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February 10, 2007

The Economics Of Selling Games Online?

- The ever-interesting Greg Costikyan has a post on his weblog about digital distribution, or more specifically, what percentage of the sale price an online distributor will take for putting your game on their virtual shelf.

He notes of his own Manifesto Games indie portal: "We pay 60% to the developer, with no hidden chargebacks", and goes on to comment: "The only operation I know of that offers a more favorable developer split is XBLA (I've heard up to 75% to the developer), and if you can make a deal with them, go for that, certainly. More typical is 40% to the developer, and I've heard deals as low as 20% to the developer (big portal, small developer). But let's take 40% as representative."

You know, I hadn't heard XBLA splits went as high as that - I always heard they were somewhere around where Valve's Steam allegedly is, which is at about 50% to the developer and 50% to the distributor. Anyhow, there are plenty of interesting (and often anonymous!) comments, including this capper:

"I appreciate someone pointing out why the economies are terrible in this industry. You did miss one small piece which unfortunately paints an even bleaker picture. With the advent of "Game Pass" and other such subscriptions (RealArcade and BigFishGames) and other sites who discount products (50% off at Iwin) with NO price protection, developers are getting a piece of a piece of a piece of $7 to 9 dollars rather than the full retail price." But I'm presuming that, overall, downloadable economics are still viable for many?

GameFly Reveals Tetris Evolution, Other New Titles?

- I was in my GameFly queue today trying to set up a few games (preferably so I don't get sent games just after I've bought them!), and I noticed that Tetris Evolution for Xbox 360 is clearly listed as a release on the site, including an official box cover.

Since it was already confirmed that THQ will be publishing Tetris for the Xbox 360 in the West, I guess we can consider this _likely_ confirmation at least of the name and the fact that it will be a full retail game, as opposed to an Xbox Live Arcade title. And this got me interested in poking around to see what else GameFly has added to its upcoming game DB recently.

(Now, I will point out that there was a story about Guilty Gear on the Wii this week which was flat-out denied by alleged publisher Aksys, and which also originated from GameFly. However, a post on their messageboards about other titles listed on GameFly, which include Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth for the DS and other games in the Guilty Gear series, wasn't flat-out denied - more like 'It's only official when I say so'.)

So, here's my view on this. GameFly got these games listed because the publisher provided information on them - ie intentionally sent out a name and a release date. It's not like IMDB - people just can't spontaneously add anything they like to the GameFly database (similarly to EBGames/GameStop).

Most of the time, this means the game is going to be released. But some of the time it doesn't, because there were development problems, or perhaps whoever was sending out info about upcoming games picked the 'stuff we've ALMOST signed' list instead of 'stuff we've ACTUALLY signed' - there's some claim that this is true for Gish on PSP for Aksys, for example. FWIW, Gish for PSP does _not_ show up on GameFly as of right now.

Therefore, here's a comprehensive trawl through the upcoming games, publishers, release dates by format on GameFly, pointing out those that I know relatively little about (in some cases, people already noticed they existed from GameFly, or GameStop/EB, or there's a _little_ info out there, but nobody has listed them all in one place, yay). I'm ignoring most games with a 'TBA' date because that seems to be where the 'not likely to be released' titles end up:

PlayStation 3
- Nothing out of the ordinary.

PlayStation Portable
- 7 Wonders (MumboJumbo, March 1st) - a PSP version of the popular PC casual game - very likely, given the previous release of Platypus and Luxor for PSP by MumboJumbo, as reviewed on GSW.
- Warriors Of Enkor (Atari, March 31st) - says the genre is 'Fighting', but I can find literally no other information on this online. Anyone?
- Riviera (Atlus, April 26th) - a PSP version of the acclaimed GBA RPG, and extremely likely because it's already out in Japan.

PlayStation 2
- Carol Vorderman's Sudoku (Eidos, March 8th) - in most ways this isn't crazy, of course, because it's Sudoku, but I'm surprised it's still branded with - Carol Vorderman's name, since nobody actually knows who she is in the States. Still, even if it's slightly shovelware, it looks legit.
- Growlanser V: Generations (Atlus, July 7th) - again, not super surprising, since the game is already out in Japan, but some of the first pre-order semi-confirmation I've seen.
- Guilty Gear XX Slash (Aksys, July 31st) - part of the Aksys 'mystery' which includes Wii Guilty Gear, of course, but this is certainly the kind of title that a smaller localization-friendly U.S. publisher like Aksys _would_ pick up. We'll see.

Xbox 360
- Tetris Evolution (THQ, March 21st) - already mentioned this one further up the story, and it sounds pretty likely to me - though THQ did famously have an almost-finished DS version of Tetris cancelled a year or two back. I was hoping this would be Tetris: The Grand Master Ace, but I rather think it'll be an original THQ product, hopefully better than the lukewarm Tetris Worlds.
- Senko No Rondo (Ubisoft, May 31st) - this report has wandered around the Internet already, and given it's already out in Japan, this v.cool fighting shooter would be easy to bring across. Let's see!
- Call Of Juarez (Ubisoft, June 30th) - for some reason this is listed on GameFAQs as an Xbox release, not Xbox 360, but given this Western-themed FPS is already out on PC, an Xbox 360 conversion sounds pretty likely to me.

- Comic Family (Ubisoft, June 30th) - given the amount of other Ubisoft games on this list, I'm going to say that this one is legit. No other information than 'Action Adventure' genre, though. [UPDATE: Commenter 'stx' points out this is likely the mis-spelled Cosmic Family - good catch, Sir.]
- Guilty Gear XX Accent Core (Aksys, July 30th) - we've talked about Aksys already, so I won't belabor the point, but it's believable.

- Luxor: Wrath Of Set (Mumbojumbo, February 15th) - again, a move onto DS for MumboJumbo is very logical, esp. with the already PSP-ported puzzler.
- Touch The Dead (Eidos, April 30th) - sounds like a logical title! Are there any Japanese zombie touching DS games that Eidos could import, or is this a whole new title? No info online at all.
- Hoshigami Remix: Ruining Blue Earth (Aksys, May 31st) - the semi-cult Japanese RPG making an appearance in the West on DS? If this is true, then it's also unannounced in Japan. I say too random to be untrue - you choose!

'When They Film Ice Cream For Television...'

- So, it's that time of week again, and 1UP's latest 'Retro Round-Up' column is certifiably retro, and almost certainly also a round-up. It therefore meets all the criteria it promises in the title, although they did give Root Beer Tapper for XBLA a thumbs down, which I personally disagree with (yes, I know it's not as exciting without the alcohol, but the internal scoring mechanics are really fun to figure out when you're going for some of the Achievements.)

One important note - I don't think Xbox Live Arcade is dropping the ball quite as badly as some others do. But it's clear that the arena of public opinion is starting to turn against them, as evidenced by this paragraph in Retro Round-Up: "Xbox Live's slow trickle of downloads continues at its sluggish pace, and frankly Microsoft's online content service is starting to feel like it's aiming squarely for third place. Wii's Virtual Console is kicking its butt in the classics arena, and PlayStation Network is quickly moving to the fore in terms of original content. And with games like this week's download, you kind of have to wonder if they're even trying."

There's also a podcast [.MP3] which highlights Cave Story (yay!), as well as my personal favorite, the 'Retronauts Bonus Stage: Episode 2' video, in which "The Retronauts hate Castlevania: Symphony of the Night for Saturn. HATE." I personally find the Parish / Sharkey double-act reassuringly 'garky' (that's 'snarky' and 'geeky' together, and I just made it up, and shuddup), and needless to say, the title of this post comes from them trying to explain exactly why the Saturn version of SOTN isn't all it's cracked up to be. Delicious!

What A Little Piece Of Wonder, Visual Novel-Stylee

- The visual novel, a peculiarly Japanese piece of game/narrative crossover, continues to lurk in the nichiest of niches over here in the West, but there are sites such as VisualNews.net which keeps the translation and news scene alive for the English speaker.

Checking it out recently, I noted a demo review for 'Piece Of Wonder', the translated visual novel brought to the States by Hirameki International, and I think I may be out of my depth with the game here: "As all good school related visual novels have to start out, our protagonist starts out sleeping in his bed and his childhood friend (who is always a girl and one of the cute/popular ones at school) is trying to wake him up."

Also notable on the site's forums - a listing of the most popular PC visual novels for 2006, at least in Japan - for which rg comments: "Overall, sales seem to have significantly lowered when compared to 2004 and 2005 (no giant launches, I guess), but things are still relatively consistent with the last five years." It's unclear whether these are absolute sales numbers or just from a few stores, but 2006's top game is the probably somewhat suspect Sengoku Rance (Alice Soft) with just over 63,000 sales.

February 9, 2007

Watch Out For The Gaming Mercenaries!

- Having just randomly spotted Brian Hook's recent post named 'Grunts vs. Commandos: What Kind of Mercenary Are You?' on the Gaming Mercenaries website, I was alerted to, well, the existence of the site in general, which exists for video game development freelancers to discuss their trade.

It particularly came up because I was checking into the background of DICE speaker Michael John, who posted an introduction there last summer which quite fiercely defines why someone should be carefree: "My experience founding and running a development studio reinforced this feeling. I found the business portion to be tedious, stressful, and distracting from the actual process of making games."

id/Verant veteran Brian Hook has been the stalwart poster in recent weeks/months, though, and his post on health insurance for the contractor is pretty useful: "I would submit that if you asked most independent workers to identify their biggest concerns about their career choice, the top two answers would be some combination of “finding work” and “health insurance”." Interestingly, a commenter asks whether the IGDA could ever help with health insurance for freelancers, a thought-provoking idea!

Flux It Up With Music Postmortem Madness

- Beth over at GSW sister educational site Game Career Guide has occasion to post a postmortem of Dare To Be Digital student game winner Flux earlier this week, and I thought I'd point it out because it features some pretty interesting game design.

Specifically, Algoma University's Flux, which was created using Instinct Engine, is "...a genre-bending, action-music-strategy game, where you must connect a network of as many glowing orbs as you can, within the span of one or more songs", and it has some pretty interesting features: "It doesn't matter whether you are playing with a mouse, stylus, or wand; the game is controlled through intuitive, click-less gestures" - also: "Levels are built from songs, and how the game plays depends on the music you are listening to."

Unfortunately, there's no playable demo on the official Flux website right now, but you can get a good idea of the gameplay from a Flux progression video [.WMV], which seems to show the title playing somewhere between classic Atari vector game Quantum and something like Fantavision. Wonder if there's any interest in taking this baby to Xbox Live Arcade or other experimental console waters? I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it there.

IGF 2007 Audience Award Voting Open

- It's D.I.C.E in Las Vegas, so we're somewhat hideously busy either attending or transcribing the scrawl from those who have done (check the Gamasutra D.I.C.E. 2007 coverage page for all the gory details), but we also just published a very important call to arms for fans of the IGF, as follows:

"The Independent Games Festival organizers (part of the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra) have announced that, as part of the 9th Annual IGF Awards, major consumer game site GameSpot is now hosting the voting for the 2007 IGF Audience Award.

From February 9th through March 7th, gamers are encouraged to vote for their favorite indie game from a pool of eligible IGF Main Competition finalists which are hosting playable PC demo versions online at the official IGF Audience Award page.

The overall winner which receives the most votes will receive a $2,500 prize and the IGF Audience Award for 2007 at the IGF Awards on March 7th, 2007, to be held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco during Game Developers Conference.

In addition, details on IGF's Student Showcase finalists and Modding Competition winners are also featured on GameSpot, with information on each of the titles and links to download versions of the games, which are not part of the voting for this particular award.

[To be eligible for the Audience Award, games must either have a public PC demo available or have been available to play extensively in public over the previous 12 months, allowing the inclusion in the Award of unreleased Xbox Live Arcade title Castle Crashers, which appeared at both PAX and Comicon in 2006.]

In addition, all 2007 IGF finalists, including those that do not yet have public downloadable demos, will be playable at Game Developers Conference 2007 at the IGF Pavilion in the North Hall of the Moscone Center, open to GDC attendees from Wednesday March 7th through Friday March 9th during expo hours."

The Danger Of PC Gamer UK Online

- Gama columnist and long-time Bath, England dweller Jim Rossignol kindly pointed out to me that PC Gamer UK now has a brand new website, nestled in Computer & Video Games' leafy web valleys.

Now, I will say that some of the pages are a bit annoyingly narrow, and there's some odd lack of crediting which happens when print -> Web sometimes, but what's very cool is that they're posting a bunch of the features from PCG UK itself, which is honestly one of the best-written magazines out there. For example, there's a profile of Manifesto Games' Greg Costikyan and his adorably DIY indie game portal.

Another notable piece - 'World Of Warcraft: Choose Grinding', which starts like this: "Marik skipped a term of school, disconnected his mobile phone, broke up with his girlfriend, and created barriers between friends he'd known for over a decade. Why? To play and, in his words, "beat" World of Warcraft. To become High Warlord, the single best player on his server." Bonus points for the furry-themed dating site ad on the site, PCG guys (reload, you'll see it)!

Time Lapse Vector Game Art? Yum!

- Thanks to Andy Baio, I've been introduced to Rosemarie Fiore's vector arcade game time lapse pictures, which are pretty interesting, not least because they come from a fine artist and not a video game geek.

The explanation on her index page is fairly endearing: "These photographs are long exposures taken while playing video war games of the 80’s created by Atari, Centuri and Taito. The photographs were shot from video game screens while I played the games. By recording each second of an entire game on one frame of film, I captured complex patterns not normally seen by the eye."

Hey, and there's also something else GSW readers might like hanging out on her website: "“Evel Knievel Pinball Paintings” Entire games of pinball were recorded in oil paint while playing my 1979 Evel Knievel pinball machine. As I played, pinballs covered with oil paint moved across vellum fitted to the machine’s playboard creating the paintings. A video, "Balls of Steel" is exhibited with the paintings."

February 8, 2007

Bollywood, FXLabs Dream Up, Uhm, 'Dhoom 2' Game

- This one wandered into the Gamasutra box, and was too good not to pass up: "FXLabs Studios, a leading provider of game development and outsourcing services, announced today that it has signed an exclusive agreement with Yashraj Film Studios to develop a PC game based on the popular action thriller Dhoom 2. An industry first for Bollywood, this game will boast of international “AAA” production quality, and will set the standards for all Indian-Cinema based games in the future."

The Wikipedia page for Dhoom 2 has more information on the Bollywood movie, in which: "The police are baffled by a master thief known only as Mr. A (Hrithik Roshan) because he leaves an 'A' symbol after each robbery. Mr. A steals the English crown by sky diving onto a train, disguising himself as the queen, stealing the crown, and escaping." And look at the poster - how can this not be awesome?

Impressively, the movie has already grossed towards $20 million in India, and "...in the US alone, it had earned US$2,642,290 by early 2007." I went and found a trailer for the movie on YouTube, and it seems to be all kinds of high-budget Mission Impossible-aping urban sophisticate styling. The game version of this might even be worth checking out for those who aren't so into the Bollywood scene, eh?

Anyhow, some more info: "Under the working title “Dhoom 2", FXLabs has begun development of the game and expect to complete it by the end of 2007. This game will reach out to all audiences who are avid Dhoom 2 fans as it is the natural extension of the sequel in the virtual screen. The game will feature likeness of characters from Dhoom 2, including Mr. A (Aryan) Jai, Sunehri, Ali and Shonali and many more. Each character will be faithfully recreated in full 3D and will be brought to life by the FXLabs team of talented programmers, artists, and animators."

MMOG Nation: Why Ebay Is Small Potatoes and Money Ruins Everything

['MMOG Nation' is a weekly column by Michael Zenke about current events in the world of Massively Multiplayer Games. This week's column rants about the SOE White Paper, RMT, and the future of real money in virtual worlds.]

World of Warcraft Auction HouseAt the end of last month, eBay confirmed that they intend to pull every auction for 'virtual artifacts' from their site. From WoW gold to Neopoints, Real Money Transfer (RMT) fans will have to look elsewhere for their goodies. While initially I found this a fascinating move, after having it pointed out to me that eBay has threatened this before (many times before, in fact) I had to re-evaluate. Worldwide, RMT is a multimillion (billion?) dollar business now. The success of World of Warcraft has made companies like IGE buckets of profit, while outfits like Second Life and Entropia are drawing the attention of non-gamers to the possibilities of virtual currency. The last time eBay threatened this, there hadn't been serious discussions of taxing your virtual property put forward by the U.S. government, and Sony Online wasn't running its own virtual sales service. With new information on SOE's business now out in the open, it's easy to see that the very few auctions processed by Ebay are chump change compared to organized, RMT-specific services.

So what? Well, the success of IGE and the Station Exchange will mean big changes for Massive games in the future. Like it or not RMT is so phenomenally profitable that increasingly, companies will be unable to ignore it as a component in their game design. Whether this results in designers intentionally making games dull or relying on RMT to make games grippy, things are going to have to change. Today I'll be mulling over the data from the Station Exchange white paper and theorizing on some ways the monetizing of play will change the next generation of Massive games.

RMT It's Easy As ABC 123

If you haven't had the chance to read the entire paper yet, I suggest you do so. It's relatively short and chock full of data. Of course, if you don't like Real Money Transfer (RMT) you're going to find it horrifying. In its pages the worst fears of RMT-haters are confirmed in black and white datamining. If the information SOE has unearthed can be applied to RMT trading in general (no certain thing), MMOG purists have a rocky future to look forward to. On the Station Exchange servers some 25% of the user base participated in RMT. One can assume the percentage is lower on servers and services where RMT is discouraged. Just the same, the willingness is obviously there. If players have the option to circumvent playtime, they will. All these hours of lovingly crafted content are, through the eyes of around a quarter of the playerbase, obstacles to get around. Both Damion and Raph, two guys who should know what they are talking about if anyone does, specifically phrase RMT as 'a means of skipping the boring parts.'

SOE ExchangeThis is disconcerting, to say the least. I know a lot of folks are rushing through Burning Crusade to get to 70 ... but aren't these games supposed to be about having fun? Isn't the time and hard work of these developers something to be enjoyed rather than circumvented? That was my understanding, anyway. For more serious gamers, too, the popularity of RMT would seem to negate their advantage as well. If a player can pay cash for something it took a dedicated raider hours to earn, where is the incentive for the hardcore to stay hardcore?

This speaks, in general, to a disquieting problem with the genre of Massive games as a whole. When EverQuest and UO were first released, they were built on the backs of MUDs; text-based realms that served as homes-away-from-home for their players and administrators. Community is a hell of a lot easier when you're talking about a few tens or hundreds people, and every well-developed MUD I've played has made community and interaction one of the primary components of the 'game'. Initially, I think EQ was aimed in the same direction ... but if that was true once it certainly isn't now. EQ, SWG, DAoC, and all the other mishmashed acronyms represent huge time investments that are just not conducive to enjoying yourself with your friends. City of Heroes, a severely under-appreciated game if there ever was one, is actually criticized by some gamers for letting you play with the people you care about regardless of your 'level'. They see this as some sort of egalitarian nonsense; when did actually having fun become nonsense?

Servers split friends away from each other, levels divide the 'have times' from the 'too busys', and the lesson we're being taught from these companies (tacitly and in some cases directly) is that you can have all the fun you want ... if you are willing to pay. Money greases the wheels for server transfers, to get you back together with your friends. Money greases the wheels for buying gold, or even having your character power-leveled by another player (the ultimate in vicarious 'fun'). What's wrong with this genre, with our gaming culture, that paying people to have fun for you has become not only an accepted element but a lucrative business?

The Dark Future

The element of the paper I found most disconcerting was the inclusion of this statement all the way at the end: "Since the income generated from auctions is predictable, and can be controlled, it may offer new ways to monetize game play. It is already clear that the possibility exists of creating an MMO in which the virtual economy is a core component. This would not work for all game types. But in the cases where it does work, would provide a powerful way to keep subscribers glued to the game." Mr. Smedley responded to my objections over this statement with the following: "Hmm.. well, I would disagree that it is a bad thing ... To me the idea that an out-of-game economy can exist and people can make money by participating in a game they love is amazing. However, I have to emphasize that I think it's important we design with this in mind. ... The key is to design games in such a way that "farming" just isn't possible or beneficial. Make it about creativity. Make that the source of rarity. Then I think we're on to something huge." As Abalieno points out, that sounds an awful lot like Google ads on a blog; like a 'game' meeting up with capitalism and making out in a back room.

A ChartI wholeheartedly agree: subscriptions are a bad way to do things. We need to move to a new way of doing things, games need to change with the times. But this? This is a sickness in the genre. This is a pox on the face of future Massive gaming. How are parents going to feel safe letting their kids play a game when they know junior could wrack up a massive credit card bill just buying armor? What has always been a relatively reasonably priced way of getting a month's worth of entertainment could become a serious financial wrestling match for less financially solvent gamers. For the price of one movie ticket gamers have always had free and unlimited access to their game world, a game world where they could hang up their hats and forget (for a short while) the problems and frustrations of modern life. Forcing a college student to decide between bread and a piece of content, giving a MMOG addict a direct shortcut to financial ruin; these are very much the trappings of the modern world, and they have no place in Massive gaming.

To my mind, opening our arms to Real Money Transfer is the wrong direction down a slippery slope. Why not reexamine your games, developers, and figure out why it is people are paying perfectly good money to avoid all your hard work? Last night while playing EQ2 I rapid-fire clicked through some quest text, and commented to my party members how I was invalidating the career choice of some designer as I did so. It's an overstatement, of course, but if a designer spent half an hour designing that quest and most players breeze through it to get done, that was half an hour wasted. This is now an industry where players are spending their paychecks to skip through the entire contents of a game. If RMT is the future, why not develop a game where players can just pay to be popped to max level with some decent gear? Cut out the middle man, reduce customer service, and improve on the bottom-line all at the same time?

While I find the data in the white paper fascinating, I find its conclusions chilling. Gaming is a hobby. I take it very seriously, as do a number of other people, but gaming is a big part of my job. For most players, for the average player, gaming is supposed to be about having fun. How is a player supposed to have fun if the same have/have-not bull that makes 'real life' so challenging intrudes on the game world? How will a casual player feel if he knows 'all he needs to do' is drop 50 bucks and he can be playing with his friends again? These kinds of questions are precisely why a lot of people play Massive games in the first place. Force real-world economics on most Massive players, and I think they'll respond by just leaving. Why would anyone want to play a title where real-world economics are something you have to consider when starting the client? Console games, traditional CRPGs, casual games ... Yahtzee ... there are lots of ways to have fun without having an inferiority complex or a bill handed to you. I think most gamers are smart enough not to stand for it, and developers should beware the urge to test the limits of a player's dedication to the Massive genre. After all, there's always another game.

Aside: I do want to point out that I'm not targeting these comments specifically at SOE, Blizzard, the Station Exchange, WoW, EQ2, or John Smedley. I think this is something the whole of the genre has to deal with, and Sony's white paper just provoked a lot of thoughts along these ends. Take with a grain of salt, as always. Thanks.

[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. ]

GameShadow Awards Showcase Innovation, Innit?

- Doesn't seem to have been much publicity on this yet (not sure they put out a press release), but the results of GameShadow's Innovation In Games awards are out, and though it's a bit weird to see a game patching company organizing a game innovation awards, I can see that their heart is in it.

Overall 'Best Game' winner was LocoRoco ("This is a truly joyous game – a wonderfully simple interface guides our LocoRocos through the beautiful landscape that deforms impressively. Supported by wonderful audio of singing children, this is just a pleasure to experience." Other honored winners include Electroplankton for audio, Shadow Of The Colossus for Visual Effects, and Rooster Teeth's PANICS for best machinima.

Oddest but coolest is that Wild Earth won out in the Best Demo category - the IGF winner from 2003 has been super-duper delayed and just recently made it into stores thanks to Ubisoft under the name 'Safari Photo Africa: Wild Earth'.

The judges commented of the title: "The game is in many ways like a first person shooter, except you're shooting with a camera, not a rifle. It's exciting to see an attempt to use current technology to make interesting, informative games that can give the same level of emotional reward as a successful headshot in a traditional FPS, and Wild Earth succeeds very well."

Hudson's Bee TV Stings Like A Mutherbuzzer

- Those lovable NeoGAF folks are currently roughing up a request on the Hudson Entertainment site that "Hudson wants to flesh out all of its entries on Wikipedia and there's no better way to do that than through you, the fans."

Not going to debate the issues behind that one, but it did remind me that we featured Hudson's 'Bee TV' back in August, and co-worker Brandon mentioned that the Bee TV insanity was still going on. And, sure enough, there's a round-up of the first 4 episodes on Hudson's site, with full links to downloadable and streamable versions of their in-house videozine.

I actually think this is a really neat idea - and they go to a lot of trouble. For example, for Episode 3: "Wanna see the 1up.com or IGN crew cower before our mad gaming skills? Then check out Bomberman's office invasion of your favorite magazines! How about an all access pass into the making of Bonk's Return - the mobile game? This, and the infamous Hudson office move rounds out this episode of Bee TV!" But the YouTube version only has about 220 views, youch, and the newer Episode 4 stream on YouTube just 22, so let's hope that everyone is just using the downloadable versions instead. If not, pile on and give the Hudson guys some dignity already!

Why Official (Or Not) Game Wikis Are Neeto

- I recently came across Sara Jensen's 'We Can Fix That With Data' blog, which is an excellent blog about game design and turning from a senior designer at Spacetime Studios (currently doing something space MMO-related for NCSoft, most likely.)

Anyhow, a recent post of Sara's discusses the concept of official game wikis, comparing numbers of pages with users, edits, and admins on a variety of MMO-related wikis, not all official, though, including those for Vanguard, EverQuest II, Puzzle Pirates, and more. She particularly asks: "I was curious if a more, uh, rabid fanbase lead to increased wiki activity. Discounting page views, since not all of the wikis provided them, and without any accurate subscriber counts, we’re left with ratios of wiki users to other stuff." And Vanguard wins, haha.

As Joe Ludwig correctly points out in the comments: "I don’t know if it makes much difference (since you couldn’t get views on it) but I bet that only a fraction of the people who use Wikipedia actually have users. I know I don’t have one and I use Wikipedia all the time. It may be the case that other more active Wikis (like WoWWiki) are in the same boat. What the data really says to me is that Vanguard’s Wiki denizens are just as hard-core as the game."

February 7, 2007

Neversoft's Guitar Hero Ad In Game Developer Magazine

Over at Game Developer magazine, which I'm EIC of, we really appreciate the guys at Neversoft, because they put a lot of trouble, art direction-wise, into making neat-looking ads whenever they're trying to recruit new developers to their slightly deranged fold.

So, the February 2007 issue of Game Developer has just arrived in digital subscription form - you may recall Brandon joking about a few days back, and which has an exclusive postmortem of Insomniac's Resistance: Fall Of Man in it. Neversoft's ad in the mag is an awesome call to arms for anyone who wants to come and work at the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater creator on their latest inherited franchise, and which I reproduce for you here (click through for higher-res):

Of course, Neversoft recently confirmed that development of the Guitar Hero franchise has been transferred from Harmonix to them, as part of Activision buying GH publisher RedOctane - but if Neversoft are going to rock the pastel pinks and the Angus Young like this, maybe the franchise is in safe hands, hmm?

[At some point I'm going to get round to republishing a few other of Neversoft's recruitment ads for the mag, since I'm sure they won't mind. Suffice to say that at least two of them have caused significant consternation around the office regarding whether they were 'right' for a, uhm, family magazine. Wait, are we a family magazine?]

EVE Online - Trouble In Deep Space

- Over at Blue's News, they are highlighting some interesting controversy, or as they put it, a "brewing brouhaha" regarding Eve Online that centers around alleged improprieties by CCP staff in the crazily immersive PC MMO.

It all seems a bit murky, but Blue makes a good synopsis near the beginning: "The original post by EVE Online community manager kieron mentions that the identities of CCP employees participating in the game have become public, and that the compromised accounts have been deleted, and goes on to refer to the possibility that information about a coming story arc had been leaked by employee/players. They describe a tightening of the audit measures whereby accounts of employees are monitored for malfeasance to protect against employee misconduct. The fuel for the thread's rapid growth are allegations that the scandal runs deeper than what is being addressed, and that employees of CCP have been able to steer valuable in-game items to the groups in which they participate."

A commenter on the Blue's thread also provides some color: "For those who don't know, BoB (Band of Brothers) is *the* biggest alliance. The only one that was nearly the size disbanded after months of having BoB totally destroy them. With this information coming out, it puts a grim shadow on the game. A shame too, I was looking forward to when they implement factional warfare and people who can't play the game 7 days a week can participate in some good PvP."

[UPDATE: The Escapist has added an in-depth report into this whole story, including a blog post from CCP developer Vincent "t20" P admitting to his misconduct and apologizing for his actions: "Sadly enough, the allegation regarding unlawfully obtained blueprints are, in my case, true. I'm here, laying out the facts of what happened in June 2006 so this whole issue -- which jeopardized my colleagues, my company and our community -- can be put behind us, I hope for the better."]

Lost Levels Unearths Buzz & Waldog

- Compatriot FrankC has been busy over at Lost Levels, using the forums to unearth a previously unknown/unreleased NES title from South Korea, 'Buzz & Waldog', and quipping: "Man, this Virtual Console thing on the Wii is kind of a bummer, isn't it? Who wants to play classic, good games that they've already played before? Wouldn't you rather play a crappy game you've never heard of?"

He then explains: "Buzz & Waldog is a cartoony platform game for the NES that was developed by Daou Infosys, a Korean company. The game was going to be published by Innovation Tech, the publishing offshoot of a company called The Ultimate Games Club, which was a big mailorder game distributor in the early 90s. If you can't tell by the screenshots, this game is actually really nicely made!"

He continues: "It's colorful, it's fluid, and it's really fun. And, amazingly, this game was going to be released without a coveted (and expensive) official license from Nintendo of America, Inc., just like those Jesus games you might have accidentally gotten for Christmas. Were this released, I would easily call it the best unlicensed NES game ever produced." And, more to the point, he's done YouTube videos of gameplay, too - that's just level 1, click through for the full set and lots of screenshots. Frank, you're adorable!

Fanzines Into The Next Generation

- Aha, we got some mail! It's from Todd Umbarger! Let's read it: "In an effort to associate myself with every reputable gaming blog possible, a recent GameSetWatch article inspired me to chronicle my foray into fanzines over fifteen years ago. GSW's "Game Mag Weaseling" column from January 27th makes mention of Rocket editor Casey Loe, one of "the usual gang of Play and GameFan standbys"."

Umbarger continues, linking to his new weblog post with multiple cover scans: "Not being a reader of either magazine, I never knew my Prodigy pal and fellow amateur publisher Casey had become a successful journalist. We and many other hard-working kids collaborated on Next Generation [yes, unrelated to the obvious one!], one of the classic fanzines of the pre-Internets era. Having written strategy guides for Final Fantasy VII, Devil May Cry and the Zelda and Resident Evil series, Casey transformed a pubescent hobby into a dream career." Umbarger's fanzine covers are kinda fun, if you like Mortal Kombat fan art and suchlike - it's almost outsider art!

As for what Umbarger is up to now, when it's not drawing really spooky fake K-Fed album covers, he appears to be doing odd illustrations such as this version of Ouendan, or even some prize-winning Katamari fan art - his blog also has lots more of his non-game-related cartoons in it.

February 6, 2007

Procedural Content For Dummies, Introversion-Style

- Over at GSW sister educational site Game Career Guide, the folks at Darwinia/Defcon creators Introversion have been kind enough to contribute a a detailed feature called 'Procedural Content Generation', talking about generating content algorithmically - handy when you don't have an infinite amount of monkeys - uhm, artists - to help out.

They explain by way of introduction: "With each new generation of console, the costs of creating game content, in terms of both time and money, are increasing at a tremendous rate, and it is just unfeasible for a small developer to be able to keep up with such escalation. This is where Procedural Content Generation comes in handy. Procedural content is content that has been created by a computer algorithm rather than custom made by an artist. This content can be created completely dynamically, or can be generated based on some external input, from a user, or a text file, for example."

And how do they keep to this? They show some fascinating screenshots from their 'mysterious' new project Subversion, commenting: "Hand-designing the layout of every single building in a city that size would be a ridiculous task. It would take hundreds, probably even thousands, of man-hours. An algorithm written by a single person however can do the same task in seconds, and can be adapted to any other purposes that you might need. The trees in Darwinia, for example, were generated using a similar principal – lines ‘growing’ outwards from a seed point, branching out a number of times along the way." Looks like Chris Delay has a similar blog post about creating virtual offices for Subversion via the same concept - very neat indeed.

@ Play: ADOM, Nethack With A Goatee

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.]

This is a game that does things that sometimes defy belief.

Many people have wondered over the sheer range of possibility here. They see the huge array of random items. They see wishing and item transformation, altars and prayer. They see that players can eat dead monsters and gain (and lose) abilities from their meal. That items can be blessed and cursed, and have different effects depending on that state. The tremendous variety of monsters. That players can take potions of water, make holy water out of them at an altar, then use that to bless other items. They see that the game implements special rules on certain real-world dates, like Friday the 13th.

All of these things, as we've covered before, are true of Nethack. But now, we are not talking about Nethack. We're taking a look at a copy of Nethack that came to our world after falling through a wormhole from a mirror universe. We're looking at ADOM.

That ADOM bears so many features first seen in Nethack indicates pretty strongly that its creator and maintainer, Thomas Biskup, was greatly inspired by that game, and borrowed many of its aspects. And like Nethack, there is far too much to say about the game in one column. This week I shall attempt to give a good initiate's-eye view of the thing. Again, and as usual, I am more concerned with examining the game's play, its innate coolness, and its problems than with avoiding spoilers, although, again as with Nethack, most players must be spoiled greatly to have even a slim chance at winning.

adomoverworld.gifThe Guise Of The Overworld

Perhaps the first thing that players notice upon beginning a game is that they do not begin in a dungeon level or town, but in a screen-sized overworld map reminiscent of (although less graphical than) those from some of SSI's Gold Box AD&D games. The map is dotted with towns, clearings and dungeons, some challenging to find, and some accessible only by finding routes through some of the dungeons.

Some of the dungeons are relatively small, while others, such as the Caverns of Chaos and the accurately-named Infinite Dungeon, are much larger. They usually start easy and get tougher the deeper a player gets, but there are exceptions ready to catch the unwary, as anyone happening upon Darkforge will discover.

One thing it's important to note about this map is that it is not randomly generated, but is always the same. Although the actual dungeon layouts and item identities are mixed up anew for each game, the properties of the dungeons and towns do not change. But this is not necessarily a point against ADOM, for no major roguelike has yet to make random overworld generation work satisfactorily. Some of ADOM's dungeons are uncommonly harsh if entered at the wrong time, so it is possibly a good thing that the player can know which these are with experience.

terinyo.gifOur Very Special Quest Stars

ADOM's quests, as with much of the rest of the game, can be considered either good or bad things. To many they will be both. Roguelikes are usually relatively straight-forward games in which, while they may have the occasional detour into a dungeon branch for some necessary object, are still primarily played from the surface down. New players can generally keep hitting the downstairs and be reasonably assured they're going in the right direction.

This contrasts with ADOM's complex itinerary of dungeons, levels and opportunities. Some of them become unavailable after certain game thresholds, or are open only during a small window of the player's adventuring career. If a player doesn't know how to talk to people (Shift-C, for Chat) then some locations, which can only be entered after talking to particular folkwon't even appear on the map. Most roguelikes can be explored, though maybe not survived, easily by new players and, while their chances of success may be minimal at first, at least they can be assured that they aren't missing out on something happening halfway across the world that they aren't even aware of, simply because they hadn't met some invisible appointment. ADOM does not have that assurance.

For The Love Of Purple 't'

The quests themselves are pretty cool, and sometimes they contain surprising verisimilitude. Some of the types of challenges a player may engage in are unknown anywhere else in the roguelike genre. To pick one early, easily-observed example, there is an early quest in which the elder of a village asks the player to ease the suffering of the village carpenter, who has gone crazy and run off to the bottom of a nearby dungeon. The wording of the quest is such that the player considers that he is expected to kill the carpenter to accomplish this. However, on level four of that dungeon is a healer, who helpfully offers to heal the player should he speak to him.

Early in my own ADOM-playing binge, which took place while the game was still under active, heavy development, on one of the first visits to the dungeon, I got it into my head to try something strange. What would happen if I lured the carpenter, who follows the player through the dungeon and will also chase him up through staircases, to the healer? Would the two fight? I was startled to discover that the healer then healed the carpenter, restoring his sanity and causing him to drop some items! Later versions of the game even made this a prerequisite for learning the Healing skill and Bridge Building skills.

The experience of happening, purely by accident, across this interaction played a major role in my early fascination with the game. I suspect the players who come to love ADOM, who discover this kind of thing through spoilers, cunning or accident, feel the same way about it. However, it can also be seen as one more instance where spoilers are practically required to win at the game; the Healing skill, which greatly improves hit point regeneration, is almost required in order to make headway into the game, yet it is easy to kill the carpenter accidentally or for survival's sake, making it quite hard to acquire.

But because of this proliferation of quests, there are times when ADOM doesn't feel quite as random as it should be. The items that are found in a play of a roguelike game determine its character. A game of Nethack with, as a lucky friend of mine discovered recently, Mjollnir resting happily at the player's feet on the starting square of the game will feel different from one where artifact weapons are harder to come by, or one with few scrolls of identify, or one with an early ring of slow digestion, or pair of speed boots, and so on.

But Nethack also contains a number of hard-coded items and areas, and sometimes that makes the game feel less random than it should. ADOM, unavoidably, has the same problem.

adomoutlaw.gifWhy Is The Trollish Warrior Fleeing From That Kitty-Cat?

Another prominent example of an element of ADOM that is difficult to discover without spoilers or being bitten, in this case one that could result in the end of a player's first potentially-winning game, concerns cats. There are three monsters in ADOM that are considered to be of this type: wild cats, cave lions and cave tigers. As far as monsters go they are apparently ordinary, just another monster type in a game that also contains dogs, rats, spiders, lizards, bears and Greater Molochs, but there is a secret peril regarding them.

Late in the game there is a guaranteed monster, the Cat Lord, whose strength is directly proportional to the number of cats slain by the player during his adventures. There is no known maximum to the strength he can attain through this, and it is possible for him to become a rude surprise indeed. If the player manages to kill no cats on his quest, the Cat Lord will actually be peaceful, and give the player a very powerful item for his trouble. But this Cat Lord business is remarked upon hardly anywhere in the game; it's only alluded to in a fairly obscure way, hardly enough warning to prompt a player to avoid killing all of a certain type of monster (which tend to get in the way at the least opportune times) unless, of course, he's already been spoiled.

It is not my job to apologize for roguelikes, but to honestly report on them for good or ill, and in the end all roguelikes, even those supposed friendly towards novices, like Rogue and Crawl, have this problem built into their design. It is just a bigger version of that shock players receive upon first encountering a powerful, previously-unknown monster. ("A capital 'T,' huh? How hard could it be?") But the further a player gets through a roguelike, in which the game must be begun anew after each loss, the more it stings. And when that loss comes from a hitherto unknown, seemingly arbitrary cause, it stings hard.

With ADOM, these stings are many. Kill a cat? Bad move. Hit a karmic lizard with a melee weapon? Bad move. Stand on an altar with an intelligent monster nearby? Really bad move. Once again, Nethack also has its fair share of arbitrary peril, as anyone who's smacked a floating eye knows, but at least in that game, for the most part, it is the obviously fantastic beasts and objects that cause the problems.

ADOM reserves a special kind of smackdown for people who kill cats. Because of this, and a great many other idiosyncrasies, it is difficult to recommend the game to roguelike newcomers.

adomlevel.gifDamnation By Degrees

Perhaps ADOM's most-defining element is "corruption," by which it means a series of mutations that the player's character undergoes during the game according to a timer. There's 19 corruptions in the game, each of which being a different, specific mutation the player undergoes, and they function as both rising difficulty level and an ultimate time limit on the game. If the player lives without winning long enough eventually they'll all happen, in random order. Some of them are helpful, but most are mixed blessings. A couple, Poison Hands and Mana Battery, are obnoxious effects that make it extremely difficult for the player to make use of his inventory.

If a player receives all the corruptions, he only has a little while longer to play before he devolves into a puddle of chaos. Like Rogue's food supply, this isn't a hard limit but can be pushed back by using certain items (some are available for completing specific quests) or by wishing for them. There is a quest that will wipe a player's corruption slate clean once. Still, corruption removal is rare enough that none of these means can (typically) be relied upon indefinitely, and there exist traps, items, and especially monsters that can corrupt a player early. Most players who never get past the midgame may not even know that corruption exists, or that it's time based, because there is a good buffer of buffer radiation that can be absorbed before the first corruption occurs, because many early locations in the have no "background corruption," and because corruption doesn't become a big problem until the ninetieth day, when the rate doubles. Once the player gets in gear and begins exploring dangerous areas, corruption is unavoidable, and must be taken into account in any long-range strategy.

The Bizarre Cathedral

One thing about ADOM that bears mentioning, because it perhaps explains many of its successes and problems, is the fact that, unlike almost all the other roguelikes currently played today, it is not open source. It is beer-free, not freedom-free. The reasons Thomas Biskup gives for keeping the source to himself, and a handful of people who write ports to other operating systems, varies according to the citation: that he prefers to keep some aspect of mystery in the game; that he'd like for there not to be a plethora of variants such as with Angband (although its variants are common because of the relative ease of modifying that game), that he was scared by some people who angrily demanded, via email, the source, that he someday plans to make a commercial version with graphics, and that it wouldn't be as much fun for him to write it if others were looking over his shoulder.

Whatever the reason--and with it being his program, he doesn't have to give one--it does preserve some aspect of mystery in the game's workings. The route to the "ultra" endings of the game, special extra quests that can be completed for greater glory, took dedicated players on the ADOM Usenet group quite a long time to determine. To this day, despite the presence of that special brand of obsession only diehard roguelike players can muster, there are still things about the game that are not known. Meanwhile the promiscuously open source Nethack has no mysteries to the sufficiently determined, and there are dozens of die-hard players and modders who can quote the source chapter-and-verse.

But there are also real disadvantages this decision presents to the game's maintenance. Of course there is the quality argument, for there are almost always bugs in a computer program and the more eyes looking the fewer there will be, but it also presents problems for its design.

Nethack's vaunted verisimilitude did not arise fully-formed from one person's brain, or even entirely from within its Devteam, but from the work of many dozens of developers submitting their modifications. A good proportion of the most-recently added features originally came from popular variants Nethack+ and SLASH'EM, variants which could never have existed if the source were not open. Over time, many of the rough edges of Nethack's design have been worn down by a legion of coders, each fixing what they cared about, and adding stuff as they liked. As noted earlier, there are many patches in existence now that arguably improve the game. Nethack grew up through the accretion of these patches, but ADOM relies entirely upon the skill of one person. At the best, an open-source game can seem like the product of a godlike intelligence, greater than any one of its contributors, but ADOM is the product of Thomas Biskup, and whatever brilliances or blindnesses it has are, for better or worse, his.

In the end, the greatest danger is that the game will turn out like the Lost Roguelikes: Advanced Rogue, XRogue, SuperRogue and URogue. Nethack is immortal due to its widely-distributed source, while those other games are only recently been recovered. In twenty years Nethack will still survive--whether it's the Devteam working on it or someone else. One cannot say that so confidently about ADOM.

ADOM (a.k.a. "Ancient Domains of Mystery")
Homepage: http://www.adom.de/
Guidebook: http://www.andywlms.com/adom/adomgb-toc.html

GameSetTip: Bit Generations Sale @ Play-Asia

- So, we're not actually shilling here, since we have no biz relationship with them, so wanted to point out that Play-Asia's Lunar New Year sale is on, and of particular interest are the Bit Generations GBA titles for $15 each.

We've previously discussed these unique, Nintendo-published experimental GBA titles, which were released at a budget price in Japan, and it appears will never get a North American release at this point - Modojo has a good review set for almost all of them, and it seems generally agreed that Dotstream and Orbital are the two worth picking up.

In Orbital, "you control a small planetoid as it floats through space. You start out as one of the smallest objects on the screen, but by merging with objects a size larger, you increase your own size and gravitational pull", and in Dotstream, also getting good reviews at 4CR, "you are a beam of light that is in a race with four other beams of light. Dotstream does away with the accelerate button found in most racing games. Instead, you travel faster when going in a straight line."

Both neat, and I picked them both up for $33 including postage to the U.S. - so I would recommend checking out these and other Bit Generations titles if you're into the experimental. [EDIT: Orbital, Dotstream, and Coloris are now out of stock, as of 2.31pm PST - the other titles are still available right now, though.]

Towards Microsoft And 42's Vanishing Point

- Over at ARGN a couple of days back, they had a really nice wrap-up of 42 Entertainment's Vanishing Point game, which was specifically set up to promote Windows Vista and confuse the world in an Alternate Reality Game stylee.

It's all worth a read, but here's my favorite bit: "Although the contest and prizes were unavailable to Microsoft employees, those intrepid programmers were not left out in the cold by Vanishing Point. The character Loki, ostensibly the "puzzle master" behind the entire campaign, had an actual office on the Microsoft campus, according to Steve Peters of 42 Entertainment, one of the actual puppet masters behind the puzzle master. Stickers were placed around the campus to attract the attention of employees, and provided directions to the curious that were intended to lead them to Loki's office."

What? A bit of the puzzle just for MIcrosofties? "There, the observant might have noticed some strange patterns of tape stuck to the office window. In fact, if lined up at just the right angle, one could match up the tape with the Seattle skyline, and a bullseye marking the spot. Solving this puzzle would have provided the successful employee with an invitation to attend the endgame festivities, but only one individual was reported to have done so." Good Lord, this is esoteric weirdness.

GameSetQ: Cool Retro Arcade Hangout Guide?

- Having managed to get my 'Watch Now' button working for movie rental service Netflix, I was checking out 'The Comedians Of Comedy' movie, which came before the Comedy Central series of the same name, and provides excellent geek comedy jam credentials.

Anyhow, along the way, there's a dream sequence involving metal/video game nerd Brian Posehn, who is wandering around Portland's Ground Kontrol in a daze, checking out all the gorgeous retro arcade machines for play in there. And it got me thinking - is there a directory/list of arcades that have decent classic arcade games in them, or are outfitted specifically for the retro enthusiast?

In the Bay Area, sure, there are some Nickel City and Dave & Busters locations, and there's the infamous Sunnyvale Golfland, which used to be a test arcade for a lot of the U.S. arcade manufacturers headquartered in Silicon Valley, but I don't think there's really a well-maintained retro arcade around here. In fact, the only decent one I can think of is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which has about 15 classic machines in and among its larger selection. Am I wrong? How about in your area of the country? GSW readers must be told!

February 5, 2007

GameSetLinks: A Mishmash Of Outdated Claptrap

- Uhoh, due to a nasty-ish cold I'm only just getting over, I've let these links stew in my 'to be posted' pile for a little bit too long! So I'm going to unleash them on the public now, before it's too late:

- Zen Of Design mentions a Tyra Banks daytime talk show about World Of Warcraft, with the priceless rejoinder to the vid link: "The guy’s look in the second video, as Tyra is shredding his WoW disks, is priceless. It says, “These idiots don’t realize that I don’t need the disks anymore after install."

- SelectButton has a really nice post about La Mulana, the Japanese freeware platformer which just got an English translation, and it sounds neeto: "La-Mulana is a freeware free-roaming platformer game designed to look, sound, and play like a classic MSX game. It's heavily influenced by the classic Konami MSX game "The Maze of Galious" and anyone who has played that title will probably recognize the similarities very quickly. You play the whip-wielding Indiana Jones-esque archaeologist Lemeza Kosugi as he investigates the ancient ruins of La-Mulana in an attempt to find its treasure and one-up his father, who is trying to get the same treasure as well."

- A nice Eurogamer piece from last week or so - an interview with Eric Chahi about Another World: 15th Anniversary Edition, in which he shows he's very, err, French: "Heart of Darkness had been a difficult development and I was exhausted after six years of development. So after this I decided to truly take some rest. I've been traveling for a while. Then I'll go back to creation, but I preferred to express myself in other fields than computer games, such as abstract painting, volcano photography, sound synthesis programming."

- Yesh, everyone else has seen this now, but this was cool when I originally forgot to link it - Brandon points out "...an ascii art platformer, done in flash with Megaman sounds. It's called Jineseiowata no Daibouken, or 'life-ending adventure,' and it's absolutely brilliant in the ways it plays with platform game conventions, especially the oldschool ones."

- Something I thought was worth noting about this recent Japanmanship post on handhelds in the wild in Japan: "Another new time-waster is DS/PSP observing; I count about 5 or 6 DSs a day in the wild. Aqua Blue seems to be the most popular colour. I have only seen one original, bulky DS recently, played by a sour-looking schoolboy... The types of people I spot with a DS is heartwarmingly varied; from school kids to young and middle-aged women to young and old salarymen... In sharp contrast I only ever see about 2 PSPs a week. Usually the white version, for some reason, and more often than not it’s being used to watch video rather than play games."

- Finally, I just about spit out my cola over this Shoot The Core photoshoot of nrrd grrls wearing Shoot The Core T-shirts, firstly because it's so endearingly amateur, and secondly because one of them is reading Gaming Hacks, the book I wrote/edited for O'Reilly, and for which STC's Posty contributed a hack about shmups. As Posty says, the shirt is called "STC Invader, and features some old friends getting a visit from out of the ordinary - a horizontal attack!" More girls posing with Cave shooter boxes, plz!

Blogging Up A Revitalized Uru

- Just spotted the rather fun UruBlogs.com, which is an aggregator of the adventures of travelers in Myst Online: Uru Live, Cyan Worlds and GameTap's resurrected MMO that's officially launching on February 15th.

The original incarnation of the MMO had a hardcore, mythos-obsessed fanbase, and it looks like there's plenty of similar talk in the new world of Myst Online: "A really cool thing is the new timeline, with some nice pictures about the discovery of D’ni. And the best thing is the section “Restoration project”, wich is a finally updated progress list. As you can see, the Museum, Dereno (never heard of that before…), Eder Tsogal, Er’cana and Negilahn are in Phase Five currently. So, those are (almost) ready to be opened!

Blogger Erik also notes the D'ni Restoration Council's website, grinning: "I can’t wait to visit Er’cana, I’ve heard so much about that already. And Negilahn seems to be very interesting as well, a Museum Age, a big jungle. And of course, I can’t wait to finally visit Tsogal and I really want to know more about Dereno!" Is this content from the original heyday of Uru being put back in, or is this all so 'virtual' that they're just talking about things that never happened?

Official Xbox Magazine's New Disc: 'A Game Within A Game'?

- I've recently been talking about the U.S. Official Xbox Magazine a bit - not just because they got me to write something for its last issue, but more because it's fascinating to see the mag strive to evolve in a world where an Xbox 360 paper-mag with a coverdisc could be a bit of a hard sell.

The content in the mag itself seems a lot sharper, post-relaunch, and I just got the March 2007 issue, with Guitar Hero II on the front. But it's clear that, unless OXM can morph the cover-disc further, quite apart from the exclusive Japanese demos or paid downloadable content for free (which I love, but may not happen every month!), people could tire quickly of the coverdisc - the March one mainly has Xbox Live Arcade demos on it, which are easily downloadable if you have Xbox Live, of course. I haven't booted it yet.

So, there's a little teaser announcement as part of 'The OXM 30' in the March issue: "The Official Xbox Magazine demo disc won't just be about playable demos, game downloads, and viewable videos in 2007. It's evolving with the system, and it will soon be reborn as a universe unto itself - literally. Soon you'll build your own rocket ship and become a part of the OXM galaxy, interacting with other readers, trading game content, and changing the way you think of demo discs forever... Buckle up for liftoff next issue."

Well, this _is_ very cryptic, isn't it? I had a chat to Dan Amrich of OXM at the Microsoft Vista games launch a couple of weeks back, and he didn't actually reveal anything further, other than being abstractly excited about it. But if I wanted to bet, I'd guess that it's some kind of special OXM executable which allows interaction over Xbox Live within a custom interface. But, as I said - I'm totally guessing here.

[Also worth noting - some new Xbox Live Arcade reviews in the March 2007 issue were for unreleased XBLA games, including Worms getting 7.5, with the slightly worrying comment: "Was it purposely truncated to allow downloadable content?", since it's missing stalwart weapons including the Holy Hand Grenade, Root Beer Tapper getting 6.0 with "good time-killer", and the Big Huge Games-developed Catan being "A truly unique Live experience", and getting 8.0. Go subscribe to OXM if you want to be part of the 'rocket ship/OXM galaxy' experiment, like a Peter Moore-approved Laika.]

fl0w The Music, Wake The Drink?

- Jay over at the appropriately named JayIsGames popped in to mention the following: "Just to let you know, we are running an interview that John Bardinelli conducted (oh the humor!) with flOw composer, Austin Wintory." The intro is a bit heavy-breathing-ish (fl0w is apparently "breathtaking both as a game and as a work of art"), but it's an interesting piece.

First explained is the general idea behind the soundtrack for the first Flash-constructed, and soon to be PS3 E-distributed game: "We sought something atmospheric and electronic, but not in the stark, soundscape sort of way. Something warm and organic, as if a symphony of instruments never before played on Earth. That sounds horribly pretentious, but that was sort of our guide. What resulted was a combination of literally hundreds of small audio files being triggered by the player interactions, and a steady background track."

It's also good to see a nicely varied list of influences from Mr. Wintory: "The one composer that seems to always have the answer for me is Bela Bartok, especially when it comes to writing for orchestra. But I’m also a huge admirer of John Corigliano and Eliot Goldenthal. Of course where would we be without Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams? Among game composers I love the old LucasArts team like Mike Land, Peter McConnell, etc. “Grim Fandango” was always a personal favorite."

N4G & The Meta-ing Of The Meta-Game Blog

- Poking at some referrer logs the other day, I spotted the relatively new N4G.com - or new to me, at least, with N4G standing for News 4 Gamers, of course. It's another Digg-style site for games, but has a fairly pleasant interface, with various 'hotness' quotients and easy headline reading.

I was originally going to sorta just link to the site in a vaguely positive manner - and I still think it's useful. But I also wanted to point out that it further meta-s the whole news process on the Internet. Increasingly, nowadays, we're finding on Gamasutra that a blog's version of our story gets upvoted to the front page on Digg and similar sites - so Joystiq or Kotaku's or Destructoid's story that correctly links Gamasutra will get front-page Dugg. That's obviously a bit galling in terms of page views.

(Equally, we sometimes get Gamasutra stories summarizing other people's stories voted up on Digg, which I find a little embarrassing, to be honest. It's the same problem, but obviously, bigger sites like Joystiq and Kotaku will be on the traffic-receiving end of this proportionally more often.)

Well, N4G goes a bit further still, since it actually summarizes Joystiq posts (in that exact example, just cut and pasting the first couple of paragraphs) which are themselves originally sourced from another site. So it's a post about a post about a post. It _does_ link through, but it doesn't even bother rewriting the story in many cases - here's an N4G story from Gamasutra which pastes in the first 3 paragraphs - there's no real need to click through there.

Also, unlike Digg, N4G's main story link on the front page (the headline you click on) goes to an internal N4G page summarizing the story further, rather than the external site that originated the story. It's not a _massively_ big deal, and I'm not suggesting this is the end of the world as we know it, but it's just a further dilution of the concept that you can break news as an information source and expect to capture eyeballs wanting to know about that story.

Sites like Joystiq, Kotaku, and Destructoid, while I love 'em (and I know that they read here) have a lesser but still potent version of the same issue - GSW and Gamasutra just don't see that many clickthroughs from major blogs when one of our stories is reported on, unless it's something that people _have_ to click through to read in depth. Now, N4G is a bit worse than that - they're reproducing _exactly_ the chunks of news that people might want to read, thanks to 'citizen journalists' and a larger space to paste pictures and text into.

But the problem remains the same - the big sites and aggregator sites Katamari Damacy-ize up the rest of the news out there in the blogosphere, without the absolute necessity to do much original research or journalism themselves - or spend time looking at the more obscure sites and corners of the Internet. There are obviously notable exceptions in terms of original reporting (some good Kotaku reporting on eBay Wii/PS3 sales and Columbine, or Joystiq's Dennis McCauley columns), and I'm not saying that blogs don't do reportage too - believe me, I've had some fun email conversations about that!

I'm not even excluding GameSetWatch from this problem - though we try to feature links where you _need_ to click through because there's good, in-depth writing on the other end. But where are the people left to write original, correctly-sourced news and features, in a world where everyone is just talking about what everyone else wrote, and replication of information is effectively near-instantaneous? I'm not saying blogs are wrong in not doing this, but increasingly, who will?

Are we just a thousand parrots with a thousand typewriters, at this point? If so, N4G is the hyacinth macaw of the gaming blogosphere, I reckon.

[Pic via Life Meter.]

February 4, 2007

2007 Way Of The Rodent Awards - Sorted!

- A note from the Way Of The Rodent loonies in the UK, then: "Our [previous GSW-mentioned] little games awards thing went stupidly well, thought you might enjoy/hate the results - here's the write-up."

And indeed, people in the pub holding up odd award plaques seems like a great time to us. The extra pictures reveal that real people from real game companies turned up, too!

Most interesting, perhaps, were the themed outfits, as a game PR person grinned: "Seriously a brilliant and hilarious night… far better than any wanky industry event I've been to. Enjoyed Capcom having to dress up as gay cowboys for their award. I think next year every award collected should include themed costume items as a condition of receiving the accolade - could become a new industry standard."

Oh, and there's also a new issue of WoTR itself, which includes a 2006 review article which... hang on, we said we weren't going to do any more of these about 3 posts ago, didn't we? Bugger. Anyhow, it raves about Ridge Racer 6 again (which is apparently available for $20 here in the States nowadays), so we have to give it a little linky link link.

Yahoo! Starting Halo, The Sims Portal Sites

- Media site PaidContent has an interesting update on Yahoo!'s branded video game sites, which are to launch alongside entertainment sites and aggregate Yahoo! content about a specific subject - there's the already-launched Wii.yahoo.com which gives a good idea of the idea.

Basically, the Wii site grabs Flickr, Delicious, Yahoo! Answers, Yahoo! Avatars, Yahoo! Videos, and some Yahoo! Games content related to Nintendo's new console all in one place - it's just an automagically aggregated site.

PaidContent explains of the new efforts: "Branded Universes will collect the various media within the Yahoo network at a single location focused on a brand selected by Yahoo. It has selected the first six of the supposed 100 it plans: video games “The Sims” and “Halo,” TV shows “Lost” and “The Office,” and franchises Harry Potter and Transformers. Interestingly, Yahoo is not allowing marketers a voice in this, nor seeking licensing for the content. It will not try to monetize these sections until a later date, the company said." The Halo/Sims pages aren't live yet, btw.

This is somewhat of an interesting idea - I guess you could think of it a bit like the GameFAQs pages for a particular game or system, with info and multimedia all in one place - or a bit like the much more curated IGN-owned sites like PlanetQuake and so on. On the other hands, it's just an auto-aggregator, so it's not really presenting anything too unique in terms of editorial voice. But note that Vince Broady, now head of games, entertainment and youth at Yahoo, and formerly co-founder of GameSpot, is in charge of this effort - in other words, he understands the game market. Will be interesting to see what this evolves into!

Gamerzines Up The Ante With Evo, PSP/DS Zines

- We've previously covered Gamerzines, which are, as the creators pinged me to remind me, "...free PDF based magazines, and there are 2 monthly ones currently published (PC and 360) and a third coming for PSP and DS in Feb."

Most recently, they claim: "Issue 2 of PCGZine is out for download now [PDF link], and it's packed with nearly 40 pages of top notch games journalism. It has hands on preview of STALKER, Lord of the Rings Online, Field Ops and Vanguard, plus an interview about Quake Wars and not one, but two competitions - win a beta key for STALKER and a top notch graphics card!"

It's all a bit oddly non-'Web' like, having PDF magazines with embedded Flash and Windows Media Player, but it's fun to flick through, and it's a very UK PC Format/Gamer-like experience, which is kinda fun for people like me who can only get the U.S. versions easily. (Also, there's a Pro Evolution Soccer fanzine [.PDF], which is neat, I reckon. Here's the RSS feed URL for the site, otherwise a bit hidden, btw.)

GameSetRecap: Sister Site Link Goodness

- I'll get to some other GameSetLinks in a couple of posts time, but in the meantime, there's some neat links from GSW's sister sites posted in the last week that I realize a lot of you probably missed:

- At Gamasutra itself, Ernest Adams has been writing about 'serious game' Peacemaker, and in evocative style: "There’s no animation in PeaceMaker, nothing cute, nothing that someone can dismiss as “only a game.” When a missile strike goes awry, or a suicide bomber strikes, the blood and bodies you see on the screen are those of real people. More than any other game I’ve ever played, PeaceMaker portrays the truth – or a subset of it – both the good and the bad."

- It may be overly academic, but Game Career Guide's feature 'Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill', and it's heady stuff: "In these survival-horror worlds, the monsters we encounter signify a return of the Real, their near-sexual drive for consumption a constant reminder of the discursive construction of our own desire. A healthy psyche submits to the Law of the Father-the law authorizing conformity to symbolic order, the law demanding we desire."

- Over at Serious Games Source, Ian Bogost has posted 'Persuasive Games: The Missing Social Rituals of Exergames', in which he comments, rather interestingly: "If exergames don’t start wrapping physical activity in credible social experiences, they will become as miserable and forgettable as any session with the exercise bike or the treadmill." Are there ways to make our physical gaming exercises a bit more... social?

- Finally, at the Game Career Guide, there's a neat postmortem of the Guildhall at SMU's Invalid Tangram, an "arcade-style hybrid between a vertical shooter and a falling-block puzzle game... which has been chosen as a Student Showcase Finalist in the 2007 Independent Games Festival." The game is freely downloadable, and lots of fun, actually.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Thinking Like A Ziff Buyer

['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.]


A recent article posted up on foliomag.com (a magazine that covers the magazine industry) has a bit more to say on the sale of Ziff Davis... or the attempts thereof:

First-round bids on Ziff’s gaming and consumer/small business groups, which are being marketed separately, were due to the company’s advisor, Lehman Brothers on January 19. “I’m not sure how many people bid,” said one source, “but I do know that their price expectations are over the top" [...]

The source said the company is looking to make 3X-revenue on the gaming group alone, which has annual revenues in the mid-$20 million-range and break-even earnings. “Asking for 3X-revenue on a company that’s breaking even is very, very over-the-top,” said the source.

I don't want to spend this column talking about how game magazines have no future, etc., because I'm sure you have heard that from a thousand other people by now. What I'm more interested in is how this move compares to the rest of Ziff Davis's history, one that until recently was playing the role of the 800-pound gorilla in every genre it explored.

Ever since it got into "enthusiast" publishing in the 1950s (it bought Car & Driver magazine in 1956 and published it until 1985), ZD's always managed to capitalize on specialization. Half a century ago, they were smart enough to notice that general-interest magazines like Life or The Saturday Evening Post were becoming outdated -- with the concept of leisure time taking shape in the postwar boom, a massive market in hobbyist publications took off, and Ziff was at the forefront of it with titles like C&D and Popular Electronics.

It was with largely the same attitude that ZD swooped into the computer magazine business. In 1982 alone they bought PC Magazine (which began as a startup), Creative Computing (arguably the most influential consumer-market computer mag of the era), The Color Computer Magazine, and a bunch of smaller publications. PC grew to become a massive, 800-page juggernaut every month, and Ziff soon earned a reputation for either outmuscling competing titles on the newsstand or simply buying them and shutting them down entirely.

The most illustrative example of this for gamers is Ziff's 1996 purchase of Sendai Publishing Group, founders of Electronic Gaming Monthly. The buyout couldn't have come at a better time for Sendai -- EGM was a hit, with an average circulation of 400,000 copies, but the rest of Sendai's lineup at the time (including EGM2, Computer Game Review, P.S.X., Fusion, Electronic Games, Internet Underground, comic book mag Hero Illustrated and movie mag Cinescape, plus one-offs) didn't push 200,000 copies combined. They were a publisher with way too many titles, and Ziff was swift to lay down the law, shutting down everything except EGM, EGM2 and P.S.X. (which evolved into Official US PlayStation Magazine) within the space of a few months.

Flash forward, though, to 2007. Ziff Davis, in its entirety, publishes only six magazines now -- PC, EGM, Games For Windows, and three business-to-business computer industry titles. I joined Ziff in 2003 at the height of its game-mag empire, but since then GameNOW, XBN, GMR, and OPM have all shut down with nothing replacing them. Nothing, that is, except 1UP and a wide variety of PC and game-oriented websites, including the whimsically-named Gazerk.

With such a rapidly diminishing print presence, it's little wonder that potential Ziff buyers are a little apprehensive about the dead-trees side of the business, especially its long-term outlooks. Again, I don't want this to become a "Why game mags should die out" discussion -- I think that EGM/GFW are doing a very good job at proving why they should continue to exist, and indeed, why it's a great idea to keep on reading them. It's just interesting, I think, to see a company that rode the wave of enthusiast publications find its core business eroded by the ultimate resource for enthusiasts of all kinds: the Internet.

[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.]

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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