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October 13, 2007

Reminder: IGF Student Showcase Entries Close Monday

- Apologies in advance for another IGF-related story, but hey, the deadline is rapidly approaching for students wanting to enter the 10th Annual Festival, so probably better to mention it briefly rather than having any of you folks miss out. Here goes:

"Organizers are reminding entrants that submissions for the Student Showcase 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 15th.

The 2008 IGF Student Competition (run by the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra) 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, and each winner will receive a $500 travel stipend to help aid their trip to GDC 2008. In addition, during Game Developers Conference 2008 itself, there will be a prize for best overall IGF Student Game awarded as part of the IGF Awards, with the finalists comprising all of the Student Showcase winners, and a $2,500 cash prize for the ultimate winner.

The Main Competition of this year's IGF has already revealed a record 173 entries, with a host of notable independent PC, web-based and even downloadable console games entering the contest - for which almost $50,000 in prizes will be given out in total. Further information, including detailed rules and submission information, is available at the official Independent Games Festival website."

Rare Candor From... A Post-Stamper Rare Culture?

- Ahead of the next GameSetNetwork early next week, I wanted to point out the in-depth interview with Rare's James Thomas and Justin Cook we just posted over at Gamasutra - notable because the 'iron curtain' that the Stamper-era Rare used to veil over its employees is over, and they can speak openly about their projects and ethos now.

In some ways, this is particularly fascinating because Thomas and Cook are honest in a peculiarly British fashion, which leads to them answering some fun questions they might demur on otherwise, such as Cook on what the Stampers are up to now:

"We talk about it quite often, because Tim [Stamper]'s wife still works for Rare, so she comes to the place regularly, and they've still got premises in Twycross itself, and we sometimes see them going in and out. We were whispering amongst ourselves about what they might be doing... but nobody knows! " So, big headline... 'Stampers Have Office, May Be Doing Games!'

Also notable is Thomas' slight grouse at Microsoft for not promoting Viva Pinata enough - even being a bit of a Pinata booster, I'm not sure I agree with this, but:

"I think from our point of view, it was interesting to see how the marketing budget was split last Christmas, because obviously everyone knew that Microsoft were publishing Gears of War and Viva Piñata. Yet, so much of the money went towards Gears of War, which is going to sell millions anyway. It was a bit of like, "What about the other franchise?" I think we got left in the wake somewhat. Hopefully with the PC version this Christmas, it might get something of a second wind."

GameSetFocus On: Who Is That Mysterious Surfer Girl?

- You know what, it's relatively seldom (let's say - never?) that an anonymous game weblog turns up spurting lots of good, little-known, exclusive information about game projects into the ether. But that's just what the 'Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars' blog has been doing in recent weeks, and we at GSW are wondering - who the heck is behind it?

The blog has actually been going for a couple of months, mixing political and tech commentary with game-related posts, and has become well-known mainly for a post with initial details on Team Bondi's L.A. Noire, alongside a couple of screenshots of Prince Of Persia 4. So, sure, this could all be a load of rubbish - but if you look through other posts, it very clearly isn't.

For example, there's an earlier 'quick bits' post which has some well-hidden info - for example, the fact that Manhunt 2 was being developed at Rockstar Vienna (before its shutdown) is vaguely known, but mentioning Max Payne 3 too is getting pretty obscure. Also the Brutal Legend URL info is smart and on the money (and also recently echoed by Shacknews.)

In the resolutely non-game related arena, there's also some v.smart research on Blackwater editing Wikipedia, done before Wikiscanner made it easy, and this mysterious person's alternate blog, Such Things That Never Was, has just posted info on a canceled, Amped 3-style update of the Links series that sounds, to me, completely on the money - and which hasn't been discussed in public in this much detail before.

In conclusion - these are both blogs to watch _very_ closely, because whoever this person is (I only have one guess, and I'm pretty sure it's wrong), they have access beyond normal industry player or even high-end press levels. Or they're just on exactly the right l33t mailing lists - one of the two! Let's see what the Surfer Girl busts out next, eh?

October 12, 2007

Video Games & Gambling - Two Great Tastes?

- So, the jobs section on sister site Gamasutra definitely has a number of ads from gaming companies, like WMS, which are squarely in the 'slot machine' business, rather than the video game biz.

Which brings up the interesting question about how far the two markets are converging, discussed in an In Business Las Vegas interview with Pete Bernhard, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

It's this question for Bernhard that is particularly interesting: "The commission recently approved skill to be allowed to determine the amount of a bonus paid on a slot machine. Considering that most view poker as a game requiring skill, do you see a time where video game skills play a greater role in playing a slot machine?"

His response? "Based on the information presented to us in that circumstance, I think, yes, there will be an increased emphasis on that. As regulators, we treat this conservatively, taking steps that we think are consistent with our regulatory responsibilities while at the same time taking into account the fact that certain skill-based elements might make it more exciting and interesting for a patron."

"In the particular case you're talking about, the skill-based aspect of the game would come into play only in a bonus round and would allow a certain minimum bonus to be paid no matter what the skill of the player. So once a player earned a bonus, the player would receive some sort of reward and that reward could be increased if the player exhibited a certain greater degree of skill, in this case, the Pong game concept. We felt that was something we could regulate appropriately and it could provide something attractive for patrons. And, yes, I think the clear indication, from what we've heard, is that there will be more and more of these concepts coming forward."

So, in other words - the Vegas skill gaming avalanche could be upon us. Though probably not, given that most regular Vegas gamers don't really want their payout governed by hand-eye co-ordination. Still, it's a fun thought.

What Indie Games Can Learn From Indie Film Distribution

- One interesting thing about the rise of 'indie games', whatever that phrase happens to mean this week, is that it's often compared to the independent film movement.

But really - what do most people in the game biz know about how indie filmmakers fund and distribute their titles, and how small companies make money out of independent/niche films?

It's an interesting comparison, which is why I was delighted to find an extremely honest interview with niche horror/import DVD label Synapse over at Variety's 'Kaiju Shakedown' Asian film weblog.

Now, obviously, the movie biz still distributes to physical retail, and the game business is shifting a lot faster to digital distribution, which changes things up majorly, but Synapse' Don May Jr. has an interesting perspective on what's happening in a lot of creative markets - an explosion of choice. He comments of his firm: "I started in this business right at the beginning of DVDs, I had all my connections and we were able to get our foot in the door better than we’re able to now. Now everyone on the block is trying to start their own company and they’re failing miserably. They’re in business for a year or two, putting out one or two discs a year and then going to their day jobs in the meantime. But I’m doing it every day."

May particularly notes: "I don’t think it’s going to get any better for us little guys. I think it’s going to get worse. At any moment Synapse could go out of business if the fans and the buyers stop supporting us. Look at how many little DVD companies have gone out of business. You’re selling 20 – 30% of what you were selling five years ago. Production costs haven’t gone down that much, to make a DVD today costs about the same as six years ago. The studios are coming in with a million titles that are more important that our titles to the big stores."

So what's going on here for indie/niche films, and how does it compare to indie games? Well, it's pretty horrendously complicated, and rapidly increasing choice is also a factor. But it's clear that the move to digital distribution for games (still very much a work in progress!) is freeing up any fixed upfront costs of printing and distributing the media - something the DVD biz is having tremendous issues with. Which is great for indie games, since a lot of the problems that Don is having relate to shelf space and how to get his media into the hands of fans.

- But on the other hand, does this mean that carefully 'curated' niche labels (which Synapse is, in some ways - albeit with some explicit content thrown in to confuse things) will fall to the wayside in the digital world, to get replaced by large aggregation conglomerates, like the RealArcades of this world?

Possibly, and possibly not - but the question of how you bring attention to the niches online is an interesting and tricky one. There's still a place for curation and craft experts to bring together enough of an offering that satisfies a particular niche, in film as in games. So here's hoping that Synapse keeps it up.

[Oh, and a bonus quote from the excellent interview, since the distribution issues for DVDs are fascinating: "We’re distributed by Ryko, which is distributed by Warners so everything is hands off for us. We go and visit the buyers every now and then at places like Borders, and we have a sales team, but it’s hard these days. Five years ago everything we put out was on the shelves. Nowadays it’s pretty much just Borders. Sometimes the big box stores don’t put in their orders right away, they look at our stuff and think, “Meh, we’ll probably bring this in down the road.” Maybe a week or two after street date, if there’s buzz, they’ll throw in a few units."

So interestingly, Most of our sales are online. You’ve got specialty stores like Amoeba and Kim’s but the days of us being in these chains is over. Tower is gone, and they were a big supporter. Places like Suncoast and Musicland are gone. It’s hard to go to Best Buy and drop HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN in front of the buyer from Minneapolis and say, “You guys should bring this in!” They need to bring in 15,000 copies of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN 3 and so they might buy 1500 units of your disc and 3 months later return 1200."]

GameSetMicroLinks: Not Just Your Everyday Links

- Keeping up with the GameSetMicroLinks, here's a few interesting tidbits I plucked off the plucky RSSes of the world's game bloggers at some point several days ago, and am now spitting angrily in your general direction:

- Excellent tabletop gaming blog OgreCave has been discussing the new ARG company Six to Start, currently helping out with a design contest to create a fundraising ARG for Cancer Research UK, and staffed by the Hon brothers (last of Perplex City fame) and offline/online gaming dilettante James Wallis. Is interesting!

- Obsidian's Chris Avellone draws funny cartoons on his MySpace blog. A recent one discusses recruitment in the game biz: "I hate hiring season at Obsidian, for the simple reason it reminds of all the worst ways folks back at Interplay used to "apply" for jobs in the design department. Don't get me wrong - applying is fine... it's just how you do it."

- Matteo Bittanti has been discussing 'Afghanistan, the videogame': "Think of 9th Company: Roots of Terror as the Russian equivalent of America's Army. Almost. Also, the publisher is ND Games (Noviy Disk), the official and exclusive distributor of Nintendo in the Russian market."

- Last week, 1UP's Jeremy Parish completed a handy round-up of retro-related XBLA games so far, complete with thumbs-up and thumbs-down for each. I forgot to link it until now. And now I am, although where's my favorite joypad-mangler, Track 'N Field, huh? [EDIT: Oops, it's just the games they haven't rated before. I r idiot.]

- SCEA Santa Monica designer Jason De Heras has a really fun analysis of Mike Tyson's Punch-Out up on his blog: "This partial game analysis isn’t necessarily trying to pinpoint and explain what actually makes Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out so much darn fun to play. The actual goal is to expose the core elements that seem to virtually eliminate player frustration." (Via Low Fierce)

- Atman Binstock, who is one of those secret Jon Blow-style 'such a ninja coder that he stays under the radar' types, has posted a list of his latest projects on his Electric Sheep Games site, and his recent history is notable - he went straight from the Spielberg Wii game at EALA to co-designing PixelJunk Racers for PSN. He also has info on a cancelled N64 title that sounds awesome-o: "Inspired by Umihara Kawase, I set about creating a 3D 3rd person grappling hook game."

- Gamezebo has a fun interview with Carbonated Games' Ellen Beeman, discussing producing casual games, and some of the challenges of being a female in the still male-dominated game biz. Oh, wait: "I can't really say that I've had any challenges working in a male-dominated field. In casual games, it can be an advantage." Yay!

- DS Fanboy has a reasonably silly discussion of what DS remakes people would like to see, and our very own Brandon Sheffield contributes - while rapping lazy remakes, he grins hugely: "The thing I'd most like to see would be some Data East compilations. Some Magical Drop, Cliffhanger Edward Randy, Windjammers, etc., etc. But that's pretty unlikely!" Unless we're in Brandonia!

- The creator of this mod mailed me the other day and I promptly forgot to post it, but TIGSource reminded me - Adam Foster has released the latest instalment of his 'Minerva' mod for Half-Life 2, and it's epic single-player story-based goodness, as opposed to the majority of obvious multiplayer blasters: "The story takes place in the Half-Life universe, on a tiny island somewhere in the Baltic Sea that has been burrowed out by the Combine."

- Ah yes, and we have to mention it - the official PlayStation Blog trumpets: 'From IGF to PS3: Everyday Shooter’s Backstory', and Jon Mak himself turns up to explain his wacky indie ways visually. The game is out on PSN now, so please go play it if you like that kind of thing. Which we do. Go on, you know you like it too.

October 11, 2007

IGF Mobile - Judging, Reminding, Handheld-ing!

- Wanted to mention this at GSW because I'm pretty sure there are some homebrew or independent handheld game developers reading - whether it be DS, PSP, cellphone, or other hardware.

Therefore, this IGF Mobile judge announcement and deadline reminder (the competition is run by us at the CMP Game Group) is rather worthwhile - and I suspect that competent games will have a good chance at prizes:

"Organizers of the Independent Games Festival have named the judges for the inaugural IGF Mobile competition, a first-of-its-kind event, celebrating innovation in games for cellphones and other mobile devices, including Sony’s PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS.

A panel of high-profile executives and journalists within the mobile gaming industry have been confirmed to help award nearly $20,000 in prizes at this sister event to the IGF, first announced in August, and to take place at Game Developers Conference 2008 next February in San Francisco.

Confirmed judges for the first ever IGF Mobile event are:

- Mike Yuen, Senior Director, Gaming Group, Qualcomm
- David Gosen, CEO, I-play
- Arjan Olsder, Writer, Mobilegamesblog.com
- Darryl Williams, Senior Director of Content, Playphone
- Justin Davis, Editor-in-chief, Modojo
- Demetri G. Detsaridis, Creative Director, Massively Mobile
- Stuart Dredge, Writer, Pocket Gamer
- Neil Trevett, Vice President Mobile Content, NVIDIA
- Monty Munford, Business Development Director, Player X
- Steve Wetherill, President, Uztek Games
- Matthew Hawkins, Writer, zedgeHeadz
- Michael Chang, CEO, Greystripe
- John Walker, Writer, Rock Paper Shotgun

Like the main IGF competition (part of the CMP Game Group, as is Gamasutra), the IGF Mobile will have its own pavilion featuring the finalists on the show floor at the Game Developers Conference 2008 next February, and all finalist games will be available to play at the pavilion.

Winners will be announced at a ceremony during the GDC Mobile conference and honored during the main IGF Awards on Wednesday February 20, 2008. In addition, submissions for the IGF Mobile competition close October 26, 2007, and entry information can be found on the official IGF Mobile website, alongside prize and sponsor specifics."

Neversoft Looking For GH4 Worker Bees In Game Developer Mag

As we've already noted, the October 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine is out, and I actually wanted to highlight a neat new ad in the recruitment section at the back of the mag, whose cover (we've established!) looks like this:


We've previously covered Neversoft's super-spiffy custom ads for the magazine, which I think they make specially for us (at least, I haven't seen them printed anywhere else). And here's the latest one, which is in the October issue:

Neat! Pretty sure this isn't real graffiti, but it really is well done, and I thought it was a genuine photo for a little while. (Or isn't it?) Anyhow, the 'newsworthy' bit which is totally not newsworthy, of course, is that the final graffiti panel indicates that Neversoft are recruiting for Guitar Hero 4 and 'Hawk 10', the two titles they will be working on next after Tony Hawk's Proving Ground and Guitar Hero III. So there!

[As we noted last time: "At some point I'm going to get round to republishing a few other of Neversoft's recruitment ads for the mag, since I'm sure they won't mind. Suffice to say that at least two of them have caused significant consternation around the office regarding whether they were 'right' for a, uhm, family magazine." Elaborating somewhat - one involved an unborn skateboarder, and the other one was Christmas-themed and had a disturbingly clothed Santa in it. Hah.]

GameSetNetwork: From Casual Sex To Indie Seropian

- Aha, time to see what's going on elsewhere in the CMP Game Group, including big sister site Gamasutra and similarly styled online worlds sibling Worlds In Motion - and there's actually some neat stuff in here, from columns to interviews through a new online worlds summit we'll be doing at GDC next year:

- Designing a Gameless Game: Sulka Haro On Habbo Hotel (Gamasutra)
"Sulka Haro lead designs web-based online world Habbo Hotel, which has 80 million registered users and 6 million uniques per month. But what can the game industry learn from this 'gameless game'? Gamasutra chats to Haro about Habbo, Scrum, and 'game grammar' to find out."

- Persuasive Games: Casual As In Sex, Not Casual As In Friday (Gamasutra)
Ian Bogost's latest 'Persuasive Games' column provides a new definition for casual games and their prospects, citing the Zidane Head-Butt game and suggesting: "If Casual Friday is the metaphor that drives casual games as we know them now, then Casual Sex might offer a metaphor to summarize the field’s unexplored territory.

- Virtual Worlds Conference: Ironstar's Joakim Achren Discusses Mobile Virtual Worlds (Worlds In Motion)
"It seems that mobile connectivity to virtual worlds is right on the horizon. But what about a virtual world actually self-contained in a mobile phone? At the 2007 Virtual Worlds Conference, Ironstar Helsinki CEO Joakim Achren demonstrated and discussed MoiPal, his company's mobile virtual world that works on basic Java handsets."

- - Q&A: Gala-Net's Young Talks PlaySpan RMT Deal (Gamasutra)
MMO firm Gala-Net (Flyff, Upshift Strikeracer) has announced that the firm will provide RMT (real-money transactions) in its upcoming titles, thanks to a deal with PlaySpan - we sat down with Gala-Net VP John Young to discuss why current unlicensed trading is like "drug deals gone bad".

- Building An Empire: Koei's Generals On Their Strategy (Gamasutra)
"Japanese-headquartered Koei has slowly built its success in the niche of Asian-history themed action titles like Dynasty Warriors, but is trying a Western expansion with a Canadian studio and titles like Fatal Inertia. Gamasutra sat down with three of the company's senior staff to find out more."

- 2008 Worlds In Motion Summit Announced (Worlds In Motion)
We're delighted to announce that we'll be hosting the first-ever Worlds In Motion Summit, to be held on Monday, February 18th 2008, as part of the 2008 Game Developers Conference - about which initial information has just been released. The one-day summit will focus on the intersection of online worlds and games, and there's an overview for the event on the GDC 2008 Summits page."

- IGC: Wideload's Seropian Talks Company Commandments (Gamasutra)
"'Own Thine Own Intellectual Property' and 'Keep Thine Overhead Low' were just two of the Wideload Commandments company CEO Alex Seropian detailed in his keynote at the 2007 IndieGamesCon, where he broke down the studio's formula for indie success and demonstrated its first Wideload Shorts game."

October 10, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - The Fool's Errand

["Beyond Tetris" is a hopefully biweekly 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 Mac masterpiece The Fool's Errand.]

A scene from the animated prologue of The Fool's Errand, by Cliff JohnsonWhile writing about The 7th Guest last week, I realized I'd mentioned The Fool's Errand again. I'm not surprised it happened, Cliff Johnson's 1987 game remains one of the greatest puzzle games in personal-computing history, eminently playable even twenty years later. I'd been procrastinating about it (for a reason I'll get to later), since I started (and restarted) this column. But there's only so long I can go on referencing a game that has had such a lasting impact on a whole generation of puzzlers. So, leaping without looking, let's begin.

Cliff Johnson, a monster builder and filmmaker, was first inspired by the elaborate puzzle-mysteries of the movies Sleuth and The Last of Sheila to stage "mystery game" parties where groups of players solve pencil puzzle to unearth clues to a mystery. Kit Williams' illustrated treasure hunt Masquerade was further inspiration for Johnson as he caught the puzzling bug. In 1984, Johnson put together a book similar to Masquerade as a Christmas present for his friends. This was the first incarnation of The Fool's Errand, a set of paper puzzles bound together with a jigsaw puzzle and a story to provide an unifying mystery. But having just purchased his first personal computer, he could already see the possiblities of expanding the puzzle as a computer for his new Macintosh.

Johnson began coding the next year, and The Fool's Errand was released by Miles Publishing in 1987. Though sales started slow, the game gained momentum as rave reviews started to trickle in. MacWorld inducted it into its Hall of Fame, and Games Magazine awarded it "Puzzle Game of the Year" as part of the Games 100. Electronic Arts took over the distribution, and over the next three years, The Fool's Errand would be ported from the Macintosh to DOS, the Amiga, and the Atari ST. And the game would continue circulating, on sites like The Underdogs until the present.

Foolish Games

An incorrect answer to The Children from The Fool's Errand, a concatenation puzzle.The Fool's Errand begins with the story of a fool (called "The Fool") and his quixotic adenture though the land of Tarot. Based on the imagery of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, The Fool meets with the inhabitants of the Kingdoms of Wands, Cups, Swords, and Pentacles, as well as the symbolic figures and events of the major arcana. The story is peppered with fanciful asides and nonsense words (sometimes related to the answers of various puzzles), but like most videogame plots, it doesn't seem to have much to do with the rest of the game.

The bulk of The Fool's Errand is a set of sixty puzzles. Only a few are available at the start of the game, but solving them opens up progressively more. Most of the puzzles are familiar—even pedestrian—for experienced puzzlers. There are word searches, cryptograms, anagrams, word squares, pentaminos, and jigsaw puzzles. There are mazes with slight enhancements (wandering through one maze causes secret doors to slide open and closed as you approach them, another has hidden hazards), but throughout most of the game, the pen-and-paper origins of Errand show through. You might even start to wonder why everyone says the game so special.

Well, for one thing, these basic puzzles have a difficulty curve that's pitch-perfect, starting with gimmes and ramping up quickly to real head-scratchers. Hardcore puzzlers like myself get lulled into a false sense of security, which inspires feverish solving later on when the riddles get tougher. And beginners get to practice on easier puzzles before the hard ones. And peppered throughout the game are puzzles that hadn't been seen before. There are what Johnson calls "concatenation puzzles." You start with a certain string of letters, and a series of buttons that modify the string. Some buttons add letters to the front and back, some reverse the string, some change certain letters into others. You must figure out what order to press the buttons to create a sensible phrase. There are "mask" or "XOR" puzzles, which are harder to explain than to solve (and they are incredibly hard to solve). And there are some puzzles where there just don't seem to be any clues anywhere, but no matter how obscure, there are always clues, even if they're not where you expect them.


A portion of a complete, but unscrambled Sun's Map from The Fool's Errand. Click to see the full map, taken from Cliff Johnson's website.But what truly sets the game apart is what happens next. Defeating the game continues with further puzzles of increasingly Byzantine design. With the story complete, you must reassemble the Sun's Map, a massive 81-piece jigsaw puzzle with nearly identical pieces. Each tile of the map corresponds to one chapter of the Fool's story, and the path that winds its way through the jigsaw traces the route of The Fool through the land of Tarot. The story I mentioned above—the one that seemly had no purpose other adding some overly precious flavor—turns out to be riddled with obvious and subtle clues. You start scouring the scroll for hints on order and relative locations. The flavor starts to seem less affected and more revelatory

And after you finish painstakingly assembling both the story and the Sun's Map, you must locate, uncover, and identify the fourteen lost treasures of Tarot. By now, the difficulty curve I mentioned before is almost stratospheric. The puzzles you're facing have no instructions. In fact, they're not even in the same places. Solving a "treasure" puzzle means taking a vague clue, using it to seek out other clues scattered all over the game, and then figure out how to put them all together. It sounds unfair, but the clues are always there, and by now, you should have a better sense of where to start looking for them.

This endgame is what Scott Kim described as a metapuzzle. The word metapuzzle has become standard terminology among the creators and solvers of puzzle hunts (I mentioned it in my article about the MIT MYstery Hunt). But today, the word typically means that the answers to some puzzles feed into and become the basis of another, higher-order puzzle. For Johnson, the metapuzzle is "a tale, a set of puzzles, a set of clues revealed by those puzzles, and a mapping device in which to organize the clues, leading to the final 'ah-ha!.'" That's quite a bit more elaborate than most metapuzzles.

The entire game is a paragon of what some of my friends call "whole-buffalo" design. Every opportunity to relate one part of the puzzle to another part of the puzzle is taken; no part of the puzzle is wasted. When designed well, this kind of puzzle means endless surprise, solving it means delving deeper and deeper; you become faimilar with every letter, every picture, every clue. It's not just that it could be important—eventually it will be important. And by the time you're finished, you know the puzzle better than you thought you ever could, and you rarely forget any part of it.

Uneasily Parting

The Fool, taken from the artwork for Johnson's hopefully upcoming sequel, The Fool and His MoneyAfter The Fool's Errand, Johnson kept writing puzzle games, but none had the staying power of Errand. First, there was At the Carnival, which was to be the first of a series of games called The Puzzle Gallery. Carnival featured the same types of puzzles as Errand, but far more of them, 180 in all. Yet Carnival lacked any real story or metapuzzle, and there were never a follow-up for the Puzzle Gallery series. In 1989, Johnson released 3 in Three, with an animated story about a lost numeral 3 as it wandered through a crashed Macintosh trying to return home to its spreadsheet. The game added several complex logic puzzles to the wordplay formula of the previous games; and though I personally believe that, on the strength of its base-level puzzles, Three is the better game, its metapuzzle simply doesn't have the same holistic flair as Errand's. Johnson left the world of Mac programming to do other things. He developed more puzzle games for the Phillips CD-i (which is, sadly, much harder to emulate than the early Macintosh), and he designed the real-life treasure hunt behind David Blaine's Mysterious Stranger.

But since 2003, Johnson has been working on a sequel to The Fool's Errand: The Fool and His Money. Hoping to extend the ideas of the original into a trilogy of games, he promised a sequel with "The Fool's Errand meta-puzzle structure and design," "the same quantity of puzzles as At the Carnival," and other design elements from 3 in Three. Although initially scheduled for Halloween of 2003, the game has been postponed several times as Johnson has apparently had to "re-write the game three times from scratch." (Of course, he said that last summer, so it may be up to four by now.) I'd been hoping to write my Fool's Errand article to coincide with the release of the new game, but after so many delays, I just couldn't put itoff any longer. Just this week, Johnson reported that he'll be fixing the game for "a few months or so" before beta-testing.

Most articles about The Fool's Errand, nowadays, end with two things. The first is an exhortation to play the game. I echo this recommendation. Johnson has made it easy to play the game (and his other two Mac works) using downloads from his own website. The second is usually a mention of the "Compendium of True Believers." Johnson will be self-publishing and the game will only be available through his website, so he's promised that everyone who preorders the game will have their name enshrined within the game as a True Believer. Many of my freinds are True Believers and have been for several years now. But I'm not.

Don't get me wrong; I really, really do truly believe that the game will be released, and that it will be great. But easily parting with money for a product—isn't that kind of, well, Fool-ish?

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. Now that this article is finished, he's going back to editing The Gamer's Quarter #9.]

Opinion: Poor Wii, DS Game Clones Only Benefit... Nintendo?

- [In this GameSetWatch editorial, Game Developer/Gamasutra publisher Simon Carless discusses Nintendo's 'laissez faire' attitude to third-party game publishing, and whether its lackadaisical posture could actually be benefiting the company's first-party titles.]

So there's something interesting going on in the house of Nintendo - and it involves the swelling market for DS and Wii games, and Nintendo's lack of concern over assuring quality on said games. This conversation spools off the most recent issue of Ziff Davis' EGM Magazine, which has an excellent article on Nintendo's quality control for approving third-party titles, and what it means.

GoNintendo has a brief summary of the ideas behind the article. Now, I won't rehash EGM's piece too much, but it very correctly points out that Nintendo is the only major hardware manufacturer right now which has no stringent concept approval for games - both for the DS and Wii. And this is leading to a whole heap of average or poor quality games for Nintendo's consoles. But I want to springboard off this concept and go... further!

So, it's true that 'classic' games like Billy The Wizard (formerly Barry Hatter: The Sorceror's Broomstick) - which Conspiracy is putting out in North America - could and would never have been published in North America on Sony or Microsoft consoles (though the ever-relaxed SCEE did let it through!) And, oh my, there are plenty of other 'shovelware' titles coming soon. But... does it matter?

Now, setting aside the whole Nintendo 'Seal' vs. 'Seal Of Quality' discussion - which is a bit of a red herring, in some ways, it all comes down to an interesting question. Is Nintendo actually doing itself a favor by allowing all these titles to flood the market? No, seriously - here's how it goes:

- Wii and DS owner picks up a deeply average third-party game by Company X.
- Said owner plays it for a while, and gets frustrated at the poor use of the Wiimote and the relative shallow gameplay.
- Owner crosses Company X off his list of publishers he will play games from.
- Returning to the game store, Wii/DS owner goes back to what he knows - family games featuring Mario, Donkey Kong, Pokemon, and other long-time Nintendo mascots. In other words, first-party games.

- So - is this whole 'open' publishing tactic by Nintendo just a ploy to dilute the market and drive consumers back to their only guarantee of quality - a 'published by Nintendo' label? Oh, the conspiracy theorists would love you to believe that!

But... nope - I just don't think that's always the case. For one thing, many of the clones that don't include mascot characters - particularly of Nintendogs and Brain Age - are so relatively close to Nintendo's own products that I'm sure that some gamers must be picking them up instead. For example, to joust for shelf space with Nintendogs, here's Pets: Dogz 2 from Ubisoft (and yes, there's a franchise precedent for this, but..), Paws & Claws: Dogs & Cats Best Friends, and a host of others. They all have cute pets on the cover - why would you care whether it's made by Nintendo or not?

Conversely, after (or even before) you've played through Brain Age, why not try Brain Buster Puzzle Pak from Sega, or Brain Booster Beta Wave from Majesco - which even comes in two flavors, much like the Pokemon games do. (I don't remember seeing such calculated clones for the DS in Japan? Or am I just being over-hopeful?)

To conclude - this is an incredibly nuanced question. In some ways, more choice is great. It's something we're used to on the Internet, with DVDs, with music CDs, and with PC casual games - which also suffer from cloning issues, for better or worse. And Nintendo is opening up the market to publishers of every size and games of every type - there's no accusations that 2D Japanese titles are getting unfairly blocked when there is a market for them, as SCEA has been accused of in the past.

In addition, let's face it - concept approval for Microsoft and Sony's consoles hasn't always led to top quality titles, and in fact, may have dissuaded the kind of simpler, more 'mainstream' games that are thriving on the DS and Wii right now.

But there's a bottom line here - if the relatively poor uses of the Wiimote and the sometimes derivative set or over-simplistic (rather than 'casual') games on Nintendo's consoles continue - then first-party will again rule the waves, as consumers stick with what they know. And that's a-him, Maaario!

GameSetMicroLinks: Summoning The Spirit Of Xbox 720

- Continuing with the daily GameSetMicroLinks, as if our life depends on it, there's all kinds of fun stuff popping up this time, including a unique video game-related brick up for auction (!):

- The revitalized Japanmanship blog has a good summary of the state of Xbox 360 in Japan - nothing we haven't heard before, but well crafted: "It’s a good console with a surprising amount of excellent games, as well as a slowly growing library of casual fare, and it is only the minor lack of “Japanesey” games, pricing and local support that really need to be sorted out."

- Far Cry 2 and Splinter Cell designer Clint Hocking has a gigantic post on 'Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock', and my God, it's so much more readable than the title implies: "It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole." OK, that bit only vaguely!

- Via GameSniped, they point out that someone has a Sim City 2000-themed brick for sale on eBay UK. "Yes, this a real brick! Sent out to the press to promote SimCity 2000. 'SimCity 2000' is indented into the dip of the brick." For the game collector who has everything! Drop it on Will Wright's toe!

- Iain Simons has been organizing the second GameCity event in Nottingham, England for later this month, and the line-up looks pretty awesome, at this stage - Keita Takahashi, Alexey Pazhitnov, folks from the UK ratings board, and even, uhh, the Triforce. GameSetWatch and Gamasutra will have 'operatives' there causing trouble and reporting back, huzzah.

- Game developer blog Extropica has a great post called 'High end content pacing in a live environment', in which Spacetime Studios' Brandon Reinhart looks at just how quickly high-end World Of Warcraft challenges are beaten by the elite guilds: "We can see above that, in WoW, approximately 2-3 months follows the release of new content to the defeat of its final challenge by the current top guild." Lots more detail, fascinating stuff.

- Ex-Edge editor Margaret Robertson has been having an interesting whinge, but a whinge nonetheless at MySims, specifically the DS version, for cloning and various other sins: "Five minutes in, and I take it all back. MySims is radically, daringly unique. I’m not sure I’ve ever played a game where every single interaction I’ve encountered from game start to first save is so needlessly flawed." Youch!

- Finally, the adorable Benj Edwards has posted 'VC&G’s Halloween Video Game Costume Ideas (2007)', and they are all. Awesome. "Some video game fans have a tough time figuring out what costume to wear on All Hallows’ Eve, so as per tradition, I figured I’d help them out and provide some detailed suggestions geared towards the gaming enthusiast. Any of the ten costumes listed below is guaranteed to make you popular at the office Halloween party, on the street begging for candy, or anywhere in between." Please to go look!

October 9, 2007

COLUMN: @Play: 'Starting Out In POWDER, Or 'Beware The Kiwi Bird, My Son''

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.]

Jeff Lait's POWDER, which name probably stands for something I don't know, is a graphic roguelike originally created as a homebrew Gameboy Advance game. Created as an entry in the 7DRL programming challenge, since its original release it has been steadily updated, and ports have been made available for Windows and Linux using SDL.

Despite its broadened horizons, the game is obviously intended to be a GBA game first; not only are the screen size and graphics the same across all platforms, but there is also the occasional video game in-joke to be found. The game complains, if the player tries moving off the top of the map, that doing so would "break the backlight." (Direct complaints that the original GBA didn't have a backlight to the developer.)

powder1.pngYet it would be a mistake to consider POWDER to be a "mini" roguelike, for it contains roughly the same level of complexity as something like Hacklite. There's a full bestiary of foes with different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and a wide assortment of objects to find and use. Its dungeons also display a fair bit of charm, with frequent secret rooms, flooded areas, boulder gardens and monster lairs to happen upon.

The necessary simplification to make a roguelike playable on a handheld game system with a control pad and small number of buttons requires a number of control innovations. Like Seven Day Quest, the game uses what is primarily an object-oriented inventory screen, with context menus available, depending on the item, that reveal all the things that can be done with it. This makes the game rather easier to learn than something that gets its control scheme from vi. But unlike most roguelikes, there seems to be no real carrying limit in POWDER; I've filled up almost half the huge inventory screen with no warning about being burdened or such.

powder2.png POWDER breaks from roguelike tradition by disallowing diagonal movement or melee attacks by the player or most monsters, which requires a considerable change in strategy from the usual. It makes fighting in doorways and hallways even more effective since even in cases where monsters may be adjacent with the player on a diagonal, they won't be able to get hits in.

However a few monsters, like grid bugs, are able to attack on the diagonal, making them relatively difficult to escape from. Wands may still be fired on diagonals, and missile weapons may be thrown diagonally, but their usefulness is held in check by the need to extend the player's visual range, such as by fighting in a room or from using torches, to use them optimally.

powder3.png POWDER seems to take the most after the Hack family of roguelike games. It contains floating eyes, grid bugs and cockatrices, and possibly other Hackish monsters besides, and they have abilities more-or-less in line with their counterparts from those games. The "evil" and "holy" attribute of items seems pretty much in line with "cursed" and "blessed" from Nethack, but it seems much more difficult to remove curses than that game, or identify objects for that matter.

One of the weirder features of the game is that, instead of allowing players to start out as one of several classes, upon gaining a level the player is asked which class he would like his next level to "be" of. Each of the options besides "adventurer," which offers generic growth, seems to be tied to a different god, who expects certain behavior out of the player as in Dungeon Crawl. Of special note is the class Wizard, which doesn't seem to show up unless the player has actually practiced his magic a bit.

powder4.pngWhile I have yet to spend a lot of time on POWDER, here is some information I've been able to glean from the early game:

POWDER has a useful tutorial available from the main menu. Unlike as you might expect, it's not given that you'll survive it, but helpful information can indeed be found there.

By far, the most troublesome monster to be found in the early game is the kiwi. The name and image may call to mind shy, flightless birds, but POWDER kiwis are hellish creatures capable of impaling a first-level player on its long beak within two quick hits. I generally try not to engage one in melee unless I can survive 10 points of damage from a single hit, but even that wasn't enough to save me once. Fortunately they seem willing to wander off if they lose sight of the player.

Evil items are a big problem because it's difficult to remove curses. Further, often some or all of the player's starting stuff will be cursed. If your starting item is a long sword or some other relatively strong weapon, it might be worth putting up with the curse just to use the item, for often that'll be the only thing that's wrong with it. Other stuff besides equipment can be "evil" or "holy" too, presumably with effects similar to cursed and blessed stuff in Nethack.

powder5.png The game does have a food requirement, but unlike many roguelikes the player can keep himself sustained pretty much by just eating whatever he kills. So far I have yet to find much to eat that harms the player other than green (poisonous) snakes. Like Nethack, eaten corpses bestow resistances and even special effects, like speed in the case of bats, on the player, but unlike Nethack sometimes there are minor ill effects (fire beetles can grant fire resistance, cold vulnerability or both), and they also seem to expire after some number of turns.

When aiming wands or thrown items, you might note that it's possible, in addition to the eight spots right by the player, to aim two spaces up and two spaces down. This is the game's way of allowing the player to specify the ceiling and the floor as aim spots, but rare is the case where the player would actually want to shoot there.

powder6.pngPOWDER, by Jeff Lait
Available for Game Boy Advance, Windows and Linux.

2008 Independent Games Festival Reveals Main Competition Entries

- Aha, here's what's up: "The organizers of the 10th annual Independent Games Festival have revealed a record 173 entries for the 2008 IGF Main Competition, with a host of notable independent PC, web-based and even downloadable console games entering the contest, for which almost $50,000 prizes will be given out at GDC 2008 next February.

A full list of IGF 2008 entries is now available on the official Independent Games Festival website, including screenshots and details on each of the entries. As always, many of the top IGF games will only come to the fore during the judging process - and there are many high-quality titles not listed below.

However, some of the games entered this year from notable previous winners, or titles already well-known to the indie gaming public, include:

- Axiom: Overdrive (Reflexive Entertainment)
(From the creators of Wik & The Fable Of Souls, "...players grapple with unique physics-based game-play as they explore a mine's dark corridors and discover... they are not alone!")

- Crayon Physics Deluxe (Kloonigames)
("Crayon Physics Deluxe is a 2D physics puzzle game that lets you experience what it would be like your drawings were magically transformed into real physical objects.")

- DROD: The City Beneath (Caravel Games)
("Caravel's third major release in the DROD series will take you further inside a world of puzzles and adventures than any game you've played before!")

- - Fret Nice (Bits & Pieces Interactive)
("Fret Nice is a charming platformer designed for guitar controllers, giving the player the unique feeling of not only controlling the main character's every movement, but actually playing the game as if it was a rock song.")

- Gish 2 (Cryptic Sea)
("Gish 2 is the long awaited sequel to the IGF 05 grand prize winner Gish. In Gish 2 you take the role of physics based blob whose movement and control are physically modeled around the shape and texture of his body. When his girlfriend Brea is murdered, Gish sets out to the Isle of the Dead to make a deal with Quietus (the god of death) to bring her back to life.")

- Noitu Love 2: Devolution (Konjak)
(Pictured above: "In "Noitu Love 2: Devolution" you're thrown into a classic action and beat-em-up scenario but with a twist to the gameplay that creates a new and fluent style of play using the mouse.")

- Pixeljunk Racers (Q-Games)
("Simple addictive puzzle racing game based loosely on slot-car racing, with 32 types of game and up to 7 players simultaneously.")

- Schizoid (Torpex)
("Schizoid is the most co-op game ever! One or two players control a red ship and a blue ship. Waves of red and blue enemies attack the ships of the opposite color; the two ships must work together closely to defend each other, and ram and burst all the enemies on over 100 levels.")

- The Night Journey (USC Game Innovation Lab)
("The Night Journey is an experimental game created in collaboration with Bill Viola, an internationally acclaimed artist and MacArthur fellow, which uses game technologies to evoke the universal story of an individual’s journey towards enlightenment.")

- The Path (Tale Of Tales)
("The Path is a short horror game inspired by Little Red Ridinghood. There is only one rule, and you must not follow it. There is only one goal, but if you attain it, you lose.")

- World Of Goo (2D Boy)
("World of Goo is a physics based puzzle / construction game. But the millions of Goo Balls that live in the beautiful World of Goo don't know that they are in a game, or that they are extremely delicious.")

But that's just the start - as mentioned above, a full list of entries is now available for viewing on the official website - and darn, there's so many other good ones - please point them out in the comments.

The next deadlines for this year's IGF are October 15th (for entering titles in the Student Showcase), October 26th (for entering mobile, DS, and PSP titles in IGF Mobile), and December 3rd (when Main Competition finalists will be announced)."

GameSetMicroLinks: Now Daily, Or Else!

- Ah, dear GameSetWatch readers, if I am not going to get a week behind on GameSetLinks, as keeps happening, I'm going to crank them out daily, like other folks do (hi Cr'Oal!). So here goes:

- Rock Paper Shotgun's interview with the Team Fortress 2 chaps, recently concluded with a second part, is incredibly readable. No wonder Valve is snuggling up to the lovable British PC game blog!

- Ah yes, Ian Bogost comments on Left Behind Games threatening a bunch of bloggers and websites. Gamasutra.com got a couple of these too - all very silly. Elsewhere at Water Cooler Games, Bogost points out the history of the Babyz/Petz franchise, randomly and handily.

- XBLArcade points out that Jeff Minter is working on Gridrunner++ for XBLA, all the news I need to send me to sleep happy - Minter notes: "I'm changing and extending the gameplay; it'll be a much more involved game than the PC-only predecessor." Mm, more Minter.

- Totilo and friends' MTV Multiplayer Blog have been discussing why Chibi-Robo for DS is Wal-Mart exclusive - apparently, according to Nintendo: "Wal-Mart has a large green initiative at retail, so it made sense for us to partner with them on this environmentally-themed game." Oh kay!

- The2Bears has a gigantic set of reviews for 'SHMUP-DEV Competition 2k7 Round 2', noting: "There are a lot of great entries." Indeed there are - the shooter subscene is flourishing in the West right now, and I think at least one earlier Shmup-Dev winner is entered in the IGF - find out soon!

- UK game marketing pioneer Bruce Everiss has been discussing the pre-Psygnosis 'MegaGames' series from Imagine, notable because: "To market the games we decided that we wanted very powerful visual imagery. So we went to the famous fantasy artists Roger Dean and Chris Foss and gave them a game each." So this was the start of the famous Psygnosis association, eh?

- Finally, Arcade Heroes has found out that odd, cool arcade game 'The Act' is cancelled, nuts [EDIT: though Flash versions of the concept may appear as web games?] We did an interview with the Cecropia guys a long time back - the title involves a single controller knob you could ratchet up and down to control 'emotion - and the game looked... very 'different'. Shame it never actually got released.

October 8, 2007

Game Developer's 'Top 20 Publishers' - Nintendo Dethrones EA

- Aha, this one is worth crossposting, because it involves sister publications Game Developer _and_ Game Developer Research, and also a new chart-topper on the mag's 'Top 20 Publishers' countdown, finally dethroning the apparently invincible EA:

"Game Developer magazine’s highly-anticipated annual Top 20 Publishers report has debuted for 2007, revealing that the overall winner has changed hands for the first time since it began.

The 5th annual countdown, which this year included a wide-ranging reputation survey alongside revenue, average review, and anonymous partner feedback, reveals a resurgent Nintendo taking the top spot from former four-time victor Electronic Arts.

This year's winner Nintendo prevailed due to top marks for its game publishing in the reputation survey, alongside competitive revenue and average review score marks, leaving Electronic Arts in second place for the first time ever.

After Nintendo and EA, completing the top five are: Activision, keeping its #3 spot for the second year running; Ubisoft, surging up four spots from #8 to #4,with the company’s early support for Nintendo’s DS and Wii apparently paying off; and THQ moving up two spots to #5, following historically high revenues and a more balanced slate of licensed titles and original games.

Joining the 'Top 20 Publishers' list for the first time is import game publisher Atlus USA, which placed at #18 and helped contribute to publisher Atari dropping off the Top 20 in this year's countdown.

The 2007 rankings were calculated by considering number of releases by SKU, average game review scores, and publisher revenue from August 2006 to July 2007. It also included the results of a survey conducted to gather opinions on the major video game software publishers. More than 300 industry professionals from all parts of the game production process were asked to give their opinions – including comments - on the reputations of each publisher in the survey. In addition, scores and commentary was gathered from respondents who had direct experience with the publishers in the recent past, either as workers or partners, including milestone, marketing and pay feedback.

The full countdown overview of the Top 20 Publishers 2007 is available in the October 2007 edition of Game Developer Magazine, with a digital downloadable version, alongside digital and physical magazine subscriptions, available at the official magazine website.

The 'Top 20 Publisher' article's release is also accompanied this year by a major 'Top 20 Publishers 2007' report from CMP Technology’s Game Developer Research Division. This detailed, more than 110-page long supplement lists the numerical reputation scores, written comments, and partner feedback for more than 25 publishers, alongside game release and review score specifics by platform, and is now available for purchase."

[For those GSW readers who don't want to shell out the money for the super-expensive research report, but want to see the full set of anonymous responses from game professionals about one of the publishers, there's a sample PDF showing the results for Ubisoft.]

GameSetMotion: Designing Habbo On $10 Per Card?

So, it turns out that online worlds may be pretty important to the future of the video game industry - we've been asking about just that on Gamasutra recently, with our 'Question Of The Week' on Habbo Hotel and World Of Warcraft, and of course, we have the entire Worlds In Motion weblog on this subject.

But browsing round major U.S. retailer Target a couple of weeks back, we spotted prepaid cards for Habbo Hotel, and thought - what would it be like if we had to spend $10 on setting ourselves up in Sulake Labs' (largely kids/teen-centric) Web browser-based online world? What do you get for your money? This, GSW friends, is what happened:

This is where it all starts - a Target $10 card for in-game items.

And this is what $10 gets you in the chat environment - 50 coins to spend on room stylings, pets, accessories, etc.

Here's the starting point for 'monikertown', my avatar simoniker's beautiful abode.

The Monty Python-sized hand delivers your items - just chairing up, here.

Wallpaper, carpet, a table, and paintings help decorate my 'stylish', spartan setup a lot - about $4-$5 spent here.

This is what 50 credits ($10) got me for your private room - though I wasted a good few on paintings I didn't like in context, and an English flag that was out of place, so it's probably closer to $7 worth of items.

Feeling all proud, I wandered into a nearby room designed by a fellow user, and... youch! How much did this cost? I've been well and truly shown up.

Some conclusions, then: Leigh Alexander's profile of Habbo on WorldsInMotion.biz covers all the basics and more, to be honest. Now, the age of users in Habbo is skewed very young indeed compared to GSW readers (Sulka Haro's Austin GDC keynote has lots more great info on demographics.)

But from my experience, even as a 30-something male gamer in Habbo, doing interior decoration for one's own virtual chat room is extremely good fun, even when all the objects cost real money. (You don't have to decorate your own room, incidentally - you can just hang out in the public spaces or in other people's rooms.)

So sure, this part of Habbo's online environment is similar to The Sims and/or Animal Crossing room decoration with microtransactions, and as a business model for online games, it works. Looking forward to seeing more games using it - and we'll be trying Nexon's $10 virtual item card next, on games like MapleStory and Kart Rider.

COLUMN: 'Might Have Been' - Battle Circuit

To be specific, it was in arcades for about two weeks back in 1997.[“Might Have Been” is a somewhat bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This week’s edition looks at Capcom's Battle Circuit, released for the arcade in 1997.]

Street Fighter II may go down as Capcom’s most enduring contribution to arcades, but there’s something to be said for Final Fight, or at least the games that built on Final Fight’s basic frame and were dubbed "beat-‘em-ups" for want of a better term. They were a varied pack of brawlers, what with the Arthurian staples of Knights of the Round and the medieval Chinese chaos of Tenchi wo Kurau and the customizable mecha of Armored Warriors and the perhaps inadvisable comic tie-in of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Yet all of them held true to the Final Fight ideals of pounding rather stupid enemies, unleashing life-draining super moves, and gobbling food straight off the ground.

The line peaked somewhere around 1994’s Alien vs. Predator and 1996’s Dungeons and Dragons: Shadow Over Mystara, but it didn’t end there. At Japan’s massive AOU ’97 arcade showcase, Capcom’s booth promoted three major games with towering character stands, showing Lilith and B.B. Hood from Darkstalkers 3, Yun and Elena from Street Fighter III, and, surprisingly, a cybernetic superhero and a big pink ostrich from a game called Battle Circuit. It was a small, short-lived thing, but it was also the last of its kind.

The best part? He turns into short, fat Elvis when he's beaten.Captain Commando 2: The Age of LSD

A big pink ostrich, wearing eye patch and carrying a pigtailed girl, isn’t particularly out of place here. Seemingly based on the weirder elements of Capcom’s superhero-themed Captain Commando, Battle Circuit’s world is an anything-goes future of planet-jumping spaceships, cyborgs, aliens and tights-wearing defenders of justice, all rendered in with the inventive comic style that Capcom had pretty much perfected by the mid-‘90s.

The five selectable characters are a similarly unique bunch: the basic, balanced machine-man Cyber Blue, the elastic Captain Silver, the speedy catwoman (and fashion model) Yellow Iris and her pet fox-squirrel Fin, and the flamingo-colored ostrich, simply called Pink, and her handler, Pola. And then there’s Alien Green, a mass of eyeballs, fangs, and tentacles.

Spurred on by a cloyingly upbeat employer named Harry, the bounty hunters’ shared story is a simple war against a crime syndicate hunting for the all-powerful Shiva computer system. Unlike the branching, half-coherent narrative of Capcom’s Dungeons and Dragons titles, Battle Circuit’s a step back to the straight runs of Final Fight, with simple dialogue, no diverging paths and only one real secret.

That Ostrich really belongs in Marvel vs. Capcom 3.Circuit breaking

If Battle Circuit wasn’t as deep overall as its predecessors, its gameplay is at least the most complex of Capcom’s sluggish attempts to evolve the brawler, which often suffers from repetitive kick-and-punch moves. Battle Circuit, however, offers a wealth of attacks. Each character begins with a few techniques, only to steadily purchase new and better abilities (as well as extra lives and health-meter boosts) with enemy-dropped coins. Pulled off with fighting-game motions, the moves are all detailed, much like those in Treasure’s Guardian Heroes, and no two cast members are alike; Green has bodyslams and healing powers, Iris has aerial kicks and angry fox barrages, Blue has a solid variety of strikes, and even the big pink bird fights like a whirling Street Fighter II mainstay.

The enemies are nearly as inventive, with a boss lineup that includes a swaggering Elvis impersonator, a slobbering baboon and its trainer, twin samurai piloting one mech together, and the recurring Dr. Saturn, an inept scientist with a bulbous, cratered head and a bloblike green pet much sharper than its owner. Even the grunts are memorable; lizard soldiers scamper about in yipping packs, fat robots waddle into battle, and bike-riding women push the boundaries of arcade decorum by wearing nothing at all beneath their loose, open jackets. Perhaps that’s why Battle Circuit was never released in America.

Yes, I'm sure there's a half-pixel nipple there. And also a Strider reference.And then the designers got bored and left

In its level design, Battle Circuit’s a balancing act that, sadly, falls apart by the end. It begins well, with lots of different scenery and even a shooting sub-stage patterned after Capcom’s also-neglected Armored Warriors. By the fifth level, though, the repetition of enemies exceeds even Capcom's typical habits, with at least one boss resurrected as a trio. The game’s apparent lead villain is terribly disappointing, a bloated, bearded, intergalactic King Vitaman who borrows all of the heroes’ power-up abilities and does little else.

At least he’s a red herring; a real end boss is in there, but only if you’ve gathered enough points, coins and special moves. After a drawn-out battle full of cheap hits and maddening attack patterns, he’s defeated, and the heroes trade lines about wanting more money from Harry (who, disappointingly, doesn’t transform into another end boss). So ends the game, and with it, Capcom's era of beat-‘em-ups.

Trivia: All of the characters have real names. Yellow's is Diana Martines, but I think they meant 'Martinez.'Capcom's Un-collected

Battle Circuit was quickly overwhelmed in an age when arcades were still huge and still controlled by the entente of fighters, driving games, and gun games. A Capcom’s last 2-D brawler, it mysteriously skipped a U.S. release, even though it was fully translated for Europe. But no matter where it landed, few arcades bothered to keep it around or stick it in a cabinet that could host its full four players. By the middle of 1997, Battle Circuit was a rarity even in Japanese arcades.

With Capcom slapping many older arcade games into new collections, Battle Circuit seems an ideal candidate, even if it doesn’t have the vast scope of Dungeons and Dragons, the pitch-perfect intensity of Alien vs. Predator or even the near-iconic Mayor Haggar of Final Fight. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Just spotted that GameTap has Battle Circuit playable on its subscription service - looks like the best (and only?) way to check it out legally.]

So Battle Circuit deserves more than a footnote in Capcom history. There’s a great sense of fun in its visual style, and considerable depth in its gameplay. Most importantly, though, it was an important step forward in a field that Capcom abandoned a bit too soon, and an enjoyable little beat-'em-up that came too late.

October 7, 2007

Actionauts - Lost Atari 2600 Game W/Robot Programming?

- The ever-helpful Atari Age has a post revealing Rob Fulop's 'Actionauts' for Atari 2600, for which they explain: "If you've spent any time playing classic Atari 2600 games, then you're likely familiar with Rob Fulop's work. While working for Atari, he created Night Driver and Missile Command." He then went on to make an unreleased title called Actionauts in 1984, based around controlling an onscreen robot.

However, according to the site: "Rob has recently decided to sell the only known physical prototype of the game and after the sale of the prototype he plans to produce a limited run of 250 Actionauts cartridges. You can learn more about Actionauts over at Rob Fulop's Blog and sign up here to receive information about the upcoming release of the game."

Guessing this one will be a hot ticket! And the gameplay sounds interesting/different, too, as Fulop explains in his weblog piece on it: "The main play screen features a single robot in a simple playfield maze, a “target”, in this case a piece of cheese, and a vertically scrolling command display at the bottom of the screen.... The play challenge in the game comes primarily from “debugging” .. with the player needing to remember what the robot last did, what went wrong, and find /fix the appropriate command (s)."

The Knytt Stories, Redrunner Doubleheader?

- Over at Dessgeega's weblog, she continues to pick out interesting and alternative titles and describe them in intriguing ways - and the two most recent posts are both worth pointing out, starting with a profile of Knytt Stories and its standalone levels.

We've already run items on the game itself, but as noted: "The editor is pleasantly easy to tinker with, and to produce solid, attractive game worlds. a bunch of levels have already been constructed by fans of the game". I particularly like the sound of 'It waits', which "...is a minimal and effective lovecraftian horror. it may be the first level to make effective use of the player’s default speed, using the protagonist’s slow, steady walk to pace a creeping descent into horror."

A game is also salvaged from slight obscurity in brief comments on Aleksi Eeben's 'Redrunner', a Commodore 64 homebrew title which is "...an homage to jeff minter’s gridrunner series. those games, inspired by atari’s centipede, realized while imitating centipede that that game could be broken down into its most basic elements, and then realized that those elements could be rearranged into a variety of different configurations."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 10/6/07


Ohhhhh Doga, there's no excuse for yawning! Not when there's all this amazing mag-stuff happening!

First off, despite the pretty ho-hum Internet reaction the news seemed to get, Future's procurement of the "official" title for their US PlayStation mag is enormous news for the entire media. It, along with Nintendo Power, means that Future is the biggest name in US print media (something that would've been impossible to imagine half a decade ago), and no matter which way you slice it, it's something of a blow to Ziff, who gave up the title almost without comment late last year.

But it's not as if Future is invincible here. First, the presence of a Blu-ray disc with each issue will make the new P:OMUS (?) quite a bit more expensive than PSM was, which may erode profitability if it cuts down the circulation too much. Second, I worry that the new mag probably won't be that much different from PSM, with largely the same staff and largely the same design decisions going into it from before. I'll look forward to seeing the first issue, definitely -- if it's less PSM and more like the official UK PS mag, I'll consider it a great success.

But let's move on to the rest of the November-issue mags, in which we'll find that NP and PSM are far from the only mags to enact major changes under the cover...

Play October 2007

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Cover: The Eye of Judgement or Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction

Play is proving to me over and over again that they are the best cover-makers of any US magazine these days. Both of these covers are totally rad -- the subject matter is unique and eye-catching, they aren't cluttered up by excess coverlines, and they just plain look cool. The only thing I'd change is "Viking:" and "Battle for Asgard" being on two seperate rows. (As far as I'm concerned, having an obscure card-trading RPG on the cover is not a bad thing when you're Play. What matters is that it looks good more than what's on the cover.)

Inside is mostly previews and reviews, but the end-of-year extra pages allow for a lot of neat extra stuff, including a visit to CyberConnect2's offices, interviews with everyone from Jesper Kyd to the Square Enix merchandising guy, and a quick game-designer roundtable asking folks like Mark Cerny and Amy Hennig to discuss their favorites. Things are passionately written throughout as always, even though (as always) there's a fair share of editing issues -- one manga is given a "score" of X.X because someone forgot to fill in the number.

GamePro November 2007


Cover: PS3 big guns!!!

Nintendo Power's last NOA-published issue may be important news, but GamePro's latest is even more shocking. Why? Because after 230 issues (and approximately 60 issues after everyone on the editorial staff universally wanted them gone, no doubt), "personas" -- the last vestige of the old GamePro -- are finally gone from the magazine. Now everyone's writing under their real names, meaning that the long, hard transition is over and GP can look to the future in all aspects...well, except for Code Vault, but that's another story.

This issue is all about MGS4, and while the article doesn't have much new, it's still filled with real information, nice screens, and good design -- meaning it's already twice as nice as the similar-looking cover preview of MGS3 they did back in '04 or so that I was around to see.

Nintendo Power November 2007


Cover: Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

I discussed the last NOA-produced issue of Nintendo Power last week, but looking inside reveals the same story as always, which is reassuring for now. The cover is a little bit misleading, since the Samba de Amigo coverage inside encompasses maybe 120 words and some clip art, but the FFXII:RW piece is six pages and quite nice-looking, filled with real info and dev quotes. The mag also takes pains to spotlight the obscure, with large pieces on Professer Layton, Drawn to Life, and de Blob (since when did THQ become a "quirky" game publisher?). There's also a bunch on DQM: Joker, along with a three-page interview with Yuji Horii that's a lot of fun, just because the guy almost never gets a chance to talk with Western media for some reason.

The reward for the "most Nintendo Power-y" feature this time around goes to "The Console Monologues," a three-page piece on "what female gamers are playing on Nintendo systems -- and why". The article interviews assorted ladies and asks them what kind of games they like, but the effect is less expose and more Nintendo Power's letter columns circa 1989 -- you know, "My name is Tiffani and I love Game Boy!" type stuff. Worth reading, regardless.

My top regret about NOA losing NP: The fact they've been devoting a page to Super Smash Bros. Brawl for nearly the past year and they didn't get to review itself. That, and one of my co-workers is whining that Nintendo strategy guides suck now that Prima's doing them, but I don't cover strategy guides, thank heavens.

Speaking of NP, I heard that Future will be basing the mag out of offices they have in San Diego, which up 'til now have been used for Future Snowboarding and the publisher's other non-game titles. If I had to venture a guess this is probably to placate Nintendo, who probably balked at having the official mags for all three console makers published under the same roof. San Diego wouldn't be too terribly far from Tips & Tricks' old HQ in Beverly Hills, and if the T&T staff migrated over to NP en masse -- well, that'd be a hell of a silver lining for that crew, I'd say. (Not that I heard anything along those lines. Just one of those "If I think about it hard enough, maybe it'll come true" things.)

Electronic Gaming Monthly November 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Saint's Row 2

Some chick and some dude with a gun adorn the cover. The accompanying feature isn't really much more exciting; the game looks really early, although I'm sure the visuals are GTA-style in that there's just too much graphical content to create for the game to ensure that every individual screenshot looks all next-gen and pretty. (Wheelman, which gets an exclusive preview in this issue, looks a lot better.)

More interesting are the industry-related features in this issue -- there's three pages on crappy third-party Nintendo platform titles (not exactly news for core gamers, but perhaps eye-opening to casuals who believe the Official Nintendo Seal means anything), two on the death of third-party exclusives that had a lot of "hoh, neat"-type information in it, and three about how businesses are trying to make jobs more like games for extra, I dunno, productivity.

The biggest news out of Ziffland, however, is the departure of creative director (i.e. Ziff Game Big Man) John Davison from the company in order to form a "family-focused media group" startup. John has spent 16 years writing about games, first for mags like CVG and PC Zone over in the UK's Dennis Publishing, then for EGM, OPM, etc., etc. when he moved to the States in 1998. All of Ziff's assorted exploits over the past few years can be traced directly to him, and he's a nice man, I can personally vouch. He'll still contribute to EGM, but Dan Hsu will be taking over the creative-director position while serving as "acting editor-in-chief" of EGM. Who'll replace him? If it's Shane, I'll be despondent because I wanted to be EIC of a magazine first!

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine October 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Project Origin

GFW arguably has the most consistent look of any game mag. It's very comparable to PlayStation Official Magazine UK, actually, although the smaller book size (holding steady at 100) dulls the effect slightly. I likes it to bits, which is more than can be said for the Fallout community, apparently -- there's a three-page piece that talks about the near-impossibility of Bethesda's job in creating Fallout 3 and the seething nerd-rage that seems to pop up behind every major PC game project these days. (Ken Levine comes off great in the piece. Read it to see what he's got to say. I like him.)

That article's the highlight of what's otherwise a pretty straightforward (but quite well-made) issue. The Origin piece is neat just for all the real, palpable depth it goes into.

Edge November 2007


Cover: Rock Band

Edge, as good as it is already, just got about 20 points better. Why? Because reported game developer Jeff Minter isn't writing a column for it anymore. Yaaaaaayyyyyyyyyy! In his place is N'Gai Croal, Newsweek tech writer and the smartest game-media person who you quite possibly haven't read anything from, and he kicks off with a nice (if spoiler-laden, out of necessity) piece on how devs evoke emotions from players and how they can improve on what they do in the future. Another new columnist is set to debut next month, and I'm looking forward to it, because the more I read Mr. Biffo the more he strikes me as the inspiration for the old-geezer character who wrote GMR's back page.

The previews this issue are mostly based off Games Convention showings and aren't anything super special, but the cover piece is fabulous, covering both the game and how it marks Harmonix succeeding at everything it set out to do, finally getting serious recognition from the recording industry after years of trying. This is the general gist of all Edge's features -- they may be devoted to a single game, but in the text, the spotlight is squarely faced on the humans behind the game, the challenges and successes they're experiencing. The same is true for pieces on the new Conflict game and The Orange Box (complete with pic of Gabe Newell looking like he's fallen asleep during the photoshoot).

OXM got the "exclusive" Halo 3 review in the US, but Edge has their own four-page expose, and the title is only the sixth game in 181 issues to receive a score of 10. (The others: Super Mario 64, Gran Turismo, Zelda OOT, Halo, and Half-Life 2. Halo 2 got a 9, as did GTA:SA, in the issue after HL2 got its 10.) This could be the target of controversy for some, especially considering the magazine used to explicitly reserve 10s for "revolutionary" titles and Halo 3 isn't really revolutionary, but it's doubtful too many players will complain about it.

Best of all: four "Time Extend" pages on Metal Arms: Glitch in the System and four more on the making of Solstice (NES). I mean, come on, are they making this magazine exclusively for Kevin Gifford of Houston, or what?

Official Xbox Magazine November 2007 (Podcast)


Cover: Halo 3

Ten pages of Halo 3 reviewage (two of which are bound together to avoid spoilers), plus five pages excerpting the newest Halo novel, make this a very green-armor-heavy issue of OXM, to say the least -- especially since the book's only 112 pages, 12 of which is CellPlay. In fact, there's really not much else to say about this mag -- you'll be buying it either for Halo coverage (Fran did a fine job on it, by the way) or the Ace Combat 6 demo on the disc.

Hardcore Gamer October 2007


Cover: Kane & Lynch: Dead Men

Six pages on the Classic Gaming Expo, and four on ROM hacking. That's all it took to make me adore this issue of HGM, and the fact that the ROM in question is an English translation of the PC Engine port of The Tower of Druaga (a game I love on all formats) only makes it all the better.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer October/November 2007


Cover: World of Warcraft (of course)

Beckett MOG is still around, MASSIVE Magazine still isn't, and that's too darn bad. A whopping one-half page on BlizzCon and two entire spreads on Flyff?! What the hey? On the plus side, the mag's now offering a free T-shirt that says "STOP PLAYING WITH YOURSELF" with every subscription, which I'm crying bitter tears over missing out on.

Tips & Tricks November/December 2007


Cover: Bleach: The Blade of Fate

This issue of T&T comes with a note bound inside that LFP is no longer accepting new or renewal subscription orders for the magazine -- "when your current subscription expires, we recommend purchasing [T&T] at your local newsstand, pharmacy or bookstore on the first Tuesday of each even-numbered month," it reads. Ho boy. I suppose you could spin this by stating that T&T's always historically made most of its profits off newsstand sales and discount subs aren't worth offering anymore with the sort of ad base they get, but...

Anyway, you got tips, you got tricks, that's the magazine. And speaking of which...

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This week's update is so packed with tips, I almost fell over. Code Vault Presents Halo 3 is more than a tad misleading, because there's only 15 pages of Halo coverage out of 100 -- but at least they're phasing out the BradyGames stuff. Ultimate Videogame Codebook Volume 13 from Future, meanwhile, is the usual 320 pages of tips and cheats printed on cheap paper stock. Wahey!

[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.]

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