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March 3, 2007

Multi-Choice Chatting In Virtual Worlds

- There's a fascinating post on the Habitat Chronicles, the blog of virtual world pioneers Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer (creators of the '80s LucasArts virtual world), which discusses context-sensitive fixed word chatting in virtual worlds, as currently used in Toontown for Disney to avoid unfortunate 'To Catch A Predator' situations.

They relate an attempted project for Disney in the '90s: "We spent several weeks building a UI that used pop-downs to construct sentences, and only had completely harmless words - the standard parts of grammar and safe nouns like cars, animals, and objects in the world... We thought it was the perfect solution, until we set our first 14-year old boy down in front of it. Within minutes he'd created the following sentence: I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny.""

But they go on to discuss convoluted ways around the fact that you need a 'secret friends code' to directly talk to people you meet in-world: "Another way to make secret friends with toons you don't know is to form letters/numbers with the picture frames in your house. Around you may see toons who have alot of picture frames at their toon estates, they are usually looking for secret friends." Then they arrange the pictures to make letters and... wow.

CasualGamePlay Competition Brings Gaming Goodness

- Over at Jay is Games, they've been posting the entries to their 2nd Flash Game Design Competition, and there are all kinds of interesting titles entered for this latest iteration.

One particular favorite is Sprout, which "...was designed and created by Jeff Nusz of New Zealand. The puzzle / adventure game features beautiful charcoal drawings as the basis for its graphics and style, appearing as if taken directly from a storybook."

Also notable: Gateway II, which is "...he highly anticipated sequel to the original game from our first competition. And it picks right up where the first one left off. Anders tells me he has incorporated the "grow" theme heavily into the story element of the game." Nice, oddball adventure action, too.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Infamous Specials of the Past

['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.]

As I mentioned last week in a rather derisive fashion, both Future and Imagine Publishing in the UK have been experimenting with what I suppose you could call "boutique" game magazines, high-priced one-offs printed on top-of-the-line paper and meant to attract hardcore gamers. In the US, though, things are a little bleaker -- the number of one-off specials has plummeted in the past two years, and only Future puts out a large quantity of them these days.

I realize that most US specials are pretty forgettable to all but hardcore collectors, mostly consisting of recycled content from the "mother" mags, so I'm not exactly lamenting this turn of events. Still, even if pretty much all of the US-printed specials in my collection are not great triumphs of literature, a few are memorable in their own way. Witness:


GamePro's Celebrity Gamers (1991)

This is 68 pages of pure silliness, here -- sort of like the celebrity corners of early-era Nintendo Power, except multiplied to silly proportions and lacking most of the top-name celebrities. Published chiefly to advertise the JD Roth-hosted GamePro TV show (which premiered September 1991), most of the magazine is devoted to Roth interviewing a series of stars and getting tips for their favorite video games from them. These stars (none of whom are above 20) are a veritable who's-who of 80s sitcom kids -- David Faustino, Mayim Bialik, Soleil Moon Frye, Sara Gilbert, the littlest Huxtable, the older sister from Full House, the little girl from Growing Pains, Corky's sister on Life Goes On, and so forth.

The big star of the show (besides Roth, of course, who has a full-page ad for his fan club in this issue) is Macaulay Culkin, who's not so great at PR apparently -- when asked if he knows about the three Home Alone games THQ is making, he replies "They're making Home Alone games? I hadn't heard about them." Figures. If only Culkin had input into them! They maybe they could've been saved! (His favorite games, by the way? "Splatterhouse, DEFINITELY ...oh, and Bloody Wolf." The ESRB, if they were around back then, probably would not have approved.)


EGM's Player's Guide to Summer Gaming (1998)

Summer Gaming is almost singlehandedly the work of Crispin Boyer, veteran EGM editor and one of the nicest folks in the industry, and reading the issue you can't help but be a little jealous. The brunt of it chronicles a car trip Boyer took with a photographer earlier in the year, driving the frog-green "New Beetle" on the cover (on loan from Volkswagen) and visiting game centers across the country. If you don't know what Crispin Boyer looks like, you'll be fully aware after reading this 30-page odyssey -- it's packed with pix of him playing Virtuality, stuffing his face with Dave & Buster's food, morphing his face with that of an albino monkey, and checking out the World's Tallest Thermometer in Baker, CA.

The article's interesting for research purposes if you're into old arcade stuff, but just seeing Crispin -- who looked kind of like Superman's pal Jimmy Olsen back then -- doing all this stuff is enough to make you want a Beetle and an expense account of your own.


Game Player's Sports for Kids (1989)

Not strictly a special, the bimonthly Sports for Kids reportedly lasted until publisher Signal Research went bankrupt in late 1991, although I've never ever seen an issue besides the one I own. Although the advertising is all from video-game companies, there's only a few pages of game info in this 100-page mag -- the rest, as you'd expect, is a sports magazine for kids, similar to the Sports Illustrated spinoff that launched not long before this one.

Unlike Celebrity Gamers, Sports for Kids was damn good at picking its talent to profile. On page 8, the mag kicks off with a piece on 13-year-old, skinny-as-a-rail Eldrick "Tiger" Woods, who's already got his goofy grin and "Ooh, I wish I had that shot back" expression at this point in his career. Michael Irvin, the late Hank Gathers, Alonzo Mourning, and Elvis Grbac (who had a great college football career and an okay NFL one) also get profiles and interviews -- all names I still recognize today, which is more than I can say for more of Celebrity Gamers' lineup. (There is also a spread of photos showing Mario Lopez in a wrestling championship, but I'll forget I saw that.)


EGM 3-D (1995)

"The book that you are now holding in your hands is a concept book," writes Ed Semrad at the start of EGM 3-D. "It is an experiment of sorts, and you just happen to be the guinea pig. For all intents and purposes, you shall be the final judge as to whether or not this little 'experiment' is a success or an abysmal failure. However, we think you're like it. No, let me rephrase that, we think you'll be tickled pink!"

Since I'm the only person I know who owns a copy of the $9.99 EGM 3-D, I think it's fair to say that the magazine was not a major success. The title comes packed with a pair of ChromaDepth glasses, diffractive lens that makes red colors appear closer, and blue colors farther away, from the wearer. This works on any photo, in theory, but in reality, it just seems to make EGM 3-D's game spreads a total mess. Peraps it's because my pair of glasses are old and a little dirty or something, but as far as I can tell, it just makes the magazine look blurry instead of providing any sort of 3D effect. Ah well.

[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.]

GameSetPreview: 2007 Things You Should Know About GDC

- Obviously, I'm a little bit (vaguely) in the know about what's going on at Game Developers Conference next week, considering I work right next to the office of adorable GDC primo supremo Jamil Moledina. But actually, Jamil is so darn good with keeping secrets and dispensing veiled allusions that I probably know about as much as the average forum-goer. And Jamil loves it that way! But I do have a couple of pearls of wisdom to pass on:

- Firstly, do pay careful attention to the list of stand-out lectures Jamil reels off in this GameDaily.biz interview from earlier in the week. Sure, there's some obvious ones listed (LucasArts showing off their next-gen tech, Peter Molyneux on Fable 2), but both 'The First Year of Media Molecule', from ex-Lionhead-er and Rag Doll Kung Fu creator Mark Healey, and 'Tip of the Iceberg: Future of Games and Entertainment Resides Online' from the mysterious Trion World folks are not quite such obvious tips - so now I'm intrigued! You, too?

- If you like adventure games, you'll probably like lots of GDC. For one, as Telltale Games points out, there's a double Sam & Max whammy during GDC week. The dynamic duo are on the cover of the March 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine, which will be available x5000 copies for free at the show on Wednesday, with a special Steve Purcell-painted cover. Plus, as Telltale notes, Sam & Max "will be making a special appearance of sorts at Wednesday's [IGF] Awards ceremony." Wait & see! Also, we read Tim Schafer's script for the Choice Awards, and it's ACE. With a capital A. That is all.

- Via a party flyer handily posted in someone's cube at work, I discovered that Sony's exclusive Wednesday-night GDC party in San Francisco is starring none other than Cut Chemist on the turntables. This is excellent news, since I reckon he's a suitable blend of the wizard DJ and the geek to fascinate partygoers. But of course, the Sony party is also necessarily tricky to get into, as per normal - you need an invite specifically addressed to you, and then you get a PDF with a barcode to print out, which is scanned at the door. A solution? Go photocopy your friend's and arrive earlier than him!

- I heard that the secret PlayStation 3 announcement for the show is that they will be upgrading the OS to include a magic pixie which sticks its head holographically out of your PS3 and regales you with tales of Dublin in the '30s. To combat this, Nintendo will be expanding the Minus World feature on the Wii to include genuine negative gravity effects, specifically tuned to suck competing consoles into the Wiimote's internal speaker and trap them there. Not to be outdone, Microsoft will hold a special press conference in the parking lot revealing an 8-track add-on for the Xbox 360, including digital connectivity. Xbox Live Gold subscriptions will come with 3 free Neil Diamond albums and a small 3D printer that manufactures fluffy windshield dice. [Or, y'know, we can just wait for the hardware manufacturers to explain their announcements themselves.]

March 2, 2007

Is Jack Thompson Gaming's Paris Hilton?

- So, the Associated Press has admitted that it tried an experimental blackout on news involving Paris Hilton, and they explain why, in very non-news agency ways: "It was only meant to be a weeklong ban -- not the boldest of journalistic initiatives, and one, we realized, that might seem hypocritical once it ended. And it wasn't based on a view of what the public should be focusing on -- the war in Iraq, for example, or the upcoming election of the next leader of the free world, as opposed to the doings of a partygoing celebrity heiress/reality TV star most famous for a grainy sex video."

But this got me thinking - didn't Doug Lowenstein specifically say of the ever-controversial lawyer: "“It drives me crazy. You know who gives Jack Thompson more attention than anyone else? The games press. The games press legitimizes Jack Thompson. Everyone gets so upset that Jack Thompson has so much ability. I just,” he loses his composure, just for a second, “…I just think it’s nuts.”"

Isn't what Lowenstein saying here, effectively, that Jack Thompson is the Paris Hilton of the games press? And if we stop summoning him by name, he loses much of his power? I'm not sure I totally agree - when Gamasutra runs stories on him, it's generally because of a specific lawsuit against a game company, something that's probably in the public interest to report. But it's interesting to consider - do you think that Lowenstein has a point? More importantly, does Thompson have a small chihuahua named Tinkerbell?

Bow Down To The C64 Messiah

- A note from GSW columnist James Dudley, who has a keen eye for what we would describe as 'wacky stuff', reads: "You might be interested in this, if you haven't picked up on him already - there's this dude called C64 Messiah, and he's crossed everything I like about rap with everything I like about vintage computer sounds."

You know what, we do like that stuff! He continues: "I'm playing "Ballcore (Dirty South Remix)" on repeat and I thoroughly recommend it. Check the videos for true Commodore 64 flavor. C64 Messiah is my new hero, and I was always an Amstrad kid so I can think of no higher praise." And I was a Spectrum kiddie, and I still like this, so somebody must be doing something right round here.

He concludes: "I want this guy to have a five billion dollar fold out mansion by the end of the year." On this very subject, a friend of a friend authored the excellent 'Mark VII'-pseudonym-ed C64 and hiphop cut-up stuff a few years back, and I'm glad to see that it's still online somewhere - I think I might have linked it before, but it still rocks my socks.

COLUMN: 'Arcade Obscurities' - Sega's Taisen Tanto-R 'Sasi-su!!'

[Arcade Obscurities is a bi-weekly column by Solvalou.com's Arttu Ylärakkola, probing some of the most interesting and obscure arcade games yet to be covered in the geek gaming press, thanks to Arttu's JAMMA board collection, and our insatiable quest for knowledge. This fourth column looks at Puzzloop and Pang creator Sega's 1998 ST-V mini-game fest Taisen Tanto-R 'Sasi-su!!'.]

There are some somewhat rare games that are so expensive that you delay the purchase by years, hoping for the price to come down. The exact opposite are games that, while cheap and relatively common, don't find their way to your collection simply because they're obscure: obscure in a way that nobody seems to know anything about them, the flyers and screenshots look weird - and since 90% of everything is crap, you stay away from such games.

However, sometimes you take a risk and buy such a game: by doing that I've had some disappointments, but also some very positive surprises, one of which is very obscure and also very Japanese Taisen Tanto-R 'Sasissu!'.

Taisen Tanto-R 'Sasi-su!!' (1998) by Sega is the last game in the Puzzle & Action minigame series. The other games in the series are Tanto-R (1992), Ichidant-R (1994) and Treasure Hunt/BoMulEul Chajara (1995). While the first two games run on a Sega Genesis/Megadrive-like arcade system named System C-2, the last two games use the arcade version of Sega Saturn: the ST-V Titan.

In Sasi-su!! two players compete against each other in attempt to win as much money as possible from their opponent ("Money is Power", says the card table around which the players sit). Money is won by beating your opponent in various minigames.

Shufflepuck - Situated in the Arctic Circle and surrounded by badly drawn penguins, players must play 3 rounds of shufflepuck. Just getting the puck through your opponent's paddle is not enough, as you have to break a wall - breakout style - before being able to score a point.

Aerial fight - Armed with a bow and arrows, players must float (with the help of a bunch of balloons) around a field attempting to shoot the opponent down by bursting all the balloons. The aiming and dodging is not as easy as one might imagine, as the arrows do not fly in a straight line.

Bombing - Players stand at each end of a bridge and roll bombs at the opponent. Roll too early and the opponent can return the bomb, roll too late and the bomb might explode at your end.

Quiz Show ... or something - A bit difficult for people like me who don't know any Japanese. Basically you're guaranteed to lose money if you select this game :)

Thief-Catching - Armed with what look like Japanese folding fans, players attempt to whack an escaping masked thief. When hit hard enough, the thief drops some jewels from his bag which the players must collect. Play dirty: Whack your opponent instead of the thief or wait him to attack the thief and collect the loot yourself.

Money Exchange - A store clerk displays the price of an item, and you must choose the correct coins to match that price - with more accuracy and speed than your opponent!

Rooftop Battle - Fight inside a rooftop arena by using various weapons such as machine guns, bazookas and whatnot and use barrles to give you some fire cover.

Racing - Ride faster than you opponent in this Mario Kart -like splitscreen racer. Narrow shortcuts are available, but using the is not risk-free: riding on anything else than pavements slows you down.

Minigolf - Minigolf courses are often very different from real golf courses, but in Sasi-su!! you have miniaturized versions of fairways and lakes and the works. Get your ball in the hole with as few strokes as possible - I bet you guessed that already...

Painting - In this minigame an artist shows you a color, and you have an empty white canvas which you must paint in the exact same color. Various paint tubes are available, so it's up to you to choose and mix the correct amount of correct colors. You can ask the artist's opinion about the color to check if it's close enough, but be quick, as if your opponent wins is you're not quick enough!

Mountain Run - Run from the mountain top to a goal on the ground. Collect as many jewels as possible while ducking or jumping over the obstacles at the same time. By staying ahead of your opponent you get a better chance of collecting all the goodies, but that also means that you have less time to react to the obstacles.

Garbage collecting - Apartment dwellers have a bad night and start throwing items out of their windows. By using your garbage can, collect as many flying items - some worth more than others - in attempt to score more points than your opponent.

Ant farm - Ants scuttle from their hidey-holes. Points are scored by getting the ants to take your sugar (or is it ant poison?) to their hive. Cursing ensues when the ants ignore your goodies and start hauling your opponent's candy.

Sasi-su!!'s lackluster presentation, with its unstylish Parappa-like 2d characters and unmemorable soundtrack doesn't divert from the fact that majority of the minigames are very playable. What some games lack in complexity, they more than make it up in pure fun and originality (painting, ant farm). The somewhat less original games' (racing, thief-catching, rooftop battle) saving grace is very smooth implementation and extremely good playablility. Sure, there are some not-that-good games (balloon fight, bombing) but for the couple of dollars I paid for Sasi-su!!, it's worth every penny.

GameSetNetwork: Owls, PSP Comics, Extreeeme Programming

- This is the first in a regular series linking to neat articles from GSW's sister sites: Gamasutra, Game Career Guide, Serious Games Source, and a new addition that's launching on Monday - but more on that then! This time - THQ's MMO aspirations, a neato Playing Catch-Up, and a couple of interesting technical pieces:

- Gamasutra: Q&A: THQ's Kelly Flock Talks Warhammer 40,000 MMO
"The adoption by the mainstream public has just been exponential since Ultima Online and Everquest through World of Warcraft, but the cycles are still the same -- these are five to seven year runs they have."

- Game Career Guide: Student Postmortem: DigiPen’s Toblo
"We decided to grasp onto the one aspect of our game which we knew was enjoyable: knocking things down. Our game design underwent a complete overhaul, and our tower building game turned into destructive CTF mayhem. This move made the game easier to understand, and also allowed us to showcase our physics engine."

- Gamasutra: Playing Catch-Up: Skyfox's Ray Tobey
"Today's Playing Catch-Up speaks to Ray Tobey (pictured with owl!), designer of 1984 Apple II action flight sim Skyfox and co-designer of Budokan, about his storied career, from early '80s programmer stardom to his current political work for the Green Party."

- Serious Games Source: Serious Game Engine Shootout
"As an emerging market little has been written about the best engines for building serious games. This lack of transparency makes it difficult for publishers to choose development partners, and for developers to scope serious game projects and determine the best tools to use. In this article – and in a panel discussion on March 6th at the Serious Games Summit – we’ll begin to address this deficiency."

- Gamasutra: Embracing Fun: Why Extreme Programming is Great for Game Development
"Blue Fang Games' Bill Schofield advocates the usage of extreme programming - an Agile methodology designed to allow design iteration on the programming level - in this exclusive Gamasutra feature."

Exodus From Neversoft To Sad Cancellation

- We recently covered a 'lost' Neversoft game from early in the company's career, Ghost Rider, and now it turns out that PlayStation Museum has screenshots from another mythical Neversoft title, Exodus.

It's explained: "After the 1996 E3, Neversoft Entertainment focused their efforts on a new demo titled Big Guns. The Big Guns demo displayed a Mech walking down a canyon shooting various things... Neversoft took this demo to Shiny on June 1st 1996 to demonstrate their talent in hopes that Shiny would hire them for the MDK conversion; it was a success."

However, if this is to be believed, the design was, uhh, changed a lot: "Big Guns was renamed Exodus for trademark reasons - "Big Gun" was the name of motorbike exhausts. As with many games in development, the artistic designs were continuously being redesigned. With the aid of SCEA, the team decided to change the Mech into a girl who could morph into a big cat." OK! Finally: "In November 1997, Exodus was officially cancelled." Wow, a playable version of this would be neat.

March 1, 2007

COLUMN: ‘Game Collector’s Melancholy’ - Treasure's Shooters

['A Game Collector's Melancholy' is a bi-weekly column by Jeffrey Fleming that follows the subtle pleasures and gnawing anxieties of video game collecting. This week we dig up Treasure’s shooters.]

treasure.jpgTreasure is a game developer whose name is written on collector’s hearts. Formed in 1992 by ex-Konami staff, the company is well known for creating anarchic games that gleefully undermine genre expectations. Often filled with bizarre characters, discordant music, and lots of explosions, Treasure’s games move at a frenetic pace, seemingly fueled by Lucky Charms and DMT.

However, on occasion the studio dials back some of its eccentricities and focuses on creating rigorously formal shooters. Within the narrow confines of the shooter Treasure approaches its craft with a seriousness that elevates their pop trash (I mean that in a good way) into nuanced works that are as beautiful to look at as they are to play.

No Refuge

silvergun.jpgRadiant Silvergun was Treasure’s first effort at pure shooter design and probably its most famous despite not ever being released in America. Initially created for the arcades in 1998 and then quickly ported to the Sega Saturn, Radiant Silvergun was a vertically scrolling masterwork.

Players were given a generous selection of weaponry with which to clean the field and face down a succession of elaborate boss fights. Not content with simply satisfying twitch and reflex, Radiant Silvergun was also a thinking person’s shooter. Utilizing a combo scoring system and complex pattern memorization, the game rewarded thoughtful play. Radiant Silvergun was further enhanced by a Hitoshi Sakamoto score and animated cut-scenes from GONZO (Blue Submarine No. 6, Last Exile).

Radiant Silvergun enjoyed a generous print run and healthy sales in Japan making it easy to find online. However, its elevated reputation among Western importers has insured that the game’s price remains in the $175 to $200 range.


bangaio.jpgTreasure’s next shooter Bangai-O was published in Japan for the Nintendo 64 in 1999. Later that same year it was ported to the Sega Dreamcast with significant enhancements, making the Dreamcast release the preferred version. The game finally made its way to America in 2001 thanks to Conspiracy Entertainment.

Bangai-O was hard to classify as a strict shooter and had much in common with the studio’s earlier run and gun rave-ups. The Bangai-O itself was a super robot in the style of Getter Robo although it was rendered as a small figure in the center of the screen while the 2D background scrolled in all directions around it similar to Time Pilot. The basic point of Bangai-O was to blow everything to bits and firing a 360 degree special attack in the game provided the same visceral thrill as setting off a string of Black Cats. Look for the Dreamcast version which goes for about $35.

Fool’s Gold

silpheed.jpgSilpheed: The Lost Planet found Treasure working with Game Arts to create a a sequel to the Sega CD game Silpheed. Brought to America in 2001 by Working Designs, Silpheed was somewhat of a misstep by Treasure. As a vertically scrolling shooter, normally a fairly intense experience, Silpheed suffered from a oddly sluggish pace. Much of the game passed in a haze as apocalyptic scenery scrolled by at a measured pace while lugubrious music surged in the background. Boss fights provided some relief from the tedium but they were separated by wave after predictable wave of enemies that rolled down the screen, doing little to challenge the player except get in the way.

Game Arts, Treasure, and Working Designs are all dear to game collectors but Silpheed: The Lost Planet can be safely passed by. If you must add it to your collection do not pay more than $15.

In Praise of Shadows

ikaruga.jpgIkaruga was Treasure’s spiritual sequel to Radiant Silvergun. First published in Japan for arcades in 2001 and then a year later ported to the Dreamcast, Ikaruga made it to America in 2003 as a Game Cube game published by Atari.

From the beginning Ikaruga stood out from other shooters, distinguished by a unique artistic style that was both austere and painstakingly detailed at the same time. Working with a muted color palette, Treasure created a look that seemed informed by the ceremony of Noh theater and the obsessively precise aesthetics of Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.

Sticking with the visual theme, enemies were either black or white and the player’s ship could change duality to absorb like shaded bullets. In a further development of Radiant Silvergun’s combo system, higher scores in Ikaruga could be achieved by skillful players chaining attacks on like shaded enemies. Of course this became jaw droppingly difficult as the game progressed and enemies radiated an insane number of bullets across the screen in blatantly psychedelic patterns of death.

In Japan, Treasure released a super-play video called Ikaruga Appreciate DVD that showed expert play throughs of Ikaruga. The game itself also featured amazing and humbling Demo Play demonstrations.

Now out of print, copies of the Game Cube version are fetching almost $50.

Vic Viper Returns

gradiusv.jpgTreasure’s latest shooter is Gradius V, a horizontally scrolling shooter for the PlayStation 2 published by Konami in both Japan and America in 2004. Unlike Treasure’s previous effort at working on another company’s property with Silpheed, Gradius V is a great success. While remaining true to the series’ roots, Gradius V exploits the PlayStation 2's graphic power to create a visually lush experience in which frantic action is bathed in a corona of light. Like all shooters, the difficulty level is set quite high but Treasure designed the game to be welcoming to newcomers by providing lots of continues. In a nice touch, Treasure brought Radiant Silvergun composer Hitoshi Sakamoto on board to provide a high energy electronic soundtrack that is quite different from the Carmina Burana-like scores that he typically writes for RPGs.

In Japan, Konami created a variety of pre-order and limited edition bonuses for Gradius V including a documentary DVD and booklet. For the American release of the game Konami produced a DVD called Gradius Breakdown as a pre-order bonus.

Although Gradius V was released some time ago, new copies are still available from Konami for $29.99.

[Jeffrey Fleming is an East Bay writer. To read more, please visit Tales of the Future.]

Images: (C) Treasure/Konami All Rights Reserved

Harrison Gives Good Interview, Pokes At Totilo

- Well, you may all recall that I had a little crisis of faith earlier this week, questioning the divine Sony - or rather, my quoting skills when it came to Phil Harrison, after he quibbled with some of my reporting in the first part of a recent Newsweek interview.

Well, N'Gai Croal has been continuing the excellent Harrison interview on his blog, and semi-unbelievably, Part 2 also included another call-out of a journo in it.

Specifically, Harrison discusses an MTV News interview with Stephen Totilo in which he said: "I fervently believe that the biggest challenge we face is that our industry is referred to as 'video games,' and games are supposed to be fun... Games should deal with fear, should deal with comedy and with death. They should deal with peril, with drug offenses."

In the Newsweek piece, Harrison commented that "...what I actually said to Stephen when he interviewed me was, and I gave an example and I paused before I did so, I actually said "drug abuse," not "drug use." He transcribed it as "drug use." I wanted to clarify that comment, because drug abuse means a character who is clearly, in my view, suffering from the abuse of illegal substances, rather than glorifying a rock star character."

So, this drew a response from Totilo, who is one of the most meticulous journos I know, as follows: "Phil Harrison is one of the most forward-thinking and creative executives in the games industry that I've interviewed. Gamers passionate about the evolution of games should find cheer in the fact that he oversees one of the largest global teams of game developers in the industry. Me? I'm, if nothing else, a pretty good transcriber. In the interview I conducted referenced above, Phil Harrison used--on tape--the term "drug offenses," not "drug use" or "drug abuse." He mentioned the term in a list of potentially taboo subjects that he thinks game developers should feel confident to embrace."

I find this all generally odd - of course, there are far bigger Sony vs. media stories just breaking, but it seems like Phil is being worn down by the media and is finding snakes in the grass where, if anything, it's just particular quotes being cited and passed around by other outlets, blogs, and commenters - who are presenting legitimate soundbites in slightly hyped-up contexts. And the way around that is not to question the original quote. Not sure. You guys decide! Harrison is still a smart guy, and his interviews are nuanced and good.

Mascots Aging Gracefully? Not So Much

- Over at 1UP last week (yes, I know, behind) they posted a fun feature called 'Aging Gracefully', in which Nadia Oxford explains: "If you interview adults who have played games since the Atari 2600 and then talk to children born after the N64's debut, there is a marked difference in how the generations view the videogame mascots they grew up with."

How so? Oxford takes Mario as an example: "With the NES boom came the inevitable merchandise and cartoons. Mario's animated adventures included the The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and later, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros 3. The cartoons were standard kiddy fare involving Mario and friends trying to bust up King Bowser's evil plans, but they're noteworthy for one particular reason: They gave Mario a voice, and oddly enough, a home in Brooklyn."

So what? "Although definitely Italian in ancestry (The Super Show made sure to supply a pasta joke every three minutes), he wasn't the hardcore stereotype he's become since we flicked on the power buttons of our N64s. He also wasn't the happy, chatty man he is now. The NES' hero was strong, silent, and almost mysterious." This is a fairly subtle and clever angle for a story (no 'Top 10 Gay Things' here), and I appreciate the careful thinking on how mascots evolve when technology gets in the way.

COLUMN: 'Green and Black Attack' – Nemesis II

Title Screenf['Green and Black Attack' is a "regular" column by James Edwards taking a reflective look at Nintendo's original portable workhorse, the Game Boy. This week, we blast off into space and sanction surreal aliens in Konami's Nemesis II.]

Monsters In My Pocket

As the Game Boy era began, the smart folk realized straight away that it's needs would be unique. That's why the venerable (and much missed) Gunpei Yoko's only entry into the Super Mario Bros, canon was the sublimely different Super Mario Land, and why the tiny philosophy of our previous subjects Batman and Donkey Kong outshone blur-ridden attempts to mimic home console sizes and standards like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Fall Of The Foot Clan or Super Mario Land 2.

More than that, it's so easy for series to slip into a groove when they're constrained to a single hardware line - consider how unique the Mega Drive entries in the Contra and Castlevania series ended up, ditching or rethinking motifs to refresh themselves. A smart development team will use a change of format to branch out from a tested formula. And so, to Nemesis II on Game Boy.

For a very long time, the name Nemesis was European for Gradius. Konami's venerable and idiosyncratic shooter series has carved out five main entries and two entire side franchises in Salamander and Parodius with a third in Otomedius recently announced. This is entirely ignoring the series' spinoff episodes, of which Nemesis II is one. For easy identification, the only Gradius game to be known all over the world was Nemesis, prequel to Nemesis II. In America, Nemesis II was known as Gradius: Interstellar Assault.

I'm sticking with the Nemesis title because I'm non-American, but if you want to edit the HTML of this page to satisfy your national preference, be my guest!. Gradius I-IV in the arcades, Gradius V on the PS2, Nemesis I and II on Game Boy. Unless, you're American, in which case iit's Nemesis and Gradius: Interstellar Assault. Simple? No, but if we get bogged down in the labyrinth intricacies of franchise name-swapping, I'm going to end up hating myself. Onward!

Gradius has a pattern from which any game in the series fears to deviate. I love Gradius to pieces, but it'd be impossible not to admit its formulaic motifs: you start in space, at the controls of the Vic Viper fighter craft. Strings of small drone enemies attack, and the last one of each string drops a token when destroyed. Collect the tokens, power up, move forward into a surreal and impossible gameworld, avoid volcanoes and maoi heads. Rinse, repeat. It's part of the charm of the series, but it's also equally charming to see it thrown out on Game Boy for the second and final entry.

Pocket Universe

This is a laser. Don't touch itk2.gifNemesis is a much more faithful adaptation of the Gradius formula, and thus unsuited for monochrome innovation discussion. It's compact and very playable, even if scrolling fatal mountain ranges in a background layer of parallax is an almost obscenely hateful design choice.

Instead, Nemesis II opens with our hero flying in formation with a sleek, cliched group of hard sci-fi capital ships. It's a very unGradius moment, almost like a betrayal of the series' traditions. It's hard to complain too much after you fleetmates get wiped out in a battery of laser fire and you're chased by one of the massive, iconic beamships from the first Gradius game. You'll be pursued at high speed through a meteor herd, then a series of caverns, completely at odds with the mother series. If you like fresh concepts and ideas, this is a very good thing.

For people who like to start new games, it's less of a good thing - the unskippable intro makes it hard to get into a fresh game quickly. It's well directed and tense, and for what it does with the system's limited resources it's extremely impressive. But iIt's not a good fit to begin an arcade game where you're bound to die and restart again and again with such an lengthy setpeice.. You're going to get real sick of it, so try and keep good memories of the first time it thrilled you, provided you're able to understand and appreciate the technical limits of the era (stupid kids and your stupid "PlayStations").

Polly Pocket

So the gameplay proper begins, in weird Greek ruins infested with alien scumbags dying to cough up their power tokens (the traditional upgrade system has been retained, with all the associated problems of dying and returning vastly underpowered - I like the challenge, but your mileage may vary). The statues are huge, which makes you feel very small indeed, a perfect fit for the system.

As you travel through the game, you'll keep encountering situations that recall Gradius without perfectly aping it. Like Castlevania: Bloodlines or Contra Hard Corps, the game keeps a fine balance of familiarity and irreverence. I like that. I like it when games loose the bathwater, but keep the baby. I like new creative ideas. More importantly, I like it when games fit the capabilities of their system - there's a respectable ammount going on at all times, your ship is in proportion and blur is kept to a minimum on the brick model Game Boy. As with any title, you'll need a Game Boy Pocket to totally smooth out the bumps.

Trouser Salamander

I can't talk too much about this game beyond its quality and context in the overall scheme of Vic Vipers, Options and voices that say "DESTROY THEM ALL" (only the latter is lacking). It's a shooter, and these things are to be truly known in the act of playing. That eternal truth handily covers my inability to beat it so far, because I'm rubbish at shooters. I don't care though, because It makes my thumbs happy, and isn't that what Game Boy games are for - making thumbs happy?

Nemesis II takes pride of place in Konami Collection Volume 4 for Game Boy Color, sporting a weird neon colour scheme that retains the stripped-down looks but gives it the feel of an 8-bit Jack Kirby adventure. There are few comic artists more in tune with the same eerie cosmic vibe than The King, and I approve. It also has the great Yie Ar Kung Fu and Antarctic Adventure shuffling uncomfortably next to lamentable trudge-fest Belmont's Revenge, but get it for Nemesis!

It's hard to do shooters at such a low resolution and on such confined hardware, but Nemesis II is everything I want from a Gradius: surreal, creepy, tense and compulsive. It mixes the science fiction into the fantasy a little differently, and the muted colors give it a unique, dark edge - not completely disturbing, but a flavorful edge. Games like this make me wish Nintendo would transpose the Virtual Console to DS so I can enjoy them without toting a small brick around. Recommended.

[James Edwards regrets this column's unfortunate hatius, and promises to review his next game before we reach the Gradius Era.]

World's Strongest Man Goes Mobile Game Crazy!

- Let's not play, here - there was only one major piece of gaming news over the last 24 hours: "Breakpoint, part of MNI SA group, is creating a mobile [cellphone] game featuring the World’s Strongest Man – Mariusz Pudzianowski... Thanks to the game the player will have a chance to become the World’s Strongest Man, taking part in an unusual take on the famous strength competition. Instead of the usual disciplines, the player will compete in a series of unique tests of strength and endurance from all over the world... and some completely out of this world!"

Wait, wait, we feel a quote from the man himself coming on: “Mobile games provide entertainment to anyone with a mobile phone” – ‘Pudzian’ commented – “Now everybody will be able to feel like a Strong Man, even while waiting at a bus stop”. (In case you were wondering, licensors Breakpoint are Polish compatriots of 'Pudzian', hence the keen local interest.)

But wait, that's not all: "While working on the game, Breakpoint’s team came up with several other ideas, including a lifestyle application that utilized Mariusz’s bodybuilding know-how, as well as an action game in which he would fight crime. These projects are to be undertaken following the success of the first game." Yep, 'Pudzian' is such a beefcake that he can predict cellphone game success, too. Though I will say that I really enjoy watching World's Strongest Man when it pops up at weird times on ESPN2 or similar channels.

February 28, 2007

Welker's Curious George Game Outtakes, Yum

- The brand new 'Game Of The Blog' blog is coming up trumps already, as it's posted some awesome bonus video from, of all things, the Curious George video game.

As blogger Joel reveals: "In the recent Curious George platformer by Namco based on the 2006 film (probably the last feature length cel animated film that will ever be made) the requisite collectible is, of course, bananas. Collecting at a certain percentage of these per level unlocks videos and hats(!) in the gift shop. These are then paid for with "curious points" which are are garnered by interacting with certain objects, usually resulting in George f*cking shit up as he is well known for."

He continues, grinning happily: "Most of the videos to be unlocked are clips from the film that are interspersed throughout the game to aid the plot, but there are also 6 clips of voice actors recording lines for the game. it's interesting to see, but each is really only good for one viewing as it's a bit repetitive watching them say each line 5 times. The best clip is of Frank Welker(who is closing in on 600 IMDb credits) making monkey noises for two and a half straight minutes, as seen below." Completely awesome, and all from the voice of Futurama's Nibbler and a zillion more.

Australian GamePro Ditches As Print Malaise Wafts Down Under

- One of my newly found favorite regional blogs, The Age's Screen Play blog, has commented on new Australian game magazine sales numbers, revealing along the way that: "IDG last week closed Australian GamePro magazine, leaving only one Australian multiformat games magazine left in the market: Next Publishing's 15-year-old veteran warhorse Hyper."

It's noted: "Australian GamePro joins an increasingly long list of gaming magazines axed in the past few years, including Australian editions of Edge, Play, GamesTM, XBM and PC Games Addict... PC Powerplay is now the only Australian gaming magazine remaining that submits to an official ABC audit, so it is fair to surmise that it would be Australia's highest selling games publication. Yet it now has circulation of just 20,000 copies, a nine per cent fall in the past six months."

We've also previously mapped the print-magazine curve in the U.S., and indeed, things aren't looking that much better in the UK, excepting mags such as Edge which make a prestige differentiation effort.

This is all hardly surprising, perhaps, but Jason Hill's final Screen Play comment is on the money for all regions, even though it applies to his: "The few remaining Australian gaming magazines are going to have to triple their efforts to provide readers with compelling, original and in-depth Australian content if they are going to remain relevant in the face of fierce competition from free, web-based competitors."

An Introduction To The Game Developer's Life

- Of course, vanity Googling (or in this case, Technorati-ing) is tediously common in the game journalism biz, and doing so the other day for Gamasutra references, I came across an excellent personal view of life in the game industry from Ian Christy, who is a Senior Game Designer for Radical Entertainment in Vancouver, and most recently worked on Scarface: The World Is Yours.

Christy is refreshingly honest in general, commenting of his current vocation: "As a level designer, I’m merging my background as an artist, my interests in game mechanics and spatial compositions, my educational background in iconography, communication, story telling, social interactions, and architecture. I hope to make my own games someday; for now I help make other people’s games better."

I particularly like the initial part of his reply on advice for those wanting to get into the biz: "Diversify your foundational knowledge and skills as much as you can that you might better step comfortably outside the proverbial box. Art, literature, culture foreign and domestic, economics, history, film, theater, sports, science, etc. Anything and everything can add to the mix, and I’m always shocked when some obscure bit of info stuck away in my noggin ends up being the very thing that inspires a solution or alternative to a problem that’d seemed otherwise intellectually insurmountable."

Why is this important? Well, wider cultural knowledge is vital to the game industry evolving - a point Warren Spector makes in an interview we'll be putting up on Gama next week, incidentally - because your media diet will radically affect the kind of art you make in your game life. Even if it does involve Al Pacino's little friend!

Style Guide? Does Game Journalism Need A Style Guide?

- So, there's this new Videogame Style Guide and Reference book, right? And I actually know and like the folks behind it - David Thomas of the IGJA is a tremendously smart, affable guy - though I'm a bit scared of his new moustache, I think. Kyle Orland has matured into a very smart journo for Joystiq and others - heck we even used him for a neat Capcom interview last week. And Scott Steinberg, setting aside his habit of billing himself "gaming's most prolific journalist", is obviously a smart enough person.

But I don't see the point of a universal style guide for games, and here's why - at the root, I find the whole concept of superdetailed style guides simply overkill. To be honest, I think these gigantic overarching glossaries in general are a dying breed. They're old media, they're tremendously overformal, and they're not even interactive. Unless you're managing a gigantic staff writing formal articles up the wazoo (perhaps at GameSpot and IGN), I don't believe they're particularly useful for game journalism.

Now, having said that, we do, somewhere, have an official style guide for Game Developer magazine - which extends to Gamasutra. But it's simply never referred to - everyone who works on the mag has a pretty damn clear of what is what. And it comes down to some key points that don't even need a one-page document to summarize:

- You need to know how to spell proper names of gaming devices and agree to override exceptionally dumb custom naming when necessary. For example, we can remember that it's Xbox, PlayStation, and Game Boy, respectively. Those are, honestly, about the only difficult ones, unless you count the fact that you're meant to call it Nintendo's Wii instead of the Nintendo Wii, and I think that's ridiculous enough to over-rule. Ditto for companies who insist you use all caps for their product name. So that's that.

- You need to have consensus on a couple of key points which are genuinely style-related and marginally game-specific. For regular day to day Gamasutra reporting, it's that game names are in italics, companies are always 'it' rather than 'they', and we spell it 'video game', not 'videogame' - this in itself a hilarious source of controversy! Oh, and we make sure that dates are always done in the same way. Those are honestly all the major points that I can recall we run into on a daily basis.

Now, admittedly I'm not a J-school grad, rather a reformed game developer and a History B.A. But I just think we have far more important things to worry about in today's fluid Web world regarding sourcing and plain good writing for game journalism than to spend our time on detailed style guides that nobody will read. And I find it a little irksome that the trio's intro to the style guide raises the specter of the inebriated, busted state of game journalism, YET AGAIN, over the right spelling of Xbox: "When it comes to presenting a consistent vocabulary, videogame journalism is sloppy at best. At worst, it's a complete mess." OMG CALL THE JOURNALISM POLICE!

As a slightly annoyed kiss-off, from the blurb page: "The Videogame Style Guide and Reference Manual contains all the tools you need to realize a distinguished career in game journalism, or go from enthusiast to editor today!" C'mon, could you be any more 'Make Money Fast' about it? I respect the spirit of the idea, and the people behind it, but the whole thing just seems to be wading in the shallows outside the reality of game journalism, to me. Dammit... I just realized that I'm probably not going to be approved for my free eBook copy any more, am I?

February 27, 2007

GameTap Announces Indie Label, Award

- So it's starting to get close to GDC, and because I'm organizing a couple of parts of it (the Independent Games Summit and the Independent Games Festival), as well as helping out my Gamasutra compadres with a little bit of editorial coverage, I'm starting to run into a bit of a blog timecrunch. But I will do my best to keep going with snappy anecdotes and a few pictures through GDC week!

In the meantime, over at Gamasutra there's a story on GameTap's launching of its 'Indies' label, with the associated, multi-game GameTap Indie Award being given out at the IGF Awards next Wednesday night, and I have to say that I'm delighted that they're getting indies on board with the service. Obviously, I'm crossing streams a bit here (being a blogger, as well as Chairman of the IGF, which GameTap is helping to sponsor), but I do believe that announcements like this will help the indie scene to evolve in many positive ways.

Here's the announcement, in concatenated form: "Turner Broadcasting System has announced GameTap Indies, a new marketing and distribution program designed to introduce independent games to subscribers of its GameTap 'all you can eat' PC gaming service.... GameTap has further thrown its support behind independent game development by sponsoring its new “GameTap Indie Award”, to be presented at the 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards.... One award recipient will receive a $10,000 advance after signing a five year [non-exclusive] distribution deal to be a part of the new GameTap Indies label, while the two additional recipients will each receive a $5,000 advance after signing the same five year distribution deal to be part of the label."

The thing I'm excited about here is that bigger companies such as Turner are starting to see indie games as an important part of their strategy. The same is undoubtedly true of the hardware manufacturers, from Microsoft through Sony and Nintendo, given the buzz around titles from fl0w through Castle Crashers and beyond, and I'm sure will we be discussing this more at IGS in the distributors panel.

But think of a future where you can make an indie game of your choice - and a real, innovative, experimental game to boot - and then license it to single or multiple services on PC and console for tangible returns, making it possible for talented folks to quit their day jobs and just make independent games instead. XBLA started the process, and Manifesto, Sony, Valve, GameTap, and soon Nintendo are continuing what I firmly believe is the birth of the indie game scene as a viable business medium and rapidly rising art form.

One Life Left Radio Show Needs Fridge Help!

- So, we previously ran a story on the neat 'One Life Left' radio show/podcast, run by ex-Edge editor Ste Curran and associates. Ste actually works some of the time over at Kuju Entertainment (where I also used to hang out in the late '90s), and I think was one of the folks behind the sadly disappeared Traxion?

Anyhow, Ste comments of the UK-based show: "We've gone from... Season One to a strong, confident Season Two, sort of; Resonance FM love us and we've been moved to a primetime Monday evening slot... we're having fun, and our podcast audience continues to grow and send us odd competition entries and things (one of them has just speculatively sent us in a song about Xbox Live Arcade for a competition we haven't even run)." Yay!

However, he also notes: "Resonance is publically funded, ie it relies on an Arts Council grant and donations from the public to keep to going. It's on a funding drive at the moment, and thus... the One Life Left team are auctioning off gaming items. Why? Because Resonance FM is publicly funded and advert-free, relying on donations from listeners to keep broadcasting. And what’s an auction? It’s a donation with a prize."

And, speak of the devil, here's the auctions page. Look, there's a Football Manager fridge! UK GSW readers, you know what to do. (You can also just plain donate from that page, too, if you don't want a Football Manager fridge. Which you clearly do.)

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Rebuilding Virtual On

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by Ollie Barder which covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This week's column covers the foibles of owning an arcade gaming classic (all photos were taken prior to cleaning, just in case you are curious) and special thanks to Saur and Trevor for their fearless assistance in the rebuilding.]

vo_cab_11.jpgA few years ago I managed to acquire a Virtual On arcade cabinet. One of the slightly more difficult aspects of owning an arcade machine is that you sometimes have to move it around. Considering that this particular cabinet weighs nearly half a ton and is pretty sizeable, it doesn’t exactly travel well.

Basically, to get the machine anywhere means it has to be completely disassembled and then rebuilt in its new abode. Two weeks ago, some friends and I did just that.

More after the jump...

vo_cab_3.jpgVirtual On was a weird game when it was released, not only for the eclectic choice of twin stick control but also how the game fundamentally played. The latter threw many and the learning curve did very much wean out the more casually inclined.

The main reason for this was down to Virtual On’s approach to mecha combat; fixed vectors of attack coupled with homing based weaponry. It wasn’t a run and gun third person shmup, something that Western gamers are generally au fait with. It was, instead, far more regimented. You had to learn the ballistic properties of each of your weapons in relation to not only your type of dash (either forward, sideways or backwards) but also in relation to where your opponent was positioned. Add into the fray a sizeable amount of immobility at the end of a dash and you have something far more tactical than it first appears.

I’ve had an ongoing love of Virtual On since it was released in the arcades back in 1995. I’d always wanted to own the original twin sit-down arcade cabinet but the price was always on the slightly astronomical side (well, it was when I was a wee nipper).

The game, despite being wholly focused towards multiplayer, very rarely received any love in the British arcades (what games do?). Being a somewhat resourceful little rascal I decided to set up a club for Virtual On in a London arcade. Imaginatively titled the London Virtual On Club (with the necessary abbreviation of LonVOC) I consequently met many other forlorn Virtual On addicts, who now finally had fresh meat to play with.

vo_cab_7.jpgNaturally, once I had come of age, I managed to find a second hand Virtual On cabinet. It was in fairly ropey condition but it was cheap. The only problem I had was a complete lack of suitable storage space. Persevering, I persuaded a friend to store it on my behalf. However, the room in which it was to live was on the 5th floor and the building didn’t have an elevator.

This was the first time that the machine was completely disassembled. Gingerly carried up five flights of stairs and rebuilt. It was an almost military operation and required a fair amount of manpower. Though, once the job was done, it did have a ship in a bottle quality to it.

About a year ago, I had to move the cabinet again (the chap who had very kindly lent me his room now wanted it back, which was perfectly understandable). Again, it was taken apart and very carefully taken down the five flights of stairs and taken away to be stored. Now, this time I didn’t have the luxury of a place to rebuild it. So it languished in its component parts until the bright day of its reincarnation. A few weeks ago a location had been found that was not only on the ground floor but also far more permanent. Once all the parts had been deposited we all agreed on a weekend to reassemble it.

Board based foundations

vo_cab_12.jpgThe first part of the machine that had to be sorted out was the base. The base is where all the important stuff resides; namely the amps and Model 2 arcade boards (where the actual game is stored). Naturally, we gave the board a very thorough though careful cleaning and generally checked the condition of the parts. Previously, the pre-amps had blown in both base units (it was the condition the machine was bought).

This was a design flaw in all Model 2 based cabinets apparently; crank the volume up too high and the pre-amp would die. Considering that poor old Virtual On had been placed in loud arcades, this kind of problem was an occupational hazard. Thankfully, I had bought two replacements and now with the more final resting place of the cabinet we decided to install them.

One of the other slightly insane aspects of Model 2 based multiplayer games is the way they are networked. In short, they use optical networking. For something like 8-way Daytona multiplayer it’s moderately excessive but makes some sense. For a two player game, it’s just wholly unnecessary. We can only assume that SEGA just used a standardised optical networking solution on all their cabinets and hence that’s how it found its way into Virtual On. Still, it’s a little bonkers.

It’s all in the reflexes

vo_cab_1.jpgThe next part that needed to be attached was the twin stick housing. This actually was in pretty manky condition internally (so much so that we assumed the caked on dust was grey paint). After a good clean we bolted on the housing that would later act as the main support for the very heavy medium resolution monitors. We also checked all the earth points and generally made sure that entrepreneurial rodents hadn’t had their way with the rest of the cabling. Next came the really tricky part.

Arcade cabinet monitors aren’t very friendly pieces of hardware at the best of time. If they haven’t been properly discharged then you should really be making some kind of funeral arrangements. Thankfully, the two monitors hadn’t been used in over a year so we were okay on that front. The big trouble with monitors though, apart from the death bit, is that they are bloody heavy. The two medium resolution monitors in this case were no exeception. The tricky aspect of installing them atop the twin stick housing is that they don't have any kind of support.

vo_cab_4.jpgMore specifically, the monitors are held in place by the side panels. This means simultaneously mounting the monitor whilst attaching at least one of the side panels. It's a three man job, with two holding the monitor in place while the other bolts the panel on. To make matters more tricky, the monitor has to be docked onto the twin stick housing in quite a precise manner. So you have to stand there rigid as your fearless buddy gets busy with the spanner.

Mirrored repetition

After attaching the monitor and the remaining side panels, you then have the whole joy of repeating the process on the other side of the cabinet. Thankfully, the second side took less time but we did come into a fair few problems.

The first was that there weren't enough bolts, this I knew already but it was easily remedied (we got more). The second problem was more on the terminal side. Whilst one of the monitors fired up fine, the other didn't. Admittedly, both of them were waning somewhat but it's still unfortunate. After much deliberating we managed to connect the functioning side to the supposedly broken monitor to clarify the situation (one of my compatriots very carefully put their hand inside the monitor casing to extract the necessary wiring, we all stood back and made various supportive noises at this point).

It turned out that the monitor board was faulty and needed to be repaired and that thankfully the Model 2 board was fine. At this point the fan at the base of the slave machine went boom, the motor had gone. It was gently extricated from the machine and penciled in as another necessary replacement.

vo_cab_13.jpgAfter re-connecting the necessary wires we managed to get the master side working again. We turned the machine on for a final time and it functioned beautifully. The pre-amp had also worked its wonders and the cabinet produced all the sounds I remember from when I was a kid. I, naturally, sat down and one credited the game as a token of my gratitude. We also sat around marveling at the fact that for a game that's nigh on 12 years old it still looks pretty damn shiny. At this point we shut the machine down and cleaned up the mess we'd made in assembling the cabinet. Naturally, once our work was done I thanked my buddies and gave one of them a lift home. We were all dutifully shattered.

An end to Operation Moongate

vo_cab_5.jpgAll told, the cabinet was in very good condition for its age and once we get the remaining replacement parts and repair the monitor boards it will be good as new. Many may wonder why I bought the damn thing in the first place, when a Saturn port already exists not to mention the sequel, Virtual On Oratorio Tangram, has an incredibly good rendition on the Dreamcast. Apart from the nostalgia element, the main reason for owning the cabinet is that the game is much more tactical. That immobility at the end of dashes is absent in the Saturn port and in the Dreamcast sequel. Basically, the strategy required in the arcade original is a gaming sweet spot for me.

Admittedly a SEGA AGES port of Virtual On is scheduled for sometime this year. So owning the cabinet maybe a tad moot in light of an accurate port, though I am pretty sure SEGA won't be releasing a pair of twin sticks for the PlayStation 2. You don't expect me to play Virtual On with a pad do you?

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

BBC Pokes At PSP Hacking Cabal

- Actually, I first saw this on the 'Pho list' for music folks, but it's awfully game-ish - a new BBC News article on the latest PSP homebrew cracking efforts, and absolutely adorable because of the careful explanation and hacker unveiling tactics.

It's explained of the key PSP hackers: "Fanjita - real name David Court - is very different from the popular hacker stereotype of the socially inept teenaged geek working all night in his bedroom. A married man of 34, he is an accomplished professional programmer who writes server software for large telecommunications companies for a living. He spends an hour or two a night hacking PSP software in his Edinburgh home, and is also a martial arts enthusiast." So there!

But wait: "Dark Alex fits much more comfortably into the hacker mould. A student from Spain, his hacker moniker derives from his real name, Alejandro, and a liking for all things gothic, he says. His interests are Japanese Manga comics and cats, but PSP hacking is his main hobby." Japanese Manga comics and cats, huh? I'm guessing he must be a big 2ch fan, then.

Game Developer February Issue Brings The Resistance

- We showed you the faux version of the cover, and now the real thing is here - we announced over at big sister site Gamasutra that the February 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine is here, and here's the neat stuff that's in it:

"The cover feature for the February 2007 issue is an exclusive postmortem of Insomniac's key PlayStation 3 launch title Resistance: Fall Of Man by the company's Marcus Smith, described as follows:

"Insomniac is known more for its stylized character-based games than its first-person shooters, but Resistance: Fall of Man is in fact a return to the company’s roots — the first game the studio ever made was an FPS. Herein, project manager Marcus Smith shares with us the boons and difficulties of creating an original IP on a brand new console at launch, as well as why they want to set the next game in Tahiti."

The February issue also includes an in-depth technical article called 'Scrum Rising', of which it's explained: "Scrum is an agile development methodology which can save your studio a substantial amount of crunch time, headache, botched plans, and disorganized employees — or so says High Moon’s Clinton Keith. Scrum may not be right for everyone, but after reading this article, you should know if it’s right for you and yours."

Another major feature, alongside the editor preview of next week's Game Developers Conference, is an exclusive interview with Junction Point's founder Warren Spector, described as follows: "As the creative mind behind Deus Ex, Warren Spector is in a keen position to talk about dynamic story and gameplay. In this exclusive interview, the game designer discusses the state of game writing, before expounding on his dream game."

The issue is rounded out by the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, as well as product reviews and game art features.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of February 2007's magazine as a single issue. Newsstand copies of the magazine are now available at North American outlets including Barnes & Noble and other specialty bookstores."

February 26, 2007

Opinion: Phil Harrison, Hath I Wronged You?

- So, I spotted over on N'Gai Croal's blog that he has a new interview with Sony's Phil Harrison up, and it's interesting to me because Harrison specifically calls out a piece I wrote for Gamasutra reporting on his GDC Europe Q&A in 2005 as being somewhat misleading. So... I will investigate!

Part 1: The Allegation

Harrison particularly says: "You put something on your blog about how comments from videogame executives can come back to haunt them. Of all the things I've said--and there are plenty of things should come back to haunt me--what you quoted was not one of them. The quote in question actually came from the GDC Europe interview that I did onstage with [Game Developers Conference director] Jamil Moledina a couple of years back. He was asking my view on Microsoft's two SKU strategy."

"The point that I made, which was not clearly reported in the Gamasutra piece [that Level Up cited], was that Microsoft had introduced two SKUs, they were effectively two different products: one with a hard drive and one without. And that while I wasn't going to talk about our particular SKU strategy at that time, whatever strategy we would adopt would not confuse developers and publishers, because the underlying platform would be with the hard drive in every machine. So I stand by what I said."

Part 2: The Gamasutra Story

So, what did I originally report in that GDCE 2005 piece for Gamasutra? Here's a direct citation from my article: "When discussing whether he would ever consider multiple launch bundles of the PlayStation 3, as the Xbox 360 has now confirmed, Harrison was relatively caustic, commenting: "Are there two versions of the Xbox that people want to buy? Consumers don't know which one to buy, developers don't know which one to make games for, and retailers don't know which one to stock. We wouldn't take that strategy.""

Part 3: The GamesIndustry.biz Story

Just in case I was wildly off-base, I decided to compare this to other reports at the time, and came up with this GamesIndustry.biz report from Ellie Gibson, which quotes Harrison in the following way:

"Speaking at the European Game Developers' Conference in London today, when asked if Sony might follow in the Redwood [uhm, surely Redmond?] giant's footsteps [and release two SKUs] the VP of studios replied: "Unlikely." "Are there two versions of the Xbox 360 that people want to buy, is my question," he continued. "I don't know." "This is my personal view, not my corporate view, but when I look at those formats, I think it just confuses the audience. They don't know which one to buy, developers don't know which one to create for, and retailers don't know which one to stock." "So I think we wouldn't take that strategy. We wouldn't create confusion," he concluded."

Part 4: Context And Fact

Now, it looks like the two set of quotes differ slightly in terms of bridging words - which isn't great, and I'm obviously not sure who is completely accurate, but I guess is what can happen in the heat of the quoting moment. But you can clearly see the two primary reports have identical information in them. And I certainly stand by the way that I reported Harrison's comments, besides some bridging '...'-s that are missing.

Now, having said that, a lot of this is about context. It is certainly true that Harrison could have then gone on to explain how Sony might still make multiple SKUs. And GamesIndustry.biz does cite the Sony VP's immediate follow-on comments, as follows:

"Harrison did go on to suggest that consumers will have a variety of options to choose from in the longer term. "There have been various versions and variants of PlayStations in the past - some run through the hardware and some through the software, and that's worked pretty well for us, offering different value propositions to the consumer... Exactly what we do with the launch? Too early to tell.""

OK, well does that put things in a different light? Perhaps marginally, though it is vague, and it really does _not_ get his point across well. In fact, the GamesIndustry.biz piece is headlined: "GDCE: Sony "unlikely" to offer two versions of PS3, says Harrison." So Ellie also apparently got the wrong impression from Phil. And more importantly, most of the times that this quote is brought up as anti-PS3 fodder, the GamesIndustry.biz article (which includes that alleged greater context) is cited - for example, on PC Vs. Console, or on the ever-scabrous Ram Raider.

So, Phil's defense, it seems, is that he knew that the company was considering two SKUs with differing hard drives at that time, but in his own words, "whatever strategy we would adopt would not confuse developers and publishers, because the underlying platform would be with the hard drive in every machine." But if you can't explain that bit, you can't come out so strongly against multiple Xbox 360 SKUs, because you can't explicitly explain how your multiple PlayStation 3 SKUs will be different.

Part 5: On Selective Quoting

But selective quoting is a massive issue in the media today, and I'm not saying that the journalist doesn't have to keep a very careful eye on this. Oddly enough, I had a long discussion with Epic's Mark Rein about this after his remarks at GDCE 2006, specifically the sarcastic: "Sony says the next generation starts when they say so - bullshit!" This was picked up by all manner of people as being a bombastic declamation when, as he rightly points out, and Gamasutra attempted to communicate in its first-person version of the speech, it was a humorous quip with an edge of typically Rein-esque sarcasm. But he said it - and things you say can be presented in isolation and used against you.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is the controversy over Pope Benedict XVI's speech touching on Islam, in which Benedict cited the expression of the views of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos by quoting: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." Benedict did not claim to think this - only cited it in relation to what the Vatican claims was a "clear and radical rejection of the religious motivation for violence, from whatever side it may come". I would argue that the quote is significantly (but not entirely) less potent as a cited historical document, but highly charged when presented in isolation, without the formal University of Regensburg lecture background.

Part 6: The Messy Truth

Now, you'll notice that I'm not claiming that Phil Harrison is God's agent on Earth at this point. But I am claiming that Harrison's comments were more unclear than perhaps he remembers, and in order not to be selectively quoted (slightly, and I would argue legitimately, by me, in the course of summarizing a long lecture, and even further by others for more subjective reasons) on the problem of multiple SKUs, he needs to think carefully before he goes on the attack.

If you say something, even given caveats before or after the fact, then you've said it. Harrison is right, though - his comments weren't an all-out boner. But given the context, they certainly aren't a slam dunk, either.

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Minesweeper

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.

Dropping the Bombshell

The Minesweeper that we all know and love was created by Robert Donner and Curt Johnson while they were working at Microsoft. It was first released as part of the Microsoft Entertainment Pack for Windows in 1990, but in 1992, it replaced Reversi as a pack-in game for Windows 3.1. Minesweeper became a Microsoft staple, and from 3.1 to 95 to XP and beyond, millions upon milions of people across the world turned to Minesweeper when the random chance of Klondike Solitaire became overwhelming.

Unlike the previous minefield games, Minesweeper has no avatar. You can check any location on the board without having to find a path there. And because there's no avatar, the goal is no longer safe passage; instead; you must clear every non-mined square of the grid before you have succeeded. There is a timer and a best-score high-score list. (The high scores are easily manipulable, though; Vista's Minesweeper looks to be more resistant to such techniques). Using a two-button mouse to quickly reveal and flag squares, the game moves much faster than its predecessors. And in addition, there was a pleasant smiley face at the top of the game.

Like many simple logic games, Minesweeper relies on recognizing common patterns. After getting used to the game, you start to see some of these patterns on your ownm but the more complicated patterns will only be noticed if you're truly dedicated to working out the logic. Many people aren't willing, because many of the randomly generated boards of Minesweeper involve guessing anyway. It's fairly common to discover that, after clearing almost all of the board, there are two cells, each with a fifty-fifty chance of hiding a mine. Of course, the hardcore sweepers still use logic to analyze the patterns and turn the odds in their favor.

A demonstration of a simple Minesweeper board with a 3BV of 16. Image created by RodrigoCamargo for WikipediaWith Minesweeper's high-score table as a starting point, Minesweeper became competitive. There are several websites around the world for players to submit rankings. These competitive sweepers eventually refined their scoring systems using something called Bechtel's Board Benchmark Value (or 3BV). The 3BV is the minimum number of clicks it takes to clear a given board (barring some special tricks), and serves as the de facto difficulty rating for the many possible Minesweeper boards. In the image to the left, the each white or green dot is one necessary click, making the 3BV of the board 16.

Minesweeper attracted academic attention too. In 1999, Patti Frazer Lock and Allan A. Struthers began using Minesweeper to introduce students to formal logic. And in 2000, Richard Kaye proved that Minesweeper is NP-Complete, linking it to one of the $1 million prizes of mathematics. This connection to deep mathematics along with the game's wirdespread popularity led to a critical cameo in an episode of the TV show Numb3rs.

Smarter Bombs

Minesweeper had a knack for knock-offs. I know that when I was in high school in the early '90s, I coded my own Minesweeper clone in QBasic because my 286 couldn't handle Windows. Sadly, my code is now several hard drives gone, but there are plenty of other folks who had the same yearning, coding Minesweeper games for Mac, Linux, Unix, OS/2, and undoubtedly many other systems. Some of them, like the straigthforwardly named Minesweeper Clone, were designed to facilitate the competition and analysis I've already talked about. Clone has detailed record-keeping features that are used for personal enlightment or for competition on the Planet Minesweeper website.

A board from Crossmines. The black spaces are holes, and the white spaces are linked cells.But even the clones seem to be overpowered by the many, many variants. Because Minesweeper's boards are randomly generated, not handmande like Sokoban's, they've multiplied faster than most puzzles. There's hexagonal and triangular Minesweeper.

There are two kinds of 3-D Minewseeper, one version is on the flat surface of a three-dimensional solid; the other takes place within a gridded three-dimensional space. Minesweeper has been translated into a pen-and-paper puzzle where carefully chosen spaces are pre-revealed. One Minesweeper "variation" is actually just a randomly generated game of Picross. There's even a Minesweeper with large cartoon breasts. G.Rev, a Japanese developer took hexagonal Minesweeper and turned it into an J-Pop–based arcade game, Doki Doki Idol Star Seeker, which was later ported to the Dreamcast. (Detailed English information about this game can be found in issue #1 of The Gamer's Quarter.)

In doing this research, my personal favorite has been Crossmines by John Valentine. In this variant (shown above), each space can be a variety of different shapes, and the board can have holes in it. These two twists alone make for a pretty interesting game. But most bizarrely, there is an option for "linked cells" which connects different spaces across the board and makes them act as one. I've tried in previous drafts to explain how this works strategically, but I haven't been able to. Honestly, I'm not sure I entirely understand it myself. It's extremely bizarre, and if you're interested, you should try the game yourself.

Just as it was back in 1992, I don't have the power to load the latest Windows onto my computer. Thankfully, I now have more than enough Minesweeper options at my fingertips. At the moment, the best list of clones and variants is the Wikipedia page on Minesweeper. As daunting as the list is, I supsect they're all easier to install than Vista.

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

The Hollywood Games Model And Japan

- 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

- 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

- 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.)

February 25, 2007

NinjaBee's Happy XBLA Interview Fun

- 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

- 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

- 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?

- 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

- 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."

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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