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January 5, 2008

Cactus Sketches Out Psychosomnium... In His Mind

- Over at our newly launched sister blog IndieGames.com: The Weblog, Tim W. has been exploring the world of independent gaming in a far more efficient form than we do, and the discussion on Cactus' new freeware title Psychosomnium is well worth checking.

Of course, you might know Cactus from IGF finalist shooter Clean Asia!, but this new title, part of an insanely prodigous output, is "...freeware [2D] platformer... in which players find themselves in a sparse dream world filled with a cast of quirky characters."

The game is very short, but abstract and intriguing - as you can see by the YouTube walkthrough video, which is of course spoiler-filled, as you would expect.

Other recent Cactus co-productions or productions include MSOIDS, with alilm, and Mondo Agency, an "eerie cyber FPS with horror and puzzle elements". As one of the commenters notes: "Well, cactus - if your games aren't art then I don't know what is." Heartily agreed.

GameSetNetwork: Ninja Reflex Kurzweil Attack

- Even though it was a bit of a quiet week, what with New Year's Eve/Day and all, big sister site Gamasutra has kicked back into high gear after the break, and there were a number of original features/Q&As posted that might be of interest to y'all.

In particularly, check out the Q&As with Dimps and Nunchuck Games execs, as well as a neat GCG design article, Heather Chandler on good team management, and Ray Kurzweil's unveiling as one of the keynotes for next month's GDC, run by the folks in the office next-door. Here's the lowdown:

- Production Values: The Value of Communication In Game Development
"In her latest 'Production Values' feature, EA, Ubisoft and Activision veteran Heather Chandler discusses how game producers can improve communication on their teams, helping to fix mismatched creative visions, missed deadlines, and more."

- Q&A: Nunchuck Games' Luntz On Testing His Ninja Reflex
"Gamasutra spoke to Nunchuck Games founder and former Z-Axis head David Luntz ahead of the release of Ninja Reflex, the company's first game, about his somewhat unusual business model built on relationships, and why he feels he's finally free to make the kinds of games he's always wanted to make -- nunchuks, shuriken, ninjas and all."

- GDC 2008 Gets Keynote From Futurist Ray Kurzweil
"GDC organizers CMP have announced that renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil will keynote the 2008 Game Developers Conference on "The Next 20 Years of Gaming" -- a look at the next two decades of video games and what the landscape may well look like come GDC 2028."

- Q&A: Dimps' Tanaka Talks 2D Fighter Comeback, Japanese Market
"Could the industry see a resurgence of the 2D fighting game? Gamasutra presents a rare interview with Dimps COO Mitsuhiro Tanaka (Dragonball Z: Budokai, the pictured-above Rumble Fish) about the concept, the peculiarities of being funded by several major competing Japanese developers, and why middleware issues might be holding Japanese technology back."

- Educational Feature: The Fine Art of Balance
"Sister game dev education web site GameCareerGuide.com has a new feature on balance in game design. The article introduces new developers, game dev students, and entry-level designers to some basic principles of balance, pulling examples from Oblivion, World of Warcraft, and other eminent games."

- Q&A: Softimage's Schoennagel Talks Free Mod, Dead Rising
"Gamasutra recently spoke in-depth with Softimage's Mark Schoennagel about the company's free modeling and animation mod tool, the details of its XNA integration and its innovative GATOR technology, and the surprising way Softimage's products helped create zombie horror in Capcom's Dead Rising."

- Work Doesn't Take A Holiday But David Perry's Free To Play
"After David Perry (Earthworm Jim, MDK) left Shiny Entertainment in 2006, he decided to take 'a year off'. Yet, now CCO for free-to-play PC MMO publisher Acclaim, he's busier than ever, and Gamasutra quizzes him about his multiple projects."

On Surreal Game Design And Humanizing Developers

- Now, here's a weird thing. You may remember that we've previously mentioned the Surreal Game Design blog, a group blog including the folks at Midway-owned Surreal Software talking game development critiques/issues in a pleasantly open fashion.

Well, GSW friend Andrew Armstrong pinged me to point out that the blog now redirects to Midway.com, and all the old posts are gone too. Doh.

I asked PR supremo Reilly Brennan at Midway about this, and he kindly got back to me to explain what happened from an official Midway perspective, saying: "The crew at Surreal is in full production on their next game so the blog is inactive for now. We plan to relaunch it in a few weeks when their next project is officially unveiled."

Looking around some more, I noted that Surreal's Simon Cooke has posted a couple of things on his personal blog, firstly noting that the site would be relocated to another URL with the same posters, but "...it's just not ... er... an official Surreal Game Design blog." However, this never happened and he then noted that the blog is permanently gone, commenting vaguely that 'lawyers' might be something to do with the change.

Now, I hope I'm not getting Simon in trouble for finding and reblogging his comments, but honestly - though it was a bit caustic about other games in places, Surreal Game Design was, as I mentioned, "one of the first times a major developer/publisher... has set up a group-contributed, game design-specific weblog." If it's just going to be replaced by an official site for Surreal's new game, even if there are some blog elements, then that's hardly as good, is it? But let's not judge the new content before it's launched, I guess.

Overall, honestly, wider-ranging development blogs like Surreal Game Design are great publisher and developer PR, because they show the personalities of the people making the games, and they aren't relentlessly on-message. Other companies are realizing this - blogs such as the official Bethesda Blog are getting much better at humanizing and endearing developers to us by giving them insights into our world and their viewpoints, not only why their next game is going to rock. [Picture from 'Bully', mainly because it was already uploaded!]

January 4, 2008

Inside South Korea - How The Gaming World Is Getting Flatter

- We're running a gigantic set of five interviews on the state of the South Korean game industry over on Gamasutra today, made possible when editor Brandon Sheffield attended the massive G* game event in Seoul late last year.

In any case, there's longform interviews with Nexon, Webzen, Microsoft, T3, and Com2Us execs in there - possibly a bit too longform to take in all at once, so we'll reprint them gradually with studio profiles, heh - but I wanted to highlight this quote from Nexon's Stephen Lee (Maple Story is pictured), showing how as microtransaction-based models infiltrate the U.S., consoles are gradually infiltrating Korea - an interesting juxtaposition:

"Nintendo actually expanded their branch into Korea early this year. They're performing pretty aggressive marketing activities throughout the year. It's not as expected, compared to what Nintendo has been achieving in other markets, but it's doing fairly well, from what I've heard, and it's a good relationship with them as well. We'll have to see, but there has been piracy in most of the Asian territories, and that had been one of the main hindrances for the console market from growing. If gamers become aware of the fact that the copyright issue will eventually deprive them of their entertainment, and if the market... we hope that the gaming market as a whole will grow together. We'll eventually have to see how it goes, because we're also developing console games."

Anyhow, there's plenty of other interesting stuff in there, including info on the TV shows based on the online game Audition, some intriguing feedback on how Unreal Engine 3 was suited for Webzen's Huxley, and quite a few other tidbits - yay.

GameSetLinks: The Rise Of The Cheetahmen

- Ah, yes, some new post-New Year prospecting of the links was in order. I particularly enjoyed MTV Multiplayer's chat with Destineer about their Wii titles - a good example of a pro-active interview that brings up points relevant to the market (and just discussed on GSW).

Also neat are the ever-mega-niche Comiket wares, as well as the surprisingly sniffable Strawberry Shortcake game cover and discussion of the previously unknown 'midcore' gamer. New phrase alert, folks! Links go here:

MTV Multiplayer » Nintendo Drought Turns Into Nintendo Flood — Where The Rising Tide Of January Wii Titles Came From
Talking to Destineer about their slightly shovelware Data Design licenses - even they admit the shelves will get saturated soon.

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » Hardcore journalists & the other games
'I am glad that we are starting to notice the discrepancies between the rhetoric of the games industry and the reasons why many people are actually playing games.'

Sexy Videogameland: Phantasy Star II: A Pictorial History
Leigh's Phantasy Star II stories/pics from when she was 9 - historical documents!

The Independent Gaming Source: 'Kanoguti's Music Games'
Featuring '...several [free] music games akin to Electroplankton.'

VG Frequency » Blog Archive » Cheetahmen II fan arrangement album due on the 31st
What?! 'Cheetah in the Dark, a six track doujin arrangement album, [is] set to be released on December 31 at Comic Market 73.' (Cover pictured)

Steve Purcell - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
The creator of Sam & Max - apparently, in 20 years: "My preserved brain will be stored in a talking, Steve-shaped sarcophagus in the lobby of Sam&MaxCo, which will be run from a foreboding glass skyscraper by my two sons."

Akihabara Channel » Comic Market 73 Day 2
The amount of super-niche fan-created or small-press material in Japan (for games, comics, etc) still boggles.

8bitrocket.com: Am I a MID-CORE gamer?
'I always hear industry people talk about CASUAL and HARDCORE, but never the in betweens like me. I have to search online and bargain bins for games that fit my needs. Why?'

GameOfTheBlog.com: X-Treme Gaming Update - Strawberry Shortcake: The Sweet Dreams Game
Sniffable box art!

2008 Resolutions For Game Industry Newbies: The Hecker/Blow Cut

- [So yeah, I promised not as much cross-posting. But following GameCareerGuide.com's New Year's resolutions for game newbies list, industry veterans Chris Hecker (Spore) and Jon Blow (Braid) have teamed up to provide us their own pithy counter-list for industry newbies. And I couldn't resist. Sorry.]

There is a new article on GameCareerGuide.com, also reprinted on Gamasutra.com, titled, Ask the Experts: 10 New Year's Resolutions. Here's the intro:

"Here are 10 things all you soon-to-be game developers might try to accomplish in 2008 to help get you closer to that first video game job."

Here is the list:

- Attend a conference.
- Join the IGDA.
- Read the news on Gamasutra.com every day.
- Read job ads.
- Talk to developers.
- Wise up about your future paycheck.
- Play games outside your preferences.
- Write, publish, speak.
- Sketch something.
- Read a game-related book.

The actual post goes into more detail motivating each choice, but they're pretty self-explanatory I think.

I'm sorry, and no offense intended to the good folks at CMP who I dearly love like family, but this list is misguided at best, and slightly harmful to people who want to get into the industry at worst. [1]

I mean, hello? How about make a game?

The problem is the list above focuses on all the "meta" stuff about being in the game industry. Some of that stuff has its place, but it is not central to getting into the industry, or excelling at making games once you're doing it for a living.

So, in the spirit of the new year, while we were waiting for our chocolate chip cookies to bake, Jonathan Blow and I came up with our own list.

Here is our list of New Year's Resolutions for Game Industry Newbies (or people who want to eventually be one):

- Make things! By far, the easiest and most effective way to get a good job in the game industry [2] is to make a cool game. Or even a half-decent game. Heck, even a bad game that's got some cool stuff in it. It doesn't have to be a giant epic, it can be a little Flash game, or probably even a text adventure, but just make something that you can show to people and they can play and that is interesting and shows off what you have to contribute to games.

If you can't make a full game yourself, then either teach yourself (see below), team up with people who can (also see below), or make the stuff that's the currency of the discipline in which you want to work. So, if you want to be a programmer, make cool graphics or physics or UI or AI or whatever demos. Make sure the demos are showing that you "get it" and that games are about interactivity, not batch processing.

If you're an artist, make art. Make sure the art you make shows you "get it", and that game art assets have to hit budgets, look good, have the right hooks for gameplay, etc. If you want to be a designer, make levels and mods. Just make stuff, all the time.

- Play games, and think critically about them. To be fair, the GameCareerGuide list mentions this one, but the emphasis doesn't need to be on "games outside your preferences", it needs to be on "think critically about the play experience".

You could play only First Person Shooters if that's all you like and all you want to work on, but just make damned sure you're thinking about what separates them, what works, what doesn't, why, what's missing, what's necessary, what's fluff, etc. Discuss them with your friends (see below). Start a blog and record your thoughts for the world to see and discuss with you. [3] Comment on other people's blogs. Write up how you'd change the game, and then find a way to test your theory by making something (see above).

- Learn new things; push yourself in your discipline. The internet is such an amazing resource, you could spend all day learning new stuff in the most focused of disciplines and still never catch up given the rate people are putting cool new information out there. But you should give it a try.

Websites, blogs, technical papers, forums, mailing lists, the list goes on and on. Just make sure you don't spend all your time learning and none of your time doing...it's easy to fall into that. Learn something new, then go put it to use. Then learn another thing.

Usually, in putting the first thing you learned to use, you'll find a bunch of problems that will give you directions for further learning and research. This is true of making art, design, code, or even managing people.

- Find a peer group and exchange information with them. Here is where some of the stuff from the GameCareerGuide comes in. But again, the focus should be on finding the peer group quickly, and then you spend your time interacting with them. There are tons of forums for beginning game developers and indies out there now for every discipline.

It's not hard to meet up with people if you're polite, humble, and have something to contribute. Just make sure you spend your time making stuff and honestly critiquing it, not just talking and networking.

This next one is more controversial. Jon's not sure he agrees with its inclusion in the list, so I'm separating out.

- Learn to program. Yes, I mean even if you don't want to be a programmer. The heart of games is interactivity, and interactivity is about algorithms and systems, and code is how you teach the computer to do these things. I'll have more to say on this one in another article, but I will just say that being able to program, whether it's Flash, Python, C++, Basic, MEL, or whatever, will make you more powerful (and valuable) at whatever you do. [4]

That's it. If you do these things, and do them well, [5] I can almost guarantee you will be able to get a job in the game industry in 2008.

[1] Plus, there's the added fact that it looks like an advertisement for the CMP game properties, which is not a good thing, and I believe not what the CMP folks intended.
[2]...and it really is actually pretty easy, since the industry is completely and utterly starved for talent...
[3] Although do be slightly careful how you write up negative reviews, trust me.
[4] There is some small risk that this added value can knock you off your chosen career path if you let it. For example, if you're an artist and it gets out that you can program, the management might try to vector you into an "art tech" position, or a shader and effects programmer, or the like. The solution to that problem, if it's indeed a problem given your career goals (there are plenty of awesome art techs out there, and designing shaders is incredibly creative and cool too), is simply to rock incredibly hard at your chosen domain.
[5] How to define well actually brings up an important point: you need to be brutally honest with yourself about how you're doing. Look at the work others are doing, including professional developers, and then judge your work relative to it. Ask others you respect and beg them to be honest with you. If—in that harsh light—you suck, admit it, and then work to get better. It's the only way to really get to greatness.

January 3, 2008

GameTunnel's 2007 Games Of The Year - The Whole Caboodle

- Excellent indie site GameTunnel has just finished up its 2007 (Indie) Games Of The Year countdown, and there's now a full list of charts posted on its site - with admirable continuity, since there are game of the year charts back to 2002.

The two charts posted since we last mentioned this are the Special Awards, and in the Player's Choice category: "Wonderland Adventures has mobilized their way to a great victory for this very addictive adventure/puzzle game. For anyone who loves logic puzzles, like those found in the dungeons of Zelda, Wonderland is your game." Haven't seen this game discussed too much, but it's well worth perusing.

In addition, the overall Top 10 Indie Games Of The Year chart is a really excellent countdown - infused with Game Tunnel's sensibilities as much as TIGSource and Indygamer/IndieGames.com also have their own particular slants on the indie scene - but as near to canonical as I've seen so far in terms of smart independent titles. Nice to see a familiar face in the top spot, too (not giving it away here)!

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Resolution

-[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.]

During the holiday break, Aberrant Gamer took a hiatus from whence it’s happy to return. And over said holidays, I put in a lot of game time, and received an array of game-related presents. I received a package of Sculpey craft clay, and promptly used it (amateurishly) to mold tiny Chocobos -- which match the Chocobo mug I received as another present –and an array of Harvest Moon farm animals.

I also made a Weighted Companion Cube cell phone strap to go with my Portal ringtone. I spent all of Christmas Eve playing Guitar Hero 3 with my friend, and then we spent all of New Year’s Eve playing Umbrella Chronicles. When the Times Square ball dropped, we paused the game, switched to the TV, counted down with the rest of the world. Then we went back to the game.

We live in New York City. Does this seem, perhaps, just slightly unhealthy?

I also received some books for Christmas, none of which I’ve opened. Rather than read, I preferred to spend time with another friend’s Christmas present -- Taiko Drum Master DS. It’s not that I don’t want to read those books. It’s just that, at any given time, I feel like playing video games instead. I’ve got a queue waiting to be played, just as I’ve a pile of books waiting to be read. Despite requiring much more time apiece, the pile of games to be played is dwindling down at a much brisker clip than the pile of books.

Also, my cat’s name is Zelda.

It does sound vaguely extreme if presented out of context. I’m going to tread carefully around the word “addiction” -- behaviors like pursuing one activity to the exclusion of all others, including social ones, or being unable to stop using the behavior, are qualities of addiction, but the one of the key diagnostic criteria is that the behavior causes some measure of distress or functional impairment to the individual. Games are fun, not distressing, and at the end of the day, I still maintain my friendships and get my work done.

-Except for those Friday nights that roll around and find me ignoring my phone calls because I’m so relieved to finally get some quality zone-out time with Harvest Moon. Or those Sunday afternoons where I don’t take a shower until 4:00 PM because I’m really into downloading some virtual console games. I just dropped 20 bucks on Wii Points, but I forgot to buy myself new shampoo. Still, that’s not a problem, necessarily – nobody’s perfect. It’d only be a problem if I couldn’t stop.

So why don’t I try?

For the next week, beginning with the time of publication for this column, I will endeavor to spend seven days without video games of any kind. No Flash titles, no indie downloads, no XBLA, no console hits, no handhelds. No cell phone Text Twist. Not even Minesweeper.

I admit, without even beginning the exercise, the prospect daunts me. At first, I thought it would be a useful hiatus to allow me to catch up on my reading and my social life. But I notice the way I always reach for my DS after dinner, like a cigarette. Without blocks of gaming time, the weekends seem like intimidatingly yawning expanses of dead air. I’m a little frightened. But it’s the fear that makes me want to see what will happen.

-Next week’s column will chronicle one writer’s experience in the game-free zone. It might be relievingly easy to abstain, much more so than I’m anticipating, and I may return to bring you a light-hearted essay on the harmlessness of being an enthusiast. But for all I know, it might throw the doors open on my sinister complex of reality aversion, social avoidance, addiction to constant stimulation, or a nightmarish, genetic inability to keep my hands from tapping and pushing things for longer than a few minutes at a time.

I don’t go in for the concept of New Year’s resolutions. For one or two weeks at the most, Americans in particular indulge in frenetic abstinence – psychotic diets, unsustainable gym plans, and other unyielding regimens of extreme change that it’s hard to make permanent. I know for certain I couldn’t go a whole year without enjoying video games, but for this first week of 2008, I’ll join the rest of the population in suffering mercilessly without a beloved “vice.”

And I challenge all of you reading this to join the experiment with me, and to share your experiences. What’s your initial reaction to the idea of going seven days with no game time at all? If you get the same queer feeling in your gut that I did upon conceiving the idea, perhaps you’ll find your results interesting, too. That’s if you can do it. I’m not so sure I can.

[Leigh Alexander apologizes for the blurry cell phone pictures of her clumsy handicrafts. She 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.]

GameSetLinks: Teaching, Singapore, The Simpsons Game

- This motley collection of GameSetLinks is left over from the holiday RSS savaging, but there are actually a few things of interest in here - particularly the cut-scenes from The Simpsons Game, including Will Wright's (pictured) cameo.

A couple of friends have intimated to me that they're willing to play through the allegedly drab gameplay-featuring title just to check out the humor. And indeed, with the actual cartoon writers intimately involved, it really looks like they've nailed the game pastiches over multiple levels. Worth a second look, perhaps?

(Interestingly, as we found out on Gamasutra today, Dave 'Earthworm Jim' Perry consulted on the title with the Simpsons writers to ensure appropriate gamegeekiness.)

In any case, here be a veritable cornucopia of GameSetLinks:

Teaching Game Design: What Teachers Need to Know about Game Design (Part 2 of 2)
Really enjoying this blog - great hints for game teaching.

Blogoscoped.com: 'Blown Up'
Classic pixel art smoothed with vectorizing tools, with neat results - via xamount.

Flash Game Design Competition #5!: Jay is Games
The theme is 'UPGRADE' this time, interestingly enough - plenty of prizes, too.

The Gaming Top Tens of 2007 | Pure Drivel
Reviewing the various Top Ten-s - OK, partly linked because he likes Gamasutra's and hates Edge's, heehee.

Burning Festival: Aquaria Playthrough Diary, Part 1
How the IGF Grand Prize winner actually plays - found this v.interesting, though it has spoilers, of course.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: December thirtieth things.
'The two-dimensional Grand Theft Auto titles (with Mission Packs included) will grace console(s) next year in a downloadable form.'

GameAxis.com: 'Late Friday Soapboxer: Winning the Battle for Local Game Development '
Talking about Singapore's Battleships Forever making it to the IGF finals - neat.

YouTube: The Simpsons Game Playthrough/Cut-Scene Videos
Useful if you want to see the game pastiches + Will Wright cameo without slogging all the way through the thing.

Bullet Points @ timlongo.com » Blog Archive » [A Digital Tear]
Hadn't seen the cute custom-video version of the Portal end credits song. It really is a bit of an epochal moment in games.

January 2, 2008

IndieGames Interviews John Bardinelli On The Bestest Flash Games

- Over at new sister blog IndieGames.com, Tim W. has been chatting to JayIsGames reviews co-ordinator John Bardinelli, quizzing the Flash game analygeek about his work helping the excellent Web game review destination, plus asking him about some of his favorite Flash games of 2007.

As it happens, JiG just put up its votable Best Games Of 2007 feature, which has a multitude of awesome Flash games linked, but Bardinelli was asked his personal favorites, too, and contributes some tips that I really appreciated from this flourishing micro-scene, which is starting to produce really competitive games:

"I really liked Sprout, Jeff Nusz's entry into our second competition. It was so imaginative, and the art direction was beautiful. Other than that, I got a kick out of Micro Art, The Sea of Glomp, and Makibishi Comic. That's just off the top of my head."

Also, having been asked "The first thing that pops in my mind: Grow. It's simple, it's creative, and it's got just the right amount of challenge... Other games I might recommend to a Flash gaming newbie would be room escape titles, especially games from the Gotmail team (Il Destino, One-Off, One-Off R, Strawberry Tomato) and Mateusz Skutnik's Submachine series."

[Incidentally, I've heard a couple of reader comments recently about excessive story cross-posting, esp. onto GameSetWatch, from the other CMP Game sites. This was particularly because of the daily 'Top X' charts we were running during the holiday season and x-posting like wildfire. So we will still mention and cross-link some stories, but it won't be every day, like it was leading up to Christmas. Deal?]

GameSetChat: How Do Wii Judge Fun For Mainstream Gamers?

- It's [EDIT: the day after!] New Year's Day, so why not try something new, eh? Sometimes we chat with friends of GameSetWatch on various IM services, and get ideas for columns or opinion articles. And when this latest one came up, we realized - why not just clean up and rebroadcast the conversation as a GameSetChat, if it's cogent enough?

In this case, it was Joel Reed Parker of Game Of The Blog we were talking to, and the particular subject was the Nintendo Wii and how game reviewers are treating the casual-focused games on the system. Some of this chat is well-trodden, but I think it does make some relevant points on how game reviews work - or don't - in the new Wii order:

Joel Reed Parker: Man, Wii third-party software really is bad... a friend got a Wii and was asking me for advice about party games and good games and such. According to the aggregate scores sites, not much.

Simon Carless: But I will say that conventional reviewers do a poor job of differentiating fun casual games from bad casual games - or just bad games, in my opinion.

JRP: I agree wholeheartedly. Same goes for kids' games also.

SC: Like Mario Party 8 has a 62 average on Metacritic's Wii chart, and so does... Heatseeker? Blimey. OK, we definitely need write something about this.

JRP: I didn't even seen the Rayman Raving Rabbids games as high as I thought they would be. It's all the predictable stuff - Mario, Metroid, Zelda.

SC: There's definitely a problem here - Elebits, Korinrinpa, and Dewy's Adventure are all worth checking out, and are lost in terms of scoring with markedly inferior games - even/especially from a 'mainstream' gamer perspective.

JRP: I literally have to tell my friend to be careful what she bought, as the Wii game quality control is almost non existent. I felt really bad for her. Another friend bought a Wii bundle (on Christmas Eve) just to be able to get a Wii, but actually took it back unopened because the games were so terrible.

SC: So there are two problems here - there's the fact that some Wii games that are casually aimed and look a bit like they might be good are actually completely terrible.

And there's the problem that if you go look at reviews/average reviews, anywhere past the Top 15 games on Metacritic seems to do a bad job of differentiating what the average Wii player would like. Looking at it some more, probably the best example is Wii Play, with an average score of 58. That's worse than Fishing Master or Spider-Man: Friend or Foe.

JRP:: I really thought that GameRankings would help the first friend decide what games were good - but I also know that she wanted light and fluffy gameplay, not 30 hour action adventure quests. I was baffled to see that the games i had heard good personal reviews of weren't even in the Top 20.

SC: Ah, here's another great example - my mother just got a Wii for Xmas back in England, because she liked playing Wii Sports when she visited his summer, and she loves the Bust A Move/Puzzle Bobble series. But here we have Bust-A-Move Bash! down with an average score of 53. That's ridiculous, given how fun the game is on a basic level.

Are jaded reviewers reacting to the pricing, or just having played about 15 versions of it before? This may be the moment in the history of games where the reviewers start diverging from the mainstream in a major fashion. It happened in movies a good few decades ago, so I guess we can't be too surprised.

JRP: The 'multiple versions' issue is probably the exact reason Mario Party 8 scored so low with the hardcore reviewers - yet another Mario party game they have to play though.

Talking of the casual element, I have a disturbing love for simple 3D platformers, and usually can't trust major review sites for a decent score/review. It would seem that only Dave Halverson and I can truly appreciate the artistry that went into Stuart Little 3 or Brave: Search for the Spirit Dancer.

SC: Well that, my friend, is something you and your priest will have to explore in more detail. But nonetheless, a good point has been made - who can I trust to tell me whether my mother would like specific Wii games, other than me? And what if I don't know anything about Wii games? This is a major problem.

Perhaps What They Play is along the right lines, but it doesn't actually differentiate along quality grounds. So what's the solution here? Let the Average Joe make his own mistakes after judging by the box covers? What a palava!

JRP: Yeah, there needs to be a middle ground between GameSpot and GamerDad. Maybe we all need to go back to Epinions or something?

SC: Not a terrible idea! Just like Yelp is handy for hands-on reviews of local businesses from Average Joes.

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': Should Games Be Childish Things?

xwing.jpg When I was around six or seven, Christmas morning meant one thing: Star Wars toys. And even when I was six or seven, I knew that Star Wars toys were junk. My parents gave me one of the first Darth Vaders on the way to a nice restaurant in Boston at Christmastime, probably to keep me quiet at dinner. The figure wore a cape that was just a round piece of vinyl with armholes, and Darth’s light saber slid out of a gouge in his forearm.

After The Empire Strikes Back, I got a Hoth play-set that had as much detail as an egg carton, and when Return of the Jedi landed and the franchise ran its course, I settled for a line of non-canonical one-off spaceships that looked like something you should bury a mouse in. But nobody bought them for the quality. We bought them to play.

Last month, I caught MIT’s Futures of Entertainment conference, where some of the best and brightest of Hollywood and academia came to talk about film, TV, games, and toys, and the transmedia stories that tie them all together.

And I was surprised to hear a couple of the panelists reminisce about playing with Star Wars toys as kids, and using the toys and merch to – as Heroes’ Jesse Alexander put it – “extend the story,” and spin your own experience from what you saw on the screen. Except I don’t know many kids who actually stuck to the script.

Personally, I made everything up from scratch. I built whole worlds – starting with a couple of planets, and building piece by piece until I had a solar system, a galaxy, a universe, and a multiverse. Each action figure became a new character, and sometimes a few characters, and sometimes they’d spend a while flying around on the Millenium Falcon, and sometimes it was the Shuttle Tyderium.

I’m not saying I was J. R. R. Tolkien. I had the same killer robots, hyperdrive spaceships and squid-faced aliens with funny voices that any sci-fi property has to have. Over weeks and months of playing, I basically coughed up a mish-mash of Battlestar Galactica and Black Hole toys, doing the same stuff you would’ve seen in any of those movies. But I came up with the names and the adventures, and that made the stories mine.

Eventually, I got older and put all those toys aside. In fact, I remember digging them out of the closet and trying to play with them again – to wave a spaceship around and pretend it was in a life-or-death dogfight – but nothing happened; I was just sitting there waving around a piece of plastic. That part of my imagination had just fallen out of my head like baby teeth.

Thing is, I still wanted to create something, and tell these kinds of stories. I tried writing fiction, and it turns out, I’m lousy at it. I’m bad at creative writing in the same way that I’m bad at sculpture: it comes out lumpy, crude and unable to hold its own weight. I was persistent – I wrote a whole novel when I was 13, and I didn’t stop no matter how bad it got. But I never got any better.

That’s when games stepped in. I picked up my first writing crutch from Infocom: One of the first stories I ever wrote read like a transcript from a text adventure game – just a string of descriptions and the player’s commands. That saved me from all the exposition and “He walked through the hangar; there was a chill in the air” scene-setting that gave me so much trouble. The whole story read something like this:


You fall into a hole and land in …

The Well
You have fallen down a well. There’s no way out.


I don’t know the word “dammit.”

But I also got the same creative buzz just from playing games. In the Ultima series, Lord British gave us room to do whatever we wanted in his world; we could tackle the plot points whenever we felt like it, and project whatever we wanted onto his rudimentary stick figures.

More recently, Planescape: Torment hit exactly the right balance between engaging you with a story and letting us invent ourselves inside it. And Jets ‘N’ Guns GOLD won me over this year because, well, it’s so damn juvenile – like kids scribbling out notebooks-full of spaceships and riffs from sci-fi films and somehow munging them into a game.

WizKids%20XWing.jpg Earlier this year, I got some promo materials from WizKids for their new Star Wars PocketModel trading card game. I know zilch about trading card games. (I mean, sure, I’m a geek - but we all have to draw the line somewhere.) But I found this one really intriguing.

You buy packs of the cards, and each one contains the pieces of a foamcore model of a spaceship. You pop out the pieces, assemble the ships, line them up against each other and fight. They sent me a starter box, and one night I found myself snapping them all together and laying them on a table. They’re small and brittle models, but they have the same tactile appeal and killer Star Wars designs that hooked me when I was a kid. I wanted to play with them.

And that’s why it’s a game: the rules teach us how to play. They draw us back into the experience, and give us baby steps as we move the little foamcore ships around a table again. They support our imaginations.

And I’m taking some post-Christmas time to appreciate it, because while the industry talks about “participation” and “user-generated content,” I don’t think developers always realize how important this is – how they take me back to a time when the best thing in the world was making a new one.

[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.]

January 1, 2008

GameSetLinks: New Year's Link Delight

- Ah, yes, a little early 2008 link love, and I think it's fun to round up the multitude of 'year end', retrospective type links that have been wandering around the web recently.

Particularly pleased to see some niche/subgenre round-ups in here, particularly for strategy games, which don't always get a fair shake nowadays. Oh, and Jane McGonigal (ilovebees co-conspirator) is working on a new ARG, apparently, so that's reason for a bit of a woohoo, isn't it? Here goes:

Pocket Gamer: Top 10 mobile gaming trends in 2007 (part 1)
Alongside our own Games On Deck, Pocket Gamer knows the best about the mobile biz.

The Saturn Junkyard: Dezaemon 2 Shmup Galore
Wow, a massive compilation of 110+ user-created shooter mods for the Sega Saturn.

What's New in Indie [December Edition] by Game Tunnel
Includes mini-reviews on Soup Du Jour and Aquaria (pictured).

Avant Game: Work, Work, Work - How I Spent My 2007, or, a Year in Review
Jane McGonigal's working on something new and ARG-y for 2008, yum: 'I have been describing my current location as "at the secret office" with increasing frequency... because I'm working with a very large team on a very secret project'

Flash Of Steel: 2007 End of Year Strategy Wrap-Up
Troy Goodfellow's round-up is invaluable for this niche.

The Brainy Gamer: The five best under-the-radar games of 2007
Notable for mentioning Lunar Knights, which I think many have forgotten about.

collapsing geography: grading my 2007 predictions
ex-Second Life CTO Cory Ondrejka has a new blog, x-posts his MMO/VW-related Terra Nova predictions.

The Man Who Hates the World « Warren Spector’s blog
'Even more than my Guitar Hero experience, I feel like playing Rock Band, as fun as it is, is more than just fun. It might actually make me a better musician, which kinda freaks me out.'

the-inbetween.com [ Gaming Moments of 2007]
'Repeating what everyone else said is rather boring so I started to thing about specific moments that stood out this year.' Pointing out GH2 on Xbox 360 was this year - which I'd forgotten.

GameSetMusic: Pliant's Fictional Game Soundtrack

- So here's something fun that I don't mention too often - quite apart from my work in games/game journalism, I used to be an electronic musician in the Amiga demo/.MOD scene.

Because of that, I founded a netlabel called Monotonik, which has been releasing music online since 1996 in .MOD and now .MP3 format for free, latterly under a Creative Commons license.

Most of the time, the music (Last.fm label page, streamable playlists) - which can be roughly described as 'headphone listening', or 'idm' if you must - is somewhat remote from traditional 'video game music'. However, we do sometimes stray into chiptune areas, and have released Jake 'Virt' Kaufman (Contra 4, Shantae soundtracker)'s FX EP and FX 2.0 before. [BTW, check out his newly composed BlipFest tracks for some insane chiptune mastery.]

In addition, Monotonik previously debuted 'Killbots EP', a Game Boy-based release from Blasterhead, a Japanese composer who made the soundtrack for (non-adult!) Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 versions of the (distinctly risque!) Kero-Q PC dating title Moekko Company (Moekan), about 'an enigmatic man served unquestioningly by five beautiful maids with equally mysterious pasts.' Heh.

Anyhow, we've by and large left the chiptune goodness to Nullsleep's majestic 8bitpeoples. But Monotonik's latest release is Pliant's 'Musical Endeavor' idm/chiptune melange - which was originally released in 2000 on a New York electronic music label. It's interesting because it attempts to paint a spooky, alternative fictional game soundtrack in purely musical shades - I think it might be a bit Minus World-y? Here's the info/download links:

"Monotonik rounds out 2007 with a bit of a gem - a free digital release of the super-rare Pliant mini-CD 'Musical Endeavor', the quirky video-game inspired electronica blast originally released on New York-based label Systorm Technologies back in 2000.

What do you need to know about this? Well, the super-perky 9 track, 18 minute release is chronicling a fictional video game of some kind, and from the dynamic, spider-bass infused 'Title', it's clear that you're being taken through the game in aural form, thanks to previous Monotonik release Pliant's bleep-pop stylings.

Some highlights? 'Options' is funked-up loping, slightly sinister pseudo-game music, and 'Forest' conjures up previous Monotonik release 'Maruera Gum' with some aplomb, before the super-weird waltz-ish 'Volcano' and the reprise of 'Credits' finish things off in dischordant, intriguing form. Bravo.

Download Pliant's 'Musical Endeavor' from:

1. "Title" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
2. "Options" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
3. "Village" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
4. "Forest" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
5. "Hills" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
6. "Cave" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
7. "Volcano" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
8. "Boss" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)
9. "Credits" - (d/l support.nl archive.org scene.org)

..or download the entire release from Support.nl or from Archive.org - plus stream, or review the track at its Internet Archive release page."

Surfer Girl Goes Inside Microsoft's (Canned) Gemini

- [Happy New Year, all! Of course, I'm posting this about a day and half beforehand, but hope all you lovely folks are having an awesome New Year's Eve and are set up for a wonderful 2008. I thought we'd start the year off with a look at Surfer Girl's latest 'games you're not meant to know about' revelations.]

Sp, I was discussing this with my co-workers, and I suspect I may be one of the primary/initial hypers of 'insider' game dev blogger Surfer Girl's carefully anonymous talents. As discussed before, there are particular areas in which the Girl is good at compiling detailed, undisclosed info - and these are particularly tied to Ubisoft Montreal/the Montreal dev scene and Microsoft first-party development circa the first Xbox.

The latter of these is dealt with in this post about Freefall/Gemini, two cancelled internal Microsoft projects - let's extract some relevant parts: "It was 2002, Ironworks Studio's was in the midst of developing Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge (which would be the only product to make to stores that the team developed), a concept for a game called Freefall came about. Freefall is aptly described as a "science fiction skydiving game," it takes place in the 22nd century on a twenty-or-so mile high tower (named "Freefall tower") supported by cables of a space elevator. The game started as you jumped off a building at the top in the tower (which was a sky-city named "Freefall City") and you spent the rest of the game on a journey free-falling to the ground in complex, varying environments (such as New Yosemite Park) while eluding obstacles (such as the police)."

Secondly: "Following this, Ironworks Studio began work on a similar title named Gemini. Instead of falling through a massive tower as one did in Freefall, Gemini was a "science fiction first person shooter" (although it was originally an FPS) detailing a climb up a tower 65,000 miles or so in length. Award-winning science fiction writer Greg Bear was brought as a story consultant and the co-op FPS in which you played as twin sisters combatting robots, evil corporations, and corrupt clergy turned into a FPS where the two protagonists were the same character (one from 2100 and the other from 2150 with a "major intrapersonal conflict.""

[Now, skeptics like me may Google carefully and find a v.obscure portfolio site for Gemini which basically contains all of the information in the second half of the article, verbatim, and a movie which the screenshot may (or may not) have been taken from. But then, the info in the first half - about Freefall - hasn't been available online before. So... careful research plus _some_ insider synthesis = Surfer Girl? That's my bet.]

December 31, 2007

GameSetQ: What Have You Been Playing Over The Holidays?

- Well, it's been a fairly pleasant holiday season, at least here at GameSetWatch HQ - and there's been a completely ridiculous plethora of games that all of you dear readers could at least theoretically have played.

But buying a game and playing it don't necessarily go together. So what did you guys actually have time to play - or decided to play - over Xmas? Here's what I ended up checking out:

- Rock Band - finally got round to completing this in Medium difficulty on Solo Tour with the guitar. Also grabbed downloadable tracks including 'Buddy Holly', 'My Iron Lung', and both the 99c All-American Rejects songs, which are pretty darn catchy, actually. Also had a mini-revelation - I like playing easier difficulty levels and having a relaxing pseudo-musical jaunt, rather than stretching my hand-eye co-ordination excessively on Expert.

- Scene It? Lights Camera Action - Sure, it's rather dependent on you knowing stuff about movies, but having played this with some friends, it's actually a lot of fun. It's especially cool that it includes movie clips that'll make you want to watch the original films - from spaghetti Westerns to Ghostbusters. Sorta film-educative in the same way Rock Band is music-educative, vaguely?

- Lots of Xbox Live Arcade games - reconsidering Mutant Storm Empire, which still isn't as good as Reloaded, but is better than most give it credit for. And I now bought the Konami classic Gamer Picture set just to get the Track & Field long jumping picture, and reinforce my reputation as the slightly lunatic 'Track & Field liker'. I'd like it more if I could beat Mathew Kumar's high score, tho. :P

- Miscellaneous - belatedly completed Portal, grabbed a Classic Controller to play Geometry Wars Galaxies for Wii properly, am about to get into Dungeon Maker: Hunting Ground for PSP [UPDATE: Tried it - definitely one of the best unconventional games of the year!], rented and was slightly mystified by MySims for the Wii, played enough of Uncharted for PS3 to work out that it's really rather good.

How about you guys? Has it been Ratchet & Clank all the way, or Mass Effect for the win? Or alternatively, are you just playing Super Mario Bros again? Admit or die.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 12/29/07

Happy new year, everyone! How were all of your holidays? I'm still sifting through all the junk I got and/or bought for myself, not to mention all the game mags of 2007 in preparation for my year-in-review piece, which I'm planning for next week.

For now, though, I'd like to talk about the last few mags of '07, the first January issues. Hot exclusive features seem to be the order of the day right now, and none are hotter presently than...

Electronic Gaming Monthly January 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Street Fighter 4

This issue is the hype of the moment, no doubt, and everyone inside is incredibly excited about the main subject. ("I'm still rubbing my eyes over the fact that this sequel even exists, much less that we got the world exclusive on it," Shoe writes in his editorial.) However, even Shoe admits that the game is "extremely early" (his emphasis), and the 13-page feature preview is mainly a long, narrative interview with producer Yoshinori Ono about how he'd like this project to unfold. Still, the feature works because Shane the writer shows off his deep fighting-game knowledge, asking Ono intelligent questions (covering everything from combo mechanics to Chun Li's thighs) and keeping things interesting despite the monotony of the screenshots, all featuring the same characters fighting in the same battle scene.

Otherwise the main highlight is a bumper Afterthoughts section featuring postmortem interviews with the crew behind Halo 3, Mass Effect, The Orange Box (again, after GFW's bigger retrospective last month) and Uncharted.

Play January 2008


Cover: Tomb Raider 8 [Underworld]

Last month's Play had a split cover (Uncharted and Turok) and I completely failed to notice. Darnit! Why must you torment me, Halverson? Is it such a horrible thing to put "Cover 1 of 2" or something in the mag so I can at least be on the lookout? Your covers are among the only ones I actually like collecting!

Getting back to the subject at hand, this slim 92-page edition is your standard Play cover piece, with Dave asking Crystal Dynamics creative director Eric Lindstrom about Lara Croft's arse dimples and screenshots depicting the lady going around some jungle ruins in full current-gen glory. The rest of the previews well is similarly interview-laden, and Play Japan is still the most fascinating part of the reviews section.

(By the way, Girls of Gaming Volume 5 is advertised as being on newsstands but I haven't spotted it yet. Anyone?)

Game Informer January 2008


Cover: Tiberium

The cover feature is of the same style as EGM's and Play's, albeit with much more visual variety -- you can pick on EA all you want, but you can't deny that they know how to make great "target gameplay footage."

EA seems to love GI and the other way around, although the EA titles GI have put on the cover in the past have never been all that good -- no doubt a side effect of GI's consistently touting games up front that are over a year from release. A reader brings up this question in the letters column, noting that Brutal Legend (the November '07 cover) isn't due out until Xmas 2008, and he gets the response you'd expect: "When it comes to the cover...we prefer to chase down exclusive first looks at never-before-seen titles...if you want to learn about a brand new game, the cover stories pull back the curtain on the titles that we think will be big a little further down the road. It's like getting a glance at the future of gaming."

As always, the news section is the most interesting to read, including bits on game physics, the unlikely rise of LEGO as a killer game IP, and a mini-artbook for the Star Trek Online project. There's also an unranked Top 50 of 2007 feature which is a little zzzz...

Official Xbox Magazine January 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2

This is probably the most well-designed cover feature of the month, although the subject frankly bores me on a personal level. (Oh boy, the two main characters cover each other more realistically than before!) More interesting is a piece on how Harmonix chose and chased songs for Rock Band. This issue's 100 pages, 12 of which are Cellplay.

Games for Windows: The Official Magazine January 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: We review lots of PC games

You know the PC game marketplace has changed when a magazine has a huge preview blowout and the first preview in the mag is... LEGO Batman. Otherwise...yes, there are a ton of reviews in this issue. Besides previews and reviews, the interesting bits are a piece about Native Americans in video games written by the guy who voiced the hero of Prey and a Tim & Bruce on Armageddon Empires.

Ziff Davis Media loves the tagline "Too Many Games!". A lot. EGM's used it at least twice in the past, if I recall.

Some Wii specials

wiihandbook.jpg   wiigamersguide.jpg

Both Future and IDG have released Wii-themed specials for the holidays, although IDG's uses the same newsstand distribution that Code Vault did and is therefore a bit less straightforward to find.

Future's Wii Handbook (the first special from them with the Nintendo Power label) assumes you either don't own a Wii or bought the magazine alongside the console. It starts off with a catalog-like look at what the console's capable of out of the box and continues with tips on Wii Sports, Mii making, and Virtual Console choices. It closes out with some looks a games out and coming soon, divided by general genre, and overall the book does what it sets out to do amicably.

The Wii Gamers' Guide is more like a standard issue of GamePro that happens to be all about a single console. Bits and pieces both new and taken from old GPs fill up the pages, and the general vibe is less "welcome guide" and more "gamer's guide", the exact opposite of the Wii Handbook. A neat contrast, but as a whole I like Future's approach better.

[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.]

GameSetLinks: It's Almost 2008, Maureen

- This holiday period has certainly given me the opportunity to get fully up to date on GameSetLinks, and there's actually a couple more sets of archives to spool out after this one, which was collected and chemically preserved late last week.

In any case, this set includes Klei Entertainment (of Eets fame) discussing how to pitch games, as well as the great recent Wired article on the Nine Inch Nails ARG and the very odd Fenix Cube, which looks suspiciously like the kind of object we're meant to be playing games with in the 23rd Century, according to beardy futurologists:

Klei Entertainment Inc. » Start with the Constraints
On pitching to publishers: 'I’ve now personally done more than a dozen pitches, and I have to say that I’m probably masochistic because I actually like the process.'

BBC NEWS | Technology | Touch cube points to future toys
The Fentix Cube reacts spatially, has lights, Internet going bananas - interesting game ramifications.

Wired.com: Secret Websites, Coded Messages: The New World of Immersive Games
Trent Reznor + 42 Entertainment = paranoid ARG goodness.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun » As Narbacular Drop Is to Portal
'Perhaps there’s a room for a blog post looking at indie games that could potentially be the germ of a commercial idea'. Yes!

The Independent Gaming Source: NPR on Indie Games
'There’s a pretty cool episode of NPR’s All Things Considered online now featuring games journalist and author Heather Chaplin discussing some of the notable (and independent!) games of the last year—namely Portal and Everyday Shooter.'

EVE Insider | econ dev blog no. 3 - some statistics on corporations
More economics on the stupidly, amusingly real - via Terra Nova.

such things that never was: Miscelleany
The Boom TV unreleased PS2 screens (pictured) are particularly interesting.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: December twenty-sixth things.
'There is a "Christian and historically accurate response to Spore" in the works.' Awesome rumor of the day. 'Historically accurate' meaning intelligent design?

gameplaywright.net // 'LOTRO: Why We’re Here'
'I was expecting most answers to somehow involve the global MMORPG superpower, World of Warcraft. Some answers did. But three of the answers I got the most often surprised me.'

December 30, 2007

Inside China's ZT Online MMO - The Forbidden Text

- Over at Bill Bishop's 'billsdue' blog, the Beijing-based head of Chinese online world creator Red Mushroom has been pointing out a fascinating Chinese MMO-related news story, involving a tabloid newspaper, NYSE-traded online game firm Giant Online, and an apparently spiked story.

As Bishop explains: "Giant Online's (NYSE:GA) ZT Online MMORPG has almost 1,000,000 peak concurrent users, making it one of the largest MMORPGs in the world. It also quite a money spinner, generating USD $54M in revenue and USD $39M in net income in Q3 2007."

However, Bishop continues: "Southern Weekend (南方周末), a popular newspaper in China known for its muckraking journalism, recently published a long article describing ZT Online. Soon after publication the article was scrubbed from the website and removed from the printed newspaper. Danwei does a great job detailing the removal. Danwei also translated the entire article into English... If you are at all interested in understanding what hooks Chinese gamers you should definitely read it."

The full article is absolutely fascinating - in fact, I'd go as far to say that it's one of the best written, most humanistic pieces on games I've read so far this year. It helps illuminate the complex social reasons that all MMOs - Western or Chinese - can be addictive, of course. But also, as Butler points out in his shrewd commentary on the piece "...goes into detail about the dirty big secret of most successful Chinese MMORPGs -- they are rife with [officially illegal] gambling."

Reminder: Devs, Nominate Now For 2008 Game Developers Choice Awards

- [Just wanted to repost this, in the quiet time before New Year, for the benefit of game developers who read GameSetWatch and haven't voted yet. The nomination deadline cutoff is around January 4th, I believe.]

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.

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.

COLUMN: The Amateur: Angband & The Game Development Arms Race

- ['The Amateur' is an irregular column from Australian-based IT manager Andrew Doull, discussing the perils and rewards of being an unabashed non-professional creating games. This installment deals with how making an Angband game variant can inform how all game developers look at game scope.]

I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nick McConnell, creator of First Age Angband, in the flesh and we talked at length about the ups and downs of maintaining an Angband Rogue-like freeware/shareware game variant (perhaps for too long).

One thing we agreed on was the unique challenge that writing Angband variants presents. In particular, the inherent risks of trying to adopt features developed in other branches of the Angband variant family, that appear very easy to port across. And the insanity of attempting to do so.

If you're doing game development, you may wish to take note.

I'm looking at the tentative feature list for the next version of Unangband, and this consists for the most part of game features that have already been implemented in other Angband variants. In particular, I want to implement the 256 colour code and extended Latin-1 character sets (with custom glyphs) that feature in several other variants. Now, at a surface level, you'd expect it to be easy to adapt this code across, due to the similar nature of the code bases (they all have a common ancestor, and the source in all Angband variants is open).

Instead, you end up porting the code across by hand, because the diffs will never merge successfully. You also port a whole class of very subtle bugs that occur because the set of assumptions in the original code base does not match the set of assumptions you have made in your game. For instance, Nick is currently feeling the pain in having adapted a in-game notes patch that features in the many variants to First Age Angband - he still hasn't squashed all the bugs with what consists of a benign user interface change.

This is why my policy for Unangband has been for the most part to 'go my own way' and write code from scratch, using the ideas that may have been generated elsewhere, but with my own hand-rolled code. I end up having to do more work up front, but this reduces the number of subtle bugs I have to deal with in the code base (but sadly not to zero). This hasn't always been the case - for instance, the dungeon generation and AI code is heavily indebted to other variants, but for the most part it seems to work.

But the problem is more serious than just the short term pain of having to adapt and debug someone else's code, or come up with your own version of someone else's ideas. As soon as you start down the path of writing an amateur game in an established genre, you are putting yourself in competition with every other amateur game writer in that genre. In fact, you're putting yourself in competition with all of them, cumulatively. You're (usually) only one developer, and, in the Angband case, at anyone time there are at least 5 or 6 other variants actively being developed, plus the core Angband development team. You have no chance of being able to produce more features in your game than all these other developers, and yet it feels at the same time that you have to, in order to 'keep-up-with-the-Joneses' and 'capture' part of the overall genre player base.

But it's not just the small pool of Angband and variant developers I have to deal with. There are freakish coding prodigies lurking at the edge of the boundaries of this relatively small inlet, working on rogue-likes that are spoken of with whispered breaths in the dim dark corners of the Angband forums. I will admit to being driven close to tears by one helpful newbie who suggested that 'Unangband was kind of a good start, but I should look at Incursion: Halls of the Goblin King, figure out what they're doing and copy it'. I'm an amateur game developer, working on a game in what little spare time I have. I don't have time to play any other Angband variants, let alone anything else... and forget adopting other people's ideas in addition to my own.

- Then there is Dwarf Fortress...

(Let's just say I stared deeply into my own soul after seeing its layers of features upon features and the abyss didn't answer... I'm sure peers to James Joyce felt the same way after reading Ulysses)

Attempting to adopt other game's features is the first dangerous step on the path to a mad game development arms race, where you try and include every feature from every other possible game that might apply to yours. You may, through insane acts of desperate endurance, somehow succeed at this - look at the huge 'feature count' for Unangband for an example of this. Having done so, you'll realise that during the time you took to do it, so much more has improved in every other game you were comparing yourself with, that the work outstanding will have grown exponentially. And even if you're strong enough resist the urge to try to feature add and not to compare your 'feature list' to other games in the genre, your player base will.

It's not just Angband variants, or other amateur game developers, who are vulnerable to this problem. Anyone considering creating a first person shooter should read Dsylexci's Tactical Gaming Done Right before proceeding. And then figure out if they're willing to write Operation Armed Flashassault III. I can't go back to Grand Theft Autos earlier than San Andreas, simply because having no climb or swim mechanic sours the taste in my mouth - I've been given better free-roaming and to take a step backwards is like throwing away the keys to my cell door. I'm sure people who played Crackdown feel the same way.

I suspect that this arms race which can only result in mutually assured destruction will be survived in one of three ways:

1. Collaborative worlds big enough to contain every possible game feature anyway (Because no single player game could justify the development budget).
2. Self-contained mini-games with a simple enough rule set that adding features will detract from the game play.
3. Games with a strong narrative drive that only require a feature set large enough to move the narrative forward.

But the inexorable pull of large collaborative worlds, with the gravity of massive budgets and huge player base will draw types 2 and 3 closer to them. The only thing holding back total collapse will be the difficulty of integrating 'pick-up-and-play' into the overall world space - and when Blizzard realises that they already have a segmented player base, and they could just sell levels 1-30 Dranei start as a stand alone game in itself, you'll find the likes of World of All Possible Games Craft taking over.

[Andrew Doull is an IT manager from New Zealand who spent the last 5 and a half years working in the United Kingdom. He's just emigrated to Sydney, Australia, and spends his free time developing Unangband, a rogue-like game, and blogging at Ascii Dreams. He recently covered the Edinburgh Interactive Festival for Gamasutra magazine and has just started an irregular column for GameSetWatch.]

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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