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January 27, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 1/27/07

['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.]

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The first issue of Rocket is available on newsstands right now. There's barely any video-game coverage in it, but I thought I would give it a mention anyway because it's a product of Fusion Publishing, edited by Play boss Dave Halverson and featuring the usual gang of Play and GameFan standbys (Casey Loe, Nick Des Barres, Greg Orlando) on its masthead.

In terms of content, the bimonthly Rocket is an extension of the non-video-game stuff in the back of Play each month -- namely, in-depth coverage of hardcore fanbase-oriented movies, TV shows, anime, DVDs, and a little music. It's all done in the classic Play design, so it should be familiar to fans of Halverson's game mags. (As should the occasionally lazy copy editing -- at one point, "inaugural" gets misspelled "innagural.")

Rocket is interesting not just because it's an expansion to Halverson's publishing enterprise, which also includes the plainly successful Girls of Gaming/Girls of Anime one-shots. It's significant because it's the second time in recent years that a game-mag publisher has tried to branch out into the entertainment-publication business. Computer Games tried it first by introducing Now Playing, a "magazine within a magazine" that launched as a 16-page insert within CGM in 2004, much to the consternation of its readers (who were presumably too busy playing WoW 16 hours a day to watch movies). The title spun off into its own seasonal magazine in 2005, but Strategy Plus (publishers of CGM) decided to sell the title the following year, and two more issues were published independently by an outfit called Now Playing Entertainment LLC.

Despite covering largely the same turf as Rocket, Now Playing wasn't a great success, perhaps because of its traditional Computer Games-like text-heavy art design. It was nothing new in that field, in other words -- but Rocket, with its highly visual look 'n feel, might just be. (That, and it's already got a great deal more advertising support than Now Playing ever received.)

Getting back to games, click on for a look at all the US video-game mags of the past two weeks. We're getting close to February now, so it's back to the wafer-thin issues until next Thanksgiving...

Electronic Gaming Monthly February 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: 2007 previews

I'm beginning to see a pattern in the redesigned EGM's covers. As seen last month, EGM's going for a very sparse cover design, with some central piece of art smack-dab in the center of the page and small packs of coverlines on the top-right and bottom-left. It's a very unique look that seems to run afoul of many mag-design conventions. With game mags, the idea up to now has traditionally been that the more ostentatious the cover is, the better. Loud and flashy this obviously ain't, but I like the style regardless -- hopefully the people upstairs at Ziff don't see it as too demure to get noticed on newsstands.

Inside: The big-arse 2007 preview feature is about what you'd figure -- a whole bunch of mini-looks at all the hottest games of the next year, bla bla bla, you've seen this before. If anything, the main selling point for this ish is that it's got four "Afterthoughts" interviews -- Cliffy B for Gears of War, IGA for Castlevania: Portrait of Ruin, Hiromichi Tanaka for Final Fantasy III, and Bill "We couldn't get Miyamoto or Aonuma, but I'm more interesting to talk to anyway" Trinen for Zelda. Hell, EGM's giving Game Developer a run for its money at this rate.

Game Informer February 2007


Cover: Blue Dragon

I was kinda wondering what happened to this game -- it didn't seem Microsoft was pushing it much in the US up to now. This month, GI has 10 pages on it -- and what's more, the art designer went with a Cooper Black-heavy look for the feature that I can't decide whether it's the best thing I've ever seen or the most eye-stressing.

There's also a four-page feature on Command & Conquer 3, which you have to wonder if GI was angling for that cover until PC Gamer got an exclusive on it first.

As usual: The real highlight in GI is the "Connect" news section, which kicks off with an interview with new SCEA head Jack Tretton, who's a wonderfully frank and fun-to-read guy. It continues with a look at all three next-gen consoles' designs (as critiqued as the head of a large-scale design studio); a guide to making good licensed games by some dude from Vivendi Games (who should know a thing or two about them); a bunch of man-on-the-street interviews about the PS3/Wii launch; and (most memorable of all) a full-page photo of Gabe Newell holding a chaingun-like object in a setup that could be titled "Nerd's Revenge".

Also worth noting: This month's GI is 124 pages versus EGM's 114. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that's the first time GI's been bigger than EGM in a given month. Ooh, burrn.

Official Xbox Magazine February 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion: Shivering Isles

In a move that reminds me of Super Play and other British console mags that reviewed mounds of grey-market imports each month, OXM has decided to one-up Game Informer's extensive Blue Dragon coverage by simply giving a full-on review to the Japanese retail version. It's the lead review, and at four pages it's quite an extensive one -- largely positive, too.

The review's a fair bit more interesting (IMO) than the coverage of the new 360 Oblivion expansion, which is mostly design sketches and posed screenshots. A better highlight is "How to Get Kicked Off Xbox Live," a hilarious look at Microsoft's anti-dumbass team that features Dan Amrich trying to be as much of a prick on Live as is possible to report in a family magazine. Remarkably, he fails to get banned after 11 days of crotch-grabbing and a 94% negative Rep, which leads Dan to wonder what the heck the "thousands of thousands" (to quote MS) of people banned from Live had to do to earn it.

Also worth looking at is OXM's Game of the Year awards, which features an enormous variety of silly categories from "Best Game You've Already Forgotten About" to "Best Graphics If They Were on a PlayStation 1". There's also a piece on game engines co-written by our very own Simon Carless that I'd be remiss not to mention.

The disc: Is probably the top attraction for gamers this month, however. It includes the Wizard's Tower and Thieves Den extensions to Oblivion -- both pay-to-play downloads over on Xbox Live and both, unlike the infamous Horse Armor, actually worth fooling around with.

Hardcore Gamer February 2007


Cover: Burgertime, Pac-Man, Bomberman, Donkey Kong, Street Fighter II, Kirby, Sonic, Yoshi, Kaboom!, Popful Mail, Bonk, Earthworm Jim, Dig Dug, Mortal Kombat, Super Mario Bros., Bubsy, Blaster Master, ToeJam & Earl, the guy from Rocket Knight Adventures

I guess the HCG gang figured that obscure PSP action RPG Gurumin (despite being the lead preview) wasn't quite cover material, so instead we have a retro explosion the way only Terry Wolfinger can draw it -- and I do mean that literally. The feature inside is pretty loosely themed, including a hall of fame, a long feature on MAME sticks and cabinets, and 11 pages of retro-game recommendations from the entire staff. It's quite nice, if not exactly the the tightest of features.

By the way: Wolfinger has also drawn the box art for Agetec's Raw Danger, due out in February, and you can tell from a mile away. I bet Tom Cruise will be surprised to see an airbrushed likeness of himself on the cover next month!

Beckett Spotlight: Cheat Codes Issue #15


Cover: The next generation, I suppose

More of the usual from the Beckett folks, including some really old reviews (they just now get around to reviewing Guitar Hero 2 and Red Steel) and a big mess of codes. For mag-brats, the main draw might be their "exclusive" look at Pokemon Battle Revolution, a Wii import.

It would also seem that 3.6 out of 5 is about as low as BCC's rating system goes, since that's what Superman Returns gets despite some pretty harsh review text.

I know I'm down on Beckett a lot: But there's no external advertising from any company in this issue, so I guess I'm not the only one.

[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.]

Everyday Shooter Gets Non-Everyday Trailer

- Just spotted that Jonathan Mak has updated the official Everyday Shooter website with a new trailer video for his multi-IGF-nominated abstract shooter.

I've been playing the IGF-entered version of the title (sorry, no public demo for now - here's the YouTube trailer link), and I think it's particularly striking because it feels like a 'whole piece of art' - sorry if that's vague, but here's Mak's description of the title:

"Everyday Shooter is a collection of shoot-em-up games with each motivated by a single inspiration that ranges from games like "Every Extend", to Hayao Miyazaki's film "Porco Rosso", to a moment of childhood wonderment when I first saw earthworms surfacing during rainfall."

The game, which has sequential 'themed' levels with very different gameplay, also has some notable synaesthesic music/art links - here's some info from Mak's IGF entry readme:

"All the sound effects in the game were made to be musical and harmonious with the background music. For example, in the first level, when you destroy the little red robots it plays a note from the song. And when you destroy the spinning yellow shooter it plays a riff. So as you play the game, you might sense that your bullets carry the power to make things sing!" So sure, this is still 'just' a shooter', but it's a particularly interesting one, by any yardstick.

GameSetQ: Mind-Reading & The DS' Dual-Screen Opportunities?

- So, this is partly an observation, and partly a call for ideas and suggestions. I rented Touch Detective for the Nintendo DS the other day, which is a decent, but very very Japanese adventure game where you randomly run around solving crimes and trying to combine/use objects in an illogical fashion.

The game itself is, you know, OK - but what I was excited about was the fact that a picture of the main character (Mackenzie) fills the top screen, alongside location info, and her internal monologue is actually timed to what's going on in the game. For example, in this screenshot, you can see another character talking, but if you want to glance up to the top screen, you can see what Mackenzie is thinking at that exact time.

This mechanic (which, for this game, is just icing) wouldn't work so well without the dual screens. There are actually some great gameplay possibilities spinning off ideas like this. I could imagine it being integrated into a detective game where you could interrogate people, turn on your special mind-reading powers, and see their thoughts pop up at the top of the screen. You could then speak to them and try to divine their true motives. But you could only use mind-reading for particular periods of time so you'd have to pick when to turn it on, etc.

So my GameSetQ is - what has been the best use of the DS' non-interactive top screen you've seen in a game so far (here's a list of DS games to help you out.) Have you guys got an idea for using it in an even more clever way that hasn't been done yet? Don't worry about spilling the beans, no game developers read GSW or, uhh, anything.

Inside The Japanese Game Development Process

- Ditto with Japanmanship, who is on a roll with awesome Japanese game development-related posts, and this time looks at the issues with organization while working on game development teams in Japan - and comes to some fascinating conclusions.

He very interestingly explains the issues with both Western and Eastern game dev processes from personal experience, noting of Western processes: "The code base to build on isn’t quite as solid as it should have been because the previous project was rushed. But there is something there, at least. Design continues throughout and results in a feature creep, Content and code are constantly effected by design changes and require some overtime to get fixed. QA starts at some point and delivers stacks of bug sheets. The publisher eagerly waits until the game reaches “shippable” level and then immediately ships it."

However, in Japan: "Once the idea for the project is dreamt up everyone shoots off the starting line. Due to the hard-coded nature of most Japanese games there is little or no real reusable code-base so essentially a complete reset is required. Though design has hardly had a chance to get going, content needs to be created unless you are left with half a team bored out of their minds. So the art department shoots off and gets roped back down when the inevitable design changes occur. QA starts late and the bugs brought up by it cause further design changes and masses of overtime for all concerned. Once the game reaches “shippable” level people are too tired and don't care much about getting to “complete” and the game gets stuffed in a box and released." This is smart, and well-analyzed, and I like it a lot.

The Wii Bowling Project

- In our continuing quest to link everything The New Gamer posts, ever, we present their latest idea, 'The Wii Bowling Project', a definitely endearing concept which promises "to see how our Wii Sports bowling performance rated against our league bowling performance."

Blogger G.Turner, whose significant other unitdaisy also belongs to their 'Thar She Bowls!' Chicago-area bowling team, comments: "With the league on my mind all this month, I couldn't help but think of my real-life bowling average while playing Wii Sports. I was quite surprised to see just how closely my Wii Sports bowling stance, curve and scores mirror my actual lane action."

But how? "What unitdaisy and I decided to do was to bowl two sets of games a week: the two games our normal league bowls on Sunday, and on Wednesdays we'll bowl two Wii Sports bowling games... At the end of the league's season on April 15th (as league seasons go, it's rather short, running a brief 14 weeks) we'll pick apart the scores and see just how well our Wii bowling improved (or declined) compared to our league bowling. Who knows, maybe we'll see some other interesting results too!" GSW promises to update daily with the latest stats.

January 26, 2007

Why Vista Doesn't Mean The End For PC Indies

- Stephen Totilo has once again written a story interesting enough to make me venture within MTV's Stygian halls of autoplay videos and interstitial gum ad hell, and this one talks about Windows Vista's (lack of?) chilling effect on indies, cuing off a Gamasutra opinion piece by WildTangent founder and CEO Alex St. John.

St. John had claimed: "We have found many of the security changes planned for Vista alarming and likely to present sweeping challenges for PC gaming, especially for online distributed games", pinpointing specific issues with the cost of rating games with the ESRB and lockdown issues around parental controls. Totilo cornered Chris Donohue, the director of business development for Games for Windows, who downplayed St. John's concerns:

"I don't think we're artificially restricting anyone, he said. "But on the other side of it there's a yin and a yang to allowing anybody to publish anything on your platform. You're going to get a lot of good stuff and some not-so-good stuff." He also added on the cost of getting a game rated: "A couple of thousand bucks doesn't necessarily work for the casual guys." So what's the end result? Probably that Vista is more of a pain, but Microsoft claims it's a survivable and necessary pain in the interests of locking down PCs from evil content. We'll see, I guess.

The 30 Year Old MMO Virgin

- Gamasutra news contributor Jason Dobson is still going with his Etoychest site, now switched around to have an Escapist-style weekly posting schedule, and I just spotted the last part of the excellently named 'The 30 Year Old (MMO) Virgin', written by Edward Pollard for the site.

Fortunately, there are links to the other parts, starting with the first, which grins of World Of Warcraft: "For the last 20 minutes I've been running the installer (Disc 3 of 5) and it crossed my mind that I was on the cusp of something. Jaded, cynical, and about to take the plunge into the MMO phenomenon that has dominated the industry for the past 2 years. Not only haven't I played it, I don't know a damn thing about it. I figure there has to be some other brave or stupid souls out there who have yet to answer the seductive siren call of the MMO but are like me tempted to do so."

So? "This one is for you. I don't know how long this can last, but I'm inviting you to come along and experience it with me. My name is Edward Pollard, I am a World of Warcraft virgin, and this is my story." And the conclusion to this fantastic voyage?

"Is World of Warcraft worth this price? The answer is an unqualified yes. While I can't compare it to other online games, World of Warcraft provides me with a totally unique game play experience that has nearly limitless game play. I can't even imagine how long it will take me at the current rate of progress to reach the level cap, but I do know I'll have a lot of fun doing it." Score 8 million and one for Blizzard!

From Guru Logic To Drill Champ

- Sorry, a little more Japanmanship linkage came a-calling, because it's in the form of a post on 'Forgotten gems' of Japanese gaming - specifically: "Some absolute classics that many people should play but that have never made it across the language barrier."

The obscurities include Guru Logic Champ for GBA ("This is, by far, the best puzzle game I have ever played. Created by the sadly deceased Compile this game never saw a western release"), and Kururin Squash for GameCube, which I did at least know about ("Kururin was a special little GBA game that not enough people played. Kururin Squash is the home console version and though not noticeably different in essence it’s still a worthy purchase, especially as it was released at the mid-price range in Japan.")

Also noted (and I've heard great things about this from someone - maybe Toasty?) is Mr. Driller version Drill Land for GameCube: "Though Mr. Driller isn’t unknown to western audiences this particular outing never made it to foreign shores. I once had a chat with a Namco localiser who told me he had begged his boss to let him translate this game; he would even do it in his spare time, such was his righteous love for the product. The boss, however, declined; as, with all things great and misunderstood, the game never sold well enough to even consider starting a localised version. This is too bad because this version is by far the very best Mr. Driller game of all."

'Groove Champion' Sneaks Onto GameTap, Easter-Egg Style

- Those crafty types at 'all you can eat' subscription PC gaming site GameTap (or more particularly, XAmount, who co-runs unofficial in-house GameTap user design blog Angled Whiteboards), have revealed that there's a special Easter Egg in the latest GameTap update, if you look real hard.

It's explained: "You know how you guys have been all eagle-eyed with the email announcements and the Coming Soon ring? Not letting any game slip through the cracks? Well it’s certainly helped us step our game up. So this is pretty sweet: we’ve got an Angled Whiteboards EXCLUSIVE easter egg for you, our devoted readers (and your friends, and hopefully your friends’ friends…)."

How so? "Hidden in today’s new GameTap catalog is [awesome Activision '70s-set car combat game!] Interstate 76. Only you won’t find it in the New Games ring. In fact, you won’t find it anywhere under the name Interstate 76. Head to the search ring, search on “Groove Champion” (star of the game), and BOOM. There’s your game. That racing/hot-rod week is still on the books (now slated for late Feb.), and we’ll be officially releasing all the originally promised games then. But you can play Interstate 76 all you want in the meantime." This is a bit like Pimps At Sea, or something? Woo!

January 25, 2007

Into The Castle Of The Winds

- This one was a little hidden away on sister site Gamasutra, so I'm happy to point at it - Alistair Wallis' latest in his awesome-o 'Playing Catch-Up' column ends up talking to Castle of the Winds creator Rick Saada.

The thing I like about 'Playing Catch-Up' is that I enjoy reading the column even when I don't know much about the game in question (as occured this week!), and it turns out Saada's game was part of the shareware halcyon days: he "...had been planning to use the shareware model, he notes, though was inspired what he refers to as the “sequelware” model, where a shareware game would be quickly followed by a commercial sequel – used at the time by id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D. Saada briefly thought about releasing the game himself, but reconsidered when approached by Epic MegaGames founder Tim Sweeney."

Nowadays, he joined up with Flying Lab Software, working on a game concept that ""...would eventually develop into Pirates of the Burning Sea, an MMO set in the Caribbean in 1720 that combines ship combat with the ability for players to explore sea and land areas. “It's been several years of steady work and growth,” says Saada, “and at this point we've got over 50 people pushing towards a June release.”" Interesting!

ModDB Picks Best Mods Of 2006

- You may recall that the IGF also has a game modding-specific competition, but the folks at ModDB, who helped us out a bit last year, have expanded their slightly more mainstream-styled competition significantly, and have just announced their 2006 Players Choice Awards.

As they bubble happily: "80,000 votes. 4,000 mods. Over the course of 2 months, gamers from across the globe came together to decide which mods rank as the epitome of what our hard working community can do. Now, gallons of blood and sweat later, we tell you what triumphed in 2006."

There are lots of very worthy mods in there, plenty of which don't get so much mainstream coverage, and I guess I'm giving it away a bit to reveal: "Point of Existence 2, for Battlefield 2, has won Mod of the Year for 2006. Point of Existence 2 manages to extend the gameplay of the original game into a new setting with a complex and believable storyline. It manages to have stylish art assets while remaining within the bounds of realism and enforces teamwork without feeling like a chore. It takes a popular formula to the next level of balance, flow and fun." Still, go check the whole thing for a great countdown.

What Makes An RPG... An RPG?

- Matt Barton of the excellent Armchair Arcade has just completed the second in a series of 'History of CRPG' articles, this one to be published on Gamasutra in a couple of weeks, and has posted a really interesting companion piece discussing how Computer RPGs are archetypically defined.

This explains: "I just finished my "Golden Age" article that covers the years between 1985 and 1993, and I've been thinking more about what makes a "CRPG" a "CRPG," and how different developers have modified the concept over the years. What I've noticed is that a few perennial questions really dominate the discussion, and even if I'm not sure where I come down on all of them, I think it's worthwhile to put them on the table."

He then wanders through a bunch of the staples behind CRPGs, one of my favorites being 'The General Store': "There are few CRPGs indeed that don't have some type of blacksmith that sells arms, armor, and adventuring equipment. Often enough, these will be the only types of stores in the game, which makes one wonder how the various towns and villages of the world manage to get by!" I dunno, I'm sure you can buy donuts in at least a few RPGs!

Translating Earth Defense Force's Giant Ants

- Over at SiliconEra, they've got an interview about D3's localization and U.S. version of Earth Defense Force X for Xbox 360, now called Earth Defense Force 2017 - and yes, we're guessing the fanboy pressure to release this game did help!

Unfortunately, the producer doesn't really say anything that interesting, though the most interesting query is as follows: "Q: I heard that you're considering to keep the Japanese voice acting in Earth Defense Force 2017. Why?" And then: "A: We had considered it for a time. Since we know this game has a cult following here in the US, we wanted to keep that level of authenticity."

But, unfortunately: "However, after some discussions, we decided that the voice-over was too important to leave the player in the dark like that. Your squad members are constantly shouting out advice and pointing out incoming enemies. We felt that it might make the game too tough if you weren’t given those clues, so we’ve now reverted to recording all of the VO in English. It really adds a lot to the game." How about having both, guys? [Via Jiji.]

'King Of Kong' Doc Gets Distro, Remake Pickup

- So we just realized - there are not one, but two classic arcade documentaries at Sundance and associated festivals! We already reported on Chasing Ghosts, but a Variety article reveals another documentary, 'The King Of Kong', has been picked up from Slamdance by top firms Picturehouse and New Line.

Apparently: "In a mid to high six-figure package deal, Picturehouse won rights to distribute the documentary in theaters this summer, while sister company New Line gets remake rights and control of docu distribution rights outside North America." Blimey - this should be a high profile deal for classic gaming fans, then.

It's explained: ""The King of Kong" chronicles a rivalry between two gamers, Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, as they battle for the title of world champ of the arcade game... Picturehouse president Bob Berney, New Line Prods. prexy Toby Emmerich and chief operating officer Richard Brener found irresistible appeal in Wiebe's struggle to stop a personal losing streak, and the ruthless tactics of record holder Mitchell, who routinely compares himself to Helen of Troy and the Red Baron."

January 24, 2007

From Grocery Karts To Vertigo Fears!

- Tom Fronczak over at The Last Boss have been talking about a neat 'virtual reality' college project related to games, and which uses a wraparound screen and a shopping cart (!) to help out patients.

It's explained: "Last week my Virtual Reality college class headed out to a local hospital where an eye and ear virtual reality studio is set up for motion balance research to help patients that suffer from vertigo (constant dizzy attacks, just like in a bad RPG). The research they do extends to several other medical conditions, such as height phobias."

How did they do this? "Using their $5,000 medical grant they bought $3,000 Alienware dual processor PCs late last year and paid someone to use Unreal Tournament to make them a simple grocery store environment that patients could literally walk around in for therapy."

And what are they trying now? "Using the Unreal Engine we'll be making a level for their patients who have a height phobia - basically making a huge ass map that scares the crap out of them. Using the facility's habitual therapy sessions and facing their fears in a safer virtual environment several times a week, hopefully their brain can let them overcome their fear." This is... interesting!

2007 Independent Games Summit Bulks Up

- Some of you may recall that, although I'm not involved in organizing the bulk of Game Developers Conference this year, I am programming the 2007 Independent Games Summit, a new indie-specific subconference taking place on the Monday and Tuesday of GDC week (March 5th and 6th), before the Independent Games Festival Pavilion opens from the 7th to the 9th.

Anyhow, just wanted to note that I was previously worried that the Indie Games Summit (here's a good GSW rundown of the speakers, headed by Jeff Minter) would sell out, and we would have to stop registrations. But we managed to switch it to a room that's double the size, which'll stop us having to turn away all-comers, unless you guys manage to flood the double-sized space too. (I'm not hyping 'WILL SELL OUT SOON' here, incidentally - this was genuinely an issue!)

There have been a couple more additions to the speaker list, too. We've added Sony's E-Distribution supremo John Hight to the 'Console/PC Distribution Gatekeepers' panel, alongside Ross Erickson, Microsoft; Jason Holtman, Valve; and Sandy Resnick, GameTap. We'll be chatting to these guys "...who evaluate submissions for some of the major indie game distribution channels on both console and PC, talking about how to pitch your game to get on these services, exactly what the gatekeepers are looking for, approaches to royalties, and much more." Should be a neat way to compare and contrast how indies are getting onto these bigger portals.

In addition, we've rounded out the final panel, 'Building The Future of Indie Games', with two new neat indie (or indie-influenced!) types. There would be Bit Blot's Derek Yu, co-creator of multi-nominated 2007 IGF title Aquaria (and TIGSource writer to boot!), as well as Sony's David Jaffe, best known for God Of War, but currently working on a small, 'indie-style' title Calling All Cars for PS3 E-Distribution. While he works at the resolutely non-indie Sony, it should be pretty interesting to hear his perspective on why small teams can make for focused, fun games. (Also on the panel: Greg Costikyan of Manifesto Games and Mark Morris from Darwinia/Defcon creators Introversion!)

Chris Avellone On Game Design Research

- David Edery, nowadays one of the acquisitions guys for Xbox Live Arcade, but also a prolific blogger at Game Tycoon, pinged me with a neat piece from Obsidian's Chris Avellone guest-posted on his blog, and called 'Game Design Research, ala Avellone'.

There are multiple good threads in that (and some great sketches!), but here's one highlight from the designer: "Over the past ten years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with licenses like Star Wars, Dungeons and Dragons (in multiple worlds), Star Trek, and now, Aliens. I think I know more about some of these settings and their inhabitants than I do about Earth culture. Which is pretty shameful, now that I think about it."

Avellone continues: "But for our industry, having that knowledge saves you a lot of time. Knowing all the sub-plots that took place in comics, novels, all the nuances of why Giger concepted the aliens the way he did, the history of the Weyland-Yutani corporation - this minutia of science fiction licenses is actually a valuable knowledge base. There’s a reason they have fact-checkers and historians at LucasArts and Blizzard and other franchise houses - knowing the setting in and out is a paying gig... So my advice for any aspiring members of game development is pretty simple. If you’re a nerd, keep being a nerd." Done!

Annoying Trends In Games, In 2006!

- Having stumbled upon this while checking out a webpage of a GSW commenter, I'm delighted to present Dave and Nihongonauts' '6 Annoying Trends in Games 2006' article, as petulantly readable a piece of writing as anyone could hope to expect, yay.

One of the highlights is 'Unwarranted Paranoia Over Microtransactions', for which it's noted: "The public has reacted with complete panic and paranoia, insisting that publishers will soon ship “incomplete” games that require additional purchases to fight the last boss, finish the race, or otherwise do what has heretofore been considered a part of a normal retail game. This is, needless to say, complete and total bullshit and a waste of time to even think about."

Also zinged, 'The Games As Art Debate': "Look up the f*cking word “art” in a dictionary! Any dictionary! See that part about the “conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements, or other elements”? How about the “human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature”? This means that all games are art. Period. If my interpretation of the arrangement of a brick in an otherwise abandoned lot is aesthetically pleasing, then it fits the definition." Why do I get the feeling that this isn't the last word on that subject?

January 23, 2007

GameSetLinks: From JPod To Otis Twelve

- Eek, this tangled miscellany of game links has been hanging around since last weekend, so it's time to unleash them on the slavering world. Apologies if a couple are approaching a ripe vintage:

- The New Gamer's journal has spotted something neat and game-tangential - "Seemingly in order to promote the recent Canadian paperback edition of Douglas Copeland's latest novel JPod, Showcase has made available a short, five minute, film adapted from the book." For those not aware, the book "...concerns a group of video game programmers whose last names all begin with "J". They live and work in a development "pod", which they refer to as the "jPod", within a company that Coupland has described as "resembles, but legally no way is Electronic Arts"".

- A little while back, 1UP posted an excellent article named 'Clash Of The Cultures', which explains: "New ideas are always being bounced around, warped, and remade, creating concepts that are both uniquely tailored to the local culture while still maintaining a feeling of familiarity. But why do gamers in each of these markets like the games that they do? Why are American sales charts dominated by the likes of big, burly men with guns while the Japanese flock towards fanciful RPGs?" This is a sophisticated, smart multi-interview feature, even chatting to Keiji Inafune about the concept, so... yay!

- RetroBlast! has spotted that Stern is building a Family Guy pinball machine, and what's more, the game is "...designed by Pat Lawlor, his team at Pat Lawlor Design, and the engineers at Stern Pinball." You may remember my Pinball Hall Of Fame feature lauding Lawlor, noting: "Why would you know Lawlor? Uh, try Whirlwind, Funhouse, The Addams Family, Twilight Zone, and many more - he was responsible for multiple games in most pinball fans' Top 10." So... at least the sole remaining pinball firm is doing it in style!

- In many cases, successful publisher-owned studios are kept at arm's length from their corporate overlords, and this seems to be a major theme behind Edge Online's article about life inside Bungie published last week Prime evidence: "Head of production Jonty Barnes, a slender Englishman very recently arrived from new stablemates Lionhead, was stunned. “Actually, it’s very much like a publisher-developer relationship. Lionhead and Bungie are equally intermixed with Microsoft, and that’s quite incredible considering the geographic locations.": Didn't know that Bullfrog/Lionhead super-veteran Barnes had jumped to Bungie, either.

- This is cute: LJ user 'Jokeyxero' has been listening to a recent GDC Radio podcast at GSW's sister site, explaining: "The follow quote has been transcribed from the GDC Radio podcast episode "How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days"... The speaker is Kyle Gabler from Carnegie Mellon University's Experimental Gameplay Project and now with EA." The punchline is: "I think the lesson we learned there is to stop hitting your head against the wall, just use the magic key", and I'll let you click through to read the preamble - but it's head-smackingly good advice.

- All this time, I was figuring that adventure game maker Vince Twelve was using a pseudonym. But an comment in a recent GSW piece about him reveals his similarly named, famous pater, since his dad, Otis Twelve, comments: "I must say, I am a bit miffed that no mention has been made of Vince’s roots. Do people think that such off-center innovation, staggeringly clever story telling and Dadist flair for the poetic title, spring spontaneously like flies from the cerebral dung of our intellectual byways?" There, Otis, we mentioned you now - you might know him as part of "the Omaha-based Ogden Edsl... who recorded deliciously tasteless novelty numbers like "Kinko the Clown" and "Dead Puppies" of Dr. Demento fame", and nowadays writes award-winning fiction. Blimey.

Pluto Strikes Back, Plots Physics Game

- Matthew Wegner at physics blog Fun-Motion has unleashed a handy review of another PC indie physics game gem, Pluto Strikes Back [.ZIP], "a great [freeware] solo project by Petri Purho, who has been rapidly prototyping games in the spirit of the Experimental Gameplay Project."

It's explained: "This title was created in seven days, and the concept is awesome: Pluto, angry at being reclassified as a “dwarf planet”, takes a bat to the rest of the Solar System to act out his jealous revenge." Hah, awesome concept. Matt adds: "I’m impressed with the elegant minimalism of Pluto Strikes Back’s design" - and creator Purho has an excellent blog discussing rapid prototyping, too.

Finally, Wegner elaborates: "Pluto Strikes Back utilizes a simple planetary gravity physics model. As the asteroids get closer to the planets, gravity’s influence exponentially increases... It may seem, at first glance, that designing a simple game would be easier than producing a feature-laden one. In my experience, though, the opposite is true: It’s really hard to create a tight, simple design." Indeed!

Pajitnov Interrogations At Game Developer

pajitnov_smaller.jpgSince this is a CMP blog, and I'm allowed, I'll let you in on a bit of the inner workings of Game Developer magazine. Sometimes when we're making mock-ups of the cover for our next issue, we'll use the template from a former, just to see how everything fits. I thought this one was too good to let go, for obvious reasons.

The image is from Resistance: Fall of Man, which is our February postmortem, and the text is from the September issue, in which I got to interview Alexey Pajitnov, who created Tetris, and is Russian as all get-out. I also interviewed Suda51 in that issue! I must say, I was pretty pleased with it.

Anyway, what you see to the left is an odd amalgam. Certainly looks like a heated interview! The question remains though, who is who in this picture? Am I the alien creature, lifitng Pajitnov up in order to extract crucial block-related information? Perhaps I'm angry because that line never comes when I need it. Somewhat unlikely though, as he totally has a beard, which means he can survive in the cold, and probably spits vodka acid.

So I find it more likely that Pajitnov is the gun-toting aggressor, blind with Russian rage at my insolent questions. The more I look at it, the more I realize it also fits the middle and rightmost coverlines in cute ways. Hooray!

By the way, there's a very nice interview in the Feb issue too, but I can't say who it is. MYSTERY! We'll let you know when it's released though...it's pretty far up there in my personal list of 'interviews I've enjoyed doing.'

Railroads! Flies High At Flugtag

- Here's a neat story from 2K Games: "Gaining inspiration from Sid Meier's Railroads!, Tom Symonds, an artist at Firaxis, and 4 friends created a train shaped "aircraft" and entered it in Red Bull's annual Flugtag Event which took place in Baltimore on October 21, 2006."

What's more, over at the Railroads! siste, there's a really neat 7-minute movie that "...shows you the story of how their train shaped "aircraft" was created and how they ultimately won the People's Choice award." Here's an explanation of Flugtag, for the confused.

In addition, there's a page on the Flugtag site explaining more of the 'ambience': "On the flight deck, the trio will be joined by pals Phil Sullivan and Sean Hart for some inspired dancing to a railroad-themed mix including “Night Train” and “Come on Ride a Train.” All will be dressed in “sexy overalls” (oxymoron?) and engineer hats." Choo choo?

Goonies, Goonies, Video Game Goonies!

- Another Hardcore Gaming 101 feature of note, they've done a really fun rundown on The Goonies games, noting: "There were a handful video games made around the time of the movie in the mid 80s. Four different games, to be precise, which is rather astounding consider they're only based a single movie."

What's more: "Three of these versions were created by a fledgling Japanese company called Konami, who had yet to flesh out their soon-to-be-popular Castlevania and Contra franchises, but still possessed some pretty interesting game ideas. Nearly all of them featured some rendition of Cyndi Lauper "Goonies R Good Enough", which naturally is awesome to hear in old school PSG synth."

Wow, and there's some obscurity near the bottom: "Despite not technically being a Konami property, the Goonies make an appearance in Wai Wai World, a 1987 Famicom game featuring characters and levels based off various Konami titles. The Goonies stage starts off on a pirate ship and eventually weaves its way through an underground maze, filled with evil squids and what appear to be Metroids... Other games represented include Castlevania, Life Force, Twinbee, Getsufuu Maden, Goemon and King Kong."

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The MIT Mystery Hunt (Part II)

["Beyond Tetris" is a column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. Today is the conclusion of a two-part article on one of the most grueling puzzle marathons available, the MIT Mystery Hunt.]

(In Part I, I gave a brief overview of the MIT Mystery Hunt, written while I was still in the middle of helping to run it. Since then, Dr. Awkward won at 2:14 a.m. Sunday morning, and the puzzles were made available. And now, the rest of the article, about the 2007 Mystery Hunt itself.)

Welcome to Other-People.com

To open this year's Hunt, teams gathered in Lobby 7 to watch a badly planned introduction. But before teams could be roped into tedious groupwork, Michael Fauntleroy, a dashing man with infomercial panache, told them there was an easier way. By signing a simple contract, all teams would be able to find the location of the hidden coin after solving only five puzzles. And sure enough, the teams were given access to a set of five relatively easy puzzles that led to a location on campus.

But when they arrived, Fauntleroy was there to tell them the truth. The contract that they'd signed only told them to the location of the coin (safe inside his own pocket); it didn't give them the right to take it. And in return, each team had bargained its collective soul, which now belonged to Mr. Michael Fauntleroy (M.F.) Stopheles. They were working for Hell now, and so they had to complete M.F. Stopheles's infernal instructional videos to become "really, really evil," find their way into Hell proper, and maybe have a slight chance of becoming as evil as the Devil himself.

They were then given their first video course, and a link to the Hunt's real puzzles on the website of Hell: http://www.other-people.com.

By watching the instructional videos and solving the puzzles, teams would learn what really, really evil actions they would have to perform to prove their worthiness to the minions of Hell. For example, after the course that taught teams "How to Succeed at the Performing Arts by Being Really Really Evil," they were given the instruction to "Create a bad sequel to Wordplay." (Wordplay, of course, is last year's documentary about another yearly puzzle event, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Several of the major and minor characters in the film also attend the Mystery Hunt every year.) The "Writing" round told teams to "Almost plagiarize Dan Brown work," and the "Mass Manipulation" round asked teams to create an Illuminati card for the current president of MIT.

Adding to the theme was a schedule of special "sin events," each thematically tied to one of the seven deadly sins, where team members would take part in a real-time puzzle event. At Lust, "dominants" given cheesy pick-up lines had to find "submissives" who'd been given irreverent responses. ("Baby, you take my breath away." "Finally, somebody else into erotic asphyxiation!") At Sloth, solvers had to lie down in a dark room at 4 a.m. and listen to someone spell "somnambulist" very, very slowly in between a bad MIDI version of "Rock a Bye Baby."

Serves Us Right

As I mentioned in part one, although most of the puzzles in the Mystery Hunt are meant to be printed out and then solved, there is quite a lot of technology running behind the scenes making that happen. The process goes something like this: At the beginning of the Hunt, all teams get access to a certain amount of puzzles. When a team believes they have an answer, they click a button on the puzzle's webpage marked "Check Answer." The server then puts that team in a "call queue." In HQ, callers can see which teams are in the queue, for how long, and for which puzzles. From the call queue, the HQ minions pull up a page with the team's phone number and an entry field for the answer to a puzzle. The team is called, and the answer is taken. The server logs the guess and tells HQ whether the answer is correct or incorrect, and then the caller informs the team. If the answer was correct, the server then goes about seeing whether or not it needs to make more puzzles available to that team. And thus the spiral leads down into Hell.

When The Evil Midnight Bombers What Bomb at Midnight won the 2006 Hunt, one of our biggest concerns was how we were going to put together the complicated server technology to make this work. Our team's greatest strengths lie in the realms of trivia, wordplay, and logic, not in engineering or programming. Thankfully, the team that ran the Hunt in 2006 graciously lent us their Hunt-running software to use as a base for Hell. Then, the co-captains rounded up a web-savvy Hunt newbie to adapt it to our needs.

We had some minor problems. At the opening of the Hunt, although teams were able to see the puzzles easily enough, the "Check Answer" mechanism had collapsed under the weight of teams solving puzzles very quickly and at the same time. But once that was cleared up, everything moved smoothly. In fact, most of my time in headquarters was spent manning the call queue: pretending to be a demon and asking teams for their answers.

Breaking It Down

One of the things we tried to do this year was make the Hunt more accessible to more teams. In recent years, every Hunt has had some events packed in at the end of the Hunt: a campus runaround, an elaborate endgame, and the location of the coin. But because these things only happen at the end of the Hunt, and because Hunt HQ traditionally shuts down after the coin is found by the first team, only a few teams ever get close enough to see these things.

So we moved all of these events earlier in the timeline of the Hunt. Finding the coin happened first, and every team got to take part. (Small and first-time teams that were having difficulty were given hints or possibly even "put on the fast track of success" to ensure that everyone knew the true theme of the Hunt on Friday.) The runaround occured in the middle of the Hunt. As teams solved puzzles and attended sin events, they filled their "Evilometer"; and at a certain point, they were deemed evil enough to gain access to the directions to Hell.

The endgame was a massive puzzle that spanned the entire length of the Hunt. When they completed a course, each team received a finely crafted certificate recognizing their acheivement. They also got a certificate when they reached Hell, along with seven blatantly unsolvable puzzles (like a sudoku without enough given numbers). But by completing a sin event and then completing five of seven sin-themed puzzles, teams unlocked instructions that made one of the Hell puzzles solvable. The answers to these Hell puzzles combined to create a series of instructions regarding the twelve certificates. Without giving away the intricacies of this beautiful puzzle, the instructions guided teams to create a dodecahedron out of pentagrams found on the certificates and then to throw the "snowball in Hell" at the Devil for their souls back.

Finally, instead of closing HQ after Dr. Awkward found the coin, we continued running the Hunt until late Sunday afternoon. Our hope was that many "middle tier" teams would take advantage of this extra time to work their way to the end. Fewer took advantage of this then we'd hoped, but long after the top teams reclaimed their souls, an intrepid group of solvers calling themselves Team Lactose completed another eleven puzzles and two courses. They ultimately completeld the entire endgame at about 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Oh Yeah, There Were Some Puzzles Too

The majority of the 2007 Hunt is currently archived on the MIT website. There are still a few things missing, most notably the course materials which include videos and other information necessary to solve each round's metapuzzle. But there are about 100 individual puzzles available for solving. Clicking the "Check Answer" button will lead you to a page that tells you the answer and explains how the puzzle works.

There was only one playable applet this year, a golf game called Going Out Clubbing. But there were a few puzzles that required special videogame knowledge. The first was Unsound Effects, which reveals itself to be about a particular game after decoding the massive cryptogram. (I won't spoil it here, but you can check the answer to see which one. Incidentally, the creators of the game were also on a Hunt team, this year.) War Dances has one of our co-captains dancing in a manner that should be instantly recognizable to some readers. (If not, the Eastvale Logging Camp shirt is a good a tip-off.) And text adventures make another appearance in Embezzler's Quest. Finally, the Notpron style of website riddle makes its Mystery Hunt debut in The Domino Theory.

As for the others, there are a lot of good puzzles to work on. If you're new to Hunt solving, the first round of easy puzzles is a good place to start (though you'll need to know the MIT campus to understand how the answers fit together). Fans of cryptic or British-style crosswords will like solving Pyramid Scheme. Cinephiles shouldn't have much trouble with The Continental DiViDe, sports fans will appreciate Rewriting the Record Books, and music buffs will enjoy Got It Covered. I personally enjoyed (and recommend to you) Negative Ad Campaign; The Usual Suspects; and One, Two, Three, Shoot! And finally, there's the one puzzle that I worte single-handedly: You Don't Need No Stinkin' Cue Cards

Running the Hunt was both stressful and rewarding, but I'm glad to have my life back. Of course, shortly after the hunt was over, I agreed to help write a smaller online puzzle hunt with Greg Brume for the fall, so maybe I speak too soon. Regardless, I'm glad that it will be my friends at Dr. Awkward, and not me, in charge next year, so that I can just solve the puzzles.

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

January 22, 2007

On Children Of Men's Semi-Evocation Of Half-Life 2

- You know, when Jeremy 'Toastyfrog' Parish stops writing about pleasingly frivolous, often Servbot-related things, he can also turn a mean critical eye to today's games, and his recent Gamespite.net post about new movie Children Of Men is a wonderful example.

He notes of the stark, Clive Owen-starring film: "All throughout Children, I was dogged by a single nagging thought: I hope Valve is taking notes, because this movie is basically crib notes for Half-Life 3. Or HL4, if those Episodes are really supposed to be HL3. Whatever. The point here is that Alfonso Cuarón basically created a big-screen rendition of the world seen in Half-Life 2."

How so? Parish notes that it's "...a dystopic future in which humanity has succumbed to an outside force, venturing beyond the confines of a few fascist-run cities is deadly, an underground resistance with a meaningfully Greek symbol has arisen, and no one can have children -- but actually made it interesting. Convincing, even. Sure, the agent of humanity's downfall is different; it's aliens in one case, a flu pandemic in another. But the results are the same."

In some ways, his conclusion is a little depressing: "Games just don't feel dangerous. Even though you're actually more involved in the events of a game, Children was far more harrowing. The hero and his companions seemed vulnerable at every moment. You know how Gordon Freeman's supposed to be this everyman, a nerdy physicist who manages to battle his way through improbable odds through sheer adrenaline-fueled luck? Children's Theo actually is." And heck, HL2 is one of the _more_ nuanced games out there. But... things can only get better?

Gadget Trial - Advance Wars + Anime = ?

- Thanks to a cavernously large Fort90 update at some point last week, we were alerted to the existence of Gadget Trial, a Japanese-created PC indie dojin-ish game "that apparently mixes Advance Wars with anime girls."

Originally discovered via SelectButton (which has been getting all kinds of hyper-intelligent whiny fanboy postmodern in a GOOD way of late with Barkley's Shut Up And Jam Gaiden RPG game and a The Wire vs. the game biz rant), Fort90 notes of this particular title: "I know… At least its a bit more original than all the idol simulators that are glutting the doujin market. Anyway, here’s the trailer, which has been described by one person over at Select Button as “surprisingly dark”, whatever that means."

He continues: "Anyway, for those that are interested by such a premise, an English patch was recently released." There's also a handy FAQ on that page which explains: "Gadget Trial is a turn-based military strategy game by Studio Kogado's Team Kumasan... Gadget Trial is suitable for all ages and contains nothing that couldn't be shown on saturday morning TV."

@ Play: Mapping the Infinite Cavern

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.]

It is well known, among those who know of the genre at all (honestly if I see someone misidentify dungeon crawlers with roguelikes one more time I think I might break my tether and start trampling circus handlers*), that roguelike games have random dungeons, but it is not often that this is elaborated upon beyond just the statement. What does it mean to have a "random" dungeon? The meaning of this term is not as obvious as it first appears.

When people talk about a dungeon being "random," they rarely mean truly chaotic, but instead that the layout of rooms and passages, and their contents, are unpredictable enough between games that the player can be surprised to discover what lies in wait for him. This actually demands, not pure, nonsensical randomness, but a well-honed generation algorithm that can turn the output of the random number generator into something consistent and explorable.

If we just set each cell of that grid to an equal probability of being a floor or a wall, what we would end up with would not be playable; we would not be assured of being able to explore the whole thing, or find the stairs to the next level (if we even thought to throw that in there). Random dungeon generation schemes must interpose an algorithm between the generator and the map, and of course that means it is not, strictly speaking, completely random.

Typically, for a dungeon exploration game, it is enough for the game's purposes that the player not be able to deduce the layout of the unexplored portions of the dungeon, but this is itself interesting because Rogue, the first game of the type, did not actually have all that random a dungeon.

roguelevel13.gifRogue generated its levels according to a fairly simple scheme by which the map was divided into a grid of nine sections connected by corridors, each being either a room, a longer corridor piece, an intersection, a dead-end, or (rarely) a maze. See if you can pick them out from this screenshot. Almost every Rogue level follows this nine-sector pattern.

This is significant because, if the player was in a room that was in one corner of the screen, he could know for certain that there was no passage in the walls facing the screen edges. A major part of Rogue's strategy had to do with knowing when to search walls for secret doors and when to move on to check another room. If a room is near an edge of the screen, then that's one wall the player need not waste time checking. And if the player has found nine rooms or room-analogues on the level, he can be sure he's gotten all the treasure, and it's okay to head for the next level, and its nine fresh opportunities for more loot.

Oddly, this doesn't make the game any easier for the designers took its predictability in account when balancing th game's food supply. Learning how to game the level generator became an essential skill for success.

Some mazes, too, present tactical advantages, such as doors that can be closed, or even locked, to discourage pursuers, and loops that wounded characters can travel indefinitely, slowly healing until one has regained enough hit points to make a stand. These things are important to realize because all these games place a high emphasis on coming up with an efficient exploration plan. In roguelikes, time is the greatest enemy. Every move wasted is one second closer to starvation, and that Troll with your name on it could be halfway across the level or just about to walk through the door. The longer you live, here, the sooner you die; the only way to survive is to win.

More recent roguelikes may have more chaotic dungeon layouts than Rogue, but they, too, have design quirks and tendencies that can, indeed must, be exploited by a canny player. Sometimes the game chips in with hints to help the player decide whether to explore or not; Angband provides "level feelings" that can clue players into whether there is a good item on the level, and both Nethack and ADOM provide noises to alert the player when there are certain special rooms nearby. Canny use of knowledge of the game's dungeon generation algorithm, coupled with items like scrolls of magic mapping, often mean the difference between a dead adventurer and a live one.

Novice players think of the slaying of hundreds of monsters as being the primary element of roguelike play. Advanced players realize they should think beyond that, and learn to optimize their resources and figure out item identities. The first step towards mastery is to recognize the importance of this kind of exploration risk-management.

Here are screenshots of typical levels from some of the more prominent roguelikes, and what makes them unique:

Size: Very large
Chaoticness: Low
Opportunity: Moderate

The image above is of the "compressed" map produced by the game's level overview command; each cell of the above represents several in the actual level, and it feels yet larger in play. On the other hand, while it has much bigger mazes, its level generator doesn't seem too much different from Rogues, just with more sectors and a greater reluctance to leave some empty. But those vast, scrolling levels make up for it, and the shape of its rooms are more varied than most other games as well, with a good number of variations upon the theme of rectangular box (one innovation Nethack has never adopted).

The most interesting thing about roguelike dungeons is the stuff contained within it, and Angband levels have lots of that. They also sometimes supply these incredibly horrible-wonderful things called vaults, which may well have the greatest challenge/reward ratio in the genre. Vaults are large rooms that contain many dozens of monsters, generated far out-of-depth (that is, much harder than the standard for that level), frequently with multiple uniques (think bosses) all in one room. But vaults are generated with treasure to match, frequently containing multiple artifacts. They are such over-the-top challenges that it is difficult to resist trying to clear them out as much for the fun of testing one's self as for the prime loot, but many games end in these places.

Size: One screen
Chaoticness: Moderate
Opportunity: High

Nethack levels are minuscule in comparison, but they have a much greater variety of special rooms that can be found. The most common of these are its famous shops, which have more logic powering them than many games have at all, but there can also be found temples, swamp, throne rooms, army barracks and beehives to pick some of the more interesting types. Also, unlike Angband and ADOM, Nethack does not bias item generation based on how far the player has gotten in the game. He is as likely to find Greyswandir on the first floor as the twentith, which in the end helps ensure that every room is worth exploring.

nethackmazelevel13.gifIn addition to a large number of non-random, special levels, Nethack is also known for having three other types of random levels besides standard dungeons. Cavern levels, which are wide-open and irregular in shape, are found in the Gnomish Mines and are best known to beginning players. Some way down is the rogue level, a single area that is built like Rogue's distinctive floors. (It has some subtle rule similarities as well, and uses Rogue's ASCII graphic scheme, even in graphic versions of the game!) But most important, and most annoying, are the mazes, which make up the full second half of the main dungeon. Since they take forever to explore and contain few special rooms, they are widely considered one of the game's greatest weaknesses.

Size: One screen
Chaoticness: High
Opportunity: Moderate

ADOM has multiple dungeons connected by an "overworld" area, but many of them look suspiciously similar to each other. Players looking beneath first appearances will find lots of variety however. One dungeon regenerates levels every time they are entered like Moria and Angband, and one level is unique in that the higher the player's level, the greater the danger he'll find, as it generates monsters of a level that is a multiple of the player's: if the player is very strong, then the monsters seen there will be very very strong! Add in room-shops and a good selection of special levels, including several towns, and you have a game that looks a lot like alternate-universe Nethack. Yet, its random level do not vary all that much, resulting in an impression of sameness at times.

Size: Small (seems larger)
Chaoticness: Low
Opportunity: Moderate

Shiren's levels seems to be larger than they really are. Unlike the other games listed here, the size of one "space" is much larger than one character on a text screen, so less territory can be seen at once. Reduced in scale (as in the illustration, which is a copy of the game's translucent in-game map Photoshopped to remove the background), the map is about the same size as a Nethack level.

Shiren doesn't have many special level types, Monster Houses (similar to Rogue's Zoos, a room with a lot of both enemies and random objects) are just about it, but this is made up for with its many level generation types. Depending on the player's progress through the game, there can be anywhere from four level to fourteen scattered around the board. It isn't too hard to recognize the level types after a couple of exposures, and some (especially the 14-room one) are as simple to exploit as Rogue's.

*Finally, here is a word on the confusion, often seen of late, between dungeon crawlers and roguelikes:

Roguelikes are randomly-generated, overhead-view games about tactics and strategy, with a strong emphasis on gaining information and resource management, and usually featuring some form of "permadeath."

Dungeon crawlers are, technically speaking, a large class of RPG that includes any that involves exploring a dungeon, and thus could be honestly considered to include Rogue and its ilk, but most precisely refers to a type of game that has its ultimate source in the likes of Wizardry and Akalabeth. They tend to provide a first-person interface, although one that may switch to overhead when not actually in a dungeon. The dungeon itself is pre-made, not random at all, and the player controls an entire party of adventures, but if one dies he can typically be revived in town, although usually for a fee.

Both game types were inspired by old-school Dungeons & Dragons, but each focuses on different aspects of that seminal game. Roguelikes focus on the specifics much more, and the idea of surviving general types of situations, such as those provided by the random dungeon, monster and treasure generation tables in the back of the first-edition AD&D DM's Guide, while dungeon crawlers are more like the experience of playing through a specific adventure, with monsters and treasure carefully placed to produce a challenging, but fair, experience, and typically with much greater emphasis on following a story.

In other words, playing a roguelike is like playing an improvised game thrown together on the fly by an expert DM, while dungeon crawls have, as their hypothetical basis, the kind of world that a DM has spend days and weeks inventing, or got out of a guidebook. As far as play goes, crawls are about overcome specific encounters cooked up by the designers, and thus favor linear thought and puzzle solving, while roguelikes are about dealing with whatever comes up, which is more non-linear thinking and problem solving.

Now that that's over with, you guys have no excuse. The next time I see someone calling Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja a mere dungeon crawl gets trampled beneath my huge, circular feet.

GameSetQ: The GameSetWatch Of Music/Movies/Books/Etc Is?

- We're not vain enough to claim that GSW is the 'best' of game weblogs, but we do know we go off the beaten track, and cover a lot of alternative material that other game blogs don't touch. So, we got to thinking - what are the GSW equivalents in other media? Here are a couple we can suggest:

- In film, TwitchFilm is absolutely a favorite for offbeat, generally foreign (Japanese, Korean, Eastern European, Russian) film tips, though it also includes some of the U.S. indie flicks and even a good selection of UK-specific comedy news at times. If you want to know about major Malaysian film releases for 2007 (pictured!), for example, Twitch is your site. Most enjoyable.

- In comics, a site we're totally in lurve with is Dirk Deppey's Journalista, the official news weblog of The Comics Journal. Oddly, it just operates on one absolutely gigantic daily post, but it covers everything from the indies to the big guys, with plenty of detail for foreign comics scenes, manga, archival pieces, obscurity, and a lot more - plus some fun invective at times. Plenty of erudition here.

- In music - oddly enough, we don't really subscribe to the RSS feeds of many major music sites, but it sounds like Stereogum probably has the right blend of tastemaking and lack of excessive music snobbery to make it the kind of site that isn't afraid to wander out there, somewhere. Oo, they have info on the latest Chemical Bros experimental track, for starters. Must... set up... feed.

Anyhow, you may disagree with these picks! You may also know other genres of creative endeavor (for example - books, television, theater, music video, spoon playing) which also have blogs covering them in slightly alternative ways! If you do either of the above, please post in the comments, and if we get enough good suggestions, we'll do another post with a 'recommended' list. It's like having a twin town in another country, sorta?

January 21, 2007

Scaling The Supernatural Olympics

- This one's a little wacky, and I can't quite recall how I found it, but I'm going to run with it - the very very odd Ulillillia.us has a page devoted to the multiple games the author is working on, including "my 2D high-speed action game, The Supernatural Olympics, and my 3D high-speed platform game, George Game 13."

As for 'The Supernatural Olympics', it's explained of the 2D construction-kit made game: "Ever wonder what it's like to go the speed of sound or cruise the stratosphere? The Supernatural Olympics is a high-speed action game that allows you to do both!" And there's probably almost 10,000 words just in _this_ part of the extremely 'focused' site, such as the super-detailed FAQ, which even discusses ESRB rating. (Try the 'About Me' page to get a further idea of the author's detail-oriented attitude. It's fascinating.)

Regarding future concepts, well, let's just say he has plenty of ideas: "I have three additional worlds thought of at the moment. Adding new worlds allows for more challenges. Worlds, however, take an extremely long time to make, close to even two whole months, likely more from having to redo things due to improved techniques. The first world I plan on implementing next is one with water. Thing is, when using the flash attack in water, the effect is seriously amplified. Rather than 100 mph in a given direction, it's the 4th root of the density difference compared to air (thus around 550 mph in any direction). I have such a world planned and well-envisioned. Another world is the endless mudlake dream, one that would take just a two to three weeks to do due to its simplicity. A third world is one of the arctic with snow and ice, even ice water. With 100 times the motive than neutral, there's a very high certainty I'll implement such a feature."

Arcade Flyers Explores Capcom's Secret Files

- Thanks to James for passing on the following handy tip: "I just stumbled across something neat that seems to have flown under quite a few radars in October - Arcadeflyers.com has scanned a bunch of really interesting Capcom design booklets, the "Secret Files" series."

He continues: "The covers are all neat pastiches of other kinds of products - Power Stone chocolate, a Skullomania action figure and a Lego Strider II playset! The X-Men Vs Streetfighter one even mentions the Archie vs The Punisher crossover on one of its text pages."

Looks like the first set of Secret Files brochures (which are really mini-promotional magazines for each arcade game - were they given away in Japanese arcades or with Arcadia or similar?) were put up on Arcadeflyers back in 2003 or so, but the new ones only just arrived a couple of months back. Wonder if there are any newer unscanned ones since Strider II, which was back in 1999?

'Might Have Been' - Bucky O'Hare

From the writer of all those GI Joe comics.[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Konami's Bucky O'Hare, released for the NES and arcade in 1992.]

For the discerning, irony-fed geeks of today, it might be hard to understand what Konami ever saw in Bucky O’Hare. A line of early-'90s cartoons and action figures, it revolved around a garish vision of intergalactic wars between huge-eyed animal people in an alternate dimension, and it barely lasted a year on the market. Why would a major game developer even bother?

But while it’s now a blip on whatever radar tracks old toy-commercial franchises, the Bucky O’Hare of 1991 had a lot going for it: a line of crude plastic figures, a comic book, plenty of merchandise, and a syndicated TV show. That was reason enough for Konami to turn it into not just one game, but two: an arcade side-scroller and an NES action game. Both faded quickly, yet they were hardly throwaway efforts on Konami's part.

Bucky travels to the arctic to investigate Neal Adams' insane hollow-earth theories.Where no ordinary rabbit would dare

Though the arcade game deserves some examination of its own, the NES game proves the more intriguing study. A rebel space captain and bile-green rabbit fighting the surprisingly goofy Toad Empire, Bucky’s tasked with visiting four different planets to rescue four members of his crew: cyclopean robot Blinky, psychic catgirl Jenny, the four-armed gunner Deadeye Duck, and the annoying, dimension-hopping, shoehorned-in human kid: a laser-toting nerd named Willy DuWitt.

Once rescued, the other four characters are all playable at any time, and each gets a unique ability, from psychic homing shots to ice-melting gunfire. Bucky fans might’ve noticed the absence of the hulking Bruiser Baboon, who was in the cartoon but not the original comic book. Perhaps his sprite would've been too large.

Surprisingly, the game doesn’t really pursue the atmosphere of Bucky O’Hare, with not even a synthesized 8-bit title arrangement of the cartoon’s obnoxious, catchy theme song. The game is perhaps all the better for that. If the four worlds and the later stages reveal the typical action-platform standards of fire, ice, forest, desert, and mechanized enemy fortress, players will find that each sub-stage has its own unique conceit, including mine-cart rides, ice-block puzzles, and a chase through a fleet of frog-faced imperial bombers. Not all the ideas are its own, but Bucky steals from good sources: the Red Planet has the heroes outrunning quick-flowing lava much like the lasers from Mega Man 2’s Quick Man level, while the Blue Planet includes a snake-riding sequence straight out of Battletoads.

Jenny, the psychic cat and future furry icon, makes her way through the third stage of Lifeforce.Bucky's TreasureLand

It’s not surprising that Bucky was created by some of the soon-to-be Konami expatriates who’d go on to form the cult-favorite developer called Treasure; the offshoot studio’s future President Masato Maegawa was the game’s director and lead programmer, and artist Kaname Shindoh served as a graphic designer, with two other Treasure names, programmer Hideyuki Suganami and designer Kouchi Kimura getting “special thanks.” As one of the last Konami projects undertaken by future Treasure staffers, Bucky O’Hare shows off a few clever advancements of the basic 8-bit action-shooter ideal, even if it’s closer to one of Treasure’s unremarkably decent platform games (Silhouette Mirage, Dynamite Headdy) than a revered classic like Gunstar Heroes.

The game runs contrary to Treasure’s usual design, however, by being a little too hard. The levels are filled with instant-death hazards, and some boss attacks can kill Bucky and his crew in a single hit. The game spares players too much repetition by giving each level half a dozen checkpoints, but when some sections of the planets require countless attempts and strict pattern memorization, the creative layouts lose their charm.

It’s the opposite of the looser approach to game difficulty that Treasure would later take (Buster's Scary Dream excepted), and, more importantly, it wasn’t well suited to the 10-year-olds who’d fire up Bucky O’Hare carts after long Saturday mornings of Bucky cartoons and Cap’n Crunch. Then again, few such children actually existed.

Green-on-green violence.Like X-Men, but with only four players

Just as the Bucky O’Hare hit the NES, Konami also shipped an arcade game (right). Though it’s largely a beat-‘em-up in the vein of Final Fight and Double Dragon, Bucky and the three other playable cast members (Willy DuWitt is mercifully sidelined) emphasize shooting over hand-to-hand attacks, which are triggered only when players are close to enemies. Though it doesn't advance the limits of the genre too much, Bucky's a solid enough example of it: the characters control well, the enemies are diverse but never too smart for the game's own good, and there are even a few flying-level breaks from the usual grounded processions of enemies.

Like Konami’s arcade treatments of The Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and, uh, C.O.W.boys of Moo Mesa), the arcade Bucky O’ Hare does an amazing job of capturing its cartoon source, with animated cutscene, bright graphics, and dialogue from the show’s voice actors. It’s also another showcase for some Treasure staffers-to-be, and anyone who’s spent long hours on Gunstar Heroes, Alien Soldier, or Bangai-O will find Norio Hanazawa’s Bucky soundtrack familiar.

This picture explains Bucky O'Hare's failure better than words ever could.At least it outlasted Camp Candy

Promising as they were, both the arcade game and its NES cousin were doomed by the license itself. Bucky O’Hare was a failure across the board for fairly simple reasons. Although the TV series and toys premiered in 1991, writer Larry Hama’s original Bucky O’Hare comic dated back to the ‘80s, and the entire franchise was very much a creation of that decade’s toy-promoting cartoons, complete with a straight-faced hero, corny attempts at humor, an awkwardly introduced human kid, and catchphrases like “Let’s croak us some toads!”

The children of 1991 already had the friendlier and amusingly self-aware Ninja Turtles, and didn’t take to a bile-green space bunny billed in his theme song as “the funky fresh rabbit who can take care of it.” It was too much, too late.

Bucky O’Hare’s name was already fading when Konami’s games hit, making them fairly obscure even in their own time (Nintendo Power didn’t even cover the NES game). However, they’re surprisingly enjoyable titles that could’ve done well, if only they’ve been stuck with a license that was, in the end, only slightly more marketable than, say, Denver the Last Dinosaur. Hints of a cartoon remake have been dropped by comic artist Neal Adams, but for now, Konami’s lesser-known games stand among the best things that ever came Bucky O’Hare’s way.

[Todd Ciolek is a magazine editor in New York City. He'd also like to thank the SF Kosmo website for pointing out the Treasure connection to Bucky O'Hare.]

GameSetLinks: Rampant Sunday Miscellany

- Having finally got round to doing the first half of a massive Bloglines crawl, here are some of the most interesting random gaming links I ran into, as pasted all over the blogosphere over the past few days:

- Posty at Shoot The Core has spotted a new PlayStation 2 shooter - "Ocean Commander from BigFishGames will be reaching a whole new audience of shmuppers this May thanks to Phoenix Games. Phoenix is a European Budget game publisher, which means this game probably won't be ported to the US, and will also be dirt cheap." Interesting! Phoenix also do the recently NeoGAF obsessed-over White Van Racer, among other ultra-budget oddities, of course.

- Treyarch exec. producer Stuart Roch (who is currently working on the Activision Bond game, his LinkedIn profile says!) has posted his favorite games of 2006 on his blog, and they're perky and interestingly categorized, so I pass them out. For one, 'Best Game Nobody Played' was Condemned ("OK, of course I am inferring here that Condemned was “sell-through challenged,” but I think through my straw poll of speaking to one person or another that not many people played Condemned. Like many Monolith titles over recent years, I think you have a case of a great game here that just didn’t generate buzz for one reason or another.") And he liked Saints Row, too.

- An extremely miscellaneous post at the Dreamcast Junkyward is interesting to me because of his pic of a third-party 'Uno' joypad for the DC that I'd never seen before - "One last Dreamcast thing I did actually pick up was a fighting controller for $15. It's third party, but the only time I had seen a controller like this for the DC was one released in Japan by ASCII, which sells for a lotta money. This one is pretty much the same thing, but a lot cheaper. Score!" I own the ASCII Dreamcast pad, and it's _excellent_ for fighters.

- Finally, there's a preview of Pocketwatch Games' PC indie title Venture Arctic over at GameTunnel, and the ecosystem simulator sequel to 2006 IGF finalist Venture Africa is looking agreeably sharp, also sporting some really _alternative_ gameplay mechanisms: "In Venture Arctic, inhabitants pass on after their material form has ceased functioning, one way or another. Each inhabitant comes back in a spirit form that players can capture and re-use to further change or alter the ecosystem." Sorta Sim Safari meets Ghostbusters, then!

The Making Of Dropzone

- Over at the stately Edge Online, they've reprinted a magazine article on the making of Dropzone, the Archer Maclean-created '80s shooter that's inspired by Defender and blasts things even crazier.

He reveals how the early hype for the title started: "In an inspired piece of guerrilla marketing, he attended a PCW show at Earls Court and surreptitiously slipped his work into a conveniently-placed drive on the Atari stand. "People started picking up the joystick and soon hundreds were crowding round. The aisles were packed. It was an incredible buzz.""

Also, a neat anecdote at the end: "I was at the California Extreme show this summer and Eugene Jarvis was there on a Q&A panel. He was describing what he had to do with the code back in the late '70s to make Defender work. He was explaining how he had to invent solutions to link his four code file blocks without a linker/compiler/Macro assembler, and devised self-loading jump vector tables to make files talk to each other. I sat bolt upright. That was precisely what I had to do. As I listened, I realised he'd come to the same solution as I had for so many things. I got talking to him afterwards and he'd played Dropzone on a MAME cab. He thought it was pretty 'neat'."

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

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

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

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

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

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

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