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September 29, 2007

The Best Video Game Credits... Ever?

- Now, they're a nice, polite bushbaby-like community that doesn't like being disturbed, so don't everyone go sign up, but Quarter To Three has a great thread on the 'Best Game Credits Ever?', which starts out with a real doozy - the credits for Lionhead's 'The Movies' [YouTube link] - pointed out by Cliffski, who, as a former coder at the developer, is actually in them, 'Sabotage'-style.

Off course, this then gets into a gigantic comparison thread, with Mutt noting: "Oh, please. Have we really come to this? I don't blame cliffski for reveling in his fame, but is this really gonna be a Top Ten list of credits? If so, then I'm gonna break out my Best Polygon of All Time thread on your asses."

Quickly suggested are the credits to Star Control II [YouTube link], which I hadn't seen, and are indeed awesome, but there are lots more including Capcom's God Hand credits [YouTube link], which has deliciously cheesetastic music, and... can I just say that it's starting to get scary how much random video you can find on YouTube nowadays? Honestly...

GameSetNetwork: From Violence To Schilling

- So, it's time to run down some of the interesting original content we posted on big sister site Gamasutra (and elsewhere on the CMP Game Group) this week. There's actually some neat stuff in here, I might claim, including that dastardly Dyack, producers weighing in on game violence, and Curt Schilling's MMO company explored - headlines and rundowns to follow:

- Engaging Audiences: Denis Dyack Deconstructs The Industry
"...this 'wide-ranging interview' with Silicon Knights' Dyack (Eternal Darkness, Too Human) includes a whole bunch of interesting points, and we split two of them out into individual news stories - Dyack: Game Industry Should Shun Movie Biz 'Free Agency'", and Dyack: Will Wii Hold Public's Attention In Long-Term?."

- Violence In Video Games: The Producer's View
"Video game violence is, as ever, a hot topic, and Gamasutra and GameProducer.net asked former Thrill Kill and current Sony producer Harvard Bonin, Bizarre Creations' Peter O’Brien, Stainless Games' Ben Gunstone, and Gas Powered Games' Frank Rogan to discuss legislation, responsibility, and mature games."

- Ensemble's Shelley Explains 'Design By Playing'
"Is the best way to 'sculpt' and refine a game design through constant playing? Ensemble Studios and Microprose veteran Bruce Shelley thinks so, and in a recent lecture, he explained how the Age Of Empires franchise evolved from an intensive playtesting regime."

- - Q&A: THX's Tuffy On God Of War II Audio, Neural THX Advances
"As console tech advances swiftly, HDTVs are joined by surround sound systems as important equipment for high-end gamers, and THX's Mark Tuffy talks to Gamasutra about the company's audio/video standards, its work on Warhawk and God Of War II and plans for 'a major publisher' to use its Neural THX tech next year."

- MIT/Stanford Event Reveals Dueling Brainwave Tech
"Last week, the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab presented a panel on 'The Post Wii World', and Gamasutra was there to see presentations from game tech companies including Emotiv and Emsense, both using brain activity as a game controller - and revealing an interesting fact about EEG activity in Gears Of War along the way."

- Q&A: Wendee Lee Talks Voice Acting In Games
"In this exclusive Q&A, Gamasutra spoke with prolific voice actress Wendee Lee (Soul Calibur II, Grandia III, EverQuest II) about the process and challenges of voice work in the game industry, the development of voice acting in games, and the epidemic of celebrity actors doing voices in video games to mixed results."

- Going Green With 38 Studios: RA Salvatore, Brett Close On The House Curt Schilling Built
Baseball legend and MMO fan Curt Schilling is behind the founding of Boston-based 38 "Studios, alongside Todd McFarlane and author R.A. Salvatore, and Gamasutra caught up with Salvatore and CEO Brett Close to discuss the company's 'broad media' aspirations and "standing on the shoulders" of World Of Warcraft."

- Avoiding The Crocodiles: Submission Pitfalls in Xbox 360 Certification
"Ever wanted to know what went into Xbox 360 game submission? At Microsoft's recent GameFest, the Quality Assurance and Certification track featured a presentation by Microsoft's Jay Blanton on guidelines and pitfalls in getting your game or game update officially approved."

Interview: Never Mind The Boll-Ocks, Here's 1988 Games?

- So, you may perhaps have seen the news that "Much-maligned filmmaker Uwe Boll ("Alone in the Dark," "Bloodrayne") is planning yet another video game adaptation - 'Zombie Massacre'" - and yep, we also got a press release about the momentous event.

As Dark Horizons notes: "1988 Games is bringing the shooter game exclusively to the Nintendo Wii shortly, and Boll will shoot the $6 million project in Vancouver in 2009. The goal of the game is to drive a fully-armed nuclear warhead (that's stowed in the trunk of their vintage 1950s convertible) into the center of a city overflowing with zombies. After depositing the weapon, players will then have to make it out of the city just as quickly as they entered it before the warhead detonates."

As it happens, 1988 Games' boss Benjamin Krotin has been in contact with GSW recently discussing other things, so we thought this was a perfect opportunity to ask the man - what makes a possibly sane Wii developer sign up to have their game turned into a movie from Uwe Boll? Or vice versa? Why would a game developer do that? He was kind enough to explain it to us.

Q: How did the pitching process work to Uwe? How did you contact him?

A: I got in touch with his production company, and from there I was put in touch directly with him. We spoke about our project in depth, and after a couple of days of reviewing materials, we mutually came to an agreement. It was rather streamlined, and I wish more things in life could go as smoothly!

- Q: OK, seriously - why Uwe Boll? Do his merits in terms of publicity and possible funding outweigh the negatives in terms of his artistic reputation?

A: At the end of the day, you do have to acknowledge Uwe's notoriety and business savvy. With his involvement in the project, we will not only make a great movie, but we will also be able to shop it around without being turned down. Uwe is a very talented director who absolutely has more experience than anyone else in adapting videogames into movies. It is this unique combination of talents and abilities that make him our perfect choice. Of course, we are aware of the criticisms of some of his past works, but you have to also understand the material that he was working with. Regardless, we feel that with our direct involvement in the project in addition to the type of game that we have planned, we can pull off a really great movie. We know that Uwe shares this vision and even takes it further, and that is something that is truly great.

Q: Do you feel that having a movie tie-in will help you get the game published? What's your studio background and how far along in development are you thus far?

A: Having a movie tie-in won't necessarily help get the game published moreso than anything else that we do, but it also won't hurt either. It is definitely a challenge, no matter what your situation is, to walk into any publisher and present something that isn't WWII first-person shooter 12 or professional football 28. Fortunately for us, having such a great reception to our game (even in its early phase), in addition to the bonus of a movie tie-in will should help convince our publishing partners.

As for our background, we are a small and independent third-party design and development house, with a focus on the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo DS. We have been around in one form or another for a little over two years now, but we have typically kept a discreet profile due to the nature of the projects that we were working on. You can definitely expect to hear more about 1988 Games though, now that Zombie Massacre has sort of blown our cover.

Q: What is your favorite Uwe Boll movie so far? Why did you like it?

A: Honestly, I'm looking forward to Postal. I definitely recognize that it is based on a very touchy subject, but from what I've seen so far it looks like it has the right level of comedy behind it.

Q: What do you attribute Uwe's success to?

A: You know, I think that Uwe's success comes from his intelligence. He noticed a void in movie business which he then filled. By taking on all sorts of videogame properties to be made into feature-length movies, Uwe has really set himself apart from other directors as THE guy for such tasks. Anytime someone can be brave and put themselves out there to fill a gap in the business world, they are always rewarded. Love him or hate him, you do know him, and that's at least worth something.

I guess that you could sort of compare it to what Nintendo is doing. They took the touch and motion genre, and ran with it... Now people are lining up all over the world just to experience what they have to offer. Of course, there are still many detractors, but just as I stated above, at least they've heard of the Wii.

September 28, 2007

2008 Independent Games Festival - Get Your Entries In Now!

- You know what? A little reminding never hurt anyone, and the final deadline for the IGF Main Competition is this Monday, so let's crosspost this final, squawk-like call for crazy indies:

"Organizers are reminding entrants that submissions for the Main Competition of the historic 10th Annual Independent Games Festival, for which the awards will be handed out in February 2008 at Game Developers Conference, are due by 11.59pm PST on Monday, October 1st.

The 2008 IGF Main Competition will again be open to all independent developers to submit their games - whether it be on PC, console digital download, Web browser, or other more exotic formats. The prizes again total nearly $50,000, with a $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize, and the deadline to enter the Main Competition is this Monday.

The 2008 IGF Student Competition will once again award the best student games, and this year will also include student 'mods' to existing games. As a result, the number of Student Showcase winners has been increased to 12. The deadline to enter the Student Competition is Monday, October 15th, 2007.

Finally, the first-ever IGF Mobile competition, a sister competition run in association with founding sponsor Nvidia and awarding $20,000 in prizes to the best independent mobile phone, DS, PSP, and other mobile games, is still accepting submissions until Friday, October 26th.

Further information, including detailed rules, contact info, and specifics on previous winners, is available at the official Independent Games Festival website."

Mega64 Dismisses Halo, Trails Season 3

- It's difficult to get bored (at least, it's difficult for _me_ to get bored) of San Diego-based game comedy jackasses Mega64, and they've been celebrating the release of Halo 3 with a new skit.

As they note of their video, which appeared on SpikeTV's Halo 3 special earlier this week: "Frankly, we are SHOCKED at the inconsiderateness of Bungie to release their game on this date. They are overshadowing a MUCH BETTER TITLE and are hurting their image by going through with this. Email or call Microsoft today and get them to pull Halo 3 off the shelves before it's too late." The video includes facial hair - and lots of it.

But wait, there's more - the 'real' teaser trailer for Season 3 of Mega64, continuing the single game-related video 'thing' we dig the most at GSW. Also duly noted: "So, after watching the V3 trailer, some of you might be thirsty for a new Mega64 DVD, like, right now. Some of you claim that "Mega64 Time" just wasn't enough. Well, we MIGHT have some sort of consolation prize for you. We'd like formally announce here that Rocco Botte of Mega64 has been put in charge of filming and editing the PAX 2007 DVD!" Out soon, perhaps!

Independent Games Summit: 'Innovation in Indie Games' Panel

-Aha, time for more videos from this year's Independent Games Summit, which took place at Game Developers Conference 2007 last March as part of the Independent Games Festival - we're just starting to prep the next IGS, actually.

The seventh 2007 Independent Games Summit lecture is a key panel from the event - 'Innovation in Indie Games', featuring Kyle Gabler from the Experimental Gameplay Project (World Of Goo); Jenova Chen, ThatGameCompany (fl0w/fl0wer, pictured); Jon Mak, Queasy Games (Everyday Shooter); Jon Blow, Number-None (Braid); and moderator - Steve Swink, Flashbang Studios (IGS/IGF organizer).

It starts with a short and neat Powerpoint presentation from each panelist, and onward into some interesting discussions of whether 'innovation' actually matters, or whether it's gimmickry for gimmickry's sake. I think this was the Independent Games Summit talk that made me re-evaluate the most what I thought about video games as art - and reminded me that intoning 'innovation' all the time with regard to games, above all else, is a distinctly bad idea.

Here's a direct Google Video link for the lecture, plus a higher-res downloadable .MP4 version and an embedded version:

Here's the original session description: "Join the luminary creators of the Experimental Gameplay Project at CMU, IGF-winning Braid, and the brilliant Everyday Shooter as they dissect innovation in indie games. How do we generate Earth-shattering ideas that will change the face of gaming? Can small teams innovate? Is 'innovation' really what we want?"

(Other IGS 2007 videos posted so far are Matt Wegner on physics, alongside the Gastronaut founders on 'Small Arms' for XBLA, the Telltale folks on Sam & Max/episodic gaming, Gamelab's Eric Zimmerman on 'The Casual Cash Cow', and Braid's Jon Blow on indie prototyping, as well as Russell Carroll on 'indie marketing'.)

September 27, 2007

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Love in the Uncanny Valley

-[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.]

Last month, an article in the Wall Street Journal generated some considerable buzz. It was the story of a man whose marriage to his real-world wife was suffering in favor of his Second Life marriage. The virtual “marriage”, between a middle-aged biker guy and a woman he’s never actually met, cost the two of them hundreds of real-world dollars in gifts and in-world investments -- the couple owns a Second Life business selling lingerie, and have built a number of social and business relationships with other avatars. More significantly, though, it was costing them hours and hours of their real-world time, and for the man profiled in the article, it was seriously threatening his relationship with his flesh-and-blood wife.

"It's really devastating," the 58-year-old wife told the WSJ. "You try to talk to someone or bring them a drink, and they'll be having sex with a cartoon." She later joined a support group called EverQuest Widows, for women who’ve lost their husbands to an online game, and her children are trying to get their mother to move out.

She doesn’t want to leave, though. She told the WSJ her husband is a “good person” who’s just “fallen down a rabbit hole.” She can understand, she says, how her husband might want to re-live his life as a 25-year-old man, access experiences that he can’t in his mundane life, at his somewhat advanced age.

Sounds familiar – historically, our culture knows exactly what it means when a middle-aged man suddenly buys a sports car and starts “working late.” But there are innumerable reasons why our society is confounded when asked whether the EverQuest Widows are victims of adultery. Is it cheating?

Second Life is generally held up as the poster child for dysfunctional Internet relationships, but in this era where personalization, customization, Web 2.0 and social networking are the hot phrases, most MMOs and online games provide, at the very least, some method for game characters representative of real humans to connect. Add in the fact that most games now have their own virtual economies, and there’s real money to be spent on virtual trysts. Even if an MMO doesn’t provide a method by which to have visual, virtual sex between avatars, how would a man feel if he learned his wife had used the family money to buy an in-world friend some virtual accessories?

The MMO industry in Asia is much larger and much more firmly entrenched than it is on our shores – ahead of us in the micropayment model and in massive install bases, they’ve had a bit more time to refine the appeal of their games for their audience. And they’ve got love down to a science, with many, if not most, of these games providing a convention for in-world marriage, often tied in neatly with game objectives. Some require the purchase of a virtual item to seal the bond, and there’s often a ceremony involved, too, just as if it were real. Microtransactions are generally cheap – but is two bucks too much, if it’s spent by your spouse to “wed” a partner that isn’t you?

There are arguments to be made on either side of the aisle as to whether in-game love constitutes real-world cheating, but it’s clearly an issue that’s generating a lot of talk. On the heels of the Wall Street Journal piece, interactive marketing and tech agency Spunlogic released a survey gauging people’s reactions to a situation wherein a hypothetical individual said “I love you” or “I want to marry you” to someone other than that individual’s partner or spouse. The extenuating circumstances of the situation were presented across a spectrum that gradually placed degrees of separation between the supposed adulterers, with face-to-face interaction at one end, virtual world interaction at the other, and phone, written letters, emails and text messages in between.


90 percent of the survey respondents said they’d consider that “definitely unfaithful,” if it occurred face-to-face, but only 58 percent agreed those actions constituted infidelity in a game. Moreover, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a gender divide – only 46 percent of men, contrasted with 63 percent of women, thought online world interactions were “definitely unfaithful.” Those aged 24 and younger were more likely to tolerate technologically-mediated infidelity, while respondents who were themselves in committed relationships were less likely to.

“Infidelity, a behavior normally deemed unacceptable in human-human interaction, becomes more acceptable when interactions are mediated by various technologies," said Dr. Melissa Read, Spunlogic's director of behavioral research. "What other socially inappropriate behaviors might be perceived as acceptable when produced in technology-mediated interactions? And, more importantly, why?"

Why indeed? The divide created by digital media and gaming creates a world where the humanity of the participants is less real. It’s socially unacceptable, of course, to kill, steal, or cheat on your wife, but we do it in games, in our strange little worlds where the things we see often look like humans, but aren’t. In online games specifically, the digital figures we see and interact with are representative of humans, having actual people behind them that we can talk to – and yet, they’re still not exactly people in and of themselves.

This column has previously expressed the perspective that games provide interesting environments to test our reactions to various experiences, explore concepts of personal values, and experience circumstances and situations that are not available to us in our normative lives. Nonetheless, they’re still only games. It’s not necessarily indicative, in other words, of real-world violence, predation, amorality or heroism, if we take certain actions as a character in a game, on the closed world of a console or single-player campaign.

And the jilted wife from the Wall Street Journal – she allowed, didn’t she, that her husband was just exploring, having vicarious experiences? And yet, there was a "devastating" real-world impact on her life.

Online play throws a fat monkey wrench into our comfortable relationship with gaming. MMOs, virtual worlds and multiplayer games entitle players to that freedom to explore in the same fashion, within the framework of a fake world populated by avatars. But behind each avatar is another human explorer interested in the same suspended-reality situations as you – and is it okay to conduct that exploration when other feeling human beings are involved?

It’s fun to punch out rude old ladies on GTA; nobody’s actually getting hurt. And when another player takes you out in, say, Halo 3, you can try again. But if that other player were to call you a “fag” (scratch that, when that other player does) or mock your skills, don’t you feel slightly annoyed? If you get a suggestive PM in an MMORPG, are you immune to arousal?

Games always have, and always will cause us annoyance and arousal alternately. That’s a given. But does it make a difference when it’s caused not by the game, but by another person’s actions, another person’s words – whether or not they’re filtered through a game?

[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.]

Game Design Essentials: The Top 20 'Open World' Games

- Aha - so John H's second in Gamasutra's 'Game Design Essentials' series, following '20 Difficult Games', looks at the roots and design lessons of 'open world games' - titles in which the player "is left to his own devices to explore a large world" - from Adventure through Metroid to Grand Theft Auto.

Here's something from his intro, helping to define the tricksy term: "When we discuss "open world games" in this article, or sometimes "exploration games," we mean those games where generally the player is left to his own devices to explore a large world. What all of these games share is the seeking of new, interesting regions at whatever time the player deems fit. No force forces the player's motion into new areas. There's no auto-scroll, and there are no artificial level barriers."

The whole article is a little retro game-focused, sure, but as Harris says, design mechanics are often much more clearly delineated or oddly exposed in those earlier titles - and I like his discussion of the classic Adventure on the Atari 2600: "Adventure's fun comes from the way all of its simple objects interact to produce complex behavior... carrying the sword, the bat might brush it across a dragon on his flight, killing it. This is possible because all of the objects in the game function automatically, which they have to be anyway since The Button is devoted to dropping stuff. A lot of the fun in Adventure comes from the unintended consequences of the player's actions." Chaos can be fun!

GameSetLinks: The Weekend Hangover

- Well, yet again, I managed to collect a decent amount of links over the weekend, but not get around to posting them until midweek, thanks to rampant levels of Gamasutra/Game Developer work. Still, since we don't do a lot of breaking news on GameSetWatch, so you guys will survive, no doubt:

- Nathan Smart, who has been known to run The Game Rag, recently started a new blog called Pre-Order Pushers with Kyle Orland and others, and it's got an interesting mandate: "Pre-order Pushers is dedicated to exposing all sorts of lies from game store employees, not just ones involving pre-orders." It's sorta Consumerist just for game stores?

- The Italian 'Hobby Media' blog has been discussing the game geek Vocaloid phenomenon in Japan, as follows: "Vocaloid is a technology and application software developed by Yamaha that enables users to synthesize authentic-sounding singing by just typing in the melody and the lyrics of a song... Vocaloid 2 singer, just released by Crypton, features the voice of Atsune Miku: a 16 years old virtual Singer." Thus, a character-based interactive anime music idol? V. Japan!

- The IEEE's Sandbox game blog has a good post from Harry Teasley on evaluating game artist showreels and resumes at his game development studio: "Put your best stuff at the beginning of the reel, don't choose crazy music to accompany it, and don't pad your reel with weak work if you feel it is too short. It's not too short: when it's long and filled with weak work interspersed with good work, I'll wonder about your judgment."

- Left over from the AM2 arcade show in Japan, Arcade Renaissance takes a look at IGS' Oriental Legends 2: "The traditional 2D side scrolling brawler stood out a bit on the show floor (in a good way), despite only a small number of machines dedicated to the game... the game is set for release on a new IGS created PGM-based hardware known as the PGM2." 2D brawlers in arcades will never expire, at least in Asia, apparently.

- Presuming most people saw it, but here's the teaser trailer for ThatGameCompany's fl0wer for PlayStation 3's PSN - and is about as cryptic as you're going to get. The only sensible YouTube comment: "Pretty neat, looks like a tech demo to me." On this front (and I'm not claiming this is necessarily the case for this title), why do most Sony first-party PSN titles have to include 'only technically possible with PS3!' claims lurking around them? In most cases, this seems like a bit of a bolt-on.

- GameDaily's second half of the 'Courting Controversy' article on the biggest game writing scandals, or "...those bits of game writing that just rub some people the wrong way", if you prefer. And yes, #1 is New Games Journalism, and this quote is amusingly grumpy: "Indeed, "new games journalism" has become a bit akin to the music industry's "hipster," in that no one knows exactly what it means but everyone has this vague idea that they don't want to be associated with it."

Finishing up with some GameSetMicroLinks, as follows:

- Russell Carroll asks: 'Is 1% Conversion Rate A Problem?' for casual games?
- The Brainy Gamer points out Tetsuya Mizuguchi's virtual Al Gore animation kicking off Live Earth's Japanese concert - didn't know it was by him!
- Jonathan Blow has been discussing landmarks in games, to good effect.
- Jarkko Laine has interviewed Petri Purho about his 'game per month' project.
- XBLArcade.com interviewed the creators of Screwjumper! about their interesting upcoming XBLA title.
- Talking of XBLA, Eurogamer has a useful round-up of the XBLA titles shown at Tokyo Game Show, including shooters galore.
- Videoludica remembers Gunpei Yokoi, close to the 10th anniversary of his sad passing.
- Gamezebo talks to Steven Zhao of Blue Tea Games about going from quirky to hidden object, with success.
- Fun-Motion points to Walaber’s Jello Car WIP - it's a... jello car!
- NCSX has a brief run-down of R-Type Tactics, now it's available in stores in Japan and still weird.

September 26, 2007

TGS' Japanese Indie Student Game Bonanza

- You see, GSW appreciates Wired News' Chris Kohler because he takes some time to look around Tokyo Game Show and finding things off the beaten track, and we particularly dug his look at the Japanese student games being exhibited at the show this year.

As Kohler explains: "In the outer hall of Tokyo Game Show, Japan's many game-design specialty schools recruited potential students by showing off games that current students had produced. Some of them were pretty fantastic -- especially the students at Japan Electronics College, who'd made some pretty fantastic posters for their games."

Further down, it's noted: "TGS 2007 also featured the return of an old favorite: BloWind, a GameCube game developed by students at Digital Entertainment Academy. We actually covered this here on Game|Life not long after the blog began, and it's in much better shape now. The graphics look really nice, actually. They could totally ship this for Wii if they added motion controls for the fan..." We need to hear more about Japanese student games in the West, really.

Ultima Gets Ultimate Ultima Guide, Guv'nor!

- So, as we reported on Gamasutra, it's the 10th anniversary of Ultima Online, the big bad voodoo daddy of graphical MMOs, and they're advertising "...a new amnesty program that invites former players back to try out the major game update, Ultima Online Kingdom Reborn, for free" - which is awesome, cos it sounds like one of those campaigns where you have to hand in guns and grenades at the police station!

And this Ultima-related celebration is good timing for The Artful Gamer's interview with Stephen Emond, who has written 'Ultima: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide', and is planning to release the book in the near future - thus far "...only three copies exist (mine, a copy I presented to Richard [Garriott] and the one auctioned off at the [recent Austin GDC] fundraiser)."

Judging by Stephen's rather amazing collection, it's going to be an essential tome for Ultima geeks, though, and as Emond notes, the Ultima series is well worth collecting: "Most game collectors would agree that Origin consistently went above and beyond when it came to packaging and contents, particularly with the Ultima series. Beautifully detailed booklets, cloth maps, and meaningful ‘trinkets’ from Ankhs to Moonstones were the norm. With most games (then and now) you’d be lucky to find that in a special collector’s edition."

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour

["Beyond Tetris" is a no-longer-dormant column from Tony "Tablesaw" Delgado about puzzle games that transcend mere abstract action and instead plunge deep into the heart of problem-solving. This installment examines the high-budget puzzle collections The 7th Guest and The 11th Hour.]

It's been a while since I wrote one of these; a lot's happened in the past few months. Most importantly I've moved, with my fiancee, into the heart of Hollywood. (Not for any particular hey-let's-break-into-films reason, just because it's a nice neighborhood.) As I've been settling down to live my everyday life in an area that's idealized and vilified from around the world, I've had a lot of time to think about style and substance, puzzle and presentation. So I think it's appropriate that I restart this column with the blockbuster popcorn movie of computer puzzle games, The 7th Guest.

Guest Hosts

Robert Hirschboeck hams it up as Stauf in The 7th GuestIn 1990, Graeme Devine and Rob Landeros, two employees of Virgin Games, were thinking about Laura Palmer, viz. who killed her. They were also thinking about the board game Clue (the rights to which Virgin had acquired). But most importantly, they were thinking about CD-ROMs. Music CDs had taken over vinyl, and console manufacturers were just starting to release systems like the FM Towns Marty and the TurboGrafx CD that used CD-ROMs to hold game information. But on the PC, the CD-ROM was still mostly used for massive data storage for programs like the Microsoft Bookshelf. Landeros and Devine wanted to get ahead of the PC-gaming curve and use the power of the CD-ROM to give gamers a mystery to equal David Lynch's bizzarro serial.

Though inspired by the promise of multimedia, the pair were also keenly aware of its limitations; they didn't want to promise more than they could deliver. Landeros explained, "People get disappointed when they can't do something. Because it seems that you're saying there are endless possiblities, yet you're so restricted. So we wanted to restrict things—restrict the environment from the start." So instead of offering a wide-open puzzle space, they decided to focus on small discrete puzzles which would serve as the backbone for a mystery shown in video, music and animation. In the design spec for Guest, Devine and Landeros described a game with a structure similar to Cliff Johnson's The Fool's Errand, but with a plot that was "very strong, intricate, and full of dramatic content."

Devine and Landeros were amicably "fired" from Virgin to form their own company, Trilobyte, which would develop the game for Virgin to publish. It became The 7th Guest—and a major success. It sold more than two million copies and is credited with helping to push sales of CD-ROM drives for PCs. Today, it's hard to watch the videos without cringing at both the acting and the blocky video. But while the acting is probably the same as it ever was, the video and the 3-D pictures and animation were state-of-the-art in the early '90s. And what the game lacked in thespianism, it made up in grotesque imagery. The mansion of the demented toymaker Stauf was a playground of interactive horror. Even jaded techies wanted the game, if only to show off the Super VGA visuals.

But so far I've only talked about the "Hollywood" side of the game—the video, special effects, sales. What about the puzzles?

This Old (Haunted) House

A puzzle from Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia of Puzzles (scanned by Ed Pegg, Jr.); it was used as the telescope puzzle in The 7th GuestThough Devine and Landeros used the The Fool's Errand as a source of structure, their game lacked the creativity of Johnson's idiosyncratic puzzles. Instead, Trilobyte implemented puzzles that had mostly been around for quite a while. I've already mentioned that the crypt puzzle was based on Merlin, a predecessor of Lights Out. But other puzzles are much older. One of the first puzzles in the game, seen through the telescope in the library, is copied from Sam Loyd's Cyclopedia. The "eight queens" problem, familiar to computer programmers and chess players alike, appears in the game room. In fact, Google puzzlesmith Wei-Hwa Huang once claimed that he had documented prior versions of all of 7th Guest's puzzles except for two.

In at least one case, the puzzle poach wasn't just conceptual, it was code-related as well! Among all the solitaire puzzles of the mansion, there's one two-player game that must be played against Stauf. Looking under a microscope in the laboratory, you find a game called "Show of Infection." This game uses the same rules as the strategy game Ataxx. For the AI, Trilobyte used the same code that Devine had used for the 7up-branded Ataxx clone Spot.

But while the slick presentation of puzzle chestnuts were generally enough to capture the attention of the hardcore puzzlers, there were some problems. One puzzle in the game, "Flipping Out" in the doll room, is randomly generated in such a way that the puzzle may be impossible. Prima's Official Strategy Guide seems to know about the problem, but not really understand how it works. It cautions, "It appears to be impossible to solve this puzzle if only 1 square is incorrect." So what do you do with an impossible setup? You reset the puzzle until you get a setup that you hope is good. As Scott Purdy said in a proposed rec.puzzles walkthrough, "The problem is that this puzzle, depending upon the starting position, is either trivial or impossible."

[Spinal Tap Cliché Redacted]

The Blood and Honey game from the 11th Guest, a hexagonal variant of Ataxx sometimes called HexxagonThere was so much anticipation for The 7th Guest that production for its sequel, The 11th Hour, began before the first game was finished. But internal struggles over creative direction and the technical implementation of that direction (a shot of a flashlight prompted a last-minute shift from 8-bit to 16-bit color) caused the game to ship over a year late. And by the winter of 1995, the relaxed exploration of Myst had found a wider audience than The 7th Guest. What's more, while the game was delayed, Microsoft launched Windows 95, and many of the fans who picked up the game when it premiered were unable to get its MS-DOS based programming to work with their new OS.

Puzzle-wise the sequel features much of the same fare as the original: chess, sliding blocks, anagrams, etc. But The 11th Hour introduces two new aspects of the game. For one, you must play various puzzle-like strategy games against an AI Stauf. In addition to a hexagonal variant of Ataxx from the first game, The 11th Hour features Pente, Connect Four, and Y. The AI remains strong throughout the games, though the player often gains a great advantage with the first move.

The 11th Guest also featured a "scavenger hunt." To progress to the puzzle and game set pieces, you had to first solve a clue. These clues generally followed the style of the clues found in cryptic or "puns and anagrams" crosswords. Once you unraveled the clue, you had to locate the item somewhere in the house. While it was an admirable attempt at bringing this kind of word puzzle to a wider audience, its implementation was definitely flawed. Take, for example, this clue: "22233642-736846873". First, you needed to decode it using the letters on your telephone to get "Academic penthouse." Then, you have to realize that the decoded clue refers to the phrase "ivory tower." And then, you have to realize that the phrase referred to by the decoded clue actually means you need to find the white rook on the chessboard in the game room. Many gamers felt the pain wasn't worth the reward.


A screenshot of Trilobyte's Tender Loving Care, taken from www.moviescreenshots.blogspot.comThe 11th Guest sold well enough for a PC game, but it fell short of the expected sales for a blockbuster sequel. Devine and Landeros were starting to pull Trilobyte apart, and the company's next two games reflected the schism. Clandestiny was another puzzle game, this time aimed for kids and featuring cartoony cel animation instead of horrific full-motion video. Tender Loving Care dropped the puzzles and focused on the media. Starring John Hurt, it was a psychosexual thriller punctuated by invasive psychological questions that shaped the outcome of the story. (The screenshot to the left is from TLC; calling the Aberrant Gamer!) By 1996, the company was floundering. To help increase funds, the company self-published Uncle Henry's Playhouse, a plotless showcase of the puzzles from The 7th Guest, The 11th Hour, and Clandestiny. It sold 127 copies worldwide.

In 1999 Trilobyte was no more. The self-destruction of the company is told in harrowing detail in "Haunted Glory," a feature by Geoff Keighley for Gamespot. In an e-mail sent to the remaining Trilobyte employees, Graeme Devine lamented, "In the end, I never outran the shadow of The 7th Guest. . . . Trilobyte will always be remembered for those games and none other." And despite a DVD release for Tender Loving Care, he's pretty much right. Still, they are remembered well for those two games. So much so that the rumor of a third Stauf game seems to be ubiquitous. Legend Entertainment created a prototype of a real-time 3-D game called "The 13th Soul" in 1998, but the project was scrapped. In 2003, Rob Landeros was developing The Collector, but the announcements later disappeared without a trace. Now a group of fans hopes to take up the mantle with The 13th Doll.

And if the puzzles were really so forgettable, why the such fond memories? Well, sometimes the multimedia is the message. With a few unfortunate exceptions, the 7th Guest games repackaged the best of the classic puzzles. And unlike many others who have done the same, Devine and Landeros brought these brainteasers to life in a way that most players couldn't imagine at the time. The 3-D imagery may have been superfluous to the puzzle, but for millions of gamers, it was just the right amount of sugar to help the medicine go down. A few months ago, I was ready to slam these games as derivative, unoriginal and needlessly overbuget. But I'm part of Hollywood now—I pass by the Capitol Records building on my way to the pharmacy, and I tramp down the Walk of Fame to get to the library. And sometimes, secretly, I like a bit of pageantry with my puzzles.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. He may also have a new videogame blog soon.]

September 25, 2007

Game Informer Salutes 'Everyday Developer'

- Our very own Kevin 'Magweasel' Gifford already checked out Game Informer's October issue in his column at the weekend, but I wanted to highlight the two-page feature they have on multi-IGF prize winner Everyday Shooter, because there's a couple of points in it that are think are important for the indie scene.

The article (which is illustrated by Jon Mak holding a PC Engine controller up to a fire hydrant!) comments: "Everyday Shooter first appeared publicly at the 2006 Game Developers Conference in the Experimental Gameplay Workshop. The game garnered significant buzz and by December of that year it was nominated for the Independent Games Festival Awards and accepted as a finalist at the Slamdance festival..."

It continues: "'I went to the Independent Games Festival there [since I] always make a point of swinging by and checking out the games', recalls John Hight, director of external development at Sony Computer Entertainment America and a primary decision maker on what makes it onto the PlayStation Network. Hight tried the first stage and was struck by the artistic style of the game and the way gameplay interlaced with the music."

Negotiations ensued and, lo and behold, Everyday Shooter is a flagship PlayStation Network title now. This is important (to my mind, as IGF Chairman) because there's been plenty of indie titles identified with the IGF and other indie game festivals - but rarely is there such direct causation in the game world between a public showing of an unreleased game, and a bigger publisher/distribution mechanism picking it up. Hopefully there will be more and more indie fests where this happens.

[In other v.interesting indie news, elsewhere in the piece (and let's not forget the reach of this article - Game Informer has a rate base of 2.3 million readers nowadays), Hight reveals that 120,000 people have bought ThatGameCompany's art-game fl0w on PlayStation 3 so far - not bad for a title that's as abstract as anything sold on a console thus far.]

Space Time Play Crazy Academic World

- We just got sent a honest-to-gosh paper copy of this book, so it's good timing that Jesper Juul has also pointed out that "...Space Time Play is a new anthology on video games edited by Friedrich von Borries, Steffen P. Walz and Matthias Böttger" - and out this month.

Now, it does have to be said that the overview on the official site is highly 'academikwak' (and yes, that's an official term): "The richly illustrated texts in "Space Time Play" cover a wide range of gamespaces: from milestone video and computer games to virtual metropolises to digitally-overlaid physical spaces. As a comprehensive and interdisciplinary compendium, "Space Time Play" explores the architectural history of computer games and the future of ludic space."

But looking through 'Space Time Play', it's a bit more interesting than that implies - with a near-infinite amount of contributors debuting short but sometimes perceptive analyses of titles from Rogue through Kirby: Canvas Curse through Silent Hill through Elite and beyond, plus art-games and ARGs also notably featured in other vignettes. It all gets a bit weird when it lapses into "architecture and urban planning" much later in the book, but you can always rip that bit out if you want!

(Also, there's an endearingly brief essay on physics in games which has precisely two references - for Newton's 'Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica' and, uhh, George Lucas' Star Wars. That's the charm and insanity of the academic gaming scene, all in once!)

GameSetTGS: The Inevitable Aftermath

- You thought you were going to get away without GameSetWatch rounding up our Tokyo Game Show coverage from Gamasutra & friends, didn't you? Well, no such luck, despite vague promises not to do it, since there's a few unique write-ups I wanted to point out from last week's extravaganza in Tokyo, as follows:

- Christian Nutt's analysis of the Tokyo Game Show show floor - and, by inference, the show itself - for Gamasutra was pretty interesting, I thought: "Still, it seems like the industry is, in some sense, holding its breath at this TGS, with the PS3 still struggling to find an array of compelling software -- particularly that which will appeal to its Japanese domestic userbase... few major titles were announced, and many are still far off. The 360 is in a holding pattern in Japan. The Wii is gaining little in the way of breadth of titles, if this show is any indication. Still, the array of games here points to publishers willing to try different things to capture a fragmenting and maturing game audience."

- He's in Texas, not Tokyo, but I got Danny Cowan to super-compile the actual, honest-to-god Tokyo Game Show game announcements, since "...this year's TGS boasted relatively few game announcements of its own, as most of the convention's featured titles had previously been detailed in Famitsu and in recent press releases." He picked off some interesting stuff, from Metal Slug 7 through Populous DS and Flower (Fl0wer?) - and it was handy, at least for my addled mind, to see it all listed together.

- The subtle shading of Kaz Hirai's Sony keynote kicking off TGS was, we claim, missed by many. The real story wasn't the delay of Home, or the Dual Shock for PlayStation 3, but the fact that Hirai "...staked out a policy of improving Sony's relationship with its development and user bases, as well as stating definitively that the PS3 should be perceived first and foremost as a gaming platform." This is, after all, quite different from Ken Kutaragi's keynote at TGS 2006, which emphasized much more abstract, slightly cuckoo things.

- While we're at it, some brief interview excerpts from our TGS correspondents - Marvelous Interactive (Harvest Moon) suggesting they'll open a U.S. branch within the next two years, Factor 5's Julian Eggebrecht discussing Turrican remakes for XBLA/PSN, theoretically, and Phil Harrison suggesting there may be more custom game controllers along the lines of the Buzz and EyeToy peripherals coming to the PS2.

- Finally on the Gamasutra front, since both of the folks we sent to Japan (Brandon Sheffield and Christian Nutt) speak Japanese pretty well, I hear we have some good personal-style interviews coming up with folks like Masaya Matsuura, Tomonobu Itagaki, and some interesting Grasshopper Manufacture personnel. I'm particularly excited by Brandon's promised Kenta Cho vs. Omega vs. Jon Mak showdown - it's bullet hell heaven!

[Oh, and a couple of interesting TGS points of view from folks we know: Game Girl Advance's Jane Pinckard (recently and sadly departed from the CMP Game Group) popped up on GigaOM, suggesting 'Tokyo Game Show: A Clouded Vision In A Web 2.0 World?', and Wired News' Chris Kohler sums up, a little deflatedly, as 'Final Thoughts: Tokyo Game Show Bigger, More Irrelevant Than Ever' - though he's talking more about Nintendo than Web 2.0. But either way, people seemed a little deflated by the show.]

September 24, 2007

COLUMN: @Play: '7DRL: Seven Day Quest'

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.]

Other projects (specifically the Game Design Essentials series over at Gamasutra) have taken up a bit of time lately so this one's a week late, and kinda light besides. You may find it interesting, though.

We're going to start taking a look at some of the results from the 7DRL programming challenge, which asks participants to create a roguelike game in seven days or less. Many interesting games have come out of the challenge, such as personal favorite ChessRogue. This one's particularly interesting because it hews quite close to the pattern laid out by Rogue, as well it should, as it's made by one of Rogue's original creators, Glenn Wichman.

The Seven Day Quest is a roguelike implemented entirely in browser-side Javascript, a fairly interesting idea in itself. It thus runs on any system that can run Firefox (or Internet Explorer), and can take advantage of the browser's extensive UI support.

Most roguelike games require that the player memorize a dozen keypresses or more, but here the inventory is always shown, and objects are used or dropped by way of drop-down menus. The only commands the player needs to know are movement/combat (by the number pad), picking things up (comma or numpad 0) and stair travel (< and >). It's enough to make me wish more people would write Javascript roguelikes.


As for the game, there's a little more going on here than a Rogue remake. Unlike Rogue the player can go back and forth between dungeon levels from the start, and there are seven dungeons tackle.

Further, while Rogue had an implicit time limit with the player's need to keep exploring to find food to keep from starving, Seven Day Quest makes the timer explicit. The player is charged to find one amulet from each dungeon and return it to the surface within a day of game time apiece.


There are lots of bugs left in the code, which is to be expected from a game which was made in seven days. Leaving a dungeon level and returning causes not just the rooms to be generated in the same places, but items to be regenerated as well, which harms scarcity. This is balanced out by the overall timer, although there is an item that grants extra time that could possibly be farmed this way. Also, line-of-sight doesn't seem to respect room walls very well, although the game does limit the range at which players can see.

Sometimes it seems like the monsters are being generated too rapidly, but that results in increased experience. Sometimes it seems that there's too much treasure on each level, but the game's strict inventory limit mitigates that. A debug balance feature has been left in the code that allows the player to make various aspects of the game more or less prevalent, so if the player's tastes run towards more fighting, more fighting is available. Needless to say, this can also be used to cheat.


More annoyingly, while the game mixes in bad items with the good items to keep players on their toes and make it dangerous to just try everything, the game doesn't automatically name them based on their observed functions. Many of the items in the game seem to have purposely vague functions ("What the heck is 'You feel like you could dance like Catherine Zeta-Jones' supposed to mean?!") so this could be a design choice, but tellingly the game doesn't allow the player to name them himself either.

It's true this can be overcome by taking notes, but it still feels odd when the Call function dates all the way back to Rogue anyway. There are no Identify scrolls anywhere, and a perusal of the game's source code reveals that there are disappointingly few item types to be found overall.

Of course the game was written in seven days, and allowances must be made for that. And it is very nice that, unlike many of the more popular 7DRL projects, item discovery is still an important part of the game. Most people who write these fixate upon the turn-based, tactical movement and combat as the main focus, so it's nice to see one that tries to inject some of Rogue's old mystery into play.

Seven Day Quest
Created by Glenn "capmango" Wichman

6955 Gets Some Bonus 'Points', Tokyo Style

- Hanging around the Kokoromi art-game posse's site, we spotted an interesting blog entry about a game culture video segment, explaining: "Jason, AKA 6955 who’s currently busy doing all the music and sound for Fez is also busy putting together this new show he’s producing for gamevideos.com."

And? "It's called Points and its slick as hell. Its about game culture, the kind of stuff you never hear enough about. Rather than go on about previews and reviews and products, Points is about the culture that was spawned and revolves around videogames. The first episode is about these 2 gamer’s bars in tokyo. Reason 9982373 to want to go to tokyo: they have bars for gamers. Definitely check it out. Its sexy and uses bolded helvetica as its font of choice. Oh, and music by 6955, too!"

6955, who is Canadian but lives in Tokyo, is a notable chipmusician, and he was also behind the recent Nintendo Museum documentary run on GameVideos.com - and which is very neat indeed. Also, look around 6955's site for stuff like his modded, circuit-bent projects, including 'Rapidfire Famicom Controller' and a host of others.

Digital Eel Releases The Plasmaworm For Free!

- Got a note from Rich over at indie stalwarts Digital Eel revealing some very neat news: "Hot off the hyperwire: Digital Eel's very first game, Plasmaworm (quite possibly the coolest Snake game in the Five Galaxies), is now absolutely FREE! You get the FULL GAME plus level passwords with no strings attached."

Here's the system requirements/info for the game, which includes: "360 degree movement; in-game level, music and plasma editors; solo or 2-player co-op or deathmatch modes; guns; bosses; cosmic ducks; the works!" And here's the 2MB installer for the Windows title, yay.

There are Plasmaworm screenshots on the site, too - these are the trippy folks behind super-neat 'short' space combat game Weird Worlds, let's not forget. Oh, also, just spotted a teaser for Digital Eel's next game on their front page, 'Eat Electric Death', described as 'Tactical starship combat in your living room!' Whatever insanity that is.

September 23, 2007

Can RTS Games Work On A Console?

- Back to Soren Johnson's 'Designer Notes' blog, then, where he's been analyzing Ensemble's 'Halo Wars' trailer and commenting, in some detail, on how the real-time strategy game genre should be adapting to the console format.

Johnson notes of the trailer: "At the very end of the video, however, there is a tiny suggestion of just how fun an RTS could be on a console. The human side has some sort of orbiting uber-weapon they can use to wreck massive destruction on a specific target. The console interface for this system is a snap - it's simply a huge reticule. Just aim and shoot."

He continues: "Personally, I was hoping that Halo Wars would focus more on these types of interactions - ones where the player is taking advantage of the joystick interface instead of fighting it. RTS's truly need to be built from the ground up for consoles, without the expectation of controlling multiple groups of soldiers." Johnson then references Moonbase Commander, Rampart, Defense Of The Ancients and M.U.L.E. as meaningful touchpoints for those considering a console RTS.

Also useful? Jason 'loonyboi' Bergman's comment on the post, which wraps up a couple of loose ends from the existing high-profile console RTSes: "I'm deeply biased of course, but I fall into the category of people that RTSes will never, ever, ever work as well as turn-based on a console. It's not that they can't be done well...I think EA did a great job with Battle For Middle-Earth 2 (I haven't tried Command & Conquer 3 yet, but I gather it's more of the same). But in that game it felt like the only reason you couldn't pause the game and give orders is because EA made some high-level mandate that you couldn't. The game would have played better if you could."

Inside The Fiendish Zelda Economy

- Game developer Brett Douville has updated his Brett's Footnotes blog with an intriguing chat/rant about Zelda's money system, particularly in Twilight Princess for Wii, which he thinks is, well, broken in terms of money management and its related fetch quests, to say the least.

Douville's overall argument starts by noting: "You are frequently maxed out on money, even when you go from the kiddie wallet to the adult wallet, even when you go from the adult wallet to the ultimate wallet", but then overflows to pure annoyance when he finally saved enough and did multiple rote tasks to grab the Magic Armor, the most powerful armor in the game.

And what happens then? "The Magic Armor converts damage to a loss of money, and slowly burns through money whenever you're wearing it besides... That's right, the whole exercise of spending something like 2600 rupees (easily found, slow to amass unless you're thinking about it) was to be able to convert money to health. Something that you could do basically the first time you got an empty bottle -- by buying red potions to fill that bottle from a local vendor."

Douville continues: "Now, I didn't feel gypped -- it more felt like some sort of cosmic joke, really. I had a bit of a laugh when I got the ultimate wallet and the magic armor, only to find myself quickly penniless (rupeeless?) whenever I wore it. It came in handy really only in one circumstance, in the Cave of Trials, a 50-level dungeon of increasingly difficult combatants where there was virtually no health to be found."

So what of this? Douville goes deep for his conclusion: "I can think of two explanations for the Zelda economy in Twilight Princess. The first, and the one I want to believe, is that the designers are trying to say, "Money isn't everything. Money just gives you means to do stuff. Doing stuff is more important." The other is that it's essentially the biggest shell game I've ever participated in. Come to think of it, it's probably both."

Hm - I vote for the latter alone, because I think repetitive leveling is such an ingrained part of many Japanese games that crazed money-centric shenanigans like this are considered legitimate gameplay-extending design concepts. Which is quite possibly a hoop-jumping shame.

Sex Advice From Video Game Designers? Oh, Alright!

- Via Alice's Wonderland Blog, she's pointed out Nerve.com's regular 'Sex Advice From...' column, which has enlisted video game designers as agony aunts/uncles this time round - and they make an eminently sensible go of it.

Oddly enough, the people participating are listed with just first name and (in a couple of cases) website links, but they appear to be a developer at Red Fly Studios in Austin on Mushroom Men, [EDIT: ex-]Ubisoft [and now A2M!] designer Heather Kelley (already crossing sex and games with aplomb via her Lapis project), the mysterious 'Jordan' (anyone?), and Randy, who certainly appears to be ex-Looking Glass and Ion Storm designer R. Smith, judging by the snapshot.

Smith actually has the best/dumbest answer, to 'How can playing video games make me a better lover?', and it's as follows (yes, it's NSFW): "Back in the eight-bit days, we used the term "Nintendo thumb," which meant one of two things: One, you played video games until the hours and hours spent manipulating the rough edge of the D-pad gave you that unique blister that hurt so badly you could barely hold the controller anymore, but you soldiered on anyway. Two, the freakish teenage-boy ability to stimulate the A/B buttons so rapidly one's thumb only appeared as a vibrating blur, a Schrödinger's-cat possibility-field type thing. So if clits are just D-pads and A/B buttons, my entire generation should be rock-star gods in bed."

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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