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October 6, 2007

GameSetNetwork: From Harvey To Itagaki

- Time to round-up some of the neatest posts on GSW's various sister sites in the CMP Game Group, from Gamasutra through Games On Deck, Game Career Guide and Worlds In Motion this week, and there's a whole heap of alternative, intriguing, or otherwise smart features and interviews out there, as follows:

- The Subversion Game: An Interview With Harvey Smith (Gamasutra)
"In this in-depth Gamasutra interview, Midway Austin's Harvey Smith (Deus Ex series) focuses on the surprisingly political elements in his new title BlackSite: Area 51, as well as wide-ranging looks at quality of life and the future of the game medium."

- Into The Pixel: The Artists Speak (Gamasutra)
"How does being a game artist fit into... being an artist? Gamasutra talks to Into the Pixel art exhibition winners from Lionhead, Relic, and Rare to find out the stories behind their submission, their creative role, and the sometimes neglected role of the concept artist in making great games."

- Nom 3: An Advanced Mobile Game Created with LOVE (Games On Deck)
"In this idiosyncratic “post-mortem” of the latest in Gamevil’s Nom series, maverick designer Bong Koo Shin details the surprising concept behind his latest opus and detais the reason that he feels Nom 3 is the game that “finally merges games and art,” featuring innovative mobile-only missions for an avant-garde experience."

- Postmortem: Sniper Studios' Crazy Taxi Fare Wars (Gamasutra)
"In this Gamasutra-exclusive postmortem, Jeff Hasson of Redwood City-based Sniper Studios discusses the developer's experience in creating Crazy Taxi Fare Wars, a PSP version of Sega's arcade and console game series, with fascinating technical detail on the game's creation."

- - Investment Study Case-in-Point: Virtual Worlds Hysteria! (Worlds In Motion)
"The taxonomy of virtual worlds is a bit tricky to define and will continue to be under discussion for some time, to be sure... but it's less useful, and more misleading, to use such arbitrary delineation when trying to quantify an industry by investment numbers -- certainly virtual worlds are enormously attractive to investors, with large dollar amounts involved, but it would seem $1 billion is somewhat an inflated number. "

- Analyze This: A Progress Report on the Console War (Gamasutra)
"All three of current generation consoles have been battling it out in the market now for almost a year - what's the progress for Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3? Analysts from DFC Intelligence, GamerMetrics and Wedbush Morgan weigh in exclusively in Gamasutra's latest 'Analyze This' column."

- Free Transcripts, Podcasts from Game Career Seminar (Game Career Guide)
"The Art Institute Online is providing readers of GameCareerGuide.com and Gamasutra.com with free access to some of the best sessions and talks from the Game Career Seminar at the Austin Game Developers Conference 2007, which was held last month." Lectures include Andy Schatz (Pocketwatch Games) on 'A Game Industry Journeyman', 'When Did You Last Level Up? Career Advice from an Industry Veteran' from Dave Perry (ex-Shiny), 'Networking 101' from Darius Kazemi (Orbus Gameworks), and panels including 'What are Employers Looking for Now?' and 'Schools Under The Microscope'.

- The Philosophy of a Ninja: Tomonobu Itagaki Speaks (Gamasutra)
"Famous for being unimpressed with competitors' games, Team Ninja's Dead Or Alive and Ninja Gaiden creator Tomonobu Itagaki is a game design iconoclast with an uncompromising viewpoint, which he shares in this wide-ranging Gamasutra interview, the first he's ever 'specifically directed at other developers.'"

The Video Game Conundrum - A 'Copy Editor' Weighs In

- Poking around the Interweb, we stumbled into a post from the 'Notes From The Copy Editor' blog discussing the whole 'video game' vs. 'videogame' discussion - or even video-game - from a reasonably neutral, non-gamer perspective - though the blogger is not actually a professional copy editor. And it's interesting stuff, providing you're not bored with the entire thing already.

He references the AP and New York Times' wish to spell it 'video-game' at times, but plumps for videogame as his preference, noting gleefully: "I'd imagine that proponents of video game are just as irked by videogame as I was (and still am) by the AP's preference for adviser over the much more common advisor." He also references both David Sirlin and Benj Edwards' refutations of the IGJA's choice of 'videogame' - and then Sirlin turns up in the comments looking endearingly upset.

His conclusion is contrary to my beliefs, but hey, I'm still printing it, folks: "The writers behind the Videogame Style Guide no doubt knew the various connotations that people attach to these different spellings, and they probably anticipated many of the arguments against their unlikely choice. Nevertheless, for this styleguide they had to mandate one of the two options. I think they chose the right one, but I believe them when they say that they didn't make this decision lightly." Fair enough!

GameSetMicroLinks: Digging Big Brain Academy

- Aha, yet again these pearls of wisdom and gems of information are left over from last weekend, but some more whirlwind GameSetLinks are what you deserve, and by Jove, that's what you're going to get:

- Adventure Classic Gaming has a spectacularly detailed history of LucasArts' 'The Dig', looking at the surprisingly large number of iterations of the game.

- Canned Dogs points out that Japanese indie 'dojin' title Akatsuki Blitzkampf is coming to arcades, in another example of the arcade scene taking talented dojin creators and making franchises out of their fighting games - also see Melty Blood, of course.

- Emily Short notes that the 29 games from IFComp 2007 are now available, and the noted interactive ficition (aka text adventure) writer and author has also started giving brief impressions on some of the games on her blog.

- The Arthouse Games blog reveals that Slamdance Games Festival is leaving Park City for 2008, and will be held in Los Angeles as a standalone event in summer 2008 instead. I followed up via email with organizer Sam Roberts, and he told me that it'll be held as a separate event to Indiecade, which is another indie festival that's taking place next summer in L.A. - the more the merrier, I say!

- Charles at the Game Design Advance blog points out: "Adult Swim posted Viva Caligula!, one of the games that I’ve been working on while at Pop&Co. I did the opening copy and most of the level design (the talented Noah Sasso did the rest of the levels and the game design)." It's... interesting, and involves yelling into the microphone!

- Over at John Passfield's blog, he discusses the Big Brain Academy board game, which I hadn't spotted previously: "It even keeps the gimmick of weighing your brain from the DS game - you earn chips for answering questions and weigh them at the end of the game on the "weigh-o-meter" to see who has the biggest brain."

- The sometimes invaluable Gameproducer.net has revealed sales stats for Kudos: Rock Legend: "Start of game development: November 2006 (approx 6 months dev time)... Launch date: May 26, 2007... Direct sales to date: 1,088 copies." Cliff expects a long tail like his other games, though : "Democracy has sold hundreds of copies over the same period, and that’s very old."

- GameTunnel has gone through 'What's New In Indie' for September 2007, including fun such as 'Reach' from infamous indie one-man shop MDickie, and in which , "...this time boxing is the sport as you try to become the next Heavyweight Champ."

- Grand Text Auto has a post called 'Updates on the Pursuit of Interactive Story', and it has links to many interesting game and story-like projects, with some great stuff - eg: "Chris Crawford and Laura Mixon are posting online design diaries on the construction of Balance of Power 2K and La Casa Negra (respectively), each being built with Chris’ alpha-stage interactive story engine, Storytron."

- You may recall Frank Cifaldi's obsession with Desert Bus, the insane (until recently) unreleased Penn & Teller minigame where you drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas in real-time. And recently, the SomethingAwful forum crazies decided to drive the route over the Internet, with one person controlling things and everyone else chiming in via voicechat. (I believe the forum on SA discussing this more is behind a subscription wall, sorry!)

- The New Gamer has debuted 'Saling The Streets: Wheaton All-Night Flea Market 2007', trailing around a crazy sale - and: "It turns out that, having a gigantic flea market in the middle of the night presents its own set of problems, mostly lighting-related." They find a few games, too!

- Gamengai has a write-up of the 2007 Cave Festival, a fanfest specifically for fans of the the Japanese shooter developer, and as always, the niche fans are crazy fanatic over there - the correspondent arrived over an hour before it started, but: "Three and a half hours later, and we finally made it up to the front of the line, and were able to purchase our gear." (Via Namakoteam)

October 5, 2007

GamersWithJobs On 'Copy And Paste Coverage'

- Over at Gamers With Jobs, a (fairly) recent post discusses the apparent 'Copy And Paste Coverage' for a story about a recent Gamers With Jobs podcast in which Bioshock's Ken Levine discussed the motion control on Factor 5's PlayStation 3 title Lair.

This is a subject I've discussed before - how story linking can go tragically wrong, and the site's Sean 'Elysium' Sands explains it like this: "What I’ve seen from the online news gathering business is that it is a casual and incestuous affair of farming from a handful of sites that do actual news gathering and simply rephrasing, which, as stories move through the chains, creates any number of potential inaccuracies and problems."

And so how? "Take the instance of our recent podcast with Ken Levine and what would become a story about his supposed defense of the PS3 game Lair. During our Games You Can Play Now segment as we were playfully criticizing Lair, Ken offered his opinion that perhaps developer Factor 5 had be coerced into using the Sixaxis motion controls, and went on to complain that lately companies seem so impressed with their own technology that it is getting in the way of good development. This would become characterized in the coming days as some kind of defense of Lair's widely panned control scheme."

As noted, this seems to have started from a bit of an inflammatory (but catchy) GameDaily Biz headline, 'BioShock Dev Defends Lair Motion Controls', and from there: "Outlet after outlet simply did what goes for news gathering these days, they rephrased GameDaily’s article in their own words, posted the exact same quotes misframed in exactly the same way, and suggested that Ken had carelessly leapt to the defense of Lair’s foibles as if he had no idea what makes a good game."

Sean is nice about Gamasutra at the end of this piece, but even we've had versions of this problem in the past - a slightly misplaced headline and the Internet as echo chamber makes truth just soar happily from the window. And yes, lazy reblogging is lagely to blame for this, as it feeds off the initial, hyped-up GD Biz headline. Check those facts, folks! [Via Croal.]

Jay Is Games Bounces 'Ball Physics' Competition Entries

- The fragrant Jay Bibby from Jay Is Games sent me a note to, uhh, note that "...we are about 13 deep into rolling out the entries for our latest game design competition", and the free web/PC titles are being posted entry by entry over on his excellent Flash/casual game site.

Bibby explains: "This time the theme is "ball physics", and we have over 50 entries submitted! We will continue to roll out one every couple of hours until they are all up. There's a little something for everyone here, and every one of them never before seen (it's one of the requirements of the competition)."

That's pretty neat, and the level of innovation I've seen out of previous competitions has been very high - so it's well worth checking out. I have no idea which are the best title, but I'm randomly showcasing 'Day Of The Bobteds', "..an action puzzle game based on bobteds and... "ball physics". Go figure." It's by the creator of the neat Hapland series, too.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Visiting Red Light Center

-[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 week, this column looked at the case of a marriage on the rocks because of Second Life, and wondered how well Aberrant Gamer’s favorite standby, “at the end of the day, it’s only a game,” holds up to a multiplayer environment. After all, the presence of real people, even if they’re just digital representations thereof, throws a monkey wrench into the closed world of immersive fantasy that single-player experiences provide.

The analogy can be taken beyond Second Life, fortunately, whose status as a “game” can be debated (Aberrant Gamer says “not”). I’ve often written here that personifying one’s character in a game is a choice, one the player is advised to make for the best relationship to the experience.

Most video games in general provide a forum whereby people can alternately attack or chat up digital avatars, but only in multiplayer games are those characters representations of other players – many of which may be personifying, caring for their characters just as much, if not more, as you do. For an example, check out Koinup, a new social network not for your real life, but for your virtual one – personal pages, diaries and photo albums revolving entirely around your avatar or MMO player character. Plenty of people spend more mental and emotional time, if not literal time, in Azeroth than they do in the real world.

Which makes a bit of sense, actually, given all the things there are to do in a game like WoW, and the relatively deep level of user engagement required to really be successful there. After spending so much time on a character, it’s only logical that one would extrapolate into more complex social relationships, even romantic ones. But what if there weren’t so much to do?

What if there were an MMO based only on one thing? What’s the world like in an MMO based entirely around sex? Wanna find out?

As editor of Worlds in Motion, which shares a parent with GameSetWatch in CMP’s Game Group, I regularly visit online games and virtual worlds to examine their economy, social structure, gameplay mechanic, business model and all of the other nuts-and-bolts from the inside in our Online World Atlas features. When Red Light Center came across my proverbial desk, I knew there was no way it could end up in the Atlas alongside Club Penguin, Nicktropolis and RuneScape. But I decided to go in-depth anyway. Plenty of people, due to their intense personalization of their MMO experience, have sexual thoughts about their online game of choice and its inhabitants. I was curious to spend some time in the world of those who’ve simply fast-forwarded to the good parts, so to speak.

Red Light Center is an “adult” MMO – it becomes apparent what sort of game it is immediately on visiting the website, where seamy techno music plays alongside a woman’s gyrating silhouette. One distinctly gets the same sort of crawly feeling that might be familiar to those who’ve accidentally stumbled across the less savory areas of Times Square and found themselves squinting in the glaring light of a sign flashing GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! The game runs in its own downloadable client, and it’s free to play – subscription is a fairly steep $20 a month.

To put it bluntly, in free mode, your avatar can’t get naked, which means he or she can’t have sex. Screenshots of the sex element scroll through in video on the site, superimposed with film of a girl smoking a hookah – because, apparently, smoking something out of a hookah is also very adult. Just so you know what you’re getting into, you know? Red Light Center also requires you to fill out a profile on some external Web social networking site, which by its red-splashed interface and banner ads makes sure you know that it, too, is very adult.

Click the screenshots to see full-size versions at your own risk.

Once I’d gotten set up to play, I entered the world, naming myself “ZoeyAnnCarter.” Customizing the avatar initially is not a requirement to entry, other than choosing gender, so I was a little unsettled to find myself spawning on top of several other characters, all of whom looked exactly like me. The initial palette and outfit for a girl character was rather sophisticated, in the “we’re shooting a boss-and-secretary porn movie” kind of way, though, so it wasn’t too bad that it wasn’t immediately apparent how to individualize myself.

Others had it figured out, though – and many, like the bald glasses man in the Union Jack T-shirt and tight plaid he-capris, or the guy dressed like Paul Revere, complete with big floppy hat, made me scratch my head a bit. Isn’t the idea here to be sexy? Obviously, the Revolutionary War is sexy to some people. Hey, I’m not here to judge.

Figuring that I might be able to become familiar with the controls just by trying ‘em out, and following my usual MMO modus operandi of “meet someone so I can ask them how I do this,” Zoey hit the dance floor. Once there, I was able to choose from a long list of dance moves. Some of them were blatantly pole-dancer, and others, like the “Bounce_Around,” just made me look stupid. When I tried “Kiss_the_Floor” and “Hip_Rotation,” though, Zoey began to attract a crowd. Mr. Union-Jack-and-Plaid – his name was “gyverdick,” by the way – came dancing over to compliment my dance moves. Putting aside a vaguely creepy glitch that periodically made Zoey’s eyes orange and hollow, and putting aside the fact that she still looked just like everyone else in the room, she did look pretty hot kissing the floor and gyrating around.

Interestingly, the room had live support – people with fancy enough outfits that they weren’t just free account drifters, and who would periodically, with the air of fatigue, shout the same instructions into the room, encouraging newbies to congregate for a tour or telling them just what I was waiting to hear – how to change clothes.

Brunette secretary-zombie Zoey soon gave way to a Zoey who looked, if not like me with her Barbie doll figure and perfect hair, at least tonally similar, and dressed in an outfit I wouldn’t mind, if I suddenly found myself in the middle of a bizarre sex world. Feeling more comfortable, I began to try mingling a little. The room was a conflagration of confused messages, mainly people calling out “hi” and asking “how do you…”, though LOL’s and “mm nice” were still plentiful on the dance floor.

“Gyverdick” was still following me around, periodically trying to start awkward conversation or resume dancing, bopping madly in place as I walked away. Hoping to throw him off the scent, I had Zoey take a seat alongside a decidedly hot blond chick with a beer in front of her.

Once seated, I had an entire suite of options become available – namely, whether to drink, and whether to become drunk or merely tipsy. Becoming drunk causes the screen to blur and results in your avatar stumbling about stiltedly, and being tipsy alters the body language more faintly. The rather disturbing implication seems to be that getting your character drunk will broadcast that status to others – a way of “asking for it”? It’s common knowledge, of course, that in clubs alcohol is a sexual lubricant, but I would have liked to have at least the option to hand out a business card or something.

After trying unsuccessfully to start a conversation with the hot blonde, I had to resign myself to crossing the dance floor again, avoiding Gyverdick as I went, though he obliviously called my name again and began to do something that looked like the mashed potato. I know that people in Red Light Center are here for one thing and one thing only, but looks are still important, aren’t they?

Wandering the streets of Red Light Center was like being in some sexual post-apocalypse. There were very few people outside the initial spawn point of the bar I’d just left, and while the streets were full of clubs, flashing signs, and actual photographic advertisements for real porn websites, I entered more than one of these places to find it completely deserted. Weirdly, the cowboy saloon played techno, the two-floor dance club played techno, the red-lit S&M bar played techno. The same song. I began to keep to the streets just for being sick of it.

Confused and repelled by the barrage of real photo ads – these were some hella ugly porn stars – I wandered around looking for signs of life and mistakenly stumbled into a rainbow-and-purple district that loudly proclaimed itself the male-on-male area. A man standing outside a club in nothing but a cowboy hat and pink chaps asked me in what I perceived would be a wry tone, “First time here?” I was beginning to feel despondent – perhaps I shouldn’t have been so quick to reject Gyverdick. After all, he was sociable, and never once did he say “hottttttttttttttttt”.

Retracing my steps, I stumbled across a gathering of people in the street. These were paying users, barely dressed and elitist, paying no mind to the lost little redhead stumbling about their streets. One guy was completely bare-butt naked, standing around having casual chat. I tried sitting with them, but in a repeat of my high school days, was ignored.

When “Peace_k” came up to me, I was so glad to connect with someone at last that I could overlook the awful fairisle sweater he’d paired with a tiny ponytail, glasses and tight slacks. His English wasn’t great, but it was comprehensible; he complimented Zoey’s outfit, and offered to take me around. He knew a good club, and since we couldn’t type and walk at the same time, it was a quick, quiet jaunt to a Taj Mahal-esque club with an outdoor garden of fountains and benches. With a blue, pink and gold sunset stained high in the sky, things were starting to look up for my adventures in the Red Light Center.

Until we went inside. Yep, the same techno song, and judging by the prolific nudity and let’s-call-‘em-unusual outfits, this was a hotbed of hardcore paying users. They seemed to find the dance scene passé, as their conversations revolved around whether, where and when to have sex with each other. They talked of sex with the same matter-of-fact boredom you might hear on a working girl’s cigarette break. And they seemed connected to their avatars, too – saying they were fatigued of dancing, for example, and sitting down. A naked blonde left with a man in leather pants.

Peace_k led me across the dance floor – alongside the adventurous folk in bondage gear, he looked like someone’s nerdy schoolteacher. It was a little embarrassing, actually – especially when he wanted to climb up on a platform overlooking the entire crowd and bust out some hip-thrusting, head-wrapping dance moves.

We danced for ten minutes – not a long time in the real world, but an arduous eternity to watch avatars gyrate to techno. Peace_k’s not-so-slick moves were occasionally interrupted by enthusiastic compliments of mine – for the sake of politesse and experimental curiosity, I reciprocated. But as time passed – and passed, and passed, it made me wonder what he was up to. I immediately switched from the Shake_That_Thing to the Hop_Hokey_Pokey, and sure enough, Peace_k returned to the keyboard and we left the club.

“Want to kiss me?” He asked. My first action in Red Light Center. Non-paying users can engage in some kissing and hugging, though they need a membership to go any further. We spent a few awkward seconds trying to get properly aligned – and then a very sinuous, uncomfortably intimate kiss began, profusions of hearts coming out of our heads. “Mm, that was sooooooo good,” Peace_k effused, and asked to do it again. To be fair, the close-contact embrace was blatantly titillating to watch – or might have been, had it not been dampened by Peace_k’s dorky look.

Had I been a paying member, this might have been the time when, awkwardly and unceremoniously, my new pal and I got down to our skivvies. Peace_k let me know in no uncertain how excited our virtual smooching was making him – but for him, the next step seemed to be to exchange the urls to our web-based Red Light District profiles. When I checked his out, I noticed it had his real name, a real photo, and info about his preferences, both sexual and mundane – and he seemed distressed that I had not provided that kind of info on myself. More than once, he pressed for AIM, MSN and even phone chat. His photo looked a lot like his in-world avatar; I got the heck outta Dodge.

Where along the line did Red Light Center stop being an MMO game and start being a vehicle to a real-world sexual relationship, albeit an indirect one? What if Peace_k had, by some terrific coincidence, been living a block away (and been my type)? If I’d been married or attached, when would the cheating have begun – the virtual kissing, the real-world info sharing, if we’d met up on MSN, chat or phone, or not until we met in person? Or had I strayed the minute I decided to live in the shoes of sexy vixen Zoey and use her to contact horny men?

Does it come down to the purpose of the world? What if we’d met in WoW, or Guild Wars, or Final Fantasy XI? Does the infidelity occur when we break character, or when we quit talking about the game and start talking about our real-life sex lives? These sort of issues can only be raised in multiplayer worlds – somehow it’s not the same as, say, having a full-fledged crush on Big Boss. I mean, uh, I don't know anyone who has a crush on Big Boss, nope. Anyway.

Perhaps it comes down to how I feel about the experience, what I choose to have it mean to me. Would it have been right for my boyfriend at the time to have been miffed about my visit to Red Light Center, when I found it so chuckle-inducing and generally repugnant? Which, overall, it was. I’ve found being alone in my FFXI Mog House sexier. While of course there’s something to be said for quick-and-dirty visual thrills, I think it comes down to something I’ve said in this column before: firstly, that sexuality, like other thoughts and feelings, is better in the context of character creation and development in a full-fledged game world. And secondly, it’s largely up to me to personalize the character and find ways make that character and his or her world personally valuable. Cutting to the chase just feels cheap, and as far as Red Light District is concerned, I’ll be happier if I never see it -- nor hear that techno song – again.

[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.]

October 4, 2007

Points Wanders Around The Cutest Lil Game Stores In Tokyo

- So, GSW pretty recently blogged about Points, the neat 1UP/GameVideos-published video series from notable chipmusician 6955, who is Canadian but lives in Tokyo - and he's back with Points Episode 1, in which "...we visited 2 fantastic little shops in Tokyo’s west side."

There's totally an awesome episode guide, too, which reveals: "Meteor is easily one of my favorite places in Tokyo. It has everything I love in one closet-sized space: cheap Famicom games, old school gaming memorabilia, game t-shirts, and music of all kinds. Meteor has also become an important meeting point for Tokyo-based musicians, illustrators, and graphic designers who come by to hang out and talk about their latest projects."

Also profiled: "For those of you who grew up in the 80’s, Suteki is like a magical dream closet full of all the awesomest stuff we lusted after. Game & Watches galore, Coleco tabletops, Vectrexes, and a bunch of Tomy robots." Dang, why aren't there more stores like this in the West? Or maybe there are, and we're just inattentive?

IndieGames.com Launches, Indie Game Creators Talk

- This is posted over at Gamasutra, but obviously is of interest to GSW readers too. This isn't a gigantic website launch - more of a 24-hour labor of love - but we wanted to put up something simple (with help from the TIGSource guys!) that would help novices learn more about the independent scene - and we did, yay!

"To celebrate the launch of IndieGames.com, a new informational site about the best independent games, notable indie game creators, from Darwinia's Thomas Arundel through Aquaria's Derek Yu, have been discussing why the indie game movement is so important.

The site, which has been set up by the CMP Game Group to help publicize independent games, includes game creators' opinions on indie games alongside an in-depth guide to 50 great indie games published in partnership with independent game site TIGSource.

It also includes newly compiled information about the Game Group's work in the indie game scene, including the yearly Independent Games Festival and the newly birthed Independent Games Summit - and will be a base for information about any further outreach in this area.

Gamasutra is reprinting the page dealing with the nature of the indie game movement as part of this launch:

The Indie Game Movement

The power of independent games are undeniable, but what are indie games, and what makes them so important right now? The rise of the Web and digital downloads, both on PC and console, has unlocked a hive of creativity from independent game creators - leading to innovation in a multitude of game genres, the revitalization of classic game styles and the creation of entirely new blends of art and playability.

IndieGames.com asked prominent creators, from Braid's Jonathan Blow through Aquaria's Derek Yu, Venture Africa's Andy Schatz and Armadillo Run's Peter Stock and Darwinia's Thomas Arundel, why they think independent games are so vital as a creative art:

"The indie game movement is the most important transition this industry has seen since the rise of the internet. Indie visionaries have single-handedly created the casual game genre, brought back long-dormant genres such as the strategy, adventure, and puzzle games, and have created entirely new concepts within gaming. Indie games have spurred the growth of technology that has allowed serious games and persuasive games to be created. Indie games are the ONLY games that simultaneously satisfy the gourmand, the casual gamer, and the revolutionary."
- Andy Schatz, Pocketwatch Games (Venture Africa)

"Games are an important medium for communication. They have a mode of expression that's very different from what other media can do. However, the mainstream industry does not spend much effort exploring the expressive power of games; that's where the indies come in. Indies can make whatever games they want to make, because they feel those games are interesting -- which is something the mainstream industry is no longer capable of."
- Jonathan Blow, Number-None (Braid)

"Basically, the indie scene made me love games again! It's where the passion is, it's where the most interesting games are, and it's where the most interesting people are. For the mainstream industry, everything goes in one direction: bigger, shinier, 3D-ier. Indie games go in every direction, and it's exciting as hell. We'll keep 'em honest."
- Derek Yu, Bit-Blot (Aquaria)

"I think indie games are important because there seems to be an increasing feeling of stagnation in mainstream games. Although I'm not convinced that the mainstream doesn't innovate (Vib Ribbon, Katamari, EyeToy, Singstar, DS, Wii), I think indie games are a fruitful avenue for innovation. I also think indie games are important because they democratize development. Games are creations and the lower the barriers to making them the better. I couldn't design and make cars, buildings or practially anything else tangible on my own even if I had the skill, but I can make games on a small budget."
- Peter Stock (Armadillo Run)

"Indie games are important because the challenge the current status quo in the games industry. Independent games take risks and push the game play boundaries that licensed, franchised & sequel games rarely do, and everyone benefits. Gamers benefit from new experiences and perhaps new emotions that only truly innovative games can deliver. The industry benefits through the introduction and testing of novel ideas & techniques that can be used to enhance larger games. Larger studios are often responsible for technical innovation, but it's independent studios that push the boundaries of creative innovation."
- Thomas Arundel (Darwinia)

For further information on the independent games scene, including the aforementioned list of 50 great independent games, many of which are free to download, interested parties can visit IndieGames.com."

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': EVE Online's Eve-olution

Spaceships are big.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: the shifting rules of EVE Online.]

Ever since its inception, EVE Online has harbored a tight-knit community consisting largely of hardcore players. The small size of the community allowed developers to retain a certain intimacy with the evolution of their game and the opinions of their player base that most developers cannot afford to have. As the developers released patches and the players began to grow familiar with the intricacies of the game, they revealed several problems that were woven into the core design of EVE. Some of the issues EVE found itself facing remain unsolved in any MMO to date.

As EVE’s developers released their first content patches, they decided to create new and more powerful ship classes instead of expanding the uses of those currently in the game. However, only the most experienced players at any given time could fly these new, freshly minted ships. Experience in EVE has nothing to do with player skill or decision making, it’s simply a matter of age: the older your player character, the bigger ships you can fly. With its complex interface and ham-handed tutorials, EVE was already unfriendly to new players, and the content patches weren’t helping matters.

However, the main draw of EVE is its massive galactic wars and these new patches did nothing to diminish the innate draw of deep space antics; EVE’s player base grew steadily, albeit slowly. As the players began to explore the game’s limits and poke about its soft bits they found a wealth of powerful strategies and profitable exploits. The developers, however, were tied so closely to the game’s evolution that they began to patch out any imbalances as soon as they arose.

Space is big. Now, it is all well and good to try to keep your game balanced. After all, a game with a single dominant strategy dies quickly. However, to try to make each individual strategy equally viable is counter-productive. If you do not let certain strategies dominate, then your game will never evolve. Playing a game is trying to find a strategy that is better than your opponent’s. If all strategies are perfectly balanced, then you are not playing a game at all, but simply making a series of arbitrary and ultimately pointless decisions with pretty pictures attached. This was the danger EVE’s developers courted with their overzealous tuning.

This problem is not limited to EVE, either. This whack-a-mole style patching system is present in almost any MMO. The issue is, at its heart, a complicated problem that is tied to any persistent world. The player is asked to make a series of complex decisions, the meaning of which is obscured in flowery flavor text, between classes, races, hairstyles and eyebrow ornamentation. Some of these decisions are critical, some mean very little. The player is then asked to dedicate several dozen hours to developing this character. During that time, the game is essentially a single player RPG with the occasional group, rather than a multiplayer game. This is especially true in EVE, where neither your skill nor the time you dedicate to the game has anything to do with your level.

Of course, once you reach your maximum level, you become acutely aware that you are playing a multiplayer game, and it begins to get competitive. If a player has spent fifty hours leveling a Troll character, only to discover that Ogres are far superior, they’re going to get pissy, and rightfully so.

EVE's interface is complex. The problem is not a simple one, but it is possible to solve. If the core gameplay is deep enough, the game will continue to evolve with only minimal balance tweaks. That is to say, in a deep game, like Starcraft or Street Fighter, one player will develop a dominant strategy for a certain character type, and a counter-strategy for another character will emerge, which in turn is destroyed by an early strategy that had been considered weak, and so on.

Players in these games are encouraged to develop strategies in part because the developers will not release a patch that renders them useless. The problem, therefore, stems largely from the sense of entitlement that most MMO players have, the notion that the developers owe it to the player base to keep the game perfectly balanced and the eagerness of developers to agree.

EVE’s developers not only scrambled to keep the game balanced, but also began to introduce squishy rules. These rules governed actions that were impossible to remove from the game, but that the developers had declared unfair in the terms of service. Players could perform the action, but if they were found out they could get anything from a slap on the wrist to a permanent ban.

In abstract the idea is not bad, but in EVE it began to extend to anything the players complained about. The developers would decide on one occasion that bumping ships outside a protective bubble was perfectly reasonable, and then later on decide that it hurt the game. The developers began to reimburse players who complained that they lost their ships due to lag, or other circumstances that were unfair in one way or another. These constant petitions put another strain on the game.

Oh my God this game is pretty. However, internet-wide space glory is still universally appealing, and EVE’s player base grew steadily. Even though the game was constantly changing, the players still explored it, and it became evident that there was a meta-game within the game: reality. Immense lag was prevalent in almost every large scale battle, and occasionally entire solar systems lagged out under the weight of player traffic. Eventually, lag became integrated into fleet tactics, forcing commanders to rely on slow, safe strategies rather than try anything quick and flashy. Additionally, time zones became crucial as the game grew larger – certain alliances possess incredibly power simply because they can attack in full strength while the enemy is fast asleep.

Of the many evolutions that EVE has undergone, the meta game is one of the most fascinating and strangely enthralling, largely due to the sense of reality it adds. While the constant content patches have made the higher levels of gameplay all but a distant dream for new players and hampered thorough strategic exploitation, and while the squishy rules are enforced according to the whims and moods of the developers, the meta game showcases some of EVE’s incredibly appealing qualities.

To lie in wait for a player to log in, to attack under the veil of night, to log in on top of an entire enemy fleet, or to slip out of a system undetected at 4 AM – these are the kind of interesting tactics that emerge when players are forced to deal with the hard limits of reality.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who runs a part-time hippopotamus milking service on the side. He also writes a blog, of course.]

October 3, 2007

VGMWatch: The Inevitable Aftermath

- [UPDATE - October 4th, 3.06pm: Commenter 'RotBot' kindly turns up some obvious evidence proving conclusively that E-Mpire's liveblog was indeed plagiarized - see below.]

It's not really surprising that, following my early post about VGMWatch, the site's David Gornoski would get back to me with a response - which I've agreed to print. And it's extremely interesting, to say the least.

So I'm not going to tip my hand - and I think it's important not to get too far into 'he said, she said' on this type of things. But we're going to run David's response in full, then I'm going to make a couple of final comments, and then - I think - we will be done.

Besides, honestly - Gornoski's response, as the guy ultimately behind E-Mpire and VGMWatch, is almost more interesting than my original article at this point. So here goes:

"When I first saw the headline of Simon's post "Who Watches the Watchmen?", I was ecstatic. Since VGMWatch.com's inception, I have desired some type of third party oversight over VGMWatch. There definitely needs to be accountability in the game media industry. And I believe VGMWatch.com has helped provide it. I think other publications have recognized this. EGM issue #217 states "Help keep the industry honest. Read VGM Watch." On the other hand, we are not an infallible staff team and, thus, need some sort of outside monitoring of our work as well. While I strongly encourage analysis of VGMWatch.com's work, Simon's attempt at it has proved to be erroneous and actually slanderous.

Let's take a look at his most outrageous claim. Simon blindly claims without any proof that PSInsider.com's Jim Webb plagiarized the Sony TGS press conference from Eurogamers.net due to similar accounts of the event. I am sure there are some errors to be found in E-mpire Network publications' work. But this accusation is simply false. Below is the author of the article in question Jim Webb's account of how he crafted the Sony press conference report (verified by other staff accounts):

"My wife is an Air Force Sergeant stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia. A good buddy of ours for the past 5 years, Stevens, PCS'd to Yokota AFB early this year, but we keep in contact via email and instant messenger. On the day of Sony's TGS conference I contacted him and asked if he were going to go to TGS. He said no, he had to work but his friend Takeshi was on his way to Sony's conference. I asked if it were possible if he could call Takeshi and get a "live play by play". Within a few minutes we were all set to go. It was crude but worked. Takeshi sat near the rear and kept his head low so he could talk to Stevens on the cell phone who then IM'd me the info. Takeshi being Japanese shook his head at the often flubbed translations and even caught a couple that were wrong, but they weren't pertinent info. Since this was an impromptu set up and Takeshi is a Sony fan with plans only to attend the Sony conference, he didn't attend the others. Had we planned this further in advance, we might have asked him to cover the other events. ? ?

The insinuation that I plagiarized the work of another media outlet based on similar wording is preposterous. Are you suggesting that all sites with a feed watch each other’s text so as to ensure they don't say similar things? While I appreciate your vindictiveness in ensuring ethical journalism, I assure you no foul play was at hand."

In my opinion, VGMWatch.com criticism is one thing, but slandering an honest man such as Jim Webb is simply inexcusable. He has done absolutely nothing wrong. With his wife having just returned from serving our country in the Middle East, the last thing he needs to worry about is his name being senselessly dragged through the mud. Webb deserves an apology.??

The bulk of the rest of Simon's article amounts to snarky comments on legitimate reports at VGMWatch.com. I guess he has a problem with rebuking SOE for attempting to pay journalists to preview their games in Vegas. He also completely misrepresented our story on IGN's review of Prey

for Xbox 360. He linked to my final thoughts to Doug Perry's letter on the situation and then stated there was "plenty of follow-up proselytizing”. Well, as the title of the linked article says, it was my final thoughts on the story. The original story actually focused criticism towards IGN and 2K Games for bartering game score ranges for exclusive deals. I then allowed Doug Perry's take on the situation be headlined on the site for approx. 2 weeks. In his letter, he advocated talking about game scores with reviewers before they've assessed the game and talking with PR firms about score ranges before the game is reviewed in order to snag an exclusive story. As various game sites noted, those items are simply wrong. My final thoughts stated as such.

Simon also seems to think there's some sort of conspiracy in the reader comments on Billy Kirk's Variety magazine articles. Simon, yes you guessed correct. Rudzinski and Graham are in fact with E-mpire. NintendoGal and others in objection to the Variety piece are not with E-mpire. What of this apparent phenomenon? Well, shockingly, E-mpire writers and members pass each others' work around for feedback. As members of Tom Chick’s forum Quarter to Three pointed out, Quarter to Three members inadvertently “spammed” (their words not ours) the VGMWatch story, many of them vehement defenders of Chick and with some association with the writer. Naturally, we allowed every single one of these comments approval for appearance on the main site, because we don’t take issue with fans and/or friends of Chick defending him. The same goes for readers who agree with Billy Kirk's take, whether they know him or not.??

At the end of the day, I think watching the watchdogs of the industry is very important. If there's no accountability, the dog may maul a trespasser or two. But just because you may disagree with such an institution's reports and commentary doesn't mean you try to shoot the dog. VGMWatch.com is definitely not perfect. But it's the only publication I know investigating and reporting on cases of corruption in the game media. And while one might not agree with some of our other stories such as reviewing game reviews, I see no reason to throw the puppy out with the bath water. Regardless of what heat comes our way, keeping the game media accountable is a noble task. Flawed as we humans may be, we will continue in this pursuit.

Oh, and Simon, if I debunk your post does that count for proselytizing as well? If so, I guess this means Amen."

[NOTE FROM SIMON: You know, as I said, I'm not going to get too far into this. We could try to pick more holes in Jim Webb's wife's buddy's friend Takeshi's coverage of the Kaz Hirai keynote that happened to coincide with Eurogamer's - other than noting that the Japanese attendees largely didn't get earpieces, so wouldn't be privy to translation flubs from Hirai's Japanese speech, ahem. But no. Gornoski has given his response, and hey - I've printed it. I still stand by my original statement, and I'm further convinced that Webb and a number of (but not all) other editors and commenters on Gornoski's site are either fictional or pseudonymous. The public can decide if I'm right or not.]

[UPDATE: After article writer Jim Webb turned up and slapped me around a bit in the comments, commenter 'RotBot' turned up with this piece of surely trumping evidence about the plagiarism, which I completely and hilariously missed:

"He still doesn't explain how the timestamps for e-mpire's liveblog match Eurogamer's down to the second for every single entry. The first time I looked at the two pages, I thought "well, they're similar, but I'm not sure if you can call it blatant plagarism". Then I noticed that the timestamps for every single entry on e-mpire matches Eurogamer's.

For example:
9:33:34 - Kaz walks on stage.
01:33:34 - Kazuo Hirai takes to the stage. He comes out to the middle and bows and everyone claps. He's doing his speech in Japanese, as you may have realised, so our quotes are from the official translation.

10:04:50 - DualShock 3.
02:04:50 - DualShock 3.

10:39:08 - And that will wrap things up from Tokyo.
02:39:08 - And it's all over by the look of it. Round of applause, bows etc. And everyone's breaking up, and I'm going off to get a drink. Good night, Eurogamers. Thanks for all the fish.

This happens for EVERY SINGLE ENTRY."]

The Indie Ethos - 'A Game Begins With An Idea'

- Partly seguing off GSW's recent post showing the 'Innovation In Indie Games' panel at IGS, and also using a post from GarageGames' Jeff Tunnell as inspiration, The Artful Gamer blog has a thought-provoking post named 'A Game Begins With An Idea' - complete with stars-reaching William Blake illustration.

As is noted, completely sensibly, up front: "While many people assume that independent game developers, by virtue of being unconstrained by publishers, auto-magically have creative, interesting ideas. However, as I hope to demonstrate - creative innovation is far from guaranteed simply because we’re ‘indies’, and requires a certain kind of developer or team to come up with something worth playing."

There then follows some of Tunnell's and the panelists' attitudes to games, before a smart conclusion: "Making meaningful games is not so much about making games that we ‘like’ or we find ‘entertaining’ necessarily (since feeling angry or depressed doesn’t fit into either of those categories very well) - it’s more generally about finding meanings that accord with human experience. Engineering, tweaking, and re-design all come after we allow our imaginations to roam freely."

Such depth of thinking about games can only be good, however our experiences vary. Comments?

VGMWatch: Who Watches The Watchmen?

- Oh boy - strap yourself in, my GSW friends, this is going to be an interesting one. It concerns the latest VGMWatch 'controversy' over Tom Chick's Variety.com reviews, the newest in a series of articles on VGMWatch which sharply criticize game journalism in various ways.

For those of you who recall, VGMWatch is a 'game journalism watchdog' site, originally run by Kyle Orland (now of GameDaily's 'Media Coverage' column and Joystiq). It used to be a pretty controversial site at times, though as Orland grew as a journalist, it mellowed into an interesting critique of the game journalism scene. But more recently, after a brief but unsuccessful attempt to bring Dan Dormer on to run the site, the site 'owner' David Gornoski has set himself up as EIC. And then all hell broke loose.

Most of the posts have been ever so vaguely fair but incredibly obnoxious so far - a savage criticism of SOE for an evaluation event that promised to pay journalists, an intense attack on IGN's Doug Perry, with plenty of follow-up proselytizing, and the aforementioned Tom Chick/Variety.com broadside, which sharply complains about mainstream coverage of games, without realizing that Chick is a veteran reviewer who runs QuarterToThree, among other things - which promptly started a long thread about it.

Now, as always, the VGMWatch posts are vaguely defensible, but here's the really interesting bit - the comments on the follow-up post had a lot of surprisingly vehement people defending writer Billy Kirk and his editor (and E-Mpire boss) David Gornoski.

So I looked further, and I found a more significant journalistic problem on the VGMWatch folks' watch that needs pointing out, and directly relates to the site's validity to be posting about other folks' game journalism woes:

- Gornoski's E-Mpire.com plagiarized Eurogamer for their TGS keynote coverage
So, you will notice that the latest post on E-Mpire's PlayStation Insider website is live coverage of Kaz Hirai's Tokyo Game Show keynote from one Jim Webb, aka 'Viper' on the forums. You will also note that there is _NO_ other TGS coverage from Webb - not an article. So what, he turned up just for the keynote and then went home?

Further poking reveals a forum post about the keynote which has discussions on the Eurogamer liveblog, and 'Viper' popping up to say: 'Updating live right here'. The forum denizens are a bit surprised by this, asking: 'Hello Viper, Do we have someone there from E-mpire?' Well, the answer is - no they don't.

The keynote is very clearly cribbed almost entirely from Eurogamer's coverage - it's rewritten to not be obvious in many places, but it's very noticeable at the end where Eurogamer says: "Asked whether Home is a game. "I like to call it an interactive game." What? They've switched back to word-mangling translation woman now. She's struggling. Not that it's easy. God - I could barely find TGS and I had a Japanese man with me."

PlayStation Insider's version of this is: "A botched translation effort comparing Home to Second Life." Whereas our own Gamasutra coverage, for example, has clear coverage through that entire section. Here's another clear plagiarism example between PlayStation Insider and Eurogamer - note the two top results.

What's really weird is that Webb pops up in a February 2006 VGMWatch post, defending then editor Kyle Orland in an awfully Gornoski-like way, with similar, rambling arguments. Continuing this line of thought:

- Multiple unidentified editors defending VGMWatch/E-Mpire
As well as the fact that David Gornoski pops up multiple times in recent posts defending Billy on VGMWatch, we have Connor Graham popping up with suspiciously Gornoski/Kirk-like views. Well, it turns out, if nothing else, he's an editor at E-Mpire's NintendoNow. We also have Dustin Rudzinski, who is, wait for it, an editor for E-Mpire's PSInsider.

There are also some other very suspicious defenders parroting the VGMWatch establishment's words - 'Chris' from Cinephiliacs, which is a forum that Billy has an account on - and none of them identify themselves as colleagues of the poster.

So, hang on - surely these are just editors at Gornoski and Kirk's outlet popping up to defend their fellow writers? Well, possibly (and possibly it's something more) - but even if so, they should not pop up to do a co-ordinated stealth attack on those commenting on the controversy.

Conclusion: Refute Or Shut Up?

So I'm wondering... how deep does this rabbit hole go? What's clear to me is that the current management of VGMWatch are in absolutely no shape to criticize the rest of the game media until they address these allegations, particularly on the plagiarism. And if I'm wrong, I'll quite happily apologize. But if I'm right, and they have any decency, they should close VGMWatch down and place it in the hands of someone else. But there are some awfully odd smoke and mirrors going on here.

[UPDATE: David Gornoski's response to GameSetWatch's comments are now available as a separate post, for those fascinated by this particular melee.]

October 2, 2007

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Steambot Chronicles Gains More Steam

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column by TOLLMASTER, after an extended leave of absence involving issues economic, legal and medical. Fear not, for his BURNING SPIRIT is now aflame! The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers Bumpy Trot, localized in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, a particularly charming PS2 game with a unique sense of exploration and friendliness towards less hardcore gamers.]

t1g1rc.jpg Recently, at the Tokyo Game Show, a small video game company namedIrem showed footage of a new title, Bumpy Trot 2. Except, those of us with keen memories will know that this is not a new title at all, but one that was playable at last year’s TGS, and now only exists in preview video form—possibly because of the jump from the intended platform of the PS2 to the PS3. The new graphics look fantastic, but when compared to the other next-gen games previewed at the show, Bumpy Trot 2 didn’t stand out.

However, it was never the graphics that a small but obsessive number of fans raved about. Bumpy Trot 1, released in the United States as Steambot Chronicles, was a typical Atlus release—that is, an interesting title with an excellent localization but was woefully underproduced and largely unrecognized by gamers at large.

With Irem’s affirmation that a sequel is indeed in production—that the game wasn’t cancelled, which many assumed from the year long silence—but being redesigned for the PS3 (alongside a PSP “sidestory” type game for those gamers without the underperforming PS3 console) I thought it would be prudent to discuss the PS2 original, and why this game, made by a company known mostly for creating R-Type back when arcades still existed, deserves a second chance at stardom.


There are two principal theories of game design: that which has been called “addition through subtraction" game design, where each game element exists to bring out or emphasize a narrow list of gameplay actions, and “addition through addition" designs, which adds more features and more forms of play in order to create a fuller product. In more simple terms, a game can either focus upon a single core experience or focus upon additional experiences and add additional details. Shadow of the Colossus and the modern Zelda titles have much in common, but embody different ways of constructing a game: Shadow of the Colossus has one main set of actions, that is, slaying the Colossi, while modern Zelda titles focus not only on combat but on dungeon exploration, solving puzzles, playing minigames, and the like. One game attempts to make a single, main experience better through focus on that experience to produce a better game, while the other produces a better game by adding more content for the player, and the player’s experience is not of one set of actions, but of a combination of many.

fighto.jpgMecha games tend to be in the “addition by subtraction" set. After all, the purpose of most mecha games is to recreate the action scenes in mecha animation in a playable form; it makes sense for the design to be limited in scope to make this experience as good as it can be. While many mecha fans play mecha video games to feel more involved in their favorite stories’ events (there are about as many renditions of Mobile Suit Gundam’s Battle of A Baoa Qu as there are FPS versions of the storming of Normandy) the main goal of these games is to recreate the colorful, fast and adrenaline-producing action scenes of mecha shows. While the genre these action scenes are recreated in can vary from 3D flight sims to turn-based tactical games, the common thread that links most mecha games is the reverence for these battles—and thus it is no surprise that mecha games tend to focus on making this one element better, rather than adding more elements which would detract from the mecha battles.

Perhaps the most “evolved" mecha game is the Armored Core series, which has been discussed in this column before. Armored Core’s concept is to deliver a very concentrated mixture of mecha fighting and mecha building. You do not walk around and talk to NPCs to get missions, but merely go to a heading on the main screen to get to the action. Accept a mission, and instead of controlling your robot and traveling there yourself, you drop immediately into the fray. The story is conveyed through your mission objectives and events that happen during missions, rather than being a separate element to itself. Armored Core games tend to have a rich backstory, but it’s more meant to be read between the lines of the gameplay than to be a part of the gameplay; I’ve known people to finish RPGs “for the story" after finding they hated the battle system, but no one plays Armored Core for the story. They play because they are gearheads, dyed-in-the-wool mecha and action game enthusiasts with a thirst for metal-on-metal action—and anyone else who finds their way to an Armored Core title is promptly hammered down with a high level of difficulty and extreme complexity. Armored Core titles receive tragically low scores in the gaming media not because they are bad games, but because they are reviewed by mere humans, as happened when God Hand, perhaps the best action game in years, received a 4/10 score from IGN. The focus in Armored Core is so extreme that it alienates a good number of potential players.

But: what about a mecha game created with the other theory of game design—a game that would have action, but wouldn’t only be about action? What about a mecha game that would please mecha enthusiasts, but be accessible to nearly anyone in terms of its difficulty and theme? What if, instead of viewing giant robots as futuristic weapons of war, a game was created that featured mecha as more mundane tools to be used for a variety of purposes by the player?

Irem, a company known mostly for creating R-Type and, uh, urban disaster survival sims, came out of nowhere and created the mecha game for everyone. When a game’s full Japanese title can be translated as “Junk Romance Great Action Bumpy Trot," you know that you’re in for something that is going to break outside of the norm. (The American release is called Steambot Chronicles—though I hear “Relaxing, Nonlinear Action Game: Be A Bad Guy If You Want" was considered during localization.) While I generally hate the term “sandbox game," that’s about what we have here—the mecha in this game, Trotmobiles, aren’t simply weapons of war but can be used for a number of things, such as carrying lumber or mining for fossils, and instead of an intense focus on fighting, the gameplay of Steambot Chronicles is largely what you make of it.


Do you remember Shenmue? It was originally billed as a “Virtua Fighter RPG", and I guess that description kind of works. You could beat up and talk to people, yeah, but you could also play Outrun, collect Sega figurines from vending machines, look for sailors, feed kittens, race forklifts, and explore mostly real locations. People who wanted to play a game where you just kick dudes in the face were sorely disappointed, but those players who plumbed the depths of Shenmue found a huge game with so many elements that it felt more “real" than any other game to date.

fossils2.jpgSteambot Chronicles is a lot like that: if you play it straight through to “get to the ending" then you probably won’t enjoy it. But if you spend some time exploring the world of Steambot Chronicles, you’ll find yourself drawn into an entirely different existence, where another, totally different avenue of gameplay lies just around the corner. It’s not about following a path, but exploring off the path that makes Steambot Chronicles worth remembering.

Steambot Chronicles is a game of open secrets—you can get through the game in less than 10 hours if you play it straight through, but if you do really explore what the game has to offer, you can easily spend 30 hours on one playthrough—and still be missing about half of the game’s content. Those who disliked Steambot Chronicles tended to play it to beat it, rather than to treat it as an interactive world to have fun where fun is a goal unto itself. This, combined with the low production values, contributed to only-better-than-average review scores, and thus the game flew under the radar for many gamers.

It IS a mecha game, and you’ll find yourself outfitting your own personal mecha for combat, of course—but mecha combat is only a small part of the game. The first two hours offer enough opportunity to get together a setup you can reasonably beat the game with; many of the game’s battles actually allow you to lose, with no real repercussion, if you chose to enjoy the rest of the game and thus didn’t have a good fighting robot yet or if your skills simply weren’t up to snuff. The story will lead you across many boss fights, and there are combat arenas where mecha can duel each other to make those uber mecha part configurations useful, but the game isn’t about the combat, so much as it is a game whose main component (of many components) happens to be combat.

Instead, Steambot Chronicles offers a staggering multitude of things to do. The plot is far less concerned with the robots than it is about peoples' lives in a world that happens to have robots. Your character eventually finds himself joining a traveling band, where you have to play music in a Guitar Hero-esque minigame (but without the awesome peripheral). The standard instrument, the harmonica, is for tone-deaf evil fiends like myself who know more about mecha than music, but there are a large selection of instruments, each with a different method of playing and amount of difficulty. Good performances even earn you money, in contrast to the arena battles, which actually cost you money, in a strongarmed hint by Irem to get you to enjoy the rest of the game.

And while mecha combat isn’t emphasized, the mecha are still the stars of the title. The game’s world is a country in the throes of an Industrial Revolution, and you’ll use your mecha for far more than facing down ace pilots. You can try to find areas where goods are sold cheaply and where they’re in demand, in a Privateer-like cargo hauling system, or haul people across the rough terrain instead as a kind of taxi with legs. Or you can go dungeon diving for treasures that can be sold and displayed in a museum (although some dungeon hackers might not enjoy the fairly simple mechanics). If you are anything like me, you’ll stir up memories of Animal Crossing as you dig for valuable fossils in a rock canyon. Or you can simply poke around the landscape, looking for one of the game’s numerous secrets—usually in the form of a small vignette where you help a character adapt to the changing landscape of the Industrial Age.

I actually got fairly addicted to the stock market game. You can buy and sell stocks of various companies, either for dividends (paid daily) or to just buy low and sell high. The interesting thing is that the market is based on what’s going on in the plot, and what you’ve been doing lately, and so the stocks will rise and fall accordingly. If you take a sidequest to clear a tunnel of bandits, you’ll see the transportation company’s stock skyrocket; hauling iron ore will give a slight increase to the mining and steel companies. While you can’t “take over" a company, it’s a lot of fun to make a killing by only completing sidequests that help companies you’re personally invested in. It also reinforces the idea that Steambot Chronicles isn’t just a mecha game, but a simulation of an entirely different, breathing world.


loc6.jpg The mecha in Steambot Chronicles being used for tasks other than combat make this title somewhat unique. Again, most mecha games focus on combat, with the Armored Core series being a concentrated dosage of this principle. And on the face of it, Steambot Chronicles is obviously inspired by Armored Core, or at least the “put parts together and make a robot thing and have it fight it out against similarly constructed robots" genre (which seems to have existed for time immemorial; the earliest title I can think of would be Mail-Order Monsters); a game that is about combat. You put a robot together, putting say a drill on this arm and a shield on the other and give it mechanical horse feet and police lights and start causing trouble in an arena or showing traveling bandits what-for.

But while Armored Core is complex and depends on its deep parts system, and how it interacts with combat, to work as a game, Steambot Chronicles is much more laid back, with a lot of the fun being elsewhere, with efficient designs not needed to beat, or even be very successful in, the game. Instead of being dropped right into combat like in Armored Core, Steambot Chronicles allows you to roam around the countryside, picking up boulders, exploring various nooks in the landscape, or waiting at stoplights in cities. Both Armored Core and Steambot Chronicles are based on similar mechanics, but there is far less pressure in Steambot Chronicles. It’s a relaxing form of Armored Core, one that thinks it’s Shenmue. You might spend as much time playing a guitar on a stage built onto your mecha as you might spend using that mecha for combat, if you so choose.

Steambot Chronicles is the anti-Armored Core. Same basic concept—walking robots with customizable parts that can fight—but opposite interpretations.

And the fact that Steambot Chronicles’ mecha—here called trotmobiles—are common pieces of technology also makes it mostly unique. The “real robot" genre deals with (comparatively) more realistic giant robots, where mecha are not unique creations but massed produced in factories, but either through habit or good storytelling they usually have strong elements of the “super robot" genre; that is, the hero’s robot may be a special prototype, or he may be an ace pilot of almost supernatural (or just plain supernatural) ability, which is used to explain why the good guy (usually) wins. Mecha video games follow that tradition heavily, where it’s not uncommon to have to shoot down two dozen or so enemies to win. Even Armored Core, which is seen as being very “real robot" in genre, makes it clear that the titular Armored Cores are “special" units piloted by an elite set of individualistic mercenaries, and regular grunts are stuck piloting more primitive variants of these high-spec machines.

Steambot Chronicles portrays the trotmobile as a common technology, one spun off from automobiles when it was found that automobiles had trouble navigating through the land’s bumpy terrain (and here you thought the “Bumpy Trot" part of the game’s Japanese title was just bad English, huh!). And trotmobiles are only retrofitted as, rather than born, weapons—guns and swords are too large to be held in the trotmobile’s small hands (designed to pick up boxes and rocks) and actually have to be comically bolted onto the side of the robot’s arm. The hero’s mecha isn’t an advanced prototype, either, but an abandoned vehicle found discarded away from the road, standing in a few feet of water. (Luckily for the player, trotmobile combat is mostly one-on-one.) This portrayal makes Steambot Chronicles seem more “real" than most entries in the “real robot" genre, placing it within the very select company of Patlabor (which featured police units stopping construction robots piloted by angry drunks and the like) and Votoms (a sidestory of which, Armor Hunter Mellowlink, dealt with a Rambo-like badass who took down that series’ piloted robots--on foot.

Consequently, I found that Steambot Chronicles didn’t show up on most mecha fans’ radars, which is a damn shame. I feel that while Steambot Chronicles is a game that everyone can enjoy, that there is still a lot of content here for the mecha fan. You still have the option of getting together a badass robot and becoming King of the Battle Arena if you so choose, and since it’s a unique interpretation of the standard mecha game formula, it won’t feel like yet another half-hearted rehash done to quickly cash in on an popular anime series. I have a ten year old little brother who watches me play Armored Core or Zeonic Front in absolute amazement because he can’t understand what’s going on, but Steambot Chronicles was something the two of us could bond over and enjoy together.


My purpose in writing this article—other than to talk about the game when the news of the sequel was still hot—was to present a game in this article that is accessible. My forerunner in this position did an excellent job in explaining the mechanics of the better mecha games, so I wanted to take a different approach from him, and also showcase mecha games that are more familiar to the average gamer.

Anime licensed games tend to be trash, but also the raw enthusiasm for these animes sometimes inspires developers to take a step forward and present a game that breaks the mold. The general audience doesn’t play mecha games because they don’t know which ones are drivel and which ones are good, and are scared off by the common roots that mecha gamers share, which almost form a kind of mythology. But in doing so, they miss out on unique and exciting games in a time of also-rans and Halo-killers and Grand Theft Auto clones, and unique and exciting games are at a premium.

Steambot Chronicles is a game that is playable by anyone. You’ll never feel threatened because you don’t know Japanese Cartoon X well enough to understand the story because it’s a stand-alone game with no license. Anyone who can learn to play Katamari Damacy can learn to play Steambot Chronicles. And Steambot Chronicles is easy and varied enough that it won’t scare off the common gamer from the genre forever. I write this article not just to tell you about my favorite game released in 2006, but in the hopes that this will open inroads into seeing the mecha genre of games as accessible to a less hardcore audience. Just do yourself a favor and avoid Gundam: Crossfire and you’ll be okay. I promise.

[Images unceremoniously stolen from Atlus' official Steambot Chronicles page.]

Preserving Games & Virtual Worlds - The Proposal

- You may recall that we recently ran a piece revealing that the Library Of Congress has stepped up to fund preservation of both virtual worlds (such as Second Life) and games, and there's now more info about the project, initially described in a recent IGDA SIG post by Stanford's Henry Lowood.

The project "...will be undertaken by Stanford, U. Maryland, U. Illinois, and Rochester Inst. of Technology. It will start on Jan. 1, 2008 and end at the end of 2009, a two-year project. There are three foci: e-literature (historically, closely related to text games), digital games, and virtual worlds." And helpfully, Andrew Armstrong has posted the proposal [PDF link] to the IGDA's Wiki for greater perusal.

I find it a bit disappointing that it's headed 'How Will We Preserve Virtual Worlds?', with 'games' not mentioned in the title - succumbing to the great frothing desire, in some ways a correct one, that spawned Worlds In Motion and innumerable VC funding fits. But some of the mentioned things to be archived (in addition to various Second Life islands) include SimCity and Adventure - and I too agree that it's a crying shame that there are already online environments that have died without good archiving of user experiences in them. So this is a tremendously encouraging step.

The Future Of PS2 - Konami Kids Playground?

- As gaming get more and more mainstream, we'll continue to see family-oriented games rise to the surface - especially on those platforms that have a massive installed base, such as the PlayStation 2. And wandering around Fry's Electronics today, I noticed an interesting one I haven't seen talked about too much - 'Konami Kids Playground: Frogger Hop, Skip & Jumpin' Fun'.

This title, which was developed by Foundation 9's, MA-based educational game subsidiary Imaginengine, comes bundled with a 'dance mat' with 3 different colored and shaped DDR-style foot buttons to stomp on, and "...turns learning into a fun, full-body activity for your preschooler. Kids, aged 2 to 5, will love to jump, stomp and learn their way through each of these fun and educational games!"

There are also multiple add-on games to the initial bundle, including Dinosaurs Shapes & Colors and Alphabet Circus, and you know, I can't find obvious previews or reviews of these early September-released titles online (see Metacritic's blank, for example.) Hey, looks like John Davison's family-friendly game info site is, abstractly, a great idea, with 120 million PS2s out there, and plenty in the hands of adults with small children.

October 1, 2007

COLUMN: 'Marketing Melancholy': Building A Better Online Game Ad Campaign

gwgcats4_300x250.jpg [“Marketing Melancholy” is an occasional column by Siliconera's Spencer Yip that examines multiple facets of marketing games from an end user's point of view, from advertising campaigns through box art and beyond. This second column discusses Spencer's opinions on .]

This past week, Vivendi Games launched an amazingly successful ad campaign for Geometry Wars Galaxies. Their LOLcats ads posted at GWGCats.com sparked buzz on the Internet that went beyond clicking through them.

Gamers were talking about the ads on message boards, and bloggers posted the ads on their sites too. Roped in the discussion was chat about Geometry Wars Galaxies too, which probably has Vivendi Games smiling. So, how did they manage to pull this off?

Right Place, Right Time?

Whoever designed the ads capitalized off popular Internet humor, a right place/right time phenomenon that is targeted at the correct demographic. However, I think it’s even simpler than that. The banner ads for Geometry Wars Galaxies break the banner blindness barrier because they are different. Even though someone isn’t aware of LOLcats, the ads stick out like a sore thumb compared to the cookie-cutter Flash ads that announce a game is on store shelves.

Perhaps the success of the LOLcats campaign illustrates how video game advertising has fallen into a rut. A standard leaderboard ad scrolls through features, or maybe the main characters and then announces the name of the title. The problem is where leaderboard ads are placed - the top of the page. Even if an ad doesn’t fall into the banner blindness trap, nearly all readers scroll down or click on to the next page before it can cycle through all of its information. That means only a fraction of the information is being passed down to readers.

The general solution to this problem is buying more ad placements on a site. If a reader misses the leaderboard, they will scroll down and see a vertical skyscraper ad with the same message. More placements mean more chances to catch a reader, but obviously this costs more money. Also these ads tend to do the same thing - announce a game is on the market. On one hand, it reminds readers who have been following a game that it’s about to come out and they should head to local game shop and buy it. However, these ads don’t drum up the kind of excitement that the LOLcats ad campaign created.

Creating A Game Ad Campaign That Makes You Stare

Is Internet humor the only way to achieve this? No, but you need to create a campaign that entices curiosity, instead of just announcing a product. See, the LOLcats aren’t directly about what they are advertising. When you look at one of them, there is a head scratching moment where you wonder what they are for - and if you’re curious like me, you click on to find out.

Here are some personal thoughts on how you bring a little intrigue and interest to online game advertising.

Example 1:
Let’s say you’re about to announce a lesser known, cerebral strategy RPG. You can design a banner with a standard chessboard that replaces the kings and queens with your characters plus a slogan like “Paladin (or insert main character’s name here) to H8”. This campaign draws on a classic, familiar game and twists it to make a reader wonder what is going on. This campaign can be further expanded by using other board games like checkers, Reversi and Go.

Example 2:
Franchise revivals are all the rage now, and here is a way a game company could announce a comeback. Draft up a marble headstone with the franchise’s title as the heading. Then put the release date of the first game in the series and the release date of the last game in the series. The result would be something like “here rests Game Title Q (August 1, 1986 – December 21, 1995)”. Below the headstone, have a freshly dug up hole in the grass, which symbolically informs readers the series is coming back. This idea is tongue-in-cheek, but it’s eye catching.

Example 3:
In this case you’re about to advertise a portable version of game of a somewhat established franchise. Why not take the mascot character or the protagonist, place him/her/it visiting landmarks around the world playing a handheld system? Place the character in the crowds of a Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. Photoshop it visiting the Eiffel Tower and outside Mann’s Chinese Theater among the Hollywood stars. Blend reality and fantasy to make readers wonder what is going on.

These are just some thoughts, but these concept ads are not designed to bombard readers with facts in a tiny space. They are designed to give readers a chuckle and get readers to click the ad to discover the message. What do GSW readers think?

GameSetMicroLinks: The Gates Shirt, The Diner Dash Library

- So instead of waiting around until later in the week, this time GSW is ripping out the GameSetLinks in practically Delicious length, complete with some brief commentary on why they may or may not be interesting. Why does this work? Because I trawl a myriad of interesting and approximately interesting game blogs so you don't have to, huzzah:

- How much does Bill Gates love Halo 3? Enough to don a tasteful Halo 3 shirt with 'This Is How It All Begins' embroidered on it? Yep, and Bungie's Christian Allen took a picture with Bill at last week's Halo launch party at Bungie HQ.

- Insomnia.ac has a review of the latest Touhou shooter for PC, called 'Shoot the Bullet', for reasons that become obvious (it has photography in it!) Also on the site - a review of the adorably named Let's Go Jungle.

- Wired News points out the latest PS1 re-releases for PS3/PSP in Japan - not as many as previous months, but leaving me cursing yet again on Sony's pitiful record of putting similar games out here. Oh dear.

- Excellent education game blog Research Quest discusses Carnegie Mellon's library-related edugames - Diner Dash in a library, in one case!

- - Amazing stuff on eBay - an auction of four contemporary Intellivision remake carts ended at over $1,000, showing how collectors' tastes span generations.

- You've seen it already, but the New York Times on the art behind Halo 3 is worth perusing, quizzically.

- Surreal's game design blog look at Eastern vs. Western game design, with thought provoking results.

- Chipmusician supreme Jake 'Virt' Kaufman mentions that bizarre game-related indie movie Press Start is out on DVD, featuring his soundtrack.

- Rock Paper Shotgun's correspondent discusses getting lost in the supermarket, and specifically relating it to The Sims. I like RPS. It's weird.

- GamerDad is somewhat returned from his recent heart attack, and talks about it on Game Sanity blog. We wish him the best.

- Another returnee is JC Barnett, since it appears that the Japanmanship blog is back, documenting a Westerner in Japanese game development again. And he promises only some mild fermentation this time!

Want To Speak At, Help Organize GDC? Excellent!

- Aha, I have a couple of important Game Developers Conference-related messages, since we run that uber-conf here at the CMP Game Group, and I would be remiss of me not to communicate them to you (I promise I'm not as begrudging as Joel McHale when he does 'Let's Take Some E!') They both involve GDC 2008, as it happens, which is happening from February 18th-22nd, 2008 here in lovely San Francisco, and for which new info - including specifics on some neat new features/summits - will be available in the next couple of weeks.

Firstly, the GDC 2008 Call For Submissions, which originally opened back in August, is officially closing at the end of Monday, October 1st - coincidentally also the IGF deadline this year. As is always the case, the vast majority of GDC sessions are submitted by you savvy, relatively suave (give or take!) game professionals out there, so please go ahead and submit an abstract if you have something you think your peers should here. You even get to hear former Shiny supremo Dave Perry yammering at you on the submissions site, as an added bonus.

Secondly, we're in need of some temporary help to aid us in putting together this year's GDC - and here's a brief, slightly un-'HR sheen'-ed version - the full ad is up on Craigslist: "Conference Coordinator for the Game Developers Conference and other events... [applicants will need to] Communicate with conference speakers and other relevant parties... Develop and maintain all data for submissions... Manage guest lists for event parties... [requirements include] Interest in games; reasonable comfort level with technology... Excellent writing and editing skills... To apply for this temporary position, please send resume and salary requirements to: [email protected] - and put 'Conference Coordinator' in the subject line of your email." This would suit Bay Area game enthusiasts and people-centric types who'd like to help put GDC 2008 together - and who knows where it would go from there? We await your interest with... interest.

September 30, 2007

On Randy Pausch's Last Lecture

- Over at Metafilter, they have a post with information about Randy Pausch's last ever lecture, explaining the sad yet touching final CMU talk from the Alice educational game engine co-creator and important game education figure.

Honestly, Metafilter's synopsis is so good and link-packed that I'll include a lot of it here: "Randy Pausch is a pioneer in virtual reality, a computer science professor, a Disney Imagineer, an innovative teacher, and the co-founder of the best video game school in the world."

Pausch was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and "...after a long and difficult fight he's been given just a few more months to live. This week he gave his powerful, funny, and life-affirming last lecture to a packed auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University, entitled "How to Live Your Childhood Dreams". The WSJ's summary, and a direct link to the complete video of the lecture [WMV link]." [Via Gewgaw.]

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Future US: Now They're Playing with Power

np-8807.jpg    np-0711.jpg

The November Nintendo Power arrived in my mailbox the other day, and as managing editor Scott Pelland writes in his opening letter, it's officially the last one that Nintendo of America is producing. As was widely reported elsewhere, after 20 years and 221 issues (only one of which Pelland himself isn't on the masthead for -- the very first one, July/August 1988), production of NP will be handled by Future, which has already been producing Nintendo: The Official Magazine in the UK for nearly two years now.

I think Scott's editorial letter is worth reading even if you don't read NP regularly, so I'll reproduce it here:

"For nearly 20 years I have had what many people would consider to be the best job in the world. (No argument there.) And the same thing could be said of my talented colleagues -- the writers, designers, editors, and incredible support staff that have weated the details every month to bring you the world's first and best official video game magazine. Nintendo has been our home, and our parent, too, supporting and guiding us as we have tried to tap into our passion for both the games and the print medium to inform and entertain our loyal readers.

But there comes a time when we all leave home and strive for even greater achievements, and that time is now for Nintendo Power. This issue is the final edition to be published by Nintendo of America. Beginning with Volume 222, Future US (one of the most accomplished magazine publishers on Earth) becomes Nintendo Power's official publisher. Huge news, I know, but not discouraging.

In fact, although some masthead names will change, I am convinced that Future's new team is not only dedicated to carrying on with the traditions and quality you expect, but will deliver exciting new content and benefits, such as an annual holiday bonus issue. Subscribers will continue to receive NP monthly in the mail, and newsstand patrons will find NP in more locations than ever before. So please join me as I say welcome to the future, and to Future US."

So not a heck of a lot of information on what Future will do with the mag, other than the fact it'll be 13 issues a year just like every Future title. This issue of NP has a full preview of games covered in next month's edition, so I'm assuming we'll see the December issue right on schedule, though I don't know what the editorial lineup looks like yet.

Perhaps not all that much will change with the new publisher, but I still think it's a good occasion to look back on what Nintendo Power accomplished. At its peak, NP was the premier outlet through which gamers got their info and strategies. For a time from its inception to around 1995, having a game make the cover of NP was a major advertising coup for whatever third-party publisher managed the feat, because full coverage in the mag had a direct effect on sales of the sort that good reviews in Famitsu are purported to have over in Japan.

Its total circulation was in the millions until the N64 era proved harsh for Nintendo (and the Internet made traditional tips-n-strategy mags obsolete), and few game mags ever did more to define the tastes of a generation of console owners. Even now, the mag remains pretty unique in the marketplace, with a very singular approach to coverage, interviews and game-preview coverage you don't see anywhere else, and a general feeling of "fullness" (sorry to be vague here) even though it's the same number of pages as any other game mag these days.

Not bad, really, for what's supposed to be a glorified company newsletter. I hope that Future is able to keep the tradition of excellence going.

[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.]

GameSetUpdate: Lord British? Space? Not So Crazed!

- So just a couple of weeks ago, just after his (pictured) UT fundraiser, we ran a report here on GSW from the Korea Times, including "...some hilarious Richard Garriott gossip - claiming NCSoft will pay to fly Garriott into space."

The report said that Lord British's space shot would be to promote Tabula Rasa, and we scoffed: "While I guess Garriott could go eventually, a $30 million promotion for the game? Guessing not." Well, guess what? Just announced is RichardInSpace.com and a press release revealing "...famed game developer Richard Garriott, son of former NASA astronaut Owen Garriott, has begun preparations for a “commercially active” mission to the International Space Station."

However, to be fair: "The first commercial research partner involved in Mr. Garriott’s mission is ExtremoZyme, Inc., a biotechnology company co-founded by Owen Garriott." So NCSoft isn't yet an official partner - although Richard does talk about them in his first blog on the site. But still, if we wore hats, we'd be eating them about now.

[While we're on the Korea Times and NCSoft, John Andersen points out a fascinating new article there called 'NCsoft CEO Stands at Crossroads', which includes incisive analysis of NCSoft's declining profits, why Tabula Rasa is vital for the company, and a few ladlings of gossip about NCSoft boss Kim Taek-jin - definitely worth checking out.]

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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