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December 22, 2007

2008 IGF Student Showcase Announces Finalists

- The 2008 Independent Games Festival (IGF) has announced the twelve finalists in the Student Showcase for its 10th annual set of awards.

Chosen from a record 125 entries by a jury of experts from leading game design programs at universities across the world, these games will go on to compete for an overall Best Student Game prize, to be awarded at the IGF Awards Ceremony on February 20, 2008.

Some of the finalists this year include USC Interactive Media Program’s quirky The Misadventures of PB Winterbottom, Sheridan Institute’s stylish booger-busting Gesundheit (pictured), and The National Academy of Digital Interactive Entertainment’s dual-perspective Half-Life 2 modification Flipside.

All IGF finalist games will be exhibited at the IGF Pavilion, Feb. 20-22, 2008 at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) Expo. GDC, CMP Technology’s annual conference dedicated to the art, science and business of games, takes place February 18-22, at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. Each finalist in the IGF Student Showcase will receive a $500 travel stipend to help aid expenses for the trip to GDC 2008. The winner of the IGF Best Student Game Award will receive a $2,500 cash prize during the ceremony. Full nominee list after the cut...

The Student Showcase games and game mods that will be considered for the 2008 Best Student Game Award are all highlighted on the IGF website. The list of finalists is as follows:

Crayon Physics Deluxe, by Kloonigames, Helsinki Polytechnic Stadia, Finland
Empyreal Nocturne, by Double Hawk Productions, DigiPen Institute of Technology
Gesundheit!, by Underwater Base, Sheridan Institute
Galaxy Scraper, by GroundNut, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona, Spain
Mayhem Intergalactic, by Chris Pelling, The Australian National University
Poesysteme, by Poesysteme, ENJMIN, France
Polarity, by Team Polarity, Carnegie Mellon University
Ruckblende, by Nils Deneken, Uni Duisburg-Essen, Germany
Synaesthete, by Rolling Without Slipping, DigiPen Institute of Technology
The Misadventures Of P.B. Winterbottom, by The Odd Gentlemen, University of Southern California- School of Cinematic Arts- Interactive Media Program
Flipside (Half-Life 2 Modification), by Team 3, National Academy of Digital, Interactive Entertainment, Denmark
Foamzilla (Unreal Tournament 2004 Modification), by Macrocosm, Vancouver Film School

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way that the Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community. This year, the contest is supported by sponsors including Platinum Sponsor Gleemax.com, Silver Sponsors Sony and Microsoft, and Platinum Student Showcase Sponsor DigiPen Institute Of Technology, as well as IGF Mobile Platinum/Founding Sponsor Nvidia.

GDC 2008 will continue its support of independent gaming with the return of the Independent Games Summit February 18-19. The IGF Pavilion, where GDC attendees can experience the finalist games in the IGF Main, Student, and Mobile Competitions, is open on the GDC show floor February 20-22. For more information on the Independent Games Festival and to register for GDC, please visit the official GDC website.

GameSetLinks: 'Twas The Weekend Before Christmas

- Ah yes, it's almost Crimble time, which means GSW will collectively be floating on the sofa in a haze of half-digested pudding and brandy. Wait, that's what we do most weekends, though.

In the meantime, here's a few notable links to tide you over, including some smart blogging on death in MMOs, a critique of the apparently 'fanfic'-like Silent Hill PSP title, and even the fun (and pictured above) promo video for N+, which is all live-action and viral and shuggywuggah. Gotta love that, and in the meantime:

Elder Game: MMO game development » What’s in a Death Penalty?
'I find it very interesting that WoW’s death penalty is much harsher than the death penalty in EQ2, which goes against our preconceived notions of these two games.'

Graphic Engine » Blog Archive » The Video Game Explosion
'A quick plug for a new book edited by my friend and colleague Mark J. P. Wolf, The Video Game Explosion: A History from Pong to PlayStation and Beyond (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008).' First I've heard of this.

Clickable Culture - ‘I Am Legend’ In Saintly Style
Broken Saints guys doing I Am Legend promo - more Flash movie than game, but interesting in an Internet-creative way.

Silent Hill: Origins | The New Gamer
'Like the fanfiction writer, they know they like the scenery and style of Silent Hill 2, but they don't understand the deeper meaning behind the imagery.'

Pop Cosmopolitanism » On Zelda And Timelines
There is an upcoming book called 'The Legend of Zelda and Philosophy'. Who should we thank?

Teaching Game Design: Pittsburgh Game Jam games available for download
Including a four-player co-op maze game with a fog of war? Blimey.

Water Cooler Games - Scholastic Defiles Self, World with Game-Book Tie-ins
Amusingly abusive, but interesting to see book/webgame hookups to the fore here.

War Angels coming to XBLA | XBLArcade.com
Mr. Robot creators Moonpod are behind this - v.good news.

N+: ninjas, robots and awesome
Live-action trailer for the XBLA/handheld indie expansion - totallycute!

COLUMN: 'Play Evolution': Difficulty Levels and You

THE WITCHERERERER.[“Play Evolution” is a bi-weekly column by James Lantz that discusses the changes that games undergo after their release, from little developer patches to huge gameplay revelations, and everything in between. This week: evolution and progression in difficulty levels]

I picked up The Witcher the other day on a whim – and well, also because Bioware had its magic paws in it – and the first screen it greets you with upon starting a new game is the difficulty selection screen. At this point, you have three options: easy, medium and hard. The game describes “Easy” as a difficulty level where the combat is simple. Under “Medium” it says that the combat is of average difficulty and that alchemy is powerful but not required. On “Hard,” it claims that the use of alchemy is required to survive. That’s it. That’s all it says.

First off: what on earth is alchemy? I know what its definition is and I know that it will probably have something to do with potions and probably something to do with mixing them and maybe even something to do with witches and cauldrons, but how am I supposed to know whether I want to be forced to use it or not? How am I supposed to know whether it’s an interesting and well-developed part of the game or a complete waste of time?

But even these questions are superficial, and don’t really get at the underlying problem that makes these choices so nonsensical: the idea of player preference. There are a lot of games – especially PC RPGs like The Witcher – where difficulty levels that merely represent personal preference instead of genuine difficulty progression. While a lot of people I know praise these personal preference levels as progress, I think that they’re a rather large step backwards.

Guitar Hero 2. One of the most important things in game design is gameplay balance. While you’re making a game – let’s take, for example an RPG – in addition to making a narrative experience you are also trying to create boss encounters that are satisfyingly difficult, you are trying to create monsters that are not unfairly powerful but not mind-numbingly easy and you are trying to make characters that are not so powerful that the choice between branching skill trees is an interesting one and not simply a choice between two nearly equally overpowered branches.

At the end of the process, you have decided through careful testing and re-testing that this is what your game is like. It’s not that you have decided that this is your personal favorite way to play the game, and maybe you can make a setting where everything is easy as pie and therefore none of these choices are interesting, or one that’s so hard that it’s unpleasant -- it’s that you have decided that this is your game, and this is how you have decided to make it. Gameplay balance is just another part of what makes a good game, like interesting and diverse unit types in an RTS – as a developer, you don’t give the player the option to play with whatever units they feel like at any time, because then it’s not really your game, it’s a level editor. What the player wants is for you to give them a number of units to make this campaign interesting and challenging, but not impossible.

Similarly, when I sit down and look at the difficulty screen in The Witcher, I’m not genuinely thinking: “Man, am I a first time pony-newcomer at RPGs, or am I hardened RPG veteran with a axe to grind and a whole load of badditude?” I’m thinking: “Which one of these randomly named modes is going to be the one that makes your game interesting?” On a lot of games, the medium mode is so easy that it’s like reading an interactive novel where none of the choices you make really matter all that much. On a lot of other games, the medium mode is so obnoxiously hard that it’s completely unfun. In the end, it’s not your game, it’s someone else’s and you shouldn’t have to guess which mode makes the options they’ve presented the most interesting.

A lot of people, however, believe this train of thought leads to a stifling conclusion. “Why impose extra rules?” they ask. “Why can’t we just play games like we want to play games, without all these restrictions?” Well, restrictions and rules are all a game is, when you get down to it. To play a game is to take the restrictions and rules given by a developer and to try to exploit them and work within them as best you can; that’s what makes a game interesting. If that wasn’t true, we’d all be sitting around playing Second Life right now because, as the ultimate sandbox with no rules or restrictions, it would be the perfect game.

Devil May Cry 3. But not all difficulty settings are obtrusive. In fact, some games use difficulty settings to incredible ends. In these games, difficulty settings are not personal preferences, but instead something the player progress through as they evolve within the game and become more skilled. Guitar Hero is the perfect example of this. If you say “I just beat The Witcher” no one is going to ask you “well, did you beat it on Medium?” But if you claim to have beaten Guitar Hero, when really you have just completed all the songs on Medium, you’ll be laughed out of town. Completing all the songs on Medium is not beating Guitar Hero. That’s because the difficulty levels in Guitar Hero are progressions that the players go through; they are an integral part of the game experience.

Diablo II is another great example. If you complete Diablo II on Normal difficulty, you have only beaten a third of the game, even though you have technically finished the entire story. That’s because the difficulty levels in Diablo II are progressive. As your character evolves you go through what is, with respect to the narrative, the same story three times but you in gameplay terms you are really completing one game, because your character in Nightmare Act 3 is going to play completely differently from your character in Normal Act 3. The difficulty levels are not personal preference – they are designed to provide an evolving experience as the player progresses through the game.

Finally, there are a few interesting games that lie in the middle ground. Take, for example, Halo 3. Halo 3 is not quite sure about whether its story or offline gameplay is more important. On the one hand, you have technically finished the fight when you’ve completed the game on Normal. On the other hand, Legendary difficulty isn’t quite sure whether or not it’s a progression from Normal difficulty. In Legendary difficulty, you take a lot of the skills you learned from Normal difficulty and apply them, but it’s not too difficult to beat Legendary without having played the game at all before (compared to say, Guitar Hero’s Expert difficulty or Devil May Cry 3’s Dante Must Die mode), so it could also be said that Legendary mode is simply a personal preference based on how much you hate yourself.

[James Lantz is a starving writer who spends a large amount of his free time feeding large pandas to slightly larger pandas in a two-pronged ploy to both wipe out the species and create a giant panda. He also writes a blog, of course.]

December 21, 2007

Round-Up: Gamasutra's Top 10 Games Of 2007

- [We've been collectively working hard on these various end-of-year lists on big sister site Gamasutra over the past week or two, and now they're basically all done and compiled into a big feature, we've also finished up our 'Top 10 Games' list - which is definitely a reflection of our collective tastes in lacking some major shooters - but which we stand by. Have at it!]

Continuing Gamasutra's year-end retrospective, we're proud to present the editors' picks for the Top 10 games of this year. We've collectively put our heads together to pick the titles that we believe shone the brightest during 2007.

All picks are the editors' alone - we're not trying to tell you what you should like, only our collective opinion. Any title released for console, PC, or handheld during the year was eligible, and we are initially listing only the games from #10 to #2 in this post.

[UPDATE: #1 pick added, as seen in our end-of-year retrospective.]

10. Puzzle Quest (Infinite Interactive - Wii, PS2, XBLA, PC, DS, PSP)

One of the quietest hits of the year, Puzzle Quest's industry importance was felt in a number of ways, from truly establishing the Western presence of its publisher, D3, to receiving one of the most successful word of mouth campaigns in 2007, and managing a staggering number of multiplatform releases for such a small developer, through smart external partnerships.

As a game, too, its acumen showed through both in its deceptively deep mechanics and, most blatantly, in its audience-widening marriage of casual and hardcore play. Rarely does a game come along that can ease casuals into the deeper potential of strategic play, while also managing to convince the hardcore to spend hours with something that, outside its fantasy garb, they've convinced themselves isn't "real" gaming.

Truly one of the landmark achievements of the year, and one that gives us great hope for Infinite's next puzzle outing.

9. Pac-Man CE (Namco Bandai - XBLA)

We've already selected Pac-Man CE as the Top Downloadable Game of 2007, and as we commented in that article:

"The original Pac-Man is simply one of the best games ever created. And, in this world of enhanced remakes, the Japanese developers at Namco Bandai worked with Pac-Man's father Toru Iwatani and created something incredibly special - a remake that improves on the original.

With all the flavor and excitement of the original, the multiple new modes - many of them with explicit time limits and related high scores - layered even smarter strategic gameplay upon the peerless original. And with smart art direction, the title looks amazing in HD. Tremendous."

8. Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools Of Destruction (Insomniac - PS3)

Insomniac's second PlayStation 3 title is a spectacularly polished, playable platform adventure title - which is notable precisely because it iterates so well on an already-winning formula.

R&C Future has some of the most dynamic, high-quality art we've seen on the PS3 so far, and some clever variety built into the newest version of the franchise which has always prided itself on smooth, accessible gameplay.

The game is practically worth picking up alone for the wonderful weapon gadgets, which pack more creativity into just the weapons than many games have in their entire gameplay system. Bravo, Insomniac.

7. Persona 3 (Atlus - PS2)

Breaking ranks with a long dynasty of traditional Japanese fantasy RPGs, Persona 3 stands out in that its largest setting -- the one wherein you build your character, strengthen your ranks and move the story along -- is nothing more supernatural than an ordinary high school.

There, with a fascinating duality between a mysterious "dark hour" and the light of day, most of the key RPG elements take place through building relationships with your schoolmates and taking care of school responsibilities.

This normalcy is tidily contrasted with the more sinister, fantastic elements of the game, and set against stylish character designs and a peppy, electronica-infused J-Pop soundtrack.

6. Crackdown (Realtime Worlds - Xbox 360)

Crackdown's major successes as a game come in the way that it blends elements together to make a fresh, compelling whole. Even its main failure -- narrative -- is a sort of success-in-disguise (all of the dialogue is 100% irrelevant to succesfully playing the game; the ending is so bad it's good.) But what's great about Crackdown is that it takes the dirty anarchy of Grand Theft Auto and injects it with (unintentional?) lightheartedness thanks to its super-powered characters.

It's an injection of vitality into a genre that otherwise consists of one 800 pound gorilla and a pile of also-rans in a dump bin at GameStop. Exploring Pacific City (and hunting for power-ups) is actually more engrossing than actually battling crime -- bolstered by the endless uniqueness of the environments and how your character's leveling up allows greater access to rooftop vistas.

The seamless co-op play, which allows you to team up, kill, or just ignore each other and chat while wreaking havoc across town from one another, adds another layer of fine-tuned, technically-complex pleasure. It's sandbox in the true sense, in that it allows and encourages you to find your own fun -- as the YouTube videos can attest.

5. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo - DS)

While the so called "wink waker" cel-shaded look might have been more controversial than video game art should ever be, the expansive blue skies, green islands and paper doll characters were right at home on the DS, where the latest installment in the Zelda franchise is possibly the cleverest and most engaging use yet of the touch screen.

Delightfully playful and intuitive, Phantom Hourglass has the feel of a real adventure. Charting a course on the high seas, sketching your own maps or drawing your boomerang's path with the stylus is a brilliant new take on classic Zelda mechanics -- just like the boss fights, which feel positively cinematic as they span both screens.

4. Rock Band (Harmonix/MTV - Xbox 360, PS3, PS2)

Some have and will continue to find fault in Rock Band for being 'just' Guitar Hero with drums and a microphone, or 'just' a follow-on to territory that Konami tread many years before, but Harmonix's achievements have always been less about innovating rhythm game techniques, but refining them.

Chained star-power note streaks, interface enhancements that both relocate its elements to more logical peripheral placement and redefine them more elegantly (an apparently new in-house standard it shares with its iPod sister, Phase), and note charts that capture the feeling of the music as much as timing are just part of what puts it ahead of the rest.

What very much separates it from the pack now is its performance presentation -- characters with genuine sex appeal that look and play like stars and smart camera work that make the game as much a joy to watch as to take part in -- and the human element that makes group play, when executed well, as much a thrill as an actual night on stage.

But, more than anything, Rock Band's greatest promise is its potential, as it works to position itself not just as a game, but as a new interactive format of music to join vinyl, CD and MP3, with hints of future simultaneous album releases and tools for aspiring garage bands to bring themselves into our living rooms.

The forthcoming Titan v. Titan battle between MTV's cross-media muscle and Activision's newly available Universal Music Group library via new partner Vivendi will be a thrill to watch in the years ahead.

3. Super Mario Galaxy (Nintendo - Wii)

The thing that makes Super Mario Galaxy special was that Nintendo managed to pull it off at all, in a sense. In a series that carries such high expectations that Super Mario Sunshine is talked about by otherwise rational gamers as if the developers personally ran over their puppy, coming out with a game that's (pretty much) universally adored is an achievement in itself.

But how did Nintendo EAD Tokyo manage that? The obvious answer lies in stripping away the complexities that lead to the dislike of Sunshine. More careful examination reveals that it's the consistent look and feel of the game, the perfect playability, the consistently doable and enjoyable challenges, that make it special. It is not possible to say enough good things about the control. It is crucial to point out that, even offered increased disc capacity, Nintendo dropped voiced cutscenes.

But maybe what makes Galaxy great is the abandon with which Nintendo has embraced abstraction. Mario has mostly taken place in the Mushroom Kingdom -- but even that vague concept is jettisoned for a string of constructs that only vaguely approximate real environments, at their absolute most concrete.

This game is wholeheartedly a game, and doesn't shy away from it -- more, it embraces it. In the first level of Future, Ratchet may traverse an amazing futuristic city. Mario traverses challenges -- nothing more, nothing less.

2. BioShock (2K Boston - Xbox 360, PC)

Not just the darling of the mainstream media who were thrilled to finally pack Ayn Rand references into a video game article, Ken Levine's ambitious vision for the haunting, richly-realized underwater city of Rapture raised the bar for game worlds. BioShock showed us a city that lived and by its principles, and each detailed, decaying remnant tells a piece of the tragedy.

Not only does Rapture illustrate the consequences of pride and overidealism, but its remaining citizens do, too, the consequences stamped into the mad eyes of each eerily-masked face. Most of all, BioShock allows the player to decide how like them -- or not -- the mysterious protagonist becomes.

1. Portal (Valve - Xbox 360, PS3, PC)

This year's biggest surprise could have easily sidestepped the limelight as "bonus content" on Valve's The Orange Box compilation, but the revolutionary Portal became a cult favorite almost immediately -- and for good reason. The brain-bending, portal-shooting, first-person puzzle gameplay was a feat in both creative innovation and technical grace, and it would be worth a mention on these merits alone.

But what rocketed Portal to the top were all of its peripheral details. Some of the cleverest writing ever seen in a game helped thread sharp -- and often touching -- humor through an environment that could be alternately adorable, hilarious and sinister in turns. Admirably, none of it's forced on you -- Portal treats the player with dignity and without over-instruction, proving that, in a year that saw plenty of overwrought epics, sometimes the most effective storyline doesn't need to try so hard.

Most impressive of all, Portal achieved victory handily in an area where all titles attempt, but few attain -- creating emotional engagement with the player. Game companies aim to coin fan favorite characters and creatures year after year, and yet the inanimate Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube -- after appearing in a single scene -- achieved iconic status seemingly overnight, as did Jonathon Coulton's unforgettable "Still Alive" ending scene, sung by the equally memorable GLaDOS. The cake may or may not be a lie, but Portal is truly the year's best.

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We've now compiled all of our lists with additional reader comments in the full Gamasutra Best Of 2007 retrospective. Already-posted lists include Top 5 Downloadable Games, Top 5 Most Affecting Characters, and Top 5 Overlooked Games, Top 5 Trends, Top 5 Developers, Top 5 Freeware Games, and Top 5 Poignant Game Moments.]

GameSetLinks: Edging Into The Weekend

- It's that time of week when literally anything can happen - but a couple of days off work is what tends to. Hence, GameSetLinks delves deeply into the spectacular array of gaming links we've been accumulating this week, starting off with Kim Pallister talking about game credits.

Also on the menu - Valve's Marc Laidlaw getting all R'lyeh, Korean cartoonists drawing the GameSetWatch guy (who was originally designed by Mira Han, by the way - I'm not sure if we've ever given her a shout-out so obviously before!), and all kinds of other coolness. Here goes goes goes:

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Game Credits: Labels vs Nuance in a Tag-Cloud Age
Absolutely awesome post on game crediting, seguing off a Game Developer column.

Agustin Cordes - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
The South American developer of the interesting graphic adventure Scratches.

Playing to Learn - GameCareerGuide.com
James Portnow on game design, with a bonus quiz at the end!

GameSpite Issue #3 - Jeremy Parish's friends geek out on game ephemera
'Unlike last time, where we crammed Final Fantasy down your throat until Moogles were spilling out of your ears, this update has only the general concept of "video games" as its connective ligament.'

ansi: about
Oo, an ANSI art gallery show in San Francisco in January 2008, with special lightboard displays.

Marc Laidlaw, "The Vicar of R'lyeh," Flurb #4
The Half-Life 2 scripter's awesome-ridiculous Cthuhuloid story for a Rudy Rucker online anthology. (Rucker's illustration accompanying the story is above!)

isdead: The Cynical Felix.: GameSetWatch-ed.
GameSetWatch guy gets sketched by a Korean indie cartoonist!

GameTap: The Commodore Turns 25
Good coverage of the Computer History Museum event by Mr. Handy.

sardius_: mystifying ebgames.com descriptions of the week
Ugh, more and more weird/terrible DS/Wii games sprouting every second.

Independent Games Festival 2008 Award Nominees - Part 1 : Critical Hits
Helpful links to videos and info on 6 of the finalists from a blogger.

2008 Game Developers Choice Awards To Honor Baer, Della Rocca

- [Something else with a quote from me in it - yes, very self-referential - but I was really pleased to work with the Choice Awards Advisory Committee, based on the votes of the game development community, to hand out these two special awards, both of which are very richly deserved, I think. Also, Jason Della Rocca's headshot still makes him look like he's actually a cherubic Renaissance angel, complete with halo, which is awesome.]

The CMP 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards, the highest honors in game development acknowledging excellence in game creation, have named the recipients of two of the special awards.

Electronic engineer Ralph Baer, known to many as the “Father of Video Games” for inventing the first home video game system, commercialized as the Magnavox Odyssey game system, will receive the Pioneer Award; and Jason Della Rocca, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), a professional society committed to advancing the careers and enhancing the lives of game developers, will receive the Ambassador Award.

Presented by CMP’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) and Webby-award winning Gamasutra.com, this year’s awards ceremony, held in conjunction with the Independent Games Festival, will be hosted on Wednesday, February 20, during GDC 2008 in the Esplanade Room in the South Hall of San Francisco’s Moscone Center. For complete details, please visit www.gamechoiceawards.com.

The Pioneer Award celebrates those individuals responsible for developing a breakthrough technology, game concept, or gameplay design at a crucial juncture in video game history, paving the way for the myriad developers who followed them. Ralph Baer, best known as the “Father of Video Games,” holds the pioneer patents covering both the method and apparatus of video games.

His work in the sixties resulted in the Magnavox Odyssey game system, which was the first commercial home video game. His early video game hardware already resides in such places as the Smithsonian and the Japanese National Science Museum, and replicas are on display all over the world.

“Ralph Baer invented video games. In the inaugural year of the Pioneer Award at the Game Developers Choice Awards, it felt natural to bestow that award on the man who established our entire industry,” said Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference. “Ralph is an inspiration to all who attend our conference, and we are proud to host this opportunity for our attendees to recognize and thank the creator of their vocation and art form.”

The Ambassador Award honors an individual or group of individuals who have helped the game industry advance to a better place, either through facilitating a better game community from within, or by reaching outside the industry to be an advocate for video games to help further the art.

Jason Della Rocca’s focus as executive director of the IGDA on connecting developers with their peers, promoting professional development and advocating on issues such as quality of life, creative freedoms, workforce diversity and credit standards are qualities for which the Choice Awards Advisory Committee are naming him this year’s recipient.

This year, the editors of Gamasutra.com, newly in charge of award management, worked in association with a distinguished Advisory Committee that included Clint Hocking (Ubisoft), Raph Koster (Areae), Ray Muzyka (BioWare), Ryan Lesser (Harmonix) and Brian Reynolds (Big Huge Games) to pick the Special Award winners following audience nominations. The Committee concurred with multiple developer nominations in deciding that Della Rocca deserved this first-ever Ambassador Award.

“Jason Della Rocca continues to advocate for game developers on multiple vital levels, from quality of life through crediting and beyond,” said Simon Carless, publisher and editorial director of Gamasutra.com. “The Advisory Committee felt it was high time to recognize him as a true Ambassador to our industry.”

For further information about the Choice Awards, please visit www.gamechoiceawards.com. For further information about GDC and to register for attendance, please visit www.gdconf.com.

December 20, 2007

Road To IGF Mobile: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT's Backflow

- [Innovative mobile games? The inaugural IGF Mobile is showing that independent games for handheld platforms can still stand out, and here Mathew Kumar talks to Neal Grigsby about Backflow, a cellphone-based blend of casual puzzle, city-building, and moral message created as part of a Singapore-MIT student game lab.]

Beginning Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, we talk to Neal Grigsby about Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab's IGF Mobile 2008 Innovation in Mobile Design and IGF Mobile Best Game finalist Backflow, a casual-style puzzle game, a city building sim, and a multiplayer strategy game where players control the waste disposal system for a city.

Games On Deck: What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Neal Grigsby: The team that worked on Backflow came from quite diverse backgrounds. The game was made over summer 2007 as part of the inaugural slate of games developed by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.

For the summer program, the lab flew in 31 students from Singapore's tertiary educational institutions and put them together with several MIT undergrad and graduate students to form 6 development teams. Aside from one of our programmers, who had a few student projects under his belt, the Backflow team was mostly inexperienced in making games, but very passionate about them. All of us were students or recent graduates.

We had two programmers, two artists, a project manager who had mostly worked on film and video projects, and a testing lead from MIT's brain and cognitive sciences department. As the design lead, I had studied games as a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT, and I led the winning team in a week long game pitch competition held annually at the institute called the Storytelling and Games in the Digital Age workshop, but I had never worked on a true development project.

We did have some experienced faculty to advise us, most notably Eric Klopfer and Marleigh Norton, but the team was responsible for the final design and all of the development work.

GOD: What motivated you to make your game?

NG: We knew that the GAMBIT project leaders had high expectations for us, despite our inexperience, and that alone was incredibly motivating. The games in the project were held to a professional standard of polish, even though we had only 8 weeks of development time.

To know that the people you are working with are serious and passionate, and that they are each dedicated to producing something innovative and fun, meant that we couldn't let each other down. We had to work hard. That kind of atmosphere is so valuable, especially in the academic space where often the standard of quality is lower.

GOD: Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

NG: We had a research goal that our game was designed to address: we were asked to design a "participatory simulation," meaning a multiplayer game in which players are embedded inside a simulation.

This is a bit difficult to explain: not a simulated game world so much as a framework for player interaction such that the simulation emerges from player behavior. For our game this translated into the resource market. We tweaked the game to force players, as much as possible, to trade resources with each other.

But perhaps our major source of inspiration was just Eric Klopfer's suggestion that we think about an issue that was important to us and try to design a game that would address it somehow. It's the imperative of the serious games movement.

One of the artists on the team, Fabian Teo, had the original idea for a game about waste management and recycling, where player success is linked to other players in some way because, of course, the environment is an area where an individual's behavior effects others profoundly.

GOD: What sort of development tools have you been using in the production of your game?

NG: The usual suspects, I suppose. The artists used Photoshop to create the art assets. The programmers used the Java SDK for the handset work, plus MySQL for the database. We had a few Sony Ericcson k800i handsets to test on. And for design work nothing beats a whiteboard and a deck of index cards.

We kept everything organized with Base Camp. I don't know if it can be considered a "development tool," but a centrally important aspect of the development was our management process.

All of the GAMBIT teams used Scrum for project management. We could not have developed the game to its current level of polish without the iterative design framework of Scrum. It forced us to have a playable version with improved functionality every two weeks.

GOD: What do you think the most interesting element of the game is?

NG: This might be a cop-out but the hybridity of the game is its most interesting quality to me. I like that you have this very simple, casual-style game at the core of it, but that plugs in to a city simulation and also the multiplayer market simulation. It can be picked up and played for a few minutes, but also rewards a bit more long-term engagement and strategy, which is a good fit for the mobile platform.

Also, I like that the game has poo in it.

[This interview originally appeared on sister mobile game site Games On Deck. The first-ever Independent Games Festival Mobile, organized by Gamasutra parent the CMP Game Group, has recently announced its finalists, with winners awarded at Game Developers Conference in February 2008.]

Xmas Special: The Best Games Set During Christmas... Evah!

[We recently linked to a neat 'games as noir' article from TimeGate Studios level designer Steve Gaynor, who runs the Fullbright blog. For this article that he's kindly contributed to GameSetWatch, he passes along season's greetings in video game list form. And in a random/cool act of synchronicity, Ian Bogost's newly posted Gamasutra column is on a similar topic, but includes completely different games. Hurray!]

The Christmas season and the games industry go hand-in-hand: in the lead-up shopping frenzy, we're deluged by too many high-profile titles to count, all vying for schoolchildren's wishlists and suburban moms' pocketbooks.

Why then aren't there more games that bring the yuletide spirit into their virtual worlds? Gordon Freeman delivering gifts to the good little boys and girls of City 17? Mario and Bowser putting aside their differences and sharing cups of nog in front of a roaring fire? Not so much. But there are the rare exceptions that do feature tinsel, caroling and the whole nine yards, and in some great games to boot! So, as a way of spreading holiday cheer, I'd like to share a few of my favorite games that feature a Christmas-y setting:

Snatcher - Hideo Kojima's 16-bit adventure game was developed during that long gap between Metal Gear 2 and Solid, and released in the west on Sega CD. Its gameplay is staunchly point-and-click in the Sierra or Lucasarts tradition, with a little bit of Hogan's Alley thrown in every once in a while. The game is a transparent "homage" to Blade Runner, mixed with some Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a cornball anime veneer to top it all off.

It takes place in Neo Kobe after a catastrophic man-made disaster wiped out much of the world's population. Expats trapped in Japan turned Neo Kobe into a strange dystopian melting pot, and it's here that one Gillian Seed, blade runner junker agent extraordinaire and classic amnesiac video game protagonist carries out his mission of hunting down replicants bioroids that have gone rogue. It's also set during Christmas time, featuring decorations and holiday ads throughout the city, as well as Gillian's informant, Napoleon, who dresses up as a shopping mall Santa to hide in plain sight.

Skip to 6:15 for hot Santa informant action:

Bully - Rockstar's reform school saga depicts a year in the life of Jimmy Hopkins, a wayward kid trying to thrive in the dog-eat-dog social maze of Bullworth Academy. The game takes place during fall, winter, spring, and an "endless summer," beautifully realizing each season in turn. On Christmas day, Jimmy is called to the principal's office to receive a gift that his mother has sent him: a hilariously goofy reindeer sweater, which he's compelled to wear back to the dorms, being laughed at and scorned by his classmates the entire way. Really funny stuff.

Boogie Wings/The Great Ragtime Show - Data East released one crazy side-scrolling shooter back in '92, which tried all sorts of wild mechanics and paired them with a bizarre ragtime theme. In the game, the player pilots a Red Baron-esque biplane and flies left-to-right blowing up soldiers, tanks, cowboys, mobsters, and anything else unlucky enough to get in his way.

A couple things make the game unique: one is the free-swinging tow line that hangs from the plane, which the player can use to hook enemies and objects in the world, and fling them about at will. You can pick up tanks or bombs, then whirl the plane around in a circle to whip them at the opposition, causing a huge chain reaction of destruction. Or, you can sadistically pick up a poor unlucky soldier and send him sailing through the air for your own amusement. Another interesting aspect is that the player can hop out of the plane and run along the ground, or jump into jeeps, tanks, and other vehicles for a change of pace.

The game lets the player choose from five different themed levels, one of which is titled "Merry Merry Christmas." In it, the player flies through a city fully decked out for the holidays, shooting up Christmas trees, snowmen, and tossing mall Santas about with his tow line hook. At the end of the level, the player fights an enormous mechanical Santa who tosses crates at you from his sack of presents, and trades his Salvation Army hand bell for a flintlock pistol, all the while shouting out "MERRY CHRISTMAS," as if to taunt you. Either that or he's just having a really good time. Check out the video below for a midi-styled ragtime interpretation of "Joy to the World."

Hitman Blood Money - I'm a huge fan of the Hitman games, especially Blood Money, which took the series formula and executed it to absolute perfection. In one level, Agent 47 is sent to assassinate a wealthy pornography mogul and his playboy of a son, who have become political liabilities to a certain individual who has called upon your services. To do so, 47 drops in on the pornographer's "Christmas in July" celebration at his snowy cliffside abode in the mountains of Colorado, complete with a festive tree, Christmas lights, presents, and red latex outfits for the ladies in attendance. So, stalk the drunken Santa Claus into a nice secluded alcove, dispose of him quietly, steal his clothes, and enjoy our favorite chrome-domed assassin decked out as old Saint Nick. If there's one thing the Hitman series has always had, it's a strong undercurrent of dark humor.

Animal Crossing - Another game that takes place during every season, the month of December is especially cheery in the little town that lives inside your GameCube (or now, Wii.) Animals will graciously trade Christmas presents with the player, Nookington's features Christmas trees (and menorahs) all month long, snowmen start to pop up (and talk!), and blinking, festive lights cover all the trees in town. On Christmas eve, Jingle the red-suited reindeer will reward you with holiday-themed furniture if you can track him down as he makes his rounds.

Raw Danger! - I was recently turned on to Raw Danger! by the GameSetWatch rundown of "2007's Top 5 Overlooked Games." I picked it up, I've been playing it, and I love it. It's got no production values: it looks almost like a PS1 game, the translation is bad, and the voicework is even worse. But the actual design of the game-- the things you can do and the way you do them-- is outstandingly unique, fascinating and fun. It's an action adventure game that aims to provide tension, excitement, and a sense of "raw danger" without any sort of combat or hostile creatures whatsoever. The game's central dilemma is one of the rarest in games, Man versus Nature, and the designers find ways to engage the player simply through direct conflict with the environment itself, as you try to survive in a world that's crumbling around you.

The depth of character management is impressive: you gather items, juggle an inventory and equip new clothes and accessories to stave off hypothermia during the game's ongoing torrential flood, as well as pushing your relationship with various side characters this way and that via a wide range of dialogue options. The game even manages to be player-friendly and opposes the frustration factor by invisibly placing checkpoints before any spot where you're likely to be killed by some sort of sudden collapse or perilous situation.

The game is notable for being an extremely lo-fi production that commits itself to trying something out of the ordinary by engaging the player with other than shooting or swordplay, or even acrobatics and colorful platforming. The game's excitement and tension come from navigating a world that could come tumbling down at any minute, and figuring out how exactly you're going to get yourself out of the seemingly hopeless situation brought on by the disaster at hand. The narrative, though clumsily told, is intriguing for its structure: you play as up to six different characters in turn over the course of the game, and your actions as one character might impact, or even doom, another playable character down the line. To meet up with a female convict in the first character's story, then play that encounter from the convict's point of view during the second scenario is just super cool, and makes you reflect on your decision-making throughout the game, knowing it may come back to you in the end.

Anyway! The game is set during three long, arduous days, starting on Christmas eve 2010. The season comes into play as your first character is a waiter at a Christmas gala unveiling the new superdense underground metropolis, "Geo City." Vestiges of the season can help or hinder your progress, as at one point the player shimmies along a string of Christmas lights hanging above a raging torrent, and at another point an enormous shopping center Christmas tree can topple over and crush you if you're not careful. See the trailer below for hilarious comic timing, set off by the initial strings of "Jingle Bells."

So, if you need help getting in the spirit, try out something from this list! Now would be a particularly good time to start up a town in Animal Crossing, or to support the team at Irem who went out on a limb to bring us Raw Danger! Happy holidays!

Advice For IGF Student Submissions: A Judge Speaks

- Well, after originally being scheduled for earlier this week, the finalists in the Student Showcase category for the Independent Games Festival look like they will actually be announced on Friday - partly thanks to the gigantic amount of great entries we got this year, which are taking longer to wade through than we thought.

Anyhow, Ian Schreiber, who is an instructor at Ohio University and one of our Student Judges for this year, has written an excellent guide to student entrants for years to come on his 'Teaching Game Design' blog. We are trying to help out on a couple of the comments he made - we have drafted in some special folks to judge the mods, and have been doing some co-ordination on multiplayer games - but his judging point on them is nonetheless valid, and in general, I found these tips extremely helpful. Here's a couple of the most notable ones:

"Don't overhype in your description. Each game has a brief text description. I read it when I'm waiting for the game itself to download. Some people are really full of themselves, telling me all about how original their game is or how great their graphics are or how fun the game is. Don't insult me; I should be competent enough to judge your game on its own merits, not on your opinions of your own game...

Make sure the player is having fun, not the computer. Sid Meier's immortal advice rings true in a surprising number of student games. Your game might have an amazing AI or some really complicated mechanics under the surface, but if I can't see, predict and understand them then I'm not really having fun as the player."

December 19, 2007

GDC 2008 Reveals Oblivion, Rock Band, LucasArts Sessions

- [Apologies for more cross-posts than normal this week - firstly, GDC (which we organize!) is rapidly coming up and neat stuff is happening there related to us, and secondly, IGF and mag/website organizing is making my hair catch on fire. Getting there, though! Take it away, Jamil...]

As part of his latest Director's Cut post, GDC 2008 executive director Jamil Moledina has revealed new talks on writing process from Oblivion, Blizzard's Rob Pardo on tuning for player-to-player experiences, Harmonix's Rock Band postmortem postmortem, and LucasArts' converged pipeline story.

The 'Director's Cut' section of the weblog is slated to run regularly leading up to the GDC 2008 show itself (part of CMP, as is Gamasutra), and Moledina's second entry reads, in part:

Ken Rolston and Mark Nelson worked on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion together, and are giving a talk on Collaborative Writing and Vast Narratives: Principles, Processes, and Genteel Truculence. Writing frequently has a black box aura to it, and being able to apply a reliable process to something as purely creative as writing is a model that should be relevant to any discipline in game development. Plus, if you've ever met Ken and Mark, you know you're in for an incredibly mind-altering time!

Rob Pardo, Vice President of Game Design for Blizzard and a member of our advisory board, has kindly agreed to present a talk on tuning for player to player experiences, in a session titled Rules of Engagement: Blizzard's Approach to Multiplayer Game Design. Chris Hecker makes the strong point that AI is the ultimate technical challenge in creating athentic experiences in games, but then the ultimate AI is that which isn't artificial at all, but consists of real people in real time. Rob has had the opportunity to iterate on best practices for online multiplayer over several successful titles such as World of Warcraft, and will present some of the lessons learned and applied forward.

On a slightly different note, a lot of us spent Thanksgiving assembling instruments, or have the largest game box ever wrapped nicely under the tree. Rock Band is a whole new ball game for gamers, and no surprise, it changed a lot of processes at Harmonix. Greg LoPiccolo, Vice President of Product Development at Harmonix, will give a talk on how they revamped their production and process assessment for the game, in a session that is a first for GDC: the Rock Band Postmortem Postmortem.

Finally, in what is shaping up to be one of the most coveted games of 2008, we have a revealing session by Haden Blackman, Executive Producer for LucasArts, titled Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: How LucasArts is Building a Game, a Development Team and a Technology Pipeline... At the Same Time. This session has been a long time coming, in that the converged pipeline story has been presented in many ways but rarely with proof behind it. Finally, we will learn what worked and what required a Force push to combine Industrial Light and Magic, LucasArts, Euphoria, and a Star Destroyer, across both the Xbox 360 and the PS3.

Game Developers Conference 2008 itself is scheduled for February 18th-22nd 2008 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco - more information is available at the official show website.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': The Year's Most Poignant Moments

-[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.]

With the march of time, the games we remember from years past are those defined by a pivotal moment wherein we made a transition, even briefly, from players in the seat of control to people at the mercy of a revelation. If games were just toys, we’d still love them, but we follow them as a medium because they affect us. The question of emotional, personal engagement continues to persist this year, widely discussed in industry circles – just how essential it is, how to create it in an authentic way.

In a banner year, what will we remember about this year’s slate of titles? The answers are largely personal and subjective, but here are the Aberrant Gamer’s top five most affecting moments in games. It should be noted that while a couple of game endings are indisputable candidates, they were not included here -- endings are naturally affecting by virtue of being conclusions, and also, simply to avoid spoiling. Nonetheless, spoilers proliferate, so we suggest a quick eye-scan of the header titles before reading.

5. The Rivalry Lives (Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games)

Our schoolyard factions from an era past never thought they’d live to see the day. While the Genesis and Super Nintendo once ran neck-in-neck, years later, one of the ongoing console wars’ most significant casualties eventually made its final departure from the battle, cemented with the defeat of the widely beloved Dreamcast. Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games resurrects one of the oldest and most significant rivalries in gaming, as the plumber and the Hedgehog go head to head for the very first time in history on Nintendo’s revolutionary, wildly successful console.

The Sega-loving eight-year-old in you stirs, quietly affronted, and those children of the Nintendo camp, now adults, extend the hand of magnanimity with this indisputable proof of their victory. And those for whom the rivalry still lives can battle for the banner of their youth, the Olympic competition presented in the game invested with just a little bit more for that old, old grudge. The fate of platforming mascots might be relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things -- but with this title, we're placed squarely in mind of a younger time, when it meant quite a lot.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird (The Darkness)

The Darkness is perhaps a lesson in the perils of over-ambitiousness, but the fateful, grim allegory of Jackie Estacado gets one thing right – early on in the game, you have the opportunity to merely exist with girlfriend Jenny. No button sequences, dialogue pickers or elaborate cutscenes – it’s simple human bonding on the player’s terms. When has gameplay ever incorporated watching an entire film with a girl’s head in your lap? The poignancy of the mundane stands out here in sharp contrast to a largely overwrought and comic-bookish theme, and this undecorated scene alone provides a lens of sincerity through which to interpret the rest of the game, a context for real human motivation – and later, devastation.

3. Let’s Get It On (Mass Effect)

Mass Effect contains enough player-driven story elements to occupy invested players for as long as they like – the lore alone could equate to hours of gleeful reading for sci-fi buffs. And the character creation screen alone is a delightfully liberating exercise, one which it’s easy to conceive of repeating over and over, just because you can. We’ve never quite been able to shape a character in our mind’s eye in a console title the way Mass Effect permitted us to, imbuing Shepard with a sense of personalized humanity before the game even begins.

But it doesn’t stop there. Shepard can make like humans do with one of his or her comrades – as we know, because we’ve watched it on YouTube a million times. Though there’s much more to the game than an alien lesbian sex scene, you can customize a female character down to the most minute of details, and then have her get it on with a female alien – and it’s not a hentai game. Of course, gamers love visual thrills, but hopefully it’s not too generous to say that the real feat is that Mass Effect is the first to understand our need for intimacy with our characters and their worlds, and to grant it to us to such an extent – to give us a choice of partner, and to give us the option of declining those relations altogether (are you crazy?)

2. A Man Chooses, A Slave Obeys (BioShock)

Scenes that take control away from the player are nothing new. But in this pivotal situation, control is the crux of the issue – having just realized that you are little more than the puppet of forces who want you to kill your own father, being able to take control might have saved you. Morally – and probably physically – unable to fight his unfortunate son, Andrew Ryan makes the bequeathing of his principles his final act.

It isn’t the Little Sister choice or your inability to achieve redemption should you wish it that makes BioShock a linear game – it’s this moment, where both those wicked ones high on their plasmid-enhanced power and those careful agents of salvation must face their complete helplessness. The fact that you have no choice here is precisely why it's so emotional -- accustomed to attacking, resolving situations, we've naught to do here but to sit and take it. BioShock’s real thought-provoking question isn’t “harvest or rescue” – would you have let Ryan live, if you could have?

1. Please Take Care Of It (Portal)

A simple instruction from a schizophrenic computer, and a few pink hearts. It survives for one single level, and yet the Aperture Science Weighted Companion Cube has attained memetic, unforgettable status. While game designers and gamers alike struggle to pin down the formula for creating true emotional connection, an utterly inanimate object achieves it with all the ease of an accident. No one wanted to drop the beloved little block into a fire, and a good majority of us struggled to find some way, any way to carry it with us.

And perhaps if we’d been able to bring it along until level design simply forced us to discard it, or until we accidentally dropped it into that greenish-brown swampy water, we’d feel a pang of regret and then move on, as we have with many portable support objects, from Yoshi to hypnotized Big Daddies to simple protective items. But GLaDOS, who we named character of the year for exactly this brand of manipulation, enforces our engagement by mocking our sentimentality, highlighting as irrational our attachment to the only decidedly non-hostile object we had on the bizarre testing course.

Losing the cube in this particular way makes us as responsible for it as we were when it was given us. GLaDOS is still alive, but you incinerated your faithful companion cube more quickly than any test subject on record. Congratulations.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, Destructoid, Paste, and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

Road To The IGF: Kokoromi's Multidimensional Fez

- Continuing Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, we talk to Kokoromi's Phil Fish and Renaud Bedard about their IGF 2008 Design Innovation and Excellence in Visual Art finalist Fez, which follows the adventures of a whimsical 2D character in a 3D world.

What kind of background do you guys have in the game industry or in making games?

Phil Fish: I am Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of beloved franchises such as Super Mario Brothers and The Legend of Zelda. I have been working in the industry as a designer for a bit over 2 years.

Renaud Bedard: I've never actually worked on a game before Fez, but I do have 2-3 years' background in 3D graphics programming using the TrueVision3D engine, as a hobby. Mostly demos, shaders, experiments and the like. Otherwise, I've never had a job with a game company before.

What motivated you to create Fez?

RB: I'd been hoping to start a simple arcade game in XNA for a while before I contacted Phil, and when I did and he explained his idea, I knew it was the right time to give it a go. The idea was very appealing, and I had this sense of making something new and pretty experimental all along while making the project... Of course, the IGF deadline was a very strong motivation as well. It was [of prime importance] that we had a fairly polished product before the deadline, so we invested all the time we could, and then some.

PF: I really wanted to get interviewed on Gamasutra.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

RB: The level editor was initially inspired by SketchUp; the main feature of the editor is to cut up a solid ground and extrude quads from it to make up a blocky, cubic scene.

PF: Well, the original 2D/3D idea came from Shawn McGrath, with whom I worked on a game that would eventually become Fez once we parted ways. From there on, a lot of the design and aesthetic philosophy was derived from the the pixel/trixel concept. I let myself be inspired by a lot of classic NES games I played as a kid. There's a LOT of Mario and Zelda in there. I also took a few pages from Fumito Ueda's design by subtraction philosophy.

And then, for the look and feel of the game, again, it's a lot of childhood and nostalgia, but also a lot of Miyazaki. Early in development, I took a weekend off and watched almost every single Hayao Miyazaki movie. I did this to really get in the "open blue sky" mood that is present in so many of his films. I wanted to capture that same feeling, that feel-good feeling.

What sort of development tools are used to work on Fez?

RB: Microsoft Visual C# Express with XNA Game Studio Express 1.0 Refresh for all the coding. The level editor is home-made, using XNA as well. I ended up making a tool to compile volume maps (which are used for the sprite animations) and cubemaps (the trile textures) more easily too. There are no models in the game, all the geometry is generated by the engine, so the content tools were mostly Photoshop and the custom tools I developed.

PF: All I'm using is Photoshop and Renaud's kickass editor, Fezzer. It's actually a pretty sweet pipeline. I get to do all my pixel art in Photoshop, a program I know and love. Then, I just export all the different sides of the trile (a 3D tile, a cube, basically) to the editor, where I proceed to sculpt the different objects pixel by pixel. So basically, every object in the game is made out of cubes called Triles, which are in turn made out of 16x16x16 potential Trixels. It's really easy. I'm terrible at traditional 3D modelling, but with our tools, it's a lot like playing with LEGOs. It's actually a lot of fun.

Could you talk about how you implemented the 2D-to-3D effect?

RB: The world is in 3D at all times, but the main view is an orthographic projection of the world along a certain axis and direction. Let's say Gomez (the main character) is walking on the X+ plane, then the camera looks into X- with a certain radius that represents the screen size. Since Gomez walks in a 2D world, it needs to behave like a 2D platformer, and so all collision is "flattened" to 2D to match the visuals. But Gomez still has a 3D position at all times!

So the important thing is that if you switch to a 3D view anytime in the game, he mustn't appear to float in mid-air between two triles, and he mustn't disappear behind non-collidable triles when moving in 2D. All of those "indeterminations" can be resolved using ray-cast collision and some logic...

When you turn the camera around to the left or right, the camera stays orthographic but turns around the world to match the rotation, while looking down a bit to give a sensation of depth. All movement is blocked during those rotations since the movement wouldn't make much sense; Gomez is flat, remember.

The camera eventually stops at its new position and the movement can resume, along the new plane, with collision flattened upon it.

PF: The basic idea for the 2D/3D aesthetic really just started with the Trixel idea. I figured that if we built our entire game world from these little cubes, all perfectly aligned on a 3D grid, we'd get this "3D Pixel" look. The best part is when the game collapses into orthographic 2D, all those little cubes become pixels, and you get this warm and fuzzy oldschool aesthetic.

Roughly how many people have been working on Fez, and what has the development process been like?

PF: Four. It's mostly me on design and art, Renaud on everything tech, then we had Graham Lackey join us for character animation, and Jason "6955" DeGroot on music and SFX. And thousand monkeys on a thousand laptops.

If you had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you'd do differently??

PF: I would have started earlier. we had just gotten started when the IGF dates were announced, and we really didn't want to wait 1 year+ before we could enter again. So we weighted the pros and cons and then decided to give it all we've got and try to ship something sexy before the deadline. We had 101 days to go at that point, and it was a brutal roller coaster ride. But hey, look at us now, all being interviewed and such!

RB: I'd work on the content/art pipeline some more. It was a real pain for Phil to have to work with Visual C# to compile the XNA content, and sometimes encounter compilations issue he had absolutely no clue about... Then I had to debug remotely... It was a major waste of time, and pretty stressful. I partly blame XNA for that, not to have a tool to compile user content to XNB outside of the compiler.

Also I found out in the middle of the project that I used a technique only available on Shader Model 3 hardware (hardware geometry instancing, that is), which made the later versions of the editor and game impossible to run on Phil's laptop. He's half of the team. So a bit of research beforehand would've saved development headaches!

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

PF: The state of the indie scene is diametrically opposed to the state of the industry, meaning that IT IS AWESOME. Seriously, it's batshit crazy. There's so much happening right now, and you know, it really is a scene. Everybody knows everybody, and we all help each other any way we can. It's wonderful.

I have the biggest mancrush on Jon Mak and Petri Purho. I have soooo much admiration for these one-man armies and their incredible games. Can you feel the love? I also can't wait to get my hands on Braid and N+. It's all love.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

PF: You were adopted.

RB: I would try to think of something clever to say for 30 seconds and then die, apparently.

December 18, 2007

The Top 5 Freeware Games Of 2007

- [Throughout this week and last, sister site Gamasutra is presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2007. Next up, it's News Editor Brandon Boyer talking about awesome free games. Hurrah.]

This time, we look at the top five freeware games of the year -- games by and large created outside commercial constraints, labors of love from aspiring and soon-to-be developers that will have an impact on the industry in the coming years.

Whittling down a list to a small handful is becoming increasingly difficult year over year as the tools available to amateur and hobbyist developers become more accessible -- a trend reflected in the continual record numbers of Independent Game Festival entries each new year brings.

This year has seen a number of noteworthy games that didn't quite make the list but should be mentioned, from the compelling mechanics and wanton violence of Death Worm to the slapstick comedy of Sumotori, and all of the games recently showcased at Kokoromi's Gamma 256, especially Jason Rohrer's somber pixelated memento mori, Passage.

But regardless, the full list of the top five freeware games -- all picked by the editor's choice -- are as follows:

5. Gesundheit! (Underwater Base)

Putting Gesundheit! on the list may be gaming the system just a bit, as technically its download is just a taste of a fuller production to come, but keeping it here is important if only to say that it represents some of what the industry could use more of -- outsider inspiration.

Primarily a traditional illustrator, creator Matt Hammill has put together one of the most whimsical and fantastically sketched worlds in indie games this year, and Gesundheit! will likely be forever remembered as one of only a small handful of games to make mucous a core mechanic.

4. Clean Asia (Cactus Soft)

Between Clean Asia and the grainy Super-8 constructivism of his more recent Protoganda: Strings (think Tetsuya Mizuguchi taking his synaesthetic Kandinsky inspiration and channeling it instead more blatantly through El Lissitzky), the pseudonymous Cactus has a serious crack at becoming a new Kenta Cho-esque hero for the brass-knuckled bullet-hell set.

It's not just you, Clean Asia is a relentlessly brutal trip, but one so audaciously designed from the obscurely configured attacks of its dual ships to its crisply neon-outlined Two-Bad-Dudes pilots that it's worth sitting up (and getting immediately knocked back down) for.

3. Chain Factor (???)

Chain Factor holds two distinct honors: one of being the only freeware game released in 2007 to receive billboard and subway advertising campaigns across major metropolitan areas, and the other of being the first game to make perfectly clear that Steve Reich should be scoring every puzzle game from here on out.

Despite being only one (albeit major) part of an alternate reality gaming campaign concocted by TV network CBS, Chain Factor is an almost too-clever game in its own right, mixing falling-block- and number-puzzling in a deceptively simple way that's most surprising in that no one's thought of it before.

Now that its involvement in the ARG campaign has been duly exposed, the biggest secret it's still keeping locked is the development team behind it, who -- with references to obscure Neo-Geo puzzlers tucked away in their source code -- are surely One Of Us. Feel free to leave any hints in their direction (or outright unmasking!) in the comments below.

2. Crayon Physics (Kloonigames)

Allowing for Gesundheit! gives fair room to put Crayon Physics -- again, just a sampling of more grand things to come -- near the top of the five best freeware games this year.

Easily the most widely played game on the list, Crayon is most notable for being the freeware game most achingly deserving of a DS translation (outside the forthcoming translation of Line Rider). Like many others here, its beauty is in its economy, and in the the undeniably affecting way it gives players direct access to and impact on its world inside.

1. Knytt Stories (Nifflas)

Where the aforementioned Cactus stands directly on the cusp of possible indie-stardom, Nifflas has firmly cemented himself as a new critical darling -- a refreshing low-bit blend of Cave Story author Pixel and Ico and Shadow of the Colossus designer Fumito Ueda.

Taking the former's firm grasp on the still-infinite joys of pure platforming and exploration, and the latter's propensity to strip away all of a game's unnecessary layers until its shining core is revealed, Knytt and its subsequent Stories are exercises in elegant simplicity. With very few mechanical contrivances above and beyond run (or scamper, in this case) and jump, Nifflas has left nothing to get in the way of you and the ambient visual and audio aesthetic of his worlds.

Best of all, realizing in true Game 2.0 fashion that his users might have just as many Stories to tell, he's opened up his toolbox to allow everyone to construct their own tales in a set that has and likely will keep giving well beyond this year alone.

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut late this week. Already-posted lists include Top 5 Downloadable Games, Top 5 Most Affecting Characters, and Top 5 Overlooked Games, Top 5 Trends, and Top 5 Developers.]

Column: 'Save the Robot': Games & The Birth Of The Cool

guitar_hero_3.jpg [Save the Robot is a new, biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

Like a lot of music fans, it didn’t take me long to smell something fishy about the latest installment of the Guitar Hero empire. In Guitar Hero III, you’re still playing a cartoonish aspirant to the dream of rock ‘n roll stardom – except in this one, the scenario feels off.

In the first venue, you’re playing a party in someone’s backyard. If you rock hard enough to score an encore, you notice that the crowd is roaring, and then you look over the fence and you see – a cop car! Someone called the cops! Except they’re clapping too! You’re such a hit that even the police don’t have the heart to stop the show. The long-fought war between the pigs and the kids has finally ended.

This was the first in a series of wrong notes that left me with a clammy, phony feeling by the end of the career mode – so phony in fact, that by the time I went to hell and fought the devil in a guitar duel, I could only shrug. Yes, the game is knuckleheaded. But does anyone care?

I know I do. I love pop culture. I'm a committed, committable, always-strung-out culture junkie. Old media or new, comics, TV, books, film, and naturally, music – I need it all, constantly, and the stranger and fringier, the better. Name a film you just saw, and I’ll say the director’s older stuff was better. Tell me about a cult horror flick, and I’ll tell you the one you really need to see. And namedrop your favorite new record, and I’ll say, “Yeah – I liked that stuff better when Bowie/Reed/Eno was doing it.” Sure, I don’t always know what I’m talking about – but I sound like I do.

And that’s half the fun of pop culture: it feels exclusive, in an inclusive way. You get the thrill of catching onto something that millions of other people already knew about. It’s edgy, political and sexualized – but not in a creepy, Second Life-kinda way. It matures you and jades you. It teaches girls about boys and the other way 'round. Sometimes it just plain blows your mind.

Pop culture is "hip." And while games are great, hip is something they ain't.

As much as I love games, I’ve never quite been able to swallow that they belong on the same shelf as the rest of it. It’s not that games have to be brilliant or serious; not all pop culture is “smart.” It’s not that games don’t already tell stories; most of the XBox 360 games I’ve played are full of stories. I usually skip them. And it’s not that games can’t, to use the old benchmark, make you cry. Games make us cry all the time. The Library section of Halo makes me cry. Slamming my knee into a table makes me cry, too. Shouldn’t we aim a little higher?

Cartoonist Chris Ware once cracked that to most people, comic book stores are one step above porno shops. In fact, comic stores are still a step above your local GameStop, because most of them have a section for people like Chris Ware – or say, Alan Moore. Which reminds me: did you know that they’re making a movie of Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’ post-modern superhero classic/cold war allegory/nihilistic mind-screw Watchmen? Well, check this out: did you know director Zack Snyder’s also talking about making a video game of it? If it’s going to be anything like the movie tie-ins I’ve been reviewing all year, then I’m begging you, Moore, please call on that pagan snake god I’ve heard you worship and damn the whole dev team to hell before that turkey hits beta. I don’t want to see Rorschach’s combo moves. I don’t want to pick up the 20 smiley face pins hidden on each map. In fact, if Snyder and colleagues think anybody in that story would make a good playable character, then they read a different graphic novel than the one that still keeps me up at night.


Notice how blithely I assume that a Watchmen game would stink. But obviously, not all games play to the lowest common denominator. Portal, for example, is my game of the year with a bullet – because it never took short cuts, never got lazy, never winked or made excuses. It was subversive, hilarious, and horrifying. Even BioShock fell apart at the end, but Portal was always a step ahead of me, and that’s why I loved it.

It’s pretty apt to think about this in the context of Guitar Hero, because you could argue the series thrives on its gameplay alone. As long as we get to mash the pretty-colored buttons, what else counts? But to think that way ignores the series’ real appeal – and how well it’s nailed its cultural moment.

Every few years since the ’70s, somebody stands up and says that rock is dead – and then some new phenom comes along to resurrect it. But in the ‘00s, after a decade of grunge wore it out, the final nails in its coffin came in the form of a wave of retro-rockers: The Strokes, The White Stripes, and all the other The ____ bands that plagued the US and the UK, who embraced rock by slavishly sticking to its formula. Their success all but proved that rock had nowhere else to go. Finally, we had proof that honest-to-God, traditional blues-rooted rock and roll was a museum piece – and sure, it’s the most fun exhibit in the museum, but it’s in a glass box and it doesn’t have much room to grow.

Throw in the fact that the music biz is dying, CD sales keep falling, and so forth, and it’s clear that the mid-‘00s were the perfect time for people to strap on silly toy guitars and play “Freebird” in front of their PlayStations. Because while people have always played air guitar or sung along holding a hairbrush, there’s something especially right about doing it with Guitar Hero II – and something especially nostalgic about playing through its classic zero-to-hero rock star story, right when that story has become a thing of the past. It’s not that Guitar Hero II was cool, so much as that rock music itself has rapidly lost its cool. In other words, the Guitar Hero series proves once and for all that if a group of boarding school snots like the Strokes can come along and pretend to make rock music, then dammit, anyone can.

But Guitar Hero III has no message, no heart, and no edge. It doesn’t make knowing winks about old Boston rock clubs or out-of-town gig traditions; it’s more like a fratboy yell. And it’s time we raise the bar. If games are going to grow as a genre, some of them have to step up and function as pop culture. We can still have the Tetris’s and the Madden’s and Mario’s, but we need a few games that play to our wits and savvy, and know they’re in on the joke. Because it’s not enough to treat games as a sport, a business, an academic pursuit, or a great way to pass time and kill people. Someday, they’re going to have to be cool.

[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]

GameSetLinks: Early Week Meanderings

- Aha, mopping up some other neat pieces of GameSetLink-age from around the Internet, there's a bunch of fun stuff in here - including a look at some Rogue-likes, as well as an interactive fiction competition from the TIGSource homies.

Also notable - some good pieces on women in the games biz and the state of machinima. Please to enjoy:

loonyblog: My top ten games of the year.
2K's Jason 'loonyboi' Bergman picks his top 2007 games - yes, including Space Giraffe!

Special Report: Crossing borders, part one - News at GameSpot
On tax credits for developers in Canada, the UK, Australia. (Via Clint Hocking)

The Brainy Gamer: In search of narrative, character, and empathy
'I'll revisit two landmark titles from two prior eras of gaming: A Mind Forever Voyaging (1985) and Planescape: Torment (1999).'

Raph’s Website » GDC Prime 2007: What We Are Missing
Secretish conference, interesting lecture.

selectbutton :: Shiren the Frotherer DS
'Shiren is a very deep, difficult and satisfying game, and there's never been anything quite like it on a console.'

The Independent Gaming Source: 'The Games of Gamma 256'
A more cogent explanation that I previously made on GSW.

Tales of the Rampant Coyote: Game Programmers Versus Game Designers
'It seems that the trick companies are using to help scale projects is put more burden on designers for creating the data, scripting solutions, and so forth'.

The Independent Gaming Source: Text the Halls: a TIGSource IF Competition
Derek and friends are bringing text adventures back back!

MTV Multiplayer » Women Working in Games
A set of excellent interviews with women in and around the game biz.

VIDEOLUDICA: 'Interview: Paul Marino at the European Machinima Film Festival 2007'
Marino knows machinima, so this is useful.

December 17, 2007

Nominations Open For 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards

- [It's awfully self-referential to post something that quotes, uhh, myself, but this is for a good cause. If you're a developer, go vote for your peers, like, now.]

Nominations are now being accepted for the 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards, the eighth annual presentation of the most prestigious honors in videogame development.

Awards in ten categories, including two categories new to the awards this year, for Best Downloadable Game and Best Handheld Game, will be given at a ceremony produced by CMP’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) and presented by Gamasutra.com and Game Developer Magazine, on Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at GDC.

The gala event, held in conjunction with the Independent Games Festival, will be hosted in the Esplanade Room in the South Hall of San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center.

The nomination ballot and further details about the Choice Awards are now available online, with the categories this year including Best Audio, Best Game Design, Best Technology, Best Visual Arts, Best Writing, Best Debut Game, Best Downloadable Game, Best Handheld Game, Innovation, and Game of the Year.

“The Game Developers Choice Awards are built with the same care and editorial integrity as the Game Developers Conference itself, which means that we facilitate true and open peer based recognition of creative talent in games,” said Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference. “Recently, games have become dramatically more integrated into pop culture given their diversity and portability, so this year the Choice Awards is evolving to include the well-deserving makers of the best downloadable and handheld games.”

“One of the guiding principles behind Gamasutra and Game Developer has always been to give a voice to the game development community,” said Simon Carless, publisher and editorial director of Gamasutra.com and Game Developer magazine. “We are very excited to be extending that role this year by providing developers the opportunity to nominate and vote for the best games of the year.”

To submit a nomination, please visit the official ballot page, or visit www.gamechoiceawards.com for details about the Game Developers Choice Awards. Voters must be game professionals who are registered (or register before voting) with a user account at Gamasutra.com.

The Top 5 Developers Of 2007

- [Also cross-posted from Gamasutra, where we'll be running these all week, and I've taken some time to pick those game developers who I feel really made a difference this year. 'Right'? There is no right. But you can think I'm wrong!]

Throughout this week and next, Gamasutra is presenting a year-end retrospective, discussing notable games, events, developers, and industry figures of 2007. This time, we give careful consideration to the game developers who have done the most to advance the art and science of gaming worldwide in 2007.

This chart may have some overlap with the 'best games' chart coming later this week, of course. But we're picking top developers for their attention to detail, grit, and willingness to push the envelope, not necessarily simply on the finished product's overall quality - though all of this year's Top 5 Developers have worked on spectacular titles.

The developers picked are the editor's choice, and for every one settled on, there are many others - from Infinity Ward through Insomniac to Nintendo EAD Tokyo and Naughty Dog - that we also greatly appreciate. Here's our line-up:

5. BioWare (Mass Effect)

While it may verge on the over-complex in some gameplay mechanics, BioWare's masterful Mass Effect feels like a genuine space opera. It has whirling emotions and a genuine story arc - so genuine, in fact, that you start to realize how basic the story in many other games is.

In addition, the character customization using Unreal Engine 3 made players even more acutely aware of their immersion in the action. And with fruits from Dragon Age to the 'mysterious' MMO still due under new taskmaster Electronic Arts, one can't help but think that the golden age of BioWare's story-driven epics has only just begun.

4. Bungie (Halo 3)

Some cynics might say that Bungie not being #1 on this list means that they've failed, given the stratospheric expectations for Halo 3. Well, hardly - the single-player game was still rapturously received. But where the newly independent developer scored, for me, was in the multiplayer immersiveness.

With social networks ravenously engulfing the rest of electronic media, the incredibly complex stat tracking and multimedia upload capabilities of Halo 3's online modes make for a world in which tracking and replaying your interactions mean as much as the gameplay itself. Games still have a long way to go on their path to social media, and Bungie blazed the trail in 2007, while quietly setting up as independent of Microsoft.

3. 2K Boston/Australia (BioShock)

Of course, the team we'd all love to call Irrational always knew that BioShock was a critical darling, but to break out to commercial success - and with such a relatively odd, highbrow setting - was a surprise to many.

But Ken Levine's team took their time and presented a carefully structured game world where morals mattered, dynamic and emergent gameplay was rife, and Daddies were Big. It may already be a 'franchise', but as an original piece of art, BioShock rocks, and 2K Boston should be proud of the iteration and perseverance in birthing it. [UPDATE: Jay Kyburz notes in comments over at Gamasutra that 2K Australia should also be honored for its role in co-developing the game. Agreed - now they are.]

2. Harmonix (Rock Band/Phase)

When a developer thrives after its signature franchise has been taken away from them - that's when you know they're destined for greatness. And Boston's Harmonix did just that with Rock Band, possibly the best multiplayer game of all time - while sneaking in officially overlooked iPod breakthrough title Phase along the way.

It's not just the pure technical execution, either. In the innards of Rock Band, you can feel the love of rock music screaming out to be heard from the developer, something that's widely agreed to be somewhat lacking in Neversoft's still competent Guitar Hero III. It's a game that makes you feel - and most often, that feeling is great. Bravo, Harmonix.

1. Valve Software (The Orange Box)

Sure, plenty of other developers shipped a great game this year. But, let's face it, how many of those developers shipped three great titles all in one year, while simultaneously owning and operating a major PC game distribution portal?

Thanks to the puzzle humor genius of Portal, the beautifully art-directed multiplayer smartness of Team Fortress 2, and the pitch-perfect storytelling and humanistic drama of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, all packaged up neatly in The Orange Box, Valve deserves Gamasutra's award for the 2007 Developer Of The Year. (Mind you, expect a Halley's Comet-style gap until they next release this many titles in 12 months!)

[Do you agree or disagree with these picks? Feel free to comment below. We'll pick the best reader comments on each list for our final retrospective, to debut on Gamasutra late this week. Already-posted lists include Top 5 Downloadable Games, Top 5 Most Affecting Characters, and Top 5 Overlooked Games, as well as Top 5 Trends.]

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Telenet Japan

[“Might Have Been” is a bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, concepts, and companies failed. This week’s edition looks at Telenet Japan, a developer and publisher in business from 1983 to 2007.]

Few Japanese game developers go out with a bang. For every studio-closing spectacle like Clover’s Okami, a dozen other companies sit idle, cranking out cell phone distractions and mahjong titles until their inevitable financial disintegration. That’s what happened to Telenet Japan this past October, when years and years of utter stagnancy finally brought down the company behind Valis (upper left), El Viento, Gaiares, Cosmic Fantasy and other not-quite-famous names of the 16-bit era.

There’s a lot to be said about Telenet, about the way they started off by making golf titles and trucking simulators in the mid-'80s, about the way they made hordes of games on Japanese computers, and about the way they spawned everything from largely forgotten developers like Glodia to Namco’s still-successful Tales series. But for those of us in the West, Telenet lived and died by the console games they made, and it’s those games that show a company perpetually just shy of something great.

Swords and Schoolgirls

Telenet was never deeply entrenched in the anime business, but they were among the first game companies to ride atop Japan’s animation industry in the bubble economy of the ‘80s. There's no better example of this than Telenet's Valis. At first a clumsy PC game released by the company's Wolf Team sub-developer in 1986, Valis took a blue-haired schoolgirl named Yuko, turned her into a bare-bellied warrior, and tossed her at a dimension of monsters in a doomed attempt to rescue her cynical friend Reiko (who may have served as commentary on the trend of Japanese schoolgirls whoring themselves out to older men for shoes and Malice Mizer ringtones).

Valis was aimed at the anime crowd from the start; the game was stocked full of vibrant animated story scenes, and Yuko herself was designed by animator Osamu Nabeshima with help from Tomokazu Tokoro (who’d later come into his own by directing such modern-day anime as Haibane Renmei, NieA_7, and Hellsing Ultimate). Strangely enough, Valis never became an anime series in its own right, even though many popular games of the early ‘90s did. The best it got was a commercial supposedly handled by future Evangelion director and self-hating anime artiste Hideaki Anno.

Today, it’s hard to tell why Valis was a hit. Yuko’s story now seems trite, and the gameplay was always generic action-platform fare nearly as stiff as old-school Castlevania. Yet Valis impressed in the ‘80s and into the following decade, largely on the strength of its cinematic scenes and alluring fantasy tropes, and it steadily grew to include three better sequels, along with a few remakes and spin-offs. Telenet shipped it to the Sega Genesis, the PC-Engine, the Super NES and even, in a best-forgotten form, the Famicom/NES. The whole thing reached its peak with Valis III (upper right), which introduced two other playable characters and a wealth of stages. Valis IV had a similar lineup, minus Yuko, but by then players were getting just a bit weary of yet another Valis game about a scantily clad girl facing yet another generic monster overlord.

Shovel on More Cutscenes, Engine Room

Other Telenet games used the same anime tactic. The Cosmic Fantasy franchise, released in five parts for the PC-Engine, had plenty of yipping, colorful cutscenes to distract players from its generic Dragon-Quest combat system and ridiculously high battle rate. Unlike Valis, it even managed to get an anime tie-in before Telenet moved on.

If Valis and Cosmic Fantasy were fated to age poorly, Telenet’s three-game Exile series (upper left) wasn’t so doomed. An anime-ish take on the Crusades, Exile began on Japanese home computers, yet it was the PC Engine/Turbografx that saw it at its best. As action-platform-RPGs, the system's two Exile games often veer into surprisingly dark territory, with an atmosphere that’s unique even today. Their gameplay is simple but consistently solid, something Telenet couldn’t nail as often as they should have.

Yes, Telenet’s quality control was lacking. For every Exile series, the company churned out twice as many unremarkable titles: the generic RPG Traysia, the humdrum pinball game Dino Land, the ridiculous proto-fighter Beast Wrestler, the clumsy mech shooter Browning, a lousy PC-Engine port of Golden Axe, and so on. It wasn’t as though the typical Telenet release was even memorably bad; it was more the game equivalent of unflavored oatmeal.

Team Players

Fortunately, Telenet was large enough to have several internal developers, and whenever the team known as Riot fumbled a Valis port or the Laser Soft division sleep-walked through a Cosmic Fantasy game, another squad had something good to take the attention off of Telenet’s failings. Most of those good games came from Wolf Team, Telenet’s first and most talented offspring.

Despite working in PC games for years, Wolf Team earned most of its reputation on the Sega Genesis (or, if you’re still following the Japanese nomenclature, the Mega Drive), at first by re-working their independently made PC games into improved console versions. Their lineup started strong, with engaging shooters like the diagonal-view Final Zone and the addictively simple Granada. Arcus Odyssey (Arcus Spirits in Japan), an isometric action game based on a PC RPG line, offered a surprisingly complex quest, Gauntlet-style shooting, and one of the prettier intros on the Genesis.

Yet Wolf Team’s most popular Genesis outing was an original action-platformer called El Viento (upper right). It found a green-haired girl named Annet, armed with boomerangs and dressed in ancient Incan lingerie, at the center of a war against stirring Lovecraftian horrors and 1920s gangsters. It’s a compellingly odd game: Annet explores subterranean hellscapes, fends off shirtless thugs in city streets, surfs an ocean of giant pixelly octopuses, and even faces down Al Capone (unfairly renamed “Vincente DeMarco” in the North American version). And despite the clash of styles, El Viento’s also a fun, creatively designed title, the type that Wolf Team would seldom make again.

Earnest Evans Ruined Everything

Everything was going well by the end of 1991. Telenet’s Renovation label had taken root in the U.S. and emerged as one of the biggest publishers for the Sega Genesis. El Viento and Valis had fan followings both there and in Japan. An American publisher called Working Designs was picking up Cosmic Fantasy 2 and Exile. And Gaiares, a Telenet shooter with a creative weapon-stealing gimmick, proved to be such a critical success that it inspired several ads still remembered fondly today.

Telenet had every reason to believe in Sega, and when the Sega CD arrived in Japan late that year (as the Mega CD, naturally), Wolf Team was there, firing off new titles a bit too quickly. While Sega itself took a while to give the new peripheral anything substantial, Wolf Team and Telenet had Earnest Evans, Sol-Feace, Fhey Area, and Aisle Lord ready and waiting.

And, unfortunately, sucking. Sol-Feace was a tiresome shooter warmed over from a PC game, while Fhey Area and Aisle Lord were routine RPGs. Earnest Evans was the biggest disappointment; a prequel to El Viento, it focused on Annet’s cocky blond archeologist caretaker and tried out a new visual concept: Earnest was a jointed sprite, with each of his limbs animated independently. The idea worked for non-human characters (and, fifteen years later, in Vanillaware’s Odin Sphere), but Earnest was a horror, a limp-stringed puppet loping nightmarishly across awkwardly designed levels.

Wolf Team and Telenet soldiered on, giving the Sega CD an Arcus compilation, a Cosmic Fantasy pack, and ports of old full-motion-video arcade games like Road Avenger, Time Gal, and Cobra Command. If these relics were fun in their own hokey, Dragon’s Lair way, Wolf Team’s original Mega CD titles weren’t. A generic mech action game called Devastator failed to interest anyone past its pretty cinema scenes, and Annet Futatabi (upper left) was a rushed, bland close to the El Viento trilogy, bringing back Annet only to squander her in a sub-par Golden Axe clone. At least the cutscenes were pretty. As usual.

Old Gear

To make matters worse, the Sega CD wasn’t a particularly huge success in Japan. As the system’s bloom wore off in 1993, Telenet turned to the RPG market and its biggest point of growth: the Super Famicom.

As before, Telenet began to support the console with a handful of ports (including the B-list RPG Tenshi no Uta and two of Wolf Team’s strategic Zan titles) and followed it up with some original creations. None of them caught on, even though they represented unique new turns for the company. Wolf Team’s PC-born Hiouden: Mamonotachi Tono Chikai was an unorthodox strategy game, while Telenet’s Dark Kingdom offered an RPG in which players conquered a world as a villain instead of saving it.

Wolf Team’s Neugier (upper right) was another failure of ambition. An action-RPG with brisk pacing and a unique grappling weapon, it pulled in some anime-industry professionals, including artist Kia Asamiya and writer Noboru “Sho” Aikawa (who, at this point, was only “professional” in that he’d written a lot of hysterically awful series). For all of its expense and invention, though, Neugier lasted only a few hours.

And out of Telenet’s Super Famicom lineup, only a terrible version of Valis IV (sorry, SUPER Valis IV) would see an American release. A Super Famicom port of Arcus Odyssey was slated to hit the Super NES along with Neugier (under the title The Journey Home: Quest for the Throne), but Renovation was abruptly sold off to Sega in 1993, and Sega wasn’t exactly supporting Nintendo’s system.

Tales of Internal Strife

Things weren’t particularly bright inside the company, either. Wolf Team, which Telenet brought under tighter control in the early ‘90s, had lost a number of staffers by 1994: Masaaki Uno left to found Camelot (the future developer of Mario Tennis and Golden Sun) while a few employees struck out as Gau Entertainment and made the decidedly Wolf Team-esque Ranger-X. Even Wolf Team head Masahiro Akishino, who’d been with the developer since the original Valis, departed in 1993.

Telenet was in trouble, and a group of eager young Wolf Team staffers reacted by looking elsewhere for help with their next project: a gorgeous RPG called Tale Phantasia (upper left). They found that help in Namco, which financed the project in partnership with Telenet and then proceeded to piss off at least three key Wolf Team members. There’s no official word on why Yoshiharu Gotanda, Joe Asanuma and Masaki Norimoto left Telenet; some say that Namco changed Tales of Phantasia a bit too much (adding the particle “of,” among other things), though rumors also point to relative newcomer Eiji Kikuchi being made the game’s director.

Whatever the cause, the three departed with several Wolf Team cohorts in tow. They formed tri-Ace, using the idea behind Tales of Phantasia’s action-based battles to fuel their own RPGs, from the bland Star Ocean franchise to the striking Valkyrie Profile. Aside from an Earnest Evans reference in Star Ocean: The Second Story, their break with Telenet and Wolf Team was complete.

With Wolf Team a shell of its former self, Telenet turned to the best thing it had left: Tales of Phantasia. Namco pimped the game into a major RPG name, and Telenet came along for the ride. Wolf Team’s remnants gradually became Namco Tales Studio, with Kikuchi heading the developer and Telenet owning about a third of it. Namco, however, claimed most of the new venture, and was thus in charge.

Too Little, Too Late, Too Filthy

Wolf Team wasn’t finished just yet. In 1998, the developer’s name emerged from its Tales-induced hibernation, appearing on a PlayStation game called Cybernetic Empire. It wasn’t a terrible action title, but the 3-D elements and character renders looked amateurish next to the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil 2. If anything, it was a return to the mediocrity that had damaged Wolf Team in the first place.

In the years following Cybernetic Empire, Telenet cranked out low-effort sports titles and puzzle games, the usual refuge of decaying game companies. It wasn’t until 2006 that Telenet, like a failed actress, went into porn.

Lazy as ever, Telenet couldn't be bothered to make their own porn, and instead licensed the Valis and Arcus names to a little-known publisher called Eants. Eants wasted no time in making Valis X (upper right), a line of "adventure" games featuring graphic shots of highly unpleasant things happening to Yuko and any other Valis character with breasts. When word of it and Eants’ similar Arcus porn leaked out to the West, some fans were outraged. Others were cynically amused, and a few even clamored for similar titles starring Annet and Earnest Evans. Perhaps the Valis series always had a half-naked heroine and some suggestive moments, but Valis X was clearly desperate financial flailing on Telenet’s part.

Porn among the Ruins

And on October 29, Telenet flailed its last. While the fates of many of their properties are unknown, Eants’ porn ensures that Valis and Arcus will survive their creator, while another Telenet title, the shooter Silky Lip, was similarly licensed to a developer called Waffle.

Prouder traces can be found: two Valis games are out for Japanese cell phones (upper left), while a new Valis manga’s running in the bi-monthly anthology Comic Valkyrie. Naturally, all of the Telenet employees who went over to Namco Tales Studio remain there, with the franchise now resting solely in Namco’s care. Such is Telenet’s legacy.

Should Telenet’s passing be mourned? It's hard to say. Telenet was such a titan of mediocrity that it’s tough to feel anything about them; maybe a blip of anger at that Valis X thing or a passing fondness for Wolf Team and El Viento. Telenet may have delivered the first tastes of anime-styled games to entire generations in both Japan and the West, but for all of the titles they put out, there's not much to praise. Perhaps it’s best just to remember their finer moments, and where those moments could've led.

December 16, 2007

GameSetLinks: General Patton Locks Things Up

- Still harvesting the fruits of a couple of hundred RSS feeds, and there's some pretty smart stuff hanging out there - from Patton Oswalt regretting his Spike Game Awards performance through Japanmanship on region locking.

Also hanging out there - Game Tunnel on casual games, and a new intriguing PC indie title from another former Game Developer programming columnist - Sean Barrett - another of these folks who have a brain the size of a planet (or at least a major asteroid!):

Japanmanship: The global gamer’s lot
On region locking and games.

Looky Touchy: Patton Oswalt on the Spike Game Awards: "Godawful"
'The worst thing about this show was the fact that I'm the cheap, money-grubbing asshole who agreed to do it.'

Completing Nostalgia | The New Gamer
'However, there's one aging console that features a plethora of titles that I love but never completed: the Dreamcast, the console that dragged me back into gaming!'

Grand Text Auto » Opening the Static Eye
A new static-based indie game from Sean Barrett.

2007 Casual Game of the Year by Game Tunnel
IGF finalist Snapshot Adventures is top, too.

GameDevBlog: Manager In A Strange Land: How Much Planning?
'From my anecdotal evidence, a month of planning without coding is the wrong amount. Did we need more or less?'

The Gaming Club: There is little reason to be pessimistic or cynical about the future of gaming. - By N'Gai Croal , Seth Schiesel, Chris Suellentrop, and Stephen Totilo - Slate Magazine
Intelligence, here.

Forgotten Lore » Blog Archive » Strategy Map
'If you want to design strategy games one tool in your box should be a solid grounding in military history.'

Rifftrax's Mike Nelson: 'My Prediction…? PAIN'
'The story is this: there’s a guy. You with me so far? And you shoot him out of a catapult, all right?' (Via PressTheButtons)

Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins: The Future of Sandbox Games
'Are we going to get bigger worlds with shallower dynamics or smaller worlds with deeper dynamics?'

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': PC Zone and Crazy Flight Sim People

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A few quick notes before I sign off for Xmas and all that nonsense. First off, my review of Total PC Gaming last month (Issue 1 can now be found at most Barnes & Nobles, by the way) where I noted I haven't seen an issue of PC Zone in years attracted the attention of PC Zone's editors, who were nice enough to send a couple issues in the mail. (British PC game magazines seem to love this column for some reason. I can't complain.)

PC Zone was the first magazine in the UK devoted exclusively to games on x86 machines, debuting in April 1993 and going up against PC Format, a mag meant to cover the entirety of the home-PC marketplace but in practice mostly concentrated on games back then. Its most immediate predecessor was Zero, a multiplatform rag that was, in some ways, a spiritual successor to Your Sinclair -- all magazines known for having highly irreverent writing and building a diehard community of readers, although not necessarily being huge money-making successes (Zero died after three years). I own a few issues from PC Zone's first year that I bought off the newsstand back in the day, and in its early years, it was often a very silly magazine, with reviews taking very strange offroads and Duncan MacDonald's "Mr Cursor" column on the back page often descending into crazy nonsense.

Wikipedia tells me that the mag largely kept this tone going all through the 1990s, and indeed, even if I hadn't looked at the cover of these two latest issues, I'd be able to recognize the PC Zone influence in the pages. PC Zone is still irreverent, definitely -- regular columns include a Jackass-inspired bit where they try to break whatever game is on the demo DVD as much as possible and "Tat Zone," where they sell off the swag game companies send them on Ebay (for charity) and see how much it goes for. (A notepad with the Crysis logo on it sold for £27.07, causing PC Zone to comment that "you lot are moneyed beyond sense".)

It's not unusual for a game mag to try to be irreverent. What's unusual is the ability on editorial's part to consistently maintain this tone of irreverence across the entirety of the mag, from the cover to the reviews to the DVD coverdisc section to the little fineprint on the masthead. This is one of those few mags that I can turn to any page and any article -- even a review of some gaming mouse or another -- and rest assured that the text will be just as amusing as the big Gears of War review up front. It's a surprisingly rare accomplishment, in this age of every mag doing the exact same holiday shoppers' guides and the exact same preview features, and PC Zone really ought to be paid more attention for accomplishing it. (I can't help but think that dropping the cover DVD and lowering the £5.99 price would go a long way towards that goal.)

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In other news, PC Pilot has put out a winter special meant to introduce people to the world of flight simulation. You should be able to find it at B&N and elsewhere right now.

It might surprise some people to hear that there's not one, but two internationally distributed mags devoted exclusively to flight sims -- the bimonthly PC Pilot out of Britain, and the monthly Computer Pilot out of Australia. Both mags have been around for a while (Computer Pilot launched in 1996 and is celebrating its 100th issue next month), and both even have their individual niches that they cover. PC Pilot is the more "serious" mag of the two, concentrating on reviews of new planes, scenery packs and hardware, while CP is more about the "experience," featuring extensive reports of flights across this or that stretch of terrain and even including what I can only describe as flight-sim fanfiction -- the past three issues have chronicled the story of Dr. Betzy Wong, flight sim therapist, as she helps a hopelessly neurotic man come to terms with his family and improve his ATC and landing-approach skills. I'm not making this up.

Whenever I develop a curious interest in something, I tend to wind up picking up a magazine or two about the topic, even if I have no intention of seriously pursuing the subject. This is how I've found myself with subscriptions to everything from Make to Armchair General (which, by the way, seems to survive mostly off video-game advertising -- funny, eh?), and it's given me no lack of odd things to read about before falling asleep at night. If you've ever thought "My god, how can they fill up an entire magazine about flight sim crap?", why not pick up this month's PC Pilot and find out? At the very least, you'll satisfy your curiosity.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also an editor at Newtype USA magazine.]

2008 Experimental Gameplay Workshop Calls For Submissions

- Aha, got a note from Braid creator (and former Game Developer columnist!) Jon Blow about his awesomely important Game Developers Conference 2008 workshop: "We've just put up the new Call for Participation for the Experimental Gameplay Workshop 2008."

As he explains: "The Experimental Gameplay Sessions are a concentrated mini-conference that happens yearly at the GDC. In a series of short, high-density presentations, designers show their new work to an audience of peers. Designers working on strange new game designs can read more about the event, and submit their work for consideration, via the web site. The deadline for submissions is January 15, 2008."

The success stories page explains why this session has been so important to game development and GDC over the past few years. For one, Keita Takahashi showed Katamari Damacy there even before its U.S. release, and Rag Doll Kung Fu, Eye Toy AntiGrav and Darwinia were all shown or partly inspired by the Sessions/Workshop.

Oh, and in 2006 there was Braid, fl0w, and Everyday Shooter, of course, and then the not written-up 2007 Sessions had Portal and Crush. Three words needed: standing room only. So you nice indie folks, show him the goods.

If you enjoy reading GameSetWatch.com, you might also want to check out these UBM TechWeb Game Network sites:

Gamasutra (the 'art and business of games'.)

Game Career Guide (for student game developers.)

Indie Games (for independent game players/developers.)

Finger Gaming (news, reviews, and analysis on iPhone and iPod Touch games.)

GamerBytes (for the latest console digital download news.)

Worlds In Motion (discussing the business of online worlds.)

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