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August 4, 2007

Assembly, DreamBuildPlay Provide Game Trove

- Looks like there's not one, but two high-quality game competitions which have been showcasing their entries recently on the ol' Interweb. Firstly, and more accessibly, there's the Assembly 2007 Game Development Competition entries, including a multitude of those clever demo-scene-ish Europeans and ingenious games.

After having previously produced the infamous 'Stair Dismount', this Assembly has birthed 'A Tribute to the Rolling Boulder' by Kloonigames' Petri Purho, among others: "A fun action game, in which you play as the infamous rolling boulder and roll over archaeologists.You get to smash and crash the little guys as you try to protect the honor of the golden idols of fertility from the nasty grave diggers." Another awesome idea!

Elsewhere, the results for Microsoft's Dream Build Play XNA game competition are due at GameFest next month, and there's a list of finalists with screenshots on the official site, but Ziggyware has got pictures and videos of the known ones, including Windows and XNA executables where possible. Sure, there's some primitive stuff there too, but there's Xtreme Table Soccer (woo!) and some really sophisticated-looking titles to pick through.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': The Industry's Comin' Up Aces

pcace1.jpg   pcace2.jpg

Couple things to report on this week:

- I've recently picked up the complete collection of PC Ace magazine, which you can see above. Yes, there were only two issues published in early 1996.

It's surprisingly difficult to find old US computer game magazines online or from other collectors. And when I say "old," I'm not even talking about 1980s-era Computer Gaming World issues (which I haven't even seen offered for sale in months) -- I'm talking about stuff from the '90s. Try to track down issues of PC Gamer (or, for an even stiffer challenge, Game Players PC Entertainment) before 2000. It's nearly impossible. I know, 'cos I've been looking. (If anyone at Future would like to make a charitable contribution to Magweasel, I'd be delighted. Not expecting it, but.)

PC Ace (nothing to do with the UK kids' mag of the same name) is particularly interesting because of the folks involved with it. The editor-in-chief is Bill Kunkel, veteran of Electronic Games and VG&CE and all sorts of other mags, and the publisher is the late Jim Bender, former ad director at the classic-era Electronic Games.

Kunkel's book Confessions of the Game Doctor tells a long story of Bender's EG days and the amount of drugs he did back then -- it's a good book, by the way, and not just for this story -- and it also reveals that after Jim straightened out a bit, he and Bill got together to form the magazine. It's not a bad read, with articles by folks from CGW and Strategy Plus and a focus planted squarely on simulations, strategy games, flight sims and anything with a sci-fi plot to it. Nothing too exemplary, but worth checking out if you dig the dry, wordy style of PC game mags back then.

The magazine folded after only two issues, chiefly thanks to money problems on the part of its publisher, California-based Vector Publishing Group. Kunkel quickly went on to better things, helping build HappyPuppy.com into one of the largest early game sites.

- Folio is reporting that Ziff Davis Media has named Jason Young as its CEO, replacing Robert Callahan (though he'll stay on as chairman). Along with this personnel change comes an announcement that the publisher will focus less on trying to sell the Games Group (which handles EGM, GFW and 1UP.com) and more on operating them directly, which is an about-face from where the company's been for the past year or so.

In financial terms, Ziff is kind of between a rock and a hard place here. It's still working under fairly big debt (something Callahand had to deal with for years), but the Games Group as is doesn't seem to be enough to cover for it, even after Ziff sold off the Enterprise Group (which publishes a gaggle of tech-industry titles) for $150 million. It'll be interesting what further steps ZD takes to grow it.

- I received the revamped, bimonthly Tips & Tricks (now permanently renamed Tips & Tricks Codebook) in the mail the other day. I'll save the details for the mag roundup next week, but essentially T&T without the columns, fewer previews, and lots more codes, as well as the typical Codebook non-glossy paper. But at least the pencil puzzles are back for good, right?

- Still no word on Nintendo Power's future, but I had a friend point out to me that Picross DS does not come with any NP subscription offer packed inside -- probably the first Nintendo-platform game to have that distinction since 1988.

[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.]

Why Consoles Are Here To Stay, Yay

- Oop, a tiny bit late to this one, but David Edery's Game Tycoon weblog has recently posted an editorial named 'Console Demise? Don’t Hold Your Breath', and it takes a well thought-out look at why closed entertainment platforms are winning the day - or at least, not sputtering out of existence altogether, which is a good first step!

Some parts I thought particularly insightful: "Consoles, because they are closed, also offer a vastly superior environment in which to feature parental controls (for those consumers who care about filtering the content that their children consume.) And people still don’t have to worry if they have enough RAM or processing power to play the latest game; consoles remain the great equalizer, to the benefit of consumers and developers everywhere. Console-mandated certification processes also help produce games with fewer problems and inconsistencies (though certainly not bug-free games.) And last but not least, the ten foot experience has grown more important than ever; two signals of this are the advent of party games like Buzz and of space-consuming games like Dance Dance Revolution."

Now sure, Edery works for Microsoft, but these are his own personal views, and he hits the nail on the head when looking at some of the issues currently dogging the console: "In terms of user interface and functionality, the Wii, PS3, and Xbox 360 are all far more complicated than their predecessors. In many ways, that complexity is still better managed than it is on home computers... But we’re on the edge. My wife cannot navigate the 360 menu system nearly as easily as I can. Both the PS3 and Wii offer remarkably sloppy digital shopping experiences... We’re dramatically increasing the things you can do with a console, but advances in UI development and “assistant technology” are not keeping pace."

Of course, the interesting step is when/if the open Internet makes it properly to the living room, given the Flash game and browser-based MMO. But will it, and if so, on what devices? Seems like some of those might just be... consoles. But then people would be able to play games through the Internet, even subscription-based ones. So what - are we looking at a walling-off of browsers sophisticated enough to do that eventually? Or maybe I'm overthinking things here, you never know.

August 3, 2007

The Best Indie Art Games... Evah?

- Over at the Mentisworks blog, there's a v.good countdown listing the best 27 (!) 'indie art' games around - all of which are freely downloadable, and many of which are among the most abstract and intriguing games out there.

It's explained in the intro: "When I think of art that has influenced me most, it is generally work done by individuals. I can't recall the last time a corporation created a brilliant painting. I find that this also tends to be true in the emerging area of art games. Individuals are not generally driven to create purely for profit, and have more leeway to experiment and create according to their own artistic vision... I thought it was time to compile a "best of" list for art games."

There's just a whole bunch of good stuff in here, and in passing, I was reminded that Jon Blow has posted both Raspberry and Oracle Billiards, both extremely interesting experimental titles, as demonstrated at the 2007 Independent Games Summit (his lecture video coming soon!) on his website. I was also introduced to abstract games practitioners I was unaware of, like the Iteration Games titles, of which it's commented:

"All of Iteration Games' offerings share a similar artistic style, and all are similarly well done. Gameplay is always solid, taking cues from familiar mechanics and putting a unique spin on them. The biggest common denominator in these games is the strong techno-style art and sound which complement each title, and make for an excitingly ephemeral encounter." Awesome stuff. [Via XII Games.]

GameSetDream: Spector's Deus Ex Prequel Revealed!

- Last night, something amazing happened. I was at a university reunion, and happily and accidentally enough, the keynote/commencement speech was from noted Deus Ex game designer Warren Spector. Mind you, I didn't catch up with him straight away - not until I was browsing in a junk shop close to the reunion.

Turns out I was looking through a box on the floor filled with old games, and picked up a Sega Saturn title. Hm - black cover, cool-looking, vaguely Blade Runner-esque ships on the front. Wait, is this... it's got the Deus Ex name attached to it?

I flip the game over quickly to check the screenshots, only to discover blasting action over dark futuristic cityscapes, and what appears to be a 'lost' 2D vertical shooter prequel to the Deus Ex series. So maybe this was the 'lost' prequel in the same way that Deus Ex Clan Wars (which I discovered when at Slashdot) was a 'lost', morphed into Project: Snowblind-ish sequel?

As if on cue, Warren himself appears at my shoulder, pointing out an obscure Saturn print magazine in another of the junk store boxes. He leafs through it to the classified section, where pictures of vaguely Matrix-esque black-clad girls take up small panels of the page, with cryptic ARG-like adverts for the game.

Spector grins and muses that around 12 models auditioned for the ads, and 3 were picked. Apparently, one of them is a famous movie star now. But as for the game? He tells me there were some management disagreements about the marketing and the obscure direction of the Saturn Deus Ex shooter, and in the end, only about 1,000 copies made it out there. I'm now holding one - but I can't believe I haven't heard about it before.

And then I wake up. And realize that none of the above is true, even though I'd imagined it to an entirely unnecessary level of detail - I swear I haven't embellished any of the above, and I rarely remember that much from my dreams. Apologies and bemused glances to Warren Spector (who now has a weblog, incidentally) for my dream-addled brain deciding to invent this train of events.

But, c'mon, I'm sure GSW readers can do as good - or at least, weirder. What's the best, strangest, or most rephensible dream you've had about video games? Bonus points if it includes Derek Smart, Cyan's Manhole, or obscure Neo Geo Pocket Color RPGs, and don't even bother if it's something sexual involving Birdo. Honestly, kids today!

On Games, Bogost, Addiction, And The State Of Zen

- Over at Gamasutra, we've just posted a new Ian Bogost column, the latest in his Persuasive Games series about social/serious games, called 'How I Stopped Worrying About Gamers And Started Loving People Who Play Games' - and it's intriguing stuff.

Firstly, the piece is a riposte to a recent Slate article which criticized serious games (in general) and some of Bogost's titles (specifically), and particularly referencing 'Stone Cold', a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream shop corporate training game which his firm completed in 2005. Bogost notes there continues to be emails regularly asking to play the game, despite the fact it's not available to the public, continuing:

"Why, then, would so many people be so interested in the game? Perhaps some are misconceived teenagers yet to have been disillusioned by a soul-crushing job. Perhaps others are as smart and skeptical as Peters suspects they might be, and they want to see how possible workplaces represent their expectations for labor. But my sense is that most of them just like ice cream, are intrigued by the Cold Stone work experience, and want to have a go at it for a few minutes."

I think this is a bit of an off-topic argument in some ways (the game looks like a Diner Dash-style casual title, so people probably think it plays like one, when I bet it's tuned to teach) - but Bogost hits the nail on the head by discussing: "Are casual game players having fun? Maybe. But more likely they are zoning out. PopCap even built “zen” mode into some of their games after players reported that time limits and other traditional challenges created an experience quite different from the one they were seeking in such games."

A key revelation in this article is that there are games out there which are meant to reward skill and reflexes (a traditional gamer's approach), those which simple reward you with constancy and repetition until the 'zen' state is approached (many casual games - though some mainstream titles such as Diablo, too), and even those which aren't meant to be played for hours or days, but make a point through their interactivity or gameplay (I'm particularly thinking of works like Bogost's Disaffected).

Is it fair to 'score' the latter two, and to say that they are 'boring' and 'not proper games'? Sure, if you're in the core gamer demographic. But they still have artistic value, intrinsic value to those playing them, and the first two cases still bring addiction. Where I think Bogost is struggling, though, is that the third sector, including those so-called 'newsgames', can carry across a message without wanting or needing addiction. As such, it's easy to dismiss them. But probably not fair - since they're art too, even if not aspiring to the addiction/replayability goal that we're used to.

August 2, 2007

Line Rider's Physics? Gamasutra, Baby!

- This is a cute piece of randomness related to GSW's big sister site Gamasutra, but we'll be darned if our swelling heads don't point it out anyhow, since there's an article in the August 2007 version of Games For Windows magazine which references our site.

Specifically, it's in Games For Windows' August issue, and it's within an article about Internet phenomenon(TM) Line Rider, created by Slovenian student Bostjan Cadez - and due to debut on DS and Wii soon. Heres the neat bit:

"'I knew it needed physics to be interesting', recalls Cadez. But he was an art student, not a physics major. So in the time-honored tradition of artists throughout history, he looked fror somethihg to copy. He found it in an article on simplified physics at Gamasutra.com, a website that focuses on the developer side of the industry. "The person who wrote the article explained everything with pseudo-code - really simple code", he explains. 'When I found it, I was thrilled.' Armed with physics code, he added the sledder to the drawing tools, and Line Rider was born."

Not sure exactly which Gama article it was (can anyone spot it?), but on this subject, we're very committed to adding even more quality technical articles on game development for everyone at Gamasutra. In fact, we've now hired Christian Nutt, most recently of Future's GamesRadar.com, as our new Features Editor, to help make Gamasutra articles ever greaterer, hurray! (More formal announcements on other CMP Game Group editorial hires and expansion plans coming soonish.)

The Aberrant Gamer: 'The Usual Suspects'

-[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.]

Common character archetypes have become mainstays of the standard H-game. Whether it’s something heavily story-driven, like Yume Miru Kusuri, or action/puzzle oriented, like The Maid’s Story, there are general, predictable character constructs whose appearance you can rely on, and whose scripted tendencies create an element of predictability. Which isn’t so bad – after all, if you play games for the stories, let’s be honest: you don’t need hentai for that. So while the heavy use of archetypes may detract from the stories, they strongly support the primary purpose behind H-games.

And what is that, exactly?

Depends on who you ask, of course. But largely, the elements of H-games—archetypes, heavy plot, and often ambiguously intimate relations—combine to create a bizarre sort of love letter from the past, targeted toward men with unresolved issues relating to women in the teen years. Almost all H-game protagonists are teen boys, for one thing, and the classroom is the most common setting (fantasy environments, like lush resorts or expensive mansions, are second). In a recent article in The Escapist, I explained this subliminal layer that undercuts most story-driven Hentai games—the game as vehicle for reconciling perplexing male-female relationship issues lingering from youth.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common H-game archetypes and let them speak for themselves, shall we?

-The Mother
An older woman, overblown and sexually frustrated. She’s any such woman in a position of power—the leader of the house, or the Madam of the other girls. She’s often the character’s stepmother or even his biological mother—though as to the latter, that tends only to happen in games geared towards that specific kink. No matter how she appears, however, the mother character is always physically tall or large, very voluptuous, with elaborate undergarments, like stockings or a fancy bra. She expresses herself in an overtly lustful and shameless way. These elements would seem to make her an avatar of the player’s very first woman—his mother, who must have seemed very large, complex, powerful and “adult.” This archetype totes a big taboo factor—but through her, players can explore repressed sexual curiosity about the maternal driven to the corners of their mind by guilt in their normative lives. An alternate manifestation of this is as a maternal, intelligent secretary or assistant.

-The Maid
Very often she’s actually an employee, either of the protagonist or of his friends, or other characters in the game. Usually she wears the standard French-style fetish uniform, but she may also be an employee of a store, her status signified by a work uniform, apron or broom. The key factor is that her status is low, and as a result her personality is timid; her appearance is usually very bland or mousy also. In high melodrama stories, she’s usually the target of some kind of abuse, often from The Mother, and may even appear as her servant. Through The Maid, the protagonist can play the hero—eventually. At first, her submissive status and its associated trappings are fetishized, but the player almost always has the opportunity to “rescue” her and restore her horrendous self-esteem. She’s the most likely to cry with overwhelm in the sex scenes, and also very likely to feel romantic about it.

-Miss Popular
A beautiful teenager, with an aggressive personality and a lot of social power. The protagonist will generally comment that “everyone” admires her, and surely she’s the type who couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to him. She usually is tall also, and well-endowed, and strangely, always has long, full-bodied hair. She’s usually a club leader, a student council president. Sometimes this archetype is The Mother’s daughter, and colludes in bullying The Maid. She’s able to control the protagonist easily, and it’s not hard to understand her use as an archetype—everyone can remember a girl like this, whom they couldn’t touch back then. Inevitably, there is a power shift in the relationship between Miss Popular and the protagonist—this may be a gradual understanding and a consensual role reversal, or it may be more violent.

-The Loner
Usually a geek type with horrendous social skills, her status is equal, or only marginally higher, than The Maid’s. She’s generally timid, often even non-verbal. Her ostracized existence represents a mystery to the protagonist—again, this represents a lost opportunity from the past, when one would have been too timid to approach such an odd girl, or too concerned about others’ opinions. Often The Loner is hiding some kind of dark secret, an explanation for her traumatized behavior, and sometimes her self-concept is merely poor—which, of course, can be remedied by the protagonist.

-The Tomboy
A short-haired, sporty type. She’s usually on one of the athletic teams in the school setting, and may appear as a fuss-free, stand-offish or androgynous woman in other settings. She’s difficult to approach, either because of an appearance of intimidating physical strength or because she doesn’t seem interested in boys. Generally the player gets the chance to find out whether the things he wondered about athletic girls back in high school are true—including whether or not they’re gay. The Tomboy frequently appears in scenes with other girls, and usually has a healthy sexual appetite in general.

-The Lolicon
For the uninitiated, “lolicon” refers to “Lolita complex,” or the fetish for underage (or merely undeveloped) girls. Very few H-games don’t contain one, though she always takes pains to state her age at 18. Perhaps as a compensation for her youthful appearance to assuage player guilt at one of the least socially acceptable practices in hentai, The Lolicon almost never acts like a young girl—on the contrary, she tends to be more prim, verbose and sophisticated than the other characters. Additionally, she’s usually rather domineering, able to manipulate the protagonist easily. She’s often his little sister, and even when she’s not, that’s the dynamic that tends to take shape. Adolescent girls do tend to be more mature than boys of that age, so perhaps The Lolicon is an avatar for the younger girls in the players’ memory, who with their perplexing outward calm, seemed to be immune to the same turbulence they suffered as boys. It’s not such a far stretch to imagine they held a secret wisdom. An alternative manifestation is quite opposite, however—sometimes The Lolicon character is enormously odd and incomprehensible (which is also logical). The Lolicon is usually the “fetish” character among others in a game, the subject of somewhat more niche practices.

These are only a few of the major archetypes that appear in H-games, and it’s easy to see why certain “types” are rather conventional in terms of pornography. However, against the backdrop of elaborate melodrama that H-games usually contain, their nature makes sense on another level—they make possible the resolution of conflicting emotions and unanswered questions about women in the small part of every man that might always be a boy.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

On The Future Of The Steam Platform

- Ultra-niche but rather erudite site Steam Review, which deals with Valve's PC game hosting/download platform, and there's a new editorial on 'The Steam Platform' by reader Andy Simpson that's well worth checking out.

It's basically suggesting that games should be able to license parts of the Steam whole, claiming a certain inflexibility right now: "Developers have very few options for using Steam right now. In practice, the only options are one-time billing/download manager/limited auth functionality, a full Source + Steam license or nothing at all." Instead, Simpson suggests many of the more complex parts of Steam such as the Steam filesystem and content streaming should be made available separately by Valve.

His conclusion? "Basically, my message to Valve is this: Make it flexible. Make it open and inclusive. Think about all the people, both developers and end users, who could be using your technology for their benefit and yours who aren’t because of arbitrary limitations and restrictions. The removal of these limitations and the cutting of ties of the Steam services to the Steam client would have the end result of driving people to the client, not driving them away." Personally, I wonder if this doesn't sound like something the OS provider should be making available - thoughts?

August 1, 2007

The New Paradigm For Manuals & Tutorials?

- Back to HDRLying, then, and a new editorial which is named 'Manuals and Tutorials in the years to come', and looks at a simple, but perennial dilemma: "For the most part, people seem to find tutorials intrusive and irritating if they’re too structured not integrated into the game, but find the game intensely unapproachable and inaccessible if no help is provided at all. What is a developer to do?"

Nayan then lists some must-dos for tutorials, and here's a couple that I particularly agree with: "Provide large manuals that don’t just offer redundant tutorial information, but also offer full color art, additional literature for the player, and some other extras."

Another notable one that a bunch of games I can think of break on a regular basis: "Don’t bother extensively teaching the player how to do simple movement, unless your control scheme is something whacky and/or new. Even new gamers are smart enough to figure it out, as long as you provide a simple correlation between the appropriate stick or button, and the action." But how do you completely stop obnoxiousness when learning a game, given the many different learning curves of players? Likely, you can't.

Opinion: XBLA Certification? Jeff Minter Has Had Enough! Fair?

- If you haven't been reading Jeff Minter's Livejournal recently (and you probably haven't, unless you like sheep gazing happily at a clearish blue sky!), then you won't have spotted his extended, increasingly manic posts about the complicated nature of Xbox 360 Live Arcade certification - which Space Giraffe is currently somewhere near the end of.

The Problem

Particularly notable is a recent post called 'Limbo part infinity', in which Minter takes us through the multiple stages of getting your game approved (Australian ratings were slowing things down, though that's now fixed!), and his partner Giles notes in the comments: "Even after months and months of all this 'crap' we still are in a phase where theoretically "things could still go wrong and get a rejection" so as you can imagine the situation here is well explosive."

Minter further complains: "Why this process isn't just handled in the one interactive phase I have no idea; all I can see is that it adds two more weeks of f*cked up stress to a process that has been more than drawn out and absolutely excruciating, and I really don't know what I'd do if they kicked us back; I think I'd be heading for nervous breakdown territory right there. I used to tell how final test on T2K for Atari was the most stressful thing I'd ever done in the biz. I now wholeheartedly rescind that. Final test at Atari was a holiday, it was a finite process with an end that occurred in just a few weeks."

Looking back to doublecheck how long it's been (pressure can warp the mind!), looks like it's been about 9 weeks thus far in the various post-'code complete' submission stages, which certainly feels like a good while for me for a submission which appears to have been reasonably clean thus far - as I recall (from my deep dark past in development), a single clean submission for the PlayStation 1 was multiples less than that.

In fact, the Microsoft blogger breakfast I attended at GDC discussed some of the frustrations back in March - but that was when content was flowing much less well. Actually, I don't think the approval process has got a lot easier, I just think the XBLA team shoving lots more content through the pipe and the point at which 'approval' starts is much earlier than normal.

The Factors

Here are the things (anecdotally) I believe are contributing to make XBLA cert take a good while:

- Multiple country ratings board approvals (I'd forgotten about this until Minter brought it up, but there's at least the [EDIT: Thanks to commenters for some updates here!] ESRB (America), the USK (Germany), PEGI (pan-European), CERO (in Japan) and the BBFC (England, if over a certain ratings threshold), and others. Each of these needs to individually rate an XBLA title, which is timeconsuming to do and co-ordinate.

- As I noted in the original GDC post (though I don't think this applies to Space Giraffe): "The significant amounts of network-specific testing needed end up taking large amounts of time, because there can be some significant bugs in there. This is something that the Small Arms team mentioned (in their IGS postmortem lecture) as particularly problematic for them, because you can have any combination of AI, same-machine, and online players jousting together in their game."

- In general, indie studios doing games don't always/often have their own in-depth testing facilities, unlike publishers. This presumably means that more pre-'submission' testing is being done directly with Microsoft, as opposed to the old style of game submission, where you made sure the game was completely clean before submitting.

- Localization and checking in multiple languages, both European and in many cases Japanese, can be a massive burden even for small games - both co-ordinating the translators on your end and checking the results with testers on the Microsoft end. This is particularly true for indie/self-published games, where you may be using volunteers or contractors for much of the localization specifics.

- The resettable nature of the final submission process: as Jamie Fristrom mentions when discussing upcoming XBLA title Schizoid: "Coming up later is the certification or TRC - the "technical requirements checklist" - all the console manufacturers do this. And games that have network play have much more elaborate requirements than ones that don't. It takes two weeks to get through cert - and if you fail, it resets. You have to take another two weeks." This isn't that different to conventional TRC standards from Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, though.

So, I seem to remember Chris Satchell pointing the finger just a little bit at developers too at the GDC blogger roundtables, and I was a bit skeptical. But now I note, for example, NinjaBee's Steve Taylor commenting on Band Of Bugs: "To take some responsibility for this (as opposed to claiming it's Microsoft's fault): we certainly thought we were closer to done than we really were. I have to say that including a level editor has not made the final stages very easy!" So there you have it - go light on the Microsoft tarring and feathering, eh?

I believe (and again, please correct me, if it's allowed under NDAs) that part of submitting an Xbox Live Arcade game involves a certain amount of mandatory Microsoft-overseen game testing that you must pay for as the title's developer. Therefore, most indies are likely to leave the majority of their external testing (besides unpaid beta testers, etc) to this part of the project, for obvious cost reasons.

In addition, as we've seen, XBLA developers often announce when their game has _entered_ the final cert/testing phase, and since people are preconditioned to think of this as a 'going gold' type event, they will tend to presume they'll see the game on XBLA 2-4 weeks later. When it's actually more like 8-12 weeks, because there's maybe 2-3 weeks of testing, and then the ratings submission paperwork, then some overlap while all the ratings are grabbed, and THEN a 2 week submission process which can be failed and restarted.


So... six of one and half a dozen of the other - and it's the radical transparency which is really an issue in some ways, alongside the often necessary rigors (and yes, sometimes irksome bureaucracy!) of launching a game worldwide. Of course, this is all a major reason for XBLA indies to sign up with a publisher, and pay them to deal with all the submission, ratings, and localization stress.

But at that point, a lot of the indie advantages in terms of actually getting paid competitively are lost. *sigh*. Someone should set up a not-for-profit service bureau to help all those poor XBLA self-publishers not lose their mind, really. Still, let's all look at Katamari Ramacy 'til we feel better, eh?

Next Wave's Free Play Blasts Indie Game Gospel

- We actually ran this on Gamasutra yesterday, but it's highly GameSetWatch-relevant and worth amplifying here, so I thought I'd go ahead and do just that (thanks to Brandon Boyer for writing the original!):

"Australian biennial festival Next Wave has announced the return of Free Play, its day-long indie gaming conference that this year will see a keynote by Braid developer Jonathan Blow, coming August 18th to Melbourne's Australian Centre for the Moving Image [also the site of the current 'Best Of The IGF' exhibition.]

Free Play organizers say the conference caters to "independent and DIY game developers, creatively frustrated professionals, game development students, digital artists and new media academics."

Designed for "independent voices, small budget creators, and those who don’t fit the pre-packaged sales strategies," the conference provides a forum for Australia's indie developer scene to "share knowledge, showcase their work and initiate new projects."

At this year's keynote, Blow will discuss his forthcoming time-shifting platformer Braid and talk about turning an idea into a functional prototype. In addition, Interzone's Robert J Spencer will also provide a keynote on the "importance of independent games, and how they are crucial to the gaming industry as an art form."

Elsewhere, the conference will offer a number of workshops given by industry experts, including sessions on sensor driven games, games and politics, how to succeed long-term in the gaming industry, how to run an independent gaming business and a session that teaches you how to create your own game in eight easy steps. For registration information and to see the full program, visit the official Free Play 2007 website."

July 31, 2007

JayIsGames Pumps Up The 'Replay' Value

- Delighted to see that free Flash game site JayIsGames has posted the winners of its 3rd Casual Gameplay Design Competition, and it's a fine crop of freely playable titles overall, made to a 'replay' theme - the overall winner is 'Gimme Friction Baby' by Wouter Visser.

The general explanation of 'Gimme Friction Baby' is that the game is "...an unusual and unique strategy game of skill based on a very simple idea. The "replay" theme in this game is good old replay value: a challenging game with addictive qualities that will have you coming back to it time and time again." If I can be slightly less vague, the title is sorta a friction-based Puzzle Bobble involving cannoning expanding, numerically decreasing numbered balls off each other. Wow, was that less vague?

Actually, there's some interesting controversy of whether the concept of replay should be integral to the game design of the winner, or whether the game should just be very 'replayable' - ambiguous, to be sure. But what's clear to me is that JayIsGames continues to attract some of the most beautifully designed Flash games around (the last competition, based on the 'Grow' game concept, also heralded some great titles). Long may it continue. [Semi-via Waxy.]

GameSetLinks: Eyes Blur, Pac-Man Dines

- Wow, it's been pretty darn busy for me since I got back from holiday, so only now do I get a chance to do some GameSetLinks - interesting but quirkier links that we didn't want to blow up to a full post here on GameSetWatch, but are absolutely awesome in their own right. And they are:

- Pac-Man CE, Long Exposure Version: Over at The-Inbetween.com, there's a great post with long-exposure pictures of Pac-Man Championship Edition for XBLA, and as Mike Nowak notes: "I think most of them were six second exposures. Maybe ten. And yes, as I mention on the Flickr page, the idea for these is totally borrowed from Rosemarie Fiore’s long exposures." And you know, I really like the results.

- Worst. Mag Covers. Evah: GSW's very own Kevin 'Magweasel' Gifford just wrote a fun post for IDG's Games.net rounding up the worst game mag covers ever, and since he's the don of the history of the genre, he comes up with neato, scary-ish stuff: "The twelve game-mag covers you're about to see feature the worst of the worst, the most terrifying things to ever stalk the racks. Proceed on at your own peril!"

- Deltahead's MGS2 Critique: The very 'intense' folks at Deltahead, who are still working on the Segagaga Dreamcast translation, it appears, have posted 'Driving Off the Map: A Formal Analysis of Metal Gear Solid 2', and the lyrical preface is a warm, happy, slightly obsessive place to start: "My friends breathed loudly on the floor and couch, growing stubble and dreaming. The blinds cut morning into boards of light that stacked through cold cigar smoke. If games like MGS2 were possible, I decided, then the medium was worth rediscovering."

- Gamelab Debates Wii Fit: The smart New York game designers at Gamelab (y'know, Diner Dash!) have launched a brand new company website (for which I can't find an RSS feed, ack), but as an example of the fun, readable content, two employees debate Nintendo's Wii Fit, with K. Thor Jensen commenting: "I understand that the 'lifestyle software' trend is birthed in Japan and may seem Japan-centric, but the unexpected side effect of that movement is that it's working here and it's working elsewhere." Great read.

- Super Mario: GameJew's Opera: The perceptive Dessgeega has been critiquing a fun new project: "jonathan mann’s (gamejew) super mario opera adds lyrics - voice - to the koji kondo melodies we’ve heard many times, giving us an existentialist drama about a simple man, a worker and lover, drawn by forces he cannot control toward the right side of the screen. mario’s overalls seem big on the skinny mann; his mario, who had been prepared to live out his days in peace with the princess, is ill at ease with the role that is forced upon him: hero, killer. even as he becomes increasingly aware of his place in an endlessly recurring cycle of violence."

- My Nineteenth Nervous Brickdown: The New Gamer has done some enchanting impressions of odd, obscure new DS title Nervous Brickdown, as follows: "I was skeptical that anyone could pull off a 'modern' interpretation of a Breakout/paddle-and-ball game that was engaging and original but, thanks to a litany of uniquely themed levels and an interesting mishmash of mechanics, they managed to do so in spades!" Some good theoretical comments on how the two screens interact, too.

- Area/Code Goes Shark Running: The charming Alice @ Wonderland Blog has pointed out new webgame Sharkrunners, made for Discovery Channel's Shark Week by Area/Code, and "...a persistent game of oceanic exploration and high stakes shark research. Players take on the role of marine biologists who seek to learn as much as possible about sharks through advanced observation techniques. In the game, players control their ships, but the sharks are controlled by real-world white sharks with GPS units attached to their fins." Intriguing game design, to say the least.

The History Of Activision

- Over at big sister website Gamasutra, sometime GSW columnist J.Fleming has posted an in-depth history of major publisher Activision - and, as the intro notes, the massive company now in charge of franchises from Guitar Hero to Tony Hawk and beyond: "...started with just four game developers leaving Atari in 1979."

Co-founder and Pitfall! creator David Crane gave an extensive interview for the piece, noting of just why the initial four Activision founders departed Atari: "A memo was circulated from the marketing department showing the prior year’s cartridge sales, broken down by game as a percentage of sales. The intent of the memo was to alert the game development staff to what types of games were selling well."

He continued: “This memo backfired however, as it demonstrated the value of the game designer individually. Video game design in those days was a one-man process with one person doing the creative design, the storyboards, the graphics, the music, the sound effects, every line of programming, and final play testing. So when I saw a memo that the games for which I was 100 percent responsible had generated over $20 million in revenues, I was one of the people wondering why I was working in complete anonymity for a $20,000 salary." Oh boy.

July 30, 2007

The UK Guardian On Dying In Games

- Matteo Bittanti is kind enough to point out a new UK Guardian article discussing 'Why Do We Have To Die In Games?' - a thoughtprovoking, if slightly odd question.

Here's some notable parts: "But where's the fun in endlessly replaying a level? Gamers are unequivocal: "Dying gives a game meaning", say posters on the PC Advisor forums. Markus Montola, a researcher at Tampere University in Finland, takes this further: "You have a motivation - to avoid being annoyed by dying. Motivation is what makes the game meaningful.""

What's more: "Pete Hines - vice-president at Bethesda, the developer behind the role-playing game Oblivion and its expansion pack, Shivering Isles - agrees. "Having your character die or fail is important because your actions have to have some meaning in the game, and to you... But is the death of your character the right way to give a game meaning? Peter Molyneux of Lionhead, the developer of Fable, Black & White and The Movies, says: "A fight has to cost the player something, or it loses its meaning. Previously, that cost was time and tedium [in replaying a level]. But is that the right cost?""

Molyneux goes on to suggest that we should rethink death: "Have you ever seen a film where the hero dies and dies again? The tension in an action film almost always comes from hammering a hero so hard that he almost dies - and then he leaps back up." Not entirely sure how this fits into gameplay - but it's good to see a mainstream newspaper getting so far into interesting game theory issues - the Guardian has always been fairly well-advanced that way, what with its Gamesblog.

Opinion: Sony's Worst PSN Enemy? PS1 Conversion Sloth!

- Now, this isn't a new subject, but it's one that is worth returning to - what on Earth is Sony doing with bringing PlayStation 1 games to the PS3's PlayStation Store in the West? As can be seen from the Wikipedia list, there's still a terribly sparse collection of PS1 re-releases - with only a couple of non-Sony titles available, and no regular schedule.

This has been particularly bothering me because I noticed SiliconEra has covered the latest Japanese batch of PS1 releases on PSN, posted at the end of July, and look - 14 new games, including Armored Core, King's Field, Wild Arms, the Jumping Flash sequel Robbit Mon Dieu, and more. That's 14 in one month - from a whole host of different publishers.

The month before that? There were 19 PlayStation 1 games on the Japanese PSN, including SNK titles such as Metal Slug and The King of Fighters '99, the awesomely abstract Sony title Depth, XI/Devil Dice, and others. And they have a nice monthly groove down for making a big chunk of titles available - not as cool as weekly, but it's a good start.

Anyhow, as the Japanese have spotted, having the PSN-downloadable games playable on both the PSP and PS3 for one low price ($5.99) is tremendously good for consumers. Plus, it's a really easy way for third-party companies to monetize their back catalog, because practically all they have to do is hand over the original game - emulation does the rest.

So sure, I can understand that licensed titles might be a bit trickier, but Sony - what is going on here? The only explanation I can see is that SCEJ is organized and has personnel in place to license and put out the material, and SCEA and SCEE aren't. And why? From what I've heard off the record and seen on the record, not having a central office/organization for its online endeavors has hurt Sony significantly. There are multiple overlapping offices working on various elements of Sony's online network and software, from SOE through Sony Santa Monica to Foster City and beyond.

In some ways, collaboration is tremendous, but I think a great example of how Sony's structure is leading to oddness is Sony Online licensing 6 Midway titles for PSN. Uh, why not just get Midway to do them itself, like it does for XBLA? My view is that it's because jurisdiction was unclear, and the outward-facing nature of the PlayStation Network just wasn't there in January 2007. And it'd better be there soon, and Sony had better be talking to third-party publishers about PS1 downloadable games right now, otherwise a major digital distribution advantage is rapidly being lost.

Video Games: The Danger Of The Free

- Over at his blog, Microsoft's Kim Pallister has posted an opinion piece called 'What should World of Warcraft and David Copperfield both fear?'. Apparently, that's "...someone giving away what they charge for, and tanking their business in the process" - and the piece rambles its way to some interesting insights on what's happening.

As Pallister notes: "At Casual Connect this year, there was a lot of talk about the big media companies (e.g. MTV/Viacom) coming into the space. What I don't think people grokked though, is that not only will they come in and compete for the same customers, but they may completely upset the apple cart in an effort to get those gamers interested in their IP (and thus watching the shows, buying the dolls, eating up all the Hollywood soup and washing it down with a sugary, fizzy dose of free-to-play branded MMO."

He concludes: "So the thought exercise for you (as I try to bring this in for a landing), is what do you do when your competitor's business model suddenly is "free"?" And indeed, this is the great wonder and the great potential issue on the Web and for, really, any non-console platforms.

Given that casual games are, indeed, relatively cheap to make compared to AAA-style PS3/Xbox 360 games, don't you think it's possible that many of the mainstream will get their 'fill' of games from the free Flash-based ones? Won't this be even more true as companies turn to games and virtual worlds to advertise and cross-market their products? It's certainly an interesting potential dilemma for the game biz - and one not enough people are thinking about.

July 29, 2007

Mr. Robot Gets Kotaku Game Club Treatment

- You may remember that I mentioned I'd helped pick some worthy indie titles for Kotaku's new concept, Game Club, where yep, in-depth group discussion of intriguing games are made, and Brian Crecente is indeed Oprah. Anyhow, the first Game Club Beta has been announced, and it's for Moonpod's excellent indie title Mr. Robot.

There are actually a series of posts on Kotaku going through what's happening - as is explained: "The Game Club is going to be conducted via the Internets, meaning, sadly, we won't all be meeting in Fahey's living room over coffee and crumpets to discuss the latest Game Club game. Instead, we will be meeting both on Kotaku and in our Campfire room, which is sorta like a giant chat room." There will then be a complex series of tubes and some liveblogging going on, apparently - first meeting to be next Thursday.

Oh, and there's also a good bonus: "If you do decide to join in the club [and buy the game], use the discount code: gameclub for a 40 percent discount. Make sure to enter the code in the bottom right field of the first screen." I almost think that's more of a discount than the Moonpod folks needed to offer, but hey, whatever works!

What is great about this (from my point of view) is that we're seeing indie titles included in large-scale game website discussion without the typical 'but look, the indie scene!' disclaimer - this is parity at work. And Moonpod sell a heap of copies of their title, I hope. Of course, until GameSpot, IGN, and 1UP set up indie sections or at least start reviewing games like Mr. Robot alongside their other titles, I won't be happy, but this is a tremendous step in the right direction. Kudos, Kotaku.

Opinion: The Future Of UMDs? UMDmother Knows!

- [This week, we ran an interview with Peter Dille on Gamasutra which included the Sony exec defending the UMD format, particularly commenting: "When we launched, there was a proliferation of UMD content [from the major studios], and it wasn't the best strategic fit with the demographic."

We subsequently received an email and a FedEx package from 'UMDmother', whose sons started Silver Platter, aka UMDLab, which called itself "the indie UMD label" and sold a variety of titles, including skateboard, snowboarding, and wrestling UMDs.

Looks like the label is basically dormant now, and the aforementioned 'UMDmother' is selling the current inventory via methods such as eBay. She feels strongly that, if it weren't for the glut of movies unsuitable for normal PSP players, UMD could have been something more than it currently is. And sure, this letter is in some ways a sales pitch, but it's also an impassioned and not completely implausible call for another look at UMDs. So we thought we'd reprint it here on GameSetWatch.]

"Your July 24, 2007 article with Sony's Peter Dille, defending the UMD, was brought to my attention because I am, officially, the First UMDmother.

My sons and their best friend, all industry professionals started a company 2 years ago whose philosophy was, and still is, consistent with what Peter Dille described in this article. They produced, acquired, and designed UMD videos with the PSP consumer in mind, and with the diverse abilities of the device in mind (we also have a unique infinity scroll menu), and sold them at prices that made sense. They have an extensive library of videos, with bonus footage, which unfortunately, even with a national distribution deal signed, never received the respect that they deserved.

The highest rated UMD on IGN.com's website (it's the first title you will see in bold when clicking on editors choice under UMD) is our DC Video UMD. Not from a major studio and never shown in a movie theater; it is a skateboarding video from DC Shoes that also won Best UMD at the 2006 Entertainment Media Expo DVD Awards. For that award we beat out Sin City, Wedding Crashers and the Ali G Show. . While awards and accolades are great, this company was started to bring the highest quality video content available to the PSP consumer.

Because of the early demise of the UMD movie, this company, with all of its awards was never able to get off the ground. I, a 56 year old suburban housewife and now UMDmother, found herself with an inventory of the highest rated UMD videos on the market and decided that I would, and could, sell them all.

And guess what?…Peter was right…there is a demand for these UMD videos produced with the PSP consumer in mind. I sell them on the internet, I sell to gamers, I sell to skateboarders, new school skiers, snowboarders, jiu jitsu enthusiasts. I sell to mothers as gifts, I sell to deployed US military personal.

I sell to their families living on US bases who send them overseas. I have sent our titles around the world (by the way, our UMDs are region free…we even thought that through.) I sell regularly in Canada, the UK and Australia as well as Germany, France, Finland, Spain, Switzerland, Slovakia, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands and Malta just to name a few.

The backlash from the glut of overpriced and inappropriate UMD movies released scared away any potential retailer before our UMDs could achieve market penetration. As the gamer consumer became insulted with the content and price of movies offered on UMD, retailers wanted nothing to do with UMD movies. What I am getting at is that I know we have exactly what the PSP owner is looking for.

I am appealing to you to get our titles the attention they deserve. Our UMDs are the perfect example of what can be done when the PSP demographic, and the PSP's many available applications are taken into consideration in the development of a UMD.

Peter Dille was clear what he thinks about the future of UMDs. It looks to me like our titles and his vision are one and the same; a perfect match. What we need now is for Sony to see their vision realized in our UMDs and give us a fighting chance."

Who Is The Real King Of Kong?

- GameSetWatch has been all over classic game doc King Of Kong since it was signed at Sundance this year, even bringing retro-hungry readers an early review of the movie, which charts the intense Donkey Kong high score rivalry between Steve Wiebe and Billy Mitchell, back in April.

The doc, which opens nationwide on August 17th, and for which there's now a 2 minute-trailer available on Apple.com, has now got a dramatic coda, since, as MTV's Stephen Totilo explains, there's a new Donkey Kong world champion, and - yes, it's still one of the movie protagonists.

MTV News' story says who that is, of course, but if you want to keep the suspense going until you watch the movie (you can deduce who was the DK World Champion in the doc from who is the champion now, if you're being cunning), then don't click through.

All I'll say is that the new champ "...made his record run two weeks ago at an unlikely venue: the '80s-themed annual meeting of the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers in Orlando, Florida." Groovy! And there's "$10,000 to anyone who breaks his new record at the Classic Gaming Expo this weekend in Las Vegas", so who knows, it could all change again?

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