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June 30, 2007

Pac-Man CE, XBLA Leaderboards, & Polite Asian Gamers

- So, I've been playing some more of the absolutely marvellous Pac-Man Championship Edition, which is possibly my favorite classic arcade remake ever, thanks to some really well thought-out extra maps and modes and cleverly enhanced art.

Anyhow, I ventured onto the leaderboard to find out that a gamer named 'Cosin45' had scored 619,790 in the 'main' mode that the Pac-Man World Champion was decided on, way above the 420,000-ish for the other contenders. Odd - so I checked out the guy's profile, and his description, it turns out, is 'UnintendedCEScorByBug'. Aww.

So it turns out that Japanese X360-owning Cosin45 must have accidentally triggered a bug that whacked his score up really high (though he's obviously a good player too - he's got 200/200 Achievement points for the title). Looking around, there's a thread on the Twin Galaxies forums discussing this exact piece of cuteness - and poster PERodgers2003 also spotted: "Yesterday, it read something to the effect that he achieved that score on the Extra 3 mode. I hope MS can remove that score without clearing the entire leaderboard!" I know some Microsoft folks read GSW - any chance of tweaking the bugged-up score, btw?

I just thought this was a great study in how nice/polite most gamers actually are, as well as communication by unexpected means. Cosin45 correctly guessed that most people would be checking his profile because of the Pac-Man CE high score, and gave them updates on it by switching out his description text multiple times. Neat.

[And while you're reading, Zotmeister has a lengthy description of why Pac-Man CE rocks on the Twin Galaxies forum, starting: "It is to the original Pac-Man what the Tetris the Grand Master series is to the early Tetris games", and going into plenty more detail about the nuances of the switched-up, almost delicate, still high score-centric gameplay.]

From IGF Finalist 'The Blob' To THQ Wii Game 'De Blob'

- As you might have spotted from a multitude of reports, some of THQ's E3 line-up has 'arrived' early, and one I'm delighted to see is the leaked announcement of 'De Blob' for the Wii, since it's a conversion of 2007 IGF Student Showcase finalist The Blob - which was actually called 'De Blob' in its native Dutch, and avoids nasty Steve McQueen copyright suits, now I come to think of it.

It's awesome to see student and indie projects get picked up like this - hopefully the increased IGF publicity had something to do with this! [EDIT: Spoke to The Blob's creators - apparently the THQ deal was almost finalized by the time GDC came around, but lots of other publishers and even Alexei Pazhitnov praised the game in person, so now the makers have some great contacts to pitch their next title at, yay.]

The original PC freeware game, which was done by students in the Netherlands as some kind of municipal project for the city of Utrecht, I believe (?) is still available for download, and the expanded Wii version, being handled by Australian studio Blue Tongue, seems to be due out in 2008.

Plus, as 'WizarDru' notes in the GoNintendo comments, and I pretty much agree with: "OMFG. De Blob is PERFECT for the Wii. I played the free game on the PC, and it was a great Katamari-esque game. Short on gameplay, of course, but it was a University project. Expanding it into a full-fledged multi-level game would be excellent!" Also, I will point out that the game makes me just as motion-sick as Katamari, which is a spectacular achievement (and my problem, not the creators', heh.)

GameSetQ: What Do Wii Want From WiiWare?

- So you've seen that Nintendo has confirmed WiiWare downloadable digital content for the Wii, starting in 2008. And as our Gama story notes: "In a press statement, Nintendo suggests that WiiWare will pave the way for “smaller, more creative games” at lower prices and without any inventory risk to developer."

Now, there's still a little bit of controversy about how easy it is up to now for indies to get hold of Wii development kits - you may remember Ian Bogost's Serious Games Source feature on the subject late in 2006. But I've been chatting a little to some of the Nintendo folks in charge of their original downloadable efforts, and it's clear that they mean to do this right - and are starting, if a little late, with good intentions.

So - an open question. What is 'right', in this context? Do you want to see Nintendo going after great-looking Flash games or existing indies and getting them onto Wii? Do you want only to see titles that make unique use of the Wiimote, or are ones using the 'classic'-style controls perfectly acceptable?

Some other questions - is it better to have a more open playing-field, so that we get lots of content from all sizes of creator, and the users can pick and choose from a large amount of games?

Or should it be a little more highly selective, so that there aren't three flavors of block-shuffling puzzle game, for example? And how about first and second parties - should they be making WiiWare too, or should it be the one place where Mario doesn't hustle in to steal the spotlight? Opinions, please.

[UPDATE: A couple of blog reactions to this - A Link To The Future has a number of ideas, including: "Be careful leveraging Nintendo IP for new DLC. Nintendo’s biggest advantage over Microsoft is the fact that it has so many recognizable brands… but if it just churns out more crappy minigames, people are going to wonder why the hell they’re paying full price for more Mario Party."

Also, Tony @ Clickable Culture floats an interesting idea: "There's already a voting feature available for the Wii. It's called "Everybody Votes," and allows Wii users to weigh in on lightweight topics like "Sasquatch or Nessie?" What if Everybody Votes was mashed up with WiiWare? Voting could be limited to one vote per console per game, thus reducing or eliminating ballot-stacking. I'd rather have gamers tell me what's worth playing than Nintendo."]

June 29, 2007

Inside The (Expanded) History Of Zork

- So, I'm hoping most of you already spotted Matt Barton's awesome 'The History Of Zork' feature over at Gamasutra, another one in a series profiling the Digital Game Canon titles. But you might not have spotted that Barton put up full versions of his original interviews for the feature on his own Armchair Arcade site.

He handily explains all the people talked to, as well: "Dave Lebling and Marc Blank are two of the original implementors who worked on Zork. Steve Meretzky came in later, and wrote several of the most successful Infocom games. Howard Sherman is president of a modern-day IF publishing company named Malinche Entertainment. Nick Montfort is the author of a book about IF called Twisty Little Passages."

My favorite quote? This Meretzky commentary on the influence of Zork and its brethren: "Sometimes I see the same sort of humor and irreverence of Zork popping up in games, for example in some of the NPC dialogue or quest names in WoW, and I like to think that that’s the influence of Zork in particular and the Infocom games in general. And without adventure games leading the way, I’m not sure you’d see storytelling elements so widespread in other genres."

[Oh, and a special scoop for GSW readers - next up in the Digital Game Canon series on Gamasutra will be Benj Edwards profiling Civilization and J Fleming (who previously analyzed Space War) discussing Star Raiders - and both will have extensive creator interviews. Good, important stuff, I think.]

Print Media, Jeff Green Cozy Up, Dish The Truth

- Over at The Escapist, there's a new interview with Games For Windows' EIC Jeff Green, every inch the elder stateman of the print journalism community. I found it particularly interesting after my recent ruminations on impartiality and journalism, since I referenced Green's impressively extreme independence to criticize Windows Live, despite GFW being an 'official' Microsoft publication.

Green too references this v.tricky balancing act, noting with a hint of terror: "The actual name of the magazine has still not exactly gotten much easier to say without cringing somewhat, and that has not been helped by the less-than-stellar rollout of the entire GFW platform so far, but, hey, far be it from me to bite the hands that feed! I love you, Microsoft! Seriously, they've put up with a lot of grief with us so far, and I am grateful so far that they have kept their word with us about "editorial independence." I haven't even gotten a call yet about my last column."

Plus, I think Green's sharp words for game websites are entirely on the money: "I'd say take a little more time to edit and proofread your articles. I just read some truly embarrassing stuff today, from one of the more supposedly "professional" sites. I mean, we're talking basic grammar here. Don't swallow every goddamn little crumb of hype that the game companies toss to us, like fish to seals, and post it as if it was some revelatory big scoop. Exercise more critical judgment."

Well, you know what, Jeff? Some game websites are so unprofessional that they might run a picture of unrelated race driver Jeff Green instead of you. How's that for critical judgment? Huh? Huh? (We kid, he's entirely correct. And he's rude about game mags just after puncturing the pride of game websites, so don't fret!)

Anyhow, it's a great interview, despite using a vaguely tongue-in-cheek hyperbolic quote for the title ("Game Magazines Have Sucked for Forever"). Thanks to QT3 for pointing it out - they have a decent thread on the whole discussion, also. Oh, and I believe this is The Escapist's news-specific RSS feed, if anyone is looking for it.

How Many Game Developers Are There In North America?

- The above question is what our Game Developer Research division, in the form of Alistair Wallis and a cadre of helpers, has been pondering for the last few weeks, and we just debuted a Gamasutra story with the results, as follows (we're selling the report to outsourcing firms and other services companies so they can get a head start on who lives where in the North American game biz):

"The CMP Game Group’s Game Developer Research division has revealed its first-ever Census - determining, through in-depth research, the number of people working within video game development and publishing in North America.

The key findings of the Census include the fact that there are more than 39,700 professionals developing or publishing games within the United States, with more than 8,100 professionals doing so across Canada.

More than 46% of all of those creating games within the United States (around 18,300 employees) are based in California, with Washington (11.63%) and Texas (7.37%) rounding out the top three states. In total, seven states (also including New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Florida) have more than 1,000 game professionals working in them.

Not included in the current Census estimate are game tools companies, game contracting/services companies, external PR, marketing, legal, and other business services, and liaison or licensing divisions at larger media companies. Game Developer Research putatively puts this figure at around 15,000 across North America, though it intends to research this part of the market in detail at a later date.

The Census report lists nearly 600 companies alphabetically by U.S. state and Canadian province, along with addresses, website information, estimates of employee numbers and details on their market specialties (from casual gaming, online gaming, mobile gaming and serious gaming to PC, handheld or console gaming). The report is intended to be a valuable tool for game industry contractors, service companies, and other entities wanting to acquire an accurate list to reach out to the North American game market as a whole.

“The game industry has long been asking for a census to better understand just how many people are creating games professionally in North America, and as the organization behind Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com and the Game Developers Conference, the CMP Game Group felt that it was our responsibility to use our expertise to establish an accurate view of its size,” said Simon Carless, publisher of Game Developer Magazine and director of Game Developer Research.

For more freely available information, including sample data, or to purchase the complete Game Developer Census 2007 report, please visit the official Game Developer Research website. Purchase of the full report includes both a 150-page in-depth report with listings by U.S. state and Canadian province, and a separate Excel document featuring the full, comprehensive data set in sortable and exportable form."

June 28, 2007

Achtung! An Impending Wave Of Lumines DS/PSP Ripoffs!

- One of the cool things about the relative accessibility of Sony's PSP and Nintendo's DS is that you get some pretty sophisticated 'homebrew' programming for them, and even indie developers and publishers can make and release games.

But one of the issues with that low-budget 'clones' can quickly spring up, and European publisher Xider just put out a press release about an absolutely shameless (pictured) one, Luminator for DS - the catchy sounding 'Spieleflut.de' has more screenshots of the game.

The press release reveals: "XIDER Games will be making its first venture into the Nintendo DS format with Luminator DS, a puzzle-strategy game with a modern soundtrack and updated Tetris-style play which will banish your Rubik’s Cube to the attic permanently... Construction combos are needed as the player aims to turn their building blocks into valuable points... Luminator DS offers the player a constantly evolving challenge with two difficulty levels in ‘normal mode’ and three in ‘puzzle mode’, plus music to add tension and enhance enjoyment."

But come on - in what way can Xider think they can get away with this? The screenshots clearly reveal that the game even has similar style block designs and the horizontally moving 'scan thing' from the original PSP version of the most excellent Tetsuya Mizuguchi co-created puzzle game. And then there's the small matter of the first 5 letters of the title being 'accidentally' the same. So I'm presuming someone will do something about this.

- Anyhow, I was most of the way through finalizing this post when I noticed Got Game's PSP title 'Puzzle Scape', which has already shipped to stores, and boy, it's another borderline iffy Lumines clone/ripoff. As the publicity page explains:

"Escape to block-busting puzzles and pulsating beats in this exciting new puzzle game for your PSP system! Be entranced by brilliant, interactive evolutionary backgrounds from cells to dream-like landscapes in four unique themes over 40 levels. Level by addictive level, unlock fresh colors and luscious beats in either time and goal-oriented play or score-oriented play."

So nothing at all like Q's puzzler, then? Although having said that, as the Finnish creators at Farmind explain in an interview: "You manipulate the blocks that have already landed (not the ones that are falling) by swapping them horizontally. You must build a 2x2 square of blocks of the same color to explode them. If you add more adjacent same-colored blocks, they will create a chain reaction and explode as well." So there is at least a slight twist on the action - does that make it fair enough? Hmm.

The Gamer's Dark Side: Bloody-Handed?

- [The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats. However, this special column deals, head on, with the subject of violence in games.]

The year is 1993, and a few kids are at the arcade, playing two-player Mortal Kombat. Sub-Zero versus Sonya, and the ninja’s winning. One of the kids is so small she has to hop up and down in the air to watch the fight, and she often does.

Sub-Zero’s being played by the oldest of them, and the kid’s practiced at this. The onlookers know exactly what’s coming. “Finish her!” They cheer in unison to Sonya’s dizzy swaying. The oldest kid bites his lip, steeling himself on the controls. Everyone’s watching, and he’s gotta do it right.

As Sub-Zero wrenches Sonya’s head from her body with the spine still attached, the oldest emits a guttural cry of triumph. The littlest child hops extra high to view the blood-drenched words spattered across the screen. Fatality.

All the kids squeal with the delight of the kill. My cousins and I.

Gamers had their psychological stability challenged several times in succession in the previous week. First, the American Medical Association decided it would review the classification of “videogame addiction” as a psychiatric disorder (it ultimately refused to classify it as such). Second, the ubiquitous Manhunt 2 debacle—a game so violent that it was essentially deemed by evaluatory boards in multiple countries to be unfit for play by anyone, and the intended consoles themselves refused to carry it. Last, the ESRB effectively yanked montage trailers of the upcoming third-person shooter Dark Sector from various websites, including Filefront.com, due to content they deemed “excessive” and “offensive”—despite the fact that that particular video’s been available for public view since the end of 2006.

Such moves may have wider-reaching implications beyond the immediate—after all, human history has repeatedly demonstrated the peril of the oft-cited slippery slope. The dual implication of the ruling—first, that future games will be policed with close scrutiny to be sure they’re family-friendly, and second, that a ratings board is judging propriety for an entire variegated demographic en masse—raised the hackles of gamers worldwide (as well, perhaps, it should have). Vitriolic message board rants, online petitions and incensed editorials were the norm, as the Manhunt 2 ban brought the concept of de facto censorship right to our door.

But before we make family a dirty word, before we organize ourselves on the defensive, if we are to mount a successful counter-attack, we must come to the discussion table with our minds completely in order.

Back to the nineties—1997, to be exact. I’m fifteen years old and Final Fantasy VII is, for the moment, the living end. My little sister, quite savvy for nine years old, is watching me tap my way through some battles against enemy SOLDIERs, critiquing all the while.

“How come he shot you five times, but Tifa can kill him right away by punching?” I don’t understand that either, but since it works out in my favor, I don’t mind.

“How come when you kill them they just turn red and disappear?” She asks.

“How come there’s no blood?”

Momentarily confounded for an explanation, the best I can do is, “I guess they can’t show that, or something.”

She ponders this, and agrees. “It looks stupid, though,” she says.

It did look stupid. We were no longer in the days when a hop on top of a monster’s head would do the trick. Characters had facial expressions now. We had brimstone and ash; we had dirt and torn clothes. The absence of wounds was simply out-of-place. When we asked for more blood, it was only to such incongruities we were referring. It wasn’t so much we wanted viscera; we merely wanted realism. The confetti of red pixels that erupted from a Resident Evil dog bite, once considered gory, eventually became to our perception artificial enough to interrupt our experience.

Now, we go for the throat, for the head. We’re eviscerating and vivisecting our enemies in increasingly elaborate ways. We’ve got an ice pick. A flamethrower. A chain saw. And melee games evaluate our brutality as we play. Vicious! Insane! Awesome.

The argument in favor of Manhunt 2—and many other more graphic games—is that we’re free to play them without the extra execution. The New York Times, when demoing the game, pointed out that the gratuitous kills are optional.

But then, what would be the point?

The Times also revealed that, as opposed to the basic bat-whacking and glass-stabbing in Manhunt 2 (this is what passes for generic these days), “you can stab him, wrap a cord around his neck, stuff his head in a toilet and smash him on the back of the head.” As the reviewer, Seth Schiesel, pointed out—using the Wii, this means approximating mutilation gestures with your hand at the same time.

Nowadays, game makers would never think of putting something like the bloodless death of Aeris in front of audiences. Many games in that decade provided an alternate play mode for those with a sensitive stomach; control over the level of gore. But those choices are fewer and farther between these days. Could you imagine the commercial success of God of War without the “brutal kill”? True, you don’t need to do them. And aside from the occasional blood-washed excesses, it’s a well-scaled, enjoyably rendered and lovingly designed game. But haven’t you ever deliberately executed the most gratuitous combo to finish an enemy? Because you were frustrated, maybe? Furious?
Or because dismemberment, skull crushing and mutilation killings are just fun?

Games are not reality. What we do in fantasy doesn’t necessarily come to bear on life. But to observe the trend in our medium, our fantasies are getting darker. We say that games don’t increase our aggression, our violent tendencies, and maybe they don’t; maybe they never will. There are plenty of hugely successful games—perhaps even the majority—that have no inclusion of violent conflict at all. But when you’re throwing a man into a wall, twisting a neck, scything someone in the face—and your heart rate is up, and your eyes are wide, and you’re utterly gratified by the pop-crunch-splat—we’ve all been there—it calls for an honest evaluation as to whether we are being affected, and how—if for no other reason than the fact that justifying ourselves blindly does us no credit.

We don’t want abstracted violence, do we. We want our headshots messy and our weapons realistic.

Are we crazy?

Are you sure?

The predominating issue here, of course, is that our fundamental right to choose what we consume should not be infringed. Those uncomfortable with violence in games are free to opt not to play them. But lest we forget, even in the First Amendment, there are limitations—think about, for example, what types of pornography are permitted and which are not, and the reasons behind those restrictions. There is far more permitted in cinema these days than there is in games—as Schiesel points out, the worst scenes in Manhunt 2 were not as “bad” as the Saw series of films. But then, movies don’t require participation, personification.

The idea of anyone else—“families,” ratings boards, et cetera—setting limits for us without our input is patently provocative. Much of it simply comes down to the fact that a stance against our industry is a hot trend in an unstable political climate. But before we defend ourselves with righteousness against the idea that there might be a line somewhere that we’re fast approaching—if the defense we mount is to be at all effective—it’d behoove us to take honest stock of the blood on our hands.

[Leigh Alexander is a blogger at Destructoid and her Sexy Videogameland site, and reviewer for outlets including Paste Magazine. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

June 27, 2007

GameSetHollywood: From Warcraft Movie To fl0w

- We've been covering the Hollywood & Games Summit, put on by Jamil and our CMP Game Group colleagues alongside The Hollywood Reporter, all day on Gamasutra (and a chunk of yesterday, too!). So, thanks to frantic scribblings from Brandon Sheffield and note deciphering from myself and Brandon Boyer, I wanted to present some highlights here:

- H&G: Tull Talks World of Warcraft Film: "Speaking at his Hollywood & Games Summit keynote, Legendary Pictures chairman Thomas Tull discussed the World of Warcraft film, saying the game has "the right stuff" to make a hit movie appealing beyond subscribers...

Speaking about the relative size of a game adaptation's potential audience, he noted, "Sure, there are 8 million people playing WoW, but even if all of those people saw the movie multiple times, we’d still be screwed." "It’s a jumping off point," he concluded of the game's subscription base, "and we see it as larger than that. World of Warcraft has the right stuff to make it happen.”"

- H&G: Mechner, Dille On Crossing The Digital Divide: "At a Hollywood & Games panel session, speakers including Prince Of Persia creator Jordan Mechner and Chronicles Of Riddick and Transformers TV show/game writer Flint Dille discussed how voice, writing, and film talent can cross the digital divide into games.

"So what do you look for in writing for games? Ubisoft Montreal's Ben Mattes chimed in: “If I had to choose someone, right away the first thing I’d tell them is there’s not a scriptwriter. There’s no room for writers in the game space. If you think of yourself as a writer, you’re going to have a hard time being in the space. I think there maybe was a time where people tried to hire writers, but now we look for story designers. You have to be a designer, and design that narrative and everything that goes around it.”"

- H&G: Tull, Davis On Brash's Film/Game Convergence: "Speaking at their Hollywood & Game Summit keynote 'Driving Mythology Forward' Legendary Pictures chairman Thomas Tull and Brash Entertainment CEO Mitch Davis talked film and game crossovers, confirming Brash game deals with Fox, Lions Gate, Warner Bros, Universal and Vanguard Animation."

Tull, who helped found Brash Entertainment, said of the motivations behind founding the company: “Contrary to what I’ve seen in the press, it's not to fix anything that’s broken. We looked at the growth in the category, and the platforms and what we think we can do, and one of the low-hanging fruit is movie games. It allows you to get a start in the category and kind of get your feet wet.”

- H&G: Santiago Talks Fl0w's Digital Distribution Success: "In another panel at today's Hollywood & Games summit in Los Angeles, Thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago discussed digital distribution and her firm's PlayStation 3 downloadable game Fl0w, revealing a goal of "a game per year" for the developer."

In fact, of Thatgamecompany's future, it's revealed: "Fl0w was completed [for PlayStation 3's PSN downloadable service] in 7.5 months, and our goal is to continue creating a game per year. Even if you're working on a large project, with digital distribution you could make a smaller project on the side."

[UPDATED UPDATE: Final post for today is LucasArts' Jim Ward talking about lightsaber games very vaguely, you big tease. We also just posted something on Brent Friedman's intriguing 'Afterworld' cross-media project, possibly to become an MMO, and 'The Future Of TV And Games', with representatives from Foglight Entertainment, Electronic Arts, DirecTV and Xbox . And we already mentioned the Clive Barker 'games as art' keynote and Heroes' Jesse Alexander on ARGs from yesterday, too. Just being completist!]

Focus On: PlayStation Museum Goes Apocalyptic

- Every now and again, I like to sit back and focus on a neglected site that's doing a sterling job in some way, and this time round, it's the PlayStation Museum that I'd like to highlight, a resource that's doing a great job of somewhat obsessively finding and documenting unreleased PlayStation games.

Of course, the site also talks about released games (and was recently forced to try to liquidate its entire physical collection for unspecified reasons, though the latest update mysteriously reveals: "The director of the museum has recovered about 60% of the condition that he was stricken with a few weeks ago. This means business as usual.")

But it's the protos that are spectacular, with a particularly good Neversoft connection revealing an unreleased Ghost Rider proto and the very unreleased Exodus. Then, away from Neversoft, there's the PlayStation version of Superman, allegedly much better than the terrible N64 version, and a whole bunch more obscuro prototypes and unreleased titles.

Anyhow, the latest gem is again tangled up in Neversoft's history, and it's the original version of Bruce Willis co-starring action game Apocalypse, a title which had a pretty checkered history. It's explained: " Apocalypse started out as being developed in-house at Activision Santa Monica. The concept was to use Bruce Willis' likeness as a sidekick to the main character... After months of work, management at Activision had decided to let the team go and use an outside developer to finish the game. Scrapping the game was no option: Activision paid too much to use Bruce Willis' talent."

Thus, Neversoft stepped up: "None of the original code was used in the final version of Apocalypse, although they did use a bit of their graphics for the initial rooftops level... Another point was that focus testing has supposedly revealed that people wanted to play as Bruce, which contributed to the whole AI-sidekick thing being scrapped." There are videos of the original version of Apocalypse, too, and this is an awesome piece of gaming history, now fairly well documented (though it'd be great to hear all sides of the story, not just the Neversoft-predominant version.)

GameSetLinks: June 27th Edition

- Uhoh, this whole 'saving up links for big posts' is going well, but possibly a bit too well. There's an absolute mess of ephemera saved up here, and so I'm going to spew them out at you - like I'm Mr. Creosote after a solo trip to Bucca Di Beppo. You don't mind, right?

- IGS PGM - Part Deux!: I've always harbored a secret and unnecessary desire to own an IGS PolyGameMaster arcade system, which is sorta the [EDIT: Taiwanese!] version of the Neo Geo, complete with a few Cave shooters and the Metal Slug-tastic Demon Front. Anyhow, Arcade Renaissance reveals the debut of the PGM2 hardware with Oriental Legends 2, yet another side-scrolling beat-em-up for those Asian countries which think that Dungeons & Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara is the best game ever - which is apparently a lot of them!

- June's Indies Rock: GameTunnel has posted its June Indie Game Review panel, and they continue to do a sterling job of reviewing many of the top indie games, some of which GSW has even mentioned! Top title this month is 'Jets 'N Guns Gold', the Machinae Supremacy-soundtracked Easter European shmup, but also scoring highly is Andy Schatz's Venture Arctic, which is felicitous news - and all of the top games mentioned are worth at least a perusal.

- Tips & Tricks Go Bye-Bye: A bunch of major sites have covered this too, but it's to be lamented that Larry Flynt Publications' Tips & Tricks Magazine, recently on an attempted comeback with veteran editor Bill Kunkel, has closed down editorial - though it will still release code specials, sans editors, for a bit? Anyhow, I'm sure the Magweasel will have something to say about this soon, but in the meantime, I thought the follow-up post was seminal: "Apparently, some websites have picked up my blog rant about T&T and are presenting it as hard news." Oh, you blogs!

- Nifflas, Indie God?: When he's not awesomely baiting PopCap, Derek Yu is pointing out great interviews with Nifflas, the creator of a bunch of dreamy indie games including Knytt and Within A Deep Forest. The English interview is down the bottom of the linked article, and there's some serious Ico love in it: "Ico is not about what the game is, it’s about what the game is not." Zen!

- One Game, MANY Platforms: Sometime Gamasutra and GSW contributor Benj Edwards has posted a fun 1UP feature called 'Platform Agnostics', aka 'The Most Whored-Out Games', and while Ms. Pac-Man may be suing for defamation, it's a fun angle: "Here are eight games that have appeared on the most consoles and computers over the years, on a case-by-case basis, and see what we find. This survey only covers official, authorized game releases billed with the game's title (in whole or part)."

And some bonus links to end up with, lest they get stale and pongy:

- Halo.bungie.org points out the Halo ghostbike at the Red Bull Flugtag in Nashville, presumably about to plunge off the platform in a desperate attempt to soar - fly, ghostbike fly!

- an interesting Muslim Weekly story on a 'balanced' Muslim-themed PC RTS called Al-Quraysh, being released by Syrian company Afkar Media - bears some more investigating.

- J. from Damned Vulpine went to Richard Garriott's 'estate' for an IGDA Austin party, and all he got was a nice write-up and pictures of the lawn - and Garriott hanging with superheroes.

- Jiji reviewed the sequel to D3's The Adventures Of Darwin, and this time the Pikmin-like budget PS2 game "...is set in an Edo-era Japanese village populated not by humans, but by anthropomorphic cats." SOLD!

@ Play: Architecture of the Mystery Dungeon

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

I've mostly been covering the traditional roguelikes of late, which are primarily terminal games with roots back to the very origins of computer gaming, to the neglect of the extensive Japanese console branch of the genre. They’ve had commercial roguelikes all over the place, thanks mostly to a little company called ChunSoft, known for the "Mysterious Dungeon," a.k.a. Fushigi no Dungeon, games.

The first game was a licensed game based off of one of the player characters in Dragon Quest IV, and since then it has crossed over with the Final Fantasy, Tower of Druaga, and even Pokemon franchises, as well as a "default" character, Shiren the Wanderer, whose games are usually the best of the series.

As ChunSoft has found inspiration from the roguelikes, so have other Japanese publishers found inspiration from ChunSoft, and so the Mysterious Dungeon games have quite a lot of imitators. Off the top of my head, there's Azure Dreams, Climax Landers (Time Stalkers in the U.S.) and the Ancient Cave segments of later Estopolis/Lufia games. Lufia: The Legend Returns for the GBC makes that the entire game.

Sega made a rather uninspired roguelike in the form of Fatal Labyrinth for the Genesis. The recent Izuna: Legend of the Unemployed Ninja is a fairly close example of the type, and the popular homebrew WonderSwan game Dicing Knight has some roguelike aspects as well. Even Parasite Eve has an optional random section in form of the Chrysler Building.

Mysterious Lineage

The chain of inspiration here is important. From playing them, it seems unlikely that the makers of most of those other games have ever heard of Nethack or Angband. Their source of inspiration is clearly the Mysterious Dungeon games. Take note class, for this is how a subgenre gets its start. Their designers invariably mistake the idiosyncrasies in Mysterious Dungeon as essential design aspects, and not knowing about those features it leaves out, an entire field of games has sprung up without wishing, bones, player ghosts, vaults, resistance building or any of the other clever little features the maintainers (or players, in the case of open source games) of traditional roguelikes cooked up from scratch. Not knowing their importance, they usually care little about identifying items, dungeon room shops, traps, or equipment advancement. Some of them don’t even feature grid-based tactical movement.

This isn't to say that none of these games are good, but the best ones continue to be those by ChunSoft, whose designers display in their work a great fondness for Rogue and Nethack. And ChunSoft is not merely acting as a plagiarist; there are some genuinely novel ideas to be found there, additions that the traditional roguelike developers would do well to take notice of, which I'll get around to mentioning... in approximately a month.

"Shiren? That's right, weren't you going to do a column on that?"

jrshiren1.pngMy promises of a column that covers Shiren are old, and unfortunately this is still not the one to do it (but soon folks, I promise). Before covering Shiren, it would be helpful to cover the play metaphor of the games, which originated with the original Torneko no Daibouken, and is so copied by all the other games of this subgenre that its presence is the surest indicator that we're talking about a Japanese roguelike.

What do I mean by a play metaphor? It's something so deeply ingrained in computer gaming that few players spare it a thought. It's in the association of the player's identity, in the depicted game-world, with that of a protagonist character. It's in the translation from the abstract events taking place on-screen to a pretend reality constructed in the player's head. And it's in the nebulous "space between the games," the idea that it is okay for games to feature continuity across play sessions, and to play around with the separation between the real world and the virtual one.

The act of setting up the game world is substantially different for roguelikes, of all types, than other games that can just load environments off disk, but even the initial play requires some setup. A freshly installed copy of Nethack is different from one that’s had a few games played; it’ll probably have some bones laying around, and its score list will have a few entries. It may be easier to be the first to play an installation of Dungeon Crawl than the tenth, as there won’t be any troublesome player ghosts to be encountered.

But traditional roguelikes use these features as curiosities. Japanese roguelikes greatly expand their role, using this idea to construct a meta-game that wraps around the dungeon exploration mode.

The Afterlife Looks Familiar


When a player begins a game of the original Mysterious Dungeon game, Torneko no Daibouken (Americanized as “Taloon’s Great Adventure”), he is not thrown into the first level of a sprawling dungeon. Nor does he appear in a “town” dungeon level with shops and low-level opponents, or an overworld populated with random encounters and dungeons. His character begins in a field, talking with his wife and son about his dreams of opening a shop.


Soon after, he meets with the king and is told of the Mystery Dungeon, which contains lots of stuff to sell. But the dungeon is a dangerous place, so first the king asks Torneko to retrieve an item from a trial dungeon as a test.


In he goes….


He’s in a random level. Ah, there are some monsters! He’s going to try fighting them….


Oh, he got killed. So it goes.


But what is this? I thought he was dead! Are those guys throwing out his decaying corpse as part of some monstrous Keep Our Lair Beautiful program?


No, here’s back at the king again. Does the game not have permadeath? How can it be called a roguelike without that?

It’s because there’s really two games here. There is an outer game that plays like Dragon Quest, what with the narrative and the talking and the storing and the buying, and an inner game that plays like Rogue. Not coincidentally, Torneko no Daibouken is set in the Dragon Quest IV world. The player character never dies in the outer game; in fact, there are no dangers there. It is no accident that it takes place in towns and castles, the player is just as safe from monster attacks there as he is in Generic Fantasytown. From there the player enters the dungeon, in some games just by leaving town, some by finding an entrance somewhere, and the inner, or real, game begins.

Level 3 Town, with population 750 and 40 hit points

The distinction isn’t just for show. When our player finishes the trial dungeon, he’ll find himself in a typical RPG town. The town gets larger as the player saves up money found in the dungeon. Eventually new resources open up to him as he goes which make the dungeon exploration game easier.

jrshiren2.pngHere, town serves as a shell by which the player gains access to the real game. The town’s services function similarly to Nethack’s bones and Crawl’s player ghosts: they are actually an outside-the-game influence. Later Japanese Roguelikes greatly expand on this idea. Shiren has warehouses for item storage, blacksmiths for improving equipment, special quests to complete to gain access to new items and helpers, and eventually bonus dungeons with special rules.

None of these features are necessary to win the game, but they make it a bit easier. A popular sub-subgenre of the Japanese Roguelikes, including games like Azure Dreams and Pokemon Rescue Team, mix the roguelike aspects with a dinobuddy monster-raising simulation. Azure Dreams resets the player’s level to 1 every trip into the tower, but the player’s monsters retain their level and grow ever stronger. These monsters are kept in a stable between trips to the dungeon, which allows the player to keep track of them. In these kinds of games, the outer game’s amenities are not optional, and their maintenance grows to rival the roguelike play in importance. Whether this improves the outer game is a question I will not answer, but I think it is obvious that these aspects cannot help but dilute the inner game, where the focus should lie.

The dual advancement tracks of the Japanese roguelikes, that of the inner game (player experience and equipment) and the outer game (town growth, quest status, saved equipment, monster pets, what have you) gives them a different dynamic than traditional roguelikes. In Rogue, every character starts off from square one. In the Mysterious Dungeon games, the dungeon effectively becomes easier after a while.


The above chart illustrates the dynamic. Both types of game become easier over time as the player (the actual person playing it, not his character) learns about the game, devises strategy and tactics, learns about the monsters, and figures out what items exist and how to use and identify them. The console roguelikes additionally add quest advancement to the mix, and become easier faster. The eventual result is that most people can finish them after a lot of play, which fits with their developer’s commercial intent. People like to finish the games they buy, but don't like to think they're not good enough to finish them. Roguelikes can be astoundingly difficult to players who don't put a lot of time into them, so the Mysterious Dungeon games are scaled to be hard enough to provide a sense of accomplishment once they're finished, but in such a way that, if the player fails many times, they become subtly easier.

I’m on a tear about the Japanese roguelikes, so the next two columns will focus on them. We’ll cover Torneko no Daibouken in more detail next time, and the column after that, at long last, will cover Shiren the Wanderer... and it will even include hard-won screenshots of the end of that game’s 99-level marathon dungeon! Many Shirens died to bring you this information....

June 26, 2007

GameSetNetwork: From Barker To Rockstar Car Smash

- Time to wander back, a few days later, and see what we've been putting up on Gamasutra, GameCareerGuide.com, GamesOnDeck, and our various other sites, and there's a few interesting things of some relevance to GameSetWatch readers and other freaks alike:

- Barker Gets All Spooky: Oop, this JUST got posted, but our colleagues are running the Hollywood & Games Summit down in L.A. starting today, and we've got coverage of the Clive Barker keynote up now. And he's a very sweet, passionate defender of the whole 'games as art' silliness: "We can debate what art is, we can debate it forever. But if the experience moves you, some way or another, even if it just moves your bowels, I think it’s worthy of some serious study... Games mean something to a lot of people." Mm, bowels!

[UPDATE: Aha, and now we've got a write-up of Heroes & Lost exec. producer Jesse Alexander's session, where he talks about the influence of ARGs like Majestic on the shows (!), and says nice things about Game Developer magazine (!!) Cookies all around, I say.]

- Stop XBLA Lag, Developers!: We posted a gigantic Xbox Live Arcade-related interview on Gamasutra today, quizzing Microsoft's Chris Early on the past, present, and future of the service. My favorite bit, as we extracted in the 'highlights' news story, was his terrifically understated PSN smackdown ("Over time I hope they do discover things that are great that we can appropriate as well") - but he also talks about lag problems and Contra for XBLA, saying, quite correctly, of those Xbox 360 games that do lag out for everyone: "At the end of the day, it is a function of how the developers code the game."

- Cellphone Gamers' Spend?: Last week's BREW Conference in San Diego for mobile developers wasn't a complete blockbuster event, but Jon Jordan did file an interesting story for GamesOnDeck which revealed (via EA Mobile's Travis Boatman) how much each cellphone game player was actually spending for their game or games in today's market: "Labelled 'Average game revenue per unique purchaser', the slide detailed the change of this metric for the top five North America mobile publishers between Q4 2006 to Q1 2007. The figures were: EA went from $8.35 to $8.55 per unique purchaser; Gameloft from $7.36 to $7.83; Glu remained steady at $7.67 for both periods of time; while Namco rose from $7.02 to $7.42; and I-Play from $7.04 to $7.46."

- ESRB's Trailer Crackdown: A brief mention of the ESRB game trailer story, since we at Gamasutra were one of the first to break it in more detail. Though the ESRB essentially ended up claiming it was 'business as usual', and it's true that trailers are _not_ assigned ratings separately to games, it seems likely that the ESRB is actively and even retrospectively cracking down on game video that doesn't meet Advertising Review Council standards. As we noted in a later update: "Following the statement, Ziff Davis's GameVideos.com website has revealed to Gamasutra that it was asked by Microsoft to remove a Gears Of War video from its website last week, apparently also because it violated ESRB standards." And this trailer originally debuted in January.

As GamePolitics points out, the action isn't without precedent, but, as they also ask: "Whether the timing of the ESRB’s move is related to publicity over last week’s Manhunt 2 controversy or represents a more generalized crackdown is not known." There could be a variety of reasons for the ESRB getting more hardline here, but I do believe that they are, and given that the current trailer guideline is the incredibly vague: "No advertisement should contain any content that is likely to cause serious or widespread offense to the average consumer", there's plenty of stick for the ratings body to wield there.

- Game Developer SMASH!: Brandon Sheffield started his San Diego Studio Tour by talking to Rockstar San Diego's Alan Wasserman, a feat in itself, since the lesser spotted Rockstar employee doesn't get to give interviews too often, and though there's plenty of worthy talk in there, my favorite quote is probably a frivolous one: "We spoil our sound guys enough to hear things like 'that explosion is last-gen,' whatever that means. It's right down to where we literally had a recording session where we hired crane operators to drop cars from 25 feet in the air. Then we heard things like, 'Well that's a small car, let's get a big car,' or, 'What happens when we take this car and smash it against a bus?' There's some cool videos of that." And yes, people get paid to do this.

[Other original articles include a Game Career Guide 'Ask The Experts' post discussing choosing a game-related major, as well as a Washington policy wonk opining on gaming parental controls and a discussion of online PR for games. So there.]

Exclusive: Rubin Talks Naughty Dog's Metallica Game

- Of course, this is exclusive as in 'only GSW cares', but myself and Brandon Sheffield had a chance to hang out with Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin for a group lunch with various other journos from IGN, 1UP, and other outlets.

Rubin, who left Naughty Dog a few years back, was in town to discuss his recently MySpace-purchased firm Flektor, which "...allows users to create slide shows using video, photos, text and effects/transitions" - and actually, he did mention that using game programmers for their Web 2.0 programming worked out really well. We'll be following up with Rubin and co-conspirator Andy Gavin for longer chats at some point soon.

But here's the real scoop - while discussing metal bands, Rubin revealed that in the early days of their firm, in the mid-'90s, Naughty Dog pitched Metallica on a game [presumably for the PlayStation] using the Crash Bandicoot game engine, with levels and enemies themed around the seminal band's songs.

Examples? Apparently, one of the levels was to be based around classic 'Ride The Lightning' song 'Trapped Under Ice', "...a nightmarish first-person narrative of a person being trapped under ice, both freezing and drowning", and one of the boss characters was to be 'The Thing That Should Not Be', from 'Master Of Puppets'.

Don't know about you guys, but all I can think of is the 'Foreigner' belt from Aqua Teen Hunger Force as a point of reference - power-ups derived from song titles too would have rocked (though now I'm just projecting!)

So what happened? According to Rubin, there was only a basic design doc worked on, and Metallica were potentially interested, but wanted complete creative control on the project. And Naughty Dog wanted a degree of control too, of course - so they decided to go their separate ways. As I recall, Metallica tried again with a vehicle combat game for Vivendi in 2003, but it got cancelled too. Tragedy.

[Oh, you want real game-related news? Rubin also updated us on Iron & The Maiden, his multimedia project which is coming out as a comic first - Newsarama has a recent interview with him that includes lots art for the title, which is debuting via Michael Turner's comic company Aspen. Apparently, Rubin has people working on 3D models of the characters, led by title character Michael Iron, and he's considering pitching it to game publishers, but that's not his top priority right now.]

GameSetPics: Wing Commander Arena's 'StarSoldier' Magazine

Like us here at GSW, Mr. Crecente over at Kotaku got hold of StarSoldier Magazine, January 2701 issue - apparently beamed from the future by Electronic Arts, who are advertising the upcoming Xbox Live Arcade multiplayer shooter Wing Commander Arena with this promotional device, sent to the press today.

But the swarthy piratical cove ended up scanning in some the instruction and info pages, so I thought I'd go in another direction and feature some of the odder pages in the 60-page mag, which was obviously compiled by someone with a hardcore love for Wing Commander lore - way beyond my limited knowledge. Seriously.

So here goes (click through for bigger scan, and there are lots more neat pages I didn't have time to scan, sorry folks):

The cover of the magazine - this isn't just an instruction manual.

This one I know! Tom 'Biff' Wilson grins from the cover of 'Maniac' Marshall's autobiography.

Douglas Aerospace are important Wing Commander spaceship builders - hence the ad.

Ah, classifieds, and all kinds of insanely obscure Wing Commander references.

The back cover of the mag, and the Privateer protagonist is still in trouble!

While initial buzz on Wing Commander Arena was mixed, partly thanks to it being a reimagining of the series as a 2D multiplayer shooter - when a lot of fans were burning for something in 3D, of course - it's really great to see documents like this going above and beyond in making the world real. Let's hope the game matches the attention to detail shown here!

[UPDATE: The nice folks at Wing Commander News have a massive thread about these scans which explains a lot of the Wing Commander canon references far better than I am able, not having a PhD on the subject. And they're rather excited, yay.]

Column: The RePlay Files: Atari Talks Gauntlet, Paperboy

[New column 'The RePlay Files' will reprint classic features and news stories from seminal arcade/amusement trade journal RePlay Magazine, with the kind permission of the magazine's creators - check out their website for info about subscriptions, news, and the contents of the latest issue. This second of three officially approved extracts is a full-length interview with then Atari coin-op boss Shane Breaks, which was the cover feature for the January 1986 issue of the magazine, just as Atari's coin-op resurgence was hitting with Gauntlet and Paperboy!]

- In his twenty-plus years in the coin machine industry, Shane Breaks has made his name (and the products he’s represented) known in numerous corners of the world. An authentic “globetrotter” who’s crossed the Atlantic 125 times and made numerous visits to Southeast Asia, Japan, Africa, South America and, of course, Europe, this son of England has almost as many miles on his shoes as the space shuttle has on its nose cone.

If there’s a single threadline throughout his glamorous career in the industry, it’s been Atari…as a distributor at the very beginning of that company through to his present position as Senior VP of Atari Games in Milpitas, Calif. Where his duties put him at the top of all coin-op sales domestically and overseas.

A native of West Hartlepool (located in the North of England), Shane elected to take a job with a South African bank after school rather than one in journalism which his “Mum” would have preferred. He had the wanderlust even then. His first job in the industry was with Quick Maid, a subsidiary of England’s Associated Leisure which ran a vending operation (“I had no love for that,” he recalls).

Six months later, he joined Streets Automatic Machine Co. and in his twelve years there, went from sales to Sales Manager to Director to President. Streets not only ran operations but manufactured arcade games and Shane took them worldwide. He actually dealt for five years with Madame Furtsyeva, Russia’s Minister of Culture, selling her games like the ‘Streets Rifle Range’ and other arcade items like coin pushers for use in Russia’s fairgrounds.

He made an important “Atlantic crossing” in 1974 to join Rowe International as their VP of Games Buying. Two years later, he became Sales VP at R.H. Belam, exporters of new and used games who found a perfect rep in the man who had game knowledge, overseas contacts and the wanderlust to bring Belam’s program to the client in person. One of the products represented by Belam was Atari.

As it goes, Shane then moved directly into Atari in 1979 to pilot their international sales program. During this period, he established their factory in Tipperary, Ireland and worked either out of there or London covering foreign markets until the summer of 1984 when he was offered his present position up in Silicon Valley.

Shane remains a British citizen but enjoys permanent resident status from the United States Government. He and wife Linda live within driving distance of the Atari facility. Son Brendan (22) is presently working at Betson Enterprises in San Francisco and daughter Sondra (25) lives and works in Australia. The family also maintains an old Victorian home in Surrey, England and a small vacation cottage in San Remo, Italy near Monte Carlo.

“Home” right now is at Atari’s new administrative and factory facility in Milpitas which the company only recently moved into (they vacated the former Milpitas headquarters some time ago). It’s a comfortable, trimmed down version of the complex the “old” Atari operated, but is nevertheless adequate to meet existing market conditions, although with a hit like ‘Gauntlet,’ the company is a bit pressed to meet market demand.

RePlay visited Shane Breaks at the new place to get his thoughts on today’s Atari Games as well as some personal reflections about where the business has been and where it’s going in 1986. Being machine-oriented, we began our question/answer chat with the obvious:

REPLAY: Shane, Atari Games has two chart toppers as we chat…’Gauntlet’ and ‘Paper Boy.’ Can we presume you’re rather pleased about these developments?

BREAKS: I must tell you I’ve never felt this good about things in all my years in this industry. Even though the overall industry has been down since 1979, and I’ve certainly shared the blues everyone was feeling, I’ve honestly never felt better than right now. And it’s not just ‘Gauntlet’ and ‘Paper Boy’…1985 has given us ‘Marble Madness’ and ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ as well as two rather successful video systems we are proceeding with in full confidence. Of course I’m pleased.

REPLAY: ‘Gauntlet’ could be the biggest earner Atari ever made, and…

BREAKS: ‘Gauntlet’ IS the biggest, no question.

REPLAY: We’re wondering, however, how long you think those huge collections are going to hold up.

BREAKS: We’ve had one game in a location for some 18 weeks now and I believe the income is still around the $900 a week mark. There are similar high earnings on other test games out there eight or nine weeks, and how judging by the backorders from distributors, it clearly appears the operators are doing rather nicely with it as well. It certainly looks like we’ve got the winner of all time.

REPLAY: You think this will ever get as big as ‘Pac-Man’?

BREAKS: I’m talking about the operator’s earnings, not about unit sales. The days of the 100,000 production runs are over and I don’t believe they’ll ever return. Of course we’ve had our 60,000, 70,000 run with ‘Asteroids’ but in that next bracket down…the 10,000 [or] 20,000 runs…we “own” that market. We’ve had twenty or more of those kinds of runs.


REPLAY: Has that market of operators responded to the buzz on ‘Gauntlet’? Or in simpler terms, how are its sales building?

BREAKS: We have bigger orders in the house now than we’ve had for anything in the past two years.

REPLAY: Might operators have to wait “on line” for ‘Gauntlet’ like they did in the ‘Asteroids’ days?

BREAKS: Unfortunately, the answer to that is “yes.” They very much have to “wait on line” as you Americans say.

REPLAY: What’s the picture with your manufacturing muscle up here in Milpitas? Or really, what’s doing on the production line to meet those operator orders right now?

BREAKS: We’re being rather careful not to expand our manufacturing capabilities back to those 700-a-day figures Atari was able to do in years gone by. We’ve all learned lessons since the drop in game sales back in 1982 so we’re not going to ignore that lesson. We may have to stretch ‘Gauntlet’ production out a bit and if we have to lose a few games at the tail end, well, we’ll deal with that then.

REPLAY: You’re talking about a trimmer-sized plant and a longer time on the line for this game, right?

BREAKS: Yes. We don’t want to gear up for a blitz and then have to let 200 people go after a short period of time. We don’t want to hurt anybody. By feeding the games into the pipeline at a slower pace, we’ll really be helping the industry over the long run.

REPLAY: So if anybody wants ‘Gauntlet’ but hasn’t told his distributor yet, he’d better get on the stick?

BREAKS: That’s certainly true for those who want the game. There are about 4,000 of them already out in the field, by the way, and we’re moving along with more under the guidelines I mentioned.

REPLAY: It’s curious that Atari… now called Atari Games Corp….has a handful of demand games on one hand but has whittled its manufacturing capability down on the other. We guess your eyes are on the R.O.I. same as the operators. There’s certainly a different feeling here today from the times when you employed numerous people and pushed all sorts of promotions out. What’s left of that old Atari today?

BREAKS: (laughs) Well put, we are rather busy. The sales team has pared down like the rest of Atari Games over the past two years but we’re fortunate to have Jim and Dick out there working with the distributors. They are really productive and well liked. We are presently looking for a new Western Regional man, by the way.

REPLAY: You’ve got feet in both tubs these days. You’ve got a dedicated upright in ‘Gauntlet’ and you’ve got system games with ‘Paper Boy’ and ‘Temple of Doom.’ Look at both types of product for a moment and tell our readers whether or not an amusement manufacturer can make money if it only sold software.

BREAKS: If they only make software, my answer would be “no.” Atari will actively support its two video systems with good new programs, but something like 30% to 40% of our business will still be done with dedicated games. There are games like ‘Gauntlet’ that can only come out in dedicated form, and we’ll continue making those things…and those driving, fishing, hunting games for the arcade-type market. I’m talking about games requiring special treatment in the cabinet, etc.

REPLAY: Looking at ‘Gauntlet,’ anyone can tell you that you can’t “kit” a game like that. But many of our readers are fiercely into kits and…

BREAKS: No one could seriously imagine ‘Gauntlet’ as a kit when they look at the configurations…the one, two, four player aspect, etc. Plus, you want something new and exciting to put before the players and the unique cabinet plays its part in that as well. No. This could not be a kit…or a system change.

REPLAY: On that subject of system software, you’ve gotten two winners with ‘Paper Boy’ and ‘Temple of Doom.’ But what’s in store for your system operators in the weeks and months ahead?

BREAKS: There’ll be a new program for System 2 available as a kit for ‘Paper Boy’ or as a whole game. It should come out early in the year but not later than the March ACME show. We’ll also be shipping our fourth System 1 game and the fifth and sixth will also follow, all in this coming year.

REPLAY: What’s the story on the next System 1 game?

BREAKS: The drapes are still closed on that now, but we did show it discreetly to our distributors at AMOA. It’s a completely finished game, mind you…it’s just that we’re so busy with ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ right now that we don’t want to flood the market.

REPLAY: Apart from systems, have you any plans to make any more dedicated kits or retrofits for any past Atari games like you did with the ‘Cloak and Dagger’ and ‘Pole II’ packages?

BREAKS: We’re not working on any of that sort of thing at the present time but we’re not ruling out such a move in the future for an update on something special we made like ‘Pole Position.”

REPLAY: When we talked earlier about a “trimmer” Atari, did we also ask about your research and development team?

BREAKS: The success we’re enjoying today is directly due to our R&D department. We haven’t slacked off there and the results of that decision are proven with these games we’re speaking of. We still have 80 or 90 people involved in R&D here, very little different form the days when we were in the boom.

REPLAY: We’re sincerely impressed. You mean you still maintain that large design staff? Surely it must be bigger than just about any other video game manufacturer here, or even abroad.

BREAKS: Ah…that’s true here in the United States. And it’s certainly true compared to Europe. Japan would present the only real competition in terms of R&D people. And even some of those Japanese developers, like Namco, are very much related to the home game business. Atari’s people here are strictly inventing games for the coin-op business.

REPLAY: Speaking of Namco, is there any cross-fertilization between your game designers and theirs? After all, that company is the principal owner of Atari Games Corp.

BREAKS: Oh, yes. One of the exciting things about Namco’s role in Atari is that our engineers visit with theirs in Japan and theirs come over here to Silicon Valley. All of them are cousins in one family. If I can stick my chest out, I’d like to tell you that it’s been Atari’s engineers who’ve supplied more good game ideas to Japan than vice versa. Namco is building thousands of games developed right here in California.

REPLAY: So ‘Gauntlet’ and ‘Temple of Doom’ were designed right here in Silicon Valley?

BREAKS: Absolutely. No question about it. You know, the quality and quantity of game engineering has always made for a good gossip subject at conventions where manufacturers get together. Let me “gossip” a little about this place. Over the last 13, 14 years, Atari has produced numerous winners…maybe not every single game being a winner, but at least one really solid game every year. From ‘Pong’ to ‘Sprint II’ to ‘Super Bug’ to ‘Asteroids’…we’ve always been there. If there was another company with a better track record than Atari’s, I’d like to work there. But there isn’t. That’s one of the reasons I’m glad to be working here.

REPLAY: We want to say this right and not be misinterpreted. Are Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Nakajima actually pleased that Atari is feeding them with game inventions rather than the other way around? We mean, isn’t it a bit unusual for America to supply Japan with game designs?

BREAKS: I work with Mr. Nakajima every days since he’s President here and I’ve visited with Mr. Nakamura on many occasions and both of them are really pleased that their investment in Atari has borne such ripe fruit. You know, they had a lot of courage to do what they did a year ago (buy into Atari), so I’m pleased an even proud that it’s paid off for them. Here you see in one year a company, with a lot of problems, turn around and give the investors a bit of profit. Not bad!

REPLAY: Warner Communications still owns a minority share of your company. Do they still call up from time to time to see what’s doing or have they washed their hands of video games?

BREAKS: Speaking purely personally and not as a representative of the company, I have the impression that Warners doesn’t have a great deal of interest any more in the coin machine industry. Movies and records seem to be doing very well for them, so we haven’t heard too much from that side since the Namco buy.

REPLAY: But the way things are going, there’ll be some profit for Warners from Atari Games. They might be interested in that, no?
BREAKS: Remember that the coin-op side of Atari, while it had its ups and downs, was always a good performer for Warners back in the old days in terms of consistency.

REPLAY: Okay, no more home games and no more home computers. Just coin machines. Forgive us if we have a one-track mind, but ‘Gauntlet’ appeals to the mercenary in us. What’s the magic in this game? Why does it do well in the cash pan?

BREAKS: Go into a location and watch them play. They’re not just kids. Some of these people haven’t played a video game in five years and now they’re 27 and they’re having fun again. And they’re having fun with strangers playing alongside. It takes you back to those group games in Europe where strangers would come up and put these pennies into these little games. They didn’t know each other. But this game has that magic to put people together. That’s a good way to describe it.

REPLAY: ‘Gauntlet’ is a natural for arcades, bowling centers and those sorts of places. But can it work in a bar?

BREAKS: It seems to work in all types of locations, but the younger the crowd, the better of course. It’s a young people’s game. The bars, the 7-Eleven stores, the bowling alleys and the arcades of course are all candidates for ‘Gauntlet.’

REPLAY: What’s the international picture with this special game?

BREAKS: As mentioned, we produce the games for the domestic market right here. Of course we buy the cabinet and the monitor, but we stuff the boards and assemble the finished machines here. Then we have companies in Spain, Italy and Japan that have contracts with us to manufacture the games there under license.

REPLAY: How is the European business doing in terms of game collections and in new game sales by the distributors?

BREAKS: Remember that Europe’s video game business hit tough times about 18 months before America’s did, but it picked up that much quicker. From Atari’s standpoint, the last two years at our Tipperary factory in Ireland have been a lot better. In 1985, with ‘Temple of Doom,’ ‘Marble Madness,’ etc. we’ve been doing very well in sales, systems and whole games. We don’t find too much competition from the board games sellers which we did years ago. That’s gone by over there.

REPLAY: You mentioned systems. Has your system been successfully introduced in Europe?

BREAKS: Very much so. You should understand that software is not so new in Europe. They’ve traditionally been buying PC boards so their operators are very open-minded about video systems. Of course, we’re also selling whole games there. Matter of fact, Sega’s ‘Hang-On’ has been successful there and we build it for them in our Irish factory. We’re back-ordered on ‘Gauntlet’ sales there into February, by the way. Europe is very busy these days. We have orders for 30 containers for Germany, for example. It’s just like the old days.

REPLAY: Back to the good old U.S.A., we want to know from your reckoning, are more people playing games these days than in the past couple of years?

BREAKS: There are definitely more people playing now than a year ago. When I traveled from Sunnyvale to Florida to New York to British Columbia this summer, I saw more new games in bars and arcades…not just Atari, but Nintendo, Data East, Sega. We’re seeing a lot more new games out there and therefore, the people are playing games again.

REPLAY: Which means the national cash box is fatter. Do you expect that trend to continue as we head into 1986?

BREAKS: With a solid product like ‘Gauntlet,’ ‘Hang-On,’ and the systems which are economically appealing to operators, there’s got to be more profit in ’86. We have the products and we have the players. We’re putting them together to spell “income.”

REPLAY: A good bit of the manufacturing community’s income has been illegally siphoned off by game copiers. Atari hasn’t historically been a big victim of this practice, but what are your thoughts about game counterfeiting anyway?

BREAKS: For years now, anyone in a respectable position in this industry has been deeply concerned about game copying. Atari is very sympathetic to some of the manufacturers who’ve been hurt by this sordid thing. Atari and Namco feel the best way to beat this thing is through technology. For example, how many Atari games have been copied in the last five years? Few…because it takes too long to copy our technology. Over in Europe, we got 95% of the market for ‘Pole Position’ when only 5% went to the copiers. Our custom chips saved us in many ways.

REPLAY: So among other things, there are “safeties” in your technology to inhibit the piracy of Atari games?

BREAKS: Correct, whereas some companies who import these simple, basic games that are easily copyable leave themselves wide open to counterfeiters. Of course, many of these games last four, six weeks on location anyway. How sympathetic should anyone in the industry be to a company that imports simple, easily ripped-off games? I see very little future in that type of product.

REPLAY: That’s a pretty heavy thing to say…that people who import less exotic games than the ones you produce leave themselves wide open to copiers. Surely if there wasn’t any such thing as copying these people would find things a lot better on the market, no?

BREAKS: I’m not exactly saying they “invite” copying, but I can’t be sympathetic to anyone who imports a simple game and quickly finds his market decimated by a rash of copies at half the price…not when we at Atari pump millions and millions into R&D…even into the games that don’t pay off four us…to protect ourselves as well as the buyers of the legitimate game.

REPLAY: AAMA, the manufacturer/distributor association, has made anti-piracy its number one goal in 1985 and certainly will continue haunting the copiers in 1986. But, do you really thing that they stand a ghost of a chance to eliminate this practice?

BREAKS: To kill it completely? No. But they can back it up to the wall a good bit. This is a curse on our industry, as it is for book publishers or for any other industry that suffers from counterfeiters. It’s a curse that can actually kill an industry. Atari’s alternative, as I’ve stated, is to make games non-copyable.

REPLAY: AAMA has issued statements saying that half of all video games on location in the U.S.A. are copies. We know there are a load of them, but isn’t “half” a tad too high?

BREAKS: (pauses) Truthfully, I personally don’t have the statistics on America’s use of these things, but in the cases of Canada and Brazil, I can definitely say that’s true.

REPLAY: How about the AMOA, the national operator association? Do you think they should address game counterfeiting? And while we’re on the subject, are there other such programs they should get into that would help their operators apart from staging the fall trade show and fighting ASCAP?

BREAKS: I’m amazed to even hear you discuss them in the light of these various responsibilities. All I’ve ever seen them do is put on a trade show once a year and fight that jukebox royalty thing. I certainly think they ought to provide more help in more areas, otherwise we wouldn’t have all these other associations competing. One day we may have too many associations.


REPLAY: The biggest “need” among operators over the past few years has been “money.” What’s your feeling on that…are operators making money?

BREAKS: The average Joe hasn’t been making enough. He was doing very well with videos back in the last ‘70s but we’ve let him down. Come the early ‘80s, the manufacturers in general just didn’t provide him with the best money-making equipment. My own background is operating. I operated video games on a route in England the last couple of years before I moved back to the United States and I didn’t make money. We’ve got to produce money-making games and fortunately, that’s exactly what we’re doing right now.

REPLAY: But what’s the profit picture for operators today?

BREAKS: At last, we’re seeing income going up with [games] such as ‘Gauntlet’ and on the lesser expensive games like the systems, he’s got a damned good chance for boosting that income further.

REPLAY: So you see 1986 as a promising year for the industry considering the way the year is starting out?

BREAKS: 1986 will be conservatively but steadily one of improving income, but we’ll never see the collections, the number of locations and the number of players again that we saw in ’79, ’80 and ’81. In my opinion, 1986 will be the best year for operators since 1980.

REPLAY: You know, speaking about better years, we’d like to ask you a rather personal question if we may.

BREAKS: Please do (he smiles). I have a feeling I know what is is.

REPLAY: Okay, it was already alluded to in one of your trade ads anyway. Shane, you sure lost a load of weight!

BREAKS: I guessed you’d come around to that. I’m down to 205 lbs. from the 360 lbs. I weighed two years ago, and I’m still working on it. I don’t know if you know this but I suffered a coronary at the 1981 London Show and the doctors practically gave me a written guarantee that I’d actually die if I didn’t get rid of the weight. I tried all sorts of methods, surgery included. That and old-fashioned dieting did the trick and I haven’t felt better in twenty years. It was one of my proudest achievements.

REPLAY: Again on a personal subject, scuttlebutt says you’re interested in returning to England. True?

BREAKS: Oh, many people are asking me that question and it’s true that my heart is in the European market and my family would like to return to England. Mr. Nakamura and Mr. Nakajima know and respect that and we’ve agreed that’s something we’ll address one or two years form now. Meantime, America is just too exciting a place for Atari and Namco right now as it is for me working with them. So as I said, that’s something we’ll think about downstream.

[GAMESETWATCH EDITOR'S NOTE: Making this kind of contemporary RePlay interview available online is important, I think - the comments on amount of games sold and how Gauntlet's success was progressing, the state of arcade board piracy, and the amount of developers at Atari are fascinating, for starters.

To give a brief background to this interview - at this stage of its history (the beginning of 1986), Atari Games had split from the home part of the business, and was in a 'honeymoon' period with Namco as major shareholder - though they fairly swiftly lost interest in the company. There was then a management buy-out, and Atari Games then re-entered the home video game business with the Tengen brand, and eventually morphed into Time Warner Interactive in the early '90s, and then to Midway Games West in 1996.]

June 25, 2007

GameSetLinks: June 25th, 2007

- So many esoteric weekend links that they're spilling out into the week - but that can only be a good thing, really. And this set even has a little Parappa action in it, to be heartily encouraged - here goes:

- The Chinese Get Civilized: 2K's Jason Bergman has a neat post about the Chinese version of Civilization IV, revealing and showing how they made the official version a bit unique: "For the low, low price of 元139 (that’s about $18), you get the game, a soundtrack CD, a tech tree, manual (slimmed down from the original English version…a fully translated Chinese language manual would probably have been enormous), a t-shirt, and a statue." Actually, even more interesting: "Localizing it brought with it a number of problems…there were several gameplay changes that were necessary to get it past the governmental censors (I won’t go into them here, but if you play Civ, it’s not hard to guess what they might be)." Anyone?

- Parappa Gets Frank: Brandonnn pointed out to me that Sony has a special Paul Frank/Parappa team-up: "To help promote PaRappa the Rapper’s debut on the PlayStation® Portable system, Paul Frank Industries teamed up with PaRappa's "co-creator and artist", Rodney Alan Greenblat, to create a limited edition tee-shirt featuring Paul Frank’s signature character Julius and our very own PaRappa the Rapper." Go Rodney, go Rodney! Not sure if this will be available at retail?

- Cheating Gets Own Tome: The ever-wordy Terra Nova pointed out a new MIT Press book I wasn't aware of - Mia Consalvo's upcoming 'Cheating', which "...provides a cultural history of cheating in videogames, looking at how the packaging and selling of such cheat-enablers as cheat books, GameSharks, and mod chips created a cheat industry." The intro extract [.PDF] gives you a good idea of the tone, which is decidedly academic, but may well be instructive, too - I find MIT Press game books alternately brilliant and impenetrable, so YMMV.

- Elite Beat Invasion!: Nintendo World Report points out a very neat crossover: "For two weeks from June 28th through July 11th, Ouendan 2 owners in Japan will be able to take their DS cards to in-store DS Stations and download new characters into their games. These characters are none other than iNiS's other DS mascots, the Elite Beat Agents." Those guys are really getting around, their game having been re-imported to Japan by a bunch of Tokyo game stores already.

- Japan & Forza 2 Hold Hands: You've probably seen plenty of car customization pics from Microsoft's Forza 2 recently, but Pink Tentacle points out the Japanese efforts in car modding on the Xbox 360 game. As they explain: "Here are links to two enormous online galleries (Gallery 1, Gallery 2) of virtual otaku-mobile paint jobs incorporating loads of Japanese-flavored eye candy, from anime and manga to games, food packaging and more." Oop, I see at least one NSFW Mini roof in the first link, be warned!

As for internal CMP Game Group-related links for today, we don't have anything _just this second_, but there's actually two neat Game Developer Research-related announcements we'll hopefully be making later this week, one with a new report featuring some never-before-calculated stats, and the other involving a whole new blog for you guys to get your hands on - watch at for more info on this soon.

2007 Independent Games Summit: Gastronaut's Small Arms Postmortem

- We ran the first of these videos last week, but we're continuing to put online key lectures from the Independent Games Summit, the IGF-affiliated event that took place for the first time at Game Developers Conference 2007 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, on March 5th and 6th, 2007. (We'll do it again in 2008.)

We're putting video of the 2007 Independent Games Summit online "for free, in the spirit of sharing, and to help the indie community understand and better itself", and the second IGS 2007 lecture to go up is the 'Small Arms Postmortem' lecture from Gastronaut Studios' Jacob Van Wingen and Don Wurster- here's a direct Google Video link for the lecture, plus a downloadable MP4 file and an embedded version:

It's good to see an XBLA title dissected in this much detail, especially since it shows that a very small team can indeed make a competitive console game. Thanks to Jacob and Don for turning up to the Indie Games Summit with such a thoughtful lecture - which lots more independent game makers can now appreciate online.

Here's the original session description: "The creators of Xbox 360 Live Arcade stand-out title Small Arms, previous veterans of XBLA from their work with Fuzzee Fever on the original Xbox Live Arcade, talk about what went right and what wrong during the development of the frenetic multiplayer shooter, giving plenty of insight into developing indie games on console."

Game Journalists: Not Enough Impartiality... Or Too Much?

- So, I'd like to link to a neat little editorial that Dan Amrich of Future's Official Xbox Magazine wrote last week - it's called 'Is this editorial about ethics…ethical?', and it discusses a new EGM editorial by EIC Dan Hsu - which is actually incredibly similar to a similar editorial by Hsu in December 2005.

The crux of Amrich's point is: "Future has the same exact policies about this stuff as Ziff. We’re just not tooting our own horn about it. That doesn’t mean we’re guilty simply because we’re not the first to say “I’m innocent.” But that’s the implication, and that’s quite definitely the message that was taken to heart by the readers who left comments." And I think I agree with Amrich here - the 'den of iniquity' issue for the rest of the game journalism biz is a seedy and unnecessary road to travel down.

My personal belief is that Hsu is getting baited by fanboys - I've seen a couple of downright defensive editorials from him in the pages of EGM of late. I suspect that being constantly told by lots of people that you're a terrible paid shill for X - where X is Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo - is going to make you worried about how people perceive you and others. And really, I don't know anyone significant in game journalism who is affected by press event invites or free review copies of games. Maybe I'm naive?

And actually, this whole issue of impartiality is even more interesting since Ziff's officially Microsoft-sponsored Games For Windows magazine is doing such a good job of being independent that it's rapidly straying away from something that I think Microsoft would be comfortable with in an 'official' publication.

Jeff Green and folks are doing admirably in providing fiercely impartial editorial, but Games For Windows Live is (rightly) coming in for a major bashing in the pages of the mag - with Green's latest back-page editorial a tongue-in-cheek screed to Bill Gates, asking him to make the service free. Definitely Bizarro World.

In return, the clearly labeled Microsoft-written advertising pages in GFW are getting a bit closer to 'fake edit', with at least one opinion piece from a non-Microsoft writer in the ad pages this month (Kevin J Baird of VideoGameNews.com, talking about why buying Windows games at retail still rocks - it's not so much fun to read when you have to work out Microsoft's agenda for paying to run it).

It appears that 'edit-like' reviews and interviews about Microsoft games are becoming more prevalent in the special Microsoft advertising section, as opposed to the slightly more 'informational' text we saw earlier in GFW's life in that section. Are we heading for a showdown here? (Obviously, my tongue is in cheek when I'm saying too much impartiality is a hellish thing - but for an officially Microsoft-branded pub, it may actually be a problem in the long run!)

[And while we're on the subject of ethics and journalism, bigger scandals hit the non-game world almost every day - the latest, as blasted by Nick Denton at Valleywag, is a Microsoft campaign running on Federated Media sites that some claim has the bloggers associating themselves too closely with advertising and Microsoft products - FM's boss John Battelle has some interesting comments on the whole furore.]

June 24, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': An Express Train to 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.]

arcadeexpress01.jpg   arcadeexpress26.jpg

I recently spent a great deal of money (I'm not going to tell you how much, but it was a reasonable percentage of my weekly salary) to buy a stack of Arcade Express issues. These were the first issues of AE I have seen on the marketplace in years, and it's an almost complete run of the newsletter before it changed names to Electronic Games Hotline. The last time I saw AEs for sale, it was 2002 and I was attending the auction at the Classic Gaming Expo. A whole stack of them, which I think Bill Kunkel signed no less, went for around $90 -- a paltry sum -- mainly because I don't think anyone in the room really knew what they were.

Launched by Reese Publishing in 1982 and edited by Joyce Worley, Arcade Express was a sort of supplement to Electronic Games, the first mass-market video game magazine in the United States. It was a typewritten, subscription-only, eight-page newsletter devised to keep readers as up-to-date as possible on game industry news, something difficult to do with the long-lead-time Electronic Games. "There is a vast amount of information crossing our desks everyday at Electronic Games magazine," Worley wrote in the first issue. "Arcade Express will rush this information to you every two weeks, to help you keep aware of what's happening in our favorite hobby."

While AE lacks much in art or purple prose, it's the primary source when it comes to getting a bead on the gestalt of the video-game industry during the age it was published. When it launched in August 1982, everything was roses and honey for consoles. Emerson was announcing a new game system; Coleco had just launched their own; Tiger, Fox and Mattel were becoming 2600 third parties; and Atari was signing a blockbuster deal with Lucasfilm to market and publish the film giant's first video games. The party rolled on through the end of the year, with new game rollouts and arcade license announcements consistently dominating the Arcade Express news pages.

The first piece of negative news doesn't come until issue 9 (December 15, 1982), when 2600 third-party game maker Apollo announced that it had filed for Chapter 11. A more sinister sign of the impending shakeout appears in issue 11, where news arrives that Atari exec Perry Odak has resigned after a report that his company will miss its earnings expectations for the second half of 1982.

As you proceed through 1983, you can't help but notice how much of each issue is filled with (a) price drop announcements (b) early coverage of products that never made it to stores, like Magnavox's Odyssey3 and Mattel's Intellivision III consoles. By issue 26 (July 31, 1983), the newsletter is looking downright gloomy: Atari and Mattel lay off over 1200 workers; Fox Video Games slashes 2600 cartridge prices in response to "the current market glut of VCS-compatible games"; and Atari is resorting to hiring an ex-cigarette company vice president as their new chairman and CEO. I can only imagine how gloomier -- and more interesting -- things get with future issues.

Arcade Express changed its name to Electronic Games Hotline with the August 14, 1983 issue; Reese went on to publish 27 more biweekly newsletters before folding the title with the August 12, 1984 edition. It's my plan to scan in my issues for public consumption (a project I've already received Worley's permission for), as this is a seriously fascinating look into a facet of the video-game industry I never had a chance to experience for myself.

[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.]

Rossignol Sez 'Oh My God', Thanks To Eve Online

- After seeing the GSW 'Oh My God' moments call to action, veteran UK journalist Jim Rossignol (PC Gamer, etc!) has posted an Eve Online-themed article called 'The Invasion' on his personal blog, explaining: "As I wrote the article there was, ongoing, one of the largest actions I’d seen in Eve at the time."

Rossignol continues regarding the article, which was going to be published in the same cancelled anthology that I wrote the 'Gospel According To Matthew Smith' piece for, explaining: "Thousands of players were involved in taking territory from a player alliance called ‘The Five’. It was a surprise attack co-ordinating huge fleets over a 48-hour period, an action which resulted in months of conflict for my home alliance. It was incredibly exciting, and even though I’d seen some huge fleet battles by that time, it was that weekend that cemented my ‘Oh my God’ feeling about events in that game."

Also, a great comment at the end of the piece by 'reformed' Eve Online subscriber Janek: "Every victory brought joy, and every defeat brought sorrow, because everything mattered. I feel genuine pride at having been a part of all my corp and its various alliances achieved, and of my own achievements, and though I may be gone, I know the effects of my actions are still felt, still ripple throughout the Eve galaxy."

GameSetLinks: June 23rd, 2007

- The first of a big pile of links left over from the week, then, and there's some pretty interesting bits and pieces buried in here, as follows:

- Behind The Mask: Marek at GamesLOL brings up a pretty interesting point about behind-the-scenes type coverage of games, referencing a David Jaffe blog post that "...points to good old Mario and Zelda as franchises that have retained their magic by not revealing too much about their development." Marek adds: "Although I personally enjoy seeing behind-the-scenes footage, I prefer seeing it after I’ve played the game. I think the game industry doesn’t ‘reveal’ too much, it’s just revealing things too soon." Agree? Disagree?

- Mizuguchi Vs. Gore Resolved!: Just as a follow-up to a post made a few weeks ago, the Tetsuya Mizuguchi and global warming link has been resolved - XBLArcade explains that: "Genki Rockets (aka [the band featured in Lumines with Heavenly Star]) will be performing at [the Japanese venue for] Live Earth, and Q will turn a portion of your DLC purchases into a charitable donation to combat global warming." There's a whole bunch of new downloads for Lumines on XBLA in relation to this, particularly the SOS Charity Campaign Pack: "Experience the Tokyo club scene through LUMINES! Bringing you the beats and visuals from four of the hottest DJs, artists and VJs". Though they don't integrate THAT well into the gameplay itself, I like Miz's modular approach to expansions and art styles, a bit like the Wipeout Pure expansion tracks.

- Pearce On Game/Nongames: Indie/artgame developer Tale Of Tales has another beautifully laid-out interview, this time with academic and Mermaids MMO designer Celia Pearce, which has some interesting chatter about what exactly makes up a 'game', nowadays: "In my research on the Uru diaspora, players who moved to other games after the closure of the original Uru, what I found was that they did not distinguish between Uru and something like There.com or Second Life. To them any place they went to PLAY was a game. And they often did goal-oriented things in non-game environments, and they often did non-goal oriented things in game environments."

- Hardcore Gamer Trove: Arcade Heroes points out that Hardcore Gamer Issue 25 is now out, and indeed, the page for the magazine on Hardcore Gamer's website reveals something that I'd partially forgotten - that the DoubleJump and OffBase Productions game mag, which you can also get in print version via subscription or at various retail outlets, has every issue available in PDF form. And it's still a pretty neat mag, obviously made by GameFan fans who appreciate the import-friendly, harder-edged end of the console scene.

- Baby You Can Drive My Car?: Today's high-end games getting a little bit _too_ expansive? Microsoft Casual Games' Kim Pallister thinks so and says as much in an editorial noting that you can hire an AI drive in Forza 2 to complete races for you, and NCAA 08 allows you to forward through the game using AI to play at the climax. Pallister grins: "It's interesting that in the effort to justify big budget games, 'hours of gameplay' has become this metric that's frequently used, but is not necesarily what ALL consumers want. Some, like me, want the quality without requiring the quantity. I loved that the last Tomb Raider took me like 10-12 hours to complete. I've put off playing Oblivion because I hear it's great but takes >50 hours to play." Of course, that's the whole casual vs. hardcore issue in a nutshell, but the 'AI taking over for player' trend really underlines it.

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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