an interesting one.

boku_pom4.jpgInteresting because most mecha games feature massive robots that are gigantic weapons of some kind. This game was almost the antithesis of that and had a tiny protagonist who really wasn’t that potent at all (he actually got left behind, so if anything he was the robotic equivalent of the kid with braces and thick rimmed glasses).

Pom to the rescue!

The game was peddled as an action adventure but it’s more a platformer with puzzle based leanings. The story is based around the Space Force Petitmen, who are cute little alien robots that act as a space based police force. They are trying to track down a rather nasty Space Pirate, called Silver, who looks like some kind of demonic octopus. The game’s protagonist, Pom, is left behind on this mission because he’s a trainee but it isn’t long before his comrades call for help and Pom rushes to their rescue (I did a little video of the opening to those that are curious).

Upon reaching Earth, Pom finds out that the inhabitants are actually giants compared to the Petitmen and that Silver has placed powerful explosives around the house. It isn’t long before the explosives detonate and fracture time, sending Pom back a day giving him enough time to thwart Silver and save his friends.

boku_pom2.jpgThe game isn’t a bad one really; each time you find one of the Petitmen they lend you their abilities allowing you to traverse the massive house with greater ease whilst also dispatching with the Space Pirates infestation. In addition, Pom has to find “Time Pieces” so that he can return to his time otherwise he gets stuck Groundhog Day-style.

It’s a lot of fun to play and the story is quite amusing and threaded nicely, with each of the human family members having their own little plot. There’s also a nice addition of the retro-styled Time Patrol, who turn up later on to find out what has fractured the timeline.

As a game it has its faults but whilst the camera can be a little quirky at times the pacing of the game doesn’t cause any real problems in this area (this isn’t the kind of game that requires ninja response times on the part of the player).

The only downfall I can think of is that the game wasn’t really marketed at all and consequently didn’t do that well, which is also why few people even know of its existence.

It’s a shame that such a sweet and enjoyable game didn’t really find many owners but I can personally say that something good came of it; playing this made me forget the cold Japanese winter and that’s no easy feat.

[Ollie Barder is a freelance journalist who's written for The Guardian, appeared on BBC Radio 4 and contributed to Japanese mecha artbooks. He lives at home with an ever growing collection of Japanese die-cast robot toys and a very understanding wife.]

2007 IGF Student Showcase Reminder

- I also posted this over at Gamasutra, but it's well worth spreading to all those student indie game developers here too: "The organizers of the 2007 Independent Games Festival are reminding interested parties that the deadline for entering the 2007 IGF Student Showcase competition is November 10th, 2006 at 11:59pm PDT.

In the Student category, there will be 10 'Student Showcase' winners for the leading games ($500 travel stipend) announced in January 2007, all of whom will exhibit on the IGF Pavilion at Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March 2007. In addition, for the first time this year, an overall 'Best Student Game' ($2,500 cash prize) will be awarded at the IGF Awards during GDC.

Previous years have seen important student honorees such as Narbacular Drop (for which the concept was subsequently turned into Valve's Portal, which will appear on PC and next-gen consoles in 2007), as well as Cloud, an innovative student game from some of the personnel now recruited to make PS3 downloadable game fl0w.

In its other competitions, the 2007 IGF Competition (created by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra.com) garnered a record 141 entries vying for the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize, and the Modding Competition has attracted over 35 high-quality entries, including notable mods such as DungeonDoom for Doom 3.

Those interested in entering the 2007 IGF Student Showcase can visit the IGF's submission site for more guidelines and specifics about the competition. "

On 'The Mission Of Linden Lab'

- It's particularly interesting to see the official Linden Lab blog running an in-depth post on 'The Mission Of Linden Lab' from Philip Linden, aka Second Life creator Philip Rosedale.

It's odd because it seems to be a justification to users about the fact that Second Life has to make money? Rosedale comments: "It is certainly the goal of Linden Lab to operate profitably, and by doing so create returns for the shareholder-owners of the company", continuing: "The investor owners of Linden Lab therefore have a mission which is the product of both a longer than average investment timeline, and a set of principles that are shared by a substantial number of the investors."

In addition: "Linden Lab is a company that has required a considerable investment of capital (about $20M will likely have been spent between inception and profitability)", and Rosedale concludes: "Beyond the details of financial performance, we will have been successful in this mission if we, in the smallest amount of time and capital, make Second Life work as well as possible given the limits of the underlying computer technology, and reach the largest number of people." This makes good reading, but it doesn't seem spectacularly user-centered for a statement made to users - does anyone understand what is going on here? Is it a mea culpa for something?

[EDIT: Hey, even before this post went live, I asked Daniel Terdiman at CNET News, a good font for SL info, and he pointed out his blog post about a Times Online story in which David Fleck, Linden Lab vice president of marketing, commented: "We're open to an IPO or a sale, whenever that occurs... But there's no rush." Sounds like that explains it!]

November 6, 2006

Inside The Vintage Computer Festival

- We didn't end up making it to the previously GSW-mentioned Vintage Computer Festival in the Bay Area at the weekend, but luckily enough, Alex Handy did, and he's blogged about it in some detail on Gism.net.

As he notes: "The greatest thing about the Vintage Computer Festival is the chance to play Spacewar with Steve Russell. On an original PDP-1. There were only 50 of these machines ever made, and 30 of them went to International Telephone and Telegraph."

Handy continues: "So, Russell said he wrote the game originally to show how ships would move through space. As it evolved, it changed and added new features, like the Sun, hyperspace, and the possibility of establishing a stable orbit 3 seconds into play." There's also an embedded video talking to Steve Russell, alongside lots of gorgeous mainframe computer photo opps - yay.

Wired In Smash Grab Kotaku Editor Raid Shock

- No, really! We heard about this on the grapevine last week, but apparently, it's all kinda 'official' - Wired News' Chris 'Cholera' Kohler has revealed an editor kidnapping of sorts.

He explains: "You might have noticed that five minutes ago, Eliza Gauger -- ex. of Kotaku, now of Wired's very own Game|Life -- made her inaugural posting. She'll be writing mainly on virtual worlds, MMOs, and fat British kids. Take a moment to welcome her to the team."

Not only that, but a team of hardened ex-Kotaku-ites such as Joel Johnson look to be expanding the Wired tech blogs in a hardcore manner, apparently to become third in an unholy semi-journalist (joke!) triumvirate that also includes Gawker Media and Weblogs Inc./AOL. We're pretty sure this also involves the pyramid and eye on U.S. currency, and Leonardo Da Vinci drawings.

Part of this Conde Nast-ified guerrilla attack squad is now 'the artist formerly known as Florian Eckhardt', another Kotaku mainstay who is now blogging under his real name (!) at Wired News blog 'Table Of Malcontents'. Apparently, he was doing double duty at Consumerist all the way through his Kotaku stint. Oh, Florian, how could you cheat on us like this? We feel violated.

Still, as Eliza points out tartly: "What, you thought Florian was his real name?" Well, yeah, kinda, we forgot you don't have to sign your real name on the Internet! Eckhardt's goodbye message was buried in a Kotaku post last week: "Thanks for not disemboweling me when I, oh, suggested we nuke the Japanese to 'fix' whatever causes them to put used panty vending machines in airport bathrooms, or remarked that sometimes women just needed a little slap to keep them in line, or told Bruce Shelley I hated his games, or made an ass out of myself when I drunkenly approached Will Wright at a party." So no trolling there, then!

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris'—Soko-Ban

["Beyond Tetris" is a new column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This first installment looks at one of the most persistent puzzle games, Soko-Ban.]

In 1982, puzzles about moving squares around weren't new. A hundred years previous, the world had been captivated by sliding squares around the 15 puzzle, and Rubik's Cube had just recently brought square-relocation into the third dimension. But the time was ripe for computers to revolutionize pushing of squares from their initial locations to other, different locations (preferably in a minimum number of moves).

Soko-Ban was published by Thinking Rabbit games in 1982, and was released to the West by Spectrum Holobyte in 1984. It featured a titular warehouseman pushing boxes around grid. And it was revolutionary. It moved mechanical puzzles into the virtual world, and established crate-pushing as one of the most fundamental videogame puzzles, a paradigm that continues to this day.

The Warehouse Revolution

Level 1 from the Spectrum Holobyte release of Soko-Ban

It seems odd that an avatar would be such a revolution in videogames, even as early as 1982. But videogames were young and mechanical puzzles were old, and the love child of the two couldn't help but be influential. Soko-Ban's top-down perspective seemed like any other block-slider, but with a "man on the inside," puzzlers had to think in entirely new ways. Extreme foresight is needed to make sure that the warehouseman can get behind every box when he needs to—a box along a wall will stay along that wall until the end of the game. And since these massive crates are apt to completely block off key passages, it is disturbingly easy to trap oneself behind a line of boxes. The real puzzle is getting the warehouseman around the labyrinthine storage space, pushing around the crates is simple after that.

The videogame is enables another important rule: the warehouseman can only push one block at a time. Remember that in sliding puzzles, like the 15 puzzle, you can move any number of squares at the same time, as long as they're not blocked by a wall. A square can't be movable from one position and then immovable from another. But the computer can keep track of changes like that, and two blocks forming an immovable deadlock was a novel twist that was much easier to keep track of in a virtual space.

When you consider all of these blocked passages and impossible-to-move boxes, the generally small puzzle grid starts to unfold into a massive maze of possibilities. The first level of Soko-Ban (shown above) takes over two hundred moves to complete. Others of Soko-Ban's original fifty levels take more than a thousand.

Attack of the Soko-Fans (Also, Clones)

Hexoban by David W. SkinnerThe level editor was another key feature of Soko-Ban, and dedicated players have been using it ever since. Many of Thinking Rabbit's sequels to Soko-Ban (Sokoban Perfect and Sokoban Revenge for PCs; Boxxle and Boxxle II for the Gameboy; and even a few releases on consoles like the Playstation) have featured levels designed by fans. Today, excellent amateur designers like David W. Skinner make their creations available over the internet.

Like most puzzle games with simple rules and low graphical demands, Soko-Ban has been cloned over and over and over again. One webpage has listed over eighty different implementations of Sokoban, which has become the name of the generic puzzle. Some of these programs, like SokoSave are designed to aid in the sharing of Sokoban levels and solutions. But many of the clones aren't just Sokoban, they're Soko-Ban with different skins. While it's considered questionable but generally kosher to clone a game mechanic, the level design is a different matter, and a number of these clones take Thinking Rabbit's original fifty levels with neither permission nor attribution.

The Sokoban community has gone beyond designing new levels to design new variants. David W. Skinner also created Hexoban, which is Sokoban on a hexagonal field. Trioban (Sokoban on a triangular field, where triangular boxes are pivoted instead of outright pushed) came from François Marques. And then there's Malcolm Tyrell's Multiban, in which the lonely avatar has finally hired some more warehousemen to help move the boxes. Other games like Cyberbox and Block-O-Mania add gimmick blocks and grid spaces (one-way spaces, teleporters, etc.) to create new challenges.

Crates to Seconds

Sokoban in NetHack for Windows - Graphical InterfaceEven beyond the clones and variants, Soko-Ban inspired a number of item-pushing puzzle games. In 1985, the Eggerland series (known in America as The Adventures of Lolo and its sequels) began using crate-pushing as the core of its puzzles, which also involved collecting items and dealing with enemies. Even action games have incorporated Sokoban. Link invariably has to push crates into position somewhere in each Legend of Zelda game (The Wind Waker even featured an elementary Trioban segment). And the action-packed roguelike NetHack sports a Sokoban sidequest.

In today's more immersive games, crates aren't just for pushing; they're for pulling and climbing and smashing and gravity-gunning. In the mainstream, crate-pushing has become cliché. But that's only because the crates of first-person shooters and adventure games don't get pushed around enough. Action-game blocks are usually present only as an annoyance for a few minutes, but a difficult, well-designed Sokoban level can take hours of work over the course of days. It's far more frustrating, but on the other hand, it's far more rewarding to finish a level and know that you're done, not just moving on to better-designed parts of the game.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He also works as the Copy Chief of The Gamer's Quarter.]

Feel Like Scribbling On A DS Lite? Konami Did It For You

- NCS continues to provide the snappiest write-ups for import video game goods around - and the latest is the new Winning Eleven-themed Nintendo DS Lite, and it's... odd.

As they note: "Someone used the top of a jet black Nintendo DS Lite as a soccer play scribble pad and lucky consumers get to pay a dear price for the gold-inked chicken scratches, arrows, circles, and the occasional text such as "Goal!" and "Jockeying." NCS' collective opinion is that the unit looks a frightful mess but there might be an audience for such a stylized rendition of the DS Lite. "

Of course: "The Winning Eleven DS Lite Bundle includes a copy of the Winning Eleven DS game and the special Nintendo DS Lite unit" - so I guess you get a fun game of soccer with your odd hardware purchase. Anyone got any nominations for an odder/plan weirder limited-edition hardware bundle decoration?

Short Warp For 3D0, Briefly Described

- 3DO crazy (and now GameSetWatch columnist!) 3DOKid has managed to get hold of the last Warp game for the 3DO, the oddly named 'Short Warp', showcasing the end of Kenji Eno's insane reign over the semi-obscure console.

He notes: "My disc is number 3,571 of 10,000. Coincidently as my blog clicks over the 100,000th unique visitor. Which is sort of cool for a niche, geeky, pointless blog like this. So - aside from some minimalist box art - what else do you get for 2,800 Japanese yen (about £14.00 or $28.00 U.S.) You get nine Warp mini games - Some new - Some not so new."

The best mini-game? "Flopon the Space Mutant 2. Same old Trip D just with much fancier graphics. The usual crowd of Warp mutants descend from the top the screen, in much the same manner as in Tetris. Your job is rotate and position them in groups of four so they either disappear or morph into a Trip D character. If that happens the next time you morph a character you do damage to you opponents stack of blocks. It's a lot of fun and the best game on the disc."

November 5, 2006

Warcraft Corpses, Arranged For Effect

- Tony 'Clickable Culture' Walsh has an interesting new post about World Of Warcraft, discussing 'the art of "corpse graffiti"', apparently a subject of discussion on WoW forums recently.

Walsh notes: "In my first few months of play, I regularly spotted a corpse named Jeff Buckley floating face-down in a pool of water in the dwarven city of Ironforge (Buckley was a real-life recording artist who drowned in 1997). Others have found lighter fare, such as "a pile of gnomes with names like 'Oompalumpa' outside Orgrimmar. At the top was a dead [Night Elf] named Willywonka.""

He also explains the gameplay mechanism that makes it possible: "Corpse graffiti, a form of emergence, is created by building a character with a clever name, i.e. "Mailbox" and dropping dead in a contextually-appropriate location, i.e. a mailbox in a high-traffic area. As long as the player refuses to resurrect the character (a feature in the game), the named corpse remains for all to see." An excellent/informative write-up!

From Russia With Love, Casually

- We'd previously linked to casual game producer Vinny Carrella's fun column at Gamezebo, and his latest one discusses a trip to Russia for the recent Game Developers Conference, and what he learned about the biz (and himself) over there.

On the casual front, he notes: "The Russian development community has released some impressive knock-offs. Snowy Lunch Rush, Pantheon and Birds on a Wire are solid games that have differentiated themselves from their inspirations, but they're not all that innovative (in terms of gameplay) and the Russians have yet to produce something ground-breaking all their own."

I especially like this part of the conclusion: "Going to Russia taught this game designer a lot more than I think I taught them... There is no formula for a casual game, and I have nothing to teach anybody, especially the Russians... Because when it comes to game design and game development, we are all Russians. We are all foreigners." (Although, judging by this weekend's boxoffice, a lot of us would like to be Kazakhstani, apparently.)

Gamers? Lovely People!

- Though I think Raina Lee's columns for VH1 Game Break are a bit short sometimes, I liked the latest one, named 'Gamers Are Lovely People', because of its sunny disposition - something I might even share at times.

Lee explains: "In this anonymous city, I'm always surprised at how quickly New Yorkers are willing to warm up to strangers given the right opportunity... It can be a floppy-eared puppy that can send strangers cooing. It can be an amazing vintage handbag noticed by a fellow fashion fiend. For me, at least today, the icebreaker was the PSP dangling from my wrist."

How so? "With standing room only on the Downtown 6 train, I lean against a pole while attempting to play the latest Mizuguchi gem, Every Extra Extend. After three stops, a burly middle-aged man asks what I’m "playing in there" with a smile. (Since when do New Yorkers smile? It's the video games I think.) I tell him, and he says he's playing baseball on his PSP." More sunniness ensues.

Assembling A Will Wright Biography

- We recently ran the link to the great New Yorker profile of Will Wright, but now we note that blogerati member Jason Kottke has compiled a mini-Web bibiography for the man - a great idea.

Kottke explains: "Bibliographies are something normally reserved for books, but Wright draws much of the inspiration for his games from articles, books, papers, and other games that a list of further reading/playing in the instruction booklet for SimCity wouldn't feel out of place. Because I like utilizing bibliographies -- they allow you to get into the head of an author and see how they sampled & remixed the original ideas to create something new -- I've created one for Will Wright."

Here's an example, for Spore: "Drake Equation - Frank Drake. "Dr. Frank Drake conceived a means to mathematically estimate the number of worlds that might harbor beings with technology sufficient to communicate across the vast gulfs of interstellar space."

Gamasutra Weekly Round-Up, Nov. 5th

- We're going to try to round-up the best features and columns from sister site Gamasutra most weekends, if we can, because we realize that, with 80+ news, columns, and features debuting on that site every week, you may be missing a few. Here's the most neatest, GSW-worthy ones from last week:

- This is just posted: Gamasutra's Jason Dobson has full spoiler-free impressions from the Zelda version of Wii, thanks to a trip he took to Nintendo HQ in Seattle. Some conclusions (after much more detail!): "It is every bit a killer app for Nintendo and the Wii, and deservingly so. Despite the nitpicking, this is still the best reason to own a Wii at launch, and will probably be for some time – despite a strong catalog of first and third party releases already announced."

- Alistair Wallis' excellent Playing Catch-Up takeover continues with a retrospective interview with Paul Kidd, "co-designer on Beam Software’s celebrated 1993 action RPG Shadowrun." There's some great stuff on the Lord Of The Rings text adventures: “Apparently, I was the first non-programmer to test the game,” he laughs. “I rapidly discovered that black riders did what you asked them to - like killing the other black riders... I also discovered that you could play the entire game by getting into your backpack at the start of the game, and then closing it. Monsters couldn't see in - so you just hopped about the place tied in a sack, utterly invisible to the bad guys.”

- We're also starting transcripts of our Gamasutra podcasts, and the first is of Tom Kim's chat with Jeff Green of Games For Windows Magazine. Plenty of interest in here: "I think it's good for us all to still maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. Are [Microsoft] going to get bored with this and then bail? Every once and a while over the nine years that I've been in this business, they'll say, "Now we're taking PC gaming seriously." And then they kind of don't. It does seem at this point that they really do mean it."

- An update to those earlier 'game cloning' stories - we ran two more perspectives on game cloning on Gamasutra yesterday, including legal commentary from Kenyon & Kenyon's Greg Boyd, and an interesting Letter To The Editor from PopCap's James Gwertzman, which particularly notes: "That is perhaps what is frustrating about the comparisons of Zuma and Puzzloop. Go play both games (Puzzloop is widely available on the DS as Magnetica, developed and published by Mitchell) and then ask whether Zuma is a clone of Puzzloop (in the same way that many of our games have been directly cloned, or the Flash-based Space Invaders clone cited in the article), or a game inspired by a mechanic that adds significant innovations and results in ultimately a new game. Was Half-Life a clone of Doom?"

Yikes, and that's just from news and columns - there's plenty more in this week's features that we haven't referenced, including the Quantum Leap awards for storytelling, my interview with Peter Molyneux, and more. Go check.

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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