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February 16, 2008

Game Developer February GDC Issue Exposes Ratchet & Clank Future

- The February 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, the sister print publication to Gamasutra.com and GameSetWatch.com, and the leading U.S. trade publication for the video game industry, has shipped to subscribers and is available from the Game Developer Digital service in both subscription and single-issue formats, as well as a single physical issue.

The cover feature for the issue is 'Postmortem: Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction' by John Fiorito, and it's explained of the exclusive postmortem:

"Ratchet & Clank Future was Insomniac's second PlayStation 3 game, and indeed one of the first second-generation PS3 titles period. From scope woes to preproduction pitfalls, this postmortem illuminates some of the process behind this "second party" development cycle."

Another major feature for the new issue is 'Difficulty Is Difficult' by game designer Daniel Boutros, of which it's explained:

"If done well, difficulty can make a game quite addictive. If done poorly, the game can become an abject failure for consumers. This design article dissects various elements of difficulty tuning, and proposes potential solutions."

In addition, the February issue also looks at 'Big Waves' by Adi Bar-Lev, described as follows:

"Game Developer has featured articles on water before, but never massive, interactive waves. Building off a primer for general in-game water creation, this technical piece shows practical techniques for the creation, smoothing, and perfection of big waves in-game, as seen in Ubisoft's Surf's Up."

Another major piece for the issue is 'Community Roundtable' by a host of MMO and online game community managers, including April Burba, Christian Schuett, Jonathan Hanna, Richard Weil, Sean Dahlberg, and Victor Wachter, and it's noted:

"Community management straddles the line between developer and fanbase, and as a result is often misunderstood. Herein, your questions are answered by community professionals, as their jobs become more important to game development."

The issue is rounded out by an interview on Halo 3's 'Legendary' difficulty level, as well as the customary in-depth news, code, art, audio, and design columns from Game Developer's veteran correspondents, plus product reviews and editorial columns.

Worldwide paper-based subscriptions to Game Developer magazine are currently available at the official magazine website, and the Game Developer Digital version of the issue is also now available, with the site offering six months and a year's subscriptions, alongside access to back issues and PDF downloads of all issues, all for a reduced price. There is now also an opportunity to buy the digital version of February 2008's magazine as a single issue.

GameSetLinks: The Death Of The British

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/rgarr.jpg A little more GameSetLink-age up your wazoo, and there's some fun stuff here - and I actually really like the fake SomethingAwful article from Hunter S. Thompson on the Spike VGAs.

Sure, nobody can really emulate the gonzo originator (even you, Rogers!), but it just shows that personal experiences need recounting more often in video game surroundings - even if they're fictional discussions of journeys through Bat Country, perhaps. Anyhow, onward:

Zen of Design»Blog Archive » Great Moments in Community Management
With a crapload of great comments adding to the three starters.

VIDEOLUDICA: Game On exhibition hits Melbourne
...with new sections on MMOs and machinima, apparently.

Sirlin.net: The Mysterious Grassroots Gamemaster
Sirlin likes him a bit more than me, but I agree with the 'come out and play' comment.

SomethingAwful: Hunter S. Thompson Files His Belated Report on the 2007 Spike Video Game Awards
This is oddly moving - via Leigh.

NCSX: Oshiri Kajiri Mushi no Rhythm Lesson DS: Kawai Ongaku Kyoushitsu Kanshuu
'In Sega's upcoming Rhythm Lesson DS, the insects serve as music teachers where rhythm exercises on virtual instruments are all that's needed to become somewhat musically inclined.'

insertcredit.com: 'Barnyard Blast out Friday'
The sardonic hand of Gamasutra's Brandon Sheffield helped out with writing on this DS oddity.

Habitat Chronicles: Chip and Randy cut loose!
Yahoo! lays off the original graphical MMO creators - who were working on something skunkwork-y. Iiinteresting.

Game-Ism: 'So What Do You Do?'
A game creator laments: 'For some reason, when I’m out in public, with the rest of the general population, I hide what I do at my job.'

From Sun Tzu to Xbox: War and Video Games: US Army Sniper School in Halo
Army sponsorship for Halo 3 tutorial videos, I think?

Cult Classics: PlayStation 2 Article // PS2 /// Eurogamer
'...recommended for adventurous souls with a taste for the eclectic.'

PC Feature: The Many Deaths of Lord British - ComputerAndVideoGames.com
Cute idea.

N+ Launch Party: Toronto Developers Gone Wild

[We sent Games On Deck editor, IGF Mobile co-ordinator and Gamasutra contributor Mathew Kumar to cover the N+ for Xbox Live Arcade 'almost launch party' in his adopted hometown of Toronto, Canadia (that's how you spell it, right?) This was the torrid but awesome result.]

N(ipples)+ Everyday Hooters

So a few weeks ago, roughly seconds after I got an invite to Metanet Software's N+ launch party at the Gladstone Hotel (which I immediately promised to go to, as I missed an earlier PR event arranged by Microsoft) I received both an IM from Simon Carless (our benevolent overlord) and an e-mail from Brandon Sheffield (Insert Credit’s not-even-vaguely benevolent overlord) asking me to go and cover it.

In what capacity, I wondered?

“I don’t know,” was the response (from one or the other) “Just write 300 words or something on it.”

So, without much of an assignment I just decided to be as sensationalistic as possible (even though GamesetWatch doesn’t pay for hits). As you’ll notice from the picture above, the N+ launch party was a night of wild debauchery! I won’t reveal the identities of the developers caught in the act of flashing us even though we asked (nay, begged) them not to, but the caption should give you some hints.


The crowded masses at the event. Notice the fellow to the left there, gesturing as to how large something is! We’ll leave what to your imagination. (The hand on the right is describing how large it really is.)


People play N+! Note the special N+ Xbox 360 faceplates.


Mare (Sheppard, she of Metanet software) made them. They’re very neat.


Jim Munroe (director of Freeware Rebellion, and of the Artsy Games Incubator) brought a baby. The beer is the baby’s, because that's just how wild things were.


There is something hilarious about this hat, I'm sure, but I was too far away to find out.


Everyday Shooter’s Jon Mak drinks Irish whiskey and looks sleazy.


This is the stack of drinks tickets that were on hand for people to get totally blotto on (which they did.) Note the sweet N+ pins. I didn’t get one, because I wasn’t paying attention at the time, sadly.


Raigan (Burns, also of Metanet) plays his own game. The first thing he did was kill himself, which makes it seem likely that he’s not going to be at the top of the leaderboard on Xbox Live on his own game forever like Jeff Minter was. Later, he would talk for about 40 minutes on how NHL 2001 was probably his favorite game ever. He even liked the original Driver! All the other indie developers are going to mock Raigan at the Indie Game Summit now I’ve revealed this, probably.

All in all, everyone had a lovely time, N+ is excellent (though, obviously, brutally hard) and it’s probably going to be released next week. Unless Bill Gates changes his mind.

February 15, 2008

Wayforward Vs. Dirk Gently: Voldi Way Speaks!

- For those paying attention, a recent GameSetWatch article centered on my delighted discovery that the successful computer company in Douglas Adams' practically psychedelic book Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency - was called WayForward Technologies.

This, of course, is the same name as the game developer behind Contra IV, Shantae, and a host of other neat handheld/other titles, so I mailed my contacts there and waiting for a reply from company owner Voldi Way - who has the same last name as Dirk Gently character Gordon Way, heh.

And I did indeed receive an email all about it from Voldi, and am sharing it with you:

"Good catch! Our name was, in fact, inspired by Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency. it was early 1990, while i was still contemplating starting a game development company, that i happened to be reading that book.

It's been 18 years since i read it, so please forgive me if i'm remembering the details wrong, but as i recall, Mr. Way (Gordon, not Voldi) developed MIDI software for Windows and Macintosh. Well, back then, i was developing software professionally for Windows and had been playing with Macs as a hobby. On top of that, i had ambitions of becoming a rock-star (like most 19 year-olds), so i had a lot of MIDI equipment. I had even been writing my own MIDI sequencing software on the side.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Gordon Way's company did indeed release the MIDI software 'Anthem', which is, according to Wikipedia, "...designed as a spreadsheet, but also has a unique feature to convert corporate accounts into music" - though it was designed by protagonist Richard MacDuff for Gordon's company. This is still an awesome idea that somebody should do, incidentally.]

In any case, the similarities were just too astounding, so when I officially started the company on my birthday a few months later (3/1/1990), i chose the name WayForward Technologies as a tribute to Douglas Adams. at the time, i half expected to fail and have to start over as WayForward Technologies II, which would've been even more fitting [since that's what happened in the book].

In a weird way, even that turned out to be a parallel. We got bought by a book publisher in 1995, and a couple years later, they realized they were better at selling books than software, so they liquidated us and all of our assets in 1997. We managed to buy back all the equipment for pennies on the dollar, but we lost the rights to all of our IP. So in a sense, our current incarnation could be considered WayForward Technologies II, although we haven't been mentioned in the same sentence as companies such as IBM and Microsoft (or was it Lotus in the book?)

Anyway, you've inspired me to dig up my old copy of Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency and re-read it for old time sake. It'll be especially nostalgic since any hopes of another sequel have passed on with Douglas Adams."

Ah well - as Adams fans know, there is, at least, The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul to be read, though that can only be described as an _extremely_ tangential sequel, and as comments in the previous post noted, The Salmon Of Doubt has fragments of another Dirk Gently book in it. But it's nice to know Adams' legacy is living, namewise, in an entirely unrelated entity.

GameSetApparel: Spotlight On Schadenfreude's 'Grabungadung'

-[As previously mentioned, we now have all four GameSetApparel T-shirts available for individual order. We're going to highlight one tee per week here on GSW - though you can buy any/all of them now! Being highlighted this week is the completely awesome 'Grabungadung' shirt by European development superstars Schadenfreude Interactive.]

GSA104 - 'Grabungadung' - Now Available

Also now available in GameSetApparel's limited-edition 'Games That Never Were' series, which is strictly limited to 111 copies of each tee, is 'Grabungadung' by Schadenfreude Interactive (legendary German Accordion Hero creators).

- Regular GameSetWatch and Gamasutra readers may know Black Forest-based game developer Schadenfreude Interactive from their appearances on both websites, most recently for a weeklong guest appearance on GSW while site editor Simon Carless was guesting on Kotaku.

In any case, from that guest stint, when discussing their classic '80s beginnings, Karsden and Bruno reveal where this T-shirt, Grabungadung, got its design from:

Karsden: This game was Dig Dug, without the silly Fygars. Instead, they were dung beetles. But I suppose it was similar enough, since we eventually got a cease-and-desist letter from Namco, and so we made Grabungadung II, which was more like Ripoff.
Bruno: We ripped off Ripoff.
-K: Basically you are the beetle and roll your dung ball around, accumulating as much dung as possible, while fending off flies and other beetles who will try to steal your ball.
Bruno: In a way it is a metaphor for life.
K:We made a coin-op version, which was very popular in Southern Germany. It was a “cocktail” arcade machine, with a large brown ninepin ball as a trackball.
Bruno: And then we did another dung beetle game, years later…because you are so fond of these dung beetles.
K: Yes, that is why we made Dung Ho!, which was a bit like Katamari Damacy.
Bruno: But much less colorful.
K: Brown is a color!


The high-quality sky-blue Schadenfreude-designed shirt (available in XL, L, or M, with only 111 in total over all three sizes) is the result, and interested parties can now order the GSA104 'Grabungadung' T-shirt design in multiple sizes from the GameSetApparel store.

[BONUS LINK: Reader 'L'Ombre Du Z' ordered all four shirts to the fine country of France, and blogged about it recently - according to the Google translate version: "The result, four t-shirts quality unique, colorful illustrations and pimpantes shifted... A new brand to monitor therefore, for the geeks as for lovers of tees." So there - pimpantes!]

D3Publisher Sends GSW Valentine's (Chocolate) Love

Sometimes, publishers and developers send us here at GameSetWatch (and Game Developer and Gamasutra) neat seasonal stuff - most recently a plethora of Xmas cards, of course.

However, only one company was sweet enough (in more ways than one) to send us a Valentine's Day gift - and that's D3Publisher, the U.S. division of the folks who published Puzzle Quest, and bust out heaps of Simple 2000 budget titles in Japan, including the immortal Earth Defense Force series. Here's what they sent:

This is actually a hexagonal box entirely made of chocolate, with the D3 logo on the front, and the following inscription: "The couple that plays together stays together. Enjoy Valentine's Day with your favorite D3 duo."

The characters on the chocolate lid? Looks like characters from the already released Puzzle Quest: Challenge Of The Warlords, Cartoon Network license Ben10, and Naruto, as well as from Digital Extremes' upcoming Dark Sector. Neeto.

Finally, some specially designed D3 truffles inside the whole caboodle. High wackiness. Is this the time to point out a a new D3 game in Japan: "Yasetore DS (short for Yaseru Training DS: "Weight Loss Training") includes diet and exercise help for the short term." So where is 'eat honkin' great D3 chocolate box' in that whole setup, hm?

And yes, I guess this could be construed as cocoa-based press bribery, but honestly, it's not going to make us all cave and cover D3 titles incessantly from here to Kingdom Come. Still, if you see Game Developer magazine giving Dark Sector 11 out of 10, you'll know it's worked!

February 14, 2008

GameSetLinks: The Thursday Of Doom

- Wow, you know - GDC is coming up really soon now, and we're all scrambling to get ready here. In the meantime, some wonderful GameSetLinks, including Jason Scott on King Of Kong (one final time!), and a Forbes article on the future of gaming that may or may not be well-informed.

I also enjoyed Cliffski's Bit-Tech article on game genres and why we should freestyle it just a little bit with regard to conventions. I think he's right that it's great to be different, but as he points out: "When I try to see how my turn-based strategic life-sim game Kudos is selling, I often have trouble finding it as nobody knows which category to put it in." Lack of pigeonholing = reduced sales, pretty often, *sigh*.

Cryptic Sea: Blood Car! 2000! Deluxe!
'A great work of art or the greatest work of art? You decide.'

bit-tech.net | The Curse of Genre
Democracy's Cliffski sez: 'the problem is we have got so used to slotting games into genres we have all but forgotten how cool it was before they existed.'

The Future Of Videogames - Forbes.com
'Within 10 years, guilds formed on "War of Warcraft" or other online games will become offline political forces.' 'War Of Warcraft'?

IGN Blogs - N+ - Freeware!
Raigan and Mare using their IGN developer blog to spread the good freeware word.

FilePlanet: Independent Game Festival Finalists Portal
Wow, thanks, FilePlanet guys, this is awesome - we didn't even ask them!

Waxy.org: Oscilloscope Fun and Games
The Assembly demo (complete with sine scroller!) is great - Geometry Wars for oscilloscope is my Lazyweb suggestion for the day.

ASCII by Jason Scott: The King of Wrong: Final Words (Many of Them)
Last words, yes, and that's very plural :)

The Racoon City Times: Danny Interviews Patrick J. doody, one of the writers of silent hill 5
Some interesting new info - via Chris' Survival Horror Quest.

Blogspot: 'Skater Boy Tell 'Em' gaming insider blog
In my opinion, this is a smart person without any major inside knowledge, as opposed to Surfer Girl. Could be wrong, of course.

Arcade Renaissance: Street Fighter Online Mouse Generation details and customization screens
'In a lot of ways, SFO: Mouse Generation is essentially being marketed as the Smash Brothers of the Street Fighter universe.'

2008 IGF, Choice Awards To Be Shown On G4

- [Just wanted to reprint this release in full, because it's a pretty big deal for game awards in general - and the IGF and Choice Awards in particular. This is the first time that an indie game awards or the Choice Awards have been televised (though they have been streamed in previous years), and G4 is available to 64 million North American viewers through cable and satellite, so.. yay.

Personal bias notwithstanding, I think this is good for the industry. I also heard there are IGF-specific segments on the finalists airing during the week - neat! Thanks to Jamil and other colleagues for making it happen.]

LOS ANGELES, February 14, 2008 - It's where the videogame industry's great minds meet and the only way in is through G4. For five consecutive nights, "X-Play" will deliver G4's exclusive coverage of the week-long Game Developers Conference (GDC), the annual gathering of industry professionals, where the most talented and influential share their ideas about the past, present and future of the gaming industry.

Broadcasting directly from the show floor and reporting on the biggest developments and most important keynotes, "X-Play," the most watched videogame series on television, will premiere never before seen gameplay, introduce viewers to the biggest developers, participate in hands-on demos of next-generation games, and take viewers inside with exclusive coverage of the eighth annual Game Developers Choice Awards and the tenth annual Independent Games Festival.

This coverage will culminate in a Special of the Awards Night, featuring the IGF and Choice Awards, to be broadcast shortly after the GDC. "X-Play" presents "The 2008 Game Developers Conference," beginning Monday, February 18. Coverage continues nightly through Friday, February 22, at the regularly scheduled time, 8 pm ET/PT.

Attended by more than 16,000 programmers, artists, producers, game designers, audio professionals and others involved in the development of videogames, GDC regularly features many of the year's biggest game announcements. "X-Play" hosts Adam Sessler and Morgan Webb will provide in-depth updates on all of the event's news, and introduce viewers to the people behind the most popular games through exclusive interviews from the floor. G4 will also have coverage of all the major keynotes that reveal the future of gaming and the most eagerly anticipated hardware and software.

"GDC is the first and most important industry conference of the year, where the most innovative minds in the industry swap ideas and begin developing the games of the future," said Adam Sessler, host, "X-Play."

"'X-Play' viewers want the inside scoop on their favorite developers and we're there every night to make sure they get it," continued Morgan Webb, host, "X-Play."

"Having a broadcast partner like G4 supports our goal of getting the leading developers in the spotlight to share ideas and recognize their creative contribution," said Jamil Moledina, executive director, Game Developers Conference.

Highlights from "X-Play's" five nights of coverage will include:

* Game Developers Choice Awards - the game industry's only open, peer-based awards show where the recipients are chosen by those who know games best -- their creators. G4 will present highlights from the show, including the first interviews with the ceremony's big winners.

* Independent Games Festival - the largest competition for independent games highlights the innovative achievements of independent developers. G4 will introduce viewers to the teams and showcase their games.

Additional coverage will be available online at http://www.g4tv.com/xplay, including:

* Interactive elements such as polling, chat and video viewer mail, allowing viewers to interact with the broadcast in real time.

* The best of the on-air coverage, as well as web-exclusive interviews, breaking news, keynotes, game demos, previews and more, on the site and via streaming video.

* Video On Demand will feature clips and highlights from the broadcast and online coverage.

For more information on "X-Play," and online coverage of the GDC, please visit http://www.g4tv.com/xplay.

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer': Be My Valentine - The Top 5 Game Romances

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

Last week’s column wondered how games might mature enough to allow for believable sexuality, and concluded that aiming for intimacy is a good start. Plenty of games already use intimacy, or the emotional connection created for the player between their character and another, as a story element, and romance has been a key driver in game stories and character development, at times even successfully.

What makes a good game love story? Surely, the same recipe that works in other media can be extended to the game world – well-developed characters, a few key, stirring moments, a protagonist with which the player can empathize, and a love object that the player can feel something about through that empathy.

But games also require certain elements that static entertainment media don’t. After all, the most blunt differentiator of games from other forms of entertainment is interactivity – and given that love is all about interaction, games have the possibility of creating more engaging romances than any of their sister media.

Just like we learned last week with sexuality and intimacy, games might not have explored all of their potential yet. That’s all right; it’s a young, adolescent medium, and adolescents are not the smoothest operators. But in the spirit of Valentine’s Day, let’s look at five game romances that are really on the right track.

-5. Tidus And Yuna

In particular, the RPG genre often features a romance or two, and the Final Fantasy series is no exception. As that sort of game is intended as an epic story, tracking the development either literally or metaphorically of a hero from boy to man, love often plays a role. But FFX, in its time one of the heralds of a new console generation, evolved the RPG romance a step beyond anything we’d yet seen in Final Fantasy. Perhaps it was the arresting fantasy-realism of the character faces, for its time unprecedented. But Tidus’ relationship to Yuna played a significant role in investing the storyline with weight – she was a well-crafted, empathetic character whose fate was ostensibly in the player’s hands.

Final Fantasy characters are perhaps so popular among their fans because they’re not too thoroughly or obtrusively drawn, thereby leaving room for player imagination. Yuna was framed in a way that led the player to care for her, creating the relationship between her and an otherwise forgettable hero. FFX was much more a story about the nature of humanity and the philosophies of religion and war than it was a romantic drama, but where that series’ stories sometimes compound their scale until they become implausible, this point of a smaller, more human struggle helped FFX retain relevance.

-4. James And Mary

This column has in the past sung the praises of Silent Hill 2’s thematic complexity. Several layers in, it’s perhaps the furthest thing away from a love story as you can get – it’s a horror story, one man’s trip through limbo into personal hell. But despite the chilling revelation at the core of James Sunderland, it seems to be his ache for Mary that dazes him in the surreal, mist-shrouded Silent Hill. The player can actually be saved by how many times Mary’s strange letter is viewed.

Mary’s much trampier doppelganger actually manifests herself in Silent Hill, seeming to demonstrate all the traits that, deep down, James resented his dead wife for not possessing. This isn’t romantic, but it’s realistic, as are James’ complicated and often contradictory emotions of lust, guilt, disgust and resentment surrounding the loss of his wife. It may be the most mature portrayal of a human relationship in any game, in all of its possible ugliness.

-3. Gordon Freeman And Alyx Vance

Blame her fantastic AI. Or credit the fact that very little is actually known about Gordon Freeman, letting the player see every nuance of Alyx only through his eyes. Either way, it’s clear that Half Life fans love her far beyond any interaction that is actually presented in the games. In a first-person shooter, one doesn’t expect character relationships to play a significant role, and it’s true that any relationship presented between Gordon and Alyx mostly leaves itself open to suggestion – and fingers-crossed hopefulness.

Perhaps Half Life 2’s FPS gameplay actually reinforces the player’s – and therefore, Gordon’s – emotional attachment to Alyx. She frequently appears as a point of respite after trigger-finger chaos, and during the fast-paced and high-stakes points in the plot, the player knows that Alyx is doing her part to make sure you survive. The storyline in particular fosters a sense of “you and me against the world,” and given how cute Alyx is, that’s just enough.

-2. Yuri Hyuga And Alice Elliot

The first two installments of the often overlooked and under-rated Shadow Hearts are distinguished from the often indistinguishable morass of RPG characters right from the start, each of them carved in much more detailed and endearing nuances than is common. At first blush, it’s not an uncommon pairing – a smartmouthed young man with demon powers against a properly salvation-oriented girl who looks like an angel. But where most RPGs suffer under the very principle we discussed last week – the infantilization of sexless fantasy -- Shadow Hearts was a much, much braver game than its peers in that it was willing to depict its characters in the shades of adults.

In addition to bravery in characterization, Shadow Hearts advanced the paradigm for thematics and even for humor, in terms of its maturity. Perhaps it’s because of this pleasant surprise that the player’s tendency is to invest more fully in its storyline and endearing characters. Additionally, alongside the more traditional fantasy story, a parallel, smaller-scale drama of one doomed man’s battle with himself plays out. As the player is led to weigh the storyline and characters with more sincerity, Yuri’s relationship with Alice can no longer be just another RPG salvation story. Moreover, in Shadow Hearts 2, Yuri’s characterized throughout the game by Alice’s impact on him in a visceral, believable and often painfully intense way.

-1. Ico And Yorda

We discussed Ico and Yorda last week as an example of a significant step in the right direction for developing sincere intimacy in a game, and that it was. In the huge scale environments of ICO, empty save for their perplexingly minimalist puzzles and the lurking threat of shadows coalescing, the simple protect-and-lead dynamic between Ico and the ethereal princess Yorda took center stage.

It’s hard to pin down exactly why this works so well. Protection and rescue missions, or situations wherein one needs to get a partner NPC to behave in a certain way, are historically frustrating, even loathsome. And in ICO’s day, we hadn’t nearly the AI tech that we have now, so the luminous little lady was prone to wandering off, or dawdling right off of the very button she needs to remain standing on. But somehow, that perceived absent-minded helplessness on Yorda’s part was actually endearing. No matter how often she got herself seized by shadows, the player never lost that immediate impulse of genuine motivation to go and rescue her. Again.

The delight of that pairing lies in a few small details – the fashion of holding Yorda’s hand, for one thing, or the way both characters could drowse innocently side-by-side on the stone couches that act as save spots. Ico’s manner of speaking echoed the tonal patterns of real language, without forming recognizable words, contributing to the environment of suggestion without explicitness. Even the height disparity had a certain implacable charm in suggesting their ages as similar, but their physical development as less so, as is often the case with children that age.

Which brings us to the irony – this list’s favorite and most sophisticated relationship is wholly innocent, between children. Which adds to its charm and sincerity, of course. The “aww” factor with young love is its touching simplicity, and ICO’s attention to detail for those simple gestures like head-on-shoulder and hand-holding was able to bring those elements to life beautifully.

We’ve got plenty of inspiring seeds sown for romantic intimacy in games, and these are only the author’s personal favorite examples. Each instance on this list highlights some key features, from empathy to simplicity, that we hope will continue to be built upon in future titles – after all, don’t we all love a little romance? Happy Valentine’s Day!

[The header image Wii valentine comes from the excellent 4 Color Rebellion. They've got plenty of game valentines to choose from, so check them out! For maximum effect, deliver them to your sweetie with a "romantic" pick-up line from Sexy Videogameland.]

[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.]

IndieGames.com's Best Freeware Games (Others) 2007

[Not sure if we're almost done with Tim. W's fun 2007 indie game best-ofs, but this one rounds up a bunch of the random, wackier indie games out there - including some of the most innovative/interesting titles fitting into the 'other' genre. Here goes!]

The sixth of the 2007 Best Of Features here on the IndieGames.com.blog, we're proud to present ten more notable Flash and freeware games released in 2007.

Best Freeware Games (Others) 2007

  1. Rose and Camellia
  2. Ratmaze 2
  3. Too Many Ninjas
  4. Streets of Rage Remake
  5. Dot Fighters
  6. Crayon Physics
  7. Hammerfall
  8. Toribash
  9. Sumotori Dreams
10. Coaster Rider

February 13, 2008

Opinion: Our Inevitable Episodic Future

-[The bar for game technology, development budgets and consumer cost is driving ever higher while the hardcore audience is beginning to age, leaving a bit less room for games in their lives. Something's gotta give, and Gamasutra and Worlds In Motion's Leigh Alexander explains why a future in episodic content may be inevitable.]

Episodic content is to traditional gaming what TV is to movies, one supposes. Initially, movies were only in theaters; initially, games were only in arcades. Then, it became possible to watch movies on a home projector; similarly, it became possible to play games on a home console. The next step for cinematic content, of course, was TV broadcasting -- now is the next step for games broadcast content?

Some would definitely say so. Each new console generation historically has amped up the bar for just how much graphical, processing, production value and general power needs to drive a game, and that means ever-growing development teams and ever-swelling development budgets. We're fast approaching that zero point where consumers will no longer buy games for a price at which game companies won't lose money.

And with price points in this console generation initially ranging from the mid-$200s to $599, we learned, essentially, that very few people will buy a game console for $599. What if, in the next console generation, the "budget" console is the one weighing in at $400? How many people will buy the higher-end competitive consoles then -- no matter how many extra media-oriented features are included?

There's a chance, of course, that innovation and hardware consolidation will eventually make consoles cheaper, as occurred with home computers. There's also something to be said for adjusting for inflation. But largely, the current format, wherein every few years we buy a more expensive new console and all of the higher-priced new games for that console, is absolutely unsustainable.

With some exceptions (Rock Band, Guitar Hero) consumers are likely to resist price points for a single game that exceed $60 or so. But, given pioneering innovation on the indie front, we've also seen how very small and simple games can be very interesting, very enjoyable and very marketable, so there are no guarantees that graphical sophistication and prices will necessarily continue driving up concurrently.

Nonetheless, no matter what the case, we're reaching a ceiling, and something's gotta give. So what are the other factors in the space right now? Three big ones. First, the so-called "rise of a new audience" of casual gamers, or at least, lighter-engagement gamers outside the traditional hardcore demographic. Second, the increase in digital distribution and connected content; third, the success of the free-to-play biz model.

Let's look at these factors one by one, to get an idea of the kind of results they might produce for the industry down the line.

The "New" Gamer

Everyone has heard more times than they can count all about how the Wii created a whole new audience of gamers, and how more and more people are into casual games, and it's a whole new group of people that have never really been into games before. But given demographics, that might be semi-fallacious.

Think about it; some people define "hardcore" as 18-35, but the most active and committed sector of the market is really probably something like 14-22. They're the ones that have the time. They've also got no bills and no rent, mostly. But after that age, they start going to work, needing to manage their own expenses, and generally developing more complex adult lives.

At the very minimum, they have less time and less money for games; on a broader level, they've matured somewhat, and likely have a broader spectrum of interests, without desiring to invest so much of either resource in a single relatively time-consuming hobby.

Definitions, though, aren't so black-and-white as "hardcore" versus "casual." A good chunk of these "older folks playing games" that the market's all abuzz about, this so-called "brand new demographic," is simply the traditional gamer who is beginning to age.

If they loved grind RPGs all through their teens and early twenties, they're not going to suddenly switch to Zuma just because they don't have so much time anymore. They're going to want a complex, engaging and familiar experience, only with a shorter time commitment and less cost. Something like the difference between a three-hour mafia flick and watching The Sopranos once a week, for example.

And for all of you reading this -- can you imagine losing interest in games completely in ten years? The market is set to "broaden" even more when the Atari babies who were raised by Nintendo start getting on in years.

Death Of The Retail Box?

I'm not nearly the first to predict that the traditional $60 box on a shelf is on the way out, because of rising costs, broadening audiences and a wider array of payment options for consumers. Warcraft, and possibly LOTRO, are the only MMOs, for example, that clearly manage to continue surviving in the long-term without being free.

For online games, this means there are a higher number of products that users can at least dip their toes into at no cost, and then only pay if they want to invest further. Imported ideas from the East, like microtransactions, are increasingly allowing consumers to pay for a game exactly what it's worth to them. Game companies will also continue to make unprecedented amounts of money from in-game or wrap-around ads for as long as that bubble lasts, enabling online games to continue being free, or nearly so.

So consumers right now have two choices: download something for free, or nearly free, and maintain control over both cost and user engagement -- or roll the dice and pay $60 at retail for a finite number of enjoyment hours, hoping you turn out to agree with that reviewer who gave it a 9. I think it's pretty clear which way things are going. For consoles to survive another generation, they'll need to take a page from this book.

They've already begun, in large part. Xbox Live has some pretty sophisticated multiplayer and social networking features, free downloadable demos, and plenty of smaller, simpler downloadables on Live Arcade. Sony's got the downloadable thing too, with plenty of simple yet well-designed indie games available digitally -- and they've made it clear they're aiming to catch up in the social connectivity department, too. How much further of a stretch would it be to divvy up major new releases into shorter, cheaper installments and offer them as episodic downloads -- no box, no disc required?

Tune In

You can already look at some current offerings -- the Half Life episodes, or even a game like No More Heroes, to see what this might feel like.

No More Heroes is structured around a series very dramatic assassination missions. Without giving anything away, there are ten or so of these, and each mission plays like its own little episode -- you get the background, you prepare, and then the fights are both cinematic and climactic. There's a satisfying conclusion when you win, and it feels just like you've watched an installment of your favorite serial television show.

The game's comic tone, stylistic elements and real "character's characters" help with this, too. There are plenty of things to mess around with outside of the mission structure, so there's more to do if you have more time -- but everything generally can be digested in one tidy bite if you haven't. And the depth of experience doesn't suffer, either.

How cool would it have been if each of No More Heroes' missions was released separately, once per week, digitally? And you and all your friends who were interested in the game could get excited together looking forward to the next crazy part-time job, the next larger-than-life boss character, and then all tune in together for the latest? Then the next day, you hit the official site to see a sneak peek of next week's fight and blabber about it -- reflect, speculate, enthuse, complain -- on the forums? Would be fun, eh?

And, given that kind of setup, I doubt anyone would feel any less immersed and involved than they would playing a sixty hour graphical wankfest all by themselves.

Not to eschew the 60-hour marathon solo-play game. That's what I do on the weekend, after all. And just like there's still a thriving audience for movies even though we can watch HBO at home now, the traditional hardcore game will not likely ever totally disappear.

And everyone's probably got one game experience that, if done right, by the right developers, the industry could name you its price. But the days when they could set the bar that high every time, regardless of any other factors, will soon be over.

This kind of format would be good for games, too -- just use this article as an example. Sort of long, isn't it? What if yesterday I'd presented an idea and then asked you to read the rest today? Assuming you were interested, you would have found it much more digestible. And how many more people do you think would read the entire thing if it had been presented in two shorter pieces? Worth thinking about, yes?

GameSetLinks: Games, Developers, Kindergarten

- Yoiks, all kinds of new GameSetLinks here. And while I'm here, can I mention - the sheer amount of wonderful weblogs about video games nowadays pretty much beggars belief. From developer blogs through micro-niches and beyond, it's awesome.

And that's why, even if I don't have as much chance to do original pieces or research thanks to work craziness, I'll always be busting out well-considered pieces from friends, acquaintances, and game bloggers from all over.

And that's my manifesto, folks. Here wii go:

Channel 4 gets ready to educate | Games | Guardian Unlimited
Alice 'WonderlandBlog' Taylor is doing really interesting pseudo-public broadcasting stuff with games using TV budgets in the UK - see Six To Start below.

Beyond the Box: Orange Box Afterthoughts from 1UP.com
Gabe Newell is always worth listening to.

Escaping to the Land of the Baffling Pull-Quote (Magical Wasteland)
Oop, The Escapist gets some gentle poking.

Teaching Game Design: Everything I Need to Know about Teaching Game Design, I Learned in Kindergarten
Barnyard developers, innit?

Looky Touchy: Mini-Rant: The Orange Box
On why The Orange Box shouldn't be treated as a game for awards purposes - we agreed, which is why we split Choice Awards nominees (Portal, Ep. 2, TF2) out from the Box.

Autobiographical Neuropsychology: I Was Programmed by Tetris to be a Better Person
Lisa Katayama: 'At a young age, my brain was hijacked by the game of Tetris. Now it helps me navigate through life.'

VIDEOLUDICA: Into The Pixel exhibit in SF during GDC
Open until March, didn't know about this!

ARG start-up Six to Start wins £100k investment | Media | guardian.co.uk
Perplex City folks doing some fun things, we fear.

YouTube: 'Super Mario Fusion' movies
Lots of fangame vids for the cute Mario Vs. Halo project.

Opinion: 'Casual Games and Piracy: The Truth '

- [Just how rampant is piracy in PC casual gaming? In a startling instalment of his regular Gamasutra column, Reflexive's director of marketing Russell Carroll (Wik, Ricochet) reveals the 92% piracy rate for one of his company's games, and what worked (and didn't work) when they tried to fix it.]

“It looks like around 92% of the people playing the full version of [the pictured] Ricochet Infinity pirated it.” It’s moments like those that make people in the industry stop dead in their tracks.

92% is a huge number and though we were only measuring people who had gotten the game from Reflexive and gone online with it, it seemed improbable that those who acquired the game elsewhere or didn’t go online were any more likely to have purchased it. As we sat and pondered the financial implications of such piracy, it was hard to get past the magnitude of the number itself: 92%.

In the casual games space, where the majority of the industry is tied to an internet-distributed product, piracy is a common problem. Search for any casual game through Google, add the word ‘crack’, and the search engine will help you find and illegally acquire every casual game you can imagine.

One way to fight the search-engine facilitated piracy is to work to remove the ever-expanding number of links to illegal copies, but in many cases improving the Digital Rights Management (DRM) system to be more secure can be more effective as it renders a large number of those links obsolete. This is tricky to be sure, because improving the security must be done without making the DRM so onerous that it keeps honest customers from purchasing games.

Reflexive, where I work, is in a peculiar position in this regard. Whereas most of the casual games industry licenses their DRM from a vendor, Reflexive has its own in-house DRM. Over the years it has undergone many improvements, including several changes made specifically to combat piracy.

With that background, my penchant for actual numbers, and a lot of help from Brian Fisher, Reflexive’s king of number crunching logic, let’s tackle the question of the 92% piracy rate on Ricochet Infinity. Could we realistically assume that stopping piracy would have caused 12 times more sales?

Beating the DRM

Pirates beat DRMs through Exploits, KeyGens and Cracks. Each of these approaches is distinct, and requires differing amounts of effort. A brief description of each, in order of least to most effort involved to make them work, can be found below.

Exploits are holes in a DRM that can be circumvented without downloading anything to the computer. For example, going into the registry to delete a time limit on a game demo, renaming a hidden .exe file, or using task manager to ‘quit’ the DRM are all things that have been done in the past or can be done currently to circumvent casual game DRMs.

Most DRMs work around an encryption system that delivers the full game to players but limits them to a 60 minute trial. The full game can be unlocked by entering in a serial-type key into the game. Keygens are programs that illegally create serial keys to unlock a portal’s games. They are distributed in multiple ways, often shared among friends, as well as being sold or provided free of charge on websites around the internet.

Cracks are perhaps the most commonly mentioned type of piracy. In this case the entire game is made DRM free by the addition of a file that impedes the DRM. Closely associated with cracks are ‘cracked games.’ This refers to a DRM-free version of the game that was cracked and then distributed by pirates. Obtaining a crack or a cracked game requires downloading files to the customer’s computer from locations that are clearly illegitimate.

Fixing the DRM
Over the last 2 years, Reflexive has made a number of security updates to its DRM that were designed to make one or more of the existing DRM workarounds obsolete and thereby turn the people pirating games into purchasing customers. While the updates haven’t made the system unbreakable, they have made it so all known or search-engine-findable piracy tools ceased to function.

Fixing The Holes - The Results

Below are the results of Reflexive.com sales and downloads immediately following each update:

Fix 1 – Existing Exploits & Keygens made obsolete – Sales up 70%, Downloads down 33%

Fix 2 – Existing Keygens made obsolete – Sales down slightly, Downloads flat

Fix 3 – Existing Cracks made obsolete – Sales flat, Downloads flat

Fix 4 – Keygens made game-specific – Sales up 13%, Downloads down 16% (note: fix made after the release of Ricochet Infinity)

From the results above, it seems clear that eliminating piracy through a stronger DRM can result in significantly increased sales – but sometimes it can have no benefit at all. So what does that mean for the question about whether a pirated copy means a lost sale? The decreases in downloads may provide a clue to that

As we believe that we are decreasing the number of pirates downloading the game with our DRM fixes, combining the increased sales number together with the decreased downloads, we find 1 additional sale for every 1,000 less pirated downloads. Put another way, for every 1,000 pirated copies we eliminated, we created 1 additional sale.

Though many of the pirates may be simply shifting to another source of games for their illegal activities, the number is nonetheless striking and poignant. The sales to download ratio found on Reflexive implies that a pirated copy is more similar to the loss of a download (a poorly converting one!) than the loss of a sale.

Though that doesn’t make a 92% piracy rate of one of our banner products any less distressing, knowing that eliminating 50,000 pirated copies might only produce 50 additional legal copies does help put things in perspective.

The Future of Piracy in Casual Games

Certainly in casual games the issue of piracy isn’t going away anytime soon. As the casual games industry continues to combat piracy, there are many battles still to be fought. The question most of the portals ask themselves isn’t whether or not to fight piracy, but what is the best way to fight it.

Casual games is an industry still in its adolescence, and certainly as it matures, more and more lessons will be learned about what the best approach is to fighting piracy, and what the realistic returns are of doing so.

February 12, 2008

Road To IGF Mobile: Ego's Personality Connection

- As part of the continuing "Road to the IGF Mobile" feature at Gamasutra sister site Games on Deck, Mathew Kumar talked to the staff of Punch Entertainment, including founder and CEO Tobin Lent and Creative Director Steve Nix about the IGF Mobile 2008 Best Game and Innovation in Mobile Game Design finalist Ego.

The game is a rather interesting online mobile virtual world, particularly because it's trying to integrate heavily social elements into the cellphone gaming experience, something that hasn't really been done successfully to date. Also, the art style is kinda interesting. Anyhow, here's the interview:

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

Tobin Lent: The team at Punch has been making mobile games since the beginning of the industry in North America. We created some of the very first games to go live on US carriers such as Astrosmash, Defender and several Intellivision titles.

We then went to work on several innovative and high-profile titles over the course of the last five years, numbering over 75 titles collectively. These include award-winning and top-selling titles such as Fox Sports Racing, Fox Sports Football, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, NCAA Football, Mega Man, Ghosts 'N Goblins, King Arthur, Space Invaders, NBA 3 Point Shootout, and Tron 2.0.

As Punch we've released titles such as Bam Koala: Jungle Hero, Hunting Unlimited, NBA Slam, Gunslinger and the upcoming Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords, the first in our Mobile Battles series of multiplayer battle games. We are very excited about this game as well.

What motivated you to make your game?

TL: Punch is focused on community-based gaming for mobile phones. We believe the mobile games industry is moving into its next phase of evolution. Phase I was dominated by ports from other mediums such as PC, arcade and console. We think Phase II of the industry will see highly innovative applications that are specific to mobile.

We believe that heavily viral, community-based games that take advantage of mobile's strengths (mobility and connectivity) will be the most successful. As a result, we wanted to create a community game that was fresh, easy to get into, fun to play, could be shared with other people, and was made just for mobile.

We came up with the idea for Ego by focusing on these elements through several brainstorming sessions. We had a lot of fun brainstorming ideas and came up with a lot of crazy stuff. We eventually landed on Ego, because it could leverage mobility through social connections, and we could have the Egos participate in all kinds of fun games and activities.

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

Steve Nix: The inspiration for creating Ego came from a desire to design a game that provided players with a fun way to meet new people and keep in touch with them. The game needed to combine modern communication methods of text messaging, blogs, and social websites into an entertaining experience where the player's avatar developed by interacting with the rest of the community. The game's avatars needed personalities that immediately revealed something about their owning player, so that they were their representative to the community even when the player was offline.

Evaluating these game design goals immediately led to the interesting question, "What determines and defines a person's personality?" The short answer to this question was, "An individual's choice of behavior and the behavior of their immediate social circle."

This answer guided the development of Ego's personality attribute and icon systems. With these game systems, player avatars (Egos) could grow and evolve their attributes by interacting with each other, but the matter of quickly expressing their personality in a snapshot was still needed.

To describe the current state of an Ego's attributes, the common personality archetypes found in psychology felt too clinical to use in a game setting. Instead, the classic archetypes of high school seemed a better fit and expressed more information about how that Ego might behave or who they might get along with.

Another bonus to using the high school model was the unique visual look that each archetype possessed, which led to the game's reward system of unlocking archetypes to gain new visual customization choices. With the archetype and visual customization systems in place, a player could now reveal in a snapshot not only their avatar's current personality but their entire personality history by mixing in the visual elements of previously earned archetypes.

The core game of Ego was complete, with the rest largely devoted to making communication between players and their Egos as fun and easy as possible.

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

Kyle Poole (Technical Director): The great thing about programming for mobile is that most of the tools are open source and well-supported. We used the NetBeans IDE with carrier Wireless Toolkit SDKs, which allowed us to quickly test on the phone emulators during development. The complex character animations were created with a custom Ego Animator tool, which allowed the artists to visually create the animations to be imported into the game.

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

TL: I think the deep level of interactions Egos can have with each another is really interesting. Egos can fight with each other, make out, flirt, dance, argue, give gifts, compete, play games, chat, send messages, et cetera.

I haven't seen this deep level of interaction in too many casual avatar-based games, and definitely not in mobile. It's a lot of fun and there's really no limit to what Egos can do. We'll continue to add more activities, games and things for Egos to do. It's really limitless.

I also think the fact that Egos have their own unique abilities, stamina and emotions that can develop over time creates a lot of unique gameplay and interactive elements.

SN: The fact that a player's social circle and the Ego community at large have a huge impact on how a player's EGO evolves. While a player is offline, their Ego is still growing by interacting with other players. When the player next logs on, they get to watch replays of their Ego interacting with buddies or meeting new people. In a sense, the player is always connected to the community through their Ego.

Spencer Chi (Project Manager): The ability to socialize with another person based on some simple search criteria has a lot of potential.

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

SN: The core design of Ego was written over a period of four months, with a part time focus along with other games in development. The design was then tweaked and improved upon over the course of a year's development time. The process was very iterative, as new technical breakthroughs were discovered that would improve the game design.

TL: Since Ego is such a new concept, we were constantly testing the game, playing the game, and then tweaking based on our own experience and feedback from other people. Ego really evolved a great deal throughout this process, and everybody at Punch contributed ideas.

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

SN: I'm very pleased with the final design for Ego. The benefit of rewinding and starting again would certainly be in the speed of the game's development. There was a great deal of uncertainty due to the technical constraints of the mobile devices on just how much we could fit in and still provide a good experience across different handsets.

This is always an issue with mobile development, but as Ego was really trying to push the limits on what a mobile game could provide the development process was slow and extremely challenging.

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

TL: There are actually some great mobile games out there by independents, but the problem is that they are difficult for the average consumer to discover due to limited promotional opportunities on carrier decks. Distribution and marketing channels for mobile are terrible right now. Critter Crunch and Nom were cool games, and I'm eager to play some of the other IGF finalist games. I really like our own Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords game as well.

SN: I'm happy to see more games being designed to take advantage of the unique advantages of mobile, rather than in spite of them. As a pure game platform, the mobile phone has overpowering competition. As a social or communication platform, the mobile phone is on top.

SC: Independent game development in mobile is difficult without industry veterans who understand how to design, execute, and distribute on mobile. Porting costs are probably several times over what people think they are. Even understanding all that, it still requires a really innovative product that can be discovered by the consumer in channels outside of the carrier decks.

The only mobile game I've ever admired is Mobile Battles: Reign of Swords. The game is very deep, but does not require a big time commitment. It's the only mobile game I've seen that can be played competitively against another player while not requiring the players to be connected live. I get excited to see responses to my challenges or new challenges awaiting--it's incredibly addictive.

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

TL: The size of our industry is small compared to where it could be. The key to meeting our industry's potential is to develop fun games that leverage mobile's strengths and can spread among consumers effortlessly. We think community and social connection are central to this idea.

There are a lot of problems to fix in our industry. It's going to be a long, hard road. But I think the journey will be worth it in the end.

Column: 'Save the Robot': Let's Burn Down Africa

far_cry2_3.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

It's periodically chic in Hollywood to worry about the fate of Africa. But in the games biz, we'd rather blow the whole place up. At last fall's Penny Arcade Expo, I caught one of the first Far Cry 2 demos, presented by Creative Director Clint Hocking to a packed room of journos and nerds.

Far Cry 2 takes place in Africa, in a made-up but realistically war-torn country. Trees and foliage swayed across the screen; explosions and fire filled the air.

A rocket shot from the player's shoulder flew all the way up to a mountain and then, right before it shrank to nothing, took a dip, and knocked down a tree. The crowd went, "Whoa."

Then there's the fire. While recovering from a bout of malaria, you have to traipse around a 50 square kilometer gameworld taking out the enemy, and one of your best weapons is fire - which you can set in the brush and grasses, where it spreads to surround enemy bases and burn across the landscape. During the Q & A, one fan got right to the point: “Is it possible to incinerate the entire game world?”

If Bono had been there, he would have winged his sunglasses at the kid's head.

Last year, the games biz was not kind to Africa. From Halo 3, where the Elites "glassed" half the continent, to the infamous Resident Evil 5 trailer that showed one white man gunning down mobs of (initially thought to be African, possibly Haitian) zombies, games used Africa not as as culturally-nuanced, contextually-intriguing backdrop, but as an exotic new place to stage gunfights.


In Hollywood, they take Africa and its troubles a little more seriously. But I'm not here to argue that gamers are callous. Rather, in the many efforts to turn Africa into a simulated free-fire zone, we might have found a useful contrast to Hollywood's coddling.

While the world owes Africa a debt, we often make the mistake of seeing it as the same place we heard about from Bob Geldof's Live Aid or Sally Struthers' old TV ads - starving, miserable, and to be avoided at all costs. But instead of treating the entire continent as something to pity, games give us a way to engage.

While the Africa MMO never shipped, we've seen safe, safari-style virtual tourist games like Wildlife Tycoon: Venture Africa, or Sony's upcoming Afrika. And Darfur is Dying became a breakthrough message game, though it's not exactly fun to play: it's next to impossible to win, and the UN never gives you a cheat code.

But games could bring us even closer. Imagine if mainstream titles took their regular old gameplay to the new continent. Instead of setting Burnout Paradise in a bland American sprawlopolis, Criterion could have taken it to Cape Town. Darwinia already approximates a refugee flight situation. The compulsive roofhopping of Assassin's Creed's Damascus and Jerusalum could be even more eye-popping in Nairobi.

And the greatest breakthrough would be a Grand Theft Auto set in Africa, that wove an intricate simulation around the foreign investors, the local gangs, and the challenges of daily life. I'd love just to run taxi cab missions over there; the radio stations alone could say more than a hundred Hollywood message flicks.

Of course, this isn't about world peace. They'll still make us blow stuff up; that's just the nature of the medium. That kid I mentioned above, who talked about burning down all of Far Cry 2, probably wasn't a neo-imperialistic sociopath: he just wanted to study the place by taking it apart.

Build us Mount Kilimanjaro, and we'll raze it; give us a life-like shantytown, and we'll admire the way the bullets richochet off the metal. Gamers show our respect for something by trying to blow it sky high. And along they way, they may surprise themselves with how much they care for the survivors.

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

Electronic Arts' Preston: Forget Art, Let's Game!

- Normally, we'll wait until the weekend to link neat stuff on sister site Gamasutra, but this one seems so provocative and GSW-y that it can't really wait.

Specifically, in a new essay published on Gamasutra, former game journalist and current Electronic Arts producer Jim Preston (EA Game Show) argues that cultural diversity has nullified any concept that the 'games as art' debate is even relevant.

Preston, who worked for magazines such as PC Gamer before moving into the industry, and also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, ruminates on the worry that many gamers feel as follows:

"Most gamers think of their plight this way: there’s this really great club downtown called the Arty Party and all the cool people are in it. George Clooney is getting drunk with Oscar Wilde; Chopin is playing foosball with Allen Ginsberg; and Picasso is hitting on Emily Dickinson -- it’s the best.

Meanwhile, we gamers are out here on the sidewalk in the rain with the comic book guys and the graffiti sprayers and we can’t get in because that cranky bastard Ebert won’t let us through the door. Ebert, and others like him, man the door and glower at us, not letting us in to this one big party.

The problem with this picture is that it isn’t even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st century America. To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether.

Note, however, that I am not saying anything about art per se, or anything about art in any other culture. Rather, I would like to suggest that the U.S.’s constant influx of immigrants, exiles, and refugees has led to a current artistic landscape that is so widely varied that the "is-it-art?" debate is almost meaningless."

The full Gamasutra essay on the subject includes plenty more rhetoric from Preston - and there's already a lot of interesting comments, as well as a rebuttal coming later this week from a prominent game designer. Opinions?

February 11, 2008

GameSetLinks: Up From The Tomb

- Back for the week with a multitude of new GameSetLinks, headed by Matteo Bittanti's questioning of a few recent articles - particularly the new one in EGM - about PS3's 'revenge'.

Bittanti suggests of PS3's apparent renaissance: "You'll realize that the argument is completely based on speculation and "what if" scenarios. In other words, we are fully immersed in that realm of speculative fiction also known as gaming journalism".

Mind you, he also says that "...the internet has a great memory." While old websites and the Wayback Machine do, actually, I think most people who consume the Internet have _terrible_ memories, and are swept along on the latest trend. Including myself, yay! Anyhow, here's stuff:

mbf [email protected]: When a preview is not a preview?
'I find vaguely ironic that the gaming press, en masse, has now decided that the PS3 is going to rule the universe.' I've noticed this trend too - though not to this extent, perhaps.

Ratings Watch: Mr. Driller Online and Assault Heroes 2...again. | XBLArcade.com
Oo, Mr. Driller, there's a game I'd love to play on XBLA.

Action Button's Tim Rogers reviews Portal
Obligatory auto-fellatio 'portal' discussions are fortunately included.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Freeware Game Pick: Qrp (Sean Chan)
Like a commenter says: 'Not much of a game, but terribly cute.'

Gamefly's official description of Unreal Tournament III for PS3
'When the game says "Unreal," you know it's too good to be true.' Haha, they did NOT mean to make it sound like that, oddly prophetic as it now is.

Media Molecule blog » Blog Archive » Sackboy. Fo’ REAL.
More and more developers getting RSS-worthy blogs.

Rocking: Guitar Rising for Real Guitar Heroes
It's an amazing idea, but we'll have to see if the final project works out well - when I played an early version for the IGF, it had some execution issues. Also, it uses Stepmania as a tech base, interestingly.

NAMM Oddities 2008 - Guitars
Worth pointing at because surely the Guitar Hero custom guitar wave is going to break hard soon? I know there are some already...

The Shifted Librarian » Dance Your Fines Away
'Last year, I noted a librarian who waives the fines of patrons who play DDR against her. This year, the Wadleigh Memorial Library makes it an official part of its Patron Appreciation Day.'

Billionaire Boys Club Blog » New Web Releases
Pharrell Williams and Nigo from Bape's clothing label has a 'car crash' T-shirt (scroll down) that looks very Gizmondo Ferrari to me. Just $80!

IGF Gets 'Gleemie' Award From Wizards Of The Coast

- [In order for us to run the Independent Games Festival every year, sponsors have to step forward to help us out, and this year's Platinum Sponsor is Wizards Of The Coast - who you might know from Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons, but are getting into digital games in a major way.

Here's their announcement of their own sponsor-backed awards to be given out next week at the ceremony during GDC. Quite apart from the extra money/prizes for worthy indies, it's particularly neat to see they've picked both IGF entrants and finalists to contend for their own Gleemie Award. Here's the press release.]

"In a world of stagnating digital strategy gameplay, Gleemax™, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.’s (NYSE: HAS) community for gamers, consisting of social networking, online gaming and game related content, today announced the finalists for The Gleemax Award for Strategic Gameplay (“The Gleemie”).

Prizes will be awarded to those representing creativity in innovative strategic game design at the 10th Annual IGF Awards Ceremony on February 20, at CMP’s Game Developers Conference (GDC). GDC, the world’s largest industry-only event dedicated to the advancement of interactive entertainment, takes place February 18-22 at San Francisco’s Moscone Convention Center.

“We live in a world where independent developer creativity gets handicapped by limited budget and resources,” said Randy Buehler, Vice President of Digital Games for Wizards of the Coast. “Through Gleemax and the Independent Games Festival we want to recognize Indie developers’ hard work and ultimately give them and their games a chance to flourish.”

Three of the seven finalists will be awarded “The Gleemie” during an awards ceremony consisting of a custom designed trophy accompanied with a tiered prize package. All three winners will walk away with a cash prize (1st - $5,000, 2nd - $3,000, 3rd - $2,000). In addition, all seven finalists will get the opportunity to sign distribution agreements worth at least $50,000 in total.

The finalists for “The Gleemie” were selected from a field of more than 170 game submissions based on strategic and innovative game play. The seven finalists for “The Gleemie” are as follows, in no particular order:

Game 1:
World of Goo by 2D Boy
World of Goo is a physics based puzzle/construction game in which players control millions of goo balls to build structures and manipulate objects with the objective of rescuing as many of the lovable goo balls as possible. The game features five chapters, each one consisting of 10-15 challenging levels all taking place in a beautiful World of Goo.

Game 2:
Crayon Physics Deluxe by Kloonigames, of Helsinki Polytechnic Stadia
Crayon Physics Deluxe is a 2D physics puzzle game that lets players experience what it would be like if the things they drew became real. The goal in the game is to collect yellow stars by manipulating the world through the use of objects drawn with a red crayon ball. The game is not only a test of skill and strategic game play, but of creativity as well.

Game 3:
Skyrates by Airship Studios
In Skyrates, players are airborne privateers that need to fight, trade and explore their way to fame and fortune in a fantastic world of floating islands. Every action players take has an effect on other players in the thriving online game world. Skyrates is an experiment in sporadic play, meaning the game can be experienced in several short play sessions rather than one large chunk of time. This accommodates players interest at all levels, regardless of whether they choose to be a peaceful trader, a careful diplomat or a bold fighter.

Game 4:
Depths of Peril by Soldak Entertainment
Depths of Peril is a single player action role-playing game (RPG) with strong strategy elements set in a fantasy world. As barbarian leaders, players protect the city of Jorvik by destroying threatening monsters and completing challenging quests. But defending the city is not the only goal as rival barbarian factions use diplomacy, trade, and at times, civil war to see who will ultimately rule the city of Jorvik.

Game 5:
Quadradius by Quadradius
Quadradius is a two player, head-to-head internet game that pits strangers and friends against one another in a battle of skill, strategy, luck and bluffing. Set in an industrial arena, players compete to destroy each other’s squadrons. The acquisition of various Power Orbs scattered throughout the game board adds an additional layer of strategy to the game. The Power Orbs allow many tactical combinations that can be used to attack, defend, or foil opponent's plans.

Game 6:
Desktop Tower Defense by Mandible Games
Desktop Tower Defense is a puzzle/strategy game that challenges a player’s desktop against waves of cute, but relentless invaders called “Creeps”. By strategically building towers to defend their desktops, players can shoot, trap, and lead the invaders through fiendish mazes as they try to overwhelm the desktop’s defenses. The object of the game is to stop as many invading “Creeps” as possible.

Game 7:
Polarity by Carnegie Mellon University - Entertainment Technology Center
Polarity is a 2D platforming/puzzle game based on magnetism. The goal of the game is to navigate environments and solve puzzles by using your suit's magnetic properties to attract and repel objects. Players can boost the suit’s magnetic strength or instantly switch its polarity throughout the game.

As part of Wizards of the Coast’s continued commitment to provide creative and innovative strategic game play to today’s gamers, the winning games will have an opportunity to be published on Gleemax’s game portal, a portion of Gleemax currently under development that will host a finite number of Indie third party digital games, each having received the Wizards of the Coast seal of approval for strategic game play.

Along with being published next to the best-of-the-best in Indie games, the games will be promoted to Wizards of the Coast’s robust strategy game playing community made up of more than 6 million unique gamers who visit Wizards of the Coast’s sites regularly.

For more information on Gleemax and its presence at the Independent Games Festival, please visit www.wizards.com/igf."

Round-Up: Game Journalist Swings & Roundabouts

- Sometimes I think that people don't keep up with the interesting goings-on in the game journalist world, so it's good to see that Tor Thorsen pointing out some notable shifts on the GameSpot News blog - relatively unread by media types, I think.

Firstly, on the San Jose Mercury News' Dean Takahashi: "Speaking with GameSpot at the D.I.C.E. Summit, the longtime newspaperman said he had decided to devote himself fulltime to blogging on VentureBeat, a new site dedicated to Silicon Valley finance." And indeed, there's a note on Dean's blog and on VentureBeat, where the site's editor notes: "Yes, Dean will be doing games. But he’ll be doing lots of other fun stuff too."

Secondly: "This afternoon, popular game-news destination Shacknews announced the departure of veteran game journalist Chris Remo, who had been its editor-in-chief since 2005. Remo told GameSpot he hasn't decided on his next position yet, but is actively pursuing opportunities in game development and publishing." (For those not seeing the Shacknews announce, apparently it was a confirmation in comments of a G4 interview in which Remo was called former EIC for the site.)

It's testament to how vicious the anti-GameSpot corps have got that a bunch of the GameSpot news comments ignore the story - which also references the recent 1UP editorial shuffle which has James Mielke (pictured) assuming the EIC spot - to requestion editorial integrity yet again. Which is a bit of a broken record, to be honest.

One thing that _is_ interesting, though, is that these two folks are transitioning out of full-time game journalism (actually something Dean had done a few months back when he became more of an active tech columnist for the Merc News), and it brings up a good question - how many brand new, full-time game journalist jobs have been created in the last couple of years?

With the exception of GameTap's staff - whom I still think are a bit of a dubious value add for the service, despite being v.smart folks - there's just about no new jobs out there, because volunteerism and contracting rule the day. Not necessarily bad, but definitely a radical sea change.

February 10, 2008

GameSetCompetition: The GameSetWatch Wallpaper Extravaganza

- [SECOND UPDATE: Nuts, Pixish took the challenge down because they're refocusing on 'illustrations', and there is some debate about whether what we submitted is one or not. Mail us if you still have an entry.]

So I was excited to see Pixish, a rather neat new website which allows you to set up visual competitions and challenges in a Web 2.0 stylee. Seems like something we might want to use in the future, so I thought we'd try it now with a special GameSetWatch challenge.

[UPDATE: Now I've got a hi-res 'GameSetGuy' EPS and a hi-res GameSetWatch logo EPS to help artists with better source materials. Yay.]

Specifically, the deadline is February 22nd to devise some cool-looking wallpaper for GameSetWatch, and as we noted on the site:

"The overall winner will get $100 in cash, a lifetime physical subscription to Game Developer magazine, and their desktop wallpaper featured on GameSetWatch.com. Any other entrants deemed of sufficient quality will also appear on the site in exchange for a lifetime digital subscription to Game Developer."

Most interestingly, the site allows you to vote on submissions with 'Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down', so I guess we'll see what people think of any submissions that pop up on the site over the next few days. Here's the full rules:

"Alt.video game weblog GameSetWatch - made by the folks who bring you Game Developers Conference and Game Developer magazine - is looking for a cute desktop wallpaper image.

Here's the ground rules:

- The illustration should be starring GameSetWatch's very own GameSetGuy mascot, whom you can see at our website.
- The blog is on an alternative 'more obscure/undiscussed side of gaming' subject, so you can either just draw GameSetGuy in an interesting style, or put him in a surrounding with characters/situations that reflect that.
- Please don't use any copyrighted game character designs, such as Pac-Man - parody characters in a similar style are fine, though, of course.
- The image you upload should be 1280x1024.

The criteria for voters is 'do I want this as my desktop wallpaper?', of course. May the best person win!"

So go ahead and enter the competition at your leisure, and we'll see what fun stuff appears over time - I'll update and point to it if anyone uploads anything fun!

GameSetLinks: The Beat Has Some Mania

bm.jpg A lot going on on the GameSetLinks RSSes recently - well, when I say 'a lot', I mean a lot if you're into ephemera, developer-related goodness, and intelligent features, rather than 'OMG breaking news'. Which we are!

Some highlights - Steve Purcell's new picture blog, Eurogamer on open world games, and a whole host of other fun, only a few King Of Kong related - here goes:

ASCII by Jason Scott: The Adventure Library
Some books about text adventures, yay.

WFMU's Beware of the Blog: Massive Subculture Reveal: Bemani
Hadn't seen the YouTube embedded video with how ridiculous Beatmania (pictured) is at its hardest nowadays.

The King Of Kong, continued: Donkey Kong champ Billy Mitchell calls The A.V. Club out of the blue | The A.V. Club
Some more fascinating updates in the documentary 'controversy' - via Shih Tzu.

Teen Scores Big with Online Game - News - Springfield Connection
Flash fun, with some mini-quotes from me.

WorthPlaying - 'Dr. Reiner Knizia's Brainbenders' (NDS) Announced
Haha, the board game designer 'becomes' a brain game expert magically.

Twin Galaxies Forums :: View topic - re: Steve Wiebe on G4
Twin Galaxies' Robert Mruczek discusses possible _final_ high scores for Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe on Donkey Kong - awesome if you've watched King Of Kong.

GameOfTheBlog.com: Twisted Metal: Head-On: Extra Twisted Edition: Secrets
ARG-like hints on Twisted Metal PS3!

Grumpy Gamer: Purcell Pirate Paintings
Oo, Monkey Island pics, and Steve Purcell has a pic blog, awesome.

Born Free: the History of the Openworld Game - Eurogamer
Good to see EG bustin' out the wide-ranging articles.

The Escapist : What If Everyone Could Make Videogames?
Mark Deloura has some neat, inclusive thoughts.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Nintendo Power Worldwide

I must admit to not paying a lot of attention to Retromags, a project to scan up old, historically interesting game mags and distribute 'em over the net. I feel a little ashamed because they've uncovered more than a few things that surprised me, because I hadn't really seen examples of them elsewhere. Case in point: all the places the name "Nintendo Power" showed up where you wouldn't have expected it.

nintendo_power_flash_fall_1988_001.jpg  nintendo_power_flash_spring_89_001.jpg

Nintendo Power Flash was Canada's equivalent to the Nintendo Fun Club News, a free newsletter distributed to NES buyers that sent off for it. The difference is that the seasonal, 16-page Power Flash is quite a bit younger than that, premiering with the Summer 1988 issue and continuing on for at least five more installments until 1990, when the US-based Nintendo Power received official Canadian distribution.

Why didn't they just publish Nintendo Power up there from the start? Because Nintendo of America had no Canadian distribution until 1990 -- they handed that job over to Mattel, as they did with certain parts of Europe. I have heard that the Canada arrangement came to a halt when Mattel sued NOA over grey-market imports of NES hardware and software over the US border or something like, though I haven't found any details behind this claim.

Regardless, Power Flash is an interesting anomaly, partially Canada-made content from readers and partially a clone of NP content, right down to the screenshot maps and Japan-style original art (except the art's different from what was in NP itself). I'd like to get some issues of my own, but they seem to show up only rarely on eBay and it's not like I'll just happen to run into any here in Texas.


Neither, likely, will I run across examples of this Australian edition of Nintendo Power, another 16-page newsletter that was presumably distributed for free to buyers. This summer-1991 issue is the only one I've ever heard of; the content is mostly straight from the US Nintendo Power, so I assume it's an official publication from whoever distributed the NES in Oz at the time. (I have to assume because there's no contact information within the mag itself, which claims to be "edited" by Mario in the table-of-contents page.)


Finally, here's something I'm a little embarrassed hasn't been in my collection until now -- Pocket Power, a free booklet distributed by some theaters to anyone who bought a ticket to see The Wizard (as shown in this TV ad). Pocket Power is essentially a 40-page edition of NP, offering a couple features on the movie and Fred Savage and filling out the rest of the pages with quick, NP-style game previews. The content seems to be sponsored (every page features large company logos in a way that the real NP never would), but it's also mostly original, which makes me wonder if you can really call an NP collection complete without this little thing on the side. I wonder how many of these they distributed?

Regardless, thanks to Phillyman and the other people at Retromags for bringing this stuff to my attention.

[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.]

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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