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Archive For February, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Minesweeper

February 26, 2007 7:14 PM |

A screenshot Windows Minesweeper in Windows XP, Intermediate Level["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. This installment looks at one of the most commonly available PC puzzle games: Minesweeper.]

Though Microsoft claims that Vista will usher in a new age of PC gaming, the first thing it will do is usher in the old age of PC gaming. Despite hardcore clamoring for high-end graphics-card-melting titles, the only games that the majority of people care about are the ones they've been playing for years, the ones that are ready with no complications whenever the urge to do something other than work arises, the ones that are packed in with Windows—Hearts, Klondike, Mah Jongg Solitaire, etc. Of the common games that come with Vista, two are true puzzle games; FreeCell will have to wait until another time, because today I'm talking about Minesweeper.

Mining the Past

Minesweeper has its origins in the earliest mainframe games of the '60s and '70s. Wikipedia cites the earliest ancestor of Minesweeper as Jerimac Ratliff's Cube. But although Cube features "landmines," it's hard to consider this a predecessor of Minesweeper. In Cube, the mines are placed randomly and the only way to discover where they ends the game. You walk over a landmine and you die; you can't avoid the landmines or know where they are before you take a chance.

However, there are a number of very early "hide and seek" games about locating hidden spots on a grid. For example, in Bob Albrecht's Hurkle, you have to find a creature hiding on a ten-by-ten grid. After each guess, you're told in what general direction the Hurkle lies. Dana Noftle's Depth Charge is the same, but in three dimensions. Bud Valenti's Mugwump has multiple hidden targets, and after each guess, you get the approximate distance to each of them. Unlike Cube, these games match the general pattern of Minesweeper more closely: make a random guess to start, then start using the information provided by that first guess to uncover the hidden items. Of course, unlike Minesweeper (or Cube), the was no danger of "explosion," the only constraint was finding the secret locations in a limited number of guesses.

A sample transcript, with maps, of Hunt the Wumpus, taken scanned from The Best of Creative Computing Vol. 1 by Atariarchives.orgThe closest ancestor to Minesweeper is probably Gregory Yob's Hunt the Wumpus. Although it used an unorthodox grid (the original game used the vertices of a dodecahedron, and a later version used Möbius strips and other unlikely patterns), the Wumpus evolved from its predecessors in many other ways.

Like the previous hide-and-seek games, the goal was to figure out where randomly placed locations were on the grid. But there was no time limit for exploration. Instead, like in Cube, the locations in Wumpus were hazardous: entering those rooms would put you at risk of losing. And most importantly, the only way to figure out where these hazards were was to be one space away. The key to solving Wumpus was getting as close as possible, backing off, and shooting your "crooked arrow" from a distance after definitively locating your prey.

When games like Quicksilva's Mined Out; Virgin Interactive's Yomp; and Conway, Hong and Smith's Reletless Logic appeared in the '80s, they looked like Cube on the surface: move from one point to another avoiding randomly placed mines. But in terms of solving, the games played more like Wumpus: move along safe areas, then put all the information to use locating the hidden dangers. Tom Anderson's Mines later added a feature that let you mark suspected mines with flags. And the stage was finally set for the Minesweeper to (ahem) explode onto the scene.

The Hollywood Games Model And Japan

February 26, 2007 2:09 PM | Simon Carless

- Another beautiful post from the 'Western game artist in Japan' blog Japanmanship, and this one is about why "Japan is both ideally suited to change the game development rules to follow the Hollywood example, and the last place on Earth where it’ll ever happen; a tragedy of missed opportunity."

Firstly, this ideal (and possible!) system of tomorrow is explained: "The publisher pays an agency to oversee and put together the development of a title. Agency, publisher and a small core of senior developers work together closely on a prototype, design document and schedule. If these all pass muster the final go-ahead is given and the agency contracts freelance developers or teams to create assets according to the agreed design, standards and schedules. Once the work has been delivered the developers’ contract ends successfully and they are free to move on to the next project."

But can it be done in Japan? Blogger JC Barnett lists a whole bunch of reasons why not, and concludes: "For the benefit of its much maligned development staff, the brighter future of a more and more challenging development environment and a demanding market I truly feel this is the way to go and Japan, being by far the worst offender when it comes to development horrors, is ideally suited to be the first country to totally abandon the status quo and follow on this new track. It’s just such a damn shame that it won’t happen until it has been proven to be popular in America and the majority of Japanese publishers and developers have gone bankrupt."

Mapping Out The Minus World

February 26, 2007 9:07 AM | Simon Carless

- Former Rockstar Vienna developer Jurie Horneman has done a quick post pointing out Minus World, "...a comic by Bill Mudron and Anne Moloney, about a game development company in Portland, Oregon."

Horneman notes: "The details about the games business are very accurate, and often hilarious (e.g. the genesis of Minus World)." Indeed, this is a really funny and smart comic about the game biz - witness the evolution story, which claims a history in unlicensed NES games and terrible cash-in Princess Di Flash games for the firm.

Usual caveats about not everybody having the same taste apply, but I think this DS Lite 'initiations' comic is totally cute, and a number of the others are pretty fun, too - have a wander around and see what you guys think, eh?

GameSetLinks: Nine Inch Life Saving

February 26, 2007 4:06 AM | Simon Carless

- Finishing off the weekend with a whole mess of cute and leftover links, we are, starting with a little look at a new ARG from master of the pained Trent Reznor and friends:

- ARGN has revealed a possible new ARG based around Nine Inch Nails' new album commenting: "With speculation that this might be the latest production from 42 Entertainment, curiosity about the way the story is being told (is this a flashback hidden between clips of music, a la The Handmaid's Tale? And how is it being transmitted back in time to 2007?) and a claim from Trent Reznor that this is not "some gimmick to get you to buy a record...this IS the art form," which is "just getting started," interest is high. The scheduled release of the Year Zero album is 4/17/07. Until then do not drink the water."

- YouTube alert! Firstly, via The-Inbetween, we have a couple of cool 8-bit/game-ish music videos. The first is for DJ Shadow's 'This Time (I'm Gonna Try It My Way)', and is cute NES-style animation all the way, whereas the other, for Cadence Weapons' 'Sharks', is weird indie Canadian hiphop with lots of Mario and Street Fighter references. Checking around more, I found the game segments from excellent UK spoof series 'Look Around You', all faux science-programmed up. Then again, YouTube also brings us the final round of Twister at the Kingdom Hearts pyjama party during Katsucon. YouTube, stop it. Now.

- Just released last week - a new trailer for Bit-Blot's Aquaria, one of the IGF Grand Prize finalists for this year, and one of the more beguiling indie games of late - this one shows a lot more... stuff! A couple of other IGF notes - the Audience Award is still open for voting over at GameSpot, if you haven't, and the official website just announced the GameTap Indie Award, an additional sekrit prize from this year's Platinum Sponsors - more info at the award show!

- You've probably seen it everywhere else, but this anti-PS3 video, as linked on Kotaku, is an irresistable, repellent piece of propaganda, with many extra marks for a mangling of The Fray's song 'How To Save A Life'. The Phil Harrison quote cut-ups at the end are somewhat Michael Moore worthy (or beyond), but I can't look away. Away from the light!

- Over at Venture Beat, they have a little piece on King.com's 'American Idol' web game which meanders around: "King.com, a European company with $43 million in financial backing from Apax and individuals, has just released one of the more expensively developed games so far: American Idol. It cost more than $250,000 to make (not much compared to full-fledged download games like WoW; remember, we’re talking pure Web-based games)." There's a comment from PlayFirst boss John Welch at the bottom of the piece, too, which is abstractly interesting.

- Aha, the kinda fun GamerZines has released 'HandHeld GamerZine Issue 1', and it "...includes reviews of Sid Meier's Pirates! (PSP), Mario vs Donkey Kong 2 (DS), Ghost Rider (PSP), Dungeon Siege Throne of Agony (PSP), Castlevania Portrait of Ruin (DS), Bomberman Land Touch (DS) and more. There are previews of Driver 76 (PSP), Zelda Phantom Hourglass (DS), Call of Duty Roads to Victory (PSP), Pokemon Diamond/Pearl (DS) and an exclusive interview on Burnout Detonator (DS)." May be worth checking.

- Selectbutton has a grumpy, in-depth piece on Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, but it's not quite what you think: "I had bought the game because it was a new release from the Myst series; one of the only things I hold fandom over. The game had been left to collect dust on my shelf for years. The draw of Myst online had excited the hell out of me, but not enough to play the game immediately. So it sat there untouched, and about a month after I bought it I read that probably due to lack of interest the online portion would never see the light of day. So the will to played the game died down even more. Just recently Gametap has put up the game with online play. Unfortunately I'm leaving the country soon so I can't check that out. So I'll have a review of single player portion of a game that was re-released." It's still interesting, though.

- My co-worker Brandon uses his 'power' as an editor of Game Developer to ask Sony how many bits the PS3 has, and then post about it on Insert Credit. I think he did it mainly to see my reaction when I found out about his query, but the answer is pretty fun, actually: "The PS3 is 128 bit, but it is more 128 bit than the others. The number of bits isn't really a very good measure anymore. To be honest, it hasn't been a good measure since PS1 days. That said... Most single pieces of data fit in 32 or 64 bits. The benefit of 128 bits is that you can operate on 4 pieces of 32-bit data at the same time, which is called SIMD (Single Instruction, Multiple Data). This is only useful for data that needs the same operation on all 4 pieces, which is common in games for things such as 3D graphical transformations, physical simulation, collision detection, etc. 128-bits is the "sweet spot" of price and performance, so that is what everyone seems to have settled upon."

- Briefly following up a recent post about the GBA Bit Generations series being cheap at Play-Asia - looks like Soundvoyager, Dotstream, Digidrive, Dialhex, and Boundish are back in stock at the $14.90 price point, for anyone who missed out - and I also spotted that several obscure Dot-S mosaic sets, including Xevious (scroll down for Mappy and Tower Of Druaga!) are just $4.90, a bit of a deal. (We have no commercial relationship with P-A, incidentally.)

NinjaBee's Happy XBLA Interview Fun

February 25, 2007 11:03 PM | Simon Carless

- Over at Tales of the Rampant Coyote, they have a nice interview with Steve Taylor of NinjaBee about making indie games for consoles (Outpost Kaloki X, Cloning Clyde, and now Band Of Bugs for XBLA), something very near and dear to my heart - and it has some good details in it - though it's a bit wacky because the Coyote is actually interviewing his boss!

A reassuring answer on XBLA for indies, after the influx of major publishers getting interested in the distribution method: "Regarding Indies getting pushed out: It sure seems like that's not going to happen! I've talked to 2 or 3 key people on the Live Arcade team who are quite committed to supporting indie efforts on Live Arcade. They can't approve every game they see, but there seem to be some great indie games coming down the pipe, and I think that will certainly continue, thanks to the approach Microsoft is taking."

There's also a fairly logical (and disclaimered 'personal opinion'!) response about some of the recent issues with timely release of non-retro XBLA games: "I am not privy to Microsoft's release schedule or relationships with other developers, so I can't really say for sure what the situation is. One possible issue is that making a game for Live Arcade is a lot harder than it seems. Sure, it's "small" stuff, but it's still console development, and the quality bar is still high, and the certification process is still tough, etc..."

Gabrielle Union's Lousy Gaming Attitude

February 25, 2007 5:57 PM | Simon Carless

- Leafing through my wife's copy of 'What Would Britney Do?' gossip/celeb magazine Us Weekly, I noticed a particularly inflammatory quote on one of the pages about video games - and after Googling it, discovered that someone else picked up on the very same quote.

Specifically, blogger Com$tock comments tartly: " Leafing through this week's US Weekly (cover date March 5, 2007), I see a quote from sorta-famous person Gabrielle Union in the Loose Talk section. Sayeth Union: "I don't understand men that find much time for PlayStation. If you have bad credit but a great Madden score, clearly there are some priority issues.""

Com$tock's response to this sassiness? "It doesn't take a logician to see that someone who makes time for games is not the same as someone who can't be responsible for themselves or their personal finances, as Union implies. Here's my retort, custom fit for the glossy set: I don't understand women that find that much time for primping. If you can't discuss the state of the modern American novel but have blindingly white teeth, clearly there are some priority issues." Well, that's sizzlier than I might have gone with, but I approve - keep it up, Sir!

Forza 2 Makes Custom Car Creativity Rewardable

February 25, 2007 12:54 PM | Simon Carless

- You'd expect Microsoft to be leading the way on Xbox 360 online features with its first-party titles, but a new feature on Forza Motorsport 2's official website has really impressed me with its explanation of the online auction house they're putting into the obviously Gran Turismo-competing car racing title for Xbox 360.

It involves competitive bidding and countdowns to auction ends, much like eBay, and looks like you will be able to monitor auctions online from the Forza auctions page, too - they explain: "The cool thing is that browsing these auctions once the game goes live is like going to a virtual car show -- each one of these cars will likely have been modified, tuned, painted, and otherwise customized in some fashion. No two cars will be alike -- unless the seller was just totally lazy, but even then, you can check out a car's extensive history, just like you would when you buy a used car with Carfax."

Also interesting: "We also allow players to lock their livery designs and paintjobs to their cars. This prevents someone from buying a car with a hot paint job only to turn around and copy/paste it to mass produce an army of cars with that same paint job. We believe that your paint designs are your intellectual property and you should have the option of protecting that creation." So there's very much going to be a market for the hottest designers to break out, like clothing in Second Life. This sounds genuinely exciting to me. [Via QT3.]

Mobile Game Translation... Hilarity?

February 25, 2007 7:50 AM | Simon Carless

- Over at the Spyro-powered (uh?) Pocket Gamer, they have a fun little feature discussing mobile game translation oddities, noting that: "The money often just isn't there for foreign developers to pay for careful translations." And then fun happens!

Such as: "Magnetic Joe, for example, provides unexpected entertainment when it spontaneously imitates Sacha Baron Cohen's globe-conquering Khazak Borat on the instruction page, complete with boyish exclamation mark: "Take Joe to the exit while avoid spikes!"... Moorhuhn, on the other hand, adds literary depth to its translated marketing text when it warns that the player may "Get no air and fly deep frozen through the darkness of space." A line that wouldn't be out of place in a volume of poetry."

Pocket Gamer's favorite, though? "In the game author's words, Death Trap is "the best strategy that the survival horror games lovers have been hassling... Never heard of Death Trap? What better way to learn more than to read its very own marketing text: "Death Trap is a horror action game that the terrifying graphics will make you enticed with surreal illusion."" Fun piece.

February's Indie Game Reviews Favor The Robot

February 25, 2007 2:46 AM | Simon Carless

- Delighted to see that GameTunnel has debuted its February Indie Game Review Panel results, with "...10 games, 5 reviewers, 39 reviews. Game Tunnel's game review panel brings you the February edition of the only article of its kind." And indeed, it is - and a great service to the indie community.

And this month: "Taking a hard look at the games most recently missed by the gaming public, four reviewers rate this month's Independent and Downloadable game releases, providing a meta-review within an article of the best games from the indie scene. February was highlighted by Dodge That Anvil!, Zombie Smashers X3: Ninjastarmageddon!, and Mr. Robot (which strangely enough doesn't have an exclamation point in the title)."

The previously GSW-mentioned Mr. Robot gets Game Of The Month, and it really _does_ sound smart, with Mike Hommel commenting: "There are really two games here. One is Final Fantasy set inside a computer, and the other is a sort of isometric action Sokoban, with jumping. They way they integrate is good, and the game is a huge adventure that really keeps you moving forward and in sight of new goals all the time."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 2/24/07

February 24, 2007 9:44 PM |

['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.]


I figured I should mention that in addition to the magweasels that hang out in my magazine room, I have also added a magdog to my house. So say hello to Smith -- who was sleeping in a most indecent position on my bed this afternoon, so I decided to cover him up using this copy of The Top 100 Videogames, distributed by GamesTM and Retro Gamer's Imagine Publishing.

This one-off is available now at Barnes & Noble stores, but I'd recommend against buying it. In fact, this is just about the worst case of buyer's remorse I've experienced in recent memory, short of that Bowflex I bought off of the Game Informer ad last month. This is just a collection of the top 100 games reviewed in the five-year history of GamesTM -- not of all time or anything -- so it's really just a compilation of old GamesTM magazine content, with a very small 2007 preview section in the back.

All this, once again, for $30 in the US. Thirty dollars! Oh, why didn't I bother thumbing through this before buying it? The UK price is £12.99, and I think gamers get gypped with this special issue on both sides of the pond. (For sake of comparison, Edge's FILE special issues cost £8 in the UK and $12.99 in the US, which actually beats the current dollar-pound exchange rate to the point where Americans pay less for it than the Brits. Plus, FILE is interesting reading.)

Anyway, it's been a slow couple weeks for US magazines, but click on to see what's new in the world of print publications...

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