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July 21, 2007

Opinion: E3 2007 - The Games You Should Care About

- Well, perhaps I can't be canonical about this, but since I was out of the country for E3, I just went through the 1200+ videos (!) in the GameTrailers.com E3 section, trying to tease out some of the lesser-seen titles and events - and/or those games which make a lot more sense in video, as opposed to screenshot form! There really was both quality and diversity at this year's show, even if there weren't as many genuine reveals as previous large-scale E3 events.

Anyhow, here's the 10 or so of E3 videos that made me stop and think a little - bear in mind that they're filtered through GSW's normal indie/unconventional angles, though, and it's not like we're hating on the obviously 'accomplished' blockbusters like Halo 3, Heavenly Sword, or Mass Effect:

- Sony's Patapon for PSP, a 2D sidescrolling action-strategy title, is another one of the highly unconventional but intriguing titles that SCEJ seems to produce on a regular basis, seemingly unfettered from commercial worries somewhere within the heart of the beast. Great Flash-style art, too.

- Nintendo's Wii Fit for Wii (that's an in-person demo, also see the official trailer) is obvious, but continues Nintendo's trend of finding naturalistic ways to control onscreen action. And they've done it again - the concept makes a lot more sense when you see people playing and enjoying it (or faux-enjoying it, in the case of the official trailer!)

- - Q Games' Pixeljunk Racers for PS3 we've already mentioned, but the gameplay trailer for the top-down Championship Sprint-style PSN game gives a much better hint as to the gameplay, which I _think_ is based around lane-changing and acceleration rather than steering. If so, neat idea from Dylan Cuthbert and those other Japanese mavericks.

- Relentless/Sony's Buzz! The Mega Quiz for PS2 is the first in Sony's smash European quiz series to have a planned debut in the States - as GameStop has both it and Buzz Jr. Jungle Party scheduled for an October release in North America. But honestly, SCEA, haven't you dropped the ball a bit titanically here? All of SCEE's casually oriented PS2 games (SingStar, Buzz) could have been much more forcefully localized and released in the States months/years ago - and now Microsoft is debuting Scene It? with packed-in controllers that look awfully Buzz-like. Doh.

- SCEJ's Echochrome for PS3/PSP (below) is another powerfully interesting title from Sony Japan, this time for PSP and PlayStation Network, and concentrating on using visual illusions to create puzzle gameplay, not a million miles away from the Super Paper Mario/Crush paradigm. The Escher-esque art and inspiration is alluring, and it's another example of how Sony is doing great first/second party work from a quirkier point of view.

- - 5th Cell/THQ's Drawn To Life for DS has been shown for a while, but I got a much better sense of it from this trailer. And it's... I'm not sure, interesting but ultimately a little disappointing for me, since I thought that the drawing elements were a little better integrated into gameplay. As it is, it's exciting to have created the main character through a neat art package, but it's largely cosmetic, and the actual gameplay seems a little 'generic SNES platformer'. Still, we'll see!

- EA LA/Electronic Arts' Blocks for Wii is the first fruit of the much-publicized Steven Spielberg collaboration, and while it's not the one everyone is waiting for (the Doug Church collaboration that's trying for true emotional depth), it's an... interesting concept that doesn't immediately scream 'from the guy who bought you Jaws!' Either Spielberg's detachment from the game business has helped him come up with something original, or it's going to be a bit of an oddity - and I'm not convinced by the visual presentation, thus far. Still, I'm interested.

Finally, one of the things that stirred me the most of the videos wasn't actual game footage, but Steven Van Zandt's appearance to discuss Harmonix's Rock Band, for which he is serving as the Chair for the Advisory Board for song choice. Van Zandt is a trailblazer for rock music of any era through his Underground Garage radio show, quite apart from his history with Springsteen, of course. His comments are notable because he's a genuine fan and expert who talks eloquently about why the Guitar Hero/Rock Band movement is great for the music biz, as well as gamers. I think he's right, since I'm excited to buy the playable version of Who's Next, for example, even though I would probably never purchase the album standalone. Sorry, Neversoft, but how much cooler is that than Slash?

[Ah, and not to leave them out, here's three bonus trailers for games that I care about, but you all know about Namco's Beautiful Katamari for Xbox 360, still interesting enough sans Takahashi, Jon Mak's Everyday Shooter for PS3, and Blue Tongue/THQ's De Blob for Wii, as adapted from the IGF Student Showcase winner with some aplomb.]

Controlling The Future With New Game Styles

- I keep returning to the positively baleful-looking Nayan Ramachandran's blog HDR Lying, and his latest excellent editorial, from the Japanese-based school teacher and gaming acolyte, is called 'Controlling the Future: Touching the Game Space in the Coming Generation'.

The introduction explains: "The fight to create the new innovative control method for the future of video games has never been so heated as it is right now. With Nintendo introducing the DS in 2005 [EDIT: As noted by JVM in the comments, Holiday 2004 in most territories], and then the Wii in last year’s final months, developers are starting to wrap their heads around new ways to control and interact with the games they create."

However, as Nayan goes on to note: "The dangerous future we face is one that’s already starting the rear its ugly head. Companies see the success of the Wii, and port Playstation 2 and PSP games to the console, slap on gimmicky gestural control, and push it into the market. Others make games for the DS, and instead of designing the game with the DS’ capabilities in mind, add useless second screen functionality, or touch screen control that either does not fully work, or is completely unnecessary."

A fair comment indeed - anyone got good examples of hideously stuck-on gestural/stylus controls for Nintendo format games?

Robotology Gives Us Game Physics 101 Tutorial

- The folks at N creator Metanet Software have been posting some absolutely fascinating, uber-technical blog pieces recently, and the latest is an in-depth look at creating the physics for their upcoming title Robotology, posted in two parts.

It's explained of their plans to create a suitable complex physics system for their indie title: "Thankfully, Mare came up with a fantastic plan: rather than scrambling about randomly, we would make a list of technologies which were known to solve the problems we were facing, and then systematically try to implement each one until we found something that worked. If nothing worked, we would revise our design to fit with whatever our technology could handle. The genius of this plan, amazingly, was that it was a plan: a nice, simple recipe for accomplishing a goal."

You should be aware that it then goes into insane detail about different ways to set up game physics solvers, but come on, the second post has insane paragraphs like this: "The point is, “Jakobsen + Stick-Based Rigid Bodies + SomeFantasticMagicGoesHere” was an oft-pursued, ever-elusive goal around here, which led to a few successes; aside from Jamie’s method, we also had some success implementing an alternate method of collision response (the method in (1a) only works for triangles, not for sticks) based on an obscure thesis written by Jeroen Wagenaar — who worked with Jakobsen on his method." What's not to like?

July 20, 2007

The Chemistry Of Game Design

- So, I contacted Daniel Cook of the excellent Lost Garden blog a few weeks back and asked him if he'd start writing for Gamasutra, and the second fruit of his labor, called 'The Chemistry Of Game Design' is up now.

Cook, who has previously worked with Epic Games, Anark and Microsoft, also contributed 'The Circle of Life: An Analysis of the Game Product Lifecycle' to us a few weeks back, and this new article has a fascinating hook:

"Every time I sit down with a finely crafted title such as Tetris or Super Mario Brothers, I catch hints of a concise and clearly defined structure behind the gameplay. It is my belief that a highly mechanical and predictable heart, built on the foundation of basic human psychology, beats at the core of every single successful game. What would happen if we codified those systems and turned them into a practical technique for designing games?"

Cook goes on to suggest a concept of 'skill chains', strung together to understand better how a player interacts with a game, concluding: "As a tool, I’ve found that skill chain diagrams dramatically improve my understanding of how a game works, where it fails and where there are clear opportunities for improvement." So... how scientific should game design get?

Takahashi's New Game Stretches Into View

- I believe I was somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean when this was announced, so excuse the slowness, but Keita Takahashi's new PS3 game, Nobi Nobi Boy, has been revealed, and... well, we know almost nothing about the new one from the Katamari Damacy dapper don, hurrah!

As Kotaku's [EDIT: Michael McWhertor, woops!] notes: "The game, which is loosely translated at "Stretchy Stretchy Boy" or machine translated as "Unrestricted Boy", doesn't have a release date, nor did Namco Bandai reveal the game's genre. Given Takahashi's creativity, I'm going to assume that Nobi Nobi Boy will probably not adhere to any currently known genre."

Another report on the title, which was revealed at Sony's PlayStation Premiere event, comes from GameSpot, which notes: "The game is apparently still in its early stages of development, but the audience was shown a concept video where a very long and squiggly, green caterpillar-like character wriggled around very naturally through the screen for 30 seconds. [Namco Bandai exec] Unozawa explained that Takahashi has been thinking about the Nobinobi Boy game concept for the past two years, but it couldn't have become a reality without the physics calculation capabilities of the PS3." I'm intrigued already - though I wish they'd stop flogging the 'physics only possible with the Cell!' angle just a tad.

GameSetHelp: Anyone Attending Develop, Leipzig?

- Well, the last call for Gamasutra correspondents went spectacularly well, since we got a Korean writer, Japan-based developer, and some Casual Connect coverage out of it. So it's time for another call for help, this one European-based.

There's a couple of conferences coming up that we will be getting some coverage at, thanks to our European columnist Jon Jordan, but we could do with further write-ups from (especially notes from sessions that we shape into articles!)

These are next week's Develop Conference in Brighton, and August's GCDC event in Leipzig, which runs alongside the Games Convention there. Oh, and EIEF, come to that. You can get a press pass if you cover for us, obviously.

You don't have to be a super skilled writer, necessarily, to help us out (though full write-ups are glady accepted to!) - just an efficient notetaker who can email us in decent time, and send over decent summaries and quotes from the main sessions. Rewards for interested parties include magazine subscriptions, actual cash money, and, if you're really lucky, a Gizmondo poster featuring Colors. Mail us at [email protected] if you can help out.

July 19, 2007

Weather? It's In The Game!

- Unlikely press releases are a staple of GameSetWatch, of course, and here's both an odd and cute one: "Yesterday was the highly anticipated release of NCAA Football ’08 by EA Sports--- and now the game play is more realistic than ever thanks to The Weather Channel Interactive."

Oh yeah? "As you consider a product review or update your coverage of this release, you should note that the latest version of this college football video game uses up to the minute information from The Weather Channel Interactive (TWCI) to reflect accurate, real-time weather conditions at NCAA stadiums."

"For instance, if a winter storm threatens the Northeast, the Eagles of Boston College will play through the snow. Hurricane threatens Florida? See how the Gators field goal kicker deals with 50 mph winds. Through a deal with EA Sports, the sporting division of Electronic Arts, The Weather Channel will provide real-time weather to the game via the Internet."

That's actually kinda fun. Here's more specifics: "TWCI provides a custom weather data feed to EA Sports for each stadium location. Every time a player with a live Internet connection loads a new game, they have the option to choose real-time weather from TWCI. The video game will then use the current conditions at the selected stadium to create the weather experience for that game." I think lots more games would benefit from real-time weather - suggestions?

Column: The Aberrant Gamer - 'Sundering the Mind'

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media. NOTE: This week's column analyzes a game's plot from beginning to end; be advised it contains spoilers for those who've never played it.]

Konami’s survival-horror bacchanal Silent Hill 2 relies on dynamics of aberrant psychology as its most pivotal element. All of the Silent Hill games do, to some extent—but entering the mind of a man in his own private Hell has never been so stark, so unsettling, or so delightful as it is with protagonist James Sunderland. We’re introduced to James in the opening, when he receives a letter from his deceased wife, Mary—supposedly dead of fatal illness three years prior, summoning him to the town of Silent Hill, where she’ll be waiting in their “special place”, a hotel room where they once vacationed together.

Of course, this is illogical. The town of Silent Hill, its crumbling borders preventing escape, its evolving scenery defying reason, plays the role of a biblical Limbo in these games; the protagonists are inserted into the disorienting nightmare to confront symbols of their inner darkness. Mary’s impossible invitation, then—via a letter whose writing grows fainter, fading as the story progresses—is more of an invitation from James’ subconscious to explore the events of his past. We know—though we hope against hope—that Mary just can’t really be waiting for us in Silent Hill.

But could James, who feels himself a grieving widower, truthfully be a mercy killer? Or is it something even worse?

This column has touched before on the ways that any conflict, any symbology, any thematic element in games (or anywhere else, for that matter), when broken down into its simplest parts, will in its reflection of human nature fall squarely into one of two camps. The fundamentals of existence; sex and death. And the most effective, engaging games tend to balance both elements handily. Blood-explosive slaughterhouse violence in games tends to feel hollow after a while, whereas games that are little more than interactive skin mags feel cheap. It takes the artful arrangement of both, supported by a plausible network of human psychology, to truly compel a player-- and the ways in which Silent Hill 2 accomplishes this balancing act is worthy of examination.

As obscured in layered drama (much of it open to interpretation) as the fictional town of Silent Hill is in white fog, James’ actual nature and motivations are highly open to interpretation. Analyzing the symbolism that appears with pitch-perfect thematic consistency throughout the entire game, however, the deliciously twisted realities, like the clamor of madness from every dark corner of the game’s world, are impossible to ignore. Examine the symbols, and the truth floats to the surface—and so, Silent Hill 2 might be one of those few well-woven game stories in which the worst ending is actually the most appropriate one.

The twisted symbolism of Silent Hill 2 tells the story’s true throughline more directly than its action. The game’s varnish of dread comes as much from the effective sexual symbols as it does from the meting out of death and the fear thereof. It’s the violence, of course, that’s overt in a survival-horror game, but the characterization of James is actually completed in these slightly more subtle elements.

-Take, for example, the infamous Silent Hill nurses. These faceless, bloody-smocked and stilted white dolls appear in some form in every incarnation of Silent Hill-- which makes sense, considering that a hospital is significantly involved in each story. The nurses hold particular significance depending on the context—as avatars for Lisa Garland, drug-addled on White Claudia and nurse of the unfortunate Alessa, in Silent Hill 1, or holding similar significance for Silent Hill 3’s Heather-as-counterpart, fated to be impregnated with a god. The most compelling thing about the locations of Silent Hill is that, at the same time they resemble the dark fringes around a particular location, they are an accurate reflection of the hero’s most aberrant mind. For James, then, the medical staff might simply be reminders of his numb vigils at Mary’s fetid sickroom.

They might—if not for the particular variations Silent Hill 2 takes on their appearance. In cap and apron, stockings, and an impractical mini-dress, they’re more like fetishistic symbols than memories of real nurses. As shambling, moaning aggressors, they’re representative of the deeply repressed sexual frustration experienced by a man losing his young wife, and his objectification of women in general—a theme supported by the appearance of Maria, a scantily-clad, self-centered and manipulative identical doppelgänger of Mary. In every purr, in every unsubtle flirtation, every flick-roll of her hips, she reminds James that she’s everything Mary never was.

Silent Hill 2’s supporting characters perhaps offer much clearer thematic support for James’ madness, Examined individually, they could be seen each to represent some specific facet of James’ conflicting emotions. We meet fat Eddie Dombrowski, who kills to empower himself, when he’s vomiting his self-disgust in an apartment bathroom. Angela Orosco, who seems psychologically arrested in childhood, presents the face of a woman damaged by her father’s sexual appetites—and wants to kill herself, torn by guilt and rage. The scene in which James must rescue Angela from the monster that terrifies her is ripe with rather graphic symbolism—the player battles a hulking shape that resembles a man bent over a small bed, while surreal-looking sphincters open and close on the wall all around them. Only the child Laura, who, as confounding as she is, is an innocent—seems to come from outside of James, acting as a guide of sorts in the fog-shrouded purgatory.

And she hates him.

-Some of the first enemies James confronts resemble piecemeal jointed mannequins, naked, shiny and flesh-toned, jerking as they move. But while they may be composed of human parts, they’re not even complete mannequins—instead, they appear to be two hips fastened end-to-end, thighs splayed. In one of Silent Hill’s apartments, your light might fall on a dark corner where a whole, faceless mannequin stands, wearing Mary’s clothes.

The mannequins appear fairly early in the game, and the immediate onslaught of these telltale monsters is like a sudden break with reality—and for James, one could theorize that might be exactly what’s happening, thrusting him into a white-edged limbo state deep inside the self, wherein he has the opportunity to confront the truth about himself and his deeds.

Perhaps it’s not a matter of choice; perhaps it’s simply that the truth won’t be denied any longer and breaks free, howling angrily into the rift in his psyche.

The most infamous of all Silent Hill 2’s creatures is the blood-colored Pyramid Head, face obscured by a massive three-sided helmet. On first meeting him, we see the behemoth commit what appears to be the act of rape on one of the hip-and-thigh dolls as it kicks and squirms. Neither of the objects being shown are human, nor is it viscerally graphic, but it’s one of the most disturbing scenes in video game history, ensconcing the blade-dragging, faceless monster as a fan favorite among all game villains. It should be noted that Pyramid Head rarely confronts James—in one chilling moment, he stands on the other side of a metal fence, just watching. Waiting, like a judge.

But he kills Maria, James’ fictitious illusion of his wife —ruthlessly and repeatedly, allowing James to viscerally re-experience (perhaps, masochistically) his torment and guilt.

Pyramid Head is completely invulnerable to James’ attacks until he recognizes his weakness—and kills Maria himself, one more time. She’s lying, necrotic and immobile on her back, and calling James’ name softly, with that familiar voice. The story’s been well engineered to make Maria repellent to the player by this point—she’s a ghost, a hallucination of madness, a manipulative woman, a tease, or a monster herself. We’re glad to kill her.

Which is exactly how James must have felt when he smothered Mary with a pillow.

It’s revealed that Mary’s last days were spent being self-centered and difficult, even abusive towards James, and that her illness had become repulsive. But it’s never indicated either way whether James’ swift retribution was an act of mercy for a woman who was no longer herself, or the cold strike of resentment, frustration, disgust, unsatisfied sexual appetite. It’s here we find that Mary’s original letter of invitation—to meet her in a hotel room, no less—was nothing more than a blank paper, something James imagined all along.

Interestingly, Silent Hill 2’s climactic confrontation is against two Pyramid Heads, making a triad of creatures whose nature as victim or aggressor isn’t clear. Eventually, the two Pyramid Heads self-impale, destroying themselves, and leaving behind one egg each that can be used to unlock the door to the final area. Both red eggs are identical, but bearing synonymous names—“rust-colored” and “blood-colored”, and the fact that it doesn’t matter which you take suggests that victim or murderer, James’ fate is the same.

The “bad” ending, called “In Water,” is stunningly easy to come by, provoked almost by the natural course of playing the story—for example, examining certain objects, like Angela’s knife or a murderer’s diary, or attempting to conserve healing supplies. After reading Mary’s farewell letter, James ends up in his car at the bottom of a lake, consumed by madness and ready to “be together” with Mary again. The fact that a player will achieve this ending simply for exploring the world and its objects thoroughly-- as any good gamer is wont to do-- is very telling.

There's no real happy ending to this story, but even a good ending wouldn’t be appropriate. While it is possible, to some degree, to play through the game in a way that allows James to come to terms with what he’s done, it feels much more wholly a story to let James run a more fatal course—and this is due entirely to the environmental symbolism, the pervasive suggestions of James’ inner perversion, torment, shame, and grief, drawing the image of a man who perhaps was once a loving husband, but who’s since spiraled into madness. The true genius of Silent Hill 2 is that it often feels, just for a while, like it’s taking us with him.

The History Of (Meier's Own Brand Of) Civilization

- Something incredibly GSW-able over at big sister site Gamasutra is Benj Edwards' comprehensive history of classic Microprose strategy game Civilization, which is the latest in the series profiling the Digital Game Canon titles, and spoke in depth to both Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley about the seminal title.

As Edwards notes in his intro: "Few games are as addictively fun and as infinitely re-playable as Civilization, a turn-based historical strategy game where a player single-handedly guides the development of a civilization over the course of millennia, from the stone age to the space age... Civilization's designer, Sid Meier, somehow distilled, condensed, and codified the rules of humanity's post-agriculture development into a three-megabyte IBM PC computer game, with shockingly good results."

And actually, due to a slight layout error, you also get a separate in-depth Sid Meier interview within the same article (it was meant to be a separate feature for a later date, woops!), with some further excellent historical information, including this on the genesis and germination of Civilization itself:

"I think we were really impressed with Railroad Tycoon, how you could have a game that included an economic component -- actually building something, actually operating the trains, and some competition with other rail barons. We were ready to try a game that combined a lot of different pieces in an interesting way: the diplomacy, the economics, the military, and the building. Putting all that together was, I think, really where the fun of Civilization appeared. You were doing all these different things, and you felt you were this great leader."

July 18, 2007

Why Has Dungeon Maker Slipped Your Mind?

- Over at the Game Design Advance blog, which is actually an NYU class weblog, apparently, there's a long, fun post extolling PSP game Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground, which sneaked out late last month to mixed reviews and almost total obscurity, but looks like it's worth checking out.

He explains of the XSeed-published title: "Have there been any other games which involve building your own levels, piece-by-piece, and then stalking through them yourself to hunt for monsters and treasures, Gauntlet-style? I think not. Sure, there’s been titles like Molyneux’s Dungeon Keeper which allowed players to design levels and attract bait NPCs, but they didn’t allow you to actually jump in and roam around those levels yourself." [Feel free to point some out now, of course.]

He also has some interesting comments about how Grand Theft Auto could benefit from the game's concepts (!): "After riding along with Dungeon Maker for a month, I think that the Rockstar people could learn a lesson or two from this game, albeit in small ways– if you’re going to build a criminal empire, after all, wouldn’t it be fun to actually build a few things for real? I mean, you’re in organized crime, for crying out loud!... Crime can be a big boost to a city’s economy (just look at Miami in the 80’s), so wouldn’t it be interesting if you could try to legitimize yourself as a kind of Donald Trump and erect skyscrapers across the landscape?"

GameSetPic: Boom Boom Rocket's Nod To London's Skyline

Now here's a nice piece of randomness that's related to the Pogo.com and Bizarre Creations-developed Xbox Live Arcade title Boom Boom Rocket, and a particular piece of architecture in it.

Anyhow, as you play the game, you may have spotted a particularly weird elongated egg-shaped building as part of the skyline that you fly around while doing your rhythm action. (Try as I might, I can't find a picture or video online that shows it clearly - if anyone can, please mention it in comments!) Anyhow, as I was wandering around London last week, I spotted the very same building, or an approximation thereof:

Well known to Londoners, the building is called 30 St. Mary Axe, aka 'The Gherkin', and "..is 180 m (590 ft) tall, making it the second-tallest building in the City of London, after Tower 42, and the sixth-tallest in London as a whole." Although developers Bizarre Creations are located in the North of England, they obviously decided it would be a nice shape to reference. It really does feel a bit War Of The Worlds, incidentally, like a gigantic alien egg has landed in London. [Ta to Jon, I think he mentioned this first?]

Oh, and while we're talking about game references to, uhh, 'The Gherkin', Wikipedia also mentions: "The PlayStation 2 game The Getaway 2: Black Monday used the building as the fictional headquarters of the Skobel Group, and it is featured prominently in the game."

[UPDATE]: A tip of the hat to Edelman/Microsoft's Arne Meyer, who went above and beyond the call of duty by locating and screen-capturing the virtual building in question, as seen in Boom Boom Rocket for Xbox Live Arcade. Obviously, it's surrounded by bigger skyscrapers than the real-life version, but you get the general idea, yay:

Crawford's Storytron Zooming Towards 'Reality'

- Indygamer was kind enough to point out that Chris Crawford's much-fabled new Storytron system has gone Beta, albeit with some bug-hacking still in progress.

As blogger Paul Eres notes: "For those not familiar with Chris Crawford, he founded the GDC, wrote the first book on game design, and created successful games for early personal computers, the Atari 2600, and the Mac, only to eventually leave game development for the more experimental enterprise of interactive storytelling."

Eres adds: "Storytron may be difficult to understand. And, lacking a significantly sized demo storyworld it's hard for the casual observer to see what makes this engine any different from real-time multiple choice games like Masq, but I think it's something to keep an eye on or even play around with."

I think the point here is meant to be a Web 2.0-ish creation and exchange of stories in a much more fluid and complex manner, and it'll be interesting to see if it's possible, given the tortuous history of the project. Looks like many bugs are still being worked on.

Why Aren't There More Good Bad Games?

- Over at Wired, Clive Thompson's latest column is called 'These Games Are So Bad, It's Not Funny', and it examines a rather interesting question: "Why isn't there such a thing as "B game" -- a game so bad it's good?"

He explains: "Certainly, the phenomenon exists in every other form of entertainment. Everyone loves B movies -- films that are so atrociously acted and scripted that they become perversely enjoyable. There's also plenty of B television. (For two seasons I religiously followed Pam Anderson's show V.I.P., mostly for the odd joy of tallying up the clichés and acting so wooden it was nearly Brechtian.)"

But no such luck for games? Thompson thinks: "B games don't exist because a game isn't something you watch; it's something you do. It's impossible to distance yourself from the badness." Hm... actually, Clive, I propose that there's an equivalent, and it's the relatively playable game that has a gorgeously stereotypical concept/plot.

For me, this is particularly the case for European-developed games using American urban themes - for example, Remedy's Max Payne series and the fabled Colors for Gizmondo (which yes, we've played). Opinions?

July 17, 2007

Seattle Weekly Takes On Game Testing

- The alt.weekly still tends to produce some of the best longform journalism around, and the Game QA Blog is kind enough to point to a new Seattle Weekly article looking in-depth at video game testing, thanks to a reporter who signed up as a tester - and it's an awesome piece.

As the reporter explains: "The "dream job" of being a video game tester may sound like a way to get paid for doing exactly what you'd choose to do in the middle of the afternoon on your own living-room sofa, but the reality is very different. To find out how different, I spent a couple of weeks at Volt [aka VMC], a Redmond company that is the country's largest independent video game tester. Hundreds of testers work at Nintendo and Microsoft during crunch times. More than 50 smaller Seattle-area video game developers—like Surreal, Valve, and Zipper—employ anywhere from five to 20 testers each. But when it's time to contract out some of the most grunt-worthy testing tasks, companies call Volt."

So, there's no gigantic revelations in there, but some great on-the-ground info - from personal portraits of the folks involved, info on the current wages ($8.25 per hour for the lowest level VMC testers) to the swift turnover and the relatively draconian enforcement tactics of the company. Oh, and, of course, the fact that testing games really isn't that fun, a lot of the time.

Actually, we've covered testing as a route into the game biz on our GameCareerGuide.com educational site, and it's definitely an increasingly rough slog through the ranks nowadays. It's especially difficult, in my opinion, to get a leg up to development at places like VMC, where game development doesn't happen in-house. But it's possible, FWIW. Anyhow, great article.

Inside The Street Fighter/Poker Crossover

- The world of professional poker is fascinating at the best of times, and there's been crossover into poker from other geek worlds before - David Kushner's excellent book Jonny Magic & The Card Shark Kids is subtitled "How a Gang of Geeks Beat the Odds and Stormed Las Vegas", and deals with Magic: The Gathering players' poker success.

But now Shoryuken.com is trumpeting large that fighting game player Hevad 'Rain' Khan has made the final table at the gigantic World Series Of Poker in Las Vegas. Looks like Khan has played both fighting games and Starcraft at high levels, actually - one report indicates he was clocked playing Starcraft at 500 apm's (actions per minute), and he plays 26 tables at once in online poker.

Also, there's a great quote from Khan in an MSNBC article: "We’ve kind of found a way to mold our adolescence of thriving through video game competition into poker. So it’s competitive, but we can still be kids and we can still live our lives, kind of be animals in a way. At the same time we can make so much money that we can become independent."

Mind you, poker site Bodog thinks the video game angle is less interesting than the craziness angle: "Khan's skill is the least interesting thing about him. The real story here seems to be that Khan is insane. He recently knocked out Adam White to take the chip lead. As soon as he won the hand he screamed and put his chair on his head and said, "Do you like my new hat? Does it look good?"" Either way, there's probably some good articles/books in this.

July 16, 2007

Game Criticism - Is Scoring Accuracy A Good Thing?

- Over at the New York Times, Seth Schiesel asks an interesting question about game criticism, given that a UBS survey reveals the relatively unsurprising fact that "top-rated games sell a lot more copies than bad ones."

What he asks, simply enough, is that "...if you look at film and popular music, for instance, there is almost no correlation between what critics say and what the public buy" - so therefore: "Are gamers actually more discerning than consumers of other media? Or is it just that game critics have more in common with game players than film and music reviewers do with the unwashed masses? And is this good or bad for the creative health of video games?"

This is a massively complex question, well-researched by the NYT writer, and I think the most interesting part of it is this comment from Schiesel: "It is worth pointing out that the only game among last year’s Top 10 sellers with a Metacritic score less than 80 was Brain Age, the mental-exercise software from Nintendo meant to appeal to users much older than the typical gamer."

So, does it look like the 'blind spot' for game reviewers (where the audience's enjoyment far outstrips critical reception) is casual games? I rather think so - especially given that a lot of major PC casual games don't even get reviewed by the majority of critics.

The Escapist Redesigns... Closer To Reality?

- Time to point out some changes at The Escapist, where Julianne Greer has announced another major site redesign as part of the site's two-year anniversary - following a 2006 redesign which further de-emphasized the PDF-styled magazine layout, which never really caught on with advertisers (or enough readers to attract advertisers).

What's particularly fascinating for me is to see The Escapist's high-end print attitude to online production, complete with multiple dedicated artists and more edit/copy edit passes than we do for the magazine, hit a bit of a brick wall - here's a post from The Escapist's producer noting: "Working 'outside the box' was very difficult. We noticed it immediately in our production costs, dedicated manpower, and difficulty getting sponsors."

Given that the site is paying $250 per 1000 words for features from external contributors, has published 1 million words so far (!), and has a fairly large amount of in-house editors, art staff, etc, you can work out why the change was made. (For added reference, a recent comment by Alex Macris also reveals The Escapist's ad rates: "You can purchase a skyscraper, medium rectangle, or leaderboard for about $3-$6 per thousand views. One of the large interstitial ads costs $2,000 per issue.")

Mind you, I think parent company the Themis Group is broadly on the right track now, mixing up longer features in more web-friendly formats with news (wonder if they're still spending as much on production?) But I have to admit to being a bit irked by the borderline holier-than-thou 'we're saving the industry through our QUALITY' attitude, when The Escapist was clearly bleeding money. So what - it's 'outside the box', not needlessly extravagant? I guess they can spend their money how they want, though!

What I would love to see is more quality longform game journalism on the Web. So I'm not sure why it's easy for me to get baited by The Escapist. Possibly because there are still too many slightly pretentious, borderline rambling pieces, and too many writers allowed to get away with too much in the name of satisfying their own (often prodigous) virtuousity? And the weekly themed format is still deluging me with many similarly themed articles, when I want to read perhaps one of them.

Having said all that, I'd better end with highlighting two recent Escapist articles I enjoyed. Firstly, Jason Della Rocca does some genuine, good analysis on internal vs. external IP, although again, I find it needlessly judgmental against licensed IP, especially for someone running an industry association which should be fairly evenhanded. A good mix of licensed and original IP will ensure that major publishers don't crash and burn - see Majesco's near-death for a great example of why this is the case.

Secondly, Allen Varney is the most consistently readable and smart of all The Escapists' contributors, despite some controversy - and is at least straightforward, for pity's sake - and his interview with Magic The Gathering creator Richard Garfield is a model of well-researched rigor. Bravo, that man - more of this, please!

Dr Who Video Game? Just Say Yes!

- MattG at Press The Buttons is completely right when he gleefully proclaims 'What This Country Really Needs, Right Now, Is A Doctor Who Game' - and really, this is true for any country you might happen to be in at this precise moment in time.

He further explains: "I'd love to see a modern console game focusing around the Tenth Doctor (as this generation of the character is known) and his human traveling companions. The game could use a new story crafted with the aid of the show's prolific writers or re-enact memorable moments from previous episodes. Either is fine just as long as I get to face down a Dalek or dodge the Toclafane. Better yet, how about a Nintendo Wii-specific version that casts the Wii remote itself as the Doctor's trusty sonic screwdriver."

Heartily agreed - unfortunately, the show (which is currently on the Sci Fi Channel in the U.S., in the early process of its third revitalized season) just isn't big enough in North America to persuade a major player to sign up and make the game - though some lower-end PS2 games have been made just to appeal to European audiences, of course.

But I've been wondering for a while - why not consider XBLA/PSN games based on the license, if they're developed by the BBC itself or a close associate? That way, licensing costs wouldn't be prohibitive and we'd still get some kind of video game in which Daleks hover up stairs. Oh my.

July 15, 2007

GameSetNetwork: Tumultuous E3 Terribilism

- One more poke at the E3 coverage then, since the Gamasutra folks updated their coverage later on Friday night with some more decent exclusive stories from the whirlwind media conf in Los Angeles:

- Sony exec Peter Dille caused quite a stir by going on the offensive against Microsoft in a Gamasutra interview excerpt: "With the Xbox 360 you’ve got an inconsistent design, some have a hard drive, some don’t, and none of them have Blu-Ray, and the HD-DVD will be out of business in a matter of months. Is this a 10 year product? And by the way, it doesn’t even work." Blimey.

- We then spoke to Microsoft's Peter Moore, who obviously didn't want to get too far into the contretemps, but did note of the next-gen optical disc battle: "I was just looking at HD-DVD numbers over the weekend, and I think Toshiba may have an opinion about that... Of course, the fact that Sony has an economic interest in making sure that it’s dead is interesting. I think his comments will be read with interest by folks in the European Union, and looking at the tactics the Blu-Ray Forum has been using to ensure that retailers do things their way." Some v. interesting hints on unfair competition in here.

- Another neat story was Blizzard's Frank Pearce confirming a third title in development - apart from World Of Warcraft and Starcraft II, that is. Don't often get concrete staff numbers, either: "In terms of development staff it’s probably around 350. World of Warcraft is about 135 people, 40 for Starcraft II, 40 for team 3, our cinematics team is about 85 guys." There's rampant speculation that the third project is Diablo III and will be announced at BlizzCon, but who knows?

- Ah, and just to finish up the Gamecock weirdness, we covered their Death Of E3 funeral procession, which "...wound its way from the Santa Monica pier to Venice Beach, Calif. The procession was complete with drums, a horn section, a Chinese dragon, and masked performers on stilts." They're certainly never boring!

[Many thanks to Gamasutra staffers Brandon Sheffield and Jason Dobson for doing a fine job of chasing these up, and Brandon Boyer for co-ordinating the coverage and only losing around 50% of his hair in the process.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 7/14/07

['Game Mag Weaseling' is a weekly column by Kevin Gifford which covers video game magazines from the late '70s all the way up to right now.]


Considering that four US magazines have folded this year (or in Tips & Tricks' case, downsized into a basically automated codes mag), I'm faced with fewer titles to cover on a biweekly basis. As a result, I think it's about time I started covering the UK's Edge in these little mag roundups, since I buy it every month and there's an official US subscription distributor -- one that, depending on how the exchange rates run, actually allows colonists to buy Edge for cheaper than the Brits can get it.

At its core, Edge isn't much different from US mags. There's news and columns up front, previews and features in the middle, reviews in the rear, and screw-around stuff in the way-back (in Edge's case, dev profiles/classifieds, letters, and retro coverage). Certainly the way that it approached game coverage was revolutionary when it launched in 1993 (back when EGM was still 85% previews and strategy guides), but nowadays pretty much every US mag has taken on an Edge-style mix of serious industry newsmongering and hard-hitting game coverage.

So why is Edge worth importing? I'd argue that it's a combination of design and writing. US magazines have improved their visual look vastly over the past few years, but Edge still has a simple, clear look that makes each page immediately enticing. This, coupled with a robust page count (130 pages every issue), nice thick paper, and Edge's traditional lack of back-cover advertising, make the magazine look proud on your father's coffee table, rather than the toilet racks many game mags end up lurking around in. The text, meanwhile, is also great -- its complete and total uniformity in style (there are no bylines anywhere) means that if you can dig its intellectual, sometimes dry feel, then you're guaranteed to enjoy anything written in the mag, no matter what it's about. (I've always thought that people who think Edge is pretentious should go back and read GameFan from around 1995 forward. Now that's pretention, and without the writing talent to back it up either.)

Edge is hardly a perfect magazine. Their copy editing isn't flawless. They published a piece on Saboteur this month that extols the WWII action game's unique use of color, but does a very poor job illustrating the tricks in the accompanying screenshots (GamePro, of all mags, performs far better in its own Saboteur feature). However, there's still no other magazine out there that takes such a deliberately intellectual-yet-casual approach to game coverage, and for that alone I think it's important.

Anyway, click on to read about all the US mags of the past two weeks -- all very good mags in the own right, too, I hasten to add.

Electronic Gaming Monthly August 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Soulcalibur 4

I could write a whole column on the future of Ziff Davis Media (and I may just, someday, once I have some whiskey and Dr. Pepper in me). For now, though, I think it should be said that subjectively, I think EGM uses the cheapest paper out of any US game mag these days save for Beckett Massive Online Gamer. All the American game magazines I cover this installment are 100 pages in length, but EGM's thin and not-very-glossy pages make the magazine noticeably thinner when you compare them all. EGM also has the smallest page size (the same height as OXM and GamePro and so on, but about two millimeters off in width), and the thin paper coupled with EGM's primarily white color scheme makes bleed-through (text and graphics from one page being visible on the flip side) noticeable almost everywhere you turn. Why should the top magazine in the US content-wise have to feel cheaper than GamePro?

Speaking of content, this month starts out with a piece on video-game violence studies and the flaws that show up in how they're conducted. It's classic EGM, with a very serious main text that has quotes from sociologists coupled with a bit of silliness, like a sidebar featuring professional gamers seeing how well their skills apply to a real-life gun range. Besides that and the 14 pages of fighting-game coverage (10 on Soulcalibur 4), nothing in the mag is over 2 pages in length, making for a very tightly-packed issue.

It may be my imagination, but increasingly the back section of EGM is getting a lot more interesting. Seanbaby is still funny (which is amazing, considering he's been EGM's bad-games editor for about five years now), and Jeremy Parish's retro stuff is getting a lot more enticing to read now that it's more theme-oriented and less focused on this or that game. In this issue there's also a two-page picture with 21 references to random video games that you're meant to guess at -- pretty funny, but difficult.

GamePro August 2007


Cover: Fall preview guide

This cover falls dangerously close to GamePro's bad old days of putting about 40 game characters on the front page and using the Photoshop glow effect on all of them, but the colors are all nice and coordinated, and overall it's not a bad effect.

A four-page preview of Saboteur is arguably the nicest game coverage this month, though, going to show what you can accomplish when you've got good assets on your side (something GamePro does amazingly well, actually). The magazine's near-obsession with "numbers" features is also hard to ignore this issue, which includes the 52 most important games of all time (No. 1 is GTA3), the 3 upcoming games to die for, the 12 upcoming games that "break all the rules" (the main preview feature), the top 5 stories at gamepro.com, and 8 reasons why the Xbox 360 Elite is dumb, along with the "The 9" capsule-preview department. Statisticians love GamePro, no doubt.

Tips & Tricks August 2007


Cover: Transformers

This is the 150th issue of Tips & Tricks, but also sadly the next to last -- made even worse thanks to EIC Bill Kunkel's bold announcement this issue of tipstricks.com's official opening. That's pretty rough, there.

Still, the articles are quite nice, kicking off with four pages on the coolest arcades in America (apparently they still exist) and keeping it real in the "Games on Film" column with an interview with Zack Ward, the guy playing the hero in Uwe Boll's Postal movie. Wow! (There's also interviews with assorted Square developers that are among the most text-laden pages I've ever seen in T&T.)

Official Xbox Magazine August 2007 (Podcast)

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Cover: BioShock (subscriber), The Bourne Conspiracy (newsstand)

This is the first OXM split-cover I can think of, and also the first Future subscriber/newsstand split cover since they experimented with it on PSM for a while last year. I'd argue that neither cover game lends a particularly strong and enticing image to the magazine (not knowing anything about Bourne, the newsstand cover is just some white dude staring at me as far as I can tell), but the internals are hot as always, with each page seemingly packed with content.

For deep-thinkers, though, the mag may be most worth buying for "Gone Too Soon?", a piece by Dean Takahashi discussing whether Microsoft scuttled the original Xbox too quickly, not to mention an in-game sponsorship investigation that's basically the same as the one Computer Games published earlier this year but is still a heck of a lot more interesting.

[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.]

Holy Crap, It's The Captains Of The Chess Team!

- We mentioned them tangentially when referencing a write-up of Richard Garriott's IGDA party the other week, but I've just spotted that the video game-staffed band for the day, Captains Of The Chess Team, have a fresh new website.

A Kotaku write-up of the event references the band further, noting (and I'm adding some game biz references here): "The band is a spontaneous game-industry ensemble consisting of famous audio guru George [EDIT: 'The Fat Man' - forgot to mention!] Sanger, [industry newbie Troupe Gammage] on keyboard, [Midway Austin] game designer Josh Hamrick on drums, [Sanger associate] Linda Law on bass, guitar by [former Accolade sound guy] W. Scott Snyder, and fronted by Midway Austin's audio director, Marc Schaefgen."

What's more, according to Kotaku: "The set list included Safety Dance, a rousing performance of Video Killed the Radio Star, the ever popular Numa Numa (originally "Dragostea din tei"), and the Star Wars-centric parody Yoda."" There's even some song clips available on the Chess Team website.

In addition, there's good news for those going to CMP's very own Austin GDC: "Our next gigs will be in Austin during the Austin GDC... On Tuesday, September 4, 2007, the Captains will be playing a fund raiser for the UT Center for American History Games Archive. And some time during the conference we will be playing a conference-related party." Awesome - more game industry bands, plz.

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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