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February 9, 2008

GameSetNetwork: Developers, Mars, Venus, DICE

So, while we've been posting about all kinds of randomness on GameSetWatch, my colleagues have been posting some neat features and special reports from DICE in Las Vegas, over on big sister site Gamasutra.

Therefore, here's the major features from this week - including Kurt Kalata's Dragon Quest history adapted from HG101, and a neat Rare-written education feature, plus Richard Garriott and Digital Extremes interviews - here goes:

- Interview: Richard Garriott Is From Mars
"You may think you know Ultima and Tabula Rasa creator Richard Garriott, but do you really understand Lord British? Gamasutra goes off-topic to chat to Garriott about games as art, his influences, and much more."

- Maximizing Your Job Hunt At GDC
"Looking for a job (or a new job) in the industry at Game Developers Conference? Game HR veteran T.J. Summers pinpoints the key things you can do to maximize your efficiency and accomplish your objectives at this year's show."

- Academic Expansion - How Rare Recruits Graduates
"In this in-depth piece, senior Rare developer Nick Burton explains how the Viva Pinata and Perfect Dark developer works with academia to nurture graduates, warning against 'cherry picking' and explaining how your developer can grow the pool of skilled game creators."

- Into The Sector: Digital Extremes' Steve Sinclair
"Digital Extremes' PS3 and Xbox 360 action title Dark Sector is a vital title for both the Canadian developer and backer D3Publisher - Gamasutra quizzes project lead Steve Sinclair on next-gen development and its storied history."

- The History of Dragon Quest
"While Final Fantasy can grab a lot of the limelight, the Dragon Quest/Warrior games make up one of the most important RPG franchises of all time - Gamasutra goes in-depth to chart the series' more than 20-year design evolution."

OK, and here's the DICE neatness, all clustered in one wonderful place - the exec summit took place this week in Las Vegas, and Gamasutra staffers Brandon Sheffield and Christian Nutt were there to report the following:

DICE: Mass Effect, Bioshock, Rock Band Devs On Developing Narrative
DICE: Matsuura Sees More Possibilities For Music Games (Matsuura pictured above!)
DICE Keynote: EA's Riccitiello On A New Future For Publishing
AIAS Names Call of Duty 4 Game Of The Year
DICE: Namco's Hector On Character From Sonic to Afro Samurai
DICE: ESA's Gallagher Urges Industry To Strive For More
DICE: Mizuguchi Talks Artistry And Commerce In Concert
DICE: Team Blizzard On Building Its 17 Year Success
DICE: Microsoft's Kim Takes Tough Questions On Console War
DICE Fight Club: Industry Vets Debate Retail Vs. Microtransations
DICE Fight Club: Budgets, Not Consolidation Edging Out Innovation
DICE Q&A: Verbinski Talks IP Challenges, Innovation
DICE Keynote: Gore Verbinski Urges Creativity, 'Madness'

Road To The IGF: Snapshot Adventures' Pollinated Birding

Continuing Gamasutra's 'Road To The IGF' feature, Patrick Murphy talks to Large Animal Games' Wade Tinney about his 2008 Independent Games Festival Design Innovation Award finalist Snapshot Adventures: Secret of Bird Island.

This is one of the more interesting finalists, because it's definitely a casual title (if you want to get into inane genre classifications), but it nonetheless a bird photography game with some really fun, 'different' gameplay that he says was inspired as much by Spore as Pokemon Snap.

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

Wade Tinney: Well, my biz partner Josh Welber and I started making games in graduate school in 1997. Afterwards, we were both making web games for different clients before starting this company in January of 2001. So, neither of us ever really worked in the game industry proper. Honestly, I think that lacking that particular type of experience probably served us well.

Coming from a web publishing background, we were pretty focused on just getting stuff made and putting it in front of people. We never even considered the notion that we should go out and raise a bunch of money so we could develop a big console game or something. We were blissfully naïve, so we just dove in, started making stuff, and gradually pulled the company up by the bootstraps. Do you know how difficult it is to even find bootstraps these days?

What motivated Large Animal Games to create Snapshot Adventures?

WT: We were looking for interesting subject matter that had not been explored in a game format, had an existing audience, and would appeal to a wide variety of players. In our research on popular hobbies and pastimes, birding kept popping up, so we ran with it. Now I own a few dozen books about birds and a sweet pair of binoculars. Oh, and my Dad and I have something to talk about besides cars.

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

WT: The main inspiration came from real-world birds and birdwatching. I really developed a love for that pastime and a greater appreciation for birds in general. Birding is a very game like activity and I recommend that everyone give it a try at some point.

Beyond that, we were heavily inspired by the concept of pollinated content that the Spore team has talked about at the past few GDCs. Naturally, we didn’t have the resources to take it nearly as far as that game will, but we were able to get players designing birds that end up in other players’ games, which we’re very happy about.

For the first half of the project, I resisted playing Pokemon Snap, because I didn’t want to be overly influenced by it. Then I finally broke down and played a bunch of it, and I’m glad I did. There are some elegant design ideas in that game that definitely influenced our thinking.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

WT: The game was developed in our heavily modified version of the Torque Game Builder engine, with Visual Studio for the C++ and the Torsion IDE for editing script. The birds were modeled in 3D Studio Max and textured in Photoshop. All the other art in the game was either created directly in Photoshop, or sketched in pencil and then inked and colored in Photoshop. The audio was recorded using Ableton Live and the one-bar loops are tracked/sequenced in real-time using our custom audio engine.

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

WT: There are actually two elements of the game which I’d like to mention (sorry, I’m breaking the rules). First is the pollinated content that I mentioned earlier. Players can design birds, upload them, and then get information back about how many times their bird has been been spotted by other players. We worked hard to come up with a system to alter models and textures in real time on low spec machines in order to support player creativity and keep the file size down. The results are a huge variety of birds in the game. All told, almost half a million birds have been created by players since the game was launched.

The second thing is the residual learning that comes from the game. There are over a hundred real-world bird species represented in the game, with accurate field markings and real field recordings of their song (we worked closely with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to achieve this level of accuracy).

While we did not design Snapshot Adventures as an “educational game”, many players have told us that after playing the game, they now notice the birds around them more, and are able to identify many of them. Although I can’t say we designed it purposefully, the fact that playing the game is changing people’s perspective in this way is fascinating to me. I hope we can do more of this, both at Large Animal and in the game industry at large.

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

WT: The core team was five people, but we had different folks pinch-hit on various aspects. All-told, there were around 15 different people who touched Snapshot at different times. Our development process is always highly iterative, when we were developing Snapshot, we had not yet fully committed to using Agile software development techniques, so that iteration made it hard to manage our time well. We learned a lot from the process, and now we have a much better framework in place.

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

WT: Be more explicit with ourselves about the design risks and force ourselves to tackle them head on and early. Specifically, we spent way too much time trying to create a system that would subjectively evaluate player photos. We should have realized that this problem is tremendously difficult to solve and instead designed around it.

Instead, we spent weeks of engineering time trying to tune it. No matter how close we got, there were always exceptions – cases where someone thought a photo should have scored higher. In the end, we opted for an objective, learnable (by players) photo evaluation system.

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

WT: This is a great time to be an indie developer, and an even better time to be a player of independent games. Yes, the competition is stiff, but with online advertising making a comeback and the market for short-session games on all platforms growing, there are actually ways to build and monetize an audience of players around games that are more affordable to build. Also, there are more companies out there who are actively funding these smaller projects.

In terms of specific games, there are too many to mention them all by name, but Crayon Physics definitely gets a shout-out. Great game.

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

WT: Work smarter, not longer. Oh, and please vote for Snapshot in the IGF Audience Awards!

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Getting To The Action

-[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.]

It’s easy to knock action video games. It’s all vaguely silly, implausible stuff – bullet time, acrobatic corkscrews, explosions, and heroes who sass monsters with hip one-liners. But you can’t really blame them – after all, action video games are the torch-bearers for action films, and when it comes to emulating their conventions and allowing players to interact with them, games are quite admirable as imitators.

Take the Devil May Cry series as an example, whose next-gen successor has just hit the scene this week. It achieves the formula handily, even stylishly. And it should. A triple-A melee franchise about devils, demons, babes, guns and swords – playing it demure, intellectual and understated? It just isn’t meant to be.

So you can’t fault it for flaunting high-powered, scantily-clad females with impossible measurements, suffering under a combination of neck-breaking high heels and massive endowments that, taken as a pair, make them likely to tip over. Aggressively foxy babes are part and parcel of the action format to which the game skillfully – and enjoyably adheres.

When we talk about sexuality in video games, the closest thing we’ve got is these cleavage-spilling women, and to some extent, the endlessly resilient, solidly built and smoldering (though much more thoroughly clothed) men alongside them. This column previously defended the value in gratuitously-fleshed game gals as a useful complement to the raw, animalistic nature of brawler games. Blood, bare flesh and adrenaline rush as a package are the closest we as humans can get to our primal state, and it’s amazing that video games can tap into that.

Some people will buy my theory that video game flesh is effectively bestial; others feel it’s simply juvenile, a disservice to women and men alike. Either way, it's true we don’t live in caves anymore – and we’re growing up. So what will it take for sexuality in games to grow up, too?

Though sexuality needn’t necessarily mean sex, the most immediate example that comes to mind is Mass Effect. It offered players the opportunity to personify their hero to a degree almost unprecedented on consoles, and then, through developing interaction between characters, to develop a relationship. And then, of course, we all know what happened after that.

And therein’s the rub – do forgive the pun.

Pioneer's Syndrome

When I first raised this topic at Sexy Videogameland, I suggested that Mass Effect may have suffered a bit under what I call pioneer’s syndrome. If sex in games were a familiar and established thing, the fact that Mass Effect contained a customizable romantic scene would not have been such a big part of its advance buzz. And while it’s an opaquely detail-heavy game, with enough background and story elements to satisfy the appetite of traditional science fiction fans, I would never believe anyone who told me that the sex scene was not at least somewhat on their mind when beginning the game and when selecting characters within it.

Thus, to put it bluntly, the sex act became like an Xbox achievement, the whistle warp in Mario, or anything else you know’s coming, but just have to figure out how to accomplish. As Chris Dahlen put it in his column about the Mass Effect romance, character dialogue seemed to reduce itself to, “Keep talking to me and someday we’ll have that sex scene you saw on YouTube.”

In other words, sex in a game became game-like. I’ve often asserted that whether, and how deeply, to become immersed in a game is largely the player’s decision – instead of being primarily a developer’s task. So to be fair, perhaps I just didn’t emotionally engage with Mass Effect to the extent that I could have. Can’t help it – I was too distracted wondering which character I wanted to get it on with.

-Stunted Conventions

A good number of Sexy Videogameland’s readers have suggested to me another possibility, though, one that I think is much more viable when thinking about sex in games. Just as Devil May Cry 4 and other games in its genre drip with sexiness because its film predecessors do, Mass Effect and its ilk may be suffering under traditional sci-fi and fantasy genre constructs.

Commenter Mark Hughes pointed out that traditional fantasy, which often has a very influential role in today’s video games, is primarily “juvenile, sexless material.” As an example, he points out that Tolkien, essentially the "father of the genre" as we know it, features almost no women in Lord of the Rings – and those that appear are “’romantic’ (but non-sexual) interests for the men, kept at a distance.”

So video game sex lacks maturity because the dated constructs it has inherited lack maturity. No one would call Lord of the Rings an unsophisticated novel, and its heroes are most definitely nuanced. But like most hero stories, complexities within people’s spirits and the ill deeds they commit can be explained away by evil magic – the main characters with whom readers largely identify are almost implausibly focused on noble deeds, not intimacy.

-Starting Small

Intimacy, however, might be where respectable sexuality in video games needs to begin. And games have, often accidentally, stumbled on real and affecting intimacy quite often over their history – the subtle, charming poignancy of holding hands with Yorda in ICO far outdoes Mass Effect in that department. And I’m loath to overexpose the Companion Cube any further, but in only mentioning it, you get the idea.

The Final Fantasy series often gets teased for its sometimes over-emotional, hyper-fantastic character presentation, and no one would call FF heroes anything more than constructs. But the most recent incarnation, FFXII, presented more subtle layers among the characters’ relationships than we’ve yet seen – we learned more about Balthier and Fran, for example, through what was not shown.

An inanimate cube, juveniles holding hands, and the nuances of a complicated adult relationship as seen through the eyes of a youth – the conclusion here seems to be that games are able to create that sense of intimacy by revealing less, not more – just as FFX’s quietly tragic heroine Yuna lost a lot of dignity by cropping her shorts way up into her "personal crease" and gyrating around like a pop star in X-2 (even though it was cute and fun), games lose dignity the more decadent cleavage shots and full-body pans they show.

In addition to prioritizing intimacy and emotional connection over the direct, exploitive route to nudity, games need to start inheriting their influences from more mature media. It won’t be long before games can build primarily and foremost on the established successes of other games in this area, and quit passing the baton from genre archetypes, but until then, they can look to more innovative and more modern sources to create characters that act like adults – only then will they believably make like adults.

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

February 8, 2008

WayForward Technologies Vs. Dirk Gently?

Well, here's a wacky one. Having raided my local library's used book section a few weeks back, I'd repurchased a copy of Douglas Adams' practically psychedelic Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency - one of the most delightfully out-there books of all time - and was happily re-reading it on the train, when I realized that the successful computer company in the book was called WayForward Technologies.

Wait, WayForward Technologies, the game developer that just finished Contra IV and is also famous for titles like Shantae and Sigma Star Saga?

Well, the Wikipedia page reveals noted that the real-life Southern California-based developer was "founded in 1990 by technology entrepreneur Voldi Way", adding "The name WayForward Technologies may reference the novel "Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency", by Douglas Adams."

The software entrepreneur in Adams' book is called Gordon Way, incidentally, giving him the same last name as WayForward's founder - perhaps an obvious inspiration for the company name, but making the off-the-cuff reference even cuter!

Even odder, Voldi Way's small Wikipedia entry reveals that, "In 1980, at age 10, he starred in the film The Changeling" - where he played the title character opposite George C. Scott. From child horror actor to video game auteur? Neeto.

Meanwhile, one of the programmers elsewhere in Adams' book discusses his pile of beloved Byte magazines, another serendipitous coincidence, considering that I'm now in charge of the IP to Byte as part of my expanded responsibilities here at CMP - suggestions about wonderful things to do with the currently dormant property are welcome.

Anyhow, I sent an email over to WayForward's John Beck (who will be speaking at the Independent Games Summit at GDC, incidentally!) to see if he can pass me on to Voldi to confirm or deny the Dirk link and how it came about. We'll see what he says...

GameSetLinks: Grammar Said Knock You Out

Aha, the latest set of GameSetLinks is upon us already, and they seem to include a fun new title from Crayon Physics creator Petri Purho in which you have to type words correctly to win the day.

This, of course, reminds of the gorgeously fun Typing Of The Dead, which needs to come to some kind of console downloadable service (at least, one on a machine that allows a USB keyboard to be plugged in!) some time in the near future.

It's on GameTap, which is a good start, but the saga must continue in the West, darn it, esp. now Typing Of The Dead 2 came out in Japan. Anyhow:

Cryptic Sea: Coil
More awesome experimental Flash oddness from the Gish co-creator.

MTV Multiplayer » The Case Of The Missing DS Drawing Games
I appreciate articles like this which start with a thesis.

Saving Games Workshop | Madness & Games
Not directly video game related, but really darn interesting.

TechCrunch: Play A Multiplayer Online Game While Surfing The Web: PMOG
Justin Hall's surreal concept gets some more press - neeto.

The Game Has Changed: Entertainment & Culture: vanityfair.com
Vanity Fair looks at LucasArts' game renaissance, comes away impressed.

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » The Team Game
Games are made by teams, he points out. And it's true! Via Tyler Sigman.

Kloonigames » Blog Archive » Grammar Nazi
Petri 'Crayon Physics' Purho's latest game, typing long words FTW!

Nullsleep | 2007.11.30 Blip Festival 2007 @ Eyebeam - New York, NY
Haha, can totally see Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins dancing like a loon in the front row.

GameDev.net -- IGF 08 Interviews Part 1
Neat, a first set of 5 finalist interviews - great to see GameDev.net supporting.

Why Perfect Entertainment Died -| Artículo | Aventura y CÍA
Talking about a Naked Gun-themed adventure game? Blimey! Via Jason Scott.

The History Of DMA Design, Uncovered

Over at the ScottishGames.biz site (which is as excellent a regional primer for Scotland as Sumea is for Australia, incidentally), they've published an article pointing out some wonderful historical pictures/videos from Grand Theft Auto and Lemmings creator DMA Design (now Rockstar North).

As Brian Baglow explains: "Mike Dailly, one of the originals from DMA has uploaded several photo sets to Flickr, showing the background daily life of DMA from the early 90's right through to the point the company became Gremloid/Rockstarred."

And for game geeks, there's all kinds of amazing stuff there - how about a 3D visualization "to better visualise isometric rendering... in the 1st GTA prototype", and pictures from a never-released 'Kid Kirby' game, presumably for the Super Nintendo, blimey.

There's also concept art from AnnArchy, an early prototype that never got off the ground (and wasn't Penny Arcade-related!), and even the original animation Mike did that inspired Lemmings.

Mike's YouTube videos also include a Lawnmower Man game concept from DMA, plus an early office tour and DMA Xmas party footage. Yay - as far as preserving game history goes, it would be wonderful if more developers could take time to dig out and post forgotten gems such as this, helping to get them out there online and available for game geeks to coo over.

February 7, 2008

Opinion: The Case Against Entertainment Media Convergence

[The explosive growth of games mean more and more crossover with other media such as music (Guitar Hero/Rock Band) and movies (Brash Entertainment). But is it good for games? In the second of a two-part opinion piece, Gamasutra and GameSetWatch's Leigh Alexander offers the case against.]

Recently, I rounded up some evidence of entertainment media and technology convergence marching ever more swiftly onward. Permit me the bizarre indulgence of quoting myself:

"It's been obvious for some time that games are going mainstream in a big way, which is necessarily bringing them squarely into the territory of other entertainment media that has enjoyed much more visibility, economic impact, widespread adoption and social acceptance for as long as my generation's been alive."

And how do you feel about it? More importantly -- is it good for games?

The answer's maybe. And, following my article on The Case in Favor, let's now look at the case against.

If cross-media boundaries continue to dissolve, we'll have characters, settings and themes that we can visit and enjoy through gaming, film, episodic television or internet content, and anything else you like.

In the case in favor, I asked the question: "Let's say that, after watching your favorite TV show, you can go online and play with those characters, in that persistent world, along with your friends, and then the property's producers make a movie from the events and stories written and played by you and your companions, did you just play a video game, watch a TV show, or make a film?"

Well, it's hard to tell. And that could be a problem.

Arresting Development

Relative to these other media forms, gaming is still young. Some people would say it's in its infancy; I'm more inclined to call it early adolescence. And when we look to the ways in which games have grown up since the eight-bit era, we can project some of the directions in which we need them to continue developing in order to call it a mature medium. So what strides have we made?

Games have developed from being reflex-based amusements into immersive storytelling and shared cultural experiences. Whether or not you believe games are art, they've certainly become more artful, at least -- back in the days of Tetris and Donkey Kong, could you have imagined the landscapes of ICO, for example, bathed in white light and foreboding, substantial shadow? Even the simplest of genres, like the stick shooter, has evolved from a brutal sprite march into an arena for innovation using art and music, like Mizuguchi's synaesthetic work and the multitudes of effort to emulate and build on it.

Maybe as recently as three or four years ago, we could have accused certain genres of stagnating -- most especially the first-person shooter, and yet this year saw Portal, which relies on that basic gameplay convention -- take top honors for innovation.

Only a few months ago I found myself wondering what it'd take to build a better RPG, one that really let us roleplay within a story, not just snooze through cut scenes and battle grinds. This year, there were quite a few better RPGs than we've ever seen -- even titles like Mass Effect that maybe wouldn't have been called RPGs a few years ago. And while we're seeing a blending of genres, it's not taking place in the name of generalization, of broadening appeal. The key driver in our industry has always been specificity.

More Specific, Not Less

If we sought to identify formulae, it was only so they could be broken, expanded on, improved upon. Gamers, however fallaciously, were always considered a "vocal niche," not a broader audience. And it seems as if the industry had just begun to learn that segmenting us into strict genres -- shooter fans, puzzle fans, RPG fans -- was ineffective.

Rather than targeting such general, superficial and mechanical preferences, games began to aim themselves squarely for that little itch in our hearts and minds that couldn't be scratched any other way. Games are a very specific type of entertainment that it's impossible to replace -- and this is because games are finally beginning to understand what it is we need from them.

You can even thank casual gaming for this. With the advent of casual gaming, people realized that there were variations in gaming preferences and behavior that were actually quite broad -- people who want to zone out clicking dots, or who just want light interactive play to enjoy with their families, versus those of us who want to personify the content, see the impact of choices on a story, or become engaged in a long-term emotional investment. And if development was to specify the casual gamer, it must necessarily differentiate not only the more traditional gamer, but identify various colors within a much wider spectrum than anyone ever imagined.

This trend of trying to please as many people as possible with the same title, console or gameplay mechanic is fairly new by contrast. And while films and television do stratify their audience, they do so in the most simplistic way possible -- action, comedy, drama, et cetera. If games were to become more like film and TV, and if gaming would have to share markets with them more intimately, this encouraging trend of specifying audiences would abruptly reverse.

Gaming has always worked because it wasn't for the masses. To continue on the specificity train -- it's a very particular type of entertainment, and whether a game "works" or not depends on factors that are not static or thematic.

Film and TV demand user engagement, it's true, but they do so passively. A game's success or failure depends -- perhaps even primarily -- on how well it allows for what the user wants to do. One of the most important things we've ever learned about games is that while art, story and characters are important, insufficient, ill-fitting or just plain bad gameplay can render them all worthless.

A marriage to other more static entertainment media means that the focus on engaging users with themes, settings and characters would increase -- but if developers must prioritize create a product that adheres to a larger media entity, what will happen to the gameplay?

Games are already a hit-driven business, and we lament that fact because it makes innovation difficult. Should games continue on their collision course into the territory of the Hollywood-based production empires, get ready for it to become much, much worse. Whether or not a game gets made will come down to how well it can be ported or broadcast to other devices, how well it lends itself to a community component, whether it has the potential to align with existing properties, or spawn new ones. They'll be weighed on how easily they can be generalized, and how readily they can be personalized, altered and claimed by the broader population.

The Downside To Mass Participation

Wait, wait -- letting users take the helm of stories is good, right? Letting them contribute content, take ownership of it, guide the direction of a game world's evolution? You want to have that kind of input and control, don't you? Maybe you do, but think of this -- to have that, you'd have to give the same right to every idiot, unimaginative automaton, disruptive teenage jerk and mouth-breathing drag you've ever played a video game to get away from. As I pointed out in the case in favor, games have always been a closed world. And that's how gamers wanted it.

Desiring a private sphere -- even as it becomes less and less possible -- is not, as some people say, a hipster-esque desire to keep under the radar to maintain some proprietary cool. The fact remains that there are heaps of people who we're glad don't get it, because we'd like something we don't have to share with others. Plenty of people wish they had a girlfriend who was as into video games as they are -- and plenty more people are glad they don't.

It might be fair to call such ideals immature or unfounded. We've always believed that an open world can rise to the level of its most sophisticated participant; that none of us is as smart, as creative, as all of us are together. I find Jane McGonigal's essay on the strength of collective intelligence fascinating, for sure. But recall that we have always been in a closed society -- our most broad population sampling has always, for the most part, been comprised of gamers, even if it's a spectrum thereof.

We've been trained to think critically and creatively in a very game-specific way. The truth is, an open world will primarily be branded and transformed by its lowest common denominator. And it only takes one percent to ruin things for ninety-nine. Do we really want to open our kingdom to that particularly disheartening social principle?

"Participatory" is a great word. But would you rather read a book written by your neighbor, or by your favorite author? We may chafe against utterly linear game experiences, but the idea that we want wholly and entirely to guide ourselves, to build our own play, is a bit of an extreme response. If that were really what we wanted, we'd all be in Second Life, making up stories while we social-network with each other constantly. And most of us don't do that -- while we'd like to be part of a story, I really don't buy that we all want to write it. For my part, I'd like to leave that to the pros.

The Smell Of Green

And, if you haven't forgotten -- movies based on games and games based on movies may be as old as the hills, but for as long as they have existed, they've unequivocally sucked. All of them. The two spheres have historically failed to "get" one another. They're trying again, because the money's there. -- Yeah, sure, that's gotta go well.

Speaking of money, one factor I raised in "the case for" was the rise of the ad-supported business model forcing games to monetize based on user engagement. Some people will be willing to buy a $60 retail box, to pay a $20 per month subscription fee. But more people aren't -- and yet, they want to play anyway. This puts control in the consumer's hands and extends the game company's commitment to the player, as I said. It also means they're going to be looking to wring us, at every turn, for every dime they can get.

They'll try to manipulate us into investing things with emotional value so that they can charge us money for it later; something we built out of love will be sold behind cellophane on the shelf as the season's must-have toy. The idea is that you can customize your engagement, pop in and out of online worlds as you please, and pay for no more and no less, or thereabouts, than what you consume. But how it's more likely to work is that rather than trying to engage you, they'll be trying to addict you; far from being left alone to your pursuits as you like them, both subtly and overtly they'll be trying to convince you you need more -- that's how mass consumerism works, and we will not be safe from that anymore.

Popularity Contest

I cited Chris Dahlen's always-excellent and forward-thinking transmedia articles in "the case for," and now I'll bring him up again. A few readers took a bit of an issue with one of his recent columns, "Games & The Birth Of The Cool," in which he argued that games aren't "cool" in the way that other pop culture is, and that their occasional efforts to act "cool" intentionally -- say, Guitar Hero III -- don't quite work.

That "cool" factor, he says, is important to all other forms of pop culture. But, asked one commenter, "Why consign gaming to the wasteland of popular culture?"

Why indeed? Do we really want to see our medium subject to whims, trends and in-jokes? Now, of course, we have our own "hip" lexicon and network of in-jokes -- think "party escort submission position." But we have historically attached ourselves to that kind of meme because there are so few others with whom we can share it. What would it feel like, after a while, to see Jonathan Coulton do Letterman, Leno and O'Brien, anchors gleefully tossing companion cubes around on the jovial morning news? Viral marketing stunts? Virtual worlds?

The lifespan of general enthusiasm within our audience for a new title is already short -- sometimes it even seems like we like to anticipate games more than we like to play them, and plenty of people can probably talk about a time they've become sick of hearing about a title before they ever even picked it up. What if that saturation level happened even more quickly, even more inescapably?

Some readers have pointed out Portal, Team Fortress 2, and Tim Schafer's work as being examples of what's "cool" to us. And they are. And do you really think the minds that are bringing you yet another Terminator sequel are ever going to understand that?

The message that gamers have been broadcasting should be loud and clear by now. At the end of the day, it's about gameplay. All of the "entertainment device" functionality in the world wasn't enough to sell PS3s without games. We don't want to play movies, we do not want the game industry to resemble the fickle music industry, we don't want games to emulate our real lives or our real relationships. All we asked for was a touchstone with reality -- now let's hope we can close this door before it all stampedes in, mashing beneath its feet everything that makes gaming what it is.

GDC 2008 Schedule Builder is Sorta... Yay?

Now, I realize this could be construed as a bit of an ad for Game Developers Conference, but it's less that, and more a bit of a delighted yelp that the near-final version of the GDC 2008 scheduler went up on the site today, and it's definitely the most useful and usable version of the tool we've constructed thus far to sift through the gigantic heap of GDC lectures.

When you're dealing with such as massive conglomeration of lectures to pick from for the conf (which runs in San Francisco February 18th-22nd), it can be really tricky to build a schedule picker that has enough information on it but doesn't overwhelm - and allows flexible sorting and ordering.

Anyhow, there's still a few usability and functionality rough edges to be iterated on, but kudos to Ben Veechai and the Minnickweb folks who worked on this, since I believe that this year's Schedule Builder will pass 'the editor test' for the first time ever - Gamasutra editors are actually going to use it to schedule their time at the show. And those guys are tough to please, haw.

[Incidentally, now is as good a time as any to mention that the guest co-editor on GameSetWatch for the week of Game Developers Conference will be Andy Baio - best known for his super-intelligent tech blog Waxy.org weblog, creating the now Yahoo!-owned Upcoming.org, and, heh, discovering Star Wars Kid. He'll be attending the show and we'll be cross-posting some of his Waxy posts on GDC, since he has a really interesting outsider's/Web 2.0 view on the game biz.]

GameSetLinks: The King Of Truth

Aha, time for a few more GameSetLinks, we fear, and among them as Jason Scott's steely rant on why documentary The King Of Kong sacrifices truth for a good story. And you know, having seen the movie on DVD at the weekend finally, I think he's at least partly right.

The whole concept of 'dramatized reality' seems to be getting increasingly common - see cunning cuts on reality shows like The Amazing Race to make it seem like teams are closer together, and especially the faux-reality of shows like Laguna Beach.

And now, there's a video game documentary that's almost as selective, but incredibly entertaining because of that. It's bittersweet for me, because I was entertained - but still felt like I'd maybe been cheated out of what really happened. Still... maybe it's closer to objective than we think, mm?

But onward to the links:

Hollywood Reporter: 'And the award for best video game writing is ...'
The main bar to entering the WGA awards is that you have to be a WGA member (or have applied to be one) - not made totally clear here!

Romance Novel Reviews: 'On Books That Make You Dumb, and Reading Pornographically'
Shih Tzu points out this odd musing 'on the connection between bad literature that one enjoys anyway and an epiphany had during a video game music concert.'

The Cut Scene - Video Game Blog by Variety
Newish blog, good stuff, too.

ASCII by Jason Scott: The King of Wrong
Watched this at the weekend, loved it but felt like it was skewed, a la M.Moore. Not sure how far, still.

YouTube - Half life: Full Life Consequences
Garry's Mod + crazy people = scary

Mechanically Separated Meat » Super Mario World vs. the Many-Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Physics
Yikes, Mario madness.

Eegra : A Trouserful of Melody: Fami-mode 2008
A neat YMCK, 6955 concert in the Japan, all NGJ-ed up for your pleasure.

Spectromancer - online CCG in open Beta
Co-developed by Magic creator Richard Garfield - via The-Inbetween.

Emily Enough: Imprisoned - Introductions and Asides | The New Gamer
Examining an intriguing indie adventure title.

Play This Thing! - Game Focus Germany event report
Thanks to some good speaker wrangling from Jurie Horneman, this was an interesting event.

February 6, 2008

Road To The IGF: Battleships Forever's 'Tangible' Strategy

Coming down the home stretch on our 'Road To The IGF' feature, Patrick Murphy talked to Wyrdsym Games' Singapore-based creator Sean Chan about his 2008 Independent Games Festival Design Innovation Award finalist Battleships Forever, a tactical real-time strategy title that prioritizes visuals and intuition over stats and spreadsheets.

Chan explains Battleships Forever's board game influence and the other games that influenced its art style, and also discusses why some of his frustrations with existing strategy titles gave rise to this game.

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

Sean Chan: I started off making maps for Warcraft III. I made Tank Commanders, a couple of Starship Troopers maps (One of them, named SST: Zulu Angel, had the alien bugs able to climb over the walls of your fortress) and a bunch of other stuff that never got released in WC3's World Editor.

After about a year or so of that, I realized that the WorldEditor couldn't do some of the games I wanted to do (mainly action games), so I moved on to Game Maker, and I've been using that ever since. Battleships Forever is my third Game Maker project that I made available on the web but it's my first really full-scale game. The other two games had only a couple of levels.

What motivated you to create a game like Battleships Forever?

SC: At that point in time, I was playing a whole bunch of other space strategy games. What I found is that those games tend to get bogged down in menus, dropdown boxes, hidden values and other needless complications. Battleships Forever was built on the core design principle of design elegance. Everything in the game had to be tangible.

It's a little odd to describe anything in a virtual world as 'tangible,' but what I mean is that everything in the game actually exists. I threw out the idea of using behind-the-scenes modifiers, multipliers or similar concepts. There are no armor types, damage types or to-hit chances.

For example, some weapons are inaccurate. My way of making inaccurate weapons less effective against certain enemies is by designing the ships to have a slim profile. A ship with a slim profile is harder to hit with a weapon with a wide spread.

This is tangible because you actually see the projectiles going out and missing the target. To encourage flanking and tactical maneuvers, I didn't just apply a damage bonus for attacks from the side/rear -- the ships are really designed to be more vulnerable from the rear. The Hestia has a wing that is connected to the core by a strut. If the Hestia is attacked from the rear and the strut is destroyed, the wing also drops off.

What this adds up to is that there aren't any values that you cannot derive by simple observation. Gameplay is intuitive, and the GUI is unfettered by spreadsheets.

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

SC: I play a lot of board games. Board games have plenty to teach about elegance in game design, because their very format means that they are limited in terms of complexity (you can't expect players to be doing too much arithmetic just to play a game). One of my favorite games was Babylon 5 Wars by Agents of Gaming, and the influence of that game can be clearly seen in Battleships Forever.

It's also pretty obvious that I adapted the art style from Warning Forever. In some ways, Battleships Forever is a tribute to that great game. The truth is that I only went with this because this is the only kind of art that I could pull off on my own. I actually do have a few versions of the game with more realistic graphics, but they look terrible.

What sort of development tools have you been using to make Battleships Forever?

SC: Game Maker for the game itself, Adobe Photoshop for sprites.

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

SC: The game comes with a custom Ship Maker program that allows you to create your own completely custom ships for use in the Sandbox play mode in the game. It transforms Battleships Forever from being just another RTS to a platform that allows players to enact space battles that they can only imagine. I've seen players write up and create whole back stories and giant fleets of ships.

What has the development process been like for you?

SC: My objective with Battleships Forever was to have it as a portfolio project. Just a little something I could carry around in my laptop and wow a potential employer with. It's kinda run away from me in that respect and has ballooned into a much larger project.

One of the things I wanted to do with Battleships Forever was to create a full-featured game that has all the features you would expect a commercial game. A tall order for a one man affair, but I did it for the experience.

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

Well, I have made many mistakes in the architecture of the project over the course of development. Mistakes that have caused me to rewrite hundreds of lines of code when I realized that they just weren't working out. But as for the project as a whole, no I don't think I would have gone about development in any other way.

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

SC: Indie games are definitely the way to go. Game budgets need to shrink, not grow. To me, games are all about gameplay, not the bells and whistles. Somewhere along the line we lost track of that and followed the white rabbit down a hole. It's time to get out of that hole.

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

SC: Make games for the sake of games. Games aren't film, games aren't books, they are their own medium and deserve to be treated as such. Stop trying to copy what's been done in other media and just get down to making games.

Opinion: Why Your Game Studio Should Practice 'Shared Design'

[In this opinion piece originally printed on sister site Gamasutra, Crystal Dynamics' Arnab Basu outlines how the Tomb Raider developers operate a shared game design department, explaining how he believes it can lead to greater efficiency and innovation at many game studios.]

With the game industry at a stage of significant maturation – stabilizing the process of game design implementation at a studio through detailed customization based on operating principles is of paramount importance.

The concept of a shared game design department for a mid sized studio revolves around the central identity of providing cross-functional design services and incubation: operating like an ‘internal startup’ with reduced risks and steady returns.

The department consists of a number of junior and senior designers who along with a producer and design director of the studio form the group. It was founded with the mission directive to provide a diversified set of important services: new concept development, focus feedback and fire fighting open design issues for the studio’s game production teams to name a few.

The department serves the dual purpose of providing a training ground for junior design talent as they transition to working on game teams as well as a ramp up/off point for designers in between projects.

The success of the department’s functioning lies in its ability to meet the multifarious design needs of the studio. At any given point, there are a number of active internal or external projects that designers from the group work with. These are collectively referred to as projects in development.

Design resources refer to the mobilization of both information and talent. In addition, there are a number of design services like training, focus feedback and stunt design offered. The following figure illustrates the detailed categorization of the nature and scope of the department’s footprint.

The design department touches every game that comes out of Crystal Dynamics, most recently those for the Tomb Raider franchise. The shared design department interfaces in different capacities with game teams that are dedicated to shipping games.

As it relates to new concept development, the department provides an umbrella for opportunities to scope innovative game design concepts; explore novel production methodologies and allows junior designers/interns to plug into such exciting ventures to gain hands-on experience.

Design Resources

The department serves as a valuable central hub for all game designers in the studio. The shared design department is a place where designers can access resources as well as get guidance in charting their short to long term career growth.

Many rely on the circulation of general design publications and templates (game design specifications, pitches, concept docs, etc) that set standards as well as serve reference for documented processes.

The department also provides a neutral ground to engage in designer updates and discussions through weekly meetings where senior designers across game teams get a chance to interact. This is valuable for collective discussion and objective analysis of design related challenges or issues.

Design Services

One of the core tenets of the shared design department in all its endeavors has been incubation – whether it falls in the realm of harnessing the potential of pure design talent or idea generation.

The former is addressed by the design intern training program that runs year around where junior talent is recruited from a variety of sources – academic institutions, internal quality assurance departments and the employee referral program.

Training Program

Trainees are put through a fairly intensive curriculum that can be broadly categorized into 3 stages: awareness, action and application. They get a chance to understand Crystal Dynamics' own franchise-focused design methodologies. They learn how to author content using the proprietary game engine and scripting system.

And most importantly, they develop a deeper and more practical understanding of the design process. The biggest advantage with this approach is the ability to maintain relatively reduced time pressure for the requirement of design talent ramp-up on teams developing games on tight production schedules.

Stunt Design

This is when a junior designer is assigned to a game team to assist with a specific design challenge for a certain amount of time. As an example, just recently there was a junior designer who came onto a team to help out with scripting and level design work. Within a period of two months, this designer was responsible for the entire scripting of a section of the executive demo the team was working on.

While a significant amount of work takes place internally - designer training and concept development, there is an equally large amount of time spent interfacing externally with game teams and other shared departments like the creative services and shared technology groups.

Pre-production assistance, brainstorming and need based ‘stunt design’ partnerships serve as good examples of such initiatives.

Focus Feedback

Towards the tail end of production on big-budget titles, the department engages its junior and senior design talent in assisting with the play-testing and focus feedback process. This not only gives the game teams a fresh perspective on the state of the product but also provides an extra set of hands to help in its final polishing.

To be competitive in today’s gaming landscape, it is imperative for a company to set aside resources for research and development.

This is not just for the exploration of new technology pipelines and latest art tools but also for identifying industry movement such as: latest design trends in games, platforms usage and distribution, scope of developing games with unique interaction mechanisms, etc. Efforts towards such initiatives get chased down by the shared design department.

In next steps, the department hopes to continue with its turnaround of fresh talent as well as add skill sets and/or people to flesh out the group to build arsenal for its continual goal of enhancing studio-wide game design implementation.

So why should your studio be in a Shared Design state of mind? Out of the different art forms that go into making a game – game design to this day still remains the most dynamic and free form of disciplines. Applying such a targeted and structured group of game designers to tackle varied challenges is imperative to a studio’s successful functioning.

[Arnab Basu is an Associate Producer at Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Interactive. In the past, he has managed the studio's Shared Design department, and is currently working on an unannounced title. He completed a Master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University, prior to which he received a BS in computer science and engineering from Bangalore, India.]

Atari Games Unearths Priceless History

The virtual collection embodiment of Atari historian and arcade machine collector Scott Evans - formerly housed at SafeStuff.com - is incredibly important, containing a lot of incredibly rare prototypes and documentation built up over time and purchased after Atari Games' Milpitas office closed down a few years back.

So, the exciting news is that Scott is updating again on his new URL, AtariGames.com, after no updates through most of 2007, and he's posting absolutely amazing scans of documentation based around the creation of some of the most enduring Atari arcade games of all time.

For example, stored in the Document Library are PDFs including "Centipede Documentation. Over 60 pages of memos, design docs, field test reports and other interesting information" - with handwritten design suggestions from Atari execs - and the full Marble Madness design document, as well as rare info from the (pictured) proto-only sequel. Brilliant. [Via Atari Age.]

February 5, 2008

GameSetLinks: Free To Think, And To Play

So, online worlds that you don't have to actually pay to access (like the pictured Habbo Hotel) - they're still pretty big! And this GameSetLinks leads off with FreeToPlay.biz's look at what might stop them getting bigger.

But, let's be honest, dabbling and then microtransacting is probably going to carry own growing (perhaps not quite as much as VCs would like, tho!), and elsewhere in this round-up, there's also Lore Sjoberg humor, the stages of MMO auteurship, and an illustrated look at indie games. Yay:

Top 10 Free To Play Growth Killers « Free To Play
Will things not go as fast as VCs are evidently banking on?

Siliconera » Pop‘n PC, Pop’n Music Be-Mouse
Haha, totally cute idea for Konami's most female-friendly Bemani series entry.

the2bears.com » Gridrunner++
Now available in Flash, on Facebook - yay Minterism.

Tales of the Rampant Coyote: Explaining Indie Games, Illustrated!
Yes, with handy diagrams.

Game gifting « schlaghund’s playground
'Why is it that even despite my obvious appreciation for anything and everything game-related, I hardly ever receive game-related gifts from family members?'

Alt Text: More 'Filthy' Games to Drive Fox News Crazy
Lore Sjoberg strikes again!

Come One Come All Kongregate: A Talk With The Director Of Games
Good view into what Kongregate has coming up with premium content - actually rather insightful.

Elder Game: MMO game development » The Stages of Designerhood
From 'eager newbie' to 'zen master' via 'burnout', heh.

Game-Ism: Finding the Middleground
'If you find your gameplay becoming stale and stagnant, see if by tweaking a few rules you can’t find some new (and possibly even better) fun in between your core feature goals.'

Radical Dreamer: Yasunori Mitsuda Interview from 1UP.com
'Yasunori Mitsuda is the composer of some of gaming's finest melodies, from those found in his first project, Chrono Trigger, to the more recent epic orchestral soundtrack of Xenosaga Episode I: Der Wille zur Macht.'

Opinion: Punk's Not Dead - Why No More Heroes Matters

[Yes, I know GameSetWatch already ran one No More Heroes rave, but TimeGate Studios designer Steve Gaynor kindly donated this piece to Gamasutra, and I think it's a good alternative critique of the game that's been causing ruckus among gaming style geeks, so we're running it here.]

At this moment I am experiencing the post-game rush. The one that comes immediately after you complete a really great game and you're vibrating with excitement over it.

I just finished my playthrough of No More Heroes, and I'm feeling a serious love buzz for Grasshopper Manufacture: for the game itself, the ethic that brought it about, and everything it does that is unique and joyful and uninhibited.

Above all, No More Heroes is gleefully absurd and self-referential. It lampoons the standard pretenses of video games as well as its own audience. It revels in all the ridiculous elements of standard 'bad-ass, gritty' action games.

It refuses to take anything about itself seriously, while being fully aware of the culture and conventions it's playing off of. It speaks to an audience familiar with action video games as well as the ephemera that surround them, and can take pleasure in all of No More Heroes' knowing jabs and perversions.

The Plot That Matters

No More Heroes throws the player into the role of Travis Touchdown, a broke, idiotic otaku living in a cheap motel room filled with his anime posters and poseable figurines. Uncharacteristically, Travis is a good-looking, well built dude who shares fashion sense with Tyler Durden.

One day, Travis wins a lightsaber "beam sword" off of eBay an "internet auction site" and somehow ends up killing the United Assassins Association's (UAA) number 11 ranked member. A mysterious woman approaches him and suggests he climb the UAA ladder by eliminating each of the top ten ranked assassins one by one. So, the player leaves his anime pad to go on massive killing sprees with his lightsaber, driving to his assignments on his enormously tricked-out motor scooter and then suplexing and hacking up tons of goons like a cross between a Mexican luchador and the Star Wars Kid on meth.

The premise essentially takes a rabid anime nerd's ultimate fantasy life and turns it into a video game, showing how completely ridiculous and laughable it is in the process. Beside the premise and the protagonist, the gameplay itself pushes every element of action games over the top into the absurd. The combat is outrageously gory to the point of being a cartoon, and the bosses are so contrived and implausible as to put Metal Gear Solid villains to shame.

The Attitude That Matters

As the game boots up, The Grasshopper Manufacture crest is emblazoned with the credo "Punk's Not Dead," and declares GhM a "Video Game Band. Just seeing that logo as a splash screen is incredibly heartening, and the implied ethic really does show through in the product. No More Heroes takes the standards of the genre and throws them back in its face. It's loud, abrasive, concerned as much with image as substance, and completely exhilarating. Maybe it really is punk.

There's been some writing lately about the schism between the hardcore reviewership and the casual game market. Some bloggers dismissively condescend toward players engaged with the lineage of games that require high investment in and dedication to the act of play.

The anti-hardcore "like being treated gently" while playing a video game -- they "don’t want to be knocked unconscious" by their entertainment; they "just want to relax in front of the television set, doing not much of anything."

No More Heroes is not the game for them. No More Heroes grabs your collar and screams in your face. It revels in the sensory overload normally provided by a game like God of War or Devil May Cry and amps it up to an unprecedented, speaker-popping assault. It's just what Grasshopper set out for it to be: it's the Sex Pistols or The Stooges freaking out and pissing off your parents.

At its best, a good fight in No More Heroes is as unrelenting and destructive as a track off of Raw Power. And those leveling criticism are right, Pitchfork shouldn't be reviewing Enya. People who just want to relax in front of the televison, doing not much of anything while they play a video game need not apply.

The Things To Love

There's just too much to love about this game. I love that it's a Japanese title that blatantly draws inspiration from Grand Theft Auto. I love that it has character customization, including over 100 different shirts to collect and try on. I love that the majority of these shirts seem to have been designed by Suda 51 himself (under the transparent pseudonym "Mask de Uh," pointing to his ongoing infatuation with luchadors.) I love that it's a hardcore, gamer-focused, direct character inhabitation game that relies on the lo-fi graphics and technology of the Wii. It's pragmatic, and uses superfluous design sense to make up for technical shortcomings. It eschews HD. I love it for that.

I love that, in a strangely affecting twist, the game takes moments to acknowledge the aftermath of violence much more directly than its contemporaries: the mangled corpse of each boss character that you kill remains on the scene as you walk around collecting your reward, forcing you to face the evidence after the act is done. It's somewhat grotesque, and refreshingly so when death is otherwise so meaningless in the vast majority of action games.

I love that the game is legitimately challenging, and requires the player to pay great attention to the bosses' behaviors and precisely time his inputs. And I love that when you do die to a boss, an extremely player-friendly retry option lets you immediately jump back in and give it another shot. I love that it's not easy; I love that it expects more out of me.

I love how much actual gameplay lies outside the core mechanics in the form of side jobs and miniature distractions. You don't just run, jump, fight and kill. You exterminate poisonous scorpions, defuse land mines, gather up trash off the street, collect coconuts, whitewash graffiti, mow lawns, and rescue stray cats. It appeals to me for the same reason that Raw Danger!'s variety of non-standard interactions did: it's something new, a range of experience I'm not used to receiving through a video game.

I love how "gamey" the final product is-- it relies as much on the old-school pixelated tropes of the earliest arcade games as it does on the conventions of titles like GTA3. The UI is decidely 8-bit, with the UAA leaderboard being depicted as a Galaxian-alike arcade game high score board. There are segments of play that include side-scrolling, and even a mini shmup used for one of the lead-up levels. The game isn't trying to be something it's not-- there are cutscenes, but the overall presentation isn't anywhere near "cinematic." That would be too serious, too pedestrian, too commercial. No More Heroes is not of a piece; it's fragmented, eclectic, and in love with being a video game. Maybe that's why I love it so damn much myself.

In the end, I often judge the worth of a game on how much it makes me laugh. I love how much I laughed while playing No More Heroes.

The Things To Question

There are disappointments, though. I wish the bike controls were more intuitive. I wish that all the buyables didn't cost so much, so I didn't have to grind side-missions to buy all the clothes and upgrades I wanted. I wish that the side-missions had that nice instant retry option like the main missions do.

I wish the game had tried to play with its structure more. I love how devoted the developers were to making the lead-up to each boss fight unique: you spend levels doing everything from fighting on a moving bus to driving down a highway to running through a maze to pulling donuts on your motor scooter in the middle of a baseball field.

But the overall flow of the game is cyclical and repetitive, down to the very end. Play through level, beat boss, grind for money in town, buy upgrades, then on to the next level. Repeat. A game like Portal shows how effective messing with player assumptions of game flow can be: how excellent was it to be lulled into the idea of playing through 19 chambers, only to have your expectations turned upside down at the game's midpoint?

How excellent would it be for Travis to climb halfway up the UAA leader board, only for the game structure to change completely, introducing you to an entirely new view on the experience? No more of the same old routine, suddenly the course you thought you were on changes. But no, in No More Heroes you just keep stepping up one rung at a time til you hit the end you'd seen coming from the very start. It quickly becomes rote. An opportunity for subversion was missed.

I wish the f*cking manual included some credits for the developers. Yeah, I know, most gamers don't even open the manual, much less read the credits. But don't the men and women who toiled long and hard to give us this game deserve to have their name on it? Somewhere physical and permanent, not just in the scroll at the end of the game? Is that too much to ask? Is this standard with Japanese games brought over to the States?

I noticed that there are no Japanese credits in the Katamari Damacy manual either, though I remember there being credits in the Final Fantasy VII manual when I flipped through it long ago. It probably depends on the publisher. But it feels like an injustice to print an accompanying pamphlet and omit the names of the product's creators. Maybe nobody else cares, but I do.

The Payoff

No More Heroes is brash, daring, absurd, hilarious, exhilarating, and absolutely one of a kind. It speaks directly to me. It makes me feel happy that such a difficult, impossible thing could make it to market. Congratulations to everyone at Grasshopper for pulling it off. You have my deep respect.

[This is an adapted version of an article which originally ran on Gaynor's Fullbright weblog.]

Special: You Gotta Believe: The Top 10 Parappa Video Moments

Well, after my first YouTube trawl, for cover versions of Portal/Jonathan Coulton's 'Still Alive', got linked all to heck, I realized that the online video sites are getting so expansive and so difficult to filter that there's call for a few more of these.

This time, in honor of Masaya Matsuura and Rodney Greenblat re-uniting to make Major Minor's Majestic March for the Wii (the title of which was correctly leaked by Surfer Girl last month, for those doubting her contacts), I thought we'd run through the Top 10 moments centered around the Parappa The Rapper/UmJammer Lammy game series.

Though they never broke through in quite the way Sony intended, and some - even the creators - suggest the Parappa series (including spinoffs) suffered from diminishing returns. But the wonderful character designs, catchy music, whimsical lyrics, godfather-of-rhythm-game gameplay, and Sunny Funny stylings make the series close to many's hearts - as you'll see below.

10. De La Soul Gotta Believe

A lot of people seem not to like Parappa The Rapper 2. But it's still a heck of a lot of fun, and importantly, it connected the series to its main musical influencers, De La Soul (the first Parappa is _so_ 'Three Feet High and Rising') for a special single of 'I Gotta Believe', complete with custom music video.

9. PSP 'Cheap Cheap' Contest Winner

When Parappa came out on the PSP last year, there was a special Chop Chop Master Onion contest to make a video of the 'Cheap Cheap' chicken stage - and this was the winner. It's pretty disturbing, yes - but there are plenty of more disturbing entries.

8. The Parappa Anime... Translated?

The Parappa anime is not really that well known - partly because it never made it Stateside, but partly because it's not that good, sadly. But it just popped up on YouTube is a fansubbed episode of the series, for those who want to see what all the (lack of) fuss is about.

7. Parappa Puppet Pals... Assemble!

This one's got some production value - it's specially filmed, and "It's Parappa the Rapper, puppet style! PJ tells a scary story by the campfire for Parappa, Sunny, and Katy. "

6. P'Rappa's Nth Mile Dilemma: A Ghettotastic Rap-VENTURE!

I don't believe this fan movie ever actually got released [EDIT: Oh wait, it did, but the official site for it is down] but here's the trailer, and a description - "Inspired by the game Parappa the Rapper for PS1 (and borrowing bits from 8 Mile), Nth Mile is a tribute to the great, simple story of a puppy who raps his way into a flower's heart."

5. The Rightful 'Cheap Cheap' Contest Winner?

We already saw who won the PlayStation.com contest for Parappa's PSP release - but here's what some think is a much better version of the rap - or at least, much goofier, haw.

4. Lammy's Own Music Video

I'd been looking for this for years, so glad to see it turns up on YouTube (albeit with a GameSpot watermark on it!) - it's a special Um Jammer Lammy music video with lots of custom rendered footage, and as one of the commenters mentioned, is the closest we might get to visualizing a next-gen Lammy game. Great song, too.

3. Parappa The Raver

Really, I don't know what to say - it's Parappa The Raver. Glowsticks!

2. The 'Floppy-Haired Idiot' Approach

Blimey, it's some crazy indie kids rocking out to Chop Chop Master Onion. Surprisingly entertaining.

1. The Original Parappa Swedish Chefs

Probably what helped to inspire the PlayStation.com contest, this was a Bachelor's degree thesis project (!) from Sweden, apparently part of "a project about marketing games through live performances, in order to focus on the game's feel". With a live backing band and special mics, this is completely, completely awesome.

[And to finish off, a whole bunch of bonus vids - an autistic interpretation of 'Cheap Cheap', the curlers and squat-thrusts lipsync approach, some rapping in gym class, an odd Japanese commercial, a Lammy Japanese commercial, a scary Crash vs. Parappa commercial, a cute Gorillaz/Parappa mash-up, and the Western-edited 'Hell' stage from Lammy. Phew.]

February 4, 2008

COLUMN: 'The Amateur': Amateur vs Indie

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

The gaming press is conflating two trends in game development into a single category that they label the Independent Game. The first is commercial oriented, casual, independently produced games by people attempting to make a living from writing and designing games without committing to a publisher. These I'm happy to call Indie Games, and they operate much in the same way that the independent labels in the music industry, or independent studios in Hollywood.

The second is subversive, modded, copycat, patched together from pre-built parts, non-commercial or anti-commercial. Amateur game development is done by people who are scratching an itch, who can't not write computer games, who want to see their ideas in pixel form ahead of trying to generate a return.

It might be because their favourite game or game genre has been abandoned as a commercial enterprise. Or because they have an idea so out there, so unachievable, so unplayable that no attempt to commercialise the game could possibly succeed. Or just because the creators have no expectation of, or actively avoid financial reward. Amateur games are in the same head space as fan made movies, ad free blogging and jamming in the garage with your friends.

I've tolerated the crowning of Dwarf Fortress as indie game par excellence in the popular press, on the assumption that it'd encourage people to look long and hard at the amateur game development scene and discover the other hidden treasures. But what is happening instead is that the gaming press is stealing amateur game successes and claiming them for their own. With no disrespect to indie game developers, I want to claim some of these amateur games back.

In my musings below, I'll identify a number of indie game characteristics, and contrast them with amateur games to make my point that these are very much two different mediums. Not every amateur game will have all these features - there is very much a continuum in game development between three corners of a triangle: Commercial, Independent and Amateur. The relationship between commercial and independent games appears to be evolving into the relationship of big brother and little brother. If this is the case, and the development of digital distribution models such as Xbox Live and game-based web portals such as Pop Cap suggest it is, then the amateur game is the guy standing outside the window without his pants on.

Indies graduated from the university Comp Sci department; Amateurs graduated from Earth B

The sure sign of an indie game is that it required maths, physics or engineering skills beyond that taught in high school algebra. Generally an indie game will have an 'innovative' central mechanic that has been developed by rapid prototyping in a class project - perhaps with an accompanying dissertation - or over a weekend in a code jam. The indie game interface is usually clean and well-considered, and has gone through multiple iterations guided by user testing, with earlier code being thrown away and test cases written if the developers have had time and opportunity.

The indie game user interface is well thought out with the minimum different commands interacting in interesting ways. An indie game may leverage existing game libraries, such as SDL, an open physics engine, and a scripting environment like Lua. Art assets will be scalable and in SVGL and/or transparent 24 bit PNGs generated by someone with more than a passing familiarity to Photoshop and colour palettes. You know you are playing a good indie game because the game design attunes you to the way the developers think and the constant feelings of delight you discover looking at every new screen of play.

An amateur game will typically appear to have required the patient coding of an autistic savant who has encyclopedic knowledge of 13th century Russian genealogy but no understanding of type safety or other elementary computer science concepts. This is not always the case: but if the amateur game developer has any computer science training you can be sure that they will have implemented their own hand-written script parser with lots of unnecessary syntactic decoration, preferably featuring upper case type, full colons and square brackets. A classic indication of an amateur game is using a game maker tool of some kind, such as Neverwinter Nights, Adventure Construction Set or RPG Maker.

Amateur developers rapidly add features without considering their impact and loath to throw them away. This results of lots of code cruft, half-implemented features, spaghetti code and bugs. The amateur game user interface is obtuse, with a vertical learning curve and commands and command interactions that defy logic until you experiment enough with them. An amateur coder may have heard of testing before release if you're lucky, but any test cases that they'll have written will be hopelessly out of date. Amateur art assets will be in ANSI and 16 colour pixel art, if the game uses graphics at all. You can tell if you play a good amateur game because you are constantly worried you're going to end up thinking like the developer and the mild feeling of insanity left behind when you look up from the game.

Indies rely on word of mouth publicity and playing the media game; Amateurs publicly complain that they should have written the game in C# when they picked C instead and may not have played their own game.

The Indie game developer will have a portfolio of games and game design concepts that they can show any commercial publisher who inquires. They'll use smart guerrilla marketing with an appointed community manager (unpaid) and forum moderators to wrangle the herd who are following the game design blogs. They'll have read Kieron Gillen's 'How to Use and Abuse the Gaming Press' and be developing contacts on Kotaku and Joystiq to get the game mentioned at least once per week. They'll subscribe to game development magazines.

Amateur game developers are likely to have books full of game designs but nothing implemented - if they are disciplined enough to code consistently, they'll have directories full of partially implemented games but nothing released - if they are confident enough to release they'll have to do lists full of partially implemented features but nothing completed to their satisfaction.

Instead of building a community, an amateur will start with insecurity. This will result in a complete coding paralysis, a bizarre step beyond procrastination which appears to be a uniquely amateur game developer phenomena. This often takes the form of publicly berating themselves for not producing anything, threatening to rewrite the code in a completely different language, refactoring the code more frequently than writing new code and consistently shifting intentions to different projects without starting any of them.

Amateur game developers have a lot to learn from indie game developers in this regard. Luckily, some have. Events like the Interactive Fiction Competition and the 7 Day Roguelike Challenge provide incentives to just get coding done, in return for community recognition and praise.

The other downside to the amateur developer, is that once they start coding, they are less likely to stop and play the game. This is because playing the game in a partial state becomes painful, and limited to only minimal testing of new features to sanity check the code. As a result, many bugs lurk beyond the confines of simple play, and many game balance issues and exploits exist to be resolved. It becomes an unwritten contract between the amateur developer and the community built up around the game that the developer releases and the community tests.

Indies release when they're ready for a private beta; Amateurs release when the game compiles

The greatest strength of the amateur developer is the community and feedback that builds up when they (finally) release a prototype of the game. This occurs through some kind of unholy osmosis in which like-minded individuals are attracted to a flawed product with a seed of potential and a whole lot of hand waving.

In these early, delicate stages, even just one email from a brave tester can spur the amateur to new heights of creativity. Expect amateur developers to promise the world and deliver a 80x24 console screen for the first few years of development. Then you'll realise they've delivered a world and hidden it behind the amber glow of the self-same console screen.

Indies are planning on releasing on Xbox Live as soon as the game is certified; Amateurs are planning on releasing on AmigaDOS as soon as the game is open source.

The corollary of a strong community around an amateur game, is that real developers with much better coding skills than the original developer will end up offering to contribute to the game. These real developers need to be held at arms length, just like any other rabid fan. They are likely to provide a much needed re-design of a critical game component and then disappear half-way through the rewrite. Therefore, they should be assigned to non-critical tasks like user interface design and platform porting, where they can safely implement a full-typing system and message passing model in C without impacting on anything that the amateur developer cares about.

Indies avoid death-march by enjoying working 24 hours a day for no money; Amateurs avoid death-march by having to put the kids to bed first

The first indie game from an indie game studio is typically developed by students or graduates who have no steady income, but are writing the game for their resume or the expectation of leveraging a small commercial success into the opportunity for further work. In order to write their dream game, the indie game studio may turn to releasing a 'guaranteed hit' in the form of a casual game which they can quickly turnaround and develop a revenue model for. This makes Facebook and Pop-Cap, or a home brewed equivalent, an attractive proposition.

The amateur usually holds down a full-time real job and then codes in evenings, weekends or quiet days at work. Adam Foster freely admits to developing his Half-Life mod Minerva during the downtime of the European parliament summer. This conflict of development and real life leaves many amateur games as unfinished symphonies or the authors vanishing into the anonymity of the Internet. Setting the source free can sometimes mitigate this loss - but there is undoubtedly more abandoned amateur games, often deleted by the author, than all the commercial abandonware put together. This makes a Source Forge or Google Code repository essential - not for the developers - but for those trying to archive amateur games.

Indies try to create buzz by launching a Flash-based website with game media releases; Amateurs try to create buzz by launching a Geocities site with lots of flashing blink tags

Interactive fiction is the province of amateur games, platform games are moving into the amateur game space as the platform genre all but dies as a commercial success, roguelikes have been there almost from the beginning. Most modding efforts are amateur games although their creators may deny it. But modding efforts are different from typical amateur games because of the 'professional' nature of their content.

The mod team is built up from like minded individuals who are drawn to a single vision. This may be the recreation of earlier game content in a newer engine, or taking another media property and implementing it in a game engine. Over ambitious mod teams are much more likely to fail, as they lack the cohesive vision and drive of a single amateur author. This results in longer lead times to release, diversion of development resources into designing a professional looking game site or 're-launching' the mod with a newer look. Successful mod developers may be hired by commercial game developers and otherwise drawn away to newer or more interesting projects.

Interactive fiction and games developed using game development tool kits are usually smaller in scope and ambition than a typical amateur game developer. This is usually driven by the different needs of the interactive fiction author: to tell a particular narrative, as opposed to create a game space. The lack of control over the underlying rules lead these types of games to focus on content creation which is the most expensive use of time for an amateur. But the same common tool set allows communities of amateur developers to share resources and skills that make multiple authorship and content reuse a more viable option than a typical programmer led amateur game.

Mods and tool kit based games are common to amateur games in that they are usually derivative, poorly made, and the first step for someone exploring the possibilities of game development. The truly innovate mods and tool kit games play to the indie game strengths, while the rest play to the amateur game weaknesses.

Indie games are patched once they hit version 1.0; Amateur games are no longer played once they hit version 1.0

In a sense, amateur games are constantly in beta. Even if the source code is not open, there is no definite point of release, no point of sale, that fixes the amateur game in time. And the reaction to a version 1.0 of an amateur game seems to be the drifting away of a significant part of the player base, as they are no longer involved in the development process. Part of the attraction of amateur games is the positive feedback loop between developer and player. The same highs and lows of getting a suggested feature implemented and having a class nerfed are common to both amateur games and MMORPGs.

Indies try to 'make it' by coming up with a business plan and looking for venture capital; Amateurs try to 'make it' by coming up with a company name and looking for website hosting

The lure of commercialisation constantly plays at the back of the amateur developer's mind. But the strong amateur knows that his love of game development is a greater reward than money. In fact tying development to monetary return can sap the amateur game developer of motivation - suddenly the pressure of success destroys the pleasure of programming. This suggests a Pay Pal tip jar and feedback from a forum are the best means of motivating the amateur.

Every odd numbered Introversion title (Hacker, Defcon) is indie; every even numbered one (Darwinia, Subversion) amateur

There are commercial games that have been developed with an amateur game mind set. Every game that over promises and under delivers is amateur in this sense - suggesting Duke Nukem Forever and Peter Molyneux are perhaps amateur games greatest icons. GSC, developers of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, look to have the amateur obsession that demands that they constantly release the same game over and over, in an ever improving form. Bethesda with Daggerfall have attempted this feat, but with each subsequent RPG release, commercial demands and the destructive forces of user testing have worn down the amateur template they developed to. Time will tell which way Deep Shadows, developers of the equally amateur Boiling Point, tumble - will they constantly overreach and fail in true amateur fashion, or will they numb themselves with success and lose their burning amateur spirit.

Indies produce casual games; Amateurs produce inkblots

Bill Harris at Dubious Quality uses the analogy of the inkblot to discuss the development of three breakout independent games of the last year, at least one of which I've called an amateur game. These games have seeped into the consciousness of the wider game community from an extended development period and public beta. But behind this sudden influx of black fluid, amateur games are constantly writhing below the surface of what the gaming media reports, a nightmarish remixing of commercial gaming pleasures and independent game innovations.

Amateur gaming has the ability to disrupt the gaming industry. While an indie game has new and innovative ideas, the amateur game developer can spend literally years developing a game. Nethack has been 'in development' for longer than Starcraft has been played. Probably the only way now to out-Wow World of Warcraft will be with an amateur game, because only the open source development model could develop faster and with more resources than Blizzard has. Though amateur games will never have their Linux, because the most successful amateur games are driven by a single developer's vision.

Indies go to GDC, Amateurs go to IRC

Don't confuse the amateur with the indie. They come from different mind sets, with different motivations, means and methods. 2007 has undoubtedly been the year of the indie. Make 2008 and beyond the lifetime of the amateur.

GameSetLinks: The Guiltiest Gear In The World

Ah, yes, a fresh week and a fresh set of GameSetLinks, from the whimsical to the development-hungry to the positively wonderful.

Oh, and since I'm mentioning Guilty Gear for Wii below, which is published by Aksys Games in the States - I've been wondering for a while how Aksys and Arc System Works are related, given that Aksys is publishing _all_ the same games that the Arc folks are publishing in Japan, and Aksys appears to be some kind of concatenation of the Japanese company's name?

[UPDATE: A handy commenter reveals: "The similarity in names leads people to make the obvious assumption, but Aksys is actually an abbreviation of Akibo Systems, named after founder Akibo Shieh." So I guess it's just a business relationship and a coincidental name? Blimey.]

Akihabara Channel » New Generation of Fighting Games
2D fighters will never die (Akatsuki Blitzkampf pictured) - talking of which, I just picked up Guilty Gear Accent Core for Wii, it's excellent.

8bitrocket.com: Mid-Core Gamer Manifesto
10 things that midcore games want.

How to Damage the Morale of Your Staff | .mischief.mayhem.soap.
A game development management faux-pas primer.

Yehuda: A Guide to Board and Card Games Based on Video Games (1971 to 2007)
Neat! Via Raph.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: Hensleigh
'Guitar Hero Aerosmith will rock this way in July.' And other fun rumors.

Zen of Design»Blog Archive » Shadowbane Nukes It From Orbit
'There seem to be a lot of people shocked at the news that Shadowbane has decided to press the reset button with their next patch, resetting all characters, items and player-built cities. They are almost equally shocked that the player-base is almost unif

Nintendo DS mixed-reality treasure hunt ::: Pink Tentacle
'On a small island near Tokyo, people armed with Nintendo DS portable game consoles are scouring the terrain in search of clues that will lead them to a secret treasure.'

ASCII by Jason Scott: Zero Stars
Scott on the zero-star, emulator/save-state enabled Mario 64 speedrun, which is almost a work of art in itself.

Geek Entertainment TV : Blog Archive : ANSI Art for the Masses
Coverage of that ANSI art show in SF I mentioned a while back.

These desktop wallpapers (on the Japanese NMH site) are pretty adorable.

Opinion: Console Downloadable Games? Too Cheap

[In this editorial, Gamasutra publisher Simon Carless makes the argument that the original downloadable console games for Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network are priced too inexpensively for creators to be completely viable as a continuing business model.]

So, I'm going to imagine that this may not be one of the most popular opinion pieces I've ever written, given that it advocates that all you wonderful XBLA and PSN consumers should be paying more for your downloads. But here's my underlying thesis - that after the 'honeymoon' period when there are only a few titles on the services garnering larger amounts of downloads, the $10 average pricing for downloadable console titles may not enough to sustain indie developers - especially given that games are often barred from appearing on rival networks.

In fact (and this is especially true in the case of PlayStation Network downloads, which are often priced ridiculously low compared to the amount of work that's gone into them) console downloadable pricing seems to have started as a loss leader for hardware companies, as they set a precedent with first-party financially supported titles in order to persuade consumers to buy their game systems. And now we've got stuck in a bad price point for creativity.

Of course, the difficult thing here is a frame of reference in estimating sales for the various systems. One good arbiter is the info that ThatGameCompany's Flow has sold 120,000 copies on PlayStation 3, at least as of September 2007. As one of the most-promoted and most critically acclaimed titles on the system, with only around 30 titles available, this is a good high-end figure for PSN sales, I think, especially given lower installed base and a less obvious downloadable game element to the PlayStation Store.

As for Xbox Live Arcade, the generally held view is that early XBLA titles were pretty much guaranteed 50,000-100,000 purchases, thanks to the small amount of games on the system - even if an original IP indie title. And well-known franchises can still do well - it's been claimed that Worms HD sold 200,000 copies in just the first couple of months.

Probably the best documenter of Xbox Live Arcade sales - as long as their calculations are on the money, and they look close enough to me - is the VGChartz Xbox Live Arcade countdown, which is created by extrapolating MyGamerCard info. It reveals the vast majority of games spanning 15,000 to 400,000 sold.

However, a lot of the swift-selling games are from the early days of Xbox Live when there were plenty of hardcore adopters and little choice. There's now over 110 games on the service - and the results can start to be pretty obviously seen in recent charts. There are some great indie success stories in there, but there are now so many games available that recent titles are slowing down majorly.

For example, Switchball has allegedly sold 41,439 since its November release, and Mutant Storm Empire a disappointing 24,708 - with the high score tables I've checked out for the game indicating it might be even less than that estimate. The most famous example is Jeff Minter's Space Giraffe, which was confirmed at almost 10,000 downloads in less than 2 weeks, and seems to have limped along to an estimated 17,103, with an overall gross of $85,515.

Another mistake some people make in looking at these possible '$$$' numbers is presuming that this means a 'profit' of that much. Let's take Mutant Storm Empire as an example, with $247,078 listed as revenue in the VGChartz estimates. But obviously, Microsoft takes a percentage of this for allowing you to put your game on XBLA. Let's say that percentage is 30% (a figure given by Team17 since they self-published Worms - it may differ for 'first-party' games). This leaves $173,000 in revenue flowing to the developer.

But there's an immense amount of complexity and necessary payment in both testing and localizing an Xbox Live Arcade game, and the burden shouldered by developers is reportedly as high as $50,000 per game in terms of getting proper bug reports, making sure the game is localized into the correct amount of languages, and so on and so forth.

So that would take the developer cut down to perhaps $120,000 - which is an incredibly small amount for making a complex professional game from scratch with multiple development staff. If you go through a publisher (with THQ and Sierra being two of the ones signing up XBLA titles recently), the numbers look even worse, with many of those titles clearly not paying for themselves.

Having said that, there are some notable success stories - such as PinballFX, which looks to have grossed $2,494,772 so far, according to VGChartz. And XBLA execs were revealing 156% average financial return over 12 months for Xbox Live Arcade titles published so far in August 2007. But I'd love to know what that figure is now over all games and especially over non-remake, non-retro titles.

The problem, as I see it, is that setting a $10 precedent for what are often complex, multi-mode, multi-level games presumes that you can pretty easily get to 100,000 units sold - given that you only get 70% of revenues and that most games probably cost in the low to mid hundreds of thousands of dollars if you're actually using hired staff that you pay and take a year to a year and half to make it including (lengthy!) approval processes. Given the amount of games flooding onto the service, I'm not sure that's quite so easy now. And it's just going to get harder.

Casual PC games cost $20, and are often as or less sophisticated than console downloadable titles. Why is it that games that try to price themselves at $15 on Xbox Live Arcade are considered 'out of line'?

Having said that, of course, the average developer makes only $8 (40%) on a casual PC game download, and the average XBLA developer would make $7 (70%) on a $10 Xbox Live Arcade game. But the complexity of having to make fully featured online modes for consoles, the cost of devkits and console-experienced staff, and so on makes a major difference - as does the months of testing that get done at the end of an XBLA cycle to meet rigorous standards. And it's likely that Microsoft is eating some significant costs there by being so generous with royalties.

By far the best example of taking a stand on pricing on PC is Bit-Blot's 2007 IGF Grand Prize winner Aquaria, a complex story-based action title which can nonetheless be compared to a number of XBLA games, which the developers are selling for $30 on their website - meaning that they get 100% of the money when you buy it, actually. So just 10,000 sales for them would be the equivalent of selling nearly 50,000 copies of your game at $10 on Xbox Live Arcade. The Aquaria folks have die-hard fans who will pay that fair amount. And $30 implies value, and less disposability. In fact, you may play the game longer if you shelled out a little more for it. You see where we're going here?

Of course, we're not suggesting that those simple retro remakes need to cost that much - on name recognition and ease of creation, $5 (or maybe, hey, $8 or something) works perfectly well for them.

But I honestly believe that the best way for folks like Jeff Minter to make money to keep going is to play to the fanbase and charge accordingly. I bet you he would have seen at least 10,000 purchases of Space Giraffe, even at a $20 price point - and it would have put him in a much better financial position to keep making games for his fans ($200k grossed instead of $85k). This method is what Japanese super-niche console game developers do when they put out their bricks&mortar retail titles for $20 more than the average game (perhaps with some fun extras along the way).

OK, but here's the capper. Microsoft's GDC keynote is coming up, and Chris Satchell has hinted at an XNA community publishing platform for the Xbox 360. If (and this is a massive if) it's going to be as easy as making a game using XNA Studio and pushing it out to the masses with a price tag attached, then we're going to get a massive array of games at a gigantic array of pricepoints.

It might be incredibly disruptive, but it also might encourage larger pricing diversities. If the concept can fix or even bypass some of the complexities of the testing and approval process, it'll mean that swiftness to market could bypass a lot of the worries listed above.

But this still merits the question - who is going to be man enough to step up with a prominent project (let's say, picking one out of the air after an IM chat with a buddy, Castle Crashers) and say 'No, guys, this game is really worth $20, and you're going to get that much enjoyment out of it'? I think it should be done (over and above titles like Puzzle Quest sneaking up to $15), and I think it would help stabilize the console downloadable ecosystem, even if users might not appreciate it up front. But heck, we all know it's probably too late.

February 3, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 2/2/08

shirenj.jpg   shirenu.jpg

I'm back! And holy cow, take my advice, don't launch a new magazine! It takes a lot of work and you wind up forgetting to clean the litterbox too often!

I have a ton of mags to catch up on, all of which you'll find under the cut; apologies I don't write my usual depth, but there's a huge stack to get through.

But before we begin, I thought I'd show off something I found amusing. On the top left you have the Japanese box art for Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. On the right, you have the US magazine ad for the game, as seen in this month's Nintendo Power. Holy cow! Shiren's gotten kind of edgy! And Koppa (his white weasel companion) went from cute and merchandisable to eat-the-faces-off-babies demented! I haven't seen such a breathtaking concept-art transformation since the glory days of the NES! Thumbs up, Sega! Moving on, though...

Electronic Gaming Monthly February 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

12 different covers doesn't come close to beating the 20-ish Official PlayStation Magazine had for its Def Jam: Fight for NY coverage in 2004, but this go-around is a lot nicer looking -- who can hate a magazine with Pit on the cover? (Not that I got him in the mail or anything. mbl grmbl) In case you're interested, the full cover list: Link, Wario, Pikachu, Donkey Kong, Sonic, Kirby, Mario, Pit, Samus, Yoshi, Snake and Bowser.

Anyway, there's a neat compilation feature about the game inside, discussing the culture around it and the things that make Nintendo-produced titles unique. It's bookended by a not-so-unique preview feature and the review section, with several big-name postmortems (SMG, Rock Band, CoD4).

Game Informer January 2008


Cover: Resistance 2

GI world exclusive features are always best when the game in question is legitimately something new and exciting, and while all the top innovations of Resistance 2 are printed right there on the cover, the feature inside (albeit excessively brown) is still good reading -- as is the other bit on LEGO Indiana Jones, which would've made a hilarious cover subject (though I'm a little weird that way).

Edge February 2008


Cover: Far Cry 2

Edge putting a pretty brown (and prety GI-like) cover this month, but I'll forgive 'em because the feature inside is a beautiful piece of design and content. Long interviews with Spector, Yoshiaki Koizumi and Suda51 keep the spirit alive, as well as a surprising "The making of" on The Black Onyx, the blockbuster ancient Japanese RPG created by Henk Rogers and a game I've examined a fair bit on my own in other pages.

Play February 2008


Cover: Afro Samurai

12 out of 92 pages this month are devoted to Afro Samurai. I'm honestly not sure why it's so big, either -- the enormous art, textless 2-page intro spread and relatively tiny article make me wonder if other things dropped out at the last minute. Pretty, though. There's an even longer 2007 year-in-review piece/2008 preview piece, as well as... erm... no reviews. What the hey? I've written here extensively about how game-mag reviews, as they are, are old hat, but I don't know about eliminating them completely.

All in all, a strange issue.

GamePro March 2008


Cover: Rainbow Six Vegas 2

It's preview feature-a-rama this issue, as well as the introduction of a little mobile phone game coverage.

PC Gamer March 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Zombies!

Sub editions of this issue have a wraparound advertisement for the HP Blackbird 002 gamer PC. This wouldn't be noteworthy if it weren't for the fact that it dovetails an internal ad inside written by Greg Vederman, PC Gamer's last editor. I'd consider that very fishy (Vede, who joined HP's crew after leaving is apparently shootin' to be the Bob Vila of the game scene) if it weren't for the fact that this advertorial is extremely funny, self-referential, and genuinely hip in a way that ads generally aren't known for. So, I can't complain too loudly, I suppose.

Out of all the current mags, I think Future's handle the new 100-page-book future the best. There isn't a single wasted page, and no matter where you flip to there's something quick and eye-catching to grab your attention. You can see it in the zombie-game preview feature -- every page has something neat, whether it's an unusual-looking screenshot, a sidebar, or a set of Aperture Science-inspired icons for dealing with the undead.

Cellplay returns in March Future ishes. Fair warning.

Official Xbox Magazine February 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Turok

"Fix your Rock Band hardware" is an odd choice for a lead feature (even with the freebie RB songs included on the disc -- very nice), but it's interesting to read in that Make-magazine sorta way. Turok is also kind of an odd choice for a review cover, considering it only gets 7.0 inside (things like NFL Tour and the newest FFXI expansion outscore it). At least you can't accuse OXM of playola, huh?

Nintendo Power February 2008


Cover: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

That title's a little fanfiction-y, but -- wahey -- it turns out the art for the game is brilliant, making this an excellent cover and even more excellent internal feature. The art kick continues with a piece on the visual design of Okami, which similarly rules, and there's even a stick thrown to the nerds with a feature on good or humorously amusing Japanese first-party games that never made it to the US.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine February 2008


Cover: Crisis Core: FFVII

PTOM's third issue, and things are starting to get more interesting, especially with a creator-roundtable piece where four people from Insomniac and Naughty Dog talk about how the PS3's been treating them so far.

Tips & Tricks March/April 2008


Cover: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

It's T&T, all right! The SSBB cover feature is a preview masquerading as a strategy guide; kind of a neat bit of subterfuge there.

[Kevin Gifford breeds ferrets and runs Magweasel, a site for collectors and fans of old video-game and computer magazines. He's also Executive Editor of PiQ, a new magazine hitting stands in March.

GameSetLinks: No Country For Frii Play

Ah, yes, a new cornucopia of GameSetLinks, headed by the New York Times talking about reviewers and gamers getting out of sync (ah, a subject I may have broached recently!), as well as another awesome installation of GameTap's 'No Country For Old Arcades' features.

Also on the list - Platinum Games goes all Facebook-y, the PSN updates are delineated, the Guitar Zeros rock out in video form, and all kinds of other fun. One, two, three, four:

In the List of Top-Selling Games, Clear Evidence of a Sea Change - - New York Times
'The growth in the now $18 billion gaming market is in simple, user-friendly experiences that families and friends can enjoy together.'

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Doujin Game Pick: Uwabami Breakers (Nonbekai)
A Japanese fan-shooter (pictured) in which you're "a female drunk who gains power by destroying alcoholic drinks or substances... a boss will appear and attempt to kick you out of their establishment when you're drunk enough."

Crispy Gamer - launched in Beta!
John Keefer's new consumer game site, with a pretty neat all-star line-up of contributors. Not sure I agree entirely with the angle, tho - does anyone care about reviews any more? We'll see, there's some feature diversity in there too.

No Country for Old Arcades: Keystone II - Features - GameTap
Wow, a secretive San Jose fighting game utopia - I had no idea.

GameTap Forums: 'FREE Games at GameTap! Start Here!'
Former Gamasutra editor Frank Cifaldi, now a GameTapper, runs down the currently free titles at the aggregator - some surprisingly good oldskool/arcade stuff in here.

Does Portal’s Success Presage Game Industry Shift? - GigaOM
An Au post I can agree with, since it's largely minus invective! Good show.

ABCNews.com covers the Independent Games Festival
'The festival showcases fresh new video game ideas that have yet to be watered down or corrupted by mainstream publishers.' Yay mainstream coverage.

Facebook | PlatinumGames Inc.
English translations, videos, news from the blog of JP developer Platinum Games (you know, the ex-Clover guys, Viewtiful Joe, Resident Evil, etc) - v.neat.

PSN Content 01/31/08 - NeoGAF
By far the best way to keep up - someone make PSNArcade.com already or something.

Plasticky Goodness // Current
Neat video about The Guitar Zeros, real band using GH instruments.

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware RPGs, Roguelikes 2007

[Tim W. is still showing a level of knowledge of obscure freeware/indie games that makes me fear for my first-born downloadable, and our sister site IndieGames.com now has a fine array of 2007 best-ofs for freeware titles. And lo and behold, here's the latest for your delight.]

The best indie games of 2007 countdown continues, as we reveal some of the best freeware RPGs and roguelikes to be released in 2007.

Best Freeware RPGs, Roguelikes 2007

  1. The Crypts of Despair
  2. Dwarf Fortress
  3. Twilight Heroes
  4. Last Scenario
  5. Wilfred, the Hero
  6. Homeland
  7. Exit Fate
  8. The Desolate Room
  9. Generic Slash: Dismal Depths
10. Incursion

An additional note from Tim W.: "We've delved into some of the more obscure corners of the RPG and Roguelike universe here; if you'd like to check out additional mainstream indie RPGs, why not consult GameTunnel's GOTY Awards and Rampant Games' Best Indie CRPGs articles."

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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