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August 11, 2007

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 8/11/07


On US newsstands right now (finally) is Edge Presents The 100 Best Videogames, Future UK's latest "collector's edition" mook. It hit America about a month and a half after going on sale in England, but on the plus side it's only $12.99 for 260 pages of glossy, beautifully designed, coffee table-style content, a massive discount compared to the £10 UK price.

Unlike Edge's previous "top 100" features (both of their previous attempts, from 2000 and 2003, are reprinted in the back), this one is based off input from the mag's readers and from industry members in the UK and abroad in addition to the editorial staff. Each entry covers at least two pages and features a lovely bit of narrative on the game, a handful of reader comments, and some kind of full-page art piece that personifies the game -- a neat little ghost thing for Pac-Man Vs., a collection of neighbor clip-art for Animal crossing, and a virtual diorama of the game's events for Zelda: OOT, which takes the number-one spot.

The selection (based on games that "stand up to scrutiny today," so almost nothing classic-era) is a bit Euro-centric by necessity, including such titles as Darwinia and Football Manager 2007 beside the more obvious choices, but regardless what you think of the ranking, this is a lovely volume to look at a lovely piece to read. It's also exactly the sort of thing I think magazine publishers in the US should be focusing on instead of yet another 20-page roundup feature telling me nothing I care about, but you've heard that rant before.

Regardless, click on to check out all the new mags that hit stands and mailboxes in the past fortnight. It's August, and Halo fever is raging in magazine-land...

Electronic Gaming Monthly September 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Halo 3

EGM goes for the collector's-edition kick this month again, with three different covers to celebrate their pre-launch Halo 3 coverage. And there's a lot of it, no doubt -- 19 pages, divided between the basic sort of "hey, the graphics are better, the storytelling is neat" introduction and Dan Hsu's in-depth look at all the multiplayer modes. Lots and lots of stuff to go through and process, and if there was anything you weren't quite up on with Halo 3 before now, this will help you catch up, no doubt.

Otherwise, no super big surprises in this issue, unless you count all the Blue Dragon-hating as a surprise. (OK, maybe it's no Dragon Quest, but Jeanne D'Arc is better? Really?) There's a small bit on unexpected license games (like Napoleon Dyamite), and a somewhat larger one on the spread of "casual" games, written in a sort of "Does this mean 'hardcore' games are dead?" angle.

GamePro September 2007


Cover: Halo 3

It's probably a product of my IDG cynicism that I saw GamePro's top story in the "Spawn Point" news section was about Kongregate and I immediately thought the site was owned by IDG. It's not true, even though it's still a funny thing to lead a magazine off with.

The 10 pages of Halo coverage here are quite a bit different from EGM's more traditional approach, however. I have the idea GP didn't have all the Bungie access that EGM did, so they decided to freestyle their piece a little bit -- and, by and large, I think they succeeded. First there's three pages on the "origins" of Halo -- namely, the original game as it first appeared in 1999-2000, complete with antique screenshots and breathless nerdy speculation on what couldn't been (Master Chief fighting dinosaurs?!!). There're bits on games that Halo inspired and was inspired by, a page of game-dev luminaries giving their opinion of the series, and just a bit of new info on the single-player and campaign modes. Very little new info here (especially compared to EGM's databank-like approach), but if you asked which feature I thought was a more lastingly interesting read, I'd have to say GamePro's.

The rest of the mag ain't bad, either, with the tried-and-true "Let's give report cards to all the consoles" feature and the usual mess of previews. One black mark: They spelled it "Back Isle Studios" when answering a reader's question about the fate of the Fallout series.

Tips & Tricks September/October 2007


Cover: Metroid Prime 3: Corruption

I'm not sure whether to be happy or sad to see the new, remade T&T in my mailbox so soon. This is basically Tips & Tricks as it existed around 1998 or so...the editor's letter, opening game-topic feature, and all the columns are gone. In its place: a preview of Metroid Prime 3, strategy guides for Harry Potter and Catan, a handful of previews, and 64 pages of codes. Oh, and pencil puzzles. A small victory, I suppose. Chris Bieniek is back as editor-in-chief, but (like the other staff listed) it's kind of on a freelance basis.

All I can say is "Sorry the experiments didn't work out, guys".

Game Developer August 2007


Cover: Final Fantasy XII

For the layman, the FFXII postmortem is pretty great reading, as project supervisor Taku Murata reveals exactly how much of a pain in the ass it is to put together a Final Fantasy game project these days.

Edge August 2007


I promised a while back that I'd start covering Edge here regularly, and I'm following through on this promise -- even though, to be frank, #178 isn't the most interesting issue they've put out recently. That's not to say it isn't worth buying, but it lacks a truly standout piece this time around.

Highlights include a piece on E3's new place in the industry, the first enthusiast-title print article I've seen on Xbox 360 reliability (why hasn't any US mag touched on this yet?), and feature bits on SOE's The Agency and DICE's Mirror's Edge (a "parkour-inspired adventure" that Edge and the devs try to paint as a whole new way of looking at the first-person shooter genre -- I remain unconvinced). There's also a six-page piece on machinima which seems out of place, considering machinima ain't games.

The most original (to US readers) content in the mag is all in the back, which includes "Time Extend" (a column on overlooked past games) on Gregory Horror Show, a "The Making Of" on Star Wars: KOTOR, and three regular freestyle columns from ancient UK dev Jeff Minter, online-game research dude Tim Guest, and general whiner Mr. Biffo. All fun to read, and the retro-y stuff should prove to be a surprise to people who thought Edge was all about worshiping graphics in previews, then slamming the game in reviews.

[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.]

Xbox Live Arcade: The Coming (Minor) Storm

- Over at XBLArcade.com, they're keeping us way up to date with upcoming Xbox Live Arcade shenanigans, and firstly, they echo the recent XBLA 'coming soon' announcements, including "Ecco the Dolphin, Hexic 2, and War World all coming out this month", plus "...GEON: Emotions, Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, [the pictured] Space Giraffe, Streets of Rage 2, and Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix all arriving "in the coming weeks"."

The site has also linked to screenshots for a bunch of the titles, over at Xbox 360 Fanboy - probably one of the games that you will have seen the least of is pics of War World, developed by Australia's Third Wave Games, and a pretty interesting robot shooter.

Finally, XBLArcade points out a new ESRB rating for Screwjumper!, which may or may not be a Valusoft-published title by a small Wisconsin developer that was entered into the IGF last year, but which the team are going to some trouble to cover up now. But the Internet, she cannot erase everything! Anyhow, looking forward to Screwjumper!, 'whoever' it's by. [Ta to 1UP for previously referenced Space Giraffe pic!]

Computer Games Magazine - The Return?

- Well, no question mark, really, since industry board Quarter To Three has been discussing what's happened to Computer Games Magazine since it was shut down by TheGlobe.com back in March, and the new owner, Paul Travaglino, has stepped forward.

Travaglino reveals in his post: "Yes, I'm trying to re-launch CGM. Website first. Mostly because the site was neglected and some things are not working properly since the acquisition but also because I feel it's the quickest way to reconnect with the audience of the magazine." Indeed, the site, which was down earlier in the week, is up now with a short note from Paul about plans.

Anyhow, Travaglino later adds: "For the record: I basically acquired the intellectual property and content, etc., and assumed only the subscriber-related liabilities. I am negotiating to give all subscribers a subscription to another gaming magazine because I think it's the right thing to do, in the interim. Plus, when CGM re-launches I will honor the original CGM subscription, copy-for-copy."

Finally, why even consider print in today's market? Travaglino, who is also working on Kitchen Magazine (!), explains why he picked up the print-centric property: "I understand publishing. I've done it before. I believe in magazines... printed ones, that is. Although you could argue that computer/video gaming magazines are prime candidates for going digital-only, I still believe that a quality print magazine can differentiate itself from amongst the pack."

For what it's worth, I've been very keen to make sure the Computer Games Magazine legacy isn't completely lost, and was at one point in some fairly serious negotiations with TheGlobe about picking up rights to the back catalog of CGM/Massive. But Paul came in and has worked out a sweeter deal to possibly keep the properties running, and to be honest, that's even better than just archiving the old content. I hope he can work everything out - and maybe we'll look at licensing old content too, as contracts permit!

[UPDATE: Ah, and I just spotted that he's announced it on his blog, so I can reference what former CGM editor-in-chief Steve Bauman is up to: "I’m working as an entry-level associate junior producer-like guy at Redmond’s own Gas Powered Games, makers of fine family entertainment like Dungeon Siege, Supreme Commander, and the just-announced today Space Siege. I am not, however, working on any of those games or franchises or series’ or sequels. Or anything else rumored or announced. In fact, nothing I’m working on actually exists. And if it/they did, I couldn’t tell anyone." Congrats, Steve.]

August 10, 2007

Jon Blow, Indie Games, And Personal Expression

- Over at MTV News, Stephen Totilo has published a extremely in-depth interview with Braid creator Jon Blow, which again highlights what a relatively little amount of discussion there is on the video game as a manifestation of personal artistic expression - something that is absolutely core to creative media as a whole.

I particularly appreciate Blow's support for someone else pursuing personal goals through games: "To name another indie game, “Space Giraffe” has a nice aspect of personal-ness — it becomes clear very quickly that it is what it is because that’s just what Jeff Minter wanted to do. Not because he felt such-and-such was the right way to conform to some notion of what games are, or appeal to certain demographics and sell a lot of copies. He just did what he felt like. It’s very refreshing to see that in another soon-to-be-sold-commercially game."

There's lots more good material in there, but here's the news on when we can hope to see IGF 2006 Innovation Award winner Braid in some kind of public state: "Unfortunately, I can’t give complete details about the game’s release yet. This may happen soon, but who knows. There will definitely be a PC release, and there may be a console release. The release dates depend on various business concerns that haven’t been ironed out yet. I would say, expect to be able to play the game sometime between November 2007 and February 2008."

GameSetLinks: Shunga Shunga Indie Shunga

- Ah, the final set of links that are mainly, uhh, left over from last weekend, and I dearly promise, GSW readers, never to get so far behind again. At least until the next work crunch. Anyhow, here are some semi-forgotten gems:

- Indie Games Of The Month, Millenium: Presuming that most of you noticed that it was, in fact, the last ever GameTunnel Indie Game Review Panel last month - aw. Well, one of the 'guest stars' from that panel, Aquaria co-creator Derek Yu, has compiled his '50 Really Good Indie Games' list with the help of the TIGSource forums, and I like it. A lot. He explains his non-agenda well, too: "The purpose of this list is to aggregate a diverse collection of high quality independent games, and say a little about the significance of each one."

- Insert Credit Goes Shunga: My colleague Brandon Sheffield, who's senior editor on Game Developer, continues to imbue InsertCredit.com with his own personal brand of Japanese game weirdness, obscurity, and quirk, and I quite enjoyed the two recent posts pointing out extremely odd homebrew PC game 'Duel Blasters 3000', by the pseudonymous 'Jack Dark', and the secret 'Shunga' game in it, in which "...you play as a small octopus with the mouse cursor, and try to collect panties while avoiding nautilus." Oh dear.

- How Poses Affect The Feel Of Games: Derek Daniels is the former combat designer for God Of War I and II, and a 2D fighting game fanatic to boot, and he's posted an excellent mini-article on his 'Low Fierce' blog discussing how Zangief's redrawing for Street Fighter [DOUBLE EDIT: Alpha III] affects his 'menace': "Capcom used to have a really great pose with Zangief when he did his Spinning Piledriver from too far away... [in Street Fighter Alpha III] His arms are by his side and it just doesn’t seem as scary. He is also moving a whole lot slower which basically made this move suck compared to how it used to be." It's subtle, but a great point - he has videos on the link, too.

- Hammerfall Brings The Physics: The folks at Fun-Motion have been nice enough to take a detailed look at Hammerfall, "...a gorgeous work-in-progress 2D game out of Russia... Hammerfall’s gameplay is all about swinging around connected bodies. Your mouse directly controls the position of your ship; move it up and your ship flies up. Your weapon—usually a mace or sword—is attached to your ship via a hinge joint. It swings around on its own, but you soon learn to control it deliberately." They have hosted videos, too, and I'm salivating already.

Finally, some leftover randomness of various additional, shorter kinds:

- PSN List From Heaven!: I just found out NeoGAF has a great listing of all the PlayStation Network downloads worldwide, even listed by territory. Handy!

- What Gameblogs MIT Reads?: We didn't just link it cos it mentions GSW, but the MIT Press blog has a good listing of academic/alternative thinking game blogs, and, OK, we did!

- Behold The Kunkel!: Sadly, U.S. game mag Tips 'N Tricks has semi-closed down recently - or at least morphed away from having full-time editors - but I very randomly stumbled across a video of legendary mag editor Bill Kunkel showing us just what he does, over on VideoJug.com. A historical document, no less.

Feldman, Perry, Nguyen Pop Up At GameTap

- So, Turner-funded 'all you can eat' (and partly free!) subscription game service GameTap opened a San Francisco office recently, eh? It's headed by VP Ricardo Sanchez and "...a team of GameTap employees focusing primarily on licensing and content", eh?

Well, Angled Whiteboards points out that the GameTap 'Read' section is now open, and good lord, it continues the high-end ways of GameTap's aspirations, having accumulated a whole bunch of high-profile journalists from GameSpot, IGN, Ziff Davis and beyond.

Specifically, it looks like some of the most well-known editorial folks working on the site from the new San Francisco office are former GameSpot veteran Curt Feldman, working on news, and IGN's Douglass C. Perry, writing about Halo and a bunch of other titles in features, preview, and review form.

Other folks I note are also posting include Ziff veterans Dana Jongewaard and Thierry Nguyen, as well as Jon Robinson, Paul Davies, Tom Price, Giancarlo Varanini, and Jason Allen. Not sure if all of these above folks are full-time, but I know a bunch are - so this is suddenly and automatically one of the bigger-staffed editorial websites out there, and it's interesting in that it's running completely independent game news, previews, reviews and features thus far - not even referencing GameTap titles. Blimey!

August 9, 2007

Mayhew Talks Innocence, Gabriel, Wii Games

- Art-game site Tale Of Tales is continuing to do sterling work, and now, they've interviewed Ceremony of Innocence creator Alex Mayhew, discussing his attitude to art, games, and everything in between in a lovingly laid-out piece.

Firstly, if you're not aware of Mayhew's work: "Developed at Peter Gabriel’s Real World, Ceremony of Innocence was one of many interactive projects that embraced CD-Roms as the ultimate means of distributing rich interactive content back then. Hardly any of those projects would be called a game these days, but many of them had an aesthetic and conceptual maturity that computer games, be they mainstream or independent, are still desperately aching to achieve. In 1998, the future was within our grasp!"

And later in the interview, Mayhew discusses just what he wants to do if given the chance to work on the Wii: "Wii Play fishing shows that small gestures can be just as exciting and engaging as big gestures. I would really welcome the chance to develop for it as it sits really well with the kind of direction I would like to take things. However I would not repurpose old work for it so the question becomes void. I would want to design especially for the platform, which may mean exploring a number of movements including less delicate ones."

COLUMN: The Aberrant Gamer: 'Persona 3: Two-Faced'

-[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.]

Much has been made of the role of player choice in games. Choice, after all, not only crafts the experience, but creates an impression of character moreso; after all, there are many games, particularly in the RPG genre, where you’re given a choice of how to respond to questions or in conversation that has little to no bearing on gameplay or plot. Rather, the act of selecting whether to give an affirmative response or an ambivalent one – even when the effect is ultimately the same – connects the player to the character, allows him to express his own feelings through the protagonist.

This is especially true for the so-called “silent protagonist”; the character who has no distinct personality of his own aside from the way the player chooses to have him express himself. This was a nearly omnipresent convention in an earlier, simpler time, when storylines were far more basic and game engines much more limited. As the role of story and characterization in games became more sophisticated alongside the games themselves, the experience became more about getting to experience a character with an interesting destiny, a difficult personality, or some foreign internal conflict we could enjoy vicariously. We learned to become the individual that the game asked us to be, and the silent protagonist quietly became extinct.

Still, truth is often stranger than fiction, as the adage goes, and can often be much more illuminating. In a voiceless protagonist’s silence, we can often hear ourselves. But can that silence actually create characterization? And more importantly, can it create that emotional conundrum that we as gamers so desperately crave – that flashpoint wherein we must choose between power and morality?

The Final Solution

-Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 is a last-gen RPG, bowing in quite a few ways to the conventions of its predecessors. But its leveling system is based less on growing stronger through battle and more on growing more powerful socially – and all of this is accomplished through choice in interaction.

Essentially, the characters do battle by summoning Persona – spiritual creatures that reside in the arcana of the Tarot. Notably, they’re summoned by a self-inflicted shot to the head with a special handgun called an Evoker. The brief and repeated “suicides” of attractive young teenagers are arresting, particularly in the way that each student delivers the Evoker’s shot in a personal way – some to the temple, others to the forehead, or under the chin.

This gains particular resonance against the game’s central plot: in the “Dark Hour” that hides between midnight and 1:00 AM, monsters called Shadows prey on the populace. They inflict not death, but a personality-flattening psychological illness called Apathy Syndrome. Gunshots to the head in a dead hole of night might seem like the victims’ end result, not the heroes’ solution – but it is by summoning Persona that the kids’ team combats the Shadows as they descend to the heart of the mystery surrounding the Dark Hour.

The true character-building takes place in the light of day, though, alongside sunny music and an ordinary school day. During these times, there’s no combat at all – but you grow your Persona by forming relationships with others. As those bonds deepen, corresponding Persona grow stronger. And even though the sun is out, the game’s sinister vibe doesn’t evaporate.

Social Climbing

It takes some time, as the in-game days pass, for this to become clear. Soon it’s revealed that you might need to improve yourself in some areas before certain individuals will give you the time of day – become a better student, more charming, more courageous. Staying up late at night, nose in your books, may make you appear a diligent student. But the truth is, you’re trying to gain entry to an exclusive club. You’re not motivated so much by a desire to do well on finals (and the game does test you) as you are by a desire to get close to your lovely, mysterious Senpai.

During your social interactions with other characters, the improvement of your relationship with them is determined by how much they like your answers to their questions. Unlike other “pick a response” scenarios in RPGs, where there’s a “right” answer and a “jerk” answer, the complexity of interaction in Persona 3 raises quite a few challenges for those trained to provide the wholesome answer.

You’re not trying to be a good person. You’re trying to satiate the other person in order to improve your power. This can be fairly benign – from the cute track team captain asking you to confirm that she should eat a second lunch, or that she’s right in blowing off her studies – to a little darker. The track team captain has hurt his knee, but is determined to keep training. In order to maintain his respect, you must discourage him from relaxing.


In the same week that you salve a lonely old couple with your resemblance to their son and play with a child in the park, you encourage a classmate to have relations with a teacher. You join the Art Club, the Track Team, and the Student Council – and spend all Sunday holed up with your room, encouraging the hermetic sensibilities of an emotionally unsettled girl you meet in an MMO.

The overzealous student head of the Disciplinary Committee asks for your collusion in enforcing his irrational rules. When he over-reacts to a bathroom smoking incident, he asks whether he’s in the right. It’s evident to the player that his draconian morality is entirely wrong, and you have the opportunity to set him to rights. But if you want that strength boost for the Emperor arcana to which the disciplinarian belongs, you must concur with him that students shouldn’t have freedom.

Your friends will call you on the weekend or stop by your classroom at lunchtime to ask for your help or your company. But you’ll decline their requests for emotional support because you need more power from another group. The heartbreakingly shy underclassman girl who enjoys reading books with you just wants a bit of your attention – but you don’t need anything from her today, so you blow her off.


Your quiet protagonist doesn’t impose any morals whatsoever on the player – but he takes you to that place with him, the sense of deep duality, of showing a drastically different face to one individual than you show another all for the sake of getting stronger, and it’s deliciously insidious. Of course, all of this manipulation of individuals is for the sake of saving the world, right? But in a strange twist, the story progression gradually reveals that Shadows seem to strike those who manipulate and bully others. You’re placed firmly in a moral gray area, providing a wonderful sense of uncertainty about your fate.

The series’ title, often foreshortened to simply Persona, refers overtly to the battling spirits induced by that morbid headshot. But in the psychology of Carl Jung, it has another meaning: The mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment and not representing the inner personality of the individual; the public personality. That’s fitting.

The inner personality of the protagonist is the jurisdiction of the player; we can fill him with our own soul, even as the game forces us to use Personae both in battle and in the player’s life. Hard to tell what consequences, if any, the game will levy for your manipulations, but the necessity of manipulating friends who depend on us, even when it may do them harm, provides a dark overtone even to the sunniest school day. It makes us as players really think about those once-boring rote responses in RPGs, and that’s something rather special.

[Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 releases in the US for the PlayStation 2 on August 14th.]

[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.]

Gaming & Libraries: The State Of The Shhh

- Over at The Shifted Librarian, Jenny Levine has been discussing the recently concluded Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium, and it's totally awesome to see the library community so actively involved in promoting video games in a public environment - it may be one of the key stealth ways that games continue to infiltrate society at large.

Firstly, Levin notes: "Several attendees blogged the sessions. You can find all posts tagged GLLS2007 at http://technorati.com/posts/tag/glls2007, where there is great coverage by The Utopian Library, Research Quest, and The Flying Keyboard. Thanks to these folks for their contributions."

In addition, Levine notes: "Beth Gallaway started a Gaming, Learning, and Libraries Symposium Ning network to keep the discussion going. If you're at all interested in the topic, please join and help us expand the conversation." There's already some cool discussions going on there, actually - and I hope this continues for some time.

August 8, 2007

GameSetLinks: EA's Catwoman Sashays Into Your Heart?

- These GameSetLinks are a little tardy, dear readers, but there's all kinds of randomness here, so it'd be a shame to waste it on the 'Unpublished' bin, isn't it? Here we go:

- Street Fighter Tactics Unmasked: At David Sirlin's blog, he's been analyzing his Super Street Fighter II performance at Evo West, and it's fun to read just from a super-duper hardcore competition point of view: "DSP completely destroyed me first round. I think this confirmed everyone's fears that I had no idea what I was doing and that Honda was a terrible choice. Furthermore, I got hit by whiffed roll into bite and hop into bite. I think this must have looked like I was too old and had too bad of reaction time to stop it. Actually, this is not at all true. I knew he would jab roll into bite. I knew he would hop into bite." It continues for some time!

- Games Fun, Games Good?: On the Museum 2.0 blog, Nina Simon has been discussing the recent Ian Bogost articles on Gamasutra from a curatorial perspective, and it's interesting stuff: "The problem is that it's very hard to separate the expectations we have--about what games or comics are--from the blank slate potential of the media. This is true both for we the designers, who think we have to make games fun, and we the visitors, who expect the gaming experience to be fun. But what about games that are "interesting?" Or "enlightening?" Or "useful?" Those words aren't part of our gaming vocabulary, or if they are, as in the case of educational games, those games are often considered traitors to the "real" nature of games."

- Game Style Guide Evolved: At the IGJA's home base, David Thomas has been discussing the Video Game Style Guide (or Videogame Style Guide, if you prefer!) I think I've mellowed a bit since my previous style guide comments, so you know, horses for courses - what's to stop people from getting interested in this if they really believe in it? And hey, there's a Style Guide Wiki now, for those who want to come and contribute. Go check it out!

- Catwoman, Cha Cha Cha!: Over at Game Of The Blog, Joel has been exploring Electronic Arts' terrible Catwoman, and he comments: "It was frustrating as hell, but it has a certain charm. What other game lets you collect bling?" More tragically: "After about a minute of standing still, the Halle Berry simulacrum begins to bump, grind, wink, ask if you "Like what you see?" and beckons you to "Come closer baby", all the while fondling her digital bits to a low key techno beat." Yes, Joel made a video. Oh dear.

- Rein Vs. Dyack - The Thriller!: I originally didn't link this because I thought everyone saw it via the ubiquitous NeoGAF, but now I've been chatting to a few people, I realize not everyone did - it's 'Mike Works' Thriller' [YouTube link], which deals with the whole Silicon Knights vs. Epic lawsuit in somewhat, uhh, 'epic' form - by co-opting Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' video and adding some serious satire. Watch for the CliffyB cameo at the end!

Holy NanaOnsha Interview, Batman!

- As we reported on Gamasutra, Sony BMG has picked up NanaOn-Sha's muzika for the iPod, "...an original music visualizer game on the iTunes Store", and a very neat-looking abstract music game.

Even more neat, Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft has an in-person interview with NanaOn-Sha in Tokyo which is smart and neatly photo-illustrated. A couple of highlights: "What does he think about music and rhythm games becoming popular in America, years after they hit it big in Japan? "America's market is smart. They watched how the Japanese market went. After it decayed, they released those types of games in America. Very smart.""

Also filling me with joy for future downloadable games (and I feel like concept-heavy NaNaOn-Sha titles may work the best in the $10-$20 price range!): "Are you interested in Xbox Live Arcade or the PlayStation Network? "Both," Matsuura answers. "And the Virtual Console. I'm really interested in [email protected] We should think about connecting those very useful and great ideas for everybody into a game. Unfortunately, [email protected] is not a game. I really want to do something with it."" That's abstraction at work, folks!

Reminder: California Extreme This Weekend, 'Film Festival' Added!

- We got an email from Bowen Kerins of the California Extreme organizing team (whom I remember from rec.games.pinball in about 1994, heh), and he was kind enough to both remind GSW readers that the awesome retro event is happening this weekend in San Jose, and also mention some v. interesting movies being played alongside that event:

"Hey there, I was clicking through your Cinema Pixeldiso archives and noticed reviews of "King of Kong" and of "High Score". This Saturday night, August 11, those two films along with "Chasing Ghosts" (another arcade-themed documentary) will be screened at the San Jose Marriott as part of California Extreme. Additionally, Bill Carlton (star of "High Score") will give a Q&A and play a little Missile Command."

As Kerins explains: "CA Extreme is an arcade show with 1500 attendees, playing 400+ video and pinball games set on free play all weekend. The film festival is included with admission to the show." Also, as I commented in June, the show is really, really worth going to if you like retro arcade games and pinball machines in any way and live in the Bay Area. Also, I noted back then:

"I've previously listed some of the awesome and incredibly rare titles that are brought by collectors in recent years - and AtariGames.com has posted lots of pictures from last year's turn-out for those interesting in ogling some more. And look, here's three generations bonding over the potentially arm-snapping Panic Park, yay. Basically, if you're in the Bay Area, and you love arcade/pinball machines, you can't miss this show - it simply isn't allowed."

Kongregate, Unity Help Out IGF 2008

- For those keeping up with the 2008 Independent Games Festival, to be held at GDC next February in San Francisco, and which we help run, there's some good news for those wanting to enter web-based games and not wanting to, uh, pay. Here's the skinny from Matthew Wegner:

"Firstly, Flash game site Kongregate is running a competition where its 10 highest rated games of the year, as of September 15th 2007, will be entered into the IGF "Best Web Game" category free of charge."

"Secondly, OTEE is running a game development competition for developers using Unity, their 3D game development tool. The contest is for online games played in a web browser using the Unity Web Player. In addition to a cash award and other prizes, the five contest finalists will each be entered into the IGF's “Best Web Game” category free of charge."

Both of these announcements should help those competing for Best Web Game who release their game for free, and may have therefore balked at the $95 entry fee. (Previous winners of the category include Dad 'N Me and the pictured Samorost 2.) Matthew also reminds that the deadlines for the competition [EDIT: Produced by CMP, as is GameSetWatch, just so we're clear!] is "...October 1st for the main competition and October 15th for the student competition (just 56 and 70 days to go, respectively)."

August 7, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': King, King, King Gamer!

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers a recent TV anime series where the skill of one gamer literally saves the human race.]

overmanad.jpgThe real robot revolution led by Yoshiyuki Tomino had a pretty bleak narrative outlook for most of the eighties and nineties. All the series he created invariably had the entire cast summarily bumped off, to the point he was given the nickname of “Kill ‘em all Tomino”. He also went a bit weird towards the end of the nineties.

Exiting that chrysalis of weirdness into the new millenium, Tomino started to create real robot shows that were markedly different from his previous apocalyptic visions (for a start a lot less people died). If anything Tomino became more innovative and open to newer ideas from the younger generation. One recent series in particular, that of Overman King Gainer, actually went so far as to have a super hardcore gamer as the nerdy protagonist.

Naturally, this crossover of contemporary gaming pop-culture into the world of robot related anime is something that warms my black heart.

PDVD_005.jpgFrom the eclectic opening with bizarrely futuristic mecha performing a dance move known as “the monkey” and the dulcet tones of Yoshiki Fukuyama accompanying the surreal aesthetic proceedings, Overman King Gainer is a show that makes its mark quite quickly.

The narrative precept is that the future is environmentally ravaged and one where the planet is undergoing a mild ice age. The remains of humanity live in domed cities under an autocratic rule. However, many wish for a better (and warmer) life on the shores of a mythical land called Yapan. As such, many attempt to go on an exodus to this so called land but few actually make it, either due to the harsh weather conditions or the fact that their government has a habit of tracking them down and shooting them in the face.

king_gainer_mecha.jpgThe series starts with Gainer Sanga achieving a 200th consecutive win on an online mecha game (obviously), to which he is crowned as King Gainer. However, on the outskirts of Gainer’s domed city, called Wulgusk, is a man by the name of Gain Bijou who has been drafted in to help with a secret exodus. Gain is an expert sniper and generally a bit of a tough lad and it’s intimated that due to their similar names of Gainer and Gain, both are imprisoned due to Gain’s seedy past. So the Tomino narrative tumble begins, where Gainer (the nerdy gaming kid) is roped in with a bunch of exiled misfits and inadvertently responsible for piloting a super futuristic mecha called an overman (which Gainer naturally calls King Gainer, after his gaming moniker).

Over the course of 26 episodes Gainer proves his gaming worth by thwarting the various government troops (sent by London IMA and the Siberian Railway Patrol), only to face the real menace behind the environmental catastrophe that befell our meagre planet in the not too distant past (hint: it's an ice spewing super robot that looks like a pig).

PDVD_022.jpgJust prior to Gainer's inevitable date with a Tomino narrative climax, there are a few points that are relevant to the contemporary gaming cause. For one Gainer still plays the game that crowned him in the first episode and throughout the series his rival, that of Cynthia Lane, plays an important role. Not only is she an ardent gamer but also an equally potent overman pilot (her overman is inspired in terms of design and almost gleefully embodies gaming functionality in an animated form).

The truly interesting aspect of Gainer's gaming addiction is when he blurs the line between the real world and the virtual.

Now, before you roll your eyes this isn't some kind of hellish misinterpretation of gaming culture (a la Virtuosity, which is a truly awful film if you are ever subjected to it) but something actually quite insightful and profound.

PDVD_001.jpgIn one of the final episodes of the series Gainer is tasked with pushing his senses to the limit, he needs to strengthen his oversense to tackle a particularly potent foe (the demon ice pig in case you're wondering) and he approaches the task by improving his gaming skill within the context of piloting his overman. This means Gainer ends up competing in a worldwide tournament whilst fighting real world overmen forces. This translates to him having a video console open in his cockpit as he is slaying multiple actual opponents.

This is very interesting for one very good reason; that gaming is understood well enough to be something that is regarded by the mainstream audience (at least in Japan) as something that expands the senses. This chimes in rather wonderfully with several psychological studies which espouse the cognitive virtues of gaming (you know, the ones that equate gamer reaction times to that of astronauts and athletes).

ace3_jacket.jpgThere's even a nice nod to the older generation as the grandmother of Cynthia is astounded that an overman pilot is resorting to gaming as a means of improving their oversense, though thankfully one of the cast regulars is on hand to diffuse the situation by stating that it's perfectly fine and that's how kids today go about "relaxing".

Naturally, if I was a self aggrandizing ponce I'd be pontificating about the post modern ramifications of something like that but instead it just fills me with cautious optimisim. Tomino is definitely from an age were tolerance, let alone understanding, for gaming would be a cultural insult. Yet, he has embraced the contemporary generation's passion and enthusiasm for this burgeoning medium. To the extent that he's structured an entire series around the premise that personal enlightenment can also include the pursuit of ninja gaming skills.

Tomino also went out of his way to really sculpt the visual aspects of the series as well. All the traditional mecha designs were admittedly handled by Kimitoshi Yamane but all the overman designs were created by none other than Akira Yasuda (of Capcom fame). In addition, Tomino and Yasuda worked closely to create each of the overmen's "overskills", with some of them being truly inventive (such as being able to locally control time).

So why care about an anime series from 2003? Despite the narrative connection to gaming, King Gainer will be appearing in the upcoming Another Century's Episode 3 this September. This is the first time any of the overmen will actually make it into a game, unbelievably they have yet to be featured in a Super Robot Wars game. As such, the series has come full circle; where a fictional gamer became a mecha pilot and saved the world, we'll now be able to tread in Gainer Sanga's footsteps and do likewise (well, kinda).

king_gainer_op.gif[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

GameSetNetwork: From Ragnarok To Doppelganger

- Time to take a little look at what the various sister sites to GSW have been up to over the past few days - since there's a few game industry-related articles which seem particularly relevant to the GameSetWatch audience. And here they are:

- Just posted this morning on Gamasutra: BioWare's QA director Phillip DeRosa has written a piece called 'Tracking Player Feedback To Improve Game Design', which deals with how game developers can use statistics, even before a game is released, to improve gameplay. DeRosa "...explains how the Mass Effect creator has set up and executed code-based monitoring of key metrics to test, analyze, and refine its projects through playtesting." An approach I suspect more developers should be using - or maybe are!

- Over at Gamasutra yesterday, we posted a rare interview with Hak Kyu Kim, whom, as we explain: "...may not be the most familiar name to Western audiences, but he created one of the most popular Asian MMOs in the early days of the Western online market: Ragnarok Online... Now he's launched his new MMO, Sword of the New World (called Granado Espada elsewhere in the world), with his new company IMC Games." Nice to see this detailed an interview with an Asian MMO creator.

- Just up on our new WorldsInMotion weblog: a hands-on preview of new online world vSide, "...the network of stylish virtual urban hotspots that his company's currently developing." Looks like an interesting, sophisticated world, actually: "We met up with our guide in the RaiJuku district, a sleek urban environment with a distinctly Japanese architectural feel. As Tim told us when we recently spoke, vSide's areas are each designed to create an impression of cultural location without being bound by architectural fidelity."

- Another notable interview posted on Gamasutra at the end of last week: 'Narrative Design For Company Of Heroes: Stephen Dinehart On Writing For Games', and it's notable for a mature (no pun intended!) approach to writing for WWII games from the Relic narrative designer: "We make this material for adults, hence the Mature ESRB rating, and as such I assume they are at a maturity level where they can analyze the game and narrative system as presented. In that, I hope they see a story there of struggle, a battle of morals and nations that shed the blood of the common man in an effort to save Europe."

@Play: 'A Journey to Table Mountain, Part 2'

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

Here we continue into the second half of a particular long game of Shiren the Wanderer. Part one is available here.

Early in part one I had found one of the best objects in the game, a Far-sight Bracer, which reveals the locations of all items and monsters while it is worn. Few roguelikes offer items like this because such knowledge can be extremely useful in those game. Items are the primary reward for exploration in roguelikes, and knowing where they all are also shows the player when no more are to be found. Monsters are the primary source of danger, and knowing their locations lets the player know where to avoid. And both reveal, indirectly, the locations of rooms and corridors. Even Nethack's Amulet of ESP only works over the whole level if the player is blind.


Many of the monsters later on in Shiren seem quite overpoweringly difficult. Not only do Flame Priests hit hard with a flame attack that the player's shield doesn't help much with, but if a Dragon Herb is used on one it just makes things worse....


These monsters aren't so bad, but they can curse equipped shields. They don't damage shields though, only curse them, and it costs them a turn to curse that they could have used to smack the player around. Curses in Shiren follow the Rogue pattern, they only affect equipment and the only effect is that it makes them impossible to take off, usually, without aid.

So the Norojo isn't a huge threat. But behind it is a Kigni Tribe, and we'll find out more about them in a bit....


Ah, another shop. They can't get that much business this far into the game, can they?


Disposable Shields are interesting items. They have the highest natural defense of any shield in the game, but every time one takes a hit it loses a point of protection strength.

There is a trick regarding these shields and monster meat items, which transform the player into the form of a monster when eaten in a manner similar (again!) to a Nethack feature, player polymorph. While transformed, the player's equipment still affects his stats, but the degrading quality of Disposable Shields doesn't occur. The player gets all that protection for low cost.

The trick is actually a little over-powered since polymorph doesn't actually make the player stronger or weaker in Shiren, it just makes it harder to use items and maybe gives him a special ability or two. I don't use it in this game, however, because the only sure way to acquire monster meat is to use a Staff of Bufoo, and they don't appear naturally in the dungeon until a certain subquest has been completed.


Chrome Scrolls protect the player's current equipment from damage from monsters or traps. There really couldn't have been a better time for me to find one of these, as the drain floors are coming soon....


Shiren doesn't just take good ideas from Nethack, it takes a couple of (in my opinion, of course) bad ones too.

One of the most unbalancing advanced tricks in Nethack is price ID. It's based on the fact that shopkeepers in Nethack know what all the items are even if the player doesn't, and prices them accordingly. A player who knows the going rates for stuff can greatly narrow down the possibilities by simply dropping things in a store and seeing how much he's offered. Rogue-type roguelikes depend on hiding item identities to make things more challenging, and a lot of the balance is geared towards test-identifying, but few people test-ID in Nethack anymore because there are so many ways to identify things.

Nethack does, in more recent versions, attempt to make this less useful.
There's some variability depending on player Charisma (one of the very few things that stat changes), which must be accounted for. Item prices are arranged in tiers, with a variety of objects of each type having the same price, which helps to keep some info hidden. More deviously, a few items are randomly determined to be more expensive than others, and the price differential has been chosen to put items into the next pricing tier, so once in a while an object will get placed outside its normal price zone. Yet, because there are only a small number of bad items in each tier, a lot of the risk of price-IDing goes away once one of those objects is known. The strange thing about all this is that gold in Nethack is nearly worthless these days except as a source of protection. If they had completely randomized prices the result would probably be less unbalancing than leaving price ID in the game.

Shiren's system uses some of Nethack's price tier idea (you don't see it in these screenshots, but during this game I found two different bracers that cost 10,000), but not taken far enough to foil a sufficently-determined player.


Here's a little roguelike secret. In most games, items that enchant, vorpalize, or otherwise improve equipment almost always remove curses in the process.


This is a fairly interesting monster. In ability they're completely ordinary, except for their willingness to purposely slaughter other nearby monsters to improve their own strength!

There are actually several levels of Kigni Tribe, all of which share the same name and appear similar to each other, so it's not always easy to know just how powerful one of these monsters is when encountered.


Once in a while there are levels where lots of things happen. The random number generator had a lot in store for me here on level 12....


It was here that I managed to identify my back-filled pot, and found it was a Todo Pot. That's still not too bad, as these items allow the player to steal easily from shops, as we'll see later.

Far more ominously in this screenshot, take a close look at the dungeon map. Do you see that roughly box-like region with lots of red and blue dots?

Yep, it's a lair, or as it's called here, a Monster House. In Torneko they were troublesome, but Shiren has far trickier monsters than that game, and also far more powerful treasure to find. Monster Houses can even contain "out of depth" monsters, stronger than the average for that floor. They should never be taken lightly.

If I hadn't been wearing a Far-sight Bracer, I probably would have stumbled upon it by accident.


Next on the list of things scavanged from Nethack: a digging item, the pickaxe.

There are other roguelikes with digging too, but Shiren also contains vaults, rooms disconnected from the normal level structure, to find by digging. How does one find these rooms without digging every square? Oh, if only I had some item equipped that revealed the location of everything on the level....


Yet another another shop again.


Another pot with backs inside. Since we know what the Todo Pot is now, this one's probably the healing type I talked about last time, good.


Okay, here's how to steal with a Todo Pot. Move the store's inventory around so that the stuff you want to steal is directly in front of the door. Then stand outside in the doorway and "push" the pot. A Thieftodo monster will pop out and run forward in a straight line, grab the first item it finds, then return it to the pot and vanish. The item ends up in the pot in place of the "back," and the shopkeeper doesn't notice the object's missing!

Some items are so expensive that, in a normal game, this is the only reasonable way to get them from a shop.


Remember, with most pots, you must throw it against a wall and break it to get its contents.


The Swap Staff trades your position with the monster hit. This may seem like a minor thing, but it actually can have surprising applications. We'll get to those in a bit.


Related to the Swap Staff is the Blowback Staff, which pushes a monster backwards until it hits something. It inflicts very minor damage in the process, but again, pushing has interesting uses.


So then, what did I do with that Monster House?

Why, I left it the hell alone! Sometimes it's best not to take chances. Tackling monster houses is something best done when you've got a good stock of nifty magical aids at the ready to deal with them for you or help you escape if things start to get pear-shaped. Without some of those, it's often best to leave them alone if at all possible.


These levels are where Old Man Tanks start appearing naturally.


Shiren also contains a type of monster that's a natural digger. Soldier Ants in Nethack are extremely mean monsters relative to the level they appear at, but in Shiren, while not quite harmless, they aren't too difficult either. They mostly ignore the player in fact, concentrating on digging new corridors in a partly random fashion.


Monsters you hit with a Paindividing Staff take whatever damage they inflict on you. That'll prove to be quite useful soon.


I've not shown you guys too many traps so far, but these levels are the ones where they get to be a problem. Mine traps take off half your remaining hit points. There's another kind that takes off all but one hit point! Both also destroy adjacent items on the ground. Mines hardly ever kill the player, but can make him easy pickings for the monsters.


These traps are harmless in themselves, but pepper the whole rest of the level with random traps! Some of those traps, themselves, can be trap-making traps, so stepping


It was here that the little girl who was following me around finally got whacked, promoting an Old Man Tank into a Stubborn Tank. Stubborn is the next-to-last tank level, just below Obstinate Tank. Attempting to close and kill one of these in melee is suicide, so the best thing to do is run. In that, the Far-sight Bracer once again proves its worth.


Tanks only shoot at Shiren if he's visible to them. If he finds Shiren, and he's in direct line with him, it'll be nearly instant death. But with the Far-sight Bracer, I can see what his red dot is doing, and not take the passages that lead to it.


It also helps in getting him off my trail, but I'll explain more about that later, when I get to the Minotaur levels....


Escaped to the next level. Whew!


But Old Tanks still appear, and are a great danger. Their shots even ignore armor! In these levels, it's never a good idea to go around with less than 20 hit points because of them.


Another shop. This can't be profitable for him.


Reflex Shields are okay in defense, but they have a special ability: monsters who try to hit in melee have a much greater chance of missing than usual.

The thing about the special abilities of weapons and armor is that, while there are a good number of these abilities, they're generally mutually exclusive. I can wear a Reflex Shield, with its increased chance of monster's wiffing, or I can wear a Dragon Shield for protection from dragon breath, or I can wear a Todo Shield to guard my stuff from thieves.

There is a subquest, however, that adds Synthesis Pots to the game. With one of those, the special functions of equipment items can be merged, to produce a super-item. In conjunction with the smithies and warehouses, this could potentially produce very powerful item that bestow huge bonuses to the player. When the player gets to the super dungeon in fact, he basically must do this to have a chance of surviving, and take advantage of many other tricks too.


Ah, this Dotanuki is a very good weapon. Actually, I probably should have bought this one, but then I wasn't sure if my Nagamaki was better. (According to a commenter last time, it isn't.)


Invincible Herbs are awesome items that make the player complete impervious to damage for ten moves. Nice things to have when facing, say, the final boss.


Slumber Scrolls put all monsters in the room to sleep... but what its description doesn't reveal is that they wake up after a few turns, and they'll be double speed. This fact plays a substantial role in my character's downfall.


A naturally-occuring Genocide Scroll. But it costs 50,000! Maybe I should have saved a use of that Todo Pot for later?


Pit traps send the player to another level. Stop and think for a moment. Unlike Torneko (or indeed most roguelikes), Shiren's dungeon doesn't just go down. The mines go down, but Table Mountain, the final section, goes up. Pit Traps take you either to the next level or back a level, depending on where you are.


Crooked Boulder Valley, the next-to-the-last town. There's not much interesting to see unless I manage to get Surara here, which makes a warehouse available.


Onward... the next two levels of the game are special, in that they contain lots of draining monsters. There are foes that can weaken strength, shields and even drain levels here. They're generally not worth the experience for killing them or the loot to be found on these levels, so the faster the stairs are located the better.


They also contain Gyazars, who are kind of the opposite of the Minion of Death foes from the forest earlier on. They're single-speed move, but they get two attacks! Even a single hit from them isn't anything to be sneezed at.


That's why that Back Pot I found is so useful. Eating an Otorogi-so fills up your hit points one time, but a Back Pot fills you up once for each "back" inside it, plus cures strength loss and status ailments.


Even a Back Pot isn't too useful if you get caught in a cycle of having to spend all your moves healing. In Shiren, all moves take the same amount of time, whether it's fighting, moving, reading a scroll, using an herb or pushing a pot. Two hits from a Gyazar is usually enough to put you into the danger zone, but if you spend the next turn healing instead of running he'll get in another two hits!


Buy-time Staves are interesting items. Swing one at a monster and he'll be teleported to the exit and paralyzed. He'll be on top of the exit unless someone is already there so you'll have to fight it eventually, and he'll wake up the moment he takes damage. However, if multiple monsters are hit with this staff on a single floor, they'll appear in a cluster around the exit. Since each one only wakes up when struck, often only the first monster hit with the staff must be fought! The lesson here is, if you've got more than one charge on the staff, to try to use it on a weak monster first.


Ah-ha, the entrance to Table Mountain. It's the last leg! There's still one more town between here and the end, although I don't reach it in this game.


And right off the bad it's bad, bad news. Have a look, a Minotaur AND, visible behind the level name, a Master Chicken, both extremely strong opponents.


Strong enough that measures need to be taken. It is situations like this for which successful players to build up a stock of escapes, items good for getting out of trouble. In this case, using that Invincible Herb would allow me to not only survive, but kill these guys for lots of experience points.


Zero points of damage are the best points of damage.


Master Chickens, if killed in combat, are worth 400 experience points! They're strong fighters though, and it's rare that one actually kills one. Instead, when one gets to low hit points it demotes into a plain old Chicken. Chickens don't fight back, but flee at double-speed and even if cornered and killed are only worth half the experience.


Master Chickens are one of the two toughest opponents in this area. Minotaurs are the other. They're really strong fighters on their own, but randomly (yet far too frequently) they'll get in a critical hit, which does far more damage!

Around here we find another great use for Far-sight Bracers. Once you start to get to levels where most any monster, handled improperly, can kill you, avoiding danger becomes very important.

Many of these monsters can be defeated, with difficulty, one-on-one, but are overpowering in groups, or if the player isn't completely healed at the start. Since the player heals over time, A Far-sight Bracer can help the player stay clear of monsters until he's ready to fight.


Push Staves also help somewhat. The monsters in Shiren don't have any special ability to see over what the player normally has. It may seem like this is a minor thing, but it's a useful fact to know when being chased.

In a corridor, both Shiren and monsters ordinarily can see only the spaces directly adjacent. If a monster is in space right beside Shiren (or the characters in Rogue or Nethack for that matter), and can move as fast as him, then he'll always be able to close the gap, and running won't be very helpful. If the player can get a space away, however, and run into a corridor, then the monster won't be able to see the player!

Yet... how useful is this really? Roguelike monsters are smarter opponents, even from way back in Rogue, than monsters in many more recent RPGs. If a monster loses sight of the player in a corridor he still remembers the direction he saw the player leave from, and since he knows the player probably couldn't have gone elsewhere will continue running down the corridor, following its twists, until it finds the player or a branch in the path.

Once the monster finds a branch however, he can't be so sure of where the player has gone. Which path did the player take? All he can do is guess. In this way, monsters who are following the player from more than one space away can be eluded. But the player's sight is also limited, so he can't be sure the monster has taken the wrong road without going back, and if he picked the right road that'll put the player right back into danger again.

But with other means of determining monster position, such as the Far-sight Bracer, the uncertainty is gone! The player can see which way the monster went, and if he went down the player's corridor, he can continue running, maybe to another branch, continuing to flee until the monster has gone the wrong way.

I explain all this because, as we've seen, Minotaurs are serious opponents. A lucky hit by one of them can take off 60 hit points! It's hard to see in my screenshots, but I did a lot of that kind of monster evasion in this portion of the game. That's why a Push Staff is useful, it can knock a monster back down a hallway and make it easier to escape by going through a fork. If this strategy seems like rather a lot of trouble to go through... well, it is a little tricky. But it beats the monsters that are in 90% of other RPGs, which require little strategy at all.


Paindividing staves are very nice to have in this area. A monster might be able to attack your weak point for massive damage, but at least this way he'll end up taking that damage as well, and while many of these beasties may be able to dish out, they aren't very good at taking it.


Vaults are a Nethack feature that arguably is much more useful in Shiren, which has scarce money, ultra-expensive items and even more dangerous shopkeepers, than Nethack, where players usually find far more money than they'll ever need.

Both games contain provisions to allow players to escape from them if they get sent there accidentally. In Nethack, eventually a vault guard will come in and, in exchange for all the money the player is carrying, will lead him back to the main level through a spontaneously appearing, and disappearing, passage, a highly programmatic solution that seems very Nethackish. Meanwhile Shiren just puts a teleporter in each vault to allow a stuck player to escape.


Just a somewhat stronger Norojo, but these curse weapons too.


Identification by use illustrated, in this case figuring out a Slanted Pot. A Drain Buster is an okay item, but I'm already past the worst stat draining floors and my weapon is proving capable enough to get me through. I don't have much use for yet another weapon, so it's a perfect candidate for test-IDing by throwing it into a pot.

And it turned out to be a good choice! Notice in the second screenshot the item's name is yellow, but in the third it's white? That's because, while it may look the same otherwise, the item is now identified. It's an ID Pot, that identifies anything put into it! Very nice find, this is.


Decoy Staves are a bit of a mixed blessing. Zap one at a monster and it turns into another Shiren, one that, for some reason, the monsters are far more willing to beat up than the player's. The monster zapped is even confused as a bonus! But remember what happens when a monster defeats another monster? That's right, promotion time. Because of this the best use of a Decoy Staff is either to confuse a single monster, or to distract other foes while you run for the exit.


Aaaa, I went down the stairs and arrived in a monster house!

This is where my game ended, but it could be useful to illustrate just what I did and why it didn't work, and what I could have done to have survived. First, notice that the stairs are just two spaces away from me, I can get there with two moves, and from diligently leveling from killing ultra-tough monsters I have 120 hit points.

I could have just run for the stairs and I'd probably have made it, but I was cocky. Not so cocky that I wasn't going to use an item to try to clear this room though....


I read a Slumber Scroll. I remembered that they'd put all the monsters to sleep, but I forgot that the effect was temporary, and that they'd be double-speed when they woke up.


I could have run for the stairs at almost any time. Even so, I got to kill a few monsters before they woke up, like this Super Gaze and Flame Priest 2.


It was while I was fighting a second Flame Priest that they revived.


I had a Confuse Scroll in my inventory though. Now, if I had remembered the drawback of the Slumber Scroll I definitely would have used this first, and saved the Slumber Scroll for an escape. Confuse Scrolls are nice in that each adjacent monster gets a hit in only on one turn in eight, but in a room full of monsters, the chances that one of them will get lucky once in a while is still rather high.


And even worse! Confused monsters are as likely to attack other monsters as the player. More likely in fact, because there are so many more of them here! A Chain Head, already a burly foe, got promoted into a Giga Head, best described as death in roughly humanoid form. Basically, every turn next to it is a one-eighth chance the game ends there, and I don't like trusting that kind of thing to luck.


Time to pull out the big gun, that Genocide Scroll I scribed. I was trying to save it for the big boss at the end of the dungeon, who for all his hit points and raw terror and taking up four dungeon spaces at once can be dispatched forever with a single thrown Genocide Scroll. But if I never get to him I can't use it anyway, so away it goes.

In Nethack, genocide wipes out one species of monster from the game. In Shiren, one family can be genocided at a time, so if I found another scroll and used it, the Chain Head family would be back, but the monsters on the level back when I first used it would still be dead.


These monsters set traps as they go, but they can also hit fairly hard. One of these was the one that got in the last swing.


Got on the score list though....


Third place, in fact. It was my best non-winning game in the end.


That's it. Notice the first save file, by the way. It's got the bird icon signifying a victory over Table Mountain, but it's also got a Mamul icon meaning a win in Fei's Final Problem! We'll talk about that... next time, I think. And don't worry, this is the last ultra-in-depth game explication I intend to do. All I can say about it is, thank god for Image Magick.

In other news, venerable Nethack turned 20 years old a couple weeks back! Hopes that the secretive Devteam would use the occaision to unveil a new version were dashed, however.... C'mon, it's been three and a half years now! Do I have to beg, here?

August 6, 2007

Exploring Journalism In Online Worlds

- As well as writing for MTV News, Stephen Totilo also recently completely a long, extremely thoughtful article on journalism in virtual worlds for the Columbia Journalism Review magazine, and of course, it's subtitled with the slightly provocative "Does journalism in a computer world matter?"

The basic lowdown: "In the early days, Second Life reporters were stars of an experimental online culture, the Web-based town criers of a place where every innovation—the first gun, the first hug, the first recreation of Hiroshima as it was minutes after the bomb—was worth writing about... In a second phase that began about a year ago, a new wave of reporters, representing big media outlets and with a somewhat different agenda from the pioneers, came in. They shined a spotlight, asked for real names, and were generally more interested in the phenomenon of Second Life—in the wow factor and the growing number of ways it mimicked real life—rather than the liberating possibilities of building a world from scratch."

The entire piece, which is well worth reading, concludes somewhere around here: "A lot of sensation has been happening in the virtual world lately. It’s a sensational place... The avatars may lie. They may offer valuable insights. The numbers may confuse. The controls that move the avatars through this world may confound. You’ve got to breathe it deeply to get it. And you’ve got to answer this question for yourself: In a brand-new world inextricably tied to, and simultaneously free of, the one we were born in, what truly matters?"

Sirlin Talks (Re)-Balancing Puzzle Fighter

- Game designer David Sirlin is overseeing the XBLA/PSN version of classic Capcom puzzler Super Puzzle Fighter over at Backbone Entertainment, and he's done an amazing post in his blog discussing rebalancing efforts for the upcoming remake, explaining:

"My high level goal was to change as little as possible because the original game is very well-designed and fun. I would even go as far as saying it’s the single best competitive puzzle game. That said, it does have a problem: only 2 of the 11 characters are playable in a serious match."

The designer continues: "I did not want to get into any deep changes with the underlying formulas or rules because—character balance aside—the game is very good already. So, I restricted myself to changing only three variables: 1) drop patterns, 2) damage scaling per character, and 3) the “diamond trick.”" There then follows some great detailed diagrams and specifics on how the game has been tweaked.

Ah, and some clarification in the comments from Mr. Sirlin himself: "I really should have mentioned that there are two modes: X and X’. X-mode has no balance changes at all. In X-mode, the diamond trick does the same damage it always did and all the drop patterns are untouched. This entire article was about the new X’-mode." Just in case you're a purist - an admirable move.

Opinion: Denki's Anderson On Why Casual Game Cloning Makes Sense

- [This editorial is also published on Gamasutra, but I'm putting on GSW too because I believe it was inspired by previous cloning discussions here. It's from Colin Anderson, MD of innovative Scottish game developer Denki (Denki Blocks, Sky/DirecTV interactive TV casual games), who takes the casual game industry to task for its complaints about game 'cloning', suggesting it forces developers "to be creative and think about the consumer".]

In March this year, two High Court judges in the UK ruled that the ideas behind computer games could be copied – perfectly legally. For many people, this signalled the end of the industry, the premature death of the casual games market and ruin for developers and publishers across the land.

Even now, some of the most respected names in the casual games market see the issue of 'clones' as a serious impediment to the growth of the games market as a whole.

Personally however, I was delighted. After all, how many truly original games do we see in any average year? As in all areas of the media, there's a finite number of fundamental concepts and a smaller number of control mechanisms that are fun to play.

While on the surface it may seem that the judgement opens the floodgates to untold numbers of clones, copycat titles and dull, identikit games, but the truth is that the ability to take ideas from other games and draw inspiration from other peoples ideas is at the heart of almost every single area of the media.

If the judgement had gone the other way and the judges had decided that ideas could not be copied, then we'd be in trouble. The floodgates would have been opened for developers, publishers and patent trolls would end up mired in endless lawsuits, fighting over who created what first and what core mechanics, controls or ideas are at the heart of their games.

Instead we can all go out and innovate, polish and create, without having to worry that someone will land a lawsuit on us for using blocks, bricks, colours, tiles, or a similar control method to an existing title.

This is a oversimplification of course, however it illustrates a very serious point. We need to be able take existing ideas and refine them, reinvent them and make something new.

It's a very noble sentiment to call for original new content, but on a purely practical level that would cut the number of games on the market (the whole games market – not just the casual games sector) by 99%. A lot of people still think this a good move, but it simply wouldn't work.

Look at other areas of the arts – music and literature. If the early rock and roll stars had patented the twelve bar blues, then music industry as a whole would not exist. The diversity and depth of different musical styles would never have evolved.

The same is even more true in the book world. If authors could not reuse or copy certain genres or core plots we'd be stuck with half a dozen books worldwide.

It's worth noting that it's entirely possible to take an existing idea and build upon it and reimagine it, to create something very different. As an example, look at two of the most popular games in the casual market – Bejeweled and Jewel Quest.

At a very basic level, they are very similar. The core mechanic is almost identical. However the focus of each game is very different and each title has built up a devoted following, who love the twist each game puts on the basic core idea.

Game cloning is not the bogeyman the market seems to think. It forces developers to innovate, polish, reinvent existing styles and above all, to be creative and think about the consumer.

The alternative is the scary option. Individual genres and control methods controlled and licensed by a brand/patent owner. That's a world where fun doesn't have a place in the games industry.

Library Of Congress Funds Game Preservation Project

- There's great news from Stanford University's Henry Lowood, as revealed on the IGDA Preservation SIG mailing list: "The Library of Congress has sent out the official news release announcing the Preserving Creative America Program", which includes a game preservation grant.

As Lowood notes: "This is an omnibus release covering all the projects funded in this impressive new program (over $2 million in all, a nice portion of which went to the games project). The games project is called "Preserving Virtual Worlds" and includes historical games (cf. our Digital Game Canon), electronic literature, and virtual worlds. It is the project listed under University of Illinois, as prime contractor. Stanford, Maryland, and Rochester are sub-contractors."

From the grant press release itself: "The Preserving Virtual Worlds project will explore methods for preserving digital games and interactive fiction. Major activities will include developing basic standards for metadata and content representation and conducting a series of archiving case studies for early video games, electronic literature and Second Life, an interactive multiplayer game." I very much look forward to hearing more about plans.

August 5, 2007

2007 Independent Games Summit: Eric Zimmerman On 'The Casual Cash Cow'

- So, we've now published three of the videos from this year's Independent Games Summit - the event that took place for the first time at Game Developers Conference 2007 last march as part of the Independent Games Festival.

(For the record, the other three videos we've run so far, for those who want to check them out, are Matt Wegner on physics, alongside the Gastronaut-ies (!) on 'Small Arms' for XBLA and the Telltale folks on Sam & Max/episodic gaming.

So we're putting video of the 2007 Independent Games Summit online "for free, in the spirit of sharing, and to help the indie community understand and better itself", and the fourth IGS 2007 lecture to go up is Eric Zimmerman of 'Diner Dash' creator Gamelab talking about 'The Casual Cash Cow'.

Now, Eric has a couple of microphone echo issues to start with, which get resolved in the first few minutes of the video, but you'll find a fun lecture about what Gamelab do and how they do it - here's a direct Google Video link for the lecture, plus a downloadable .MP4 version and an embedded version:

Though I think this lecture ended up wavering a little away from the casual market and more towards Gamelab's company philosophy on making alternative and interesting games that span both indie and casual markets (often with pretty original game designs for casual titles!), I really enjoyed Eric's ever-enthusiastic approach and clear thinking on the subject.

Here's the original session description: "The Gamelab co-founder (Diner Dash) talks about how the indie aesthetic/mentality interacts with the casual market (and vice versa), in the best talk on casual games outside of the Casual Games Summit, talking about some of the things that helped Gamelab stay focused and alive in the casual and indie games market, such as keeping a sharp company vision, being aggressive on deal negotiation, and being an 'honest hustler'."

In Praise, Expectation Of Mutant Storm Empire

- Being a massive fan of Pom Pom's multi-directional shooter Mutant Storm Reloaded, possibly my favorite ever Xbox Live Arcade game, I was delighted to see a post on XBLArcade.com both praising Mutant Storm Reloaded and looking forward to Mutant Storm Empire, the next, long-in-development title in the series.

The blog notes: "Before buying Reloaded I had actually already played the first few levels of Mutant Storm Empire at DigitalLife in NYC back in October 2006. Empire eliminates the loading between levels by adding a series of corridors, through which you pass from level to level. It is a stroke of genius which makes the gameplay even more frenetic and fun. With that little taste of Empire, my Mutant Storm fanboyism was born."

The XBLArcade.com folks also comment: "We still don't know why a game that looked so great (albeit, just the first few levels) has been MIA for so long. We still don't know when Empire is actually coming out, but at least we've got some new videos. The only problem is that these videos just make the wait even more painful (in a good way though)."

As I've previously speculated in late May, when the title got an ESRB rating, it was probably making puzzle action title Bliss Island for Codemasters that slowed Pom Pom down, but surely with a rating and new videos out, the title's release can't be that far off?

The Interactive DVD Apocalypse - Just Around The Corner?

- A little further down the spiral of obscure game exploration, Joel Reed Parker has done an in-depth analysis of the DVD game genre, and as he explains: While doing some research on FMV games in general I started looking into the console, PC, and arcade games that have been converted to DVD video format."

Parker continues: "This took much longer than I thought it would. Everytime I searched for a picture or link, more titles would pop up. A lot of these titles are fairly hard to find, even on the internet. I'm pretty sure this is the most comprehensive list of US released DVD games anywhere, as depressing as that might be."

And blimey, it is indeed - with odd titles from Dragon's Lair III ("in-game footage of the Dragon's Lair 3D [normal PC] game which you then control like a traditional Dragon's Lair game") to the D&D licensed Scourge Of Worlds ("...it seems to have a bit of an underground following. It was released by Rhino and there's even a Special Edition version.")

And probably the worst-looking one? The Misadventures of James Spawn - "The first ever interactive movie produced specifically for DVD. A fresh off the boat stereotypical Indian man receives a ring that lets him wish for stuff. That description combined with the cover picture should give you an idea of the quality."

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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