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December 30, 2006

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/30/06

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]


Since GamePro's settled that issue for me, I'll just get down to business -- the last Mag Roundup of the year. Click on to read all about the magazines that have hit stands and/or mailboxes over the past two weeks. Happy '07!

Official PlayStation Magazine January 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: MotorStorm

I've been witness to a few very sad magazine closes in my lifetime, having written a column about them back in September. This one, however, has to be the saddest I've personally been around to see. Not only is an "official" console magazine closing after an uninterrupted run of almost 10 years, but it's doing so not because its circulation was low (not that it didn't need some improvement) or because the platform it covered was down on its luck (not that the PS3 and PSP don't need some improvement).

Instead it closed because...well, you won't find an answer to that in this particular issue, but you will find a great deal of content commemorating OPM's end, including an expanded letters section with condolences from readers, a list of all the regulars from OPM's 1up message board, and a back-page editorial from Joe Rybicki, the only staffer who was on board for all 112 issues. Also featured (and duplicated on two different pages) in subscriber editions is a notice that readers will receive credit for 2 EGM issues per OPM issue remaining in their subscriptions -- or a refund, your choice. Nice of 'em.

This is probably the only mag: To cover the live launch of the next great system the mag's named after in the same issue that it closes. OPM's coverage includes the usual people-standing-in-line stuff, as well as discussions with David Jaffe over the PS3 network and Dr. Richard Marks on his invention, the EyeToy. There's also an enormous feature on MotorStorm and other potential 2007 winners.

Reviews: The rest of the PS3 launch lineup is put up on the line this month, and they're quite a bit rougher on the games than other mags have been -- Ridge Racer 7 gets six out of ten, and Fight Night scores highest of all with an 8. The "Kids Roundup" section makes one final return -- and this time it's two pages of cutesy kiddie-game coverage, complete with adorable spot illustration by Karen Chu. The new PSP SOCOM gets 10/10 out of nowhere.

The disc: Goes out with a fearsome wimper, as all the new demos are kiddie junk -- Flushed Away, Arthur and the Invisibles, and Monster House. Ah well. It had its time, I suppose.

Electronic Gaming Monthly January 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: PS3 vs. Wii

A very plain cover for the second issue of EGM's redesign -- a little too plain, you could say, although it doesn't matter much since all EGM newsstand issues are encased in an opaque polybag these days anyway. The feature it touts occupies most of the issue's midsection, an extention of Review Crew with a few extra mini-previews and a "Final Word" roundtable where all the editors (yes, even executive editor Sony Bettenhausen) admit that the Wii had a far more robust launch lineup. The Twilight Princess review (the first straight-10 rating since GTA: San Andreas in '04) also has a sidebar with a Tingle cosplayer that may be worth the price of admission all by itself.

Otherwise: Not a lot to report about this issue, which is review-packed from start to finish. Seanbaby makes me laugh for the first time in a while with a look at the top eight hillbilly-est games of all time. There's also an exclusive look at the new Wii SSX if you're interested in that stuff, but my taste in snowboarding games died after Amped 2 came out...

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine January 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Command & Conquer 3

PC Gamer had this cover a little while back, but GFW's is better because it has an army guy on it! There's nine pages devoted to the game inside, looking nice as always.

Otherwise: A pretty run-of-the-mill issue, one that's remarkably close in content to PC Gamer's February issue with all the same previews and hardware coverage. The main highlights are in Extend, with Tom playing Bruce in DEFCON and Jeff Green returning to his roots with a reinstall of EverQuest 1.

PC Gamer January 2007 & February 2007 (Podcast)

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Covers: Spore and The Ultimate Guide to Gaming Hardware

I managed to forget PC Gamer in the last Mag Roundup, so here are two issues this time around. Neither are much great shakes contentwise, but a slight retooling in January has changed PCG in one much needed way -- the individual "Strategy," "Shooters," etc. sections are gone, and the mag's reverted back to your typical news/previews/reviews page progression. A smart choice, I'd say -- the genre-divided sections were confusing to casual readers and didn't offer much new to hardcore folks the way they were being written.

Tips & Tricks January 2007

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Cover: Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles

T&T's worth noting this month 'cos it's got a new editor-in-chief -- none other than Bill Kunkel, former editor at Electronic Games (both versions) and VideoGames & Computer Entertainment and freelancer for just about every magazine ever. He replaces Chris Bieniek, who's changed titles to simply "Editor".

Already Bill's hiring has brought some big changes to the mag. After the editor's letter, this issue kicks off with "Our Gang," a page of inside-the-office pictures that's basically T&T's version of Game Informer's GI-Spy page. After that is a feature not devoted to strategy at all -- it's an editor roundtable on the best next-gen system to get right now, and (if I'm not mistaken) it's the first plain-old "feature" to ever appear in T&T. The previews section has gotten a facelift that makes it look much more palatable and interesting to read, and T&T now officially covers PC games -- a few are previewed this issue, and maybe we'll see strategies in the future.

For T&T (a magazine whose internals have not changed dramatically since 1998), these are some pretty revolutionary changes. It'll be interesting to see how much it'll help T&T, which traditionally relies on newsstand sales far more than its rivals, establish more of a permanent presence in the minds of gamers.

Also out now: is T&T's Super Video-Game Codebook, the third cheat-compilation special from the mag this year. I'd like to tell you more about this issue, but unfortunately the US Post Office only delivered the cover sheet to my mailbox, the rest of the pages presumably having been ripped off along the way. Sigh.

GamePro February 2007


Cover: Mario: Man of the Year, an intro to your typical "Nintendo in '07" feature

Change is also in the air for GamePro -- or, at least, that is what's promised in the next-issue blurb. I'm definitely looking forward to it, and I hope that we'll have a real change on our hands this time, 'cos that's what this title needs more than anything else right now.

Official Xbox Magazine January 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Lost Planet

Not much interesting going on this month, other than reviews of all the late-coming Xmas titles. The best bit is a feature on all the things OXM's editors want next-gen publishers to knock off, including plastic skin, light over-blooming, and worthless Achievements.

I also want to note that OXM wins the prize this month for "Most Annoying 'Truth' Anti-Smoking PSA", featuring a thick sheet of stickers that makes it tough to flip around the rest of the mag. I'm gonna take up smoking in protest, I am.

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

Super Street Fighter II, Sirlin-ated

- Game designer and producer at Digital Eclipse, David Sirlin (who incidentally produced Gamasutra's most-viewed article of 2006 in his lambasting of World Of Warcraft) has just finished work on Capcom Classics Collection 2 for PS2/Xbox, actually one of the least-discussed retro game products to come out this holiday season.

In any case, Digital Eclipse has gone an extra mile with the extras in general (here's the game listing, btw). But Sirlin is a major fighting game fan/expert in particular, and his personal blog has posted links to YouTube versions of the Super Street Fighter II Turbo tutorial videos, narrated by Sirlin, from the game itself. As he explains: "These videos are meant to help new players see the game in a way they might not have thought of (as a collection of rectangles dueling for control of space)."

What's more: "They also demonstrate lots of the standard techniques in Street Fighter such as 2in1s, “meaty” attacks, and reversals. I also show some advanced stuff with “button up” special moves and safe jumps at the end. Basically, there’s a little something for everyone from beginner to expert." The advanced video, covering stuff like 'Instant Overheads' and 'Piano Inputs', is a fascinating look at the jargon and reality of Street Fighter II expert players - and it actually makes sense, too! Great stuff.

[Also, Sirlin just posted his 2006 game awards, which are opinionated and crunchy - for example, Metroid Prime Pinball in his top 3 games of the year: "Metroid Prime Pinball is, for me, the perfect pick-up-and-play DS game. I don’t have to remember where I was in some huge story or map, or how this or that mechanic worked. I can just play for a few minutes, or for an hour if I want to try to get all 12 artifacts."]

A Passionate Defense Of God Hand

- Over at Hardcore Gaming 101 (which needs an RSS feed already, so we don't forget it!), there's an excellent two-page article discussing Capcom and Clover's God Hand, the PS2 title which debuted in the States earlier this year to alternately mystified and grinning reviews, and has clearly sold not a jot.

There's a handy, if stylized intro, too: "God Hand is the brain child of Shinji Mikami. After finishing off Resident Evil 4, Mikami moved to Clover Studios... After leaving Capcom Production Studio 4, Mikami had a meeting with Atsushi Inaba (Viewtiful Joe, Okami). Mikami brought up the issue to Sushi that action games today were all about weapons and not about fist fighting anymore. Gone were the days where you only had one button, two fists, and five different bad guys to beat down. That was the feeling Mikami wanted to capture."

There's also some great info on specific changes in the Western version: "When brought across the sea, several changes were made to the game to prevent confusion. The most minor change is the renaming of the God Reel, now called God Roulette. One item in the game called Chihuahua Curry was changed to Puppy Pizza. Curry is a popular delicacy in Japan, while here in America it is relatively unknown. Another change includes the removal and addition of a new attack. In the Japanese version, Gene had a pan technique he could use from the God Reel."

Apparently: "For a small bit of damage, a pan will fall from the sky and knock Gene on the head, granting him invinciblity for a couple of seconds. Why this was removed is beyond me. Maybe it was the sense of humor, maybe it was because in super plays, people were abusing it. But then again, the whole reason anybody would use this technique was to sacrifice a small bit of health for invincibility. Instead, we got a new move called Head Slicer. The only thing special about this move is it's ability to remove an enemy's head. No blood, only a decapitation that works randomly." Great! And nice work, HG101.

Comiket 71 To Bring Much Shooter Goodness

- The Japanese PC indie game and dojin scene amazes me sometimes - mainly because there's so much good stuff out there that barely even makes it onto the radar in the West, and is often startlingly playable in niche genres beloved of the hardcore.

Why this particular comment? Well, Posty is listing shoot-em-ups that will debut at Comiket 71 on his blog, and there's 12 games just there which all look pretty darn neat. For example, Trouble Witches from Studio Siesta is a cute witch-y sidescrolling shooter - and remember, this is just the list of shooters, so there are plenty more games otherwise - probably in the dating genre, for starters.

(For those wondering what the heck it is, the Wikipedia page for Comiket explains: "Comiket, otherwise known as the Comic Market or CM, is the world's largest comic convention, held twice a year in Tokyo, Japan. The first CM was held in December 1975, with only about 30 participating circles and an estimated 700 attendees. Attendance has since swelled to over a quarter of a million people. The convention lasts for three days. It is a grassroots, DIY effort for selling dōjinshi, self-published Japanese works." There's a good 'dojin soft' page on Wikipedia, too, talking about games specifically.)

December 29, 2006

MMOG Nation: Citizen Spotlight on The Cesspit

['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column highlights the ongoing MMOG-related game design conversation happening at The Cesspit.]

The CesspitSo far, in the 'Citizen Spotlight' series I've interviewed two highly cogent World of Warcraft players and an astute news blogger. There's something about being a veteran of Massive games, though, that brings out the designer in everyone. Perhaps it's because of the very personal nature that players have with game worlds; it's hard not to have opinions on, say, a combat system after you've been intimately familiar for years at a stretch.

Likewise, the scope of a Massive game makes it hard for any one person to have a monopoly on understanding everything. These elements combine to make long-time players some of the most vocal 'backseat designers' in gaming. While there's no comparison to years of experience on the job, actually making games, everyone is entitled to their opinion.

Rarely are game design related-opinions stated so forcefully as they are on the site simply named The Cesspit. Written by the blogger named Abalieno, the posts to the Cesspit site tackle all aspects of Massive game design. From the very high-level (“How to design a Fallout MMO game”) to the most specific of gripes (“I design a competent LFG tool”), the ideas coming from the Cesspit are always thought-provoking. He is a self-described logorrheic, and the few interview questions I shot Abalieno via email generated over 5,000 words in response.

I've edited down his responses to capture the core ideas, and have gone back through the last year of Cesspit posts to offer up the blog entries I found the most interesting. This was a challenge, as nearly every entry Abalieno offers up has some chewy thoughts at its center. Read on, and learn a little bit about what keeps the Cesspit in the RSS readers of enthusiastic gamers and veteran designers alike.

His Words They Flow Like a River

Michael: The Cesspit is primarily, it seems, a focus for your design-related ideas and thoughts. What prompted you to start the site? Was it a specific event, or just a general need to get your ideas out there? Once you'd begun, what kept you blogging over the course of the two+ years since May of 2004?

Abalieno: Well, there are many different aspects to it. Let me take this from an unconventional perspective. I recently watched the second movie of "Ghost in the Shell" and it talks a bit about the concept of "external memory". This is something I've always done. Before I started writing on a website I always went around with a voice recorder. I have thousands of hours recorded with my thoughts about everything. The ideal would be about using a videocamera and record just everything, every single second. The particular light of an evening, your thoughts in that moment, and so on. It's like an obsession (Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World" is also about this).

More specifically, I think everyone who participated to a community like a forum knows the frustration when a site goes down or a database gets wiped. Or an hard drive crash, in a more personal case. I don't think I'm the only one who freaks out when things like that happen. Well, starting from the "golden age" of Lum the Mad there's so much that was lost. Millions of messages, articles. That's our history and it's priceless. The website basically has two purposes, work as a memory and a workshop. Initially the website was the result of a whole lot of frustration. I beta tested "Wish" for a couple of months and poured a lot of thoughts on the beta message boards. I saved some forum threads before the beta boards were closed. The frustration was because I couldn't accept that all the community had done, and all the good premises of that game were going to be wasted. I couldn't accept that the time I passed there was going to be simply useless.

So I felt the need to save all that, give it a "following" so that it wouldn't be all lost and forgotten. Keep a memory of things. Learn lessons. My site served the purpose of "fixing" some stuff. Maintain a memory and use it to fuel my own learning process. I think working on games is exciting also because there's a lot going on, a lot to absorb. The reason why I am now pulling the handbrake is simply for one reason: addiction. [The site has turned into] an endless passion that I fear is way beyond what I'm allowed to do.

Michael: On the site, in commentary, and in your discussion of why you started the site, you show an obvious passion for Massive games. What got you 'into' the massive genre in the first place? Was there a friend or game that drew you in?

Abalieno: Here I show how far I am from the stereotype of the hardcore gamer. None of my friends play online games and none of them could be considered "gamers", so I'm mostly a loner. It's not the hook with a group that led me to online games by chance. Instead it was something I looked for all by myself and that I strongly wanted. Previous to MMOGs I had some experience on MUDs, both as player and as maker, but as maker I just wrote a whole lot of ideas. Months passed, I keep writing and nothing was ever implemented ... I liked the kind of experimentation that Tarn Adams is doing today on Dwarf Fortress, and I wanted to bring that to a MUD.

I spent very little time playing and a whole lot discussing features, development and more, but I wasn't part of the team (and all of the design and coding was done just by one guy) so I was just there creating and participating to discussions. Then, with the time, the MUD kept growing and drawing in more players and the focus moved more toward the game itself, worldbuilding and less on the experimentation and creative design, so I slowly lost interest and moved my attention somewhere else. I don't consider myself particularly smart, nor particularly creative. Just the same, I'm a sponge. I absorb, understand and learn very rapidly. And as a sponge I think I'm one of the best in the world ;) This means that everything had a strong influence on me at some point and that I owe a lot to my experiences, the communities and so on.

Michael: What was your first MMOG?

Abalieno: My first "real" MMOG was Ultima Online. I was in a mall with my friends, around the end of November of a few years ago and I noticed the boxed set of the "Second Age". I'd always been a fan of all kinds of RPGs and obviously also of the Ultima series. I remember that I kept rereading hundreds of times the same reviews of those Ultima games, the Bard's Tale series, Wastelands ... for me they weren't games I wanted to play, they were dreams. Playing those games was for me like the ultimate wish, so I created a myth in my mind that wasn't necessarily tied to the reality of those games, but just the way I imagined them. That kind of approach still influences me today. It's something extremely strong.

When I was young the quality of the game didn't matter. I remember that I played and loved games that from the design perspective were terrible. Despite this I still preferred them to much better games because I saw in them the projection of my myths, my desires, and that was stronger and more important than everything else. This is something I have a strong nostalgia about. The sort of feelings I had by playing those game when I was young are lost and elusive. And when I try to imagine something today I try to go back with my mind and try to seize those feelings. The possibility to see in a small group of pixels the most incredible things. The more time passes and the more you feel detached, and you need more and more so that you can feel a similar emotional bond. But at the end, even today, that's what keeps me hooked to games and, inherently, to game design. The immersion. The "magic".

I still remember when I logged in the game for the first time, after the long patching process. I made a new character in Trinsic (mimicking the start of Ultima 7). I already knew how to use the UI as I had some experience from previous Ultimas and the inventory system was essentially unchanged. But while I didn't have any problem with the basics, I still didn't have any clue about what to do. There wasn't any kind of NPC who came to greet me as the "avatar" as I expected. I was dumped in this new world without even a vague clue. After getting lost in Trinsic (and get disconnected twice because of crappy connection) I decided that a trip to Britain to visit Lord British should have been my first goal. I made it to Britain only to be left clueless again.

I was expecting to go straight to Lord British, but the throne room was deserted. Actually Britain in general was deserted. I was expecting to find it filled with NPCs, quests and stories to discover, and instead the more I continued to explore the game, the more it was impenetrable to me. For months all I did was to go from the inn near the center of Britain to the sewers to kill some rats and frogs while skilling up a little bit. When I had the courage to dare some more I learnt to go deep in the sewer till I was able to zone into the "Lost World" where I could fight some more challenging monsters, and in the case I died I could quickly come back and save my stuff. I memorized that path and that was all. I was eventually able to join a guild and they introduced me to PvP, even if I was never able to do anything worthwhile due to lag issues. I was usually just the victim. I was the perfect goose for PKers and thieves. I accepted that part of the game and adapted to it. There were instead other things that bugged me in that game, for example the fact that there were more houses outside a town than inside it, or that I couldn't find a two-handed sword.

You know, when you play your first MMOG you couldn't care less about what the game can offer to you. Instead you bring along your own expectations, your own imagination. I wanted to fight with a goddamn two handed sword, but there weren't any, and I was pissed. Those are the sort of things that I never accepted. The shantytowns outside towns, lack of quests, lack of stories, lack of two-handed swords. And the dragons looked very lame and so far from my idea of a scary, powerful, huge, fire-breathing dragon. UO graphic could have been considered everything but awe-inspiring. It was very conventional and monotonous. What fucking fantasy game is it if it doesn't have a two handed sword? That's what I thought.

Michael: What would you say your 'proudest' moment from a Massive game might be? The moment you'll tell your grandkids about.

Abalieno: I think the best moments I remember are still from DAoC. In WoW there's a lot of activity at the endgame in the raiding guilds, but the way this content was developed segmented the community a lot. There can be from ten to twenty raiding guilds or more, each with its own little world and ecosystem. These guilds rarely communicate between each other and, in a general sense, there's no real community or identity on a server. DAoC from this perspective was really different and *felt* different. You started as a phantom and slowly became tangible. That's the reason why my memories from that game will remain stronger. The idea of the three realms at war is a very strong one.

DAoC felt different because it gave truly communal objectives that were shared between all players. There was a community because we shared the world and we played always together in the same zones. The "war" was a context shared by everyone and where everyone could participate. Your own story, or the few hours you had available during an evening to play, weren't just a personal experience that is relevant solely to you and your guildmates. Instead the RvR zones were a real battlefield, and every other player was playing a part in your game. Participation.

Those are my fondest memories. Playing for hours deep in the night to defend or capture a relic. Huge, truly epic battles between hundreds of players. A "campaign". Aside bitching and discussing strategies on the raid chat channel I never lead anything, but even being there as one of those hundreds of players was a great experience. Sometimes the action was very slow due to some design issues. Waiting just too long inside a keep waiting for an attack that never arrived. But despite the downtimes you could feel the motivation and involvement. You could feel part of something. You could capture a keep and be sure that soon the enemy realm would come to take it back. Those desperate battles were something truly unique. It didn't matter that at the end you would lose, what mattered is that it felt great and you had a part in a greater scenario.

Michael: Likewise, what would you say was the most memorable bad experience you've had in a MMOG?

Abalieno: I use to think about these from the perspective of game design. I can remember bad experiences because I was deluded by some decisions. Guild drama never touched me. I never fed it, nor felt it entertaining. I consider "Wish" a bad experience for all the time and commitment I dedicated to it. When they, very abruptly, decided to fire Dave Rickey and from there the whole project went downhill till it was canceled a year later. The premises behind the game weren't exactly brilliant but I had faith in that game.

I suppose I could also say I'm angry at Mythic because (in my opinion) they've abandoned DAoC. They've also sold out to EA, wasting in a second all that they had achieved and that was left. At one point I had infinite esteem for Mythic. From that point they've cruised in a downward trend that I still cannot believe was even possible. They made a great entrance in the industry, they were a wind of change. And then they threw everything to hell.

Michael: If you've found Abalieno's responses interesting I highly suggest you check out the site soon. The man behind the words was kind enough to keep the site up long enough for this interview to be posted, but he's soon planning on retiring the site to the internet aether. Many thanks to Abalieno for the time involved in answering my questions, and for his consideration in keeping the site live.

There is More To Life Than MMOG Design

As tends to happen on any blog, Abalieno has occasionally strayed from his primary topic to touch on other aspects of gaming. His comments on the remastered Another World very much matched my own enthusiasm for the title. He's chronicled his frustration with Oblivion mods, as well as his appreciation of MMOG-related books. He forsaw the failure of Auto Assault, and was proven right in some commentary about the Star Wars Galaxies NGE.

He's also used the site for the occasional comment on his real life ... such as his announcement that he was closing up shop. ”The reason why I'm done: the reason why I'm done isn't because this site had a goal that I wasn't able to reach, nor because I cannot pay the hosting fees. The reason is entirely external to the site and is about myself. Writing about mmorpgs completely absorbed me and I loved it. I wasn't bored doing that, I wanted to do it MORE. Dedicating it more time without feeling bad, but legitimate. I simply reached a point where I wanted to justify what I'm doing. Is that odd? Justify that dedication. Find a sense so that I didn't feel like wasting time. Find a legitimation. But I knew that I didn't have an option, so I felt like being pulled into two opposite directions, and I broke there. I'm broken.”

Meta Commentary On a Meta Community

The Cesspit has also always made it a point to occasionally look up from the games to make a thoughtful remark about the bigger picture. This includes noteworthy news about the industry, such as the Blizzard/Vivendi Powerpoint fracas back in June or the ongoing success of NCSoft. The site also took some time this year to keep an eye out for MMOGs at the last 'real' E3. Abalieno also uses the site to respond to comments from other MMOG bloggers. Lum's community comments and SOE's efforts to alienate commentators were both dealt a verbal lashing on the Cesspit frontpage.

Sometimes the rants get a bit knee-jerky ... but really, that's part of the joy of reading the site. ”When I'm in a fantasy world I think of Tolkien and I think to all those myths that have been part of my early years (I read LOTR at 12). I DON'T THINK of a trauma center. I think of adventurers in armors, spellcasters, dragons, menacing castles, orcs, goblins. Histories about foreign and harsh lands. Magnificent sights. The struggle to survive away from your home. The need to preserve your world from an invasion, the fight against the corruption. Men of valor and charisma. And this is what I want to PLAY. What I would like the game to reenact and evocate. Drag me in. This is what I want the game to make me FEEL. And the current game mechanics, that silly mata-game of colored bars and buttons, doesn't make me feel that way AT ALL. It's exactly that meta-game level to be totally inappropriate, ineffective and that I was criticizing.”

Thousands of Words – No Real Worlds

Primarily, though, the Cesspit is about the design of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. What makes Abalieno's writing thoroughly readable is the variety he explores within that single subject. From the very act of designing to the nitty gritty of model animation, there's a wide gamut of design elements to explore on the site. Some posts are completely random ideas, perhaps prompted by inhaling too much tea ... and they're still compelling reading. Low-level systems often get some attention, such as looking for group widgets, crafting, PvP, and progression systems. I personally enjoy his high-level looks at specific games, such as tweaks to Eve Online, Everquest 2, SWG, Warhammer, and Everquest.

Abalieno's own words paint him as a dreamer, and in the end the very best Cesspit posts look over the hill to the horizon in a new and different way. His discussion of race and class selection as metaphoric values, or the attention he gives to the healer role as a meta-game byproduct is the kind of mind-gristle a certain type of gamer can't help but love. ”Final Fantasy XI is also one game with a surprisingly even racial distribution. Why? Because everything in a Final Fantasy is strongly characterized, so building its own personal myth and style more than borrowing from a shared, consolidated "imaginary".

All the element of the game are much less stereotyped and familiar compared to western games. It's all part of the "package" that bundles together the physical appearance with the symbolic value suggested by that race. When you choose one you also choose your 'mode of expression', your identity in the virtual world in the way you see fit. The way that is more appropriate to the ideal you have. The form is always a reference to the metaphor suggested. Along with a physical, objective description, there are always subjective, typical traits. Who you are. What you are saying about yourself.”

[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. ]

Gaming's Best Of The Best, 2006 Countdown Fest

- Yes, yes, I know there are 8 billion countdowns for the Best Games of 2006, but I'm going to limit my linkage to people who I happen to a) have on my RSS list and b) admire for having their own point of view, as opposed to munging billions of opinions into one uber-list of death. So that would be:

- Wired News' Chris Kohler has a very personable Top 10 posted, singling out games like Bully ("Politicos and moral crusaders slammed Rockstar's boarding-school adventure as a "Columbine simulator." In reality, Bully... was a lighthearted, gun-free comedy"), and - yes, Elite Beat Agents ("Do you believe in life after love? While you're tapping the DS' touch screen to the beat of 19 guilty-pleasure pop songs (also including "Material Girl" and "Sk8r Boi"), you will.")

- The San Jose Merc's Dean Takahashi get oddly war-centric in his Top 10, including the somewhat overlooked Company Of Heroes for PC ("Your soldiers have to struggle for every bit of territory with pitched battles that are won by the side with the best ground, flanking strategies, and massed firepower. It never felt so good to defend a series of bridges or to take the center of a town"), and rating Resistance: Fall Of Man highly, despite reservations: "It's like a realistic Ratchet & Clank, without the characters that you care about. You're never quite sure if your soldier is a monster or a super-soldier."

- What, no love for the Nooch? Dean's colleague, Mike Antonucci, also has his Top 10 posted, and he grabs out some hazy memories from earlier in the year like Kingdom Hearts II ("I listed it ahead of "Brain Age'' for the first half of '06, but ultimately its fight-and-quest appeal is more limited. A big treat for PS2 owners in the year of the PS3 and Wii"), as well as, well, Brain Age itself ("A game that can get some adults interested in video games for the first time, as well as an important early-year release for the hot-selling DS.")

- OK, I don't _particularly_ care about him, but Lou Kesten of the Associated Press listed both his best and worst of the year, and he slams Appaloosa and Majesco's Jaws Unleashed: "Glitchy graphics, unnecessarily complicated controls and stupid missions take all the fun out of swimming around and chomping on innocent humans." I've heard from friends that you can swim around and chomp on innocent humans in ridiculous ways anyhow, in spite of the game? Even though it has horrid reviews, I just bought it in the GameFly end of year sale, so we'll see whether I need a bigger hype boat when it arrives. [Semi-via VH1GameSnap.]

To conclude - oh, go on then, what was your favorite game of 2006, or more to the point, the one you spent the most time playing? I already commented on a couple of my favorite games in the Gamasutra Quantum Leap Awards, but to be honest, the one I probably spent the most time playing in 2006 was Hot Shots Golf: Open Tee for PSP, thanks to it monopoliizing my plane journeys for most of the annum.

Buggy Saints Row - The Musical!

- Aha, post of the year alert! This is wending its way swiftly around the blogosphere, but Cabel Sasser (who you might know as the guy who makes those awesome Katamari Damacy T-shirts) has just posted 'Buggy Saints Row - The Musical', an unbelievably awesome musical video tribute to THQ's chart-topping GTA clone.

Cabel explains: "A number of months ago, during the pre-Wii game drought, I partook in a little game cassette called Saints Row. Saints Row (plot: shoot stuff) was a pretty average game by any measure — for starters, it was literally, down to almost every detail, an exact clone of Grand Theft Auto. (I couldn't believe Rockstar didn't K.C. Munchkin all over their faces.) Saints Row does, to its credit, have better graphics, a pretty good script, an amusing character creator, and better targeting (for better shooting people in the face)."

But wait: "It also has some bugs. The world's most awesome bugs... So many bugs that I would keep my digital camera on hand while I played the game. And every time I came across a bug — and I came across a whole lot of them — I'd take a short video. For a long time now, I've wanted to share these bug videos with you, but I wasn't convinced they were quite funny enough. They needed a hot comedy injection, a little something to tie it all together. And then it hit me: musical theatre." The results are super duper awesome! [Via InBetween.]

Why Mars Sucks In Google Earth

- In this relatively quiet week, worth pointing out another Gamasutra article of interest to GSW-ers - that would be 'Mars Sucks - Can Games Fly on Google Earth?', a piece written by some Intel engineers about making games using Google's 3D satellite imaging app.

The team explains: "Google Earth is a standalone application; it is not web browser based like most of Google’s other tools. Google Earth also makes use of 3D hardware acceleration and is thus quite fast and responsive on a modern PC. There are a few games available for Google Earth such as “Find Skull Island” and EarthContest. These and other existing games we found all require switching back and forth between a web browser window and Google Earth. Our goal was to develop a game with all the action inside a single window, similar to a traditional video game, leading to a more immersive and responsive experience."

Unfortunately, the game itself is a little, uhm, basic: "We decided to overlay an image of a Martian craft cockpit over the Google Earth window and let the standard Google Earth controls handle moving around the globe. In the cockpit, players see a sequence of clues about the location of each Martian invader... when the player stops with a Martian craft in his sights, firing begins automatically." But hey, all the source code is provided, so you can play around yourself.

The most interesting part, though? "As we write this, rumors are that Google is planning to release an application programming interface (API) for Google Earth, and we hope that will indeed happen soon. That step would really unleash the potential for building games and other applications over Google Earth. With the API release, we are hoping to find it’s much easier to display text on the screen and handle mouse events." Will game building get a lot easier in the app real soon? We shall see!

December 28, 2006

The Firesign Theatre's Interactive Ramblings

- Back when I worked in game development, a co-worker of mine (hi Mini-Lee!) at the Accolade/Infogrames offices in San Jose was a bit of a major fan of The Firesign Theater, a very surreal foursome who produced radio shows and albums starting in the '70s with a "free-flowing, stream of consciousness style" - here's an example MP3 from 'I Think We're All Bozos On This Bus', to give you a vague idea.

Anyhow, I was reading the Goldmine Comedy Record Price Guide the other day, for some reason, and there was mention of the troupe's 1985 album 'Eat Or Be Eaten', in which "the framing device of this album is a character stuck in an interactive videogame." Interesting!

In fact, a history of the Firesign Theater posted at Disinformation.com reveals: "In 1985 The Firesign Theatre was approached by Phillips to write two demonstration games for their new CD Interactive machines. Eat Or Be Eaten, was recorded as a 99 track demo and the accompanying graphics made but the actual finished project was never published commercially. Danger In Dreamland, a Nick Danger Hollywood studio back-lot murder mystery game, was written but not recorded. Eat Or Be Eaten (1985) was salvaged and released as the first CD with subcode graphics." Since the actual Philips CD-I was released in 1991, this must have been something to do with the making of the CD-I format in 1986?

But that's not all! Elsewhere, there's some mention that Firesign's movie The Case of the Missing Yolk (1983) was originally meant to be the world's first 'interactive video' with the help of an unnamed Japanese company and Michael Nesmith's Pacific Arts Video - I presume it would have been like Dragon's Lair?

[Also noted in Firesign FAQs: "The trio worked with Mattel's Intellivision wing in the development of interactive video games" in 1982, and further explained: "The remaining Firesigners also provided voices for some of Mattel's Intellivison games, including Bomb Squad and B52 Bomber."]

In fact, the Firesign Theater seem to have been stymied in many major game projects they produced, except one masterminded by founding member Phil Proctor, who mentioned this in a 1995 interview: a CD-ROM that is "a comedic take on some of the more popular adventure-style games that have been out on the market for the last year or two." And, wait for it - it was Pyst, with John Goodman, the Myst-aping CD-ROM parody. VERY odd.

Anyhow, Proctor's Wikipedia entry reveals that he's been infiltrating games in a different way of recent - as a voice actor, since he "did two voices in the GameCube video Game Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, and on the Playstation 2's Dark Chronicle. He is the voice of Hakese and Monkey White in the Ape Escape series... Recently, his voice was featured in the video game Dead Rising, as the character Russell Barnaby." So there.

GameSetCompetition: Karaoke Revolution American Idol Winner

- Time for the results of our most recent GameSetCompetition, which dared to dabble in the arcana of Simon Cowell's loopy trouser heights and Randy Jackson's 'Yeah, dawg'-isms.

More specifically, Konami were giving away a T-shirt and a copy of Karaoke Revolution Presents: American Idol for PlayStation 2 plus microphone to one lucky GSW reader, as part of a promo related to their virtual American Idol contest at MusicInEveryDirection.com.

The lucky victor this time is Joe Fourhman, who was one of a few to correctly identify the publisher of the previous American Idol game, as follows:

Q: "Which UK-headquartered publisher published the (sorry, not actually very good!) previous video game based on American Idol?"
A: Codemasters.

Thanks to all who played this time, even if the reality TV vs. GameSetWatch overlap in the Venn diagram isn't particularly large. We'll try to give away something much geekier next time, like Yu Suzuki's nose hair or similar.

King Of Games' Magical Sound T-Shirt

- Yay for GeekOnStun, since they've spotted some great new King Of Games Japanese T-shirts, including Out Run and Fantasy Zone - and they're awesome.

Of course, this means that they get overexcited: "In light of this VERY IMPORTANT NEWS we sent an excited e-mail to the English speaking person at The King of Games asking if they'll sell these on the online shop! And they wrote back! And they said... THEY SAID! THEY'RE TALKING! TO SEGA OF AMERICA! AND MAYBE! THEY'LL! SELL! THEM! IN! AMERICA! *!!!!!*""

It's also noted, in over-enthusiastic hyper-UKR style: "# They're both 5040 yen which is about $43 according to Google and also a BARGAIN # They'll both be open for ordering on January 7 but JUST for from KOG in Japanese (but Shop 33 also carries Get Ready after a while)."

GameSetLinks: Wii Like To Super Swing

- Ah yes, a little more GameSetLink-age for the post-holiday period, led by Tom Chick's look into a little swinging Wii golf action:

- Super Swing It!: I've seen some wildly diverging reviews for it already, but the Wii version of Pang-Ya/Albatross 18, Super Swing Golf, came out earlier this month, and over at QT3, Tom Chick has a much more positive take on it, linking to his Yahoo! review and commenting: "But Super Swing Golf does enough things better than Mario or Hot Shots Golf that it's currently my golf game of choice. With the Wii swinging, it's a great party game with more personality than Wii Sports' golf and more gameplay than the wretched Super Monkey Ball's take on golf." Looks like it may be worth picking up.

- Christmas Carded: Better late than never, my fellow Gamasutra news editor Jason Dobson updated eToychest with a few game company Christmas cards, including several that we didn't scan in during our own round-up Particularly goofy? "Capcom's rather humorous card shows that the company's obsession with the undead extends even to this festive season", heh - and there are also Atlus, Microsoft, and other fun cards.

- Pocket Aces: UK site Pocket Gamer has picked its Top 50 Mobile Games for 2006, and we're linking to it (and not the 50 billion other countdowns!) because it actually showcases cellphone games that a) look neat, and b) that we were unaware of. And the top 4 titles are all original IP, actually. The Pocket Gamers comment: "From action-adventures to puzzlers to racers, just about every genre had one or two standout titles to download" - and we're vaguely excited to play a few of them.

- Three Dream Rings Office: Over at Puzzle Pirates and Bang Howdy creator Three Rings Design, they're having a teensy office remodel - as spectacularly showcased by interior design firm Because We Can, who are masterminded. Wait, can we get offices like this, NOW? I think this was first discussed in Daniel James' new Letter From The Captain post on PuzzlePirates.com - his personal update at TheFloggingWillContinue (heh!) reveals his Burning Man project and all the cool game confs he visited this year.

- Second Life Gullibility Syndrome: Clay Shirky is going fairly postal on Second Life media hype at a revitalized Valleywag, and his latest post takes allegedly 'lazy' media types to task for swallowing Linden's definition of 'Resident': "The basic trick is to make it hard to remember that Linden's definition of Resident has nothing to do with the plain meaning of the word resident. My dictionary says a resident is a person who lives somewhere permanently or on a long term basis. Linden's definition of Residents, however, has nothing to do with users at all -- it measures signups for an avatar." Plenty more reasonably justified grump if you click through, m'dears - didn't Chuck D have something to say about this whole issue?

December 27, 2006

Jenkins Takes On Zimmerman, Indie Style

- Blogger, media theorist and man about town Henry Jenkins has posted an interview with Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman (here's the second part) discussing the indie gaming nexus.

For starters, Zimmerman makes a good point about defining indie games (or rather, not defining them!): "To me it is less important to define exactly what independent games are and instead figure out how to create innovative games that expand the boundaries of digital games, a form of culture that is only a few decades old and still has vast spaces for experimentation and invention."

He also discusses the innovative project-based funding Gamelab is trying, interestingly noting: "It has been difficult to find project-based investors, however. My feeling is that in 10 or 15 years, when there are enough wealthy people that believe games are an important cultural form, we'll see a boom in independent games. Right now, however, the people that invest in independent film aren't gamers and don't see the glamour or importance of games."

Feature: 'Gizmondo - Inside The Eye Of The Tiger'

- So, here's the first of the GameSetWatch 'holiday special' articles, and it's a kinda interesting one. The first thing to note is that it's out of date - it was originally written in January 2005, and never published. And, well, it's an investigative article written by me about Gizmondo, the now-famed Ferrari-crashing, money-squandering handheld company.

But because it goes into unprecedented detail about the financial history of the company, I think it's worth publishing. In fact, it goes into somewhat ridiculous, almost 10,000-word long detail, which is one of the reasons that it was never published. But let's give you some context here - when in Gizmondo's history was this published, and why didn't it make it out at the time?

- Firstly, at the beginning of 2005, the much-hyped Gizmondo handheld console had allegedly just 'launched' in the UK (there was an official announcement that it would debut in October 2004), but nobody could actually find significant amounts of them in stores. That in itself was odd, and I was increasingly surprised that big companies like Microsoft Game Studios were signing deals with Gizmondo and were apparently happy to be associated with them, apparently without researching the company's history or plans.

In addition, the major acquisition of console developer Warthog by Gizmondo had just happened in November 2004, and hype was at an all-time high. But I could already tell there was something pretty suspicious about the company - making big announcement launches and then not getting product out into the marketplace is a major faux pas, for starters, and so I dug into Gizmondo and Tiger Telematics' history all the way back to the early '90s, by using SEC filings.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any sources within Gizmondo, so the resulting analysis was highly dense and financial, and, I thought, too speculative to post on Gamasutra. I actually considered punting it over to GameSpot, because I felt like investigative reports weren't our forte at Gama, and Curt Feldman agreed to publish an edited version, but the sheer amount of factchecking needed ended up meaning that the article never debuted.

- So the report ended up languishing on my hard drive for two years - although I did keep Gizmondo's financials foremost in my sights through 2005, and broke a number of the stories on the company, such as its purchase of Isis Models to "provide marketing support and arrangements for Gizmondo", and even its ownership of a racehorse - a chestnut colt named Gizmondo. Where is Gizmondo now, I wonder?

Later in 2005, I was one of the first people to report Gizmondo's major confirmed losses for the first time, including the extraordinary payments to figures like Stefan Eriksson and Carl Freer, disclosures that ended up with their resignations and then, in pretty short time, the company's bankruptcy in January 2006.

Obviously, it was Eriksson's Ferrari crash in April 2006 which really brought the media in full force, and I ended up getting called by someone from the New York Times and someone pitching a story to Esquire at various points over Gizmondo's history, just because I've written a lot about them. But I do wonder - would things have been different if I'd published this piece? Would any later investors have been dissuaded?

But the fact is that most of the deals were done at this point, and the main reason this piece wasn't published at the time was that all it really added up to was: 'Gizmondo sure has a bit of a shady past, and some of the financial scrapes they're currently getting into aren't so pretty'. I do point out that the 'reputable GPS company' that Gizmondo is hiding behind is reasonably obviously not a going concern, but that in itself isn't a smoking gun.

Also, some of the figures from early in Gizmondo's history, such as former Tiger CEO A.J. Nassar, seem to have actually bowed out entirely by 2002 or so, meaning that a bunch of the early history I give is, sure, shady, but it doesn't directly relate to the Gizmondo/Tiger Telematics management team which masterminded the 'launch' and subsequent crash. But there's still a strong narrative of the company's history in here which goes into more detail than any published article so far, I believe. So - here goes.

Gizmondo - Inside The Eye Of The Tiger
(Originally written by Simon Carless in January 2005.)

[Please note: all of the financial facts within this article are taken from Tiger Telematics' own financial results, which can be viewed by going to the SEC Filings section for the company at the Pink Sheets website, www.pinksheets.com.]


It's likely, if you've been paying any attention to the gaming media of late, that you would have heard something about Gizmondo, the company launching a multi-function, GPS-toting handheld gaming device that was due out in Europe in ‘the fourth quarter of 2004’, and seems poised to launch across the rest of the world in early 2005. Due to licensing deals with Microsoft Game Studios for MechAssault and other major titles, as well as the outright acquisition of UK-headquartered independent developer Warthog, it's likely that the company's rising profile has intersected with your media browsing habits somewhere along the line.

It's also possible that you've heard of Gizmondo Europe's parent company, the Florida-based Tiger Telematics. In fact, if you'd read an interview in the online section of noted magazine Business Week earlier in 2004 (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/04_25/b3888607.htm), you'd know that Tiger Telematics is "successful in the field of global-position-system appliances."

The official Tiger Telematics corporate site (http://www.tigertelematics.com) goes a little further: "Tiger is a pioneer in using combined GPS and GSM functionality in its products and systems. As an independent company, Tiger has developed its own state-of-the-art business systems for professional vehicle fleet management."

So, obviously, this would be a case of a successful GPS company getting a little creative, and deciding to use its assets to create a handheld aiming to get money that'll seep down from people who'd like alternatives to the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, right? Well, very possibly. But a thorough investigation of official SEC filings for the company reveal an fascinating web of intersecting, often bankrupted companies that will certainly make you look at Gizmondo in a new light, and may even make you wonder where the company's real motives lie.

In The Beginning, There Were Platinum Hits

First things first - Tiger Telematics has not always been called Tiger Telematics. In fact, the Delaware-incorporated company (useful for tax and limited liability reasons) started life as Media Communications Group, Inc, a company based in Nashville, Tennessee, and with a very different focus altogether.

In late 2000, MCG Inc. revealed in a financial disclosure form that it had "entered into negotiations with Royal Monarch Media Inc. to publish its magazine The Church Connection, which is a quarterly music trade magazine to the major churches in the United States", and additionally, in early 2001, "acquired 1,000 units of the "Platinum & Gold all Top Hits(TM)" music collection from a surplus close-out and began a marketing and distribution campaign for the "Platinum & Gold all Top Hits(TM)" music collection." This is, needless to say, not exactly a conventional start for a GPS firm.

In fact, it seems that the original MCG Inc. owners largely bowed out of the company that would become Tiger Telematics, when, in 2001, an SEC form revealed that "a purchasing group led by A.J. Nassar acquired 21,900,000 shares of the common stock of the Company to become the owner of approximately 40% of the issued and outstanding common stock of the Company pursuant to an agreement including the merger of Floor Decor, Inc., a Florida corporation, into a newly formed wholly owned subsidiary of the Company." Shortly after this, the company officially became known as Floor Decor Inc, and established its geographical base in Florida that it holds to this day.

Four To The Floor

So, is Floor Decor Inc. some kind of amusing play on words, referencing some obscure part of the PCB building process for GPS chips? Not entirely. To explain, using another SEC filing: "Floor Decor, Inc. of Fort Lauderdale, Florida... is a "big box" concept with significant lines of flooring products in retail, builder and commercial distribution. The superstore concept is focused on middle to high end price categories featuring extensive inventory including several thousand area rugs and millions of square feet of wood laminates, tile and carpet, housed in a single, expansive facility." This is the company that will become Tiger Telematics, and as of early 2002, we can already see Michael Carrender, the current CEO of the company, on board.

But let's focus for a minute on the person who masterminded this switch, and would be the CEO of the company, working alongside Carrender, until the final name switch to Tiger Telematics - A.J. Nassar. Nassar's background is in the flooring business, and is worth examining, not least because of his stint as CEO and President of the Maxim Group Inc. (also called Flooring America, Inc.) in the late '90s.

Maxim/Flooring America was the subject of at least one class action lawsuit (http://web.archive.org/web/20010627132859/www.milberg.com/flooringamerica/) after, according to the "on May 22, 2000, revealed that it would be restating its previously reported financial results for the first two quarters of the fiscal year 2000. In total, losses for these two periods were understated by more than $7 million. After the Company's announcement, Flooring America shares fell to $2 9/16 per share from a high of over $6 during the class period, as the market fully absorbed the impact of these disclosures." Previous to this, on January 21st, 2000 the SEC had already launched a formal investigation into Flooring America's fiscal 1999 financial statements, accounting policies, procedures and systems of internal controls.

In fact, the company filed for bankruptcy in June 2000, shortly after this financial restatement revelation, and a St. Petersburg Times article discussing the bankruptcy (http://www.sptimes.com/News/062000/Business/Flooring_retailer_goe.shtml) reveals a little more pertinent information about the final days of the company: "Actor and former Olympic gymnast Cathy Rigby signed on as spokeswoman for a $46-million advertising campaign that promoted the 1,100-store chain's new name. At the same time, however, the company was drowning in losses, answering securities regulators' questions about its accounting practices after restating its 1998 earnings last year and defending itself in 11 shareholder lawsuits."

Adjusting Telemetry, Moving Forward

But, of course, previous issues are not necessarily a reason to dismiss a company out of hand. Clearly, A.J. Nassar had some tough times as CEO of the Maxim Group, but now heading up Floor Décor, it seemed that he had a chance to put that behind him.

Unfortunately, Floor Décor Inc. was a little slow to mature, too. According to the company’s financial results: “From July 3, 2000 through December 31, 2000, the Company incurred net losses of approximately $665,000 due to the costs associated with the store openings and the operating costs of new stores without the corresponding revenues. Through the first quarter ended March 31, 2001 the losses approximated $295,000.” A later financial statement brings the bad news: “As of September 30, 2001, the Company had an accumulated deficit of approximately $1,622,000.” This is, perhaps, all reasonable, considering it takes time to build up a business from scratch in any market.

Nonetheless, there seemed to be a shifting of focus, and an extreme one, at that. On February 4th, 2002, A.J. Nassar and the Floor Décor staff announced a major acquisition: “Floor Decor, Inc. (FLOR:OTCBB) today announced that it has completed its acquisition of Eagle Eye Scandinavian Distribution Ltd., a private UK-based company that specializes in the marketing and distribution of automotive telematics systems and services.”

Interestingly, the contract reveals: “The Purchase price for Eagle Eye Scandinavian Distribution Limited was 7,000,000 shares of Floor Decor, Inc. common stock”, and moreover, that two major stockholders in Eagle Eye Scandinavian were persuaded to convert a total of around 5 million dollars in indebtedness into further Floor Décor Inc. stock. Thus, the deal cost Floor Décor absolutely no money out of its own pocket. It’s also notable at this time that “Alvin J. Nassar and his affiliates currently own and control approximately forty (40%) percent of the outstanding shares of common stock of the Company.”

The two people selling Eagle Eye Scandinavian to Floor Décor at this time were Christopher Sturm and Carl Freer – Freer is particularly worth mentioning because he is still currently the MD of Gizmondo Europe. At this time, “The issued share capital of Buyer at the date hereof is approximately 54,000,000 shares of common stock” – so the deal gave Freer and Sturm about one eighth of the company. In fact, another financial report reveals: “The 7,000,000 shares of stock issued were valued at $0.40 per share. This price is the same price as the private placement transactions with investors that were entered into from December 2001 through March 2002. This valued the stock issued at $2,800,000.” In March 2002, Eagle Eye Scandinavian Distribution Ltd, sometimes known as Eagle Eye Telematics, changed its name to Tiger Telematics Inc, the name the entire company uses today.

Around this time, we also see an important U.S. addition to the Floor Décor staff – Michael Carrender was hired and became Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of the Company in February 2002. He was President and Chief Executive Officer of Crowe Rope, a unit of JPBE, Inc., a manufacturer of cordage products, from January 1999 until he joined Floor Decor. Thus, both the key figures in the current Gizmondo roll-out were in place at the company.

Instruments Out Of Sync?

So, what of the newly renamed Tiger Telematics? Well, much of the company’s focus was on GPS solutions for tracking cars: “Tiger Telematics is the exclusive distributor in Scandinavia and Yugoslavia of the Eagle Eye VCG2, a vehicle communications gateway that combines telecommunications and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) technologies to provide security and communications solutions for fleet vehicle management.” This sounds promising, and it seemed that Tiger was poised to become a competitor in this new and intriguing field.

But Tiger Telematics would need new premises to expand, then. Thus, on April 26th 2002, the company made an agreement with Christian & Timbers UK, Ltd for offices on the 7th floor of 105 Piccadilly, London W1. By way of payment, the contract agreed that “the Tenant shall satisfy its obligation to pay Rent for the first year of the term of the Lease by way of the issue of five hundred thousand (500,000) shares in Floor Decor Inc. ("the Shares") each in the name of the Landlord” However, if “the aggregate net proceeds of sale arising from such sale or sales is less than (pound)126,018.75… the Tenant shall forthwith pay to the Landlord the difference between (pound)126,018.75 and the said proceeds in cash.” So, although Tiger Telematics would have to pay cash if their shares weren’t worth sufficient money at the end of the year, this was another cost, like the Eagle Eye acquisition, funded through the selling of shares.

By May 2002, it was clear to the company that telematics was the way to profitability, not flooring, as they’d previously assumed. Thus it was announced: “On May 20, 2002, the Company's Board of Directors authorized the change of the Company's name from Floor Decor, Inc. to Tiger Telematics, Inc. and a new ticker symbol "TIGR". On June 6, 2002, the Company started trading under this new symbol.”

Meanwhile, Floor Décor’s store was, if you’d pardon the rhyming, about to be no more. It was revealed: “The Board of Directors has approved the disposition of the Company's flooring segment assets. The Company is in preliminary discussions regarding the sale of all assets of the flooring operation. The Company intends to focus on development of its telematics business.”

In fact, later in the year, it was reported: “In June 2002 the Company entered into a plan to dispose of its flooring business. The flooring business was subsequently sold on August 9, 2002.” Apparently, someone was keen to take the loss-making flooring business from Tiger, and, fortunately enough, sold off much of the debts of the flooring division with that sale: “The Company sold its flooring business to a purchasing group headed up by a former officer of the Company. The Company sold assets aggregating $1,152,698, and had the buyer assume liabilities totaling $1,243,135. The Company will remain contingently liable on the liabilities until such time as the acquirers pay them off.”

This requires a little more investigation, though. Apparently, “On August 9, 2002 Matthew Sailor resigned as a Director of the Company”, and on the same day, a company called M.I.N.I.M.E., INC, headed by Matthew Sailor, bought the ailing flooring business for a total of $1.00 in cash. The address to send demands for payments to M.I.N.I.M.E., INC at that time was 6001 Powerline Road, Fort Lauderdale, FL, coincidentally the same address as Tiger Telematics.

Comworxx – Doesn’t Worxx?

Now that Tiger Telematics Inc. had one GPS-related company, they were on a roll. Another acquisition wasn’t far behind, and the company triumphantly announced on June 13th, 2002: “Tiger Telematics Inc, (symbol "TIGR") has today entered into a binding definitive agreement to acquire Comworxx Inc, the US mobile telematics solutions provider subject to the issuance of $4.3 million of Tiger Telematics stock, the assumption of certain liabilities and providing $500,000 of funding which Tiger is in the process of financing.” Again, the acquisition was entirely in stock, apart from funding which Tiger had not yet raised, meaning there was no need to pay any cash out to acquire another company.

Why was Comworxx Inc. an interesting purchase for Tiger? Well, according to the press release announcing the company’s acquisition: “[Comworxx’s] Port-IT(TM) product combines global positioning, mobile telecommunications, voice-recognition and web-based information into one integrated system and has attracted preliminary expressions of interest from several major United States retailers.” Thus, it seemed like a perfect complementary product to the Tiger Telematics UK division. As part of the deal, Comworxx’s Michael Jonas became CEO of Tiger Telematics Inc. Things couldn’t be better.

Or perhaps they could. Financial documents filed a little later in 2002 revealed a major problem – working capital to actually conduct operations: “The Company is evaluating the business of its recently acquired assets of Comworxx (acquired on June 25, by the wholly owned subsidiary Tiger USA), to determine the appropriate time to launch these products full scale in the U.S. The Company is addressing the issues of the need for funding for working capital in order to launch; the need to formulate payment arrangements with certain obligations assumed by Tiger USA; and the high relative cost of the product relative to the projected sales price available for such products in the U.S. consumer marketplace. For these factors the Company has postponed a launch of the product until this evaluation can be completed.”

In case this was unclear, it was the lack of actual cash which was slowing Tiger down: “In June, the Company announced the goal to raise $500,000, $109,000 that was already raised at that time. The Company raised additional sums but has struggled in obtaining the amount of the desired funding. Depending upon the outcome of the review and the status of funding, the Company may choose not to sustain the operations of Tiger USA and may need to discontinue those operations accordingly.”

Intriguingly, although the original press release said that Tiger Telematics Inc. had bought Comworxx, it had evidently been slightly inaccurate. Apparently, it was ‘Tiger USA’, not Tiger Telematics Inc., and while Tiger Telematics Inc. was safe, Tiger USA might now need to ‘discontinue operations’ due to this lack of working capital.

Meanwhile, around this time, there were plenty of other shake-outs in Tiger’s structure: “Michael Jonas resigned as a Director and CEO on July 24, 2002. On July 24, 2002, AJ Nassar and Ed Kenny resigned as Directors of the company. On August 20, 2002 Michael W. Carrender a director, EVP and CFO was named to the additional post of CEO.”

Thus, Comworxx’s Jonas was out, only one month after the acquisition, long-time CEO Nassar also officially left the board, and Mike Carrender was now heading up the company. Where would this rollercoaster lead next?

Bad Tiger News Day?

The company’s financial results released on 15th November 2002 brought little in the way of consolation. All in all, neither of the two GPS-based businesses bought by Tiger were working out. The document explains of the UK operations: “The Company plans to develop the Tiger Telematics Ltd. product development and distribution business in the UK. This is going forward as planned but slower than anticipated due to a lack of funding. The Company is concluding development of its next generation fleet product and its new tracker products including child tracker devices.”

As for Comworxx over in the United States, the situation there was even more dire: “The company is addressing the issues of the need for funding for working capital in order to effect the [Comworxx product] launch, the need to formulate payment arrangements with holders of certain obligations that Tiger USA assumed and the high related cost of the product relative to the projected sales price available for such products in the U.S. consumer retail marketplace. The Company has postponed a launch of the product indefinitely and effectively mothballed the Tiger USA operations indefinitely. The Company plans to attempt to restructure the business with a lower cost operation at a new site and with a different pricing model. The Company is exploring disposing of the assets and associated business opportunities to third parties.”

Mixed in with all this bad news, there were even some problems with seemingly errant shareholders, which apparently had nothing to do with the company: “A shareholder borrowed some of the funds advanced to the Company from a private investment bank based in London. The shareholders failed to repay the note when due. The investment firm has made demand on the subsidiary Tiger Ltd. to repay the funds since Tiger Ltd. was the beneficiary of the funds. The Company believes it is not responsible for that obligation and responded to the demand accordingly.”

In addition, further confusion reigned about share selling: “The Company has received inquiries from persons who maintain that they have made an investment in the Company for which the Company has no records and which appear to be private transactions among various shareholders. Legal counsel is looking into the circumstances surrounding each inquiry.”

Tiger Telematics – Sold Out?

Maybe things weren’t going so well for the U.S. telematics companies. But how about Tiger Telematics UK? Surely they couldn’t be in such dire straits? Well, perhaps they weren’t. But on December 20, 2002, there was another major sale.

On that date, Tiger Telematics LLC sold its subsidiary, the UK division of Tiger Telematics, to Norrtulls Mobilextra Aktiebolag. According to the transfer documents: “The sale of the stock was in exchange for the assumption of debt of Tiger Telematics, Ltd. with an estimated book value of $825,000.” In return, Norrtulls got “EE units, prepaid commissions and other assets with an estimated book value of $600,000”, and had to pay royalties on the GPS hardware for 10 years.

However, further perusal of the document reveals that Tiger Telematics’ UK division “is engaged in the business of developing, manufacturing and marketing automotive telematics products (the "Business") in Europe… [and] has developed other unrelated products, Childtracker and non Eagle Eye Telematics tracking units that have been transferred to another UK subsidiary of Seller.” So again, we have a lucky sale to a buyer who assumes much of the debt, while the new subsidiary, Tiger Telematics Europe Ltd., has been fortunate enough to continue on with vehicle tracking and other GPS products as if nothing has happened.

In fact, in the press release put out at the time, CEO Michael Carrender explains: “This restructure was completed to reduce costs and improve our speed in coming to the market with large fleet and rental car providers in London… we also expect to relocate a portion of our staff to a lower cost facility closer to our customers.”

Since one of the items transferred to Norrtulls was the agreement with Christian & Timbers UK, Ltd for the 7th floor of 105 Piccadilly, London W1, that might explain why the offices had to move at a later date. We’ll hear more about this particular deal a little later.

Ahoy Gametrac!

On May 23rd, 2003, Tiger Telematics Inc. produced new financial statements through the end of 2002. In them, it again stated the company’s main aim: “The company is focused on large fleet providers in England including the rental car market. The core strategy is to sign multi-year agreements with wireless carriers and major fleet operators under our fleet service partnership program that enables fleet operators to gain the benefits of telematics products with little or no upfront costs.”

However, this is the first time that any sign of a game console appears, and it’s in a paragraph discussing a device called the Gametrac. The statement explains: “Tiger Telematics are currently undertaking the development of a range of child tracking devices which provide enhanced functionality aimed at children and teenagers. The product will be available for distribution third quarter of 2003. Preliminary indications are that the target market could bring about orders of up to two million units within the first year of trading although no assurance can be given.”

It continues: “The devices lead by "Gametrac" incorporate state-of-the-art JAVA games and a SMS texting facility to enable an easy sell from parent to child/teenager. Apart from intrinsic entertainment value, an integrated GPS device enables the parent to locate the child with an accuracy of ten metres. Both secondary and tertiary revenue streams are accessible to Tiger via the downloading of new games and advertising through MMS.”

Unfortunately, there were a few further nasty surprises in this financial statement. In particular: “The Company reported an operating loss of $13,342,261. $4,414,818 of the loss is the non-cash write down of the impaired goodwill, principally from of the assets of Comworxx acquisition. $1,091,878 reflected a provision for potential liabilities related to the April 2003 bankruptcy and subsequent liquidation of the buyer of Floor Decor LCC and its assets.” It seems that Floor Décor, sold just a few months earlier for just $1.00, had gone bankrupt, unfortunately.

Plus, remember that the lease on Tiger’s UK offices was sold along with Tiger Telematics Ltd (now replaced by Tiger Telematics Europe Ltd, as well as another company subsidiary, Gametrac Europe, which would later change its name to Gizmondo Europe.) Well: “The sold company Tiger Telematics, Ltd. failed to make payments to the landlord following the expiration of the time period convered in the leases for shares. The landlord has filed suit against the Company in second quarter 2003 alleging amounts owed pursuant to the Company's guarantee of Tiger Ltd.'s lease obligation.”

In addition to this, you may recall that there were some problems with ‘funds advanced to the Company from a private investment bank based in London’. Apparently, Tiger Ltd. discovered they had to pay these funds after all. At least, they had to pay them up to the moment they were sold, when it became the responsibility of Norrtulls: “Tiger Ltd. repaid approximately $80,000 prior to the sale of the business on December 17, 2002. Following the sale of Tiger Telematics, Ltd. the Company was apprised that the Tiger Ltd. was placed in liquidation insolvency under the laws of the United Kingdom by LIM for failure to make the payments required under this arrangement.” So Tiger Ltd. also lapsed into liquidation shortly after being sold, much like Floor Décor.

After this point, much of the information on the company ceases until December 2003, when the shareholders are asked to authorize a further hike in the amount of shares the company needs. It’s explained: “The Company needs to increase its authorized shares by an additional 250,000,000 to 500,000,000 shares in order to convert debt, fund further product development, raise capital and to pursue acquisitions of technologies and companies as deemed appropriate.” Remember, this was a company which had around 50,000,000 shares in early 2002. Throughout 2003, the company’s shares were trading at between 3 cents and 5 cents per share. On January 16th 2004, this shift to 500,000,000 shares was confirmed. Tiger Telematics were ready to roll again.

Accumulating Goodwill, Gametrac Style?

With the vehicle tracking concepts fading into the background, seemingly abandoned, it was time to bring Gametrac to the fore, and serious development began on the handheld game console with GPS included. In a financial release in early 2004, dealing with partnerships and advances made during late 2003, it’s clear how Tiger Telematics (and more specifically Gizmondo Europe, formerly Gametrac Europe) was doing this – by ‘collaborating with’ well-known companies. Listing those companies from the earliest onwards, we see:

- a joint venture with Plextek, one of the largest independent electrical design and consulting firms in the UK.
- a strategic partnership was formed with Synergenix Interactive AB, regarding the use of Morphum games on Gametrac's mobile gaming platform.
- a strategic partnership with Intrinsyc Software International, a Microsoft Gold Level Windows Embedded Partner, and elected to utilize Windows CE.NET as Gametrac's operating system.
- a collaboration with Fathammer Alliance, a leading supplier of advanced 3D graphics and game technologies for mobile platforms
- a strategic partnership between the Company and MINICK was announced. MINICK has already built one of the largest premium messaging networks in Europe, and operates its own SMS & MMS centers that connect directly to mobile networks. This partnership sets the stage for Gametrac units serving as a platform that allows the Company's Smart Advertising (Smart Adds) service.
- in late February 2004 it was announced that Gametrac will be using Samsung's world-class S3C2440 Mobile Applications Processor.
- in late March 2004 the Company signed an agreement with CATIC, a giant State-Run Chinese conglomerate, which involved "... sales, distribution, technical support, and numerous other joint ventures for all Chinese regions,"

Thus, the company was starting to build up an increasing amount of interest and buzz through constant announcement of ‘strategic partnerships’. Some of these announcements involved little or no money changing hands, at least not until the device shipped.

But clearly, even when large-scale production hadn't commenced, there was still money being paid out to these partners. How were Tiger funding the partnerships which required payment, or even paying their staff, when the company still had no revenue? There is clearly no mainstream GPS business feeding into the game subsidiary, as some might erroneously think.

In fact, it seems that much of the working capital for Tiger Telematics Europe to work on the Gametrac was being funded by, naturally, selling more shares in Tiger. A financial statement explains: “In 1st quarter, 2004, the Company issued 10,585,000 shares for goods and services at the market rate of $.02 to $.05 per share at the time issued and expensed $305.383 for the services… The Company issued 58,053,778 in common shares in private placement transactions to qualified investors of strategic partners or providers of services and goods to the Company to raise cash as converted into dollars from sterling $2,977,833 for use primarily in its UK subsidiary for working capital and product development expenses.” As the number of shares continued to multiply, the company could still sell ever-increasing amounts of them for money to raise working capital.

Is this behavior dishonest? Not in the slightest, as long as the investors clearly understood the amount of shares and the prospects for the company, considering it still had to release its major product. But more problems were just around the corner.

Formula 1, Gametrak Fun?

What wasn't going so well, unfortunately, were continuing deals signed by Tiger in Europe. Now that Tiger Telematics Ltd were gone, Tiger Telematics Europe Ltd were presiding over the development and launch of the Gametrac, but the continual delay of the handheld's release date led to some major issues.

In particular, the major sponsorship deal signed to have the Gametrac logo displayed prominently on the Jordan Formula 1 team's cars ran into problems, when the handheld's launch, scheduled for early 2004, ran into major delays. Tiger's financial statements from later in 2004 reveals: "In March 2004 Jordan Grand Prix Ltd. filed suit against the Company in the UK alleging violation of the Sponsorship Agreement entered into between the Company and Jordan Racing in July 17, 2003 and a related Letter Agreement dated in July 2003. The sponsorship agreement was meant to assist in marketing the companies (sic) new hand held gaming device and to correspond with its launch."

Tiger's financial statement explains the issue further. Were Jordan implying that Tiger discovered that the GameTrac launch was delayed, and simply declined to pay, despite the signed contract? In the financial statement, Tiger seems unconcerned: "The launch was delayed from its anticipated time frame. Jordan sued the Company for $3 million and alleges that the Company defaulted in a payment due on January 1, 2004 of $500,000 under the sponsorship agreement and a payment for $250,000 due on the same date under a separate letter agreement. On February 26, 2004 Jordan sent the Company a letter where they formally and officially terminated both agreements for the aforementioned alleged defaults. The Company believes that it has good defenses to the suit and has filed a defense in UK courts and is considering filing a countersuit against Jordan Racing in the matter in the upcoming months."

In addition, there were further issues with allegedly unpaid creditors. An early 2004 financial report explains: "There are two vendors that have filed suit against the Gametrac Europe, Ltd. for invoice billings for services... the company has retained counsel to contest the alleged invoices... In addition, the Company has received invoices from several corporations for software charges it is maintained that the Company procured for use in current or previous products of the Company." Tiger Telematics, at this stage headed by Michael Carrender in the U.S. and Carl Freer in the UK, the same line-up that is in place today, were not making friends.

As well as legal action from other vendors, there were further problems with the name of the handheld, which Tiger Telematics had seemingly not registered as a trademark, or at least, not in time to stop a lawsuit, according to further litigation news in the same financial report: "In March 2004, the Company and its Gametrac Europe Ltd. subsidiary were sued in the UK in a trademark infringement suit by IN 2 Games Ltd. to recover over (pound) 150,000 alleging that the use of the project name Gametrac for its multi-entertainment handheld device that is in development and the use of Gametrac in the name of the subsidiary was an infringement on their registered trademark in the UK "Gametrak"." GameTrak is the motion-sensing PlayStation 2 add-on hardware/software bundle which had already been extensively advertised in Europe around that time.

As a result: "The Company had previously planned to announce the name of its new device in May at E-3 show in LA but went forward and announced the new name Gizmondo in April 2004. The company has also taken steps to remain the Gametrac Europe Ltd. subsidiary to Gizmondo Europe Ltd. The company anticipates that with the new product name change announcement and its step to rename the subsidiary in the UK that it will be able to resolve the litigation on an amicable basis although no assurances can be given. No provision has been made on the financial statements for the litigation."

So, it seems that particular issue had been put to bed. However, the title of the company's handheld console was renamed from Gametrac to Gizmondo at around the same time the gadget website Gizmodo.com became popular, leading to public accusations from the Gizmodo editors on the similarity of the name. No lawsuit has even been filed regarding this, though, and it might well be a further coincidence, albeit an unfortunate one.

Getting On The Right Track With Gizmondo

In early 2004, Tiger Telematics released its accounts for the nine months ended September 30th, 2003. They revealed net sales of negative $8,477, due to returns from client trials (presumably of earlier Tiger-related GPS products), general and administrative expenses of $1,940,034, nonetheless much decreased from the previous year due to the selling-off of the soon-to-be-bankrupt Tiger UK Ltd, and "associated staff reductions from the sale", and a continuing loss of $2,377,033 - not so good.

Meanwhile, the announcements continued to pile up:

- a deal with Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide to select the firm as its PR agency of record
- an agreement with Toys R Us for UK Gizmondo distribution in the UK
- a heads of agreement with the Renaissance Corporation Ltd, for an exclusive Australian/New Zealand distribution contract.
- letters of intent with Redline Marketing and Tartan Sales to handle PR and marketing for the Gizmondo in the U.S.
- a deal with M-Systems to provide the memory chip for the Gizmondo

Buzz was starting to build for the handheld, even without major software announcements or a definite release date. But it seems that, in order to gain some respectability, what the company really wanted was to make it on the NASDAQ stock exchange, as well as generate more capital, possibly through selling a further stake in the company, and in order to do that, they needed to have less shares than, say, 500 million, at a significantly higher purchase price than the 5 cents that each Tiger Telematics share was currently going for.

Thus, in April 2004, an officially filed letter was sent "to approve an amendment to the Company's certificate of incorporation to effect a reverse stock split of not less than 1 for 10 shares and not more than 1 for 50 shares, and to authorize the Company's Board of Directors to determine which, if any, of these reverse stock splits to effect."

Therefore, on July 30th 2004, the big announcement could be made: "Tiger Telematics has taken a crucial step concerning its common stock (TIGR). Effective as of the opening of NASDAQ today, the reverse split takes place and has a new stock symbol (TGTL)." The split was a 1 for 25 reverse, meaning 25 old shares were worth one new share, and dramatically changing the price and amount of shares available, and enabling the company to put on a much more impressive front.

But as for the mention of NASDAQ in this official press release - well, although the much-vaunted reverse split has occurred, Tiger Telematics did not yet have all the requirements in place to move from the OTCBB share-trading market, which "does not impose listing standards", to the much more prestigious, carefully policed NASDAQ stock market. In fact, it had still not occurred as of January 10th, 2005. Nonetheless, this doesn't seem to have stopped the person writing press releases for Gizmondo, as evidenced by the following release put out in late October 2004:

"Gizmondo Europe Ltd (Gizmondo), subsidiary of Jacksonville, Florida-based Tiger Telematics Inc (NASDAQ: TGTL), confirmed today it begins shipping the new handheld console..."

In addition, other entities doing deals with Gizmondo don't seem to be aware of this discrepancy, or even necessarily that the Gizmondo is Tiger's only currently in-progress business - the SCi press release about a licensing deal explains regarding the company reads: "Gizmondo Europe Ltd. is a series of owned subsidiaries of Tiger Telematics Inc, a NASDAQ listed company (Nasdaq: TGTL). Tiger Telematics is a designer, developer, and marketer of mobile telematics systems and services that combine global GPS functions and voice recognition technology."

Gizmondo, Meet Indie Studios

As the alleged release date of the Gizmondo started to approach, it seems to have become obvious that the handheld needed a whole bunch of games in order to keep going. And, if you can't get major publishers to support such a relatively untrusted name, and you have plenty of shares to give away, why not just buy some developers to help you out?

That, indeed, was what Tiger Telematics and Gizmondo Europe did. On August 3rd, it was announced: "Gizmondo Europe Ltd, subsidiary of Jacksonville, Florida-based, Tiger Telematics Inc (TGTL: former symbol TIGR), announced today the acquisition of a European leading games developer, Indie Studios." This relatively small 10-person Swedish developer was working on a game for the Gizmondo, 'Colors', which is intended to take advantage of the GPS device inside the console.

As for the price? Well, the developer was paid entirely in shares, of course: "The deal will be paid for with 1 million shares common stock of the Tiger Telematics, Inc, and a contingent shares to be issued in the event that certain games are completed by Indie in an agreed time frame. The guaranteed value of the transaction at closing approximates $8 million as of the original contract date."

Share and Share Alike - Gizmondo's Big Money!

You can buy companies with shares, sure - but you still need money to pay the employees that you've acquired, a problem that Tiger Telematics seem to have faced in the past. So with the share price finally on the rise, and continuing big publicity for deals surrounding the much-vaunted Gizmondo launch, it seems Tiger Telematics could finally do what it had been trying to do for a number of years - get enough hype behind a product to convince investors to bite, and to bite hard.

Specifically, the big pay-out came when, "On October 6, 2004 the Company completed a sale... of 4 million shares of its common stock for an aggregate purchase price of $20 million." That was $20 million straight into the coffers of the company, which indicated it "will use a substantial portion of the funds at its Gizmondo Europe Ltd. subsidiary to buy game content for its soon to be launched Gizmondo multi-entertainment device."

Two months later, another major investor was hooked: "On December 30, 2004 the Company completed a sale... of approximately 1,528,440 of its common stock for an aggregate purchase price of approximately $12.443 million", and again: "The company will use a substantial portion of the funds at its Gizmondo Europe Ltd. subsidiary to buy game content for its Gizmondo multi-entertainment device and for future increased marketing expenses."

Interestingly, the December 2004 financial statement related to this reveals that "the Company anticipates that it will have outstanding approximately 37,4 million common shares", whereas the October 2004 statement revealed "approximately 28.5 million shares" were outstanding. So the company had given away another 10 million shares, largely to pay for acquisitions and services, in just 2 months, only a few months after a 25 to 1 reverse split. Without that, the company would have close to one billion shares outstanding at this time.

Gizmondo, Meet Warthog

But Indie Studios on its own wasn't enough in terms of developer acquisitions, especially as the release date of the Gizmondo neared. So, flush with $20 million in cash to bolster its continuing operations, Tiger had bigger developer fish to fry than the tiny Indie Studios.

Thus, on November 3rd, there was another major announcement: "Tiger Telematics Inc (NASDAQ: TGTL) of Jacksonville, Florida, and London, announced today the acquisition of Warthog Plc’s subsidiaries, intellectual properties and assets, in a move to further expand their games development agenda and management infrastructure... The deal brokered by Durlacher, who were retained to act as exclusive financial advisors for this hugely significant UK acquisition, comprises cash payments of $1,113,000 and 497,866 shares of common stock in TGTL, to be held in escrow."

This time, financially troubled UK console developers Warthog, who also had subsidiaries in Sweden and Texas, as well as more than 100 employees, were lured by upfront cash, likely from the investor's $20 million, as well as further shares in the company. Warthog had previously developed one of the 'Harry Potter' titles, as well as a Battlestar Galactica game and its own Mace Griffin franchise.

But now, '12 additional games' were available for Gizmondo, albeit many titles that were actually being developed for PlayStation 2 and next-generation consoles at the time, not a GPS-enabled Windows CE handheld. The continuing cost for employing the large amount of Warthog developers would be significant, but, flush with cash from recent investments, Tiger Telematics seemed to be able to deal.

Gizmondo, Meet Bizmondo

Even after Indie Studios and Warthog, the acquisitions weren't done. On 5th November, another press release emanated from Tiger Telematics, revealing another triumphant acquisition. This time, the company "announces the acquisition of the UK headquartered company Integra SP and its award winning real-time front end product AltioLive that will be used to establish its new product line, codenamed Bizmondo."

There was a plan behind this device, too, since: "With the integration of AltioLive software, the Bizmondo becomes the ultimate mobile trading toll and access point for the accomplished business user." The Bizmondo Smartphone concept was launched, and given Tiger's obsession with shares and share prices, the concept almost seems natural. In fact, Integra SP produces revenues - $4.1 million for the fiscal year.

But, of course, the acquisition was an all-share deal, involving 625,250 shares at close, and then 2,794,785 over the next 2 years. Tiger Telematics had managed to acquire another company, and a revenue-producing one, without actually spending any money itself. How a business phone that allowed stock trading tied in with a GPS gaming handheld, apart from the snazzy name and some similar hardware, was somewhat unclear. But it certainly sounded impressive.

Gizmondo - Big Licenses, More Hype

Even before the major stock investments, Tiger Telematics was able to make plenty of noise with strategic alliances and guarantees to make the Gizmondo with major names, such as Samsung for the main CPU and Nvidia for the mobile GPU - this in itself cost little or nothing. But now $20 million in investment had come in, the company could deal with the lack of notable software, and acquire major game titles for the Gizmondo, simply by paying their publishers for them. So they did.

First up was SCi, for which the company paid UKP750,000 in cash for the rights to make 12 SCi games on the Gizmondo, including Conflict: Vietnam and Carmageddon. Next was a major deal with Microsoft Game Studios, with financial details as yet unannounced, but this likely involved Tiger paying a significant sum in order to develop and publish Microsoft titles including Age Of Empires, MechAssault, and Rare-developed title It's Mr Pants.

Finally, a smaller deal with Buena Vista Games to make a Gizmondo version of Tron 2.0 was announced early in 2005. It's clear that these games are unlikely to arrive for a number of months, however, since they were only licensed in the last 3 months or so, and work on them (presumably at Tiger's new internal studios) is only just starting.

All the time, the company was making other announcements regarding strategic partners, new features, and all manner of further impressive-sounding co-announcements. These included:

- a deal with Flextronics which confirmed the company as Gizmondo's handheld manufacturer.
- Daniels & Associates appointed as Gizmondo's exclusive investment bank
- an agreement with Playcom to distribute the Gizmondo in Germany and Austria
- a team-up with UK retailer John Lewis, a department store not necessarily well-known for games, to distribute the Gizmondo on the UK
- an official announcement that Gizmondo would be using the Nvidia GoForce 3D 4500 mobile processor
- a Scandinavian distribution announcement that founds Gizmondo Nordic AB
- the agreement of a PR agency, Indigo, for the Gizmondo launch in the UK
- a deal with Spanish distributor United Electronics SL for Gizmondo's launch in Spain and Portugal

This impressive set of announcements continued to wow casual observers. But what was happening beneath the surface?

Gizmondo's Hit With The Web Audience

Now, how was online buzz for the handheld shaping up? There were certainly some very enthusiastic fan sites, including the independent GizmondoArena.com, which printed most of Tiger's press releases verbatim, and also had a forum section specifically to discuss Tiger's stock price, an odd move for a fan site.

But the official Gizmondo.com site was apparently where all the eyes were going, according to a borderline hyperbolic press release put out in December 2004 by Tiger: "Over 560,000 pre-orders have been recorded since the new official website Gizmondo.com went live on 29th October. The majority of pre-orders originated from outside the UK, apparently from early adopters trying to purchase units ahead of the US and pan-European roll outs, scheduled for Q1 2005 - further evidence of mounting anticipation across the globe."

So the handheld already has 560,000 pre-orders? That's better than many other higher-profile consoles manage. But it's very unclear what 'pre-orders' mean in this context - traditionally some kind of deposit is needed to pre-order a game or console in a retail store, but it seems that Gizmondo may be using 'pre-order' to be synonymous with 'register interest'. Even then, 560,000 seems like a gigantic figure, but congratulations to Gizmondo if they've truly pulled that off.

Expensive UK television ads were also apparently paying dividends, according to the same release: "Niclas Hermansson, Ogilvy Interactive, says: “There were over 40,000 unique sessions recorded within two minutes of the first TV ad being aired.”" Again, if 40,000 English residents stop watching TV and simultaneously come to visit Gizmondo.com, then that's certainly some impressive advertising, and is certainly impressive to investors and partners alike.

Gizmondo: Available Now, In Stores?

In the midst of all this cacophany of acquisitions, share-buying, and strategic partnerships, it was about time for the much-delayed handheld to actually make it into stores. And so, on October 29th, 2004, it was announced: "Tiger Telematics Ships Gizmondo", and the PRNewswire press release joyfully explained: "Gizmondo Europe Ltd... confirmed today it begins shipping the new handheld console as part of a strategic roll-out in the UK."

But how strategic is strategic? A perusal of the Gizmondo Arena forums as of January 9th, 2005, reveals that not one UK retail customer has yet been able to buy the device. It's also unclear what game software a consumer would actually be able to play, had he/she picked a Gizmondo up on October 29th, since it's not currently (as of January 10th, 2005) possible to buy any Gizmondo-specific software, either offline or online.

This information is additionally embarrassing considering that Gizmondo triumphantly announced, on 2nd November, that "a flagship Gizmondo store will be opening in Carnaby Street, one of the most well-known and youth-orientated retail areas in central London, in the run up to Xmas." It appears likely that no Gizmondo handhelds were ever sold in that store, although this didn't seem to phase Carl Freer, managing director of Gizmondo Europe, who argued in the press release: "We don't see this flagship store as competition to other retail. The store's primary function will be to promote the device and brand as a whole." With the lack of any actual hardware, this would seem to be the case.

In fact, in an interview with UK trade magazine MCV in December 2004, Gizmondo admitted the units were not particularly available, but also made some truly startling claims about the price of the console, going forward: "Some units will trickle into the UK High Street before Christmas, with full availability scheduled for the first week of February. Gizmondo’s launch price is £229, but managing director Carl Freer told MCV: “We will definitely be under £100 by this time next year, and I’d be surprised if we’re not under £50.""


During CES 2005, during which Tiger showed Gizmondo units on the show floor with playable but clearly unfinished versions of a number of games, a host of rumors sprang up that Microsoft, which had already licensed other Microsoft Game Studios titles including MechAssault, would allow a version of its seminal Xbox title Halo to appear on the Gizmondo. Tiger does indeed have two unannounced Microsoft titles licensed, although Bungie are assuring people that Halo is not one of them.

If this indeed was true, though, it would be yet another coup for a company who has successfully raised tens of millions of dollars in capital, and has now partnered with some of the biggest publishers and hardware. This in itself, is a major success. Indeed, as well as this, Tiger Telematics' share price is currently hovering just over $30, giving the company, which has around 38 million shares, a market capitalization of over $1 billion, and making many of its employees paper multi-millionaries - extremely impressive for a company with no revenues, no launched products, and an unfortunate past.

Nonetheless, the question remains - would major companies such as Microsoft, NVidia, and Buena Vista Interactive allow themselves to be included in glowing press releases, or even license their games for the Gizmondo, if they knew of the somewhat shadowy past of the company? Or, indeed, would some of the many companies that have recently been acquired by Tiger Telematics or Gizmondo have been happy to do so, if they were aware of all the previous issues with companies acquired by Tiger or its predecessors?

But whatever happens, to quote a television show, 'past is prologue'. It's definitely possible that Gizmondo will go on to be a massive hit when it's released - a late February 2005 date is currently being mentioned for a wider release, including some units for North American release. But it's easier to evaluate a company's future when all the cards from its past are clearly laid out on the table - and now they are.

GameSetLinks: Look At My Winterbells!

- Aha, there's still a fair amount of random GameSetLink-age hanging around even after Christmas day is come and gone, and this is the first of two parts in which I'll be rounding up my holiday link trawling. Watch out for a couple of special articles on GSW in the next few days, too, dug out of who knows where!

- Italian GameWhat?: Matteo Bittanti continues to dig up some good, random stuff, and this post is no exception: "A pungent satire of the videogame press by Cristiano Bonora aka Dingo Stylish and his team (Half Moon and Round Kiss), 100% Made in Milan (r). GameShit ("One magazine to shit them all") is a new brilliant online video series about the ultimate game mag, GameShit. The videos - available in both English and Italian - will appeal to those who have a deep knowledge of the inner workings of the game press world."

- Sam & Max's Terrible Two-s: Well, not _terrible_ as in awful, but The New Gamer has handily reviewed Sam & Max Episode 2 - 'Situation: Comedy', which is out now on GameTap, indicating that, while it's still plenty of fun: "The episode as a whole feels much smaller and more cramped than the first. Apart from a few small errands, the bulk of the episode takes place in the four-room television studio, which isn't necessarily bad, but the game's scale has definitely been taken down a notch." Still: "Despite these problems, Situation Comedy is well-worth its $9 price tag (at least, when it hits Telltale's website in January) or GameTap membership, and as long as they're able to bring me a few hours of entertainment once a month, it'll feel worth it." [UPDATE: Ah, we have a Critical Reception reviews round-up for the game on Gamasutra today!]

- Christmas Is... Oh!: I accidentally delayed this one til after Christmas Day itself, but hey - SelectButton has a round-up of some fun free Xmas games, and yes, it's got the Xmas Metal Gear Solid pastiche, but it also has something that just winter-themed, yay: "Flash game superstar Orisinal has a newish game up called Winterbells. Like his best games it features simple mouse-based mechanics with addictive gameplay. Bells fall from the starry winter night sky. Mouse movements control the rabbit and left clicking makes him jump. Landing on a bell will boost you higher allowing to reach more bells. The higher up into the sky you can reach, the better score you can get. Like all of Orisinal's games it features relaxing music and lovely artwork. "

- Jay Is Voting Time: The lovely Jay at casual game powerhouse JayIsGames pinged me to mention that his site's best casual/Flash game of 2006 polls are now open, and ready for ze voting by ze general public: "We'll be taking your votes for the next several days up until the dawning of the new year when we present the very best in casual gameplay that we enjoyed throughout 2006. Play along or just browse through the nominations and relive those cherished moments from the year." So even if you're lazy at voting, there's tonnes of neat casual games to try. Yay.

Classic Arcade Magazine Reviews Break Out

- Over at Finnish-headquartered arcade megasite Solvalou.com, they've been adding reviews of arcade machines from consumer game mags, something that used to happen quite a bit 'back in the day', esp. in Europe.

There's some really fun stuff in here, like A.C.E's review of the ATEI 1990 show, including "reviews for Ameri Darts, Beast Busters, Final Fight and Shadow Dancer." In some ways, it's weird to consider that Final Fight is already 16 years old - is anyone out there feeling ancient already?

Or, alternatively, a Sinclair User report from 1992 which includes "reviews for B.O.T.T.S., Captain America, Captain Commando, Gun Baron, Mad Dog McCree, Spiderman, Starblade, Steel Talons, Super High Impact, Terminator 2 and Vendetta." Awesome to see arcade games drooled about from an era when they really did impress more than home systems [Via Jiji.]

December 26, 2006

Top 10 Indie Games For December? Ah Yes!

- Those cheeky chappies at GameTunnel are counting down their best indie games of 2006 (and we'll link to that when it's done!), but in the meantime, they published their Top 10 indie games for December, and it's an excellent standalone read.

The top title, interestingly enough, is War On Folvos, which is epic in its unheard-of-ness here in GSW Towers - Seth Robinson comments: "Hex grid turn based strategy usually scares me but thanks to an easy learning curve WOF makes it work. With an appropriately epic soundtrack you send units into battle as the Dune-like story unfolds."

#2 for the month is the neat-sounding Minigolf Mania, for which Russell Carroll explains: "Minigolf Mania is sort of Rocketbowl taken to golf. The holes on each of the 3 courses are original and fun and focus on the coolest part of miniture golf (which isn't putting!!!). The focus is on exactly what it should be: trying to make just the right shot to put your ball past the windmall and going down a long set of corridors into a land you can't even see when you first start your shot."

Sex, Violence, Tension, & Video Games

- Over at sister site Gamasutra, we're still keeping up some updates over the holiday period, and we just posted an interview with author Gerard Jones, subtitled 'Sex, Violence, Tension and Comic Books', in which the writer of 'Killing Monsters' talks about violence and games eloquently.

When asked: 'What do you think it is in your work that resonates with the gaming community?', Jones comments: "Video games have been so much under attack recently, that I think there’s a certain nervousness. Most people in this business are very pleasant and non-confrontational and the fact that they are being reviled as the causes of crime, causes of violence, is disturbing. On the one hand, I think people want to know how to respond to those criticisms. But on the other hand, I think there’s some genuine anxiety that maybe games have a bad side, maybe there is a problem, and how do we deal with any guilt or fear?"

He continues of legislative and media attacks on video games: "I would say now we’re kind of at the tail end. If games continue to push boundaries, particular ones could come under attack. A lot of it’s just the medium being around long enough that people have realized the world hasn’t gone to hell. It’s just something else people are doing with their spare time." IMHO this is a pretty interesting/thoughtprovoking piece - Jones goes into more shades of gray than your average commentator.

Game Studies Gets Semi-Festive Update

- Jesper Juul has posted a new update on his site to note: "In time for the holidays, the new Game Studies issue has just been published. The biggest issue yet. For the future, we are considering switching to a fixed release schedule of twice a year. (We do these things so you don’t have to.)"

Some of the wacky results? Benjamin Wai-ming Ng: "Street Fighter and The King of Fighters in Hong Kong: A Study of Cultural Consumption and Localization of Japanese Games in an Asian Context", for one - the article notes: "Hong Kong players have... established a set of rules for arcade games commonly used in Hong Kong. Many of the rules were started from Street Fighter and then reinforced by KOF and other arcade games." Local slang for KOF game banter included!

Also cool? Charles Paulk: 'Signifying Play: The Sims and the Sociology of Interior Design', which explains: "It would not be difficult to argue The Sims has sped the ascendance of this "sociology of interior design." At the very least, like Trading Spaces and its ilk, the game is a byproduct of the phenomenon, and possibly its most lucid illustration. Consider that many players employ their Sims' home as a testing ground for real-world remodeling projects." Wait, so Will Wright is to blame for Ty Pennington? Lemme at him!

December 25, 2006

Homework On Innovative Games

- Over at Michael 'Zonk' Zenke's MMOG Nation blog, he's been talking about his picks for the most innovative video games released in the last 2 years, in response to a question asked by Brian 'Psychochild' Green, and it's an interesting, thoughtful list.

According to Zonk, Half-Life 2: Episode 1 "...gets my nod for best game of the year, most innovative … everything you can throw at it, this three or four hour beauty deserves it. The reason? Two words: Alyx Vance. I have never cared about an NPC the way I did during Episode One."

There is also some Resident Evil 4 love, as all logical humans must give from time to time: "This game was one of the best titles ever released on the GameCube, a complete reinvigoration of the Resident Evil franchise, and has entirely set the tone for modern shooters. A lot of the goodness from Gears of War came from filing the serial numbers off of RE4."

How about you guys - what are your picks for the most innovative, and why? (My pick is odd, because the game still isn't out yet, but Jon Blow's Braid, which actually has some screenshots posted on the official site now, and was Innovation In Game Design winner at the IGF earlier in 2006, is the only game that reliably blows my mind every time, thanks to its mix of time manipulation and cunning game mechanics.)

Mr. Robot Unleashed On The Public

- Posty over at Shoot The Core has some excellent news: "Ok, this is totally non-shmup related, but my gracious hosts, Moonpod, have released their second game today, [PC indie title] Mr. Robot."

He continues of the previously GSW-mentioned title: "I played through the hour demo and it's pretty fun. It's a hybrid action platformer and RPG game, with a robotic/technological backdrop. Think 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Mega Man Battle Network. Very high production values for an indy company, but this is the norm for Moonpod (and no, I'm not just kissing up, other people think highly of their products also.)"

If you want to know about development, there's a fun developer diary from this month, too, with some interesting comments: "The 'reality' sections of the game have had a different set of issues; almost all being related to parts of the game being insanely difficult... We've discovered that people with experience of the old-school isometric platformers are now pretty rare, and so without that vocabulary of actions built into your mindset, even just jumping over a short space can be pretty hard. Things Nick and I can almost do blindfold turn out to be difficult. "

@ Play: I Never Meta Rogue I Didn't Like

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

One of the interesting ideas that that sadly-vanishing class of amusement machine, the pinball table, brought over to the scene from its less-reputable kin, the slot machine, is that some aspect of the game could carry over between plays. Although modern pinball games, which take almost as much inspiration in their design from video games as video games took from pinball back in the late 70s and early 80s, tend to downplay this kind of thing, it used to be that that progressive jackpots were a common feature on pingames.

A progressive jackpot is an award that builds, not during just a single game, but over many, and when someone earns it it resets to a minimum value. This could be considered bad because the traditional concept of a score is of a measure of a player's skill, and this upsets that notion by potentially giving different scores to two jackpot-earning players who have had identical games, simply because one of them played when the pot was at a larger value than the other. It also seems nonsensical in that, unlike with gambling devices, the points awarded by a pinball machine are wholly arbitrary in nature. While a slot machine cannot dispense money indefinitely and thus progressive jackpots allow for a good balance between income and outlay, a pinball machine can mint points indefinitely.

But what progressive jackpots provide best is a sense of continuity between games. By introducing variables into the game that are not at a default or random state at the beginning of play, a sense is introduced that the game goes on even after the final ball is lost. Further, it draws in other players: if you play ten games and build the progressive jackpot up to a high value then walk away from the table, it will still be at that level when the next player comes along, and he could earn the whole thing. In that way, different players may contribute to a game in interesting ways, producing a collaborative effect, a truly meta kind of game. There is no real reason to put this kind of feature into an automated amusement device like a pinball machine or a computer game program, but it is still an oddly compelling idea. It injects an aspect of the real world into the play.

This idea, in a form, is used in Will Wright's upcoming Spore, which doesn't have literal multiplayer but does have in-game opponents supplied from other players' installations of the game, but beyond that it is interesting that so few other games proudly feature outside influences. They seek to simulate a world completely removed, or at removed as possible, from the real one, so every game begins from a zero-state. But of course, stories that feature Final Dark Sources Of Ultimate Peril Threatening Generic Fantasyland, at the end, do not stand up well if they recognize the existence of prior, or future, playthoughs. The game would be subtly suggesting the world doesn't need saving, silly user, you already saved it last time.

So... do roguelikes do this kind of thing? The answer, sometimes, is yes.

Remembering dragons, beloved developers, and the whole wide world

Almost all roguelikes feature a high score table, which is an elementary example of the type. Beyond that, meta game features vary widely, and many don't have any at all. Angband and ADOM sort of do, in their monster memory feature, by which a player can have his character inherit the knowledge of opponents gained from a prior character and carry it into a new game. But this doesn't actually change the play; it simply makes more complete the automatically-compiled, but ignorable, information collected during the current game. It is possible to play both these games, and win, without even realizing that monster memory exists, especially if the player takes notes on discovered monster strengths himself, which we can consider to be the traditional form of monster memory.

But there are games that genuinely change the world in response to events outside the current play. ADOM also contains the Bug-Infested Temple, a special region that can only be found once 100 characters have died on that installation of the game. The region contains considerable dangers, so it is ignorable, even if present, if the player doesn't feel up to the challenge, but it also contains some nice rewards, along with statues of various maintainers and bug-finders who have worked on ADOM. Still, the existence of the temple falls under the category of Easter Egg more than a true influence to later plays of the game, since the temple's presence is binary. It's either there or isn't without degrees in-between, and its doesn't otherwise change no matter what the player might do. It doesn't truly utilize information gathered during prior runs, it just counts them.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is up-and-comer Dwarf Fortress, which stretches the definition of roguelike a bit. Its Fortress mode is definitely not roguelike in nature, but its Adventurer mode does play much like a very idiosyncratic roguelike, one that discards item identification and much of the genre's Dungeons & Dragons roots and ruleset underpinnings. What makes it truly fascinating, however, is that the contents of the game world are influenced by all the games that have been previously generated in that "world."

On the first play-through of Dwarf Fortress, the game spends a large amount of time randomly creating a world for many games, not just the first one, to take place in. In addition to an overworld, and cities, mountains and such, the game also generates civilizations relating to the world, which adventurers can contact and even attack, and with which player fortresses may build relations or trade, or be attacked by. More interestingly, when a player loses a game, the details of his game are added to the game's record files of the world in a substantive manner: tales of any legend he (or his dwarves) created are added to the game's logs, fortresses become abandoned and filled with monsters, and some of the old traps that had been constructed (which in Dwarf Fortress may be complicated indeed), and become an area to explore rather than defend. And from the lemons-into-lemonade department, it is also possible to reclaim fortresses lost in prior games in an entire game mode that, by itself, can only played if the player has already lost a Fortress game.

Civic Improvement Through Reincarnation

Shiren the Wanderer, the popular Japanese roguelike made for the Super Famicom, takes the same approach that the Fushigi no Dungeon games have taken from the beginning. While in a traditional roguelike each game is considered to focus on a different character, of a class and race either decided by the player or chosen randomly, who dies when he runs out of hit points and then is no more, Shiren's play metaphor is subtly different.

In that game, and the others in its series, there is one character who attempts to explore the dungeon (or dungeon-like area) over and over again, who doesn't die when he runs out of hit points but is instead mysteriously (since it is a Mysterious Dungeon after all) returned to the beginning of his quest should he run out of HP. In some games he also loses his items, or experience levels, or both, which is, in essence, the same fate that awaits a player of a more traditional roguelike. However, it also implies that it makes more sense that a player's actions in one game may influence the world in the next.

During Shiren's quest, he encounters a number of towns along the way. Unlike the game's random dungeon levels, towns are always static, although shops in town may have random contents. Also in the game are warehouses that can be stocked with objects. An object left in a warehouse will remain there even for later games. Item may be taken freely out of warehouses to assist the player on his journey, although, naturally, it will not be available for later, and will be lost if Shiren should run out of hit points.

There are also people in towns to interact with who may offer quests to the player. One example: in there is a restaurant in one of the towns that, after a few visits, contains an unpopular restaurant that is trying to get off the ground. To do this, they need a chef to prepare their food, and they need money to pay him. It is unlikely that a player will have enough cash to give to the proprietors on his first visit, but the total given persists between games so it can be paid off in stages.

When the full amount is paid, which may take many games, then the player must find the chef on one of the earlier dungeon levels and bring him to the restaurant, giving him the meat of a specific monster (which must be obtained by the player's own devices or with the Staff of Bufoo provided by the chef) to seal the deal. Once the chef is brought to the restaurant, the game unlocks these very useful Staves of Bufoo to be randomly generated in dungeons for later games.

Through participating in quests like this, the player is effectively making progress in two games at once. The real objective of Shiren the Wanderer is to complete the "inner game," getting Shiren to the top of Table Mountain before running out of hit points and beating the big monster there, but this is very difficult to do on the first try. The task can be brought to a more manageable level of challenge by playing the "outer game": building up warehouses, stockpiling resources over many inner-games to improve his chances on later plays; completing townsfolk quests, which can gain the player new objects which may appear in dungeons; and, by befriending various helper characters who can assist the player on his trip.

Thus, the first game of Shiren the Wanderer can be a substantially more difficult experience than the one in which the player finally gets the guy through. Just about all the Fushigi no Dungeon games, from Torneko's Mysterious Dungeon on, make use of this play metaphor, sometimes to the degree, in fact, that the roguelike qualities of the game are muddied. As I mentioned previously, one of the greater sins of the Pokemon Rescue Team games is that they put too much focus on that outer game, necessitating many, boring plays of the inner game to make progress in it.

This brings us, as so many roguelike discussions do, to Nethack.

"Oh damn, it's 'Kill The Hero Day' in the Dungeons of Doom"

The primary persistent aspect of Nethack is its special "bones" files, but to describe them well it is necessary to explain a little of the way the game operates internally.

When a player is exploring a given level of the dungeon, at that moment, none of the rest of the dungeon exists in memory. When a level is left for another one, a file is saved to disk containing the complete state of the level at the point it was exited. When a level is reentered, its state is read back in and the floor's state picks up where it had left off, although modified slightly to take into account time passed since the level was last seen and objects and monsters that may have migrated there in the time since it had been last visited.

This function, the ability to save a snapshot of a level at any time and load it back in as a level of the dungeon later on, is the core of Nethack's unique Bones feature. When a player dies, as they frequently do in Nethack, there is a chance that a snapshot will be taken of the level and saved to the game's bones directory, for a later, diabolical use.

Whenever a new random dungeon level is called to be generated, there is a one-third chance that, if a bones exists from a prior game for that level, it will be loaded instead and the file will be deleted. On the spot where the player died will be his stuff, his corpse, a ghost with his name, and, usually, all his stuff, now cursed (some objects will be changed in rare cases; ultra-important objects like the Amulet of Yendor cannot be found this way, and artifacts that already exist in the game will be found to be ordinary things).

The level is otherwise much as it had been at the fatal moment, meaning if the previous character had met his end due to a monster, that monster is probably still around somewhere. If that was an incredibly strong monster relative to that level then this sometimes results in another quick death, which itself might generate a bones level. Most experienced Nethack players have stories about a series of poor games, each brought to an early end due to a string of back luck in generating and loading bones. If you ask one to tell you the story you might be pleasantly surprised, but it's more likely you'll just get a lot of cursing, followed by weeping.

There are other cool things about bones levels too, and here we progress from the realm of merely awesome to that of really absurdly, extremely, mind-spinningly awesome. If one is playing Nethack on a multi-user instillation, as was formerly done quite often, then bones levels can be shared between players. It is possible to find the remains of a player who almost won the game, collect a whole pack-load of cool stuff, take three steps, then get engulfed by Juiblex (who had been summoned by the prior player due to a sacrificing accident) and rapidly sickened to death.

Not that I was mad about it.

But really, why is that so cool?

It is because an increasingly popular way to play Nethack is on public servers like those alt.org and devnull.net, which count as multi-user systems in the same way as in the old days, and so players encounter bones from players they'll never meet, playing in ways obscure to their own local clutch of hackers. Much like how Spore is a single player game that utilizes data produced by other players, so Nethack can make use of the still-warm corpses of past games to inject a good measure of excitement (in both good and bad ways) into each game. There even exists a well-regarded utility, Hearse, that a user can run periodically to send and receive bones files between systems, so even games on single-user systems need not miss out on all the "fun."

But really really, why is this so cool?

Honestly, I can't say. It just seems to be that way.

Something else that's cool without it being obvious why is Nethack's mysterious time and date effects. Long before games like Animal Crossing and Pokemon offered special events for playing at special times, Nethack was playfully modifying the game based upon the current real-life phase of the moon. These effects are a bit obscure (full moons provide a minor luck bonus and new moons make cockatrices a bit more dangerous), but at least neither is likely to greatly bork one's game. Unlike....

Some time during Nethack's long development process the decision was made that players should be given a small luck penalty on Friday the 13ths. On a full moon, players get default to starting with a +1 to luck, meaning that random effects like fountain drinking tend to be slightly better and the player hits more often in combat. On a Friday the 13th, players start out with a base luck of -1, which is worse than a +1 is good because prayer, that essential resource of the newbie, which can fix problems ranging from being low on hit points to starving to death to turning to stone to being strangled by a piece of cheap jewelry, never works if the player has negative luck. This makes the game substantively harder on that day, hard enough to avoid playing unless one is looking for a challenge.

According to the time spoiler, Nethack also has a couple of time-of-day effects but they are encountered much more rarely: undead creatures do double damage during the hour of midnight (but they are not huge damage doers anyway), it's harder to tame dogs on full-moon nights, and gremlins sometimes steal intrinsic properties of the player (like fire resistance or automatic teleportation) on successful attacks between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. In fact, for all the fuss that some players have made about them, Nethack's time and date effects, aside than Friday the 13th, are actually rather subtle.

And this is not really such a bad thing. It is one thing for a game to be somewhat different depending upon the hour at which it is played, but it is quite another for it to be constantly different every hour of every day. Nethack is already a game that, sometimes, pushes the amount of knowledge a successful player needs to know to extremes. ("Why should I not eat these eggs I found on the floor?") To add a calendar to the spoilers that most every winning player must read might be--if this is possible--too much.

GameSetLinks: Special Xmas Edition

- Actually, there's nothing spectacularly Christmas-y about this round-up, but since it's debuting on Christmas day, we can pretend, eh? Here's some stuff I picked up from around the Interweb (and without even consulting RSS feeds!) over the past couple of days:

- Ellis Meets Reuters: Over at news agency Reuters' Second Life blog (!), there's news that writer Warren Ellis is starting a weekly column about SL there, starting in January. Ellis is best known for his smart, beautifully literate comics like Transmetropolitan and Planetary, and has a pretty interesting blog, too.

- Edge's Top Tips: Over at Edge Online, they've posted the winners of the 2006 Edge Awards, and the highlights would be: "Best Game: Final Fantasy XII (PS2); Best Innovation: Nintendo Wii; Best Visual Design: Okami (PS2); Best Audio Design: Dragon Quest VIII: The Journey Of The Cursed Kin (PS2); Best Developer: Nintendo; Best Publisher: Take Two; Best Online Experience: Test Drive Unlimited (Xbox 360); Best Hardware: Nintendo DS." Nothing too insane in there, though the award for Test Drive is probably the most interesting one.

- GTA Creators Do... Kirby?: Something from Gamasutra that's worth pointing out - our Playing Catch-Up with DMA's Dave Jones, in which it's revealed that, around the time of Uniraces: "DMA were contracted to work on a Kirby title for the publisher, though this never made it to release. “It was to be a showcase for the SNES mouse, but the mouse did not sell that well and the game was not great when played with a joypad, so it never saw the light of day,” explains Jones." Wow - wacky! Otherwise, a fun retrospective.

- Fight Them Vipers!: Over at uberfangirl Zerochan's LJ, she's pointing out some neat YouTube fighting game videos, including a "...faaaaaantastic Fighting Vipers 2 combo/technique video. You can pull off some INSANE stuff in this game at a high level of play, and I think this vid does a nice job of showing it. It also serves as a reminder that FV2 is completely crazy and awesome and WE NEED ANOTHER ONE LIKE FOUR YEARS AGO MISTER KATAOKA-SAN." Indeed - there was never much FV2 mastery in the West, was there?

- Warthog's Gizmondo Fallout: The directors of Warthog, who sold their developers to Gizmondo a couple of years back before the handheld company's infamous crash and burn, are still feeling the results, according to an AFX news article from this week. It's noted that: "The group is conserving resources whilst seeking a reverse takeover and continues to actively pursue possible opportunities", and the yearly results from September reveal: "As has been widely reported in the press Gizmondo Europe Limited was put into liquidation and the shares in Tiger Telematics Inc. ("TGTL") have become worthless."

What's more: "When the common stock in TGTL was received in November 2005 we were unable to dispose of it, as it was not tradable due to TGTL not having filed its quarterly financial statements. The directors tried a number of avenues to try to achieve realisation but ultimately were not successful. Consequently the whole of the investment in TGTL has been fully provided for in these accounts, which show an audited loss for the year ended 31st March 2006 of UKP4,000,675." Ouch. Of course, the former Warthog employees who lost their jobs when Gizmondo shut down are hurting anyhow, but the directors of the company really did get screwed, here.

December 24, 2006

1UP's Retro Round-Up Rounds Up Retro

- Just a pointer, since you might not have spotted - 1UP's latest issue of its Retro Round-Up news has been posted, grinning happily: "Military Madness isn't the only insanity happening this week."

Firstly, teh Parish comments: "We've heard Nintendo is prepping an amazing Virtual Console surprise for Christmas -- and they'd certainly better be doing something awesome next week, because the December 18th VC selection was... what's the word? Oh yes: Crap. Only three games, and of those only one [the aforementioned Military Madness] is actually worth any money." Fortunately, since the 1UP article was posted, Nintendo has confirmed Street Fighter II, Super Castlevania IV (yum!), Toe Jam & Earl and R-Type for its Xmas day debut. But with no networked multiplayer or achievements, I'm still a bit underwhelmed in general. Though it's definitely _cool_.

And then, there's the 'Virtual Selection' wishlist item for Virtual Console - Dragon Warrior/Quest IV for NES: "So what's the appeal of Dragon Warrior IV? In a word, the story. The game was divided into three scenarios featuring different characters with unique objectives, including a merchant named Taloon (aka Torneko); at the game's end, a fourth scenario pulled them all together into an adventure that wrapped up the game's various threads. It was without question the biggest, most epic and most impressive 8-bit RPG, besting even Final Fantasy III, and would definitely make for a must-have VC download." Are you listening, Nintendoooo/Square?

GameSetPics: Sony Xmas Origami Wallpaper

When we ran the game company Xmas card post a couple of days back, a commenter asked for the Sony origami paper (which depicts PlayStation and crossbar music/game/photo logos arranged into a snowflake pattern!), so we're happy to oblige here at GSW.

I went ahead and scanned three of those, and they're below in 1024x768 and 1600x1200 wallpaper sizes - you can resize to fit your desktop, of course, and it's probably tileable, but I didn't have the necessary skillz to mess with that. Here we are:

[1024x768] [1600x1200]

[1024x768] [1600x1200]

[1024x768] [1600x1200]

Actually, there were four different sheets of origami paper included in total with the card, plus instructions regarding making some fun (but non Sony-themed!) origami out of them. But three should be enough for you reprobates - and apologies for slight artifacting, I'm using an ancient version of Photoshop which has slightly awful compression. (Thanks again to Jamil @ GDC for letting us borrow these.)

Introversion Heads Into Subversion

- Ah, it appears that the Darwinia/Defcon creators at Introversion have set up a brand new blog on their website, and they're talking about their next game.

Chris Delay notes in his first post about it: "Our fourth game is going to be called Subversion. Now I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little apprehensive about this developer diary. Part of me would love to openly discuss our next game with the world, to shout from the rooftops about this grand idea that has been waiting in line since Darwinia took its place in 2003. But another less reckless part of me knows that bad things can happen when developers disappoint gamers, and gamers need few excuses to feel disappointed."

There are screenshots, sure, but they don't really explain what the game is about, just yet. A second post explains what they are: "I worked every hour on Subversion for many months, absolutely convinced this would be Introversion’s big hit second game. By the end of 2002 I had a basic working prototype, screenshots of which can be seen in my previous blog entry." But then Darwinia happened, and only now are they getting back to this game. [Via Gillen.]

Why Viva Pinata Is The Most Overlooked Game Of 2006

- No, I'm serious. Having been sent the game a few weeks back, I finally got round to sitting down with my wife and a friend and playing through Rare's latest Xbox 360 title this afternoon. Yes, I know it's had pretty good reviews, but buzz for the game in terms of online discussion has been curiously lacking - no messageboard hype that I've seen, and it apparently sold less than 40,000 copies in the States last month, following its launch on November 11th.

If you consider that Gears Of War did over a million units in less time than that, and even titles such as F.E.A.R. shifted over 100,000 copies for the month, that's pretty disappointing. And that's very wrong, because it's one of the best games for the Xbox 360 so far, and might even be a bit of a sleeper hit if Microsoft is lucky - I've seen a few smart bloggers who _have_ picked it up saying good things about it.

Of course, the demographics of Xbox 360's early adopters are likely very wrong for the kind of game that Pinata is (it's a Microsoft-funded attempt to open the console up to a wider audience as much as anything). But here, I meekly submit, are three other reasons that the game isn't making an impact with the public - bearing in mind that I've only just started playing Viva Pinata, and am still shaking off my preconceptions:

- Sorry, Rare, but your reputation among a lot of the hardcore gamers who currently own an Xbox 360 just isn't that good. Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo were both flawed attempts at X360 launch titles that probably got overrated by the press along the way, further disenchanting people who picked them up at hardware launch. And the Conker update felt pretty underwhelming - so I think that a family-oriented game done by the current Rare team just didn't appeal to a lot of people.

- As a 'playing in a sandbox'-style game, the hook for the game - which is that you build your garden in specific ways to attract pinata, is awfully difficult to communicate. This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no main character in the game, unlike titles like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. So the screenshots and videos of the title can't show you, because 'you' are effectively God. Nothing wrong with that, but it probably turns the game into an 'only understand it when you play it' title, which is a pretty terrible hook.

- There's a cartoon series based on Viva Pinata, of course, and it's obvious that a Pokemon-style crossover was intended here, with kids being lobbied in the TV show to attract specific pinata. Regardless of how seditious this is in terms of influencing the kiddies, there's a major difference between Pokemon and Viva Pinata. In Pokemon, after you catch the creature, you can use it to fight others - it's very direct. In Pinata, after a creature wanders onto your patch of land - attracted by your landscaping, I hasten to add - you can interact with them in a limited way, but they have a mind of their own. Do kids intrinsically get excited by this concept vs. catching things and making them fight? I'm guessing not.

So, it's odd - by being original, I feel like Rare has made Viva Pinata even less sale-able that an average family platformer would be on the Xbox 360. Which is tragic, because it's a much, much more interesting game - not the character-based Banjo Kazooie/Conker clone which I think a lot of people just presume that it is. 1UP's John Davison has a fairly impassioned review in which he argues as much, but I'm not sure how many people are listening. Are you?

[EDIT, 12/25/06 8.50am PST: A couple of people have pointed out that I probably mean 'overlooked' rather than 'underrated', because the game got some pretty good reviews - and I can see the possible confusion, so I tweaked the title, thanks.

Also, a commenter asked why you might want to get the game, given that this piece mainly deals with why other people didn't buy it. I replied: "I think it _is_ worth picking up if you like the idea of making your own garden and tailoring it to attract certain type of wee wild beasties - with cute graphics and some fun collectability elements. But if that's not your cup of tea, then fair enough!"

Finally, a friend pointed out that 1UP's 'Naughty Or Nice' holiday feature actually apologizes to Rare over its preview coverage, saying: "Sometimes the joke is on us. We're just sending you folks an apology card; we were totally wrong about Viva Piñata all of those times we said it sucked."]

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