« October 28, 2007 - November 3, 2007 | Main | November 11, 2007 - November 17, 2007 »

November 10, 2007

The Limits Of Authorship In Game Development

- Game journalist Troy Goodfellow's blog, Flash Of Steel, has been debating the concept of symbolic figureheads in game development - and he hits on some pretty interesting points about - well, this: "For how long should game journalists be expected to go to Will Wright for every Sims article or to Sid Meier for every Civ article?"

As Goodfellow notes: "Meier is still heavily involved in play testing and prototyping but neither has been the lead designer on their signature franchise for over a decade. From where I sit, Wright’s position on the Sims community would be dated, but if my article had taken a different standpoint and addressed issues of, say, consumerism, avatar development, etc. should the series founder still be the go to guy for perspectives on the series?"

His central thesis? "Yesterday I was exchanging emails with a friend who has moved into game development and he talked about how collaborative the process is; how the idea of the lead designer we grew up with is increasingly irrelevant. You still need a central repository to bring all these ideas together, but design is messy... [yet] the idea of the Game God persists even as the industry becomes less dependent on original breakthrough designs and more dependent on a consistent collection of talent." So, what to do? Perhaps some kind of Borg-style concatenated name crediting for teams? [Article illustration is to amuse Sparky!]

Tonight, Tonight, The Parish Sings Tonight

- 1UP's Jeremy Parish writes about all kinds of random stuff on his Gamespite.net personal blog, but I wanted to point to a recent post about the latest 1UP Show, currently available on GameVideos.com, in which there is apparently "...a brief West Side Story-esque musical interlude from Parish about receiving the [Super Mario Galaxy] in the mail", as Wii Fanboy notes.

These kind of shenanigans are why 1UP is my favorite major consumer game site, and what's even funnier is Parish's GameSpite-based description of the game journalism war [EDIT: Parish says 'complementary writing styles!'] that underlies the entire ethos which allows, uhh, West Side Story-style musical interludes in game videocasts: "Still, I like the idea of "Second Street Story," detailing the bitter feud between the Nets and the Sharkeys -- employees of rivals C|net and Ziff-Davis, thrust by fate into a narrow corridor of the same block in the ghettos bordering San Francisco's cutthroat financial district."

Oh yeah? "On one side of the dividing line, the Nets believe that videogames are consumer commodities and should be evaluated accordingly, without regard for individual passion or interest. On the other side, the Sharkeys are hard-livin' ruffians who see gaming as a personal, social experience to be extemporized upon from the heart. And the forbidden romance that tears them apart."

And with that, Parish dreams up some GameSpot-bating lyrics to go with the whole pastiche: "When you're a Net, You're a Net all the way, And your tone's corporate, When you write about games." He kids, abstractly, but in kidding, he speaks the truth more than he knows - at least, about the war between mechanical and inspirational game reviewing. C'mon, guys, CMP will referee your rumble next to that stupid silver sculpture!

[UPDATE: Oh yeah, and it's also worth pointing out that GameSpite Issue 1 is out, with a bunch of Gamespite forum-ites contributing interesting profiles of games from Deja Vu to Rhythm Heaven/Tengoku.]

GameSetMicroLinks: End Of The Week, Innit?

- Yet again, all kinds of detritus has built up in my GameSetMicroLinks dummy posts, and I'm here to hose it off in your general direction, while you look mystified as to just why all this disparate subjects deserve to be summarized in one place. Close your mouth, already:

- Gus Mastrapa's Looky Touchy blog has been discussing ' Front Mission DS: The Lesbian Edition', or rather what happened when he "...accidentally misread one of Square Enix's androgynous characters and inadvertently transformed Front Mission DS's story from a trite to utterly fascinating." Nice.

- GameTunnel has published its 'What's New In Indie' for October 2007, and some interesting titles are laid out in there - particularly Plant Tycoon from Last Day Of Work: "Like Fish Tycoon and Virtual Villagers, Plant Tycoon takes place in 'real time,' making it a game that requires a very watchful eye." Ah, those tycoons!

- Telltale Games has done a rather marvelous thing with one of the first-season episodes of Sam & Max: "Remember Abe Lincoln Must Die, the episode that got some of the best reviews last season? We've decided to slash the price into oblivion. That's right, from now on, Abe Lincoln Must Die is FREE. Yep, as in zero dollars. What's the catch? There is none." Nice - everyone must grab, immediately.

- Those lovable hippie hipsters at Digital Eel have announced their latest indie game, Eat Electric Death!, which "...is a tactical space combat boardgame based on the alien races and starships from Weird Worlds: Return to Infinite Space. Two or more players each control a flotilla of capital ships and fighters, and duke it out in the cold, dark arena of Infinite Space." It has a card called 'The Inflatable Ambassador' - I'm sold already.

- Stephen Totilo has been discussing the cutting of the score system from Manhunt 2, explaining, quite correctly of the system that "tallied a better number for me if I had behaved more brutally" in the AO version: "Let’s be clear: it’s the system that incentivized increased virtual brutality and was cut from the version that was too hot for retail." And indeed, this has been missed by the wider press - good catch.

- Old compadre Frank Cifaldi has been updating Lost Levels again, and his latest post discusses 'Virtual Console Alternatives' - or more specifically, the truckload of unreleased NES games he and his retro game colleagues have dug up and documented for the firs ttime. Awesome stuff - the compendium article has the phrase "extremely short-lived video game division of Matchbox", which sells it for me, really.

- A new press release reveals: "CultuurInvest will support the production of [Tale Of Tales'] upcoming indie horror game The Path with an investment of 90.000 Euros. CultuurInvest is a new Flemish investment fund that exclusively finances companies and projects in the cultural industries. It was founded by the Flemish Ministry of Culture, supported by the Ministry of Finance & Budget and the Minister of Economy & Innovation. The Path is the first game they are investing in." Government cultural funding for games is a hugely good and underutilized concept.

- A note from GSW's puzzle columnist Tablesaw to you, me, and all of us: "There's a new kinda ARG, kinda hypertext thing going on at InvisibleGames.net. One of the authors is Cathrynne M. Valente, who was up for a World Fantasy Award. The player/reader community is running on LiveJournal right now." Please explore!

November 9, 2007

COLUMN: 'Beyond Tetris' - Crosswords

["Beyond Tetris" is a usually biweekly column (except when it just doesn't show up one biweek) 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 an omnipresent paper puzzle, the crossword.]

Your humble essayist, as I appeared on an episode of Merv Griffin's CrosswordsA few months ago, I got to play one of the biggest videogames I'd ever seen. The main screen was easily over ten feet tall (rear-projection), but there were other screens all over the place. In fact, it was more like I was inside the game, since there was an elaborate set around me.

There was only one button that hooked me directly into the computer, but there was speech recognition, and my location was important as well. There were four other players there with me, and the stakes were high: the winner could grab thousands of dollars, the other players would get a watch.

You might have seen me play a few weeks ago; it was an episode of Merv Griffin's Crosswords.

It was a lot of fun. The local coverage of the Southern California fires meant I didn't get to see my episode on the air, but it did play across the country. The basic rules of the videogame are that the host reads a crossword clue, you try to buzz in first, and if you get a chance, you announce and spell your answer. You can watch a little bit of me joining in the game on YouTube.

What's that? Crosswords is a game show, not a videogame? For you maybe. But for me—actually playing it—it was a very immersive computer-run game with innovative control mechanisms and a large crew of paid cast members and puppet masters to maintain immersion. A cross between a party game, a puzzle game and an ARG. For money.

But while it is a videogame, it's not a puzzle game under the strict definition of this column (the way clues are asked of the contestants, it's more like a trivia or party game), so I won't go into great detail about what it's like to play Merv Griffin's Crosswords. But my appearance on the show was, in many ways, the culmination of many, many years of solving crosswords, on paper and on computer.

Hip to Be Square

Arthur Wynne's 1913 Word-Cross puzzle from the New York SunI'm not going to go into too much detail about the history of crosswords. Unlike a lot of the puzzles I write about here, crosswords has an immense amount of literature already written about it. But the short version of the early history of crosswords starts with "word squares." A word square is just what it sounds like, a square of letters arranged so that each row and column spells out a word. Usually, the across and down words are the same, which also saves a little bit of work for the constructor. Word squares and other shapes (generally called "forms") were quite a pastime in the 19th century, when formists would try to outdo one another constructing larger and larger shapes out of words.

What we consider to be the first modern crossword was created by Arthur Wynne in 1913 and published in the New York World. Like forms, the "Word-Cross puzzle" had a clear geometric shape (a diamond), and no black squares. However, it did have a number of empty squares (a smaller diamond cut out of the larger) and numbers to correspond definitions to clues. The name was changed to "crossword," and the craze started to spread.

Crosswords appeared in Great Britain (Wynne's native nation) in 1922, which started a line of development wholly different than what would become the norm in America. In fact, over the years, countries everywhere have evolved with subtle differences. America's puzzles are notable for having every letter appear in two words (one across and one down) and often having a theme that links the longest answers. In Great Britain, the grid has many "unchecked" letters, but the clues feature elaborate wordplay. Japanese crosswords differ depending on what writing system is used, and other languages have ways of reflecting (or ignoring) diacritical marks. In Hebrew, vowels are sometimes ignored completely. But, with apologies to international readers, in the rest of this article, I will focus on how computers affected American crosswords exclusively (mostly for my own sanity).

Computer Construction

Crossword Compiler offering a partial computer-generated fill for a crossword. Can you spot the theme?Eric Albert is both a computer programmer and a crossword constructor (he's also an author of erotica, but that doesn't really apply here), and in 1989, he put both skills to work writing a program that would analyze the word list of Merriam-Webster's New International Dictionary, Second Edition and look for large word squares (see, there was a reason I mentioned them). He found one, a nine-by-nine word square—the first to be found where all of the words were in the same dictionary. And when he was done with that, he realized he could put the same program to work creating crosswords.

The basic software that could mash a bunch of letters together into a crossword grid already existed. When you put it together with databases of boring stock clues, you had a recipe for the degradation of the puzzle market. But Albert had an insight—he could modify the program so that every word had a value, then have the program take those values into account. Rarer or exciting words were rated highly, obscure words and crosswordese were rated low. The result was a program that could help him design crossword grids of the highest quality, and he could then devise original clues on ihs own. The advance allowed him to switch to crossword construction as a full-time profession.

This is the established model of quality computer construction today. Though some constructors still use paper and pencil (as Merl Reagle very quickly demonstrated in Wordplay), many, like Frank Longo (who holds several construction-related records for the the New York Times puzzle) use carefully valued word lists that they constantly maintain, adding new words, names, and phrases. And though Albert had to code his own software, any decent crossword creation software will let you use set up these lists (I use Crossword Compiler for mine). For most constructors, the process of writing a crossword switches from filling in words by hand and asking the computer to find words that match certain criteria.

Pencil or Pen? Or Keyboard? Or Stylus?

A screenshot from The New York Times Crosswords for the DSAs I've discussed before, paper puzzles—especially very popular ones—have a strong tendency to leap onto the computer screen. Crossword puzzles are all over videogames. Most of the major printed crosswords put their puzzles online. Some, like the New York Times, require a subscription. Others, like the New York Sun can be solved and downloaded for free. Most "casual gaming" portals will offer at least one crossword game in their selection, though they are often of much lower quality.

While web-based Java applets show up often, the standard among cruciverbalists is Literate Software Systems' Across Lite. It's a very bare-bones program, but because it's the downloadable distribution choice of the New York Times and several other major publishers, it's also used by amateur constructors passing crosswords among each other. Still, collections of crosswords show up on almost every platform, whether they're well-suited or not. Of course there are lots of programs for personal computers, but why stop there when you can develop a game for the incredibly intuitive controls of the Playstation 2?

This year, the New York Times crossword made the leap onto a new system, the DS. But while they might be a little bit late in jumping on the DS bandwagon, they still have some serious portable-videogame street cred. Excalibur Electronics has been producing dedicated crossword handhelds for the New York Times, some with touchscreens, and some with small keyboards. They even make them for the TV Guide puzzle.

Me? I use pen when I work on paper, usually with book collections of difficult puzzles. Otherwise, I prefer to solve the daily crosswords in Across Lite, where I use the time to get a rough estimate of how I'm doing (today's New York Times: about six minutes). And how did I do on TV? Just watch for yourself.

[Tony Delgado is a member of the National Puzzlers' League, and a solver and creater of puzzles of all sorts. One of the reasons this article was delayed is because he took longer than usual to edit The Gamer's Quarter #9.]

2008 Indie Games Summit Confirms First Speakers

- Aha, so we've been running videos from the previous iteration for a good while, so it's good to reveal the first set of 2008 IGS speakers - and this is just the beginning, watch for more announcements over the next few weeks:

"The organizers of the 2008 Independent Games Summit have announced a first set of speakers, with speakers representing IGF Grand Prize winner Aquaria, World Of Goo, PixelJunk Racers, fl0w/The Night Journey and more in the first batch of announced lectures for the February 2008 event.

The 2008 Independent Games Summit (operated by CMP, as is this site) seeks to highlight the brightest and the best of indie development, with discussions ranging from indie game distribution methods through game design topics, detailed postmortems of independent titles, digital distribution-centric business concepts, and much more.

Once again, the IGS is a sister event to the 2008 Independent Games Festival. Taking place on the Monday and Tuesday of Game Developers Conference 2008, February 18th and 19th, the event follows the successful Independent Games Summit in 2007, for which multiple videos have been posted on Gamasutra in the last few months.

While the final event line-up will showcase many more lectures, the first set of four confirmed talks for the event are as follows:

'Evolving Aquaria' (Alec Holowka and Derek Yu, Bit Blot)
"Indie game creators Alec Holowka and Derek Yu discuss their journey developing the IGF grand prize winning game Aquaria. From first prototype to final release, team Bit Blot share old builds and prototypes, mistakes and successes, design decisions and lessons learned demonstrating how Aquaria was grown, not planned."

'A Tale of Two Kyles' (Kyle Gabler, 2D Boy; Kyle Gray, Electronic Arts)
"Ever wanted to quit your corporate gig and make your own game? What about pitch your game to the head of the company and have it made? Two alumni from the Experimental Gameplay Project compare their experiences in the indie and corporate scene. Kyle Gabler left EA in May 2006 to start his own company (currently creating World Of Goo), while Kyle Gray stayed behind to pitch his own title. Both made their own game. It’s unlimited resources vs. unlimited freedom in this, 'A Tale of Two Kyles.'"

'Postmortem: PixelJunk Series' (Dylan Cuthbert, Q Games)
"Kyoto's Q Games was founded in 2001 by Dylan Cuthbert, a veteran developer who worked with Nintendo on the original version of Starfox. The company is now self-funding and creating PlayStation 3 titles in the PixelJunk series, with Pixeljunk Racers completed and PixelJunk Monsters due out soon. Cuthbert will discuss the process and reality of creating this 'small game' series, inspired by classic '80s Commodore 64 and Spectrum games."

The Indies of Tomorrow (Tracy Fullerton, USC Interactive Media)
"Game studies programs are rapidly becoming hotbeds of indie game development, a place for both students and researchers to innovate and take risks in low budget, high impact projects that explore strange new worlds of game design. The director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, the research unit behind projects like Cloud, flOw and The Night Journey, talks about how to create a culture of rampant experimentation and innovation, and make the games you can’t make anywhere else."

The 2008 Independent Games Summit is available to attend by purchasing a GDC 2008 Summits Pass. In addition, other passes such as the GDC 2008 All Access Pass also allow entry to the Summit. More information on the line-up for the summit will be posted on the official IGS website in the near future."

[GSW-specific note: Because the somewhat over-complex GDC pass structure has been simplified this year, there isn't an Indie Games Summit-specific pass any more, rather a Summit-wide pass. But we're beefing up the professional-focused content to make sure attending the IGS is great value. And we'll make sure IGF finalists have good access to the Summit this year. Also, dollar-challenged indies can still check out the IGF Expo/Awards itself and educational events with the Expo Pass, so that's cool.]

GameSetNetwork: From G* To Guitar Hero Mobile

- It's surprising - even to me - how much original reporting we get through on big sister site Gamasutra and associated sites - including Worlds In Motion, Game Career Guide, and Games On Deck - every week.

So here's some of the highlights of this week's reporting, with various reports from as far off as South Korea (where Brandon Sheffield is hanging out covering G*), London (where Jill Duffy is writing up career-related features) and, uh, San Francisco (where a bunch of us are, causing trouble!) Here goes:

- G*: Inside South Korea's Major Video Game Expo (Gamasutra)
"Gamasutra is attending this week's Gstar game show in Seoul, South Korea, documenting the region's fascinating, forward-thinking online game scene, and here presents initial impressions and pictures of the Gstar 2007's business day, with Nexon, NCSoft, and even Microsoft making a sizeable splash."

- Postmortem: Vicious Cycle Software's Dead Head Fred (Gamasutra)
"Originally, Vicious Cycle's PSP-exclusive action title Dead Head Fred was intended to be a GameCube title, before morphing into a head-swapping 'brain in the jar' game, and in this exclusive postmortem, the developers explain what went right and wrong in the game's genesis."

- Road To The IGF: Crayon Physics Deluxe Sketches Self-Expression (Gamasutra)
"Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Kloonigames' Petri Purho about Crayon Physics, a 2D physics-based game where crayon-sketched objects can solve puzzles."

- Designing Video Games ... Sometimes (Game Career Guide)
"Jez Harris, lead designer at Relentless Software, recently spoke at the London Game Career Fair about what it really means to be a designer. He gave his talk this foretelling title: 'Designing Video Games ... Sometimes.'"

- G*: Nexon Reveals Xbox 360 MMO Mabinogi, Talks Maple Story DS (Gamasutra)
"During this year’s Gstar game show in Seoul, South Korea, Nexon has revealed to Gamasutra that it's developing an Xbox 360 version of its cel-shaded PC MMO Mabinogi, also discussing the status of awaited online game handheld conversion Maple Story DS."

- Four Days In The Center Of The Board Game Universe (Gamasutra)
"Board games are surprisingly influential in the video game world, both in terms of raw design and video game conversions - which is why Gamasutra correspondent Batty visited Germany last month to report on the Essen Internationale Spieltage - the biggest board game show in the world."

- - Mizuguchi On Rez HD's Genesis, Plans (Gamasutra)
"How did the much lusted-after Rez HD for the Xbox 360 come into being, what's the state of Q Entertainment, and how about the rumored Ninety-Nine Nights Rondo? Gamasutra catches up with Q's Tetsuya Mizuguchi to answer these questions and more."

- Q&A: James Kaye, Director of Marketing, Hands-On Mobile (Games On Deck)
"In this Q&A with Games On Deck, Hands-On Mobile's Director of Marketing for Europe, S.E. Asia & Latin America, James Kaye discusses Hands-On Mobile's history, the re-branding of the Hands-On Mobile Runtime Environment, Heroes Lore's success in Korea and the upcoming Guitar Hero mobile games."

- IGDA Forum: BioWare's Doctors On The Power Of Leadership (Gamasutra)
"As part of the IGDA Leadership Forum held in San Francisco, BioWare co-founders Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk have been discussing their company's history, touching on the multiple phases of growth, all the way to their recent acquisition by Electronic Arts - much detail within."

- Beanbag Studios' Bergenholtz Talks Casual Market 'For Dummies' (Gamasutra)
"The just-founded, casual-focused Beanbag Studios has just acquired a license to develop games based on the 'For Dummies' how-to books, Gamasutra can exclusively reveal. We spoke to founder Steve Bergenholtz about the casual gaming market -- and the big-name publishers he says will 'go the way of the dinosaur.'"

- Road To The IGF: The Wacky Hybrids of Plant Tycoon (Gamasutra)
"Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, which profiles and interviews Independent Games Festival 2008 entrants, we talk to Arthur Humphrey of Last Day of Work, developer of plant-raising and breeding sim Plant Tycoon, about creating a hybrid game about hybrid plants."

- MMO Magic: Turbine Talks Lord Of The Rings Online (Gamasutra)
"Gamasutra sat down with Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel and Adam Mersky to discuss the state of MMOs and the company's own Lord Of The Rings Online, touching on gold farming, content expansion plans, working with Tolkien Enterprises, and the future of online games."

- Q&A: Capcom's Minae Matsukawa On Producing Phoenix Wright In A Man's World (Gamasutra)
"Earlier this year, Gamasutra spoke to Capcom's Minae Matsukawa, producer of the cult-popular Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series for DS, and discussed being a female game developer in Japan, even more a rarity than in the U.S., and how the Phoenix Wright games found equal success on two very different shores."

November 8, 2007

The Top 5 Horrible Things That Might Happen To EA

- People who know me are probably aware I'm a fan of SEC filing-diving - wandering through mounds of technical info for interesting tidbits, which is how the recent Gamasutra story about Electronic Arts' financials came about, with interesting info about EA's reliance on the GameStop/Wal-Mart nexus and its Xbox 360-centric SKU blend for its most recent quarter.

Anyhow, there's another area of these quarterly reports that I wanted to highlight, because I think it's really funny and somewhat telling - it's the 'terrible things that might theoretically happen to us' section. More specifically, for liability and legal reasons, U.S. traded companies have to put this section in their SEC filing, and it reads at the top:

"Our business is subject to many risks and uncertainties, which may affect our future financial performance. If any of the events or circumstances described below occurs, our business and financial performance could be harmed, our actual results could differ materially from our expectations and the market value of our stock could decline."

Of course, EA doesn't really think all of these things will happen at once - or even that any of them will happen to any major degree. It's just good for them to lay it out on the table to avoid those pesky class action suits, etc, I believe.

Therefore, in the spirit of 'in case of emergency', with a touch of Letterman-ia, here are the top 5 'horrible things that might happen' from Electronic Arts' latest filing:

5. Wrong System, Wrong Time!

"Our business is highly dependent on the success and availability of video game hardware systems manufactured by third parties, as well as our ability to develop commercially successful products for these systems."

More specifically, as EA explains, this is the Wii/DS effect in action: "A platform for which we are developing products may not succeed or may have a shorter life cycle than anticipated. If consumer demand for the systems for which we are developing products are lower than our expectations, our revenue will suffer, we may be unable to fully recover the investments we have made in developing our products, and our financial performance will be harmed. Alternatively, a system for which we have not devoted significant resources could be more successful than we had initially anticipated, causing us to miss out on meaningful revenue opportunities."

4. Whole Industry Go Boom After Transition!

"Our industry is cyclical and is beginning its next cycle. During the transition, consumers may be slower to adopt new video game systems than we anticipate, and our operating results may suffer and become more difficult to predict."

OK, this is somewhat related to the last point, but as noted, transitions can be sticky: "We have continued to develop and market new titles for prior-generation video game systems such as the PlayStation 2 while also making significant investments in products for the new systems. As prior-generation systems reach the end of their life cycle and the installed base of the new systems continues to grow, our sales of video games for prior-generation systems will continue to decline as (1) we produce fewer titles for prior-generation systems, (2) consumers replace their prior-generation systems with the new systems, and/or (3) consumers defer game software purchases until they are able to purchase a new video game hardware system."

3. We'll Be Sued Out Of Existence!

"If patent claims continue to be asserted against us, we may be unable to sustain our current business models or profits, or we may be precluded from pursuing new business opportunities in the future."

Well, I've talked about patents quite a bit, and it's ones like the American Videographics patent that are particularly scary to EA: "Many patents have been issued that may apply to widely-used game technologies, or to potential new modes of delivering, playing or monetizing game software products. For example, infringement claims under many issued patents are now being asserted against interactive software or online game sites. Several such claims have been asserted against us. We incur substantial expenses in evaluating and defending against such claims, regardless of the merits of the claims."

2. If The Consumers Don't Get Us, The Legislators Will!

"Our business, our products and our distribution are subject to increasing regulation of content, consumer privacy, distribution and online hosting and delivery in the key territories in which we conduct business. If we do not successfully respond to these regulations, our business may suffer."

This is obviously a continuous concern to big firms: "Legislation is continually being introduced that may affect both the content of our products and their distribution. For example, data and consumer protection laws in the United States and Europe impose various restrictions on our web sites. Those rules vary by territory although the Internet recognizes no geographical boundaries. Other countries, such as Germany, have adopted laws regulating content both in packaged games and those transmitted over the Internet that are stricter than current United States laws.

In the United States, the federal and several state governments are continually considering content restrictions on products such as ours, as well as restrictions on distribution of such products. For example, recent legislation has been adopted in several states, and could be proposed at the federal level, that prohibits the sale of certain games (e.g., violent games or those with “M (Mature)” or “AO (Adults Only)” ratings) to minors. Any one or more of these factors could harm our business by limiting the products we are able to offer to our customers, by limiting the size of the potential market for our products, and by requiring costly additional differentiation between products for different territories to address varying regulations."

1. Okey Dokey, It's 'Hot Coffee'!

"If one or more of our titles were found to contain hidden, objectionable content, our business could suffer."

The crowning horrible thing has obviously been added fairly recently, but is definitely horrible, and is explained the longest, too - just in case anyone gets the idea that EA is expecting this:

"Throughout the history of our industry, many video games have been designed to include certain hidden content and gameplay features that are accessible through the use of in-game cheat codes or other technological means that are intended to enhance the gameplay experience. However, in several recent cases, hidden content or features have been found to be included in other publishers’ products by an employee who was not authorized to do so or by an outside developer without the knowledge of the publisher. From time to time, some hidden content and features have contained profanity, graphic violence and sexually explicit or otherwise objectionable material.

In a few cases, the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (“ESRB”) has reacted to discoveries of hidden content and features by reviewing the rating that was originally assigned to the product, requiring the publisher to change the game packaging and/or fining the publisher. Retailers have on occasion reacted to the discovery of such hidden content by removing these games from their shelves, refusing to sell them, and demanding that their publishers accept them as product returns. Likewise, consumers have reacted to the revelation of hidden content by refusing to purchase such games, demanding refunds for games they’ve already purchased, and refraining from buying other games published by the company whose game contained the objectionable material.

We have implemented preventative measures designed to reduce the possibility of hidden, objectionable content from appearing in the video games we publish. Nonetheless, these preventative measures are subject to human error, circumvention, overriding, and reasonable resource constraints. If a video game we published were found to contain hidden, objectionable content, the ESRB could demand that we recall a game and change its packaging to reflect a revised rating, retailers could refuse to sell it and demand we accept the return of any unsold copies or returns from customers, and consumers could refuse to buy it or demand that we refund their money."

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': HUGE SUCCESS_

-[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.]

This column often treats archetypes and conventions – those standards in story, art and characterizations that repeat again and again in our media – because it’s often those things, whether subtle or broad-stroked, that ring, in their repetition, the knell of our social identity. “Conventional” is not a word with a positive connotation, however; overly weighted reliance on a standard theme is often the result of an absence of creativity, and a production in any media that cleaves too close to archetypes runs the risk of creating a two-dimensional experience, a story told in symbols instead of emotions, in words instead of thoughts.

One such convention that appears often enough in video games is that of the laboratory – partly because science fiction is a popular genre, and labs also make good backdrops for horror. We’ve seen a lot of experimental labs in our most classic franchises, from Metal Gear Solid to Resident Evil and even titles like Final Fantasy VII and, more recently, BioShock, to name just a few. These are often places where we can find clues to the origin of the central conflict – this is where the employees were killed, for example, this is where the antagonist was created. They can be haunting and informative, in that they generally retain an echo of something that happened prior to the protagonist’s involvement in the plot. They also retain shades of the organization that spawned it, often in its clean, orderly white lines, refined aesthetic and frighteningly advanced technology, personified by a soothing computer voice still maintaining her omniscient eye over the space, her digital impassivity oblivious to the fact that the world has changed.

But Portal taught us that even computers can get a little nuts when they’re abandoned.

The Enrichment Center would like to inform you that spoilers following the jump may result in decimation of ignorance, violent rages, and hives. The effects of prolonged exposure to spoilers are not part of this article.

Brief Detention In The Relaxation Vault

Remarkable gameplay aside, despite – or perhaps because of the fact it’s set against the backdrop of one of the most conventional settings in gaming, it’s not much of a stretch to say that Portal has singlehandedly revolutionized storytelling in games. You may disagree, but think of this: games have made us love damsels, classic heroes, furry animals, deliciously wicked villains. But when’s the last time you loved – really loved – a gray cube with hearts on it?

Portal’s lab, apparently a research facility belonging to defunct Black Mesa competitor Aperture Science, bears an appealing resemblance to a psychiatric ward as much as to an experimental test course – you start in a small room, and your directions are always presented for you in a series of charmingly simplistic iconic panels. You know little about the protagonist, Chell, but it won’t take too long to notice you’re not the one whose mental fitness is in question.

It’s the reliance on convention that makes Portal’s slowly-unfurling concept such a delight. The computer-operated experimental test course has been a standby in those games clever enough to integrate its tutorial level, or perhaps its bonus game, with the larger plot and environment. The re-appearance of the familiar aesthetic leads the player to grievously underestimate the experience about to unfold – and Portal might have been just a glorified puzzle game.

Then GLaDOS decided to change things up a bit.

Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button

Little by little, we see glimpses into – impossible! – the mental instability of a computer, or the aggregation of computers that compose the intimidatingly-named Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System. GLaDOS’ quotes are so funny not just because the game’s writing is brilliant, but because with each incongruous statement, each little chink in the computerized veneer, we’re seeing chinks in the face of a tired convention. At first, GLaDOS’ contradiction in terms is subtle – did she just say she was lying? And what’s with the cake? It’s enough so that, at first, it doesn’t disrupt the formula much. But as time goes on, the experience of the typified test course begins to unravel, with this decidedly insane machine at the helm.

It’s refreshing, and it’s amusing and endearing. But it makes for some arresting moments, too – once you realize there is little else you can do save follow along at the mercy of an unreliable sentient machine, a touch of true fear and self-preservation instinct kicks in, especially when you realize the situations to which Chell is being exposed are actually lethal. Because the test archetype isn’t just unraveling figuratively with each off-putting oddity on GLaDOS’ part – it’s literally coming apart. A dirty handprint that seems out-of-place leads to broken test areas, where outside the pristine, closed environment, someone has apparently hidden, bleeding, with a store of canned goods, and has begun writing on the wall. The cake is a lie. Is it a joke, or is it lunacy?

Aperture Science Emergency Intelligence Incinerator

Famously, during one course, Chell is given a cube and instructed to carry it with her. This cube looks precisely like the other gray cubes that it’s been necessary to employ for leverage against the environment thus far – the only key difference is the pink hearts on each face. Broadly, cubes, crates and blocks have been a gamer’s quintessential tool since the eight-bit days, but with the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube, another convention is turned on its head, torn to pieces, and every piece thrown into a fire. The Companion Cube is given to Chell at that point in the game wherein the player realizes that something is most definitely not right – and while one is not yet entirely sure that it’s not all a charming little joke, the uncertainty’s off-putting. And then, there are these icons of a person embracing a block. And those pink hearts.

“Please take care of it,” GLaDOS says simply.

Of course, you bring your Companion Cube with you through the testing area, at this critical point in the story’s unfolding when you could really, really use a security item, something of your very own – you’ve been reminded, of course, that even your portal gun is neither yours nor safe. Brilliantly, GLaDOS warns you against “superstition” and “perceiving inanimate objects as alive.” More than once, she reminds you the cube can’t talk – it’s as if the game itself were really sentient, aware of your growing attachment to an object. A shift in power begins – instead of laughing along at the funny computer, you begin to wonder if you aren’t really the lunatic. But it becomes clear – you’re definitely in some danger, and you need a friend.

The point wherein you have to toss the Companion Cube into the incinerator will likely stand as one of the most unforgettable points in game storytelling. You’d like to salvage it, of course, if only on principle – and, hasn’t GLaDOS lied before? Maybe, if you’re just smart enough, you can find a way to remove it from the stage. All the while she mocks you – you cannot spare the cube and leave it “alone and companionless"; but it’s incapable of “feeling much pain.”

It’s a cube – and you laugh, because you’ve become the archetype of the mental captive, who has begun personifying and loving inanimate objects. The player’s own behavior and responses to the challenges presented helps vitalize the game environment more than any cutscene or backstory could.

The moment wherein Chell is riding a platform straight into a fire is, oddly, resemblant of the moment in BioShock when the player confronts Andrew Ryan – a protagonist you know nothing about is confronted with a crucial turning point in their self-concept, a person who has been a tool up to this moment has the chance to influence their destiny. But wherein BioShock drew strength from the player’s total lack of choice, Portal is illuminated by the sudden ability to make a choice – to use the Portal gun and flee the test course. And just about all of us probably experienced at least a brief moment, on that platform, where we would have ridden straight into that fire because we as gamers have not been trained to feel we have choices, and the sudden advent of realization that you can escape is one of the most exciting, empowering things I’ve ever felt in a game. in one swift coup you feel sure of yourself, and relinquish all doubt that you are in danger from GLaDOS, and you go from being a computer’s favorite toy to being human.

And, by the way, I tried harder to save that little cube than I’ve ever been motivated to save any princess, child or kingdom in gaming history.

This Isn't Brave, It's Murder

It’s funny, and it’s challenging, and it’s sad and frustrating all in the same moment – just like the aggregate of personality “cores” that comprise GLaDOS when you confront her in the game’s end. Now you see how the poor thing might’ve come unglued – in neglect and disrepair, the different facets of her personality are becoming detached. Curiosity, rage, a recipe for cake, and you feel sorry for her, sorry for yourself, and sorry for your poor lost Companion Cube. But to defeat GLaDOS, the player, ironically, must employ the range of skills learned in the test course thus far – right down to the act of destroying something you feel sad for because you need to survive (by throwing it into an incinerator, no less). Sympathy for the quirky, crazy computer is overridden by that survival instinct – the one you garnered in that moment when you realized you had the ability to save Chell from the fire and escape.

The entire experience makes for an interesting look at what actually creates gamer psychology. Motivation, fear, love, true conflict, and emotional response are all things I think it’s fair to say most developers want to incorporate into their titles these days. We’ve seen a goodly number of “moral quandary” games lately, and heard a lot of talk about creating social fabric for games, developing a deeper experience. But by showcasing the masterful employment of all those elements against such a typified, simple, done-to-death game convention – the lab testing environment – the folks at Valve almost seem to be showing off. “This was a triumph,” GLaDOS sings gently in the now-iconic ending theme, “Still Alive.” Indeed.

And there really was a cake.

[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.]

Accessibility And The State Of Sports Games

- Over at game designer Zack Hiwiller's blog, he's got an interesting piece discussing 'The State Of Sports Games', and specifically questioning the accessibility and ease of play for some of the biggest-selling and most hardcore sports games.

He particularly notes a recent incident where we "...have a prominent blogger (Luke Plunkett) that was sent a copy of NBA 2k8 and found it unplayable because it was too complicated for someone who hasn’t played for(i=2007;i>1996;i–) {NBA i}. (Is it bad that I thought of the string of past ten NBA games in that way?) And I totally agree with Plunkett in this case."

He also notes: "There has to be room for something in between Wii Sports abstraction and Football Manager esotericism. And there is: see NBA Street, NFL Street, The Bigs. But these “action sports” games decide that since they aren’t being “hardcore” that they also cannot be realistic."

A possible solution, according to Hiwiller? "A coworker told me that MLB Power Pros is fantastic and has a ton of depth while still being realistic and approachable. I plan on picking it up and seeing. I imagine the lunatics haven’t gotten a hold of it because it looks “kiddy” and anything that isn’t 100% hardcore serious is kryptonite to them. Call me Lex Luthor." On the other hand, I've heard that the game is surprisingly hardcore - but maybe in a good way? In any case, it's an interesting conversation to be having.

[UPDATE: Zack notes in the comments that he picked up Power Pros at the weekend, and it's "...exactly what hardcore sports people think is approachable, but isn’t." He also asks: "I'd be interested in hearing what GSW readers think an 'accessible sports game' is. I'm wondering if I'm out in left field (pun intended) on this whole issue."]

November 7, 2007

@Play: Homebrew Roguelikes On The DS

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.]

Ah, this one took a while to put together! It's been a month since the last installment of @Play, but in the meantime I've put together not only a selection of DS homebrew roguelikes for you to seek your teeth into, but even a tutorial on getting them to run on your own unit!

I'm sorry to say we're light on pictures this time, due to the difficulty of taking acceptable screenshots on the DS. If anyone out there has any ideas let me know and maybe I can amend this later.

Following is a tutorial for getting homebrew software running on a DS if you're using something like Datel's Games 'n Music, which should be enough for you if you want to play these games yourself. It's a little off the usual stomping grounds for @Play, so if you're just interested in the roguelike reviews feel free to skip down a bit.

The first thing you'll need to run homebrew software on your DS is a way to get the code past Nintendo's lockout system. Surprisingly there are now multiple ways to do this, although fewer work on the DS Lite hardware revision than the old model.

One of the options requires no special hardware at all on the DS end; it uses special drivers for specific models of PC wireless card to upload playable binaries to the DS, which then downloads the code through its Download Play feature. This method, however, makes the card unavailable for normal use while the new drivers are in place, and doesn't allow players to save data in those homebrew games that support it.

The best solution at the moment for casual homebrew experimentation is probably Datel's Games 'n Music, a surprisingly inexpensive piece of hardware (I got mine for $20) that nevertheless contains everything you need, provided you have a computer with a USB port, to run amateur code on your DS or DS Lite. There are certainly cards, for both slots on a DS, that are faster and more customizable, but for just playing around this is perfectly adequate, and carries the advantage of being widely available in department stores. Often, if your store carries Datel's Action Replay device for the DS, they will also carry Games 'n Music.

Once you've obtained the device, the next step is to get the necessary files onto it. This is actually pretty easy with Datel's device; it comes complete with a 128MB MicroSD card and a USB adaptor to use with it. Take the MicroSD card out of the Games 'n Music card, pop it into the adaptor, then plug that into an available USB port and Windows (or Mac OS/X, I presume) will recognize it as a standard flash drive, accessible from either My Computer or the Desktop depending on your OS.

Once mounted, you can go ahead and delete everything that starts out on the card. Most of it is older homebrew that authors gave Datel the permission to include. Earlier releases of the Games 'n Music had some more interesting games on them, but rights issues and the inadvertent inclusion of some R-rated artwork in some of the games caused Datel to recall that version. This matters to us not at all, and neither do we care about the Shrek 3 trailer in the Video directory. In fact, delete the directories too.

As for the disk that came with the Games 'n Music, keep it around if you want to encode video to display on the DS, but if you don't care about that you might as well use it as a tiny Frisbee. We won't be needing it at all.

There are two very important programs you're going to want to have to make good use of this device.

The first isn't really so much a program as a little piece of code. Homebrew coders were having trouble with the fact that all the various flash cards available for running programs on a DS used different interfaces to read from and write to the flash memory. This led prominent homebrew coder Chishm to create a system by which binaries could be modified by the user to reflect whatever device he might have. The system he came up with is called DLDI (for Dynamic Linked Device Interface), and it sets aside a 32k portion of the .nds binary image to be overwritten by a standardized implementation of the FAT filesystem code. The result: coders (or manufacturers) must only create a customized driver for a given device, which is then patched after the user obtains it. Although the device didn't come with such drivers (and Datel still fails to respond to requests that they supply one), Chishm himself created the necessary driver to give homebrew full access to the device's capabilities.

This means, whatever homebrew you run on the Games 'n Music, it'll need to be DLDI compatible, and you'll need to patch it yourself to run it. The first requirement is much less of a stopper than it used to be, as most hobbyist software made for the DS these days supports it. The second is merely an extra step, and will become moot anyway once you have the second program ready to go. But you'll still need to patch your first binaries with it.

So first, Windows users go here: http://psychowood.altervista.org/getDLDIrc.html I have no experience in using DLDI patchers on OS/X, but Mac users should be able to use DLDI Drop, available at http://www.blogadresse.de/2007/01/29/dldi-drop-dldi-patcher-the-mac-way/, to get it working.

The Windows program given will put a right-click option on .nds files offering to patch them with a DLDI driver. When installing it, you'll be asked which device you use. This is important: there are two supplied drivers for the Games 'n Music. Be sure to pick the first, not the "v2" version! The different drivers do not correspond to different hardware revisions, they are just subtly different ways of accessing the flash memory. The v2 version is faster, but rather less reliable, and I have found that some software does not work with it, and it may also be less compatible with different makes of MicroSD card. It is much safer to stick with the basic patch.

The other program is a piece of homebrew called DSorganize. By itself it's quite a capable program, containing a scribble program, a text reader and editor, a simple web browser, and even an interface by which additional software can be downloaded through a wireless connection all by itself! It can do lots more besides; it's probably the most fully-realized hobbyist program for the DS.

But best of all for our purposes, it also contains a file browser which can be used to inspect and modify the contents of the flash card on the DS itself, it can be used to boot other homebrew software, and it can even automatically patch that software in the process! Once this is installed you usually won't need to mess around with the previous tool to patch downloaded homebrew games, but you will need to patch it to begin with, both to get it running and because it gets the patch it applies to other software from its own code.

First, obtain the distribution of DSorganize from here: http://www.dragonminded.com/?loc=ndsdev/DSOrganize

Once it's downloaded and extracted, you can delete the two files ending with .gba and .sc.nds, those are for other cards. Afterwards, right-click the file DSorganize.nds, and the top-most option will probably read "DLDIrc Datel Games 'n' Music (MicroSD)". Select that and then follow the instructions on the terminal window that appears, which should amount to just pressing a key. Just like that, you're done with the patch.

Finally, copy first the DSorganize.nds file, then the DSorganize folder, to the flash card. The reason for the order is because the built-in menu in the Games 'n Music displays files in the order they appear. By copying the DSorganize file first, you'll help to keep it on the initial screen in its file browser. This is important because the browser sucks, there is no way to put it, it's frustrating to navigate around and can only be controlled by fiddly touchscreen controls. It is quite intolerant of filesystem corruption, some of which is a fact of life at this point in the driver's development life. It even does a poor job of running DS homebrew; many programs refuse to work from it, including some of the roguelikes we'll be looking at. It can't be removed at this point in time, but it can be used to start DSorganize, and that is all we'll be using it for.

Once you've got DSorganize onto the card we're almost done with the setup. You just have one more thing to configure, and it'll be on the DS itself.

Unmount the flash chip from Windows. (You do know to left-click the tray icon and choose to "Safely remove USB Mass Storage Device", don't you? It'll help to keep filesystem corruption to a minimum.) Put it into the Games 'n Music, then put that into the DS card slot on your game system. It should boot up in a few seconds. On the file browser, double-tap the DSORGANIZE.NDS icon. It's frustrating to get just the timing it expects down, but keep trying, it does work, it's just a little hateful. Hey, I told you the built-in shell sucks. Be grateful you don't have to do anything else using it.

Once it's started and ready, tap the "Configuration" button at the bottom of the lower screen on the DS, and then tap the Folder tab in the dialog that opens. Change the option named Default Boot Method to "Chishm," and chance Alternate Boot Method to "Mighty Max." Save out of the options by pressing A and you're ready to go!

On DSorganize's Home screen, the option named "Browser" is the most important. It'll bring up a browseable file listing of the contents of the flash card's filesystem. All the files on the card, including some that may be missing on the default shell due to crappy FAT implementation, will be visible. If the file has an NDS extension you can boot it by selecting it, with either the stylus or control pad, and pressing A.

At this point, the flash card is set up admirably to run nearly any DLDI program you throw onto it. The FAT drivers for the GnM are a little iffy it seems, but it should be okay so long as you do a chkdsk on the flash card from Windows once in a while. To do that from Windows, when the card is in your computer, go to My Computer, right-click its icon, and select Properties. Then go to the Tools tab of the dialog and choose to check it for errors. Be sure to select the box

Make sure to use DSorganize to launch any programs you put on the card. It's a lot less annoying to live with a Games 'n Music if you don't have to drag around the default shell's fiddly scroll bar, DSorganize's autopatcher means you don't have to keep track of which files you've patched, and again, some programs just don't seem to work from the built-in shell. Hopefully Datel will release a firmware update for the device eventually, but I wouldn't count on it.

And now, the reviews. Note that screenshots are all scavenged from different sources and versions, and may not necessarily reflect this version of the game.

Get it from: A DLDI version can be found at http://errabes.free.fr/pogo2/ The link you want to download is "dscrawl_dldi-b 1".

This one's a little tricky to learn how to use, so pay attention.
After entering your character name, race and class, which should be easy enough, you're thrown into the game. The developer made some strange control decisions that, in true roguelike fashion, take some getting used to but are okay once you figure them out. They're easier to figure out once you realize that the array of four icons to the left of the touchscreen represents the four buttons on the DS' face, and that they change when you use the control pad. Ignore the fact that the buttons change color when you move the control pad, that does not affect what the buttons do.

To move and fight, first hold the direction you want to go with the control pad then press 'A', which helps to prevent accidental diagonal motion when the player intends cardinal, a long-standing problem with roguelikes when controlled with a gamepad. If you press 'A' before moving the control pad you'll waste turns resting, so when moving don't hold it down then move the pad or you'll probably get slaughtered. Press 'B' when not moving the control pad to pick things up. Annoying the game comes with autopickup enabled, but you can disable that by modifying init.txt in the CRAWL directory. While there take a look at the other options. Some of them, like autospecifying character name, can make life in DS Crawl a lot easier. The shortcut buttons can also be changed from the defaults here. Pressing the Select button from within the game to bring up inventory, and Start shows what you know of the level map.

While the control takes some getting used to, the existence of the DS-specific options in the configuration file make it obvious that the developer of this port took the time to do it right. It is unfortunate that it doesn't appear to be looked after. The version ported is an older form of the game, not the cutting-edge Stone Soup version, and the only reason we have a DLDI version is another programmer hacked it into the source. Still, this is probably the version of the game that's most playable in its current form.

Get it from: http://stuartp.commixus.com/nhds/

Yep, this venerable roguelike has a DS port. It's not as polished as the Crawl version, but there are some nice features included, including a subpixel font for text and full graphics turned on by default.

Another nice thing about this version is the presence of a full touchpad keyboard for controlling the game, which allows players more familiar with the PC versions of the game to get into it a lot sooner. Unfortunately, there are some annoying problems with it. Despite the wide area allowed for each key, sometimes it can be difficult to get the game to recognize the one you want to press. In a game like Nethack where some keys cause moves to be triggered instantly this can be fatal in a pinch. Better would have been to only trigger keypress events when the stylus is lifted, not pressed, so the player could use the helpful key highlighting to determine what the result will before picking it up.

A macro feature is included, and helpfully it saves commands defined in the game to a file, but it is buggy and attempting to use it more than once per sessions causes the instruction messages to be oddly clipped in a way that makes me suspect pointer errors. This also occurs from time to time in response to other game messages.

The game does support graphics, it must be noted, although the ones included are way too shrunken to be useful. The game can support tiles as large as 10x12, and with little effort one can cook up a better version of them that's loads better to see. The reason eludes me why the developer of the port didn't include such graphics in the distribution.

The graphics are nice, but the bugginess of this port makes it difficult for me to recommend this version of the game. If you do play it, I suggest saving often, even though the game forces the player to reset his DS after each game (to be fair, the DS port of Crawl does this too). Unfortunately, like Crawl, this port appears to have largely been abandoned. It is an unfortunate fact of the homebrew community that there are so many abandoned projects. Hopefully someone will come in and fix the problems, because there's a load of potential here considering Nethack's design is particularly suited for low-memory devices.

Get it from: http://www.zincland.com/powder/index.php?pagename=about

We mentioned this last time, if you can remember that far back. Turns out there's a DS native port as well. The game is little-changed from its Gameboy Advance adaptions. It still has "evil" and "holy" items, still has ultra-deadly kiwi birds, and it still has very random item generation that seems as likely to generate powerful leather armor as weak crystal plate, to judge by the game's armor display.

Last time I reviewed POWDER based off of a Windows port. The game's native form is for portable systems however, and is interesting for that. It gets around the diagonal movement problem by simply disallowing diagonals in the game, which requires the player to change his tactics a little but generally makes things easier. The most annoying thing about it, in fact, is that it makes it devilishly hard to enter your character name. The instructions themselves recommend just going with the default name, even though it ends up with a player called Lazy Adventurer.

Unmentioned but not neglected: the fairly recent DungeonS, which doesn't have a DLDI version so I could not test it out for this article. If you want to have a look at this potential up-and-comer, and happen to have hardware that can run it properly, check out the author's blog at http://blogs.moddz.com/outofrange/category/ds-game-dev/dungeons/

November's Game Developer Postmortems Bioshock

- So, we've just debuted the latest Game Developer issue (it gets sent to 35,000+ qualified industry professionals in North America and is sold worldwide, in case you were wondering), and it's got a rather neat postmortem of Bioshock in it, among other things.

The Gamasutra story spilling some of the beans is below - we've also added physical single issues sales for magazine back issues, as well as downloadable PDFs and searchable back issues as part of our digital mag subscriptions (all the way back to early 2004).

So if you don't get the mag right now, well, ahem, you might want to think about it. Yes, we're shameless. Story follows:

"The new November 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine has an exclusive postmortem of 2K Boston's much-praised Bioshock, and Gamasutra has extracts from the piece, revealing how the game radically evolved through demo versions and focus testing.

The postmortem, written by 2K's Alyssa Finley, is described by the Game Developer editors as follows: "Iterate, iterate, iterate. That’s the message from 2K Games’ BioShock postmortem — from the game’s humbling early user tests to the last-minute spit and polish, iteration saved the day for this artistically excellent title. That, and an Australian team that could work while the main team in Boston was sleeping."

Evolution Through Demo Version?

In this first extract, the 2K Boston team explains how the demonstration versions of their first-person title ended up radically evolving the game:

"Our first public presentation was at E3 2006. We had developed a great deal of content before that point, but hadn't yet built a space that really demonstrated the game experience to our satisfaction. The E3 demo forced us to focus the whole team on what the user experience should be. We defined a message for the demo - player choice - and built a narrative around that message. Even though the experience was highly scripted at the time, it effectively demonstrated the feel of the game we wanted.

Another example of demo-inspired development was the "Hunting the Big Daddy" demo. Though Big Daddies and Little Sisters had been part of the game in some form since the beginning, initially the player could confront Little Sisters directly without necessarily needing to dispatch the Big Daddy that protected them.

During the development of this demo, the team discovered that with some polish and tuning changes the act of dealing with a Big Daddy could be a truly epic battle in itself. This led to the realization that Big Daddy battles should be the key to player growth, essentially providing a roving boss battle that players could undertake at a time and place of their choosing."

A Focus On Focus Testing

In this second extract, the team talks about how focus testing, although harsh, ended up completed refocusing major parts of the gameplay, thanks to an independent and objective viewpoint:

"The first external BioShock focus test was meant to be a sanity check: to get a better sense of what was working well but needed polish and what wasn't working at all.

At this point we had already done one small round of internal focus testing with friends of friends, which had turned out mostly positive feedback. So, just after the first beta, the entire design team plus a contingent of 2K producers headed off to see how a group that knew nothing about our company or BioShock would react to the first level.

It was brutal.

The first level, they said, was overly dense, confusing, and not particularly engaging. Players would acquire new powers but not know how to use them, so they stuck to using more traditional weapons and became frustrated. They didn't interact with the Big Daddies, and they didn't understand (or care) how to modify their characters. They were so overwhelmed by dialogue and backstory that they missed key information. A few of the players did start to see the possible depth of the game, but even they were frustrated by the difficulty of actually using the systems we had created.

Based on this humbling feedback, we came to the realization that our own instincts were not serving us well. We were making a game that wasn't taking the initial user experience into account, and we weren't thinking enough about how to make it accessible to a wide variety of players.

After the focus test, we went back to the drawing board for the entire learning sequence of the game. We scrapped the gameplay in the first two levels entirely and re-architected them to be a much slower paced experience that walked the player through the more complicated gameplay verbs, such as "one-two punch"-combining weapons and plasmids.

We changed the medical pavilion from having sandbox-style gameplay to using a series of locks and keys that were set up to ensure that the player knew how to use at least a few key plasmids. And we made a development rule that future changes would be data-driven, not based solely on our own instincts."

The full postmortem, including much more insight into the game's development, is now available in the November 2007 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes in-depth features on 'Ten Commandments of Quality Assurance' by Chuck McFadden and the IGDA's Q/A SIG, as well as an analysis of porting a 3D adventure game from PC to Nintendo DS by Sproing's Stefan Reinalter - plus tool reviews, special sections, and regular technical columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Neversoft co-founder Mick West, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, and Sinistar creator Noah Falstein.

The November issue of Game Developer is available both in digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF), as well as via a single-issue physical copy.

In addition, yearly print and digital subscriptions to Game Developer are now available, and all digital subscriptions now include web-browsable and downloadable PDF versions of the magazine back to May 2004, as well as the digital version of the Game Career Guide special issue."

EA Spouse On Why... 'Crunch Is Awesome'?

- OK, hyperbolic headline alert, but even game developer and former 'EA Spouse' Erin Hoffman is aware of the irony when she wrote the 'Inside Job: Why Crunch is Awesome' column for The Escapist late last week.

As she notes in her introduction: "So as long as there is an annual cycle, and as long as there is heavy competition, not to mention shifting publisher demand, there is going to be a turbulent cocktail of events coming between game developers and the noble attempt to have a reasonable family life. But these are exterior challenges. On top of them, beneath them, around them, is a deeper problem: Crunch is addictive."

And solving problems and working long hours really is a self-feeding beast in itself: "Like adrenaline, when crunch is running full bore, it attains a certain - brief - Zen-like quality. No matter what else is going wrong with your life (and the longer you stay in a crunch-prone environment, the deeper these problems become), in the immediate moment there is only the problem needing to be solved and the willpower you can apply to it."

The complexity of crunch - and, indeed, the vicious circle of sometimes liking it - is something the IGDA Quality Of Life SIG has been (laudably) trying to deal with for some time - as has Hoffman's own Gamewatch.org site, which has some excellent discussion of the problems in messageboard form.

GameSetMicroLinks: Mid-Week Mash-Up Machinations

- Time to rattle through a fairly large amount of interesting, random links from various of GSW's, uhh, far too numerous RSS feeds, collected at the weekend and regurgitated now. Here we go:

- Adventure Classic Gaming has been interviewing Rand Miller about "...the mystery behind the Myst mythology, the turbulent history of Cyan, the resurrection of Uru, and what the future holds for him."

- Clickable Culture points out that pair of MMO-related news sites launched by LivePlanet have fizzled: "Neither Grid World News, which aimed to be "the premier media outlet for Second Life," and Azeroth World News, which boasted it would "exclusively report all the news within the [Warcraft] universe," have been updated since the beginning of October, after having been announced a few months earlier."

- The Educational Games Research blog has a post on 'Academic Achievement Through Game Development', which links to an article that "...offers an introduction to theory underlying the notion of using videogame development as a learning tool, and examines some of the research behind the idea."

- Super Smash Bros Dojo has revealed daily user-created stage downloads for Super Smash Bros Melee on the Wii: "You’ll be able to experience a new stage every day—the flavor of the day, if you will. However, the plan is for that stage to vanish once one day has passed. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime encounter." Nintendo, you scamps! (Via Cathode Tan.)

- The Escapist has an article discussing the Australian Center For The Moving Image, which has a prominent (and excellent) IGF exhibition, and within the Games Lab, "...in some ways, brings together the community-oriented space of a public institution with the urge to find a console of your own."

- TIGSource kindly ponts to spooky Flash game Dark Cut, commenting: "Just what you wanted to be for Halloween: a Civil War surgeon! Dark Cut² (pictured above) puts you behind the forceps of a newly instated battlefield medic, with a variety of grisly and primitive tools at your disposal. Think Trauma Center circa 1863 and you have the idea."

- Rogue Temple has been discussing the new version of Dwarf Fortress, and it's insanely detailed ASCII modeling, as per normal: "Just noticed a natural cave on my map with a perfectly circular HUGE lake in it. The cave is stuffed with cave spider silk and (I assume) lots of cave spiders. The lake is inhabited by a tribe of frogmen and a solitary giant toad.The nearby mountains are roamed by packs of skeletal goats, who occasionally hop down to harass my dwarves (but thankfully not very often)."

- The Surreal Game Design blog has a new post named 'Semi-Happy Endings', discussing MySims, and in particular, how games should end: "Do I play more or less of a game on the average because there is an ending? If after 10 hours I am forced to stop and watch a credit sequence accompanied by upbeat J-Pop, does it keep me from what might have been 18 hours of play?"

- Game designer David Sirlin has been looking at Virtua Fighter 5 for Xbox 360, and has some smart semi-pro fighting game comments on it: "As I said at the start, the gameplay in VF is just a technical and well thought-out as you'd expect and the online play is surprisingly unlaggy. That's what counts the most, but all the other rough edges are a bit of a downer."

- Magical Wasteland has been having a little complaint at journos - specifically a Gamasutra interview - but he has a good point, referencing a recent interview we did: "It’s a common mistake to assume that the delivery of some big message or the exploration of some weighty modern theme indicates the possession of an underlying intelligence. Thus, there’s an incorrect perception by some commentators on the game industry that games which do feature these elements are necessarily “smarter” than their counterparts that do not." Oops.

November 6, 2007

The History Of Atari: From Computer Space To VCS

- One of the joys of big sister site Gamasutra is that we can run high quality game and company histories, something that most other sites don't get to - and our latest is 'The History of Atari: 1971-1977', the first of a three-part series by Steve Fulton, which delves into the origins of the seminal game developer, publisher, and manufacturer.

Fulton, who works at Mattel and writes over at 8BitRocket.com, has already raised the subject of 'Where is the great, all-encompassing history of Atari?' over at his blog - so I mailed him and asked him to work on it for us.

He's done an awesome job so far - here's his notes on the explosion that was Atari's Pong: "By March of 1973, Pong was deemed a bona fide phenomenon for Atari. They had sold 8,000 - 10,000 machines, and would eventually sell upwards of 35,000. The day Pong was released is marked by the coin-op industry as the first nail in the coffin of pinball."

Oh, and this a good paragraph, for the completist: "Some of the Pong competition in 1973 included: Elepong from Taito, Davis Cup by Taito (each player had two paddles), Computer Space Ball (1972) from Nutting Associates, Hockey by Ramtek, Hockey TV from Sega, Leader from Midway (a very innovative 4-player Pong variant with a wall in the middle for deflection), Olympic Tennis from See-Fun (2 or 4 players), Pro Tennis from Williams Mfg. Co. (4 players), Paddle Battle from Allied Leisure (exact copy of Pong), Paddle-Ball from Williams (exact copy of Pong), Pong-Tron from Sega (exact copy of Pong), Pong-Tron II from Sega (exact copy of Pong), Pro Hockey from Taito, Rally from For-Play, TV Hockey from Chicago Coin (exact copy of Pong), T.V. Tennis from US Billiards (exact copy of Pong), TV Ping Pong from Chicago Coin (exact copy of Pong), Table Tennis from Nutting Associates (exact copy of Pong), Tennis Tourney from Allied Leisure (4 player Pong), Winner from Midway (an exact copy of Pong) and Winner IV from Midway."

Blimey! There's another few thousand words of canonical goodness hiding in the article apart from this, too.

The Endless Play Of The Endless Forest

- The Artful Gamer has posted a readable, if complex analysis of The Endless Forest, the art-game project produced by the good folks at Tale Of Tales, and it raises some interesting points about the nature of games.

In the piece, it's suggested: "The Endless Forest, I think, demonstrates a theory of play at a fundamental human level and corrects what was a long history of games that were not very “playful” and were more like “toys”... Concretely, there is no in-game chat system, nor any other way of talking to other players than by using symbolic acts such as shaking your the antlers, rearing up on your back feet, or erupting a loud squeal... The game is literally creating a language for play from the ground-up by allowing players to decide what everything means."

Chris at The Artful Gamer thinks this makes The Endless Forest a "budding masterpiece" - commenter Steve counterpoints by suggesting it's "...an interesting experiment: what if we took the typing out of a graphical chatroom, and abstracted the avatars from humans to animals? The limiter to further possibilities here is the lack of meaningful player actions and interactions. The players can do little in the world beside move their avatar about, create a uniform vocalization, and perform a few emotes." Who's right? Why, both of them, of course.

On Attending Japanese Game Design School

- Now here's something interesting - we've seen plenty of documentation of people attending game school in the States (not least from recent testimonials on sister site Game Career Guide), but now there's a new blog, called 'The Life and Times of a Video Game Design Student', which "...chronicles the adventures of Andrea Rubenstein as she makes her way through the game design program at HAL in Osaka, Japan."

One of the first posts from Rubenstein explains how she got into HAL, explaining: "From start to finish, applying for and getting into HAL was a nerve-wracking experience. Although I had applied to Yamasa without any outside help, that was in English and this was in Japanese. Not to mention that the Japanese way of doing applications slightly differs from the American and Canadian one."

Also notable is 'The Privilege Of Attending School', which does some financial comparisons: "Let’s look at what I’ll be paying for my first year at HAL: 1,211,000 yen (10,324 USD)**. While that’s still significantly cheaper than getting an out of state education at most American universities, it’s not anything to sneeze at." Of course, the really interesting bit will be the upcoming discussion of the curriculum - looking forward to it. [Via Acid For Blood.]

November 5, 2007

2008 Worlds In Motion Summit Expands, Reveals Speakers

- Another neat thing from the 'wide world of CMP' - Leigh Alexander, who you may know from writing 'The Aberrant Gamer' column for GSW, also runs our online world site Worlds In Motion, and the initial speakers and an expanded two-day line-up have just been announced for the inaugural Worlds In Motion Summit, which takes place on the Monday and Tuesday of GDC 2008 - here's the lowdown:

"The organizers of the Worlds In Motion Summit about online worlds have announced an expansion of the February 2008 pre-GDC summit to two days, and revealed initial speakers including Areae's Raph Koster, Nicktropolis co-creator Chris Romero, Conduit Labs' Nabeel Hyatt and Relic Labs studio head Adrian Crook.

The Summit, which is organized by the editors of Gamasutra sister website WorldsInMotion.biz, will be held on Monday and Tuesday, February 18-19th 2008, as part of the 2008 Game Developers Conference. The Summit will focus on the intersection of online worlds and games, and the official description of the event is as follows:

"The Worlds in Motion Summit is a definitive event tailored for the growing number of industry professionals and Fortune 500 companies developing interactive online spaces for both entertainment and commercial purposes. Discussion forums will delve into online worlds, social gaming and media and player created activity.

These will provide insight for developers of all backgrounds into how the game industry is collectively building socialization into games and integrating personalization and player-generated content into gameplay — while widely accessible Web and networking tools are looking to the game industry for their way forward."

In addition, the inaugural Worlds In Motion Summit has announced its first four speakers, and is expected to debut many more over the next few weeks. The initially revealed speakers are as follows:

- Areae's Raph Koster
(SOE veteran, Areae co-founder and noted industry figure Koster will discuss the ways virtual worlds are increasingly relevant to the ways we play and the evolution of the medium, as the worlds of online spaces, social networking and gaming converge.)

- Worldwide Biggies' Chris Romero
(Interactive entertainment development veteran Romero, CTO of Worldwide Biggies, who did the original prototyping and led the full team for the design and development of Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis, discusses the building of a successful online play space that has garnered users by the millions.)

- Conduit Labs' Nabeel Hyatt
(Web entrepeneur Hyatt, whose new online world firm has recently been VC funded, will present a lecture on social gaming with a discussion of games for Facebook.)

-Relic Labs' Adrian Crook
(Senior producer and head of Relic Labs, an internal group at THQ developer Relic Entertainment (Company Of Heroes, Homeworld series), will present a discussion of the free-to-play business model and how it's helped evolve the face of online play.)

The Summit is available to attend via several different Game Developers Conference 2008 passes, and more information is available on the Worlds In Motion Summit webpage."

Shmup Dev Competition Gives Us 'Options', Reveals Winners

- Over at TIGSource, they've been kind enough to point out that the Shmup-Dev site, which is filled with homebrew PC shoot-em-up makers, has revealed the winners of its latest competition.

As TIGSource explains: "The theme this year was "Options" a-la those from Gradius I keep losing to the scorpion things. Varia has popped in at first place, a abstract shmup which uses options to clone enemy abilities and send back bullets at the opposing boss."

The2Bears also has lots of detail and links on the winners, explaining: "The top 5, Varia, Akuchizoku, Garden of Coloured Lights, ProtoType II, and Kamiha were all within a few points of each other. Any of these would have been fitting winners, in my opinion. My thoughts on all the entries can be found here." Micro-scenes like this one truly are amazing for making quality, innovative free games.

ESA Foundation Whips Up Xbox 360 Triple-Pack

- Perusing the Circuit City ad in the Sunday papers today (see, print's not dead!), I spotted a strange 3-pack of games for the Xbox 360, bundled together for just $30 - and decided to do some more investigation.

And - lo and behold, as displayed on Amazon - it's the new ESA Foundation charity bundle, with Cars, Open Season, and Fuzion Frenzy 2 for the Xbox 360 all for just $29.99, and the proceeds going to charity. Very cool. I Googled around a bit, and one or two obscure sites mentioned this a few weeks ago, but there doesn't seem to have been a press release or publicity on it yet - odd.

In any case, here's a release on the last compilation, which bundled Sony's ATV Offroad Fury 2, THQ's Splashdown: Rides Gone Wild, and EA's Need for Speed Hot Pursuit 2 for the PS2 at a $19.99 price point, and raised more than $1.5 million for charity through its North American sales in 2005 and 2006.

This time, it's THQ (Cars), Ubisoft (Open Season), and Hudson/Microsoft (Fuzion Frenzy 2) who have contributed their titles, presumably with permission from the license holders for those first two movies, and they should be applauded for offering their games up for such a good cause. (Also, being one of the few people who played through Fuzion Frenzy 2 in a bit of a masochistic, uh, frenzy, I can say that it's actually kind of fun, if you're focused on Achievements ahead of gameplay, or playing with an in-person, slightly tipsy crowd.)

The 2007 ESA Foundation beneficiaries (whom I presume are benefited by this) include Hopelab, the Federation Of American Scientists, and Web Wise Kids. It's interesting that, in addition to traditional charities, some of the grants this year are specifically related to distributing 'serious games' - both Re-Mission and Immune Attack, which educate and counsel on health-related issues. That's a smart way to help the game industry improve its image and help people at the same time, no?

November 4, 2007

GameSetRoundUp: Surfer Girl's Latest Scuttlebutt

- We've covered her 'insider'-related game biz posts before, and the still-mysterious 'Surfer Girl' has made at least four or five notable posts since we last mentioned her.

So let's go through them and pick the best from'Twenty-Five More Things, plus 'Disaster: Day Of Ubisoft's Wii Problems', 'November's First Things', 'For The Various People Who Do Not Read Comments', and 'Dante'.

Here are the items I personally found interesting - with my comments in brackets - and again, it's worth mentioning that Surfer Girl is the only anonymous alleged industry insider we've covered at all on GSW, and that's for a very rare reason - her information looks largely legit to me:

- "Ubisoft will be publishing Soma, the Human Head/Mark Ecko collaboration coming to PS3 and 360 sometime before two years from now, and which I guarantee is way cooler than the overrated Prey." (First time this announced partnership has a game name and publisher, if correct.)

- "Zoonami has a few titles that will be available through WiiWare next year... Q Entertainment is working on WiiWare title or two for release for next year... Wii Motor Sports Airplane is a WiiWare title." (Somewhat rare to see WiiWare rumors right now, and Martin Hollis' Zoonami makes theoretical sense, so again - nothing fanboy obvious, here, which means it's more likely than not.)

- "Ubisoft Montpelier is working on Beyond Good & Evil 2, Frédérick Raynal's new game (creepy), and an MMO. One of those will see release next year and the other two in 2009." (The Raynal thing is obscure but confirmed, and blimey, BG&E 2 would be interesting, for sure.)

- "Before the [Xbox's] announcement, Microsoft had a mandate for the game studios it owned to come up with ideas, ideas that have never been realized before in games. ACeS' Dante was one of the lucky few that made it to prototype phase... the game would have put you in the place of firefighter Jeremiah Dante, as he was followed around by the "911 HoverCam" that filmed his adventures for a live TV show, as he fought fires using his futuristic, high-tech equipment like the cannon on his arm that used a combination of lasers (yes, lasers) and water to fight fires." (The post also has screenshots, and this is far too specific and visuals-accompanying to be made up, also given previous familiarity with ACeS from Surfer Girl.)

- "Nintendo really did not want Rayman Raving Rabbits 2 to come at the same time as Super Mario Galaxy, since their game had a stratosphere of buzz and the limbless guy's popular party might disrupt sales of SMG, Nintendo tried anything they could do to refuse to give their approval; for example, in one instance, they said that one of the clouds in the game was shaped like Pikachu." (Probably subjective from the developer end, but cute, in any case.)

Guitar Hero III: Plenty Good, Or Just Not Good Enough?

- Since Guitar Hero III was released this week, we figure it might be time to take stock of, uhh, other people taking stock of the Neversoft-developed title, and The-Inbetween.com has an intelligent but slightly skeptical take on the sequel that is well worth reading.

His first paragraph is a bit of a targeted blast to the status of the series, after being removed from original creator Harmonix: "At one point in Guitar Hero 3, after your band achieves enormous success, you are sent to “Lou’s Inferno” where you have to battle (with ROCK) to win back your souls. It’s a perfect analogy for Guitar Hero 3: the third installment in this now super-successful series lacks the soul that made the previous games so good."

For me, I can see many traces of stylish Neversoft goodness in there, but more than a few bits of slightly corporate-led Activision creative machinations - and the blog has a good point that GHIII is "...a game that comes across as far less gender neutral than the previous two." On the plus side, and it is also noted, "...they’ve expanded the Co-Op and added online options". So overall... I dunno. I'm having a lot of fun playing through Guitar Hero III, but I'm really, really looking forward to Rock Band. Does that put me in the 'everyone' camp?

COLUMN: HDR Knowledge - Telling Stories and Realizing Worlds

[HDR Knowledge is a bi-weekly column written by Nayan Ramachandran and chronicles his hopes and wishes for the future of the industry. This week, we take a look at the past, present and future of storytelling in gaming, and how it should change in the future.]

As we progress through generation after generation of gaming history, we see a more prominent role for stories in our games. No question, some games require no story, especially those of an online nature. That does not mean that stories have no place in the genre. It’s actually quite the opposite. The more realised a game world becomes through technology and interaction, the more grounding and context a player needs.

HDRKoct1601.jpg The misnomer about story, of course, is that it must be told at the player, rather than with the player. Because of technological issues (as well as limited experience with a narrative medium), cut scenes became famous in the Super Famicom and Playstation 1 eras, because of their effective nature in telling a story.

Times have changed with technology, and we have more and more original ways of telling a story. The overt cutscene method has been thrown away by many developers in favor of more immersive (and sometimes completely optional) methods. Instead of the obstrusive and invasive cutscenes, games either feature story that presents itself while the player is running about the world, such as in Valve’s Half-Life series.

The other, more prevalent story convention is the diary. While some games, such as Biohazard (Resident Evil in North America) combine the use of cutscenes and optional written diaries in their games, other game development teams took a different route: optional storytelling.

Every gamer no doubt is, or knows, a gamer that often shouts “I just want to start playing!” when a long protracted introduction begins. It’s a difficult balance as well; if the game provides too much story and slows down the action, it’s likely to lose the player’s attention. If the game provides too little story, sometimes the context of the player’s actions is so ambiguous and nonsensical that the player can either become increasingly frustrated, or lose their motivation to continue with the game.

HDRKoct1602.jpg The method by which story is delivered is always in contention. Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime offered an elegant solution: players are offered a very simple and basic plot at the beginning of the game, and ample motivation to move forward and finish the game. For some, that amount of story is enough, and they play the game through in entirety without a second thought. The game’s world goes far deeper, though. Those willing to look for it can scan video monitors and other machines to receive written diary entries and experiment reports that act like patchwork pieces in a giant narrative tapestry.

Even Halo 3 offered Terminals that allowed players to delve a little more into the story’s history as an optional pilgrimage. The writing in the game’s main story was largely generic and boring, yet the secret terminal text was some of Bungie’s best writing since the original Marathon series. Why hide such painstakingly written and fantastically executed dialogue in such a devious fashion?

As a professional writer, one of the most important things to consider is audience. The game’s story has the same audience as the game itself, and as such has to adhere to certain conventions of that archetype. Halo’s audience is largely concerned with gameplay (specifically multiplayer). Players have come to expect a more action oriented game, not marred by constant narrative and science fiction diatribe. As such, while Bungie truly wanted to include long sections of well written diaries for the player to read, the vast majority of players probably probably had no desire to read any of it. That is the real shame.

Where do we draw the line on story, though? No one will get any disagreement from me concerning the statement “not all games require story.” One of my current favorite puzzle games, Yosumin, is completely devoid of story, context, and even a world. The game is just a box of colored shapes with kooky faces, and the story stops there. That does not mean that we should merely stop there with advances in inventive gaming narrative. 2K Boston’s Bioshock was a huge success because of the way it handled narrative. Most of the story was told through audio narratives that played in the corner of the screen while still letting the player explore and battle. It gave players a chance to experience the story while still enjoying a gunfight. It also offered an almost entirely real-time narrative, akin to Half-Life, only straying away from the formula in one particular instance.

HDRKoct1603.jpg While both Bioshock and Half-life offered an “amusement park ride” style narrative, driving the player through scenes with talking heads explaining the story thus far, neither game exhibited a terribly deep story. Both games had their fair share of twists, but both lacked symbolism and dramatic metaphors. Neither game needed either, but it is evidence that this style of narrative does not always work in all cases.

Japanese games almost exclusively use cutscenes; pieces of pre-rendered or real-time video that further the story through traditional film style. There is no question that cutscenes are far more disruptive to the immersive experience than the “amusement park ride,” but it gives storytellers a chance to inject drama into the story, direct the player’s eye to specific places, and largely suggest the feelings the player should be experiencing at that moment in time.

Especially in particularly harrowing or high tension situations, I actually quite like the idea of a cutscene. I see them as a reward for defeating a difficult boss or completing a specific task, and if spaced well enough, they give me a much needed chance to sit back, set the controller down, and let out a sigh of relief. The problem that lies in the use of cutscenes is that frequency. Recent Final Fantasy games are specifically at fault, especially in the early hours of the game. While later parts of the game are usually full of side quests, battles and exploration, the first ten or so hours are chockful of cutscenes, sometimes only giving 20-30 minutes of gameplay in between. This has forced many to dislike the use of cutscenes, even in games where their use is required.

The other prevalent issue with cutscenes is the inability to skip them. In games where save points and bosses can be on either side of a lengthy cutscene, it can be aggravating to have to watch the cutscene again and again after being defeated by the boss multiple times. Many games offer the ability to skip cutscenes, but some still don’t, for whatever reason.

The answer to providing a good story in a game is not as easy as I make it sound, but many have done it before, and it can be done again, and better:

1) Don’t treat the player like an idiot. If you want to include metaphor and symbolism in the story, don’t club the player over the head with its meaning, otherwise you have ruined what makes the symbolism so strong. Let it speak for itself.

2) Unclog the start of the game. Stop putting tons of cutscenes at the beginning of the game. It’s important to set the scene for the game, but try to figure out a more interactive means of doing so. Like a good book, a game’s first 15 minutes should be spent exhibiting the pacing and atmosphere that the player expects to experience for the entirety of the game.

3) Open-ended endings are fun. Try not to explain absolutely everything at the end of the game, but also don’t leave all questions completely unanswered. Leave players with the tools and clues they need to piece the mystery together, but leave enough ambiguity that will keep them guessing for years, or at least until the sequel.

4) Give us more unreliable narrators. Nothing builds mystery like experiencing a world as a character the player does not entirely trust. Not only does this allow the player to piece together the character’s true past without the use of the cliched amnesia mechanic, but it also allows players to question everything around them, and the actions of their character. Nothing is more frightening than not being able to trust yourself.

5) Provide layers of plot. Metroid Prime, Bioshock, and Halo 3 were on to something. Particularly in action-based games, provide a skeleton frame of a story for the average player who only cares about shooting people in the crotch. Along with that, provide deeper and better written story through diaries and audio that players can optionally track down during their adventure. Additional points if the player can read or listen while they explore and fight.

[Nayan Ramachandran is a dashing raconteur by day. By night, he writes his weekly blog, HDRL.]

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.)

Copyright © UBM TechWeb