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January 12, 2008

Column: 'Might Have Been' - Trojan

[“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 Capcom's Trojan, released in the arcade and NES in 1986.]

History and Wikipedia tell us that Capcom was founded back in 1979, but in every way that mattered, Capcom didn’t start until the mid-‘80s. It was only in the latter half of the decade that the company birthed the games that first defined it: Street Fighter, Mega Man, Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Strider, Bionic Commando and, if you’re charitable, Forgotten Worlds.

Trojan sits somewhere in the middle of all that. It was too successful to join Capcom obscurities like Avengers and The Speed Rumbler, but it didn’t stick around long enough to become a franchise or a cult favorite. Trojan even went one step beyond the usual arcade flash-in-the-pan and missed its chance two times: once as an arcade game, and again on the NES.

Leaving the Bronx

Like countless chunks of mid-‘80s arcade machismo, Trojan wholeheartedly stole from movies and comics, piecing together a post-apocalyptic world from the bleak future of Mad Max, the broken skyscrapers of Escape from New York, and the hulking mutant thugs of Fist of the North Star. As a result, Trojan resembles some sort of Italian-made Mad Max rip-off with a title like Lost World Warrior of the Bronx Wasteland Escape 2000. In the harsh piecemeal future of Trojan, a tyrant named Achilles (who was actually a heroic figure in the Trojan War of the Illiad, but never mind that) rules over everything, possibly with the help of evil spirits, and only a clean-cut warrior named Ryu bothers to challenge him.

Trojan’s biggest inspiration, however, came from earlier side-scrolling action games like Kung Fu and Capcom’s own Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Ryu trudges through relatively short stages while enemies swarm from both sides, overwhelming him if he stops moving for too long. And when those enemies get too close, Ryu can either strike at them with his sword or block them with his shield, which absorbs several attacks before flying away and taking Ryu’s sword with it. Ryu is then left with only punches to defend himself until he recovers his sword. An interesting concept at first, the shield doesn’t really work; it can absorb only a few hits, and defending at all usually lets enemies overtake you from both sides.

The World Hates You

Trojan makes another curious misstep: instead of jumping by pressing a button, the player must move the joystick up. It’s a precursor to the mechanics of Street Fighter, but the idea’s unnatural and confusing for a side-scrolling action game. Perhaps Capcom didn’t want to spring for a three-button arcade cabinet, but whatever the reason, Trojan’s harder to play than it should be.

And the game allows no mistakes. In Trojan’s strangely gun-free setting, Achilles makes do with an army of basic purple-haired grunts, knife-throwers in bondage gear, crossbowmen, human doodlebugs, and flying, bomb-dropping midgets. And all of them will kill you in a hurry. Ryu has a life meter, but it depletes easily, and it’s not always clear when he’s taking damage. Ghosts ‘n Goblins won its fan base by being gruelingly hard, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins had a variety of weapons, multi-directional shooting, and a constantly changing selection of enemies.

For that matter, Ghosts ‘n Goblins also had some personality. Yet there are no giggling devils or underwear-clad knights in Trojan. The rotted post-nuclear backdrop of its first stage is impressive for a 1986 arcade title, and that's the highlight of the entire game. The following stages are a dull array of valleys, castles, and elevator-driven gauntlets, all of them rote in design. Trojan’s just there to kill you, and that’s it.

Ported and Depleted

Like most profitable Capcom coin-op games of its day, Trojan was ported to the NES not so long after it hit arcades. The game’s graphics were diminished, and not always in understandable ways (Ryu’s NES incarnation has red hair and the knife-throwers look strangely androgynous), but the game’s progression is much the same: hack at enemies, jump when you can, and don't stop moving.

And that's where Trojan really went wrong. Many arcade games were greatly improved on the NES. For example, Rygar went from a mediocre side-scroller to a complex rudimentary action-RPG, while Ninja Gaiden’s action-platformer NES version shamed its tedious arcade brother. Capcom’s Bionic Commando saw an amazing change, too; the arcade-born original was a chaotic mess where players died once a minute, but the NES incarnation remodeled the game into a unique marvel.

Whoever ported Trojan to the NES only flirted with expanding it. Hidden bonus icons are strewn throughout the levels, and falling into manholes on the first stage brings you to hidden rooms never seen in the arcade game. After killing the sub-bosses there, Ryu can find jumping boots that, unfortunately, wear off in about twelve seconds. That’s about it. There’s no world map, no item hoarding, no gameplay improvements and nothing to push Trojan beyond its tepid arcade source.

After the Apocalypse

Swept quickly aside, Trojan never made it into the upper Capcom hierarchy. To see just how far it went, look to Marvel vs. Capcom. The game has a pile of non-playable supporting characters, and many of them are old-school Capcom cameos: Arthur from Ghosts ‘n Goblins, the Unknown Soldier from Forgotten Worlds, Lou from Three Wonders, and even Michelle Heart from Legendary Wings. Trojan and Ryu sat out in the hall.

Trojan survives today as part of the recent Capcom Classics Collection, where it's likely played only by people who enjoyed it two decades ago. There's no shame in ignoring Trojan, though. It's just a dull, frustrating relic, good only as a footnote in the rise of Capcom, and perhaps as a source of snickers from children half the game’s age.

Game Developer's January 2008 Issue Courts GLaDOS

- [Some fun blurbiness on the latest issue of our beloved Game Developer magazine - which also has the Front Line Award tool winners in it, plus a neat postmortem of Stranglehold, as you'll read later - but the main draw is an article from the Valvettes about Portal-ing, yum.]

The new January 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine has an exclusive creator-written article on the making of Valve's Portal, and Gamasutra has extracts from the piece, revealing how the game's antagonist GLaDOS was originally a placeholder, and how level-of-detail technical constraints were overcome.

The postmortem, written by Valve's Kim Swift, Erik Wolpaw, and Jeep Barnett, is described by the Game Developer editors as follows:

"From the game's university-created roots through to its Orange Box-ed release, Portal was an exercise in creativity. Here, three members of the eight-person team come together to discuss Valve's iterative playtesting process, the power of simple storytelling, and clever ways to present new ideas to a mass-market audience."

The Creation Of GLaDOS

In this first extract, the Valve team discuss the evolution of the game's unique story and dialog, thanks to Psychonauts co-writer and OldManMurray.com veteran Wolpaw:

"Before the writing started, we met with Erik and discussed our list of narrative constraints. Since at the time we were using some Half-Life art assets, and because we wanted to leave ourselves the option of someday using the portal gun in a Half-Life game, we decided that the story should in some way connect to the Half-Life universe.

Practically speaking, we didn't have sufficient time or staffing to add any human characters, which would have required an impressive amount of animation work and scene choreography. That meant the story had to be expressed without the benefit of any visible extra characters.

A week after the meeting, Erik came back with some sample dialog he'd recorded using a text-to-speech program. It was a series of announcements that played over the newly-christened "relaxation vault" that appears in Portal's first room.

Everyone on the team liked the funny, sinister tone of the writing, and so Erik continued to write and record announcements for other chambers, while still searching for the story proper. At some point, however, it became apparent that these announcements were providing playtesters with the incentive to keep playing that we'd been looking for all along.

Better yet, in the sterile, empty test chamber environment, players were actually becoming attached to the alternately soothing and menacing computer guide. We'd found the narrative voice of Portal."

Overcoming Technical Issues

In this second extract, the team talks about why the complex nature of the portal system provides particular technical challenges. Having firstly discussed collision detection issues, they move on to other major issues:

"Another problem we ran across was the need to change distance-based systems such as level of detail (LOD) for models, because with our game, distance is relative to the portal locations.

This means that the distance calculations became a choice of three lines connecting two points, rather than just one line. Also, line of sight can pass through a single portal more than once to reach its target.

The Source Engine does many pre-computed visibility optimizations for culling. Allowing users to bridge visibility leaves with portals added another level of complexity.

For better rendering, we implemented a stencil buffer drawing method for portal views, which gave us a lot of flexibility for handling the portal recursion depth. This allowed us to render an infinitely deep number of portals (limited only by performance), which made our "infinite" hallways look pretty neat.

Stencil drawing also helped us solve the problem of integrating properly with other technology in the Source engine like HDR blooming. Since we have to render our scenes an additional two times for our portals we poured a lot of our effort into making portals render as fast as possible, such as special view frustum culling based on the portal's edges, and render list optimizations for portal drawing."

The full postmortem, including much more insight into the game's development, is now available in the January 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine.

The issue also includes a number of other major features, including a postmortem of Midway's Stranglehold by Brian Eddy, the 2007 Front Line Award winners, and a GDC 2008 editor's preview - plus tool reviews, special sections, and regular technical columns from Bungie's Steve Theodore, Neversoft co-founder Mick West, Lucasarts' Jesse Harlin, and Sinistar creator Noah Falstein.

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

In addition the January 2008 issue of Game Developer is available in digital form (viewable in a web browser, and with an associated downloadable PDF), and as a physical single-issue copy.

GameSetLinks: Chopin Vs. Pumpkin - Fight!

- Ah, you know, this bunch of GameSetLinks is particularly special to me because, well, they're the latest. Does this mean that I will love my youngest child the best? We'll cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess.

In the meantime, here's some vignettes on Eternal Sonata (pictured), what the Swiss think of independent games, various Rock Paper Shotgun-related randomness, and even the obligatory unnecessary masturbation/gaming comparison. See, we have it all, and here it all is:

COPE: James Wallis levels with you » The Song Remains The Same
On Eternal Sonata, expectations and reality: 'Suddenly Polka collides with something that looks like the mutant offspring of a leek and a pumpkin, and can’t proceed until she’s battered it to death with her umbrella, to the swelling sounds of a musical score that is almost completely unlike Chopin.'

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: RPS Exclusive: Soren Johnson on Everything PC
Slight PCG offcuts, but fun stuff nonetheless!

How Halo 3 Changed Game Development - GameCareerGuide.com
'Based on Halo's runaway success, the paradigm for a successful video game studio -- and its relationship to its publisher -- may never be the same again.'

tagesanzeiger.ch | Digital | Games | Computer-Games von den Nachwuchstalenten
Swiss newspaper does indie games/IGF article, yay.

Fun and games « schlaghund’s playground
'Game studios are just porn peddlers. And you? You’re just jacking off.'

VH1 Game Break: The Buzz About Crispy Gamer
New game review/content site headed by ex-GameSpy-er (and nice guy!) John Keefer - launching later this month.

Amazon.co.uk: This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities: Books: Jim Rossignol
Jim says, via IM: 'it's about my life as a Quake ninja... it's a kind of [my] greatest hits, via my travels to Reykjavik, Seoul and exotic London'. Nice cover - via Boyer.

VIDEOLUDICA: 'Game Art: Gamerz 02'
New art-game exhibit, including Samorost 2 - January 15-27, Sextius, Aix-En-Provence, France.

Fort90 Journal » Still The Best Mine Cart Riding/Sandwich Making/Dating Sim Ever Made: Love Love 2, aka Love Love Truck, aka Love Love Mine… Part 2
More screens, impressions from the ever-obsess-y Hawkins.

January 11, 2008

GDC 2008 Recommendations: Steve 'Fullbright' Gaynor's Picks

[Forgive the gigantic post, but Fullbright blogger and TimeGate Studios level designer Steve Gaynor, who we've previously covered for his 'Noir' post here at GSW, among other things, has kindly given us his GDC lecture picks/comments for this year. It's nice to see individual picks, anyhow - yes, GSW's colleagues also run GDC, but this doesn't have any agenda other than informational. Apologies for any formatting quirks, and ping us if you want to do similar.]

As in the past two years, I will be attending the Game Developers Conference. The conference proper (following the first two days of summits and tutorials) begins on February 20th, featuring literally hundreds of presentations on all aspects of the craft, business and theory of video game development.

Last year I shared my personal list of sessions to look out for (along with special guest Harvey Smith!) and this year I'm giving it another go. Below, find the wide smattering of sessions I'm planning to attend, schedule permitting.

They're mostly in the game design track, but also feature a few entries from business and production. If you're going to be at GDC, hopefully this list will come in handy. Maybe I'll see you there!

Ideas, observations, and what the future holds

Ray KurzweilKeynote
The Next 20 Years of Gaming

Ray Kurzweil has been described as “the restless genius” by the Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison,” and PBS included Ray as one of 16 “revolutionaries who made America,” along with other inventors of the past two centuries.

As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. He has received fifteen honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents.

I always attend the keynotes (though I've sworn off any Sony keynotes that might occur in the future) and this one sounds like it will be particularly interesting and insightful.

Are Games Essentially Superficial? Exploring the Positive Impact Model of Design

Chris Taylor
Louis Castle
Peter Molyneux
Rusel DeMaria
Kenneth Levine

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: This panel will introduce the "Positive Impact Model of Design." The Positive Impact Model is, in part, a mindset adopted by designers to consider the ultimate impact of their games, and it is, in part, the beginning of a road map to creating games that add the ability to teach or inspire players while fulfilling the essential requirements of commercially successful games.

I think it’s something a lot of us wrestle with: does our work have worth? How can we enrich a player’s life through experience?

Design Reboot

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Assaulting you with a variety of different perspectives about what it means to design and build a game, and the consequences of those viewpoints.

I’ve listened to Blow’s version of this talk from the Montreal conference, and look forward to seeing it live. Shares some conceptual overlap with the above.

Designing Conflict Resolution without Combat

Gordon Walton

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: Many games use combat as their conflict resolution medium. This session is intended to collaboratively explore non-traditional and innovative methods of resolving conflict within games.

Another issue of personal interest to me: how do we make engaging games based on character conflict without resorting to binary combat mechanics?

I-fi: Immersive Fidelity in Game Design

Clint Hocking

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: The immersive fidelity of a game is a quality not well defined in game design. This presentation identifies formal tools for enriching the immersive qualities of games with the aim of enabling developers to make better decisions about how to achieve the desired degree of immersiveness in their games.

Clint Hocking has made the most interesting presentation at each of the last two GDC’s I’ve attended. The Q&A session afterward feels more like a thesis defense. I have thoughts of my own all built up in opposition to the term “immersion,” so I’ll be interested to hear Hocking share his version of the concept.

The Future of Story in Game Design

Matt Costello
Tim Willits
Denis Dyack
Mary DeMarle
Matthew Karch
Michael Hall
Deborah Todd

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: The industry has made a quantum shift in what's doable in game design – great graphics and cool mechanics are now part of everyone's domain. And so, more and more developers and publishers are looking to the future and what differentiates their game from the rest of the titles vying for market share. And more and more, the answer is pointing to story and characters, with hot writers brought into the mix to create a deeper dimension in gameplay. Learn how and why hardcore game developers are incorporating the fundamentals of story development into their titles, and hear a variety of takes on why this benefits everyone from the publisher to the player in this first-time gathering of some of the leading names and some of the biggest games in the biz.

Games need effective writing to prop up the player experience, something which most titles currently lack. Always interesting to hear opinions on the intersection of game design and traditional story.

Treat Me like a Lover

Margaret Robertson

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: It sounds ridiculous, but thinking of your player as someone you'd love to love is a very effective shortcut to good game design. A player's relationship with a game is intimate, intense, based on trust, and at risk from boredom and infidelity. Ensuring your game behaves like the perfect date ensures players stay involved, stick with you to the end, and pine, love-sick, for your sequel/follow-up. This session shows how your game can pull this off.

The relationship between the designer and player is fascinating. Haven’t you played games where the designer seemingly regards you with outright contempt?

Practical Application
How-to's and best practices that may come in handy back at the office

'Do, Don't Show' – Narrative Design in FARCRY 2

Patrick Redding

Game Design/
60-minute Poster Session

Overview: Despite efforts to improve game storytelling, the best game stories remain largely non-interactive, achieving limited branching with dialogue trees and discrete choices. What happens when the storytelling maxim 'show, don't tell' evolves to become 'do', FARCRY 2.

From the title at least, this promises actionable knowledge on a right-minded approach to game narrative. Redding is Clint Hocking’s co-conspirator on the upcoming Far Cry 2.

10 Tips for a Successful Wiki

James Everett

Game Design/
60-minute Poster Session

Overview: This session will cover 10 tips for building, using, and maintaining a wiki on game development teams. These are concrete examples drawn from experience that will prove useful to teams who are investigating wiki use and those who have already deployed one.

We use a wiki internally at TimeGate, as do probably most developers at this point. Best practices.

Collaborative Writing and Vast Narratives: Principles, Processes, and Genteel Truculence

Ken Rolston
Mark Nelson

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Ken Rolston (MORROWIND, OBLIVION) knows that setting and theme are the fundamental narrative elements of vast, open-ended RPGs. Mark Nelson (MORROWIND, OBLIVION, SHIVERING ISLES) thinks Ken is a dangerous old crank, and knows that story and character are the fundamental narrative elements that drive players to keep playing vast, open-ended RPGs. In this presentation, Ken and Mark share various collaborative principles and processes evolved during a decade's labor crafting expansive RPG narratives, illustrating from their development experiences with gratifying salutary examples and bitter cautionary tales.

More thought on setting- and character-focused writing for games. The practice of threading narrative throughout a persistent gameworld is fascinating, and speaks more directly to “game-ness” than most other approaches.

How to Pick a Lock: Creating Intuitive, Immersive Minigames

Kent Hudson

Game Design/
20-minute Lecture

Overview: This lecture explains how to create minigames that use the controller in intuitive ways, reward player skill and provide variation while also minimizing UI in order to preserve immersion.

Applies to current assignments of mine.

Teaching Players: Tutorial and Opening Mission Design for COMPANY OF HEROES

Neil Jones-Rodway
Aldric Sun

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: With games becoming increasingly complex, designers have to work harder to introduce players to the game world and cater for players of all skill levels and experience. Drawing on examples from Company of Heroes, learn the basics of tutorial and mission designs that will keep game players, at any level, equipped and motivated to advance in the game.

How to address the much-hated integrated tutorial? My first impression is to make it avoidable altogether (by way of a skippable path ala Gears of War, or a simple menu option to start with the tutorial or skip straight to the campaign.) But even then, you gotta design the tutorial sometime.

Writing Great Design Documents

Damion Schubert

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: This talk centers on documentation best practices for both designers in the trenches, and offers strong strategies for leads attempting to manage their documentation process. This reprise of GDC 2007 highest rank talk has been updated to include feedback and suggestions from last year, as well as discussion of how to make documentation work with Agile and Scrum.

I’m lucky enough to have been assigned a few system design tasks on our upcoming project. All practical knowledge on how to best create these documents is much appreciated.

How to Go from PC to Console Development without Shooting Yourself in the Foot

Elan Ruskin

60-minute Lecture

Overview: Significant challenges face a studio transitioning from personal computers to simultaneous home game console development for the first time. This session discusses how Valve met these challenges in its first Xbox 360 release THE ORANGE BOX, and offers best practices to help make attendees' first console release a successful one.

I haven’t played the Orange Box on a console, and have been wondering how Valve approached the transition.

Transition to Scrum Midway through a AAA Development Cycle: Lessons Learned

Asbjoern Soendergaard

60-minute Lecture

Overview: A postmortem over the change process going from a traditional waterfall development into an agile production environment. The talk will focus on the learnings from the adoption of Scrum on the CRYSIS production - midway though the production cycle. Topic's will include the lead's role in Scrum (how to manage and give creative direction), the signoff process, and coordinating the planning/development process between multiple Scrum teams.

An Agile Retrospective

Clinton Keith

60-minute Lecture

Overview: The session discusses the challenges of adopting agile beyond Scrum. Topics include adopting Extreme Programming (XP), Agile Planning, Lean Methodology for production and changes to Scrum that have been made to adapt to game development.

TimeGate currently affects some form of agile development. The more input on the subject the better.

Concrete Demonstration
"Look what we did"-- postmortems, stage demos and hands-ons

Casual Game Design: A Year in Review

Juan Gril
Nick Fortugno

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Casual Game Design is not an oxymoron. And 2007 was a really good year for it. Come and check out what were the key design elements in the top hits of the year.

I don’t pay much attention to casual games. I went to an IGDA meeting focused on casual game development, and the panelists up onstage were congratulating each other on “innovations” such as putting a sparkly gold background in their newest rip-off of Bejeweled. Hopefully this session will point out some worthwhile design elements in recent casual productions.

CRYSIS in the Making

Cevat Yerli

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: Cevat Yerli and other Crytek developers will give a behind-the-scenes look at some of the unique challenges that arose during the development CRYSIS, which took place simultaneously alongside the creation of the company's ground-breaking second engine revision: CryEngine2.

Crysis is the best FPS since Half-Life 1, hands-down. How did a game with such forward-thinking design and insanely high-fidelity visuals make it to market as a PC-only title in the current market? I must know.

A PORTAL Post-Mortem: Integrating Writing and Design

Kim Swift
Erik Wolpaw

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Integrating story and gameplay is a daunting task for both writers and designers. PORTAL's project lead and its head writer discuss how they approached this particular problem during the game's development.

Portal, likewise, is an incredible and wholly unique production. The more I can hear about it, the better. This one’s sure to be packed.

Experimental Gameplay Sessions

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
2-Hour Panel

Overview: A series of short presentations, where game developers demonstrate and talk about their new and experimental games. Independent games, academic projects, and AAA mainstream games are all represented.

I also don’t give enough of my time to indie/experimental games. This session has exposed me to some truly intriguing material the last two years I’ve attended it, and I doubt I’ll be disappointed this year either.

DataPlay: Living Games

Justin Hall

Game Design/
20-minute Lecture

Overview: Passive games offer the depth of MMOs without the time or hardware commitment, and the accessibility and easy fun of casual games without the mindlessness. Hall gives a demo of our Firefox browser MMO "PMOG" which follows you online creating a character, economy, and events from your web surfing.

Part of a rapid-fire triple session, I simply want to sit in on this one because the concept sounds interesting. What kind of myopic video game nerd would my PMOG character be?

From DOOM to RAGE: Pushing Boundaries

Matt Hooper

60-minute Lecture

Overview: Making games is hard, even if you've done it forever. The constant evolution of the industry keeps even the most veteran companies on their toes, and id Software is not immune. At id Software, we've always pushed technical boundaries and will continue to do so but now we find ourselves growing in many directions. Physically, our team is larger then it's ever been and we continue to grow. This session will address the growing pains and joys as we've moved from DOOM to RAGE and offer specific examples of why id Software chose its current direction, a "pre-mortem" if you will.

I’m quite interested in RAGE, id’s first new IP since Quake 1. I love that they’re breaking their own mold by setting the game in a mildly anime-inspired, sun-bleached desert wasteland, and including buggy racing (??) as a key gameplay element. Can’t wait to find out more about it.

Game Accessibility Arcade: Or How to Do the Jedi Mind Trick (Day 1)

Michelle Hinn

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: This session will be presented as "roundtables within a roundtable" -- attendees will be encouraged to move about the room, try out the variety of games at each game station and discuss the game design with the creators of many of the games.

The idea of sampling various games and providing feedback to their creators sounds like fun. Hopefully our time spent here will benefit the games themselves.

Game Studies Download 3.0

Jane McGonigal
Mia Consalvo
Ian Bogost

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: What do we know in 2008 about games that we didn't know in 2007? Find out in the third annual Game Studies Download. A panel of leading games researchers presents the top 10 findings in academic game studies from the past year and shows you how these cutting-edge findings are directly applicable to the design and business of videogames.

A direct feed of the “Top 10” academic game studies findings of the year? I haven’t followed the field too closely myself, so sign me up.

FABLE 2 –The Big Three Features Revealed

Peter Molyneux

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Peter Molyneux's stated ambition as a designer is to make FABLE 2 a landmark game. In order to achieve this three big design features have been added. The inspiration and rational behind these features will be discussed along with their evolution throughout the development process. The wider context of their impact and influence on the RPG genre with also be examined as the ambition is also to evolve the genre itself. The talk will be supported by retrospective videos as well as live game examples.

Molyneux is a bit of a GDC pariah in my mind. At the 2005 event, early in the conference he showed off a tech demo his people had been working on at Lionhead; then, as an invitee to the Game Design Challenge, he just showed that same unrelated tech demo again, and bullshitted a vague connection to Emily Dickinson. The following year, 2006, he ditched out on his scheduled appearances at the last moment because he was busy being bought by Microsoft. And last year, he took an hour to reveal his big secret feature of Fable 2: “a dog! Yes, a dog.” As far as I can tell, he comes to GDC purely for self-promotion. I think it’s funny that his presentation this year is baldly titled “Fable 2: The Big Three Features Revealed.” It’s nothing but a press conference, a chance to hype his own game. This is not what GDC is about. If I really want a preview of Fable 2 I’ll load up GameSpot. I will not be attending this session.

Storytelling in BIOSHOCK: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story

Kenneth Levine

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Here's a secret: If you're making a first person shooter, most people don't care about your story. BIOSHOCK took a genre that isn't generally known for its great storytelling propensities and made people care about the world of Rapture and it's inhabitants. It did this by inviting the players to participate in the narrative through their own investigation of the world of Rapture. Creative director Ken Levine will share some of the secrets as to how it was done.

The storytelling in BioShock, while no different in presentation than its forebear System Shock 2, was nonetheless effective in expressing the history of the gameworld through its characters, characters you never meet but feel a tangible connection to strictly via their stories. I doubt this presentation will give me a deeper appreciation of this aspect of BioShock, but it should be enjoyable nonetheless.

Nuances of Design

Jonathan Blow

Game Design/
2-Hour Panel

Overview: This session consists of a few short presentations; during each presentation, the audience actually plays game snippets that illustrate the speaker's point, rather than just watching. To participate fully, please bring a laptop running Windows XP with a reasonable graphics chipset (Radeon 7500/GeForce 4Go level or higher), and a pair of in-ear headphones.

Another game sampler. I’ll be interested to see how Blow uses the playing of games to reinforce his points in a way that video couldn’t accomplish. Bring your laptop.

The Emergent Gamer

Rod Humble

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: In this session, Rod Humble – Head of THE SIMS Studio at Electronic Arts – will reveal for the first time ever a new creative endeavor that makes game creation easier than ever before. Humble will discuss the rise of a new class of game creators and games, what it means to games as an art form, and how THE SIMS Label hopes to convert millions of players to game designers.

Another session that’s seemingly just a product announcement in disguise, I’ll be interested to see how “THE SIMS Label hopes to convert millions of players to game designers.”

Master Metrics: The Science behind the Art of Game Design

Chris Swain
E. Daniel Arey

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: With the dramatic increase in game complexity, production costs, and team size in recent years, teams and team leaders are more than ever in need of valuable and repeatable development processes, tools, and metrics to create, define, manage, and measure the vast number of play elements that make up a hit game title. But up until now, many of the development processes used by some of the best game developers have been either obscure, unknown, or undefined as an unknowable soft science behind the "creative process." We believe these processes can in fact be defined and learned, and that there are patterns and approaches to game development that dramatically increase the chances of a game's success. This talk is designed to compile and share with the audience the "best practices" of some of the industry's best practitioners.

This sounds horrible and frightening. Using collected metrics to divine a formula for “successful games?” Stare into the void.

Successful Instrumentation: Tracking Attitudes and Behaviors to Improve Games

Ramon Romero

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: This lecture will discuss the approach the Games User Research group at Microsoft Game Studios applies when instrumenting games. Numerous examples from successful Microsoft games will demonstrate how we use instrumentation to assist game designers in achieving their vision.

Another session focused on using player metrics to influence game design, I am again wary. “Instrumenting” just sounds terribly ominous. “Don’t instrument me, bro!” Can’t you just hear it?

Fun & Games
Frivolous sessions, just for kicks

8th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards
Wednesday, February 20th, 6:30pm - 8:30pm
Moscone Convention Center, Esplanade Room

The Game Developers Choice Awards are the premier accolades for peer-recognition in the digital games industry, celebrating creativity, artistry and technological genius. Industry professionals from around the world nominate for the awards, free of charge, ensuring that the recipients reflect the community's opinions.

Sure to bring a smile to one's face, though the awards played out better in San Jose’s civic auditorium than they do on the flat ballroom floor at Moscone. Still, looking forward to it. Hopefully they'll bring back Mega64's interstitials again this time.

The Game Design Challenge: The Inter-Species Game

Eric Zimmerman
Alexey Pajitnov

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: In the Game Design Challenge, talented designers tackle an unusual design problem. This year, returning champ Alexy Pajnitov faces off against two new competitors. The challenge: design a game to be played by humans and at least one other species. At the session, each panelist will present a unique solution to this game design enigma. In addition to the presenting designers, the audience plays an important role as well—by voting in the winner of the Game Design Challenge 2007. Expect to hear brave new game design ideas and unpredictable debate and dialog.

The Game Design Challenge is always great—luminaries engaging in pure game design without any commercial boundaries. Alexy Pajnitov stole the show last year, and I’m looking forward to his reappearance.

The nuts & bolts of making and selling games

Early Stage Funding for Gaming Start Ups

Matthew Le Merle

Business and Management/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Funding a game company is often the last, and most crucial step in realizing the vision of an independent development studio or gaming start-up. This session focuses on what independent developers and gaming start-ups need in their investment pitches to acquire the early stage funding they need. It involves a discussion of what works, what does not, and how companies can bridge the gap to VC funding. The session will include recent examples including arena.net, Telltale Games, Animated Speech, QB International, and others to give developers keys for success in the private equity market.

Might be useful someday.

Digital Distribution – From the Basement to the Boardroom Sponsored by Macrovision

Cal Morrell

Business and Management/
60-minute Sponsored Session

Overview: Advertising, retail, technology, production budgets and IPs all have a significant impact on the market, but what will make the difference in the games industry projected growth mark for the next 5 years? This session discusses the next set of trends that are expected to shape digital distribution for games.

Digital distribution is the future.

Small Studio Survival Stories

Jesse Schell

Business and Management/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: Small game studios have it tough. The only ones that survive are either smart, lucky, or more often, both. This panel is an opportunity for developers at small studios to share stories about what has worked and hasn't worked to keep their studios alive. Please come and share your story!

Working at a relatively small, independent studio, this seems applicable.

Sessions that address the history and broader social context of games

Developers in the Crosshairs: Mature Content, Censorship, and Design Choices

Daniel Greenberg

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: New studies show that although Mature rated games make up a mere 10% of the U.S. retail market, they have both the highest average gross sales and the highest average MetaCritic scores.

Censorship of Game Content - A Report from the Trenches

Lawrence Walters

Business and Management/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: Get ready for a frank discussion of sex and violence in video games; and the government's recent attempts to censor speech. Included in the presentation will be an overview of the legislative attempts to restrict the sale of violent or erotic game content, and the continuing antics of industry nemesis, Jack Thompson.

As someone interested in making games for players like myself, I feel invested in the state of “Mature” games.

How to Create an Industry: The Making of the Brown Box and PONG

Allan Alcorn
Ralph H. Baer

Game Design/
60-minute Lecture

Overview: The year was 1966. Television had a huge installed user base, but only featured a single, passive application with only a few channels. Ralph Baer decided there needed to be something more. He created the Brown Box, the world's first electronic console that enabled people to not just watch, but play Ping Pong on screen using connected controllers. In 1972, Magnavox launched it to retail as the Odyssey. Later that year, Atari and designer Allan Alcorn separately released PONG as a stand-up coin operated arcade unit. The success of both directly created this industry. Join Ralph and Allan as they describe what went right and what went wrong in engineering, designing, and championing their vision – and our reality -- of interactive games.

Sure to be a fascinating retrospective.

Stories Best Played: Deconstructing the Best Interactive Storytelling

Richard Rouse III
Steve Meretzky
Marc Laidlaw
Ken Rolston

Game Design/
60-minute Panel

Overview: This panel demonstrates that the best game storytelling can stand up to the best storytelling in any medium. A group of seasoned writer/designers will present their favorite storytelling games, with each being analyzed and deconstructed to see what make it work so effectively. In the end, a common theme emerges: the most successful storytelling games fully integrate their narratives into their core gameplay experiences.

An “expert look” at successful storytelling in games. Hopefully inspiring.

Hentai, Hardcore and Hotties: Sex in Games

Brenda Brathwaite

Game Design/
60-minute Roundtable

Overview: The international popularity of hentai titles and the North American fascination with "hotties" in video game world points to an increasing exploration of sexual themes in video games. On the hardcore fringe, dozens of virtual sex games are available for subscription or pay-per-play download, and the first MMOEGs have launched and are drawing players in the hundreds of thousands.

Again, I feel that mature issues shouldn’t be off-limits to video games. Is not sexuality and gender relations a more integral part of your own everyday life than violence and killing? Judging from the title, I’m really not sure this session will address the topic in a satisfactory manner. Could this issue get some thoughtful representation at GDC?

Preserving Games: Saving the Past and Present Now

Henry Lowood

60-minute Roundtable

Overview: This roundtable will seek participation and ideas from developers, publishers, players, collectors, and academics.

Game preservation is becoming a reality as more games are stored on commercial servers and made available through digital distribution. Even sites like The Underdogs are a great resource for games that are no longer available in any other form. I’m interested to hear expert opinions how the current state of game preservation in all its forms.

Finally, if you’re able:

(301)Game Design Workshop

Marc LeBlanc

Game Design/
Two-Day Tutorial

Overview: This intensive 2-day workshop will explore the day-to-day craft of game design through hands-on activities, group discussion, analysis and critique. Attendees will immerse themselves the iterative process of refining a game design, and discover formal abstract design tools that will help them think more clearly about their designs and make better games.

I attended the Game Design Workshop last year, and it was extremely enriching. The workshop takes a holistic approach to game design, focusing not just on video games but on creating systems of rules and rewards as a discipline unto itself. It feels like a companions piece to Rules of Play, if you’ve read that text. Participants collaborate to create one small analog game every hour or two of the session. My favorite aspect was making a flashcard version of Guitar Hero, which ended up being fun and expressing the original game well. If you can make it to the first two days of GDC, and you’re a designer or interested in design, I highly recommend you attend the workshop. That's it, barring announcements of further sessions. Only another month and change now...

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Abstinence Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats – those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last week, the Aberrant Gamer was forced to acknowledge spending an alarmingly significant number of hours on games. And not just playing – thinking about them, writing about them, chatting about them and making amateurish game-related craft projects. In and of itself, it wasn’t so alarming.

What gave me pause was how nervous the idea of stopping made me.

To that end, the Aberrant Gamer declared a week-long moratorium on gaming of any kind, in the hopes of learning something about a chronic, habitual game user’s relationship with the behavior, the nature of gaming, and the abiding nature of the soul, or something. In other words, I wanted to see what would happen. And I invited readers, both in the original column and in a challenge extended to the readers of my workblog, Sexy Videogameland.

So how’d we do?

You Mean All Games?

Some of the questions and early feedback I received from participants about my experiment were rather telling. There were a few people who wanted to know exactly what I meant by “gaming.” One email respondent wondered if tabletop RPGs count, and a commenter wondered if he’d have to give up chess and monopoly. “Is Brain Training really a game?” He asked. “Is My French Coach a game? Is it because it’s electronic?” Chess and monopoly are not video games; Nintendo DS cartridges are. Semantics were still the order of the day, however – numerous respondents said they’d love to try the experiment, but they couldn’t, because they just bought an anticipated title, or because they’re halfway through another right now. They were apologetic, but the message was clear – they couldn’t give up video games, because they were too busy playing video games.

I’d soothed my anxiety ahead of the experiment by ordering myself, online, a copy of Sega Genesis Collection for PSP. Scanning and sharing the pictorial evidence of my juvenile enthusiasm for Phantasy Star II made me rather urgently desirous of playing it again, and I figured the shrink-wrapped game would arrive as a tidy reward for an abstinence experiment dutifully conducted. Defying my expectations, it arrived the following afternoon, wrenching my plans by sitting there shiny and plastic-scented on my coffee table, promising me hours of handheld zone-outs if only I’d rescind my commitment.

I almost broke. In fact, weakly deciding that a column wherein I failed to make it seven days might be more interesting than one where I succeeded, I slit open the packaging, put in the UMD and turned it on. Just as the splash screen appeared, the doorbell rang. Dinner. If not for serendipitous timing, I would not have made it 24 hours.

Just Something I Do Automatically

One respondent, with the best of intentions, found himself breaking his vow entirely on accident and habit. “It turns out that picking up a gamepad and switching on the console is something I do automatically,” he wrote, ruefully. “It's strange that I hadn't made any conscious decision to play a game - I just did it, unthinkingly. It's just What I Do at the weekend, these days.”

I was not immune to force of habit, either. On my second successful day of abstinence – it had already begun to feel like an eternity, by the way – I, with equal thoughtlessness, reached out my hand to demand a turn at Umbrella Chronicles. Fortunately, my friend was aware of my efforts and refused to yield me the Wii remote. I was surprised, a bit, at the level of frustration I felt at being denied. Watching him play had created a certain investment in me, a certain bundling of my nerves in preparation for a fight. I would describe it as primal, like how domesticated animals might feel at the scent of blood, but it was less physical than it was a humming at the nape of my neck, a gathering of intangibles in the tendons between the bones of my hands, something agitated stirring a little under my sternum, demanding resolution.

This is the frustratingly tough-to-identify sensation that characterized my go at gamelessness. Like the respondent who emailed me, gaming is What I Do on the weekend. I began the experiment on Thursday, and by the time Saturday morning came around, I had begun to feel preoccupied. I felt the palpable urge to reach for my DS after breakfast as if it were a cigarette, laying on the couch in front of morning cartoons that presented the same absurd, eagerly sincere characters that populate some of my favorite titles.

The Fallen Hero

Instead, I went for a long run, hoping to exert away the restlessness through exercise, thinking as I went that When I Quit Gaming, I Exercised More would make a sparkling takeaway. Instead, my iPod decided to play all of my Guitar Hero music. With rhythm titles, eventually you develop a relationship with a song proportionate to your level of challenge or success at the level in which it features. Playing music from rhythm games when I exercise never fails to give me an adrenaline rush that no other psyche-up tactic can approach. This time, though, it just made me want to play Guitar Hero. Badly.

And I started becoming aware of another kind of building pressure. Not the sort of constant preoccupation, restlessness of the hands that had taken up residence in my body, but an awareness of the gaming community around me. Many of these things take skill. And skills lose their luster with time. What if, the next time I played Guitar Hero, I was rusted? My friend and I had been eagerly planning some online co-op, and I’d even fantasized numerous times at getting good enough to enter local competitions – how embarrassing would it be to fail horribly in public, online, in front of people? I became painfully aware of all the games I had not yet completed. Games that came out in December, and this is January, and how can I be a writer if I don’t stay on top of things? What am I going to do at the end of this week, I wondered? Go back to blogging about BioShock?

I also began to wonder what, exactly, I would have to tell people about how it felt to stop playing. What if I suffered very badly? Could I admit that? Could I admit that it seemed I’d lost my ability to sit still long enough to watch a TV show? Confess that I found movies a slack-mouthed, lackluster, unrewarding waste of time, now that I bothered trying to watch some? How would I describe the creeping unrest in my heart that I began to become just slightly aware of – and more with time – that surfaced slow and sinister now that my hands and mind were not engaged in constant activity and obedience to the laws of a digital world? Things I avoided began to push up against my awareness like water swelling behind a dam. Sometimes it was good to stop avoiding those things – like laundry, or dishes, or phone calls to family members. Other times, it was things I would decidedly prefer to avoid. The experiment was evolving into something uncomfortably personal, and I wondered about my duty to explain it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could not endure seven days without video games. All right, all right. I made it to the end of three days. That’s it.

And in the end, it wasn’t the infuriating psychosomatic humming in my ribcage, the restless urge to translate kinetic energy onto a screen for relief. It wasn’t envy, or the feeling of exclusion from my friends or my community, and it wasn’t fear of falling behind, nor was it fear of what I might have to share if I pressed on.


It was a simple need for comfort. I had an upset stomach Saturday night, and there was nothing to be done for it. There was nothing on television, pain distracted me from reading, I’d already called everyone there was to talk to, I was too uncomfortable to go out and not tired enough to sleep. I remembered being nine, and home sick from school, playing Phantasy Star II in the quiet of the empty house.

I’d put the Sega Genesis Collection on a low shelf under my coffee table, but it was still within arm’s reach of where I lay, under a blanket, with no idea of what to do with myself. Feeling guilty, apologizing internally to the loyal readers more stalwart than I who’d been emailing me dutifully on their successful progress, I put it on. And amid the simplistic chiming music and the soothingly repetitive grind, the feeling of illness did not subside, but a mantle of quietude, of contentment, settled on me.

I played the damn thing for what might have been ten straight hours on Sunday, as if all the more fixated for having been deprived. And, pointedly refusing to consider the ramifications, I’ve played it every night since then. I’ve avoided playing anything else, as if that’s worth anything given that my fixation seems to be singular right now, experiment or not.

So what was it all for? Have I answered the question as to whether or not gaming is an addiction? Or, further, whether it’s a harmful one? To the first, yes, and to the second, probably not – but in all fairness, I chickened out just as my life in the absence of a retreat route into games began to frighten me. Who knows whether I was really sick at all, or whether my temperamental digestion was really a psychosomatic manifestation, just like the tension in my shoulders and the urge in my fingertips.

The World Opens Up

What I did learn – and this was the primary aim – was just a little bit more about why I play, and what gaming means to me, does for me. I thought that without games, the world might open up just a little; that I’d divert that gaming energy into learning new things, visiting new places, developing more relationships. But, even given only a few days to experiment, I realized I felt then, at least for that moment, content with the size of my world and the people in it as they are.

On the other hand, the absence of games left a distinct sense of feeling stranded, as if bridges I had made from my imagination into worlds made by others had been closed for repairs. I didn’t have a bad couple of days; more ordinary than I would have expected, and neither more nor less fulfilling.

But it did feel like my world was a bit smaller; there were emotions, impulses and dreams that had nowhere to travel to, that languished amid the everyday. It’s true that I learned perhaps gaming has cultivated in me a lack of long-term patience, a need for more regular stimulation, a poorer attention span. It’s also very possible that I zone out with games to avoid dealing directly with things that cause me frustration or sadness. But I’m now certain there is a singular fashion in which games engage both mind and emotion – not only for the purpose of play, but for personal reasons both creative and therapeutic – that no other form of media approaches. It’s a quality unique to gaming, it speaks to the power and responsibility game developers have assumed, and it makes sense out of the intense, often perplexing personalization we feel toward the games they make.

Perhaps those that have been thoroughly introduced to gaming in a way that builds that connection really can’t do without it thereafter. And probably, it doesn’t make sense to ask them to. I’ll never ask that of anyone again, and nor will I ever make a similar endeavor myself.

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances intermittently for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

The Art Of Jake Kazdal - Explored

So, as part of the recent New Year's game company card selection here on GSW, we noted that the card from translation experts 8-4 was designed by Jake Kazdal, that rare Westerner who's played a key role in Japanese game development - as a concept designer on both Space Channel 5 and Rez.

Big sister site Gamasutra has actually previously interviewed Kazdal on his fascinating history developing for those two excellent titles, as well as Astroboy and other games, and now we notice Kazdal has an official portfolio site up which includes some wonderful art - even rare behind-the-scenes pics from those very Sega titles. In particular:

This original concept montage from Space Channel 5 shows off some of the alternate, spikier, slightly scarier looks for lead character Ulala. But... where's Space Michael?

A montage of Rez sketches, screenshots, ship models, and more detailed concept art, showing that a fair amount of predesign really does need to go into the more complex whole.

Anyhow, Kazdal is working at Electronic Arts Los Angeles on an apparently unannounced title right now, focusing on concept art and visual development. It'd be interested to know about the history of some of the other titles on his profile page - I wonder if any of them, such as this 'Wizard Of Oz' character set, were for planned but unfinished games.

January 10, 2008

GameSetLinks: Major Minor's EverEternal WinterWorld

- Aha, the links have been piling up again, so it's time to unleash them in a focused burst. Among the interesting things this time - 'Surfer Girl' seems to know the name of the Rodney Greenblat/Masaya Matsuura comeback rhythm game for Majesco, if she is to be believed, and GamesRadar makes a fun stab at explaining what game names really mean.

Also worth noting - sister site IndieGames.com is rattling through the freeware picks, with the cutely named EverEternal WinterWorld getting plenty of discussion, and there's a variety of other crazed links to be poking at. Like these:

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: January eight things
Claims that 'Major Minor's Majestic March' is the name for Greenblat & Matsuura's new Wii music game for Majesco. Believable.

Dan Hsu's 1UP Blog: Banned
The actual EGM editorial, fortunately.

Games Radar - 'From Katamari to Mass Effect, we reveal games' secret meanings'
Nice idea - what do game names really mean?

MIT Technology Review: Virtual Labor Lost
The hidden story here - why did Arden have to ditch using Multiverse as an online world engine?

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Freeware Game Pick: EverEternal WinterWorld (SilverNova)
The most-commented IndieGames post so far, for an interesting (pictured) 2D platformer with Cave Story undertones.

MTV Multiplayer » Introducing The MTV Rhythm Game Track Finder — The Definitive Search Engine For ‘Rock Band,’ ‘Guitar Hero,’ And Dozens More
Cute idea - Totilo, joo are smart. If it was your idea :P

Fort90 Journal » Still The Best Mine Cart Riding/Sandwich Making/Dating Sim Ever Made: Love Love Mine, Part 1
As a commenter says: 'just another entry in the romance-in-a-minecart/truck/hand-trolley genre.' Yes, there are others (Magical Truck Adventure!)

Networked_Performance — Ars Virtua "World of Warcraft Residence"
Oh boy, arts grants go Azeroth.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun: How Gamers Will Save The World
PC-Gamer reprinted Rossignol goodness about... saving the world!

Road To The IGF: Synaesthete's Collaborative Fusion

- [Another 'Road To The IGF' piece, but particularly notable because the game is freely downloadable, an interesting, clever game design, and the folks at DigiPen point out that Guitar Hero/Rock Band's Chris Canfield praised the developers for "pushing into unexplored music game territory." S'interesting stuff.]

Continuing sister site Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, they talk to Zach Aikman, Joseph Tkach, Andrew Maneri and William Towns of DigiPen Institute of Technology about their IGF 2008 Excellence in Visual Art finalist Synaesthete.

The title, which is also a Student Showcase winner for the 2008 Independent Games Festival, is a music-driven, arcade-style shooter that aims to synthesize the senses through its integration of light and sound.

What kind of background do you have in game development, and how has your DigiPen experience been?

Zach Aikman: The first game I ever finished developing was a role-playing game about a white blood cell who traverses the human body, fighting off a deadly infection in the brain. It was a graded project for my high school biology class, and I think that was the first time I really knew for sure what career I wanted to pursue. The only tools I had available to me at the time were a copy of RPG Maker 95 and MSPaint.

My DigiPen experience has been fruitful thus far, and afforded me many opportunities to improve my skills as a programmer, designer, producer and team player. By working on multiple projects from start to finish, I've gained a better understanding of the game development process and how to avoid common recurring mistakes that can kill a project once it's off the ground. Above all, I've been given the incredibly opportunity to socialize and network with other like-minded individuals, without whom Synaesthete would not have been possible.

Joseph Tkach: My only background in game development is that I love games. I'd programmed a few little projects before college, but I really had no idea what I was doing. I always wanted to make games, though. When I was younger, that's all my friends and I would talk about. I think DigiPen is a great place, and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to learn how to make video games. You have to work so hard it's surreal, but the opportunities are certainly worth it. So would I do anything different? I think a more relevant question is: Would I do anything the same?

Andrew Maneri: I've been doing amateur/indie game development since I was really little (starting with QBasic around 6 or 7). I mostly made clones of popular games like Sonic or Mega Man, and got a feel for how those games were polished. [I did] a lot of art work too, like emulating the graphic styles and working on animations and the like.

The DigiPen experience has been amazing. They teach you how to handle the workload you'll get in the industry, amazing coding techniques, and just lots of hands-on experience (For example, before making Synaesthete, we had already made two other games for the school). If you're really serious about what you want to do, you'll make some
amazing contacts here, too.

William Towns: We're just students, so we don't have much experience in game development. We have created games for previous annual projects, but not much outside of that. DigiPen has given us all of our experience and as such has been a great experience.

What motivated you to create a game like Synaesthete?

ZA: I think that for all of us it was very much a labor of love. Sure, at times it felt a lot like a school project; yet throughout it all, it was very clear among the rest of the team that we all had a personal investment in the project besides just a letter grade. Everyone brought something different to the table, and so it was pretty easy to find that motivation to do what needed to be done. It was the most fun I've had working on any game so far.

JT: "Realistic" games never really moved me that much. I appreciate them as technical achievements, but the games that move me are the ones that do something different. I really like arcade-style games, and I'm addicted to flashy eye candy. So I wanted to make a game that played kind of like a music visualization app.

AM: Synaesthete was Joe's baby. He pitched the idea to me on the way back from [getting] teriyaki, and I knew I wanted to be part of the dev team.

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

ZA: The original concept was Joe's, but it's gone through various changes over the past year, just like any good design does. Most of the implementation ideas and additional design elements we brainstormed while sitting around and talking about what things worked and what things didn't work in our game.

A lot of inspiration was drawn from games such as Rez, Beatmania, Diablo and Geometry Wars, both in terms of graphical style and gameplay mechanics. We're all pretty big fans of classics such as Sonic, Mega Man and Zelda, so there were definitely some homages paid to the sorts of games that we all played growing up.

JT: Tetsuya Mizuguchi (Rez, Lumines, Meteos, Space Channel 5, Every Extend Extra) is my idol. Everything he makes is gold. Every game he designs is like nothing anyone has ever seen before. I love music games, and I love his sense of style. I'm also a huge fan of the guys at Bizarre. The people who made Geometry Wars and Boom Boom Rocket really speak to me.

But the project borrowed little touches from so many other games. I can point at almost any feature at all, and then talk about how someone on the team liked feature X from game Y, and how we were inspired by that.

AM: I was more involved with the presentation, in those areas we drew upon a lot of retro-inspiration, those classic games everyone on the team had fond memories of. Which means that a lot of our transitions and splashes have a very Sonic-Zelda-Mega Man-ish feel to them.

Coding-wise, a lot of our implementation came from our instructors and upperclassmen going on and on about good programming practices. We went component-based, which turned out to be an awesome move.

I want to mention the Zaikman here too. Joe had asked for a simple figure, like a stick-man. For that kind of look I took a man, simplified him into a more Gumby-like figure and then stylized the proportions and lines to give him a kind of funky-feeling. All the other enemies in the game ended up being based on this same process, except applied to different animals or archetypes.

WT: For implementation, we drew a lot of inspiration from class projects and what upperclassmen have said to us.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

ZA: FL Studio was used for composing all of the audio. Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 and Visual Assist X were both used for all programming tasks, along with TortoiseSVN to keep track of our source code repository. Adobe Photoshop and 3DStudio Max were used to create our art assets. We used Microsoft's DirectX 9.0 as our graphics API and Microsoft's XACT audio authoring tool to import audio assets into the game. Finally, Lua was used for scripting. Beyond that, everything we did was our own work.

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

ZA: I like to think that the most interesting element of our game is the amount of polish we put into it. I've always believed that what separates the good games from the excellent games are those little flourishes and details that make you stop and go "Wow...that's really cool." We tried to include as much of that as possible in Synaesthete, because that level of attention to detail isn't something you normally
find in student games.

JT: I can't really say what would be most interesting to other people, but I personally have an obsession with particle effects, and to me that's the most interesting part. But then again, I also wrote all of that, so of course I find it interesting. I guess I really like the retro feel of our game, but I wouldn't really say that's the "most interesting" part.

AM: Personally, I like how the dual gameplay really shines during boss battles. It's a little more controlled during those fights and the potential of the game shows through.

WT: The need for the player to multitask by focusing both on movement and on beat-matching.

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

ZA: The core development team consisted of four guys - myself, Joseph Tkach, Andrew Maneri and William Towns. The other two people who have really done a fantastic job of helping out with the game are Katie Bridwell, who voices the sexy sounding RoboLady in the game's tutorial, and Daniel Moyer, who created the texture work in the Like A Child vision.

The development process has really been a blast. I've had a great time working with the rest of my team and hope to do so again in the future on another collaborative project like Synaesthete. They're all very talented individuals, each in their own way, and we never had a dull day working on the game.

JT: We had a core team of four, but there were three or four people who would listen to our ideas and give us feedback. We did a lot of focus testing within our school, so sometimes when other students at DigiPen would play it, they'd give us good feedback. The first part of the development cycle was burdened by all of our other classes, but in the last four months, it was a pretty solid sprint for just the game.

We used an agile development process, and we had a couple of faculty advisors at DigiPen. We tried to have as many people look at the project as we could, and then we'd try to work off of their reactions. One time, a kid at the summer workshops said, "When you press blue and green together, it should shoot a teal laser". That was a really brilliant idea, from our perspective, so we used it.

AM: There are four main developers on the team, Zach, Joe, Will, and Andy(myself). Our instructors, Chris Erhardt and Benjamin Ellinger, also contributed a lot to setting up tests and giving us really good feedback on how to refine this game. The other contributions of note would be Katie Bridwell on the tutorial and Dan Moyer providing level textures for the "Like a Child" vision.

The development process was in two phases. During the school year we balanced classes and built the game engine, getting the initial gameplay prototype built. During the summer we really got hardcore into getting the content in place and constantly testing and iterating. That was the big change over the summer, just watching people play a level, see where the gameplay was failing or frustrating people, and fixing the underlying problems. The weekly testing is really what polished our gameplay into something that feels really good.

WT: Four developers, and bits and pieces of help from another dozen or so. The development process has been rough, but very satisfying. The four of us became a very tight-knit group; learning of each other's good and bad habits, how to work with each other, and how to have fun.

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

ZA: Most of the things I'd consider doing differently are structural changes that would've made it easier to add certain features to the game later on in the development cycle.

JT: Knowing what I know now, the code would be way better, almost everything would be different. The list is too long. It would be the same game, but all the details would change. Making a game is a pretty big growth experience. You learn a lot about a lot of things.

AM: We originally started out supporting network play (this was my job), and while it worked, we realized it didn't really add anything to the game, so we cut it out so I could focus on physics and creating the characters, bosses, and their AI. That happened over the summer, and I wish I had spent the whole school-year working on those areas too. I found I really am happier and more effective when I have sort of a visual-programming dual focus.

On that related note, with more time to develop the bosses and characters, I think we would have focused the levels more on those interactions, making entire levels extended boss fights; The Voxel King and Evil Zaikman battles feel really good, better than the regular level interactions in my opinion. I would have loved to expand that kind of interaction to a majority of the game.

WT: Yes. We would have focused on building strong tools from the beginning. Great tools make great games.

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

ZA: There's a lot of really sweet indie titles out there right now that I'd love to get my hands on. Fez, in particular, is one of those. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for colorful pixel art, or any game that can claim to use voxels (or similar technology), but that game looks like a lot of fun.

JT: A lot of our competitors at IGF really interest me this year. Unfortunately, most of the ones that I really want to play don't have public demos. I'm eagerly looking forward to playing Aquaria, and I'm really impressed with the Darwinia guys. Indie gaming seems like the only place where you're truly free to experiment, to make the games that you need to make for yourself. Synaesthete was a game that I needed to make, because it came from the place in my head where I know what games I most want to play. I certainly hope to work in the industry once I graduate, but I think I'll always try to produce indie titles, because that's where you have the most freedom.

AM: I think it's pretty awesome - I see new indie developers showing up all the time and new organizations offering support for them. It seems like indie gaming is kind of like the 'farm-system' for gaming, and when something really sticks it gets pulled into one of the bigger organizations. If that's how innovation has to happen and bevaffordable, I think it's fine.

As for an indie game out that I admire right now, I'm going to have to go with the Streets of Rage remake. That thing is so polished and full-featured, I was having big flashbacks to all the good times I played that game with my brothers on our genesis.

WT: I have a lot of respect for independent game developers. It's not easy creating games with little or no funding. It's also much riskier and the returns may not be as great. However, I'm confident that as long as there are creative people out there, independent games will be made. One of my favorite independent games is Cave Story by Pixel. It taught me that it isn't a large budget that makes a great game -- it's dedication and a desire to create.

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

ZA: By giving small teams of indie developers the resources they need to focus full time on projects of their choice, we could see so many unique innovations in the game development industry that it would make heads spin. Somebody needs to capitalize on this!

JT: Please quit making the same first person shooter ten times a year with slightly better graphics. There are an infinite number of possible game mechanics.

AM: Those awesome student developers you find in various colleges and high schools? They need tuition money and rent. Sports teams sign people who are in school -- you should be doing the same.

WT: Although I may not live past the next 30 seconds, you (the game business) should hire the other three guys on the team. I assure you, they're quality guys! Should I somehow recover from this 30-second death, you should hire me too!

GameSetQ: More Symbiosis, Less Competition In Games?

- Over on big sister site Gamasutra, we sometimes publish Letters To The Editor, and in this case, we're featuring on GSW a letter sent to us from Hope Benne, Professor of History at Salem State College because - well - it's quirky, but it asks a very interesting question:

"As a college professor who teaches peace studies, I happened upon your site when looking for metaphors on garbage collection.

I am so impressed by the excellence of your website and your enormous technical and creative skills, but am shocked by the underlying assumptions of your games. They revolve around win/lose, zero sum, might makes right thinking, and a tooth and claw view of nature, while there's a whole new effort out there to raise consciousness on new paradigms for conceptualizing life.

The new thinking has to do with healing, unifying, balancing, finding equilibrium, and, most of all, symbiosis. There's a lot more symbiosis in nature than competition, most modern biologists would verify this. I'm afraid you have been too greatly influenced by our sensationalized media industry.

I encourage you to use your considerable talents to change and evolve people's views, to create games which engage people's moral awareness, and connect with our highest aspirations, rather than repeat the ordinary win/lose thinking and pessimistic assumptions which can be seen everywhere."

Obviously, there's a couple of issues here - for one, that Gamasutra simply writes about games, and doesn't make them. But if we take 'your games' to mean the industry's output, there's an underlying nugget of truth in here. Sure, we have Peacemaker (pictured), and The Sims, and Animal Crossing, and Tetris, but the vast majority of games are indeed about conflict.

Yet almost this exact point came up in an Australian newspaper report on the Independent Games Festival, in which I'm interviewed and was asked about the level of conflict-based gameplay even in the relatively tame IGF finalists for last year:

"Mr Carless sees the casual violence more as an interactive and dramatic device than social indicator. "None of the IGF games are actually particularly realistic," he says. "Some of the things you are shooting at include chickens, in order to trap them inside a little bubble to score points (FizzBall), or abstract geometric shapes (Everyday Shooter).

'I think when you see projectiles interacting with other projectiles, it's more a function of game design than anything else. Games need dynamics and conflict to create resolution.'"

Yet, is this just an excuse? It does bother me a bit that so many games - even creative ones - focus so directly on conflict. But perhaps I'm just being overly PC - conflict is a fact of life, and it's one of the only ways you can model gameplay and controls. Thoughts, anyone?

January 9, 2008

2008 Indie Game Summit - Final Line-Up Revealed

- The organizers of the 2008 Independent Games Summit (that would be me, Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink!) have announced the full schedule for the February 2008 GDC event, with several new speakers confirmed and the January 16th early-bird deadline approaching.

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

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

This year, we're inviting Independent Games Festival Main Competition and Student Showcase finalists to attend the IGS, as well as a pretty formidable speaker line-up from the indie scene and many indie/pro level attendees who are also attending the GDC. The full line-up with times and bios:

Monday, February 18th

Scattershots of Play - The Potential of Indie Games
Speaker(s): Kellee Santiago (ThatGameCompany), Jon Mak (Queasy Games), Pekko Koskinen (LudoCraft)
Time: 10am - 11am
Session description: This unique keynote sees dialogue between three major game designers, where the makers of EVERYDAY SHOOTER and FL0W meet Scandinavian reality games. Each brings to the table their personal, different vision on gameplay.

"When we stop at the words "good" or "better" or "fun" we don't even scratch the surface of what games are... or could be. Looking for "better" games seeks uniformity of value. Yet we need to understand the variety, potentiality of games first, to know where we are going... or could be going."

Coffee Break 11am - 11:15am
Evolving AQUARIA
Speaker(s):Alec Holowka & Derek Yu (Bit Blot)
Time: 11:15am - 12pm
Session description: Indie game creators Alec Holowka and Derek Yu discuss their journey developing the IGF grand prize winning game AQUARIA. From first prototype to final release, team Bit Blot share old builds and prototypes, mistakes and successes, design decisions and lessons learned demonstrating how AQUARIA was grown, not planned.

The Game Attorney: Indie Edition
Speaker(s): Tom Buscaglia
Time: 12pm - 12:30am
Session description: Longtime game attorney Buscaglia gives a key overview of contract and legal-related issues independent studios should be aware of when starting out.

Lunch 12:30pm - 2pm

Ninja Ways: An N+ Postmortem
Speaker(s): Mare Sheppard (Metanet Software), Nick Waanders (Slick Entertainment)
Time: 2pm - 2:30pm
Session description: Following the success of addictive ninja-themed platform action title IGF Audience Award-winner N, which is debuting both on Xbox Live Arcade and on the Nintendo DS/Sony PSP as N+, the creators of the original title explain how they moved their property onto consoles, with details on financials, technical issues and solutions, and a plethora of other specifics for indies aspiring to console/handheld.

Spreading Your Message as an Indie Developer
Speaker(s): Thomas Arundel, Mark Morris, Chris Delay (Introversion)
Time: 2:30pm - 3:15pm
Session description: UK-based Introversion, the creators of DEFCON and the multiple IGF award-winning DARWINIA, are notable in their use of effective branding and positioning to become one of the few indie developers making inroads towards entering mainstream gamer consciousness. But how? Explanations will ensue!

The Web Game Renaissance
Speaker(s): Chris Pasley (Kongregate), Brian Fischer (Arcadetown)
Time: 3:15pm - 4pm
Session description: Small web games have become a viable creative form and business model, with sites like Kongregate, Newgrounds, Instant Action, and Arcadetown pulling down huge monthly incomes and attracting millions of visitors per year. Including representatives from the major players in this emerging game space, this panel will candidly discuss the eye-popping financials behind today’s most successful web games. From DESKTOP TOWER DEFENSE to a host of others, see how tiny in-browser games can be innovative, lucrative, and indie.

Coffee Break 4pm - 4:15pm

From CONTRA to SHANTAE: a Study in Contrasts
Speaker(s): John Beck (WayForward Technologies), Matt Bozon (WayForward Technologies)
Time: 4:15pm - 5pm
Session description: How do you make the game great, especially when working on a licensed game, while also keeping the lights on? What are the realities of working as a long-time independent developer? WayForward (CONTRA 4, SHANTAE) has weathered the storm for longer than many, making acclaimed licensed and original games alike, and the business and creative minds behind the cult favorite company explain how to juggle priorities smartly.

Postmortem: PIXELJUNK Series
Speaker(s): Dylan Cuthbert (Q Games)
Time: 5pm - 5:45pm
Session description: Kyoto's Q Games was founded in 2001 by Dylan Cuthbert, a veteran developer who worked with Nintendo on the original version of STARFOX. The company is now self-funding and creating PlayStation 3 titles in the PIXELJUNK series, with PIXELJUNK RACERS completed and PIXELJUNK MONSTERS due out soon. Cuthbert will discuss the process and reality of creating this 'small game' series, inspired by classic '80s Commodore 64 and Spectrum games.

Tuesday, February 19th

A Tale of Two Kyles
Speaker(s):Kyle Gabler (2D Boy) & Kyle Gray (Electronic Arts)
Time: 10am - 11am
Session description: Ever wanted to quit your corporate gig and make your own game? What about pitch your game to the head of the company and have it made? Two alumni from the Experimental Gameplay Project compare their experiences in the indie and corporate scene. Kyle Gabler left EA in May 2006 to start his own company (currently creating WORLD OF GOO), while Kyle Gray stayed behind to pitch his own title. Both made their own game. It’s unlimited resources vs. unlimited freedom in this, 'A Tale of Two Kyles.'

Coffee Break 11am - 11:15am

Unique Knobs For Indie Games
Speaker(s):Raigan Burns (Metanet Software)
Time: 11:15am - 12pm
Session description: With so many options for middleware and freeware, isn’t writing your own physics or graphics engine just technological masturbation? Raigin Burns of Metanet Software makes the case that creating your own unique technologies from scratch allows freedom of expression impossible with middleware and canned solutions. If Metanet's hit game N is "just a regular platformer with novel collision detection," could creating unique technology lead to innovation?

Students to Professionals: The Indies of Tomorrow
Speaker(s): Tracy Fullerton (USC Interactive Media)
Time: 12pm - 12:30pm
Session description: Game studies programs are rapidly becoming hotbeds of indie game development, a place for both students and researchers to innovate and take risks in low budget, high impact projects that explore strange new worlds of game design. The director of the USC Game Innovation Lab, the research unit behind projects like CLOUD, FL0W and THE NIGHT JOURNEY, talks about how to create a culture of rampant experimentation and innovation, and make the games you can’t make anywhere else.

Lunch 12:30pm - 2pm

An Indie Reality Check
Speaker(s) N'Gai Croal (Newsweek), Stephen Totilo (MTV News)
Time: 2pm - 2:30pm
Session description: How does the world at large really sees indies? Prominent game critics Stephen Totilo of MTV and N’Gai Croal of Newsweek take an objective look at the current state of indie games from the perspective of news, media, and entertainment in general. How are independent games doing in terms of mindshare relative to games as a whole, how could we be doing better, and what can we do today to make indie games more prominent? N’Gai and Stephen debate the answers.

Postmortem: Torpex's SCHIZOID
Speaker(s): Bill Dugan (Torpex)
Time: 2:30pm - 3:15pm
Session description: As the first XBLA game to use Microsoft's XNA framework, and the first title from independent start-up Torpex, SCHIZOID interesting from a multitude of perspectives. But what went right and wrong during the console downloadable title's development? Torpex's Dugan presents plenty of practical tips and specifics on the creation of the title.

Innovating in the Casual Market
Speaker(s): Arthur Humphrey (Last Day Of Work)
Time: 3:15pm - 4pm
Session description: To some independent developers, "casual" can be a bad word - connoting gameplay roteness, perhaps. But why does financial success, being on a certain portal, or the arbitrarily assigned label "casual" make you a sellout? Humphrey (VIRTUAL VILLAGERS) has created sophisticated independently-developed titles that are hits in the casual market, and explains his views on the surprisingly large indie/casual intersection.

Coffee Break 4pm - 4:15pm

Contracting Vs. Indie: The Showdown
Speaker(s): Brent Fox, Steve Taylor (Ninjabee/Wahoo)
Time: 4:15pm - 5pm
Session description: Brent 'Indie Core' Fox and Steve 'We Need Money to Eat' Taylor square off in a battle of wits and whimsy over a question facing many indies: to contract or not to contract? If your company can't survive, you can't make the games you want. If you can't make the games you want, why make games at all? Find out how Wahoo/Ninja Bee strike a balance between OUTPOST KALOKI, BAND OF BUGS, and Disney's TRIVIA TIME in this battle of contracting vs. indie.

The State of Indie Games
Speaker(s): Noel Llopis (Powerof2Games), Jacob Van Wingen (Gastronaut Studios), Jamie Cheng (Klei Entertainment), Matt Bozon (Wayforward Technologies), Jon Mak (Queasy Games)
Time: 5pm - 6pm
Session description: Hear from full-time indies. How do they manage their time, their projects, and their lives? This in-depth panel presents practical tips on working from home, with teams of friends, remote teams, motivation, and everything else indies typically have to face.

The 2008 Independent Games Summit is available to attend by purchasing a GDC 2008 Summits Pass. In addition, other passes such as the GDC 2008 All Access Pass also allow entry to the Summit. The early-bird deadline for the Summit is January 16th, and more information on the line-up for the summit is available the official IGS website.

Opinion: Carroll On Understanding The Casual Gamer

- [Continuing a new casual game-specific monthly column printed over at Gamasutra, Reflexive's director of marketing Russell Carroll (Wik, Ricochet) looks at how developers can identify the mysterious 'casual gamer', examining definitions and play motivations - I think this is useful analysis indeed.]

On Black Friday, I headed to the local GameStop, arriving about 30 minutes before opening. I was intent on scoring the newly released Zelda version of the DS, and figured that with this store opening at the late hour of 7:00 AM, most of the early morning retail insanity of Black Friday would pass it by and I’d have a lonely wait for the store opening.

Instead, I was greeted by a long line that prompted me to quickly park and hurry over to the store. The woman directly in front of me asked if I had gotten a number. “I need a number?” I said back. “Yeah, they only have 25 Wiis, so you have to have a number.” I told her I wasn’t there for a Wii, but for the special-edition Zelda DS. She looked confused. She also didn’t look like a gamer.

Her hair was graying towards silver and I’d have guessed her age at near 60. “I’m kind of embarrassed,” she said, “but I’m not getting a Wii for my kids. It’s for my husband and me.” She went on to tell about her first time playing the Wii and then her decision to get one, and even how she’d already gotten a second joystick and Wii Play through eBay. She was ecstatic about getting a number that ensured her a Wii, and after chatting with me for a moment, pulled out her cell phone and called a friend to let them know that there were still a few Wiis left.

I remember that moment particularly well, because Mike Boeh (of Retro64 and now PopCap fame) and I had a discussion a couple of years ago about how consoles would impact the casual games space. Mike suggested that neither XBLA nor the "Revolution," as the Wii was then known, would impact the casual games market because “Grandma is not going to buy a console.”

Standing there next to Grandma, I realized in a much more personal manner than I had before how much the video game market is changing. However, as games have become more mainstream, our understanding of who is buying the games has become increasingly niche. With that in mind, I thought it would be a good time to consider what we know about a most poorly understood group, the Casual Gamer.

The Casual Gamer Stereotype

Casual gamers are typically (and readily) described as “women over 40.” That definition is sometimes expounded upon by adding “women, baby boomers and seniors.” However, while the sentiment is somewhat accurate, it doesn’t give us more than a glimpse of the picture.

Consider the following information about casual gamers.
The CGA reports that while buyers are mostly female (74 percent) and over 35 (72 percent), only slightly more than half of the players of casual games are female (51 percent) and they’re also a little younger (just 62 percent are over 35) 80 percent of those with children/grandchildren play casual games with them, and reasons for playing include educational use of leisure time, mental exercise, confidence building, stress relief, entertainment, and pain relief.

At Least One Takeaway

When I was a boy, I remember showing my Grandmother a Transformer I’d received for Christmas. As she talked about the “amazing toy” with my parents and Grandfather, she said, “and it’s educational, too.” For Grandma, that made all the difference in the world. It wasn’t just a toy, it was a beneficial use of my time.

It seems many casual gamers have a similar perspective of casual gaming. A casual gamer survey showed respondents more than twice as likely to choose “stress relief” as their reason for playing as they were to call it “entertainment.” A separate survey found 70 percent of grandparents and parents who played casual games believed the games provided “valuable educational benefits.”

Of course, stress relief and relaxation come in different forms for different people. Though I’ve grown a bit since then, in my college days I found playing the original Wolfenstein 3D to be quite relaxing. However, I can’t imagine that Id Software initially created Wolfenstein 3D with the intent of creating an experience that would relax players. Though Wolfenstein 3D probably wouldn’t be considered relaxation for most in the casual audience, there may be quite a bit of variety in what they would consider "casual relaxing."

Gaming has often been seen as just simple entertainment without any need for meaning. However, when considering the casual gamer, it’s clear that they are not satisfied with just being entertained; they may be looking for stress relief, learning, distraction, self-improvement, or simply a pleasant way to spend time with friends. Instead of looking for excitement, adventure or competition like the core gamer, casual gamers often want to feel that their time is being used beneficially.

Considerations for Game Development

The reason a player will want to play a game is something that should be carefully explored during game development. However, as casual gamers use a very different set of reasons for playing games than what we are used to in the core space, their needs are often overlooked.

Considering the reasons that casual gamers play games is really only the first step in using that information in game development. As I alluded to earlier, even if you know that casual gamers are playing to relax, that does not tell you much about what a casual gamer finds relaxing.

Some of that information can be discerned from looking at what has been successful over time in the casual game market. For example, though there have been many attempts, space shooters have never sold well to casual gamers. In fact, space themes in general have not been successful in the casual games space. Other approaches that have not proven to be successful in the casual games space include putting the player in harm’s way, requiring a joystick (or even the use of the right mouse button), and having a high learning curve.

Of course our understanding of what casual gamers find relaxing is ever changing, and often comes through trial and error. For example, famously, Betty’s Beer Bar, the first of the click-management games, was turned down by Real Arcade because it was too much like work. Since Diner Dash and a host of other click-management games have become some of the best-sellers in the industry, it’s become clear that though most of us would say that “work” doesn’t provide any stress relief, there is something about being successful in a job that most casual gamers find beneficial.

The Challenge

As more and more Grandmas flock to purchase a Wii, the gaming landscape will continue to change. With these new casual gamers coming into the fold, it’s important to consider their reasons for playing video games.

Though casual gamers have often been disparaged for purchasing what core gamers consider “short and shallow” games, the focus of casual gamers on games that are a beneficial use of their time may make them the deepest gamer group of all… and a singular challenge for the game designers who struggle to understand and make games for them.

Opinion: Casual Games, Reviews, And Rebuttals

- Checking out our referrers today, I see that my recent chat with Joel Parker about Wii review scores has sparked a lengthy rebuttal from Newsweek's dreadlocked dissenter N'Gai Croal over at his Level Up blog.

While I think the Croal-meister has a number of notable points, I'd like to take a few paragraphs to rhetorically duff him up a bit - but mainly point out that we're talking about the same problem from different angles.

Really, this is the crux of N'Gai's argument against the original editorial, as mentioned in his comments:"My beef is that the Metacritic average shouldn't be seen as a proxy for the review text. Some qualitative analysis is called for before they can indict core game reviewers for missing the boat."

Well, yes and no. Firstly, as can be seen on this Mario Party 8 for Wii Metacritic page, there _is_ a summary of the review text on the page itself, and you can click through and read any of the reviews pretty simply. So that gives a good idea of the spread and basic tenor of the reviews.

And I think the claim that core game reviewers are 'missing the boat' is not the point we were going for. We were saying, rather, that for the first time that we can recall in the history of video game reviewing, those playing games no longer agree with those reviewing them - there's a disconnect there which has not previously existed.

One of the things that I deeply appreciated in game criticism in the past was that the majority of game players agreed with the majority of game reviewers. With the advent of the Wii and the rise of casual games, this is no longer true for a _majority_ of the DS and Wii game playing audience. Those reviewing Wii and DS games are fundamentally out of step with those buying the same games.

This isn't - again - necessarily a bad thing, but most game reviews are written not from an art or aesthetic/personal viewpoint, but from a 'would you like this game?' viewpoint. So this further confuses matters - when a review is structured like an MP3 player or printer review (as many game reviews are), as opposed to a personalized discussion of the stylistic merits, you expect things to hew a little more objectively.

To be clear, I'm actually a big fan of the more free-ranging, subjective game reviews - whether they be from ActionButton, 1UP's Jeremy Parish, the Onion AV Club, or The New Gamer, a few of the outlets I think do it very well.

But all game reviews need to evolve - perhaps further than N'Gai realizes - before they can break free of the chains of perceived objectiveness (with attendant score-based preconceptions) and embrace the personal, the lyrical, and the enjoyable. And in the mean time... how do I pick Wii games for my mom?

January 8, 2008

GameSetLinks: Extending The Chillout Extra Extreme

- Yoiks, all kinds of new GameSetLinks goodness here, including designer David Sirlin waxing lyrical about Every Extend Extra Extreme, as well as Brenda Brathwaite discussing how Facebook games propagate and spread virally.

Actually, these things are radically different, but oddly, they both resonate with me in alternate ways - since they're about alternate social and relaxation-based titles, something away from the normal everyday fragfest. I think. Here goes:

Facebook Game Player Propagation « Applied Game Design
Various methods of Facebook games getting popular - v.instructive in general for the new social order.

Play This Thing! | Game Reviews | Free Games | Independent Games | Game Culture
'Transcendence's developer, George Moromisato, says his game is inspired by Elite, Star Control II and NetHack -- at first glance, a rather odd combination.'

Psychochild’s Blog » Money in online games
'If the developers didn't intend to have RMT, then they should be able to enforce this decision.'

Sirlin.net: Every Extend Knitting
'I think [Every Extend Extra Extreme for XBLA] is going to be greatly misunderstood by the gaming public. As a relaxing flow experience, it hits the mark. Unfortunately most people probably don't understand the mark it hits.'

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: January third things.
The 'virtual recreation of an existent earthquake from Eidos is called Downfall: San Francisco and takes place following the San Francisco Earthquake in 1906.'

The great divide - Feature - Adventure Classic Gaming
Rich Carlson: 'Bridges across the great divide do exist. Thus, adventure gamers can ignore the game industry, just as the game industry is ignoring them, and still cross.'

insertcredit.com: 'Mexican Final Fight PCB boss hack'
Play as Poison! Found art like this is neat.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Interview: Ooki Bloks Developer Matt Verran
Some smart new indie talent talking about current/upcoming projects, IGF finalist-ness.

wunderboy.org » Gordon Freeman’s father?!
This is just epochally geeky.

Worlds Collide: A 2008 Worlds In Motion Summit Preview

-[GameSetWatch columnist and WorldsInMotion.biz editor Leigh Alexander just wrote this editorial about the online world/game coming-together which is, yes, also a call for attendees to our inaugural Worlds In Motion Summit at GDC. But it's interesting, and hey, it's our blog, so please to read, eh?]

Watching the historically distinct spheres of online social worlds and traditional video games in 2007 was a bit like watching wild creatures on a nature show -- the two circled each other with distinct wariness, and then increasing curiosity. 2008 is set to be the year the two play together like frolicking puppies, and it'll begin to get tougher and tougher to make out which tail or ear belongs to which animal.

Certainly, the virtual worlds space distinguished itself with some unique trends that set it apart from gaming. For better or for worse, Second Life began as the industry's poster child -- a navigable, interactive 3D space that was clearly not a game, and as the largest target, it suffered much suspicion, if not outright derision, from traditional gaming spheres. "What is there to do there?" People wondered. Follow that up with a boom of ad-supported -- if not outright advertising-themed -- worlds targeted at the traditionally fad-obsessed teen and 'tween market, add a few great big dollar sign headlines, and the success of some stuffy-sounding business products, and the game world was prepared to be highly skeptical.

After all, game fans had enjoyed a historically isolated universe. The only time people bothered them was to periodically blame gaming for childhood obesity, lapses in literacy or heinous crimes, and gamers closed ranks and kept to themselves, pleased with their highly complex and misunderstood medium. But then, a few major things changed.

The explosive success of Blizzard's World of Warcraft showed that online gaming could go mainstream in a big way. Nintendo's Wii console sold like hotcakes, as a contented fringe audience began -- at first grudgingly, then inclusively -- making room for mothers, grandparents and the once-dreaded "casual gamer."

As it turned out, the casual gamer proved to be as loyal and voracious a demographic as the core console market, and this tidal wave of "gaming for everyone" helped pave the way for a widespread redefinition of who plays with entertainment technology and why. In fact, D3P's Puzzle Quest -- a portable title based squarely on the traditional casual "match three" puzzle mechanic -- made 2007's "best-of" list for many gamers who turned up their noses at casual play just a short time ago.

Taking advantage of an increasingly malleable audience and hoping to capture some of the feverish loyalty and investment WoW users felt for their world, game developers of all stripes took a much-needed closer look at what people find most gratifying about play.

No surprise that, given the "group gaming" mentality spearheaded by Wii and the online play offered by Sony's Playstation Network and Microsoft's Xbox Live, alongside massive user numbers garnered by social media sites like MySpace and Facebook, the key message was that people like to use play as a way to connect and socialize with one another. Kids aren't the only ones who like to show off fashion duds or fame points in places like Habbo Hotel and vSide, but an all-ages audience can be proud of their Xbox Live gamercards, leaderboard standings or special gift badges on Facebook.

Virtual goods that demonstrate rank, popularity, social relationships or personality proved to have real value for both gamers and users of social media. In games, these objects convey a competitive advantage -- but the prestige that goes along with it is equally important. And whether or not virtual goods are involved, personalization is key. We now live in an era where a core-market console title like Mass Effect now has a point of commonality with Habbo Hotel -- a fully customizable, self-determined lead character.

Gamers have begun to demand the same freedom that users of online worlds enjoy to personalize their experience, contribute the fruit of their own imagination. Turbine discovered emerging player behavior in their Lord of the Rings Online MMO that strongly indicates that users will create their own fun if given the right tools -- more than that, they want to -- and Raph Koster's Areae aims to take that concept to unprecedented levels by allowing users to create their own worlds entirely with Metaplace.

When Worlds in Motion began covering the rapidly-emerging virtual worlds space, we attempted to draw a clear line between developments in that sphere and news that must be relegated strictly to the gaming world. That line is no longer so easy to draw. Issues of microtransactions, alternate revenue streams and business models, in-game advertising, user-generated content, player behavior and social media now belong equally to games, virtual worlds and social networks, and now that traditional boundaries have become irrelevant, it's an exciting time for the evolution of entertainment.

The inaugural Worlds in Motion Summit was established to unite industry leaders from these previously disparate fields to at last share points of view, experience, observations and expertise. We aim to look past the virtual worlds hype and dispel the myths to mine the truly essential, inspiring and often surprising trends, facts and lessons from these rapidly-growing media forms, and find the clear paths forward for education, business and the evolution of the way we play.

Speakers for the event include Club Penguin CEO Lane Merrifield, Disney Online senior vice president of premium content Steve Parkis, Nick.com senior vice president Jason Root, Neopets senior vice president Kyra Reppen, Dr. Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, Ph.D, in-world economist for EVE Online, Gaia Online CEO Craig Sherman, John Bates, director of business development for Entropia Universe, Multiverse's Corey Bridges and Rafhael Cedeno, MindCandy's Michael Smith, Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel, Areae's Raph Koster, Relic Labs studio head Adrian Crook, Nexon's Min Kim, Millions of Us' Reuben Steiger, among others.

The deadline for early registration for the Summit is January 16th, so register today! The Summit is available to attend via several different Game Developers Conference 2008 passes, and more information on the event plus the speakers announced so far is available on the Worlds In Motion Summit webpage.

GameSetQ: Does Retro Really Rule Xbox Live Arcade's Roost?

- Now, here's an interesting one. Gamasutra just ran a news article noting that "Xbox Live director 'Major Nelson' has posted the top Xbox Live games for 2007 -- including top purchased Xbox Live Arcade games -- showing a clear preference from XBLA shoppers for classic over new titles."

And, indeed, here's the Top 10 most-purchased Xbox Live Arcade titles for 2007, according to the Major:

1 TMNT 1989 Arcade
2 Worms
3 Castlevania: SOTN
5 Bomberman LIVE
6 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures
7 Sonic The Hedgehog
8 Pinball FX
9 Geometry Wars Evolved
10 Texas Hold 'em

But what does this actually signify? A comment on the Gamasutra post, from Stuart Bentley, suggests that the retro trend isn't completely cut and dried: "The classic/new distinction on the XBLA list is a tad misleading. Only three of those are true emulation ports (of which one is a rare arcade game, one is a rare console game, and one is one of the most common console games of all time); two are implementations of decades-old card games; two are new iterations in existing old franchises (and one is the sequel to an existing new franchise); and two are brand-new games built on old activities."

Some other thoughts - I presume this is sales by # of downloads, and not sales by revenue - and a few of these titles are $5 downloads, as opposed to $10, so the Top 10 by Revenue chart might be significantly different. In addition, I think 3D Ultra Minigolf Adventures is a really odd Top 10 entrant, and shows how much people just like minigolf, even over and above game quality, to a certain extent.

But overall - is Stuart right to make that subtle distinction, what strikes you GSW readers as notable on the list, and what does it show about how to succeed on Xbox Live Arcade? Opinions welcome.

January 7, 2008

Text The Halls Gets Worthy Seasonal Winners

- We previously posted about the TIGSource 'Text The Halls' competition, which was a Christmas-themed text adventure competition from one of the key independent gaming sites, and hey presto, the winners have been announced.

According to the site: "The winner is Pacian, with the excellent Snowblind Aces – which also finished first with a unanimous Miss Congeniality vote! Congratulations also to Akhel, who managed a very close second place with The Snowman in both the main vote and the MC vote. Finishing third is TIGSaga in the main event (keep an eye out for TIGStory!), and My Magic Tire Hoax in the MC vote (probably the most imaginative entry to the contest)."

If you want to grab them, the TIGSource forum links are down as of queuing this post, but IFWiki has individual links to info page with downloads on each, and Terry @ Distractionware is kindly hosting a ZIP of them all, except the Java-based 'Breathe'.

Also, as the TIGSource-rs note: "IF blogger Jason Dyer has reviews up of the top three, Snowblind Aces, The Snowman, and TIGSaga." It's great to see the multipurpose craziness of today's indie game creator, given I'm presuming a lot of the entrants hadn't made interactive fiction before.

GameSetPics: Game Company New Year's Cards (With Bonus Xmas Leftovers!)

You thought we'd finished the game company Christmas card posting, right? Well, almost - and we've now compiled them all into one special blog category so you can check out 2007 and 2006's developer/publisher greeting cards together here on GSW.

But there's some final goodness to cap things off, since Japanese developers are wont (along with the rest of their country) to send out cheery New Year's postcards, and we managed to receive a smattering of them here. In addition, there were a couple of delayed Western Xmas cards that didn't come until close to or after the holidays that we thought we'd showcase - cos they were cute.

Again - these cards are compiled from everyone in the CMP Game Group offices - special thanks to GDC exec director Jamil Moledina, event co-ordinator Stephanie Tang, Game Developer senior editor Brandon Sheffield, and Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt for letting me take their cards home to scan.

Here goes:

You probably know CyberConnect2 from their work creating the .Hack series of PlayStation 2 single-player RPGs that played on the whole 'online world' thing in a neat way. Their New Year's card has some absolutely delightful Engrish on it - "The abyss also peeps into here when it peeps into the abyss", indeed.

The folks at NanaOn-Sha, headed by Masaya Matsuura, have been making awesome rhythm games since the original PaRappa The Rapper in 1996. Ahead of a reuniting with Rodney Greenblat to make a new Wii rhythm game in 2008 (great idea, Majesco!), here's their trippy New Year's card.

Tokyo-based game services company 8-4, headed by John Ricciardi and Hiroko Minamoto, are one of the 'secret' bridges between Western and Eastern gaming, doing localization, consulting, and liaison on a whole bunch of neat projects - I interviewed them last year about their views of the market. Here's their card, designed by Rez/Space Channel 5 concept designer Jake Kazdal - more on him soon!

We've talked about Kyoto-based Q-Games a bit recently - founded by Starfox veteran Dylan Cuthbert, they do the PixelJunk series, and a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff for the hardware guys, including the recently discussed Gaia screensaver for the PS3. Anyhow, here's their extremely cute New Year's card.

Getting on to the Western firms now, this actually came as a postcard inside a Christmas card from Torpex, developers of the upcoming Schizoid for XBLA - but it looks a bit like a Japanese New Year's card, so it's a neat bridge into the leftover Xmas cards, innit? (Both Torpex and PixelJunk folks are talking at the Indie Game Summit at GDC this year, btw.)

Couldn't leave this one out - Insomniac's card has a totally adorable illustration of a snowglobe with a leering fish grabbing hold of little toy versions of Ratchet & Clank. There may be some other R&C mythology I'm missing out on here, but whatever, it's a pretty smart card.

Finally, those Guitar Hero IP-owning reprobates at Red Octane sent over a card with a pretty stylish guitar, snowflake, Red Octane logo mash-up buried in it - a bit like last year's Sony card in some ways, only a bit more rock and roll. Huzzah.

Road To IGF Mobile: Dingoo Games' Hell Striker

- [As you may recall, we set up IGF Mobile to show that cellphone and other handheld games can be interesting, too. Finalists have been announced, and now Mathew Kumar is interviewing them. Here's one of the quirkiest - a deliriously enthusiastic Chinese firm doing 3D cellphone games and influenced by... Crimsonland!]

As part of Games On Deck's "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature, we talk to Dingoo Games CEO Tang Kai about their IGF Mobile 2008 Technical Achievement finalist Hell Striker, a 3D hack and slash action adventure in which players must battle hordes of demons to rescue three divine swords and bring about an age of peace.

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

Tang Kai: Our members are all from the game industry, and have many years experience on console, PC and mobile games. Our company was founded in 2006, and now we develop mobile games, especially in 3D. Many of our games have won prizes, from some competitions in China, to some international awards like the IMGA.

GOD: What motivated you to make your game?

TK: Obviously passion of creation! First of all we are all gamers, crazy fans of games! When we see some good games on PC or other platform, we may think: Hey! This idea is cool! Can we put it into the mobile phone, or even expand it?

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

TK: The original idea of Hell Striker is from a small PC game, Crimsonland. We hoped in Hell Striker that players would be able to slay monsters without mercy like in Crimsonland. But the mobile phone is a really limited platform, and we failed to achieve that, so we made many modifications, and that is what you see in Hell Striker now.

However, we still think we drew inspiration from Crimsonland!

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

TK: First, we develop on Windows, so the VC.NET is a must, and Nokia's SDK of course. Then we spent a year or two and created our own 3D engine, Soft3D, and many other tools; level editor, max plugin, etc. We used these tools to develop Hell Striker.

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

TK: Culture I think. Hell Striker has a particular oriental culture background, its concept design and level style are all based on it.

GOD: How long have you been developing your game, and what has the process been like?

TK: About one year, the core developing time is about half a year. Hell Striker is our first 3D game, of course we ran into many problems, and we learned a lot. We were happy, because we finally finished it!

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

TK: Too many. I just mentioned it's our first 3D game, so there are many flaws, and all the flaws could be improved or fixed. We can do better graphics, better puzzle design, better storyline... In fact, by now we've already made better games than Hell Striker. You can refer to our game named 7Days. As this games has not been finished, we didn't submit it to IGF, so maybe next year?

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

TK: More and more outstanding games, some have stunning graphics, some have very addictive game play... About the games that I admire, One for the NGage-QD. They implemented amazing graphics, and another game, also made by a Chinese company, Lament Island.

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

TK: Only 30 seconds? Okay! We make outstanding mobile games, we have excellent technique engine, please remember us: we are Dingoo Games.

January 6, 2008

GameSetLinks: Conan Rock Band Baybee

- A further trawl of the RSS reveals these sets of delightful links. You guys may have seen it already, but I particularly liked the Conan O'Brien 'Rock Band' skit, mainly because it shows just how accessible music games are to Finnish president lookalikes.

Also below - new physics games, Steve Bauman picking Assassin's Creed as game of the year, and a rather brilliantly surreal fighting game trash-talk video. Someone get that man to commentate on TV! Here goes:

NekoFight » Fun-Motion
'Slightly Miswired Robot Ragdolls Shuffle About', the title handily says. Physics games ftw!

Japanmanship: How now cash-cow?
Suggestions for DS add-ons: 'I doubt any of the above will actually be implemented, save for the bigger screens, as they really don’t need to do anything to continue the sales trends, for now.'

Joystiq interview: What game devs, pubs got in the THEIR stockings - Joystiq
Bacon of the month is awesome.

YouTube - Rock Band on Late Night with Conan O'Brien
Yay, zeitgeist alert.

2007: The Year that Was . . . And Wasn't - Gamezebo.com
'In the end, 2007 was a good year for casual games, but when you look beneath the hype, the reality paints a more somber picture.'

The Bar For Cutscenes Has Once Again Risen, Thanks To Phoenix Games... - NeoGAF
'... and their masterpiece, Animal Soccer World.' Bad, bad game cut-scene alert.

YouTube - mahvel baybee!
Over-enthusiastic (slightly NSFW audio) Capcom/Marvel fighting game commentary gets awesome subtitles - via Fort90.

manic pop blog » The 10 Best Games I Actually Played in 2007
Former CGM editor Steve Bauman picks... Assassin's Creed as his No. 1 game. Genuinely. Good on him!

The Death Of The Webkinz - The Urban Legend!

- You really know when a video game's reached the mainstream when the urban legends start. And, browsing Snopes.com, we discover that stuffed toy/online world Webkinz is the latest to benefit from this particular dubious honor.

The best version of those playground rumors: "My kids came home from school yesterday telling me they heard of a computer virus issues associated with their webkins (or webkinz). webkinz are stuffed animals which you can buy and then somehow use the web to play games, etc. with friends who also have the animals. The virus comes on the screen as a penguin with red eyes and ruins your PC." Penguin with red eyes? Isn't that Mr. Flibble?

Anyhow, Webkinz has had to isue an official denunciation: "Many people have been writing in, asking about a rumor that is going around. The rumor is about something in Webkinz World hurting Webkinz pets. The most important thing to know is that this rumor is not true at all. Nothing in Webkinz World would ever hurt your Webkinz pets." Phew!

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': GMW Awards '07

- Best New Trend in Game Mags: A serious effort -- particularly in Game Informer's part -- to bring serious industry news back into print media, after several years of aping Maxim. Edge is no longer the only place in print for intelligent trend coverage.

Worst New Trend in Game Mags: Your choice: the endurance of boring preview features, or 100 pages becoming the new standard size for mags outside of Christmas -- at least until "88 pages" replaces it.

Biggest Surprise: Official Xbox Magazine bustin' out some really informative and funny features, the best of which remains Dan Amrich's quest to get kicked off Xbox Live as quickly as possible (without busting out the obvious racial slurs and potty-mouth antics).

Biggest Disappointment: Strategy Plus -- and, to be more exact, MASSIVE/MMO Games -- closing. The MMORPG-specific spinoff of Computer Games was exploring a beat uncovered by nearly all professional media and successfully made MMO's seem fascinating to everyone without assuming a raft of jargon knowledge on the part of its readers. MASSIVE is a classic example of how launching a mag is like opening up a new restaurant -- you can do everything absolutely right, from the location to the decor to the food itself, and still fail through no fault of your own.

Most Improved Magazine: GamePro. Sure, its new design (introduced with the February 2007 issue) hasn't been perfect -- the magazine still has a tendency for standard, easily overlooked covers, and its page count is still down from the rest of the game mag crowd. However, thanks to trashing all vestiges of the old GamePro and aggressively expanding the range of its coverage, GP has succeeded in not only being relevant to its target audience again, but actually being readable (and enjoyable) by gamers of any age.

Least Improved Magazine: PlayStation: The Official Magazine when compared to PSM, its predecessor. The late era of PSM always seemed short on content compared to its multiplatform rivals, and P:TOM has inherited the gestalt fully. Hopefully 2008 will see the mag settle down, find its voice, and start really rockin'. (I still wonder what happened to that Blu-ray demo disc, though.)

Best Cover: Probably Play Magazine's June 2007 cover, the one with Castlevania: The Dracula X Chronicles on it. Although Game Informer's GTA4 cover (May 2007) comes close.

Worst Cover: Game Informer's September 2007 issue, featuring some blurry guys in black and some really cheesy PR-speak coverlines to advertise Borderlands.

Cover The Editors Probably Regret The Most Now: Play's Bullet Witch cover (March 2007), a title later heralded as "worst of 2007" by GamePro.

Best One-Off Special: Edge's The 100 Best Videogames, which is bigger, cheaper, looks fancier, and reads more engagingly than most real video-game books.

Best Launch: Future's Nintendo Power. They changed nothing, which means they retained all the benefits of the world's most underrated game magazine without so much as breaking a sweat.

Best Thing About 2008: There probably won't be quite as many game magazines closing this year. Maybe.

[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.]

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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