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February 23, 2008

GDC: Blow's Ten New Challenges For Game Design

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting but lower-profile GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. Next up - Leigh Alexander on a great Jon Blow design lecture.]

At his GDC session, independent designer Jonathan Blow (Braid) suggested that game design might be too ambitious in aiming to add meaning to games by richening characters and developing less linear stories. Instead, he offered ten easier problems with which to begin in order to build a foundation for deeper meaning and engagement.

"I don't really like saying the same thing twice," began Blow, explaining that he had no plans to repeat the same talk he gave in Montreal in November. This talk, he said, would focus on an area that didn't get as detailed a treatment as it would have -- and yet he began with Daniel Radosh's Halo 3 review again, which said that games would need to "stop pandering to the player's demand for mastery in favor of enhancing the player's intellectual and emotional life."

"The question that Daniel puts forth is, how do we make games more emotional and meaningful?" Began Blow. The usual approaches he cited were the departure from the linear story model, the improved simulation of characters -- both in terms of AI and in terms of emotions -- and the more realistic rendering of characters to provoke sensual responses.

"We've succeeded at that latter approach," Jon said, recalling the first videos from Valve depicting Half Life's character technology. And yet, he called Episode 2 "just as robotic and lifeless a game as any FPS was in 1998, except it looks better." Blow challenged the assumption that more realistic characters would make a game more affecting and meaningful.

Another school of thought Blow cited addressed logic more than visuals, citing the example of Chris Crawford's Storytron, a 17-year work. "This is a really difficult problem to solve," Blow said, calling dynamic storytelling "the Moby Dick of the games industry."

Rather than continuing to bang our heads against the problem, Blow suggested the industry address some easier problems, for the time being, to build a foundation to more effectively approach the issue of emotional characterization.

"There are a lot of approaches to this kind of question, and most of them are analytical," said Blow, giving Raph Koster's Game Grammar and Dan Cook's Chemistry of Game Design as an example. "First of all, [these techniques] seem very sterile," Blow said, suggesting that these logical approaches can't create a game that can really affect people. Rather, he said, "They only catch about ten percent of what a game is... it's like an iceberg below the ocean."

"When I try to understand games, these aren't the kind of approaches I take anymore," Blow said. Instead, he offered ten different perspectives by which to interpret a game: A consumer product, as escapism or fun, as exercise, as communication, as artistic expression, teaching, training, a challenge, exploration or practice. Blow admitted these categories are "messy," not orthagonal and even overlapping. Ultimately, however, he suggested that we haven't yet defined game design sufficiently as a science to be so analytical about it.

Games as Consumer Products

This, Blow said, is one of the two dominant paradigms designers use to think about games -- it focuses on maximizing sales and minimizing investments. Designers implement only the features and upgrades necessary to keep a game selling, and requires analyzing the market to determine what people will buy to drive design decisions. "This is not a creatively-sourced method of game design... it's often just pragmatic," he explained.

Games as Escapism

The second of the two most dominant categories, Blow said, is a design philosophy that prioritizes fun whether or not it correlates with sales. "If you're looking at a design decision... maybe you look at some user tests or predict what users will respond to, and if they're not having fun with something you change it or cut it." Blow suggests designers can make more valuable or meaningful work by rejecting this concept. He showed a screenshot of God of War 2 as a canonical example, with enemies that exist to be killed without much meaning behind them.

"When I hear people talk about these games... I just get really put off. These are not the games I really want to be making. First of all because it's boring to make the same game over and over," Blow said. "Why are we making these things that are not even necessarily that appealing? ...I buy these games and I play them for ten minutes and I realize there's nothing in there for me."

These are the sorts of fantasies, Blow said, that Radosh was discussing -- pandering to the player's desire for mastery and fantasy. "It's all about pretending to give you a challenge and letting you win and giving you bright colors and sound effects to celebrate the fact that you won. And that's disturbing to me."

Games as Exercise

This method "grounds the fun and gives it more meaning," Blow said, noting that fun has a purpose from an evolutionary standpoint. "You've evolved to enjoy things that have positive survival value, or reproductive value, and to dislike things that have negative value."

This method provides a compass, Blow says. He noted the philosophy of fun as subjective, but with this model, fun can be judged based on its evolutionary purpose, and evaluated based on whether it's helping to further some of these drives. "Sports are a kind of fun that help make us more fit, and slot machines are a kind that's more like a parasite," he said as example.

"This perspective of games as exercise gives us a way to judge the suitability of fun, which is something that we in this industry do not do very often.

Games as Communication

Blow used Braid as an example of this method, noting that communication is one of his favorite purposes for games. "There's a lot of passive communication going on," he said, noting that Braid contained various puzzles in the platform-jumping level design that require clear understanding on the part of the player. He showed Braid's different foreground and background palettes to indicate how each part of the environment help direct and inform the player.

"The player understands this just as soon as he glances at the screen, and he also understands there's a threat... these fireballs are moving down this tunnel and he has to avoid those," Blow said. "This paradigm of communication extends all the way to the character design."

"We want the player to not be confused... in order to successfully play the game as best as possible," he explained.

"The rendering of audio and visuals is not just to look pretty. It's to communicate to the player the state of the world," stressed Blow.

Games as Artistic Expression

This overlaps heavily with communication, but is done with a different intent. "When I talked about my game, it was all about not confusing the player. But you can communicate with the intent of planting thoughts or feelings inside the player's head, and that's artistic expression," Blow explained. Those who think games are not art, "haven't played the right games."

Meaningful artistic expression may be subjective, but it comes down to what the artist gives and the player receives. "When we manage to hone games to the point where they're very effective art tools, that art will come from a different angle than other media," he said. Blow demonstrated a still from a film alongside a screencap of the poem The Waste Land, with a picture representing a string concert depicted as well. "Those media all have different strengths and weaknesses, and as humanity we are enriched by having all of them. We don't really understand games well enough to know what the expression will be like... we're a long way from completely understanding. Someday we'll be able to fill in that question mark... and we'll be richer as a people for it."

Everyday Shooter, Blow said, is "obviously art... it expresses audiovisuals in an artistic way as many games do, but it also expresses gameplay in an artistic way." Rod Humble's The Marriage is another example. "This expresses intellectual things rather than emotional things," Blow said. "That the title is The Marriage is all the backstory you have." The blue and pink squares are canonical symbols for male and female," Blow noted. "When they meet, they touch for a moment and move away again. ...You start interpreting the rules of gameplay in an intellectual way, the way that you might interpret symbols in a short story or a novel. Anyone who says these games aren't art are crack-smoking."

Games as Teaching

"Teaching is another form of communication, but it's one that unveils over a series of interactive steps to implant ideas intellectually in a player's mind. All games inherently teach," Blow said, recommending Raph Koster's A Theory of Fun For Game Design and Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games. "The reason that all games teach, though, is because you have this structure that's a goal, but you don't necessarily know what the goal is when you start playing the game."

Games make goals achievable by teaching the player, explained Blow, which allows a player to build a "mental model" of the game. Seeing a screen shot of Super Mario 3, for example, would look meaningless to someone who's never played it before, but seeing a scene from the game from experience shows information about what choices and behaviors are available in the game.

"Teaching is an interactive process that we can leverage in more ways than we do," Blow said. "It's not just edugames or serious games that teach -- all games teach. It's just a question about what they're teaching."

For example, Blow noted that in Portal, the player can learn how the portal structure works mainly by experimenting with and looking at it. "The designers of Portal were very conscious of this perspective of games as teaching."

Games as Training

"Teaching is giving you ideas, or helping you learn ideas that you're aware of and you have a conscious interaction with the game about. Training is subconscious... it's about conditioning rather than teaching you," Blow said, citing the iconic Pavlovian dog as an example.

He likened games like Warcraft to the rat-training skinner box. "That has ramifications we can think about," Blow advised. "I said earlier that the way that we teach is by giving players reward and punishment," he said. "There are natural rewards and artificial rewards... there are things that we do to try and motivate the player to keep playing." Some of these artificial incentives are MMO gold, Xbox Live Achievements and even the sound effects on Peggle. But "natural" rewards reward the player for doing something good that corresponds to evolutionary drives.

Games as Challenge

Challenge is not perhaps the right word, Blow said, but it's as close as he knows how to get. Back in the arcade days, designers wanted to "kill" the player to get them to put another quarter in. "A problem we have as the games industry is we have this idea that challenge means difficulty, it means stopping the player from going on in the game if he's not good enough." This causes problems, Blow said, because part of the satisfaction and efficacy of a story is the pacing. "If we want good, effective stories in our games, they have to be well-placed. And part of the problem with our current paradigm... is that it fights with the fact that there's a story we have to keep proceeding through. The way that designers are responding to this is that they keep taking out the difficulty... but without the difficulty, a shooter has nothing," he said as example.

"That's a problem, and I think that's due to our limited perspective," he added. There are other challenges besides mere increased difficulty that can be integrated into a game, Blow stressed, such as challenges to curiosity, social challenges and ethical challenges. "We need something less like 'challenging' and more like 'an invitation to respond effectively.' ...Once we do that, I think we'll be able to touch people in a wider variety of ways."

Games as Exploration

Blow showed the game Go for its simple rules and very complex situations for an example of this. "As you get deep into the game, you look at higher-level players and they have a sense of philosophy inspired by Go. There are things that they learn," Blow said. "They see a way to project it onto life in general."

There are other kinds of exploration -- Braid was about exploring ways to make time behave and to observe natural benefits and consequences. "I didn't start with puzzles and then try to figure out time manipulation that would create those puzzles. I started by exploring time, and then created level design that reported what I found."

Game Design As Practice

"When you play a game, you're kind of designing it in some sense, in an easy training-wheels kind of way. But the more games you play, the more experience you have. Eventually players are designing games that aren't the games in front of them."

"A practice is a lifelong pursuit that hones you as a person and can give you a new way of seeing the universe and being inside it," continued Blow. He doesn't claim to have mastered game design, but enjoys thinking about it this way. "When I look at certain things, I build corellation," he explained.

"There are similarities and there are differences... and I can contemplate [them] on a subconscious level. And someday, something new will pop up because of that," Blow concluded.

GameSetLinks: The GDC Hangover, Part 1

- Well, after the monster week of GDC, it's going to take a while to get back on track with GameSetLinks, given the massive amount of blog posts put out this week.

But before I don the RSS hat again, here's some things left over from during/before the week of Game Developers Conference.

Some are IGF-related, for obvious reasons - actually, Tim W. has been compiling even more of them over at our sister site IndieGames.com: The Weblog, too - so go check that. Anyhow, here goes with what I got:

GameVideos.com - The 1UP Show: Episode 02/22/08
Starring indie games, including (the pictured!) Fez.

Indies Take the Cake at Game Developers Conference
Nice Kohler piece on IGF.

GameSpy: The 2008 Independent Games Festival Finalists
One of the best IGF articles I've seen so far.

Analyze This: Hoaxer Haunts Earnings Calls - WSJ.com
Haha, awesome! Via Waxy.

Rock Band - Typography affecting my enjoyment of things. | Typophile
Font geekery of the highest order - via The-Inbetween.

Super Ghouls N Ghosts - Level 1 on Vimeo
Cute annotated capture of doing first level without attacking - via InsertCredit!

Playing Politics: Game Makers' Political Contributions news from 1UP.com
Fascinating to see who digs whom.

...on pampers, programming & pitching manure: Felt tables and MMOs, and Match-3's of a different kind
Advice 'from another 'games industry' altogether'.

The Home of Quake2DS
Latest homebrew coding monstrosity - via Waxy.

Kotaku: No Gods or Kings: Objectivism in BioShock
Who says Kotaku ain't highbrow, huh?

GDC: Rod Humble Unveils User-Created The Sims Carnival

- [Over the next few days on GameSetWatch, we're going to be reprinting some of the more interesting but lower-profile GDC lectures which might have potentially got 'lost in the shuffle' of the show. First up, as written by Vincent Diamante - Rod Humble on The Sims Carnival website, v.interesting indeed.]

Rod Humble's GDC session, titled “The Emergent Gamer,” was originally titled “The Golden Age of Game Design.” While many might think he would be referring to such eras as the so-called Golden Age of Arcades or the rebirth of console gaming in America in the 1980s, Humble was actually referring to now and the near future.

The ease with which games can be made these days makes today the Golden Age, and he presented EA's attempt to push this ability further: TheSimsCarnival.com.

Starting With An Epitaph

Humble began by talking about the permanence of games in our culture, comparing of civilization's oldest games (mancala, go, etc.) to the world's oldest music. He played for the audience some of the Epitaph of Seiklos, the western world's earliest complete piece of music. “We still play these old games... but less people groove to the Epitaph of Seiklos,” he noted.

After Humble rapidly went through the reasons that games are an important and meaningful part of human history (“I think sometime novels will catch up,” he mused) game developers should be worried. “Professional game design is an anomaly,” he warned the audience. “Enjoy your jobs while you can... before the people take over!” He pointed to poetry as a notable art form that relatively recently enjoyed democratization through increased literacy in the populous and the rise of the working class poet.

We already see a lot of this creation of games by the masses in player mods. Things like the nude Tomb Raider patch and the recent Hot Coffee Grand Theft Auto mod are electronic equivalents of the little mods that occurred to early games like Chess and Backgammon; in fact, the modern Chess we play is the result of numerous player mods atop the original game of Chess made years ago.

A few years ago, people within EA decided to try some experiments in making a platform for easy game creation. Released amongst themselves in the form of a MySpace-like website, 100 developers ended up making over 500 games in the course of a month. It ended up being such a hit with everybody that they evolved it into a new form: The Sims Carnival. While that earlier iteration was EA only, as of today, SimsCarnival.com is accepting sign ups for invitations into the closed beta.

One-Click Game Development

All of the games that are featured on The Sims Carnival are essentially Flash applications, and experienced developers may upload their own straight Flash games to the website. However, the biggest selling point for the site is how simple it is for complete non-developers to make their own games.

The site uses a wizard interface to allow people to configure pre-made components for integration into a game. For example, the user can simply select a genre, then a more specific genre, then select some of the types of items that are found within the genre and the quality of their effects in the game with a few clicks of the mouse.

On stage, Humble showed how a very simple puzzle game could be made with the wizard in less than a minute. A few dialog boxes later, the abstract shape assets that were in the game were replaced by some notable American politicians, much to the delight of the crowd.

For users who would like to go further than the wizard interface without becoming a full Flash developer, EA provides a tool called the AGC or Advanced Game Creator, which users can download and use to make more advanced games from scratch in a custom development environment.

Humble finished his presentation by noting that even though this could be seen as pushing the game developer out by enabling more gamers to make the transition to designers, it could also drive up the attendance of conferences like GDC.

February 22, 2008

GDC Gallery: Game Developers Choice Awards 2008

[Gamasutra and GameSetWatch contributor Vincent Diamante has been documenting this year's Game Developers Conference in visual form. Here's his look at the 2007 Game Developers Choice Awards, held on Wednesday night at the Moscone Center - and in which Portal came away with Game Of The Year.]

Choice Awards presenter and Crash Bandicoot co-creator Jason Rubin.

A first appearance from multiple award-winners Kim Swift and the Portal folks.

BioShock gets the nod for Best Audio

ThatGameCompany and Flow picks up Best Downloadable Game.

Jason Della Rocca rocks it as the first-ever Ambassador Award winner.

Pong designer Al Alcorn introduced the Pioneer Award Winner

Computer game inventor Ralph Baer rightfully receives his Pioneer Award

Ken Levine gesticulates happily after BioShock wins for Best Writing.

Sid Meier and his Lifetime Achievement Award get friendly.

The denouement - Portal wins out for Game Of The Year.

[Other pictures of the Game Developers Choice award winners, including photos of the other winners and presenters, are available on Vincent's Flickr stream.]

The Waxy View Of GDC: Still Alive at the Valve Party

[As previously trailed, Andy Baio from Waxy.org is attending GDC as a guest 'Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and blogging about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Here's a quick geek-out update from Wednesday night's Valve shindig.]

At the risk of turning Waxy [and GameSetWatch!] into a Jonathan Coulton fan site, he performed a short set at the Valve Software's Steam Party capped by a finale of "Still Alive" performed on Rock Band, backed by the Harmonix developers on guitar and drums.

JoCo covers himself on Rock Band

I'm pretty sure this is the only published photo of their final score, a 5-star performance:

Jonathan Coulton's final score, backed by the Harmonix team

And yes, Coulton sang his own song on "Easy." (Afterwards, he said the Harmonix guys lowered the difficulty because thought the crowd noise would mess it up.)

Shortly after the set, I saw a tipsy geek hop on stage to copy the unreleased song from the Xbox 360 with a USB key before a Harmonix team member tackled him. I discovered he wrote up the story this morning, which was a fun read.

[SIMON'S ADDENDUM: I ran into Harmonix's Ryan Lesser at the IGF Pavilion yesterday, and in the course of our chat (he was checking out the awesome IGF music games like Audiosurf and Fret Nice!) he mentioned that full album downloads for Rock Band - my most-wanted feature - are still in the process of being worked on, yay.]

Microsoft Talks XNA Creators Club Distribution Details

- [Jeez Louise, GDC is hopping this year. Go check out the Gamasutra coverage page for GDC 2008 for the full rundown - there's literally 10+ new session write-ups every day right now, with all kinds of awesome insight.

But I particularly wanted to point out that Microsoft sent us an in-depth piece for our XNA microsite on how community-distributed Xbox 360 games work, with a lot of interesting specifics and screenshots - here's the overview.]

Following the GDC keynote unveiling of XNA-created community-distributed games for Xbox Live, Microsoft's Dax Hawkins goes in-depth on exactly how game submission, review, and posting will work for the Spring beta of the service.

As part of the new sponsored feature, created for Microsoft's Gamasutra-based XNA microsite, Hawkins explains the details for XNA Creators Club members:

"As many have foreseen – and passionately anticipated – the next step for community game development is to let creators share their games widely with others. We are pleased to announce that in spring of this year we will enable community game distribution with a beta for Xbox LIVE.

As a premium (paid) XNA Creators Club member, you’ll be able to share your games with other creators via Xbox LIVE Marketplace. (For information on becoming a premium member, see XNA Creators Club Premium Membership.) After the beta, you’ll be able to share your games with 10 million Xbox LIVE users.

This article provides general instructions on how to prepare your game for submission. It goes over the guidelines for acceptable content, describes the peer-review system, and shows you how to download and play a community game. Some of the procedures for the beta differ from the general procedures. This article will specify the beta differences."

You can now read the full Gamasutra sponsored feature on the subject, with plenty of details and screenshots on how submission and review will work, possible rejection criteria, and what the approved games will look like on the service.

February 21, 2008

The Waxy View Of GDC: The Jonathan Coultons Of Gaming

- [As previously trailed, Andy Baio from Waxy.org is attending GDC as a guest 'Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and blogging about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Here's a Thursday update on the state of the conference.]

I'm mostly a casual spectator of the gaming industry, with my experience limited to being a fan, so it's been a delight to meet the people behind the games I love at GDC. At the same time, I've felt a kinship with these indie developers, having worked as a developer (and accidental entrepreneur) in the web industry for the last ten years.

One of the most jarring and frustrating differences I've seen between the web and gaming worlds is the dominance of middle-men: publishers and platforms trying to control the distribution of games. In the web industry, there's nobody controlling distribution and I don't need anyone's authorization to launch a new project. But the gaming industry is dominated by gatekeepers.

For consoles, you can pay through the nose for the privilege to be on Xbox Live Arcade, Playstation Network or the upcoming WiiWare, and then wait months to be released into the pipeline. On PCs, there's no clear monopoly, with distribution fragmented between a handful of game download portals and distribution frameworks like Steam.

Or you can go it alone and sell directly to your fans through your own web presence but, for the moment, this is very rare. Why? There's no clear answer.

The gaming industry today feels like the music industry of the recent past. Bands were desperate to get signed to label, and financial success was elusive without a record deal. Record labels provide the funding to record an album, the marketing to promote it, and access into the well-established distribution pipeline of record stores and other retail outlets. These gatekeepers are slowly losing relevance as musicians like Jonathan Coulton, Radiohead, and Reznor have started selling directly to their fans.

Small indies like Bit Blot (Aquaria), 2D Boy (World of Goo) and Invisible Handlebar's Audiosurf are like the Jonathan Coultons of gaming -- bootstrapping their game development, doing their own promotion, and cutting out every middleman to deliver games directly to their fans. And it seems to be working, at least well enough for them to grow and keep doing what they love.

Clearly, this route doesn't work for everyone. I talked to Jonatan Söderström of Cactus Soft, one of the most creative and prolific game designers working today. He releases an interesting freeware PC game nearly every month, but is struggling to survive at home in Sweden. In desperation and "on the brink of extinction," he recently added ads to his site and asked his audience for $1 donations so he could eat.

Talking to him, he reminded me of many other brilliant programmers I've worked with -- motivated and talented, but almost pathologically uninterested (or incapable?) in self-promotion or business.

Bit Blot and 2D Boy both understand that while game design comes first, marketing can't be ignored. They work with the media, speak at conferences, keep visible blogs, and connect directly to their community online. For example, Bit Blot's "Seven Days of Aquaria" campaign offered new information and gameplay videos each day until its release. The result? So much anticipation and demand that their servers died on release day. It was a brilliant campaign that cost them nothing but their time.

As an outsider, it seems obvious that the costs (monetary and otherwise) of going down the publisher/platform route are too high. Like a record label, the publishers take a cut and try to own your intellectual property and distribution options. Developing for Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, and Playstation Network all have their associated costs and royalties too. Between 30-50% of revenue goes to the platform and the development costs for localization and testing are much higher.

Even if your overall sales are 20% lower by skipping the distribution channels, it seems like you'd still make just as much money, with the benefit of more control and more time to focus on actual game development. (If you're interested in the topic, Simon Carless wrote an interesting editorial earlier this month that ran some of the numbers.)

Whether you work in music, gaming or web development, the ultimate goal should be to do what you love without compromise, get recognized for your work, and not starve to death in the process.

If your primary motivator is fame and getting your game in front of as many people as possible, regardless of the cost, it seems the only option for game developers is going to a major publisher and working with the big platforms. But if you're happy making a healthy living with a more modest audience, the DIY route is more viable every day.

GDC Gallery: The 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards

[Gamasutra contributor Vincent Diamante has been documenting this year's Game Developers Conference in visual form - here's his look at the 2007 Independent Games Festival Awards, held last night at the Moscone Center.]

Simon Carless & Jamil Moledina introduce the awards.

The Student Showcase nominees are... showcased!

Synaesthete wins out at the Student Showcase

IGF co-organizers Matthew Wegner and Steve Swink (Off-Road Velociraptor Safari for the win!)

Fez wins out, fez worn on stage.

IGF awards presenter (and Venture Artic creator!) Andy Schatz.

Petri Purho, with monocle in place, accepts the Seumas McNally Grand Prize.

[Other pictures of the Independent Games Festival awards, including photos of the other winners and presenters, are available on Vincent's Flickr stream.]

IGS: The State Of Indie Games

- [This was the last Independent Games Summit panel, but I only just got round to posting it on here. Still, it was a really worthwhile, fulfilling group discussion, with a minimum of Jon Mak getting angry at things in an amusing fashion, tragically! Here's the rundown.]

A gigantic panel of independent developers - including Noel Llopis (Powerof2Games), Jacob Van Wingen (Gastronaut Studios), Jamie Cheng (Klei Entertainment), Jon Mak (Queasy Games), and Ryan Clark (Grubby Games)

Starting off, Klei Entertainment's Jamie Cheng (Eets: Chowdown) revealed that he's working with Nexon to make a free-to-play, pay for items title - but only with 5 or 6 employees.

He pointed out of the indie scene:"The opportunities that have come around have made us kind of come full circle" - from bedroom programmers in the '80s back to simple bedroom programmers. He suggested indie developers can, if they choose, make mass-market games that aren't quirky.

Following on, Noel Llopis of Power Of Two Games tried defining the independent genre: "Indie games are like porn... you know it when you see it", he quipped at one point.

Grubby Games' Ryan Clark continued with a discussion on the ethos of making games for an audience, mentioning that the expanding audience, but noting: "It's hard now... and it will still be hard in the future to earn a living making indie games."

This then moved into a discussion about whether people would make games if there was nobody else to play them, with Clark suggesting he wouldn't, but Everyday Shooter's Jon Mak vehemently disagreeing, revealing: "I have a Star Control II clone that nobody has ever played."

Gastronaut's Jacob Van Wingen then chimed in discussing the history of downloadable games for console, noting that "it's hard to get games on the Xbox 360 as a developer", but explaining that he makes the kinds of games that are meant to be played against people on a couch - thus his decision to use Xbox Live Arcade.

Finally, Jon Mak then discussed the history of indie gaming in his signature eccentric style, pointing out that in the past, "You had to really love computers to make a game", but that new technology and game making software is making it ever easier to create games.

Some of the Everyday Shooter creator's final thoughts? "Just code the game that you want to make... There's only two genres that you need... cool and not cool."

Portal Takes Game Of The Year At 2008 Choice Awards

- [Now you're playing with portals! Congratulations to Valve's awesome puzzle-actioner for grabbing Game Of The Year at the Choice Awards tonight.]

Valve's genre-blending first person shooter/puzzler, Portal, was the recipient of three honors including Game of the Year at the 8th annual Game Developers Choice Awards, presented at a ceremony this evening at CMP's 2008 Game Developers Conference (GDC).

The game -- one of three new games on the developer's Orange Box, alongside Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Team Fortress 2 -- also took the prizes for Innovation and Best Game Design.

Also taking three awards was 2K Boston/2K Australia's blockbuster shooter, Bioshock, which won for Best Audio, Best Visual Art and Best Writing. Realtime Worlds' Crackdown, Thatgamecompany's Fl0w, Crytek's Crysis and Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass were the recipients of the remaining awards, taking home one honor each.

Produced and hosted by GDC and presented by Gamasutra.com and Game Developer Magazine, the Game Developers Choice Awards honors the creators of the best video games released during the previous calendar year, as well as awarding key figures from the video game community.

"The Game Developers Choice Awards stand out from other game industry prizes by being open to all games of a calendar year and by recognizing the individual developers behind each celebrated game," said Jamil Moledina, executive director of the Game Developers Conference. "We are thrilled gamers at home will be able to meet the people behind their favorite games when our first ever television broadcast special on the awards airs soon on the G4 television network."

The recipients of the 8th Annual Game Developers Choice Awards are:

2007 Best Game Design
Portal (Valve)
Kim Swift, Realm Lovejoy, Paul Graham

2007 Best Visual Art
BioShock (2K Boston/2K Australia / 2K Games)
Scott Sinclair, Shawn Robertson, Andrew James

2007 Best Technology
Crysis (Crytek/Electronic Arts)
Cevat Yerli, Douglas Binks, Timur Davidenko, Martin Mittring

2007 Best Writing
BioShock (2K Boston/2K Australia / 2K Games)
Ken Levine, Emily Ridgway, Joe McDonagh, Susan O'Connor

2007 Best Audio
BioShock (2K Boston/2K Australia / 2K Games)
Eric Brosius, Pat Balthrop, Emily Ridgway, Justin Mullins

2007 Best Debut
Crackdown (Real Time Worlds / Microsoft Game Studios)
Ramon Gonzalez, Violetta Sanchez, Rafael Diaz, Jose Guerra

2007 Innovation
Portal (Valve)
Kim Swift, Erik Wolpaw

2007 Best Handheld Game
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass (Nintendo / Nintendo)
Eiji Aonuma

2007 Best Downloadable Game
Flow (thatgamecompany / Sony Computer Entertainment)
Kellee Santiago, Jenova Chen, Martin Middleton, Hao Cui, John Edwards,
Nick Clark

2007 Game of the Year
Portal (Valve)
Kim Swift, Erik Wolpaw

Recipients for the evening's special awards were:

Lifetime Achievement Award
Sid Meier

Pioneer Award
Ralph Baer

Ambassador Award
Jason Della Rocca

"It was an incredible year of innovation, top-notch explorations within known franchises and introductions of great new properties," Simon Carless, publisher, Gamasutra.com and Game Developer. "The whole community mobilized to express their admiration for the best works, and we are proud to present these meaningful peer awards."

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Actually, I could have done with a portal gun when I got stuck in the hotel elevator about 45 minutes before the awards (yes, seriously. We pried the doors open to get out!) And congrats to all winners - you guys rock.]

February 20, 2008

2008 IGF Awards Topped By Crayon Physics Deluxe

- [Wow, these awards were a real blast to help put on. And now we know the results - congrats to Petri and all the other worth winners, and thanks for bringing on the swearing, the monocles, and the style - in what was another super-memorable awards show.]

Crayon Physics Deluxe, Kloonigames' 2D physics puzzle game that allows players to experience what it would be like to transform drawings into physical objects, was named the winner of the $20,000 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the 10th Annual Independent Games Festival (IGF) Awards, presented at a ceremony this evening at CMP's 2008 Game Developers Conference (GDC).

Other major winners at the IGF ceremony included physics-based puzzle action game, 2D Boy's World of Goo, which won the awards for both Design Innovation and Technical Excellence, and Audiosurf by Invisible Handlebar which won the $2,500 Audience Award, after receiving the largest share of more than 3,500 votes cast online over the past two months at IGF.com.

The IGF awards have been described as the Sundance Festival of the videogame industry, and offer both global exposure and over $50,000 in cash prizes to the developers of the winning games.

Other award recipients included One Ton Ghost's comical treasure-seeking adventure Iron Dukes, which took the award for Best Web Browser Game, Kokoromi's Fez, which won for Excellence in Visual Art for its presentation of a 2D character exploring a 3D world, Invisible Handlebar's Audiosurf, a game that lets players experience their songs in real time, in full color, and in 3D, and which took the prize for Excellence in Audio, and, winner for Best Student Game, Synaesthete, a music-driven arcade-style shooter developed by students at the DigiPen Institute of Technology.

Another notable award given at the IGF ceremony was The Gleemax Award for Strategic Gameplay ("The Gleemie"), presented by IGF Platinum Sponsor, Gleemax, Wizards of the Coast, Inc.'s community for gamers. Three games were awarded "The Gleemie" prize package, which consisted of a custom designed trophy accompanied by a tiered prize package. (1st - $5,000, 2nd - $3,000, 3rd - $2,000).

"As the video game industry grows bigger by the day, it becomes even more important to give a voice to the independent developer," said Simon Carless, chairman, IGF. "This year's Independent Games Festival winners are showcasing how important independent games are -- both as an artistic movement and as accessible titles that are really damn fun to play."

The IGF awarded the following games in each category in the main competition -- each received a cash prize of $2,500 as well as sponsor-related prizes, and the Grand Prize winner was awarded $20,000.

Seumas McNally Grand Prize:
Crayon Physics Deluxe, by Kloonigames

Best Web Browser Game:
Iron Dukes, by One Ton Ghost

Design Innovation Award:
World Of Goo, by 2D Boy

Excellence in Visual Art:
Fez, by Kokoromi

Excellence in Audio:
Audiosurf, by Invisible Handlebar

Technical Excellence:
World Of Goo, by 2D Boy

Best Student Game:
Synaesthete, by DigiPen Institute of Technology

Audience Award:
Audiosurf, by Invisible Handlebar

Gleemie Awards:
-- First Place: Desktop Tower Defense, by Handdrawngames
-- Second Place: Skyrates, by Team Skyrates
-- Third Place: Quadradius, by Quadradius

The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way the Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community.

With a record-breaking 173 entries from all over the world, the 2008 IGF reflects how global the game development community has become. The IGF jury included journalists from MTV News, Kotaku, Newsweek, Wired, and Joystiq; the creators of previous IGF winners Aquaria, Braid, Flow, and N; and veterans from across the game industry.

IGS: The Kyles - From EA's DS 'Indie Side' To WiiWare Praise

- Kicking off day two of the Independent Games Summit, Kyle Gabler - co-founder of World Of Goo creator 2D Boy, and Kyle Gray - working at EA Tiburon on a "quasi-indie title" - discussed how the two CMU grads and Experimental Gameplay Project had diverging paths but both innovative ways of making independent-minded games work.

The session was hilariously honest - and filled with Powerpoint captions and puns on the perils of working at a big company and at a tiny start-up developer respectively.

Firstly, Gray showed a Flash-based EA prototype he did at Tiburon called Monkey Business - clearly designed for the Nintendo DS - in which the top screen featured a 2D side-scrolling action title with a British explorer fighting with monkeys and powering up with giant robots made out of Big Ben. The bottom screen is a block-shuffling pzzler, and platform game actions affect the blocks that appear in the bottom of the screen.

The project - in modified form, but still starring the British explorer, sometimes called 'Hatsby' - was then seen by the newly segmented EA Casual, which greenlit it. Gray finally showed a video "for an un-named platform" of the latest version of the game - clearly the Nintendo DS - with the same dual-screen gameplay, and classic 2D side-scrolling goodness - complete with an opera-singing boss and other quirkiness. He quipped in questions: "It's this weird new face of EA... they're actually looking to do new things now."

As for Gabler, his first game as 2D Boy was The 100 Year Tree, where he modeled an eco-system - but after seeing a Russian developer 'borrow' the Tower Of Goo concept for a Pocket PC game, they decided to make an enhanced version of the concept in the form of World Of Goo - which is one of the two most-nominated titles for this year's Independent Games Festival Awards.

The title is still in negotiations with publishers, but is confirmed to appear initially on PC and Nintendo's Wii. Gabler made it clear In questions that the title is not yet confirmed for WiiWare, and hinted that they might be considering different type of distribution in different territories, but noted after dealing with publishers: "I cannot speak more highly of WiiWare."

The Waxy View Of GDC: Opening Impressions

- [As previously trailed, Andy Baio from Waxy.org is attending GDC as a guest 'Web 2.0/geek culture/game culture crossover' observer, and blogging about it on his popular blog and GameSetWatch. Here's his first dispatch from the wilds of San Francisco.]

I'm already overwhelmed at my first Game Developer's Conference, and from what I've heard, things don't even really get moving until tomorrow! The first two days are dominated by a number of excellent summits and tutorials, but apparently, the real action doesn't start until tomorrow when the game competitions, expo floor, major announcements, and big keynotes all begin in the morning.

I'm very interested in the parallels between gaming and web, and how the lines have blurred between game-like social software and social games. With that in mind, several people told me Worlds in Motion summit would be most relevant to my interests with sessions that "delve into online worlds, social gaming and media and player created activity, providing insight for developers of all backgrounds into how the game industry is collectively building socialization into games and integrating personalization and player-generated content into gameplay."

Instead, I've found the most inspiring and innovative talks have been in the Independent Games Summit. Unlike the companies in World in Motion, these tiny two-person startups and student projects are operating on a shoestring budget and exploring territory that the big guys aren't.

It seems like most of the interesting new projects are happening on the web or as PC/Mac downloads, partly because they don't have the funding or support to acquire dev kits for the consoles and partly because it gives them more control over their own fate. (For example, Xbox Live Arcade costs a minimum of $125,000 to create a game. The overhead for a Flash game, like starting a website, is mostly your own time.)

And because they have so many resource constraints, they're developing gameplay that's often experimental and completely unique. The IGF finalists are a laundry list of intriguing gameplay ideas (many of which I've mentioned on Waxy before):
  • Audiosurf, a rhythm/racing/puzzle game that analyzes and visualizes your MP3 collection to create a dynamic 3D racetrack with characteristics pulled from tone, tempo, and volume.

  • The Path, a horror game based on Little Red Riding Hood, with ambient music by Jarboe. If you follow the path before you, you lose the game.

  • World of Goo, a construction game using physics to attain

  • Crayon Physics Deluxe, an adorable game that instantiates anything you sketch to solve puzzles.

  • Poesysteme, breeding words with Darwinian evolution.

  • Goo, like Go with liquid dynamics.

  • Fret Nice, a platformer that uses the Guitar Hero guitar to control the character in time to the music

  • Fez, the 2D character stuck in a 3D world

Several speakers have discussed how the art and design are more important than the technology, that games are more about conjuring emotion than showing off graphical effects. Aquaria co-creator Alec Holowka described game development as a Zelda Triforce, with three parts of Art/Design, Business/Marketing, and Technology. Some games, like movie-licensed games, are led by business but have poor technology and design.

Others, like many big-budget games, are led by technology. Indie games need to support their work with honest marketing and solid technology, but it's the creator's voice, vision, and passion that ultimately make the game resonate with an audience.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to playing and meeting this year's finalists tomorrow when the IGF Pavilion opens tomorrow.

Some notable quotes from the first couple of days of the show:

Gabe Zichermann on Facebook and eBay as MMOs: "I think we need to acknowledge there are things in life that are fun that game designers didn't make... People are engaged in playing all the time -- they're not fake worlds a game designer made... Everybody plays games all the time, whether we as game designers make them or not."

Raph Koster on virtual worlds: "We're building theme parks instead of parks."

Tracy Fullerton from USC Game Innovation Lab: "Indie's not about finding a backdoor into the industry or building games on a shoestring budget. It's about tearing down walls to create a new culture."

February 19, 2008

IGS: Totilo, Croal Talk Indie Ethos

-[Going to be cross-posting a few of the Indie Games Summit talks from today, since they're readable and stand alone fairly well in a GSW context. Enjoy, or else.]

In an afternoon session at the Independent Games Summit on Tuesday, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV News' Stephen Totilo discussed the state of independent games in the media, and their personal opinions on how to get noticed in the indie game business.

Starting off, Croal quipped of the state of indie: "This is right around Sundance started up... but before Sex, Lies & Videotape."

The expectation of the independent movement right now, according to Totilo, is: "This is going to be different... because now there's going to be no filters." This is sometimes true - but as the duo stressed, you need to find a unique selling point.

Totilo also noted that PR plans for XBLA and PSN games are "not nearly as aggressive" as retail ones, even when Microsoft and Sony are sending out information on behalf of those indie developers.

Obviously, the above isn't always the case, and Croal particularly noted that it's all about "...teaching people who make indie games about the PR process.... you have to be both an artist and a hustler, but you can't confuse the two."

As he noted even of his own personal efforts to promote his own Level Up weblog to a select band of higher-end influencers and key outlets: "I spam some of the journalists I respect the most."

Moving on, Totilo underlined that the story behind the game is as or more important than the game itself - particularly to the mainstream media, and increasingly in the industry in general.

Croal chimed in on this that you can look to other industries, ending on a bit of a boggling but fair comparison in terms of people who have woven personal stories into great media messages: "50 Cent is an interesting story... Jonathan Blow is an interesting story... Jonathan Mak is an interesting story."

Overall, the duo urged, above all, that if you have a unique message and you target independent-minded journalists and influencers, indies can get noticed through the crowd of even mainstream games.

2008 IGF Mobile Award Winners Announced

- [The ceremony for the mobile part of the IGF was held during GDC Mobile today. Though I couldn't be there thanks to Independent Games Summit responsibilities, I heard it went really well, yay - with happy developers, and video of it due to be posted online after the show.]

CMP Game Group has announced the winners of the inaugural Independent Games Festival (IGF) Mobile awards. IGF Mobile is the sister event to the Independent Games Festival, held at the 2008 Game Developers Conference, taking place February 18-22 at San Francisco's Moscone Convention Center.

The IGF Mobile showcases innovation in handheld and cell phone gaming, including the Sony PlayStation Portable and the Nintendo DS platforms, in addition to mobile handsets.

Among the winners for this first-of-its-kind event are KnowledgeWhere's PhoneTag Elite, winner of the Innovation in Augmented Design Award, Presented by NVIDIA. PhoneTag Elite is an elaborate version of "hide-and-seek," using the GPS built into the user's cell phone. Capybara Games' Critter Crunch, winner of both the IGF Mobile Best Game and Audio Achievement awards, takes on the puzzle genre with refined graphics, animation and addictive gameplay.

The finalists for the IGF Mobile Competition will be showcasing their games at the IGF Mobile Pavilion alongside the tenth annual IGF Main Competition and Student Showcase, taking place February 20-22, 2008. All finalists will be featured in playable form within the special pavilion on the Game Developers Conference 2008 show floor.

Out of a distinguished field of 20 nominees, from an overall field of 50 entries, the following winners were selected:

* IGF Mobile Best Game: Critter Crunch
* Innovation in Mobile Game Design: EGO
* Innovation in Augmented Design - Presented by NVIDIA: PhoneTag Elite
* Achievement in Art: Kodo
* Technical Achievement: Steam Iron: The Fallen
* Audio Achievement: Critter Crunch

The Platinum and Founding Sponsor for the IGF Mobile competition is NVIDIA. The IGF was established in 1998 by the CMP Game Group to encourage innovation in game development and to recognize the best independent game developers, in the way that Sundance Film Festival honors the independent film community. IGF Mobile likewise serves as a venue to highlight the bourgeoning talents of the mobile and handheld game industry, rewarding and recognizing the innovation and advancement of the space.

"When the IGF first opened 10 years ago, few could have seen the impact that the festival would have on the future of gaming," said Mathew Kumar, IGF Mobile Content Director, "Years later, we’re seeing the explosion of the downloadable content and online distribution, and with it, IGF-alums-turned-mainstream titles like Fl0w, N+ and Everyday shooter have become commercial hits. We've now seen that the mobile IGF has further ignited this same drive for innovation, creativity and craftsmanship. We congratulate all the winners, as well as the talented developers behind all the amazing nominees and entries."

For more information on the Independent Games Festival Mobile, please visit the official website.

Game Developers Conference - Monday Highlights

- Honestly, I'm a little tired here to think straight, but just wanted to pass along the stuff I personally wrote up from the first day of Gamasutra's GDC 2008 coverage - specifically the Indie Game Summit stuff - but check out the above links for LOTS more awesome coverage.

The first day of IGS seemed a little uneven in places, careening wildly from Introversion discussing branding to some pretty high-end Mak/Santiago/Koskinen design talk to Tom Buscaglia adlibbing.

But everyone had something important to contribute, and there were particular highlights in the Aquaria postmortem and Q's Dylan Cuthbert revealing the frankly gorgeous-looking PixelJunk Eden. And here's the write-ups:

- IGS: Q Games' Cuthbert Reveals PixelJunk Eden, Postmortems Series
"In the final Independent Games Summit lecture of Monday, Kyoto, Japan-based Q Games' Dylan Cuthbert discussed the PixelJunk series for the PS3's PlayStation Network, revealing the first-ever video of psychedelic PSN title PixelJunk Eden."

- IGS: The State Of Flash Games
"The Flash games panel at the Independent Games Summit on GDC at Monday showed an interesting dichotomy of different approaches to making money from Web browser-based games - though it's clear that the monetization angle is still being explored."

- IGS: N+ Creator On Game Creation's 'Unique Knobs'
"In an afternoon Independent Games Summit talk, Metanet's Raigan Burns (N+) discussed creativity and the making of unique technology to make unique gameplay, referencing games from Portal to Braid in his quest to discover how simple tech concepts can grow into great games."

- IGS: Inside The Making Of Aquaria
"In a well-received Independent Games Summit lecture, Derek Yu and Alec Holowka from Bit-Blot discussed Aquaria, the IGF Grand Prize winner from last year, presenting a postmortem of their critically acclaimed 2D underwater action title."

- IGS Keynote: Flow, Everyday Shooter Creators Talk Gaming Ethos
"In an intriguing and wide-ranging Independent Games Summit keynote, ThatGameCompany's Kellee Santiago (Flow), Queasy Games' Jon Mak (Everyday Shooter), and cult mod maker/previous IGF finalist Pekko Koskinen took three short presentations to showcase in-depth concepts on independent game design."

Gamasutra, Game Developer Call For 2007 Salary Survey Participation

- The editors of Game Developer magazine and Gamasutra.com [EDITOR'S NOTE: And even, yes, GameSetWatch - we know a bunch of you guys are actual developers, too!] invite you to complete the annual Game Developer's Salary Survey. The information you provide will help inform the entire game development community.

The results of this survey will be published in the April 2008 issue of Game Developer magazine, and will again be available in overview form on Gamasutra, and in much more detailed form as a Game Developer Research

In appreciation of your time and effort, once you complete the survey, your name will be entered into a drawing to win one of five Main Conference Passes for your choice of the lineup of Game Developers Conference (GDC) events in the 2008-2009 cycle: Paris GDC in June, Austin GDC or China GDC (in Beijing) in September, or GDC 2009 in San Francisco.

The results of the prior survey were revealed in April of 2007, calculating an average American game industry salary of $73,316, slightly down on 2005's figure of $75,039.

In addition, the average salary in 2006 over all American game programmers was $80,886, and the 2006 average for artists was $65,107 - with game designers' average was $61,538. Following these results, this year's survey has also added support for important emerging job functions such as community manager, which will be showcased in the new results due in April.

Interested game professionals can now click through to take part in the survey. Thanks for helping us to advance the industry!

[NOTE: A separate, optional MIT Business School survey on entrepreneurship in the game industry is available to fill out at the end of this year's Salary Survey - results will also be made available in conjunction with CMP if you'd like to fill it out.]

February 18, 2008

Combat Canceled: God of War & Action Game Design

- [In this special feature, former God of War combat designer Eric Williams breaks down 'cancels' - the ability to end one combat animation early by beginning another - explaining how God Of War II did it and Ninja Gaiden and the Devil May Cry series handle the concepts.]

As he explains in his intro: "A lot of the questions I've been asked in the past regarding God of War have always swirled around some of the attacks Kratos has in his arsenal, namely the L1+ Button special moves. These questions usually stem from the inability to “cancel” these moves - thus rendering them useless, so to speak. Instead of just defending those moves, I am going to examine the entire concept of move canceling - from its early days in fighting games, to its cross-pollination with action adventure games."

Birth Of The Cancel

Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all: Street Fighter 2: World Warrior. There is a legend that one day, during early tests of this game out in California, a guy named Tomo Ohira was destroying people in the game with some crazy technique. He could link certain moves together that normally could not be linked together - thus creating a combo by canceling.

I was a kid in Ohio when I heard this, so of course I believed it, because Tomo Ohira was the best American Street Fighter player at the time. However, I later learned that this was a “bug” in the game - known by the development team in Japan. They thought executing it was too difficult to be useful, so they left it in the game.

As it turns out, that “bug” was the birth of the Cancel-and-Combo. The best example is roundhouse sweep cancel-to-fireball with Ryu, which I view as the catalyst for many other Street Fighter cornerstones, such as zoning and footsies.

What Is It, Exactly?

Let’s define a cancel, just so we're all clear: It's the ability to end one animation early by beginning another animation, when the user manipulates of a series of branches in an animation tree through controller inputs. Without diving into all the nuts and bolts of a combat system, let's break down cancels by type and method.

Cancel types fall into 2 core groups; “Partial Cancel” and “Complete Cancel”.

A “Partial Cancel” allows an animation to be canceled at specific windows during the animation. The two most common conditions for a “Partial Cancel” are Pre-hit frame (the animation can be canceled any time before the first frame of the hit) and post-hit frame (the animation can be canceled any time after the last frame of the hit).

A “Complete Cancel” allows an animation to be canceled at any time during the animation. I'm generalizing, and there are special nuances that exist in certain games, but for the most part, these conditions are used 99 percent of the time.

Two methods of canceling account for the bulk of all games: "Buffer" and "Instant".

The "Buffer" method stores and executes the user’s command when the cancel window is valid. The "Buffer" method, in a well-designed game, can be canceled itself with other commands before the cancel window is valid, to ensure the highest quality of responsiveness.

The "Instant" method accepts and executes the user’s command on the frame of input when the cancel window is valid. The "Instant" method allows the player to delay the timing, which adds to the overall responsiveness of the game.

Now, for an example: Let's say we have an animation called “Square01” that is played when we press the Square button. The animation is 60 frames long and has a hit frame window from frame 15 to frame 20. See the pseudo combat scripting below:

//60 frames
Animation = Square01

//hit frames
On = 15;
Off = 20;

//attack cancel
Anim = Square02; Button = Square; On = 0; Off = 21; Method = Buffer;
Anim = Square02; Button = Square; On = 21; Off = 60; Method = Instant;

//block cancel
Anim = Block; Button = L1; On = 0; Off = 60; Method = Instant;

What does all that mean, you might be asking yourself? Notice the On/Off parameters - these are frame values that determine the range of the cancel window. The method parameter assigns the type of cancel - see the definitions above if you have forgotten already.

We can now determine that “Square01” can never be canceled with the square button Pre-hit frame, since the frame range is 0-21. Instead, the square button can be buffered until Post-hit frame 21.

We can also determine that “Square01” can be instantly canceled at any time Post-hit frame, since the frame range is 21-60. It also says that the L1 button can cancel “Square01” instantly at any time, thus making it a Complete Cancel, since the frame range is 0-60.

If this makes any sense at all, now imagine doing this for every possible animation a character has in their arsenal, and how it relates to gameplay systems such as parry, block, counter, walk, run, jump, double jump, magic, throw, and reactions. To give you a little perspective, Kratos had roughly 4000 cancel branches in God of War 2, with many more parameters to be tweaked per cancel branch.

Bored yet? I promise to stop being technical right now!

The Effects Of Implementation

What can a well-implemented cancel system add to a game? First off, it usually determines if a game has that lagged-out feel, or is crisp and super-responsive. From a defensive point of view, it creates that feeling of "a good offense is the best defense." The player can just bang with the enemies, but guard cancel to generate new holes in the enemy’s game.

Guard canceling in Soul Calibur is super fun, because it has Pre-hit frame canceling only - which allows the player to fake attacks, creating a whole new layer of mind games. Street Fighter 3 and the Marvel series make great use of super move cancels, which looks flashy in the traditional Capcom vein, while promoting heavy offensive-style gameplay.

Also you might note that cancels are so good in some games that they actually require meter to perform, like in the Guilty Gear series. It's almost impossible to factor all the changes one type of cancel system can have on a game.

One such case is CvS2 and the infamous "Roll Cancel," where certain moves can become invincible based on a cancel bug - talk about an oops. Ultimately, though, it comes down to fun versus abusiveness. But mostly, a great cancel system equals depth, and allows the player to be super creative, which helps increase the fun and sense of achievement.

Here some thoughts on the top three games in the action adventure genre, in no particular order: Ninja Gaiden, Devil May Cry, and God of War. (Placing the game I worked on for nearly 4 years in the top three will surely drum up some interesting comments - can’t wait. This is why I do not write about the games I work on, if at all possible.)

Getting Technical With Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden is very strict when it comes to canceling - so strict, in fact, that not a single animation that I am aware of can be canceled Pre-hit frame. I feel this is a great rule when trying to build a solid foundation for the combat gameplay, but it also adds to the difficulty. The player knows, when they press a button to attack, it must complete its hit frame before another animation can take place.

Here's a funny thing about that rule: it is so true that the player cannot even pause the game, because they could swap weapons and cancel before the hit. Don’t believe me? Try it out. The game is made to be hardcore, and for the hardcore, so they use rules that help establish a fair play field if the player is willing to learn the system to the point of flawless execution. I applaud Itagaki and Team Ninja for their effort and contribution to the genre!

Devil May Cry In Style

Devil May Cry follows many of the same rules that Ninja Gaiden does, but in true Capcom fashion, they have to drop the style bomb all over rules and add in some broken stuff just for fun.

The main cancel system that drives DMC is the alteration between Melee and Projectile attacks. I believe that all Melee attacks are all Post-hit frame cancels, and the Projectile attacks are governed by the rate of fire. Since there are between 5-6 Melee and Projectile weapons, the combinations create quite the learning curve. When you add in the styles, the possibilities are staggering. Depth is the result - but in a much more chaotic and flashy manner then the technical presentation found in Ninja Gaiden.

There is no doubt that DMC is an acquired taste, from the dark, moody art to wisecracking, cocky Dante himself. Nevertheless, when you get it, you get it, and the rabid fans of this series will always let you know they get it!

God Of War And Its Intended Audience

God of War, unlike the other two games, allows for many Pre-hit frame cancels, and incorporates several of the methods found in the other two games. The main difference is that it is not trying to be a hardcore game from either a technical or flashy point of view. It’s just smash-and-kill fun.

It still has some goodies tossed in under the hood, of course, for the fans of the other games that gave us a shot while they waited for the next installment of Ryu’s or Dante’s saga. The rules for canceling are all over the place - but for good reason. Our intended audience does not want to learn the techniques. They just want the game to play the way they think it should, because combat is not the only focus unlike the other two games.

So what about the L1+Button specials, and why can't they be canceled?

The moves in question are by far the strongest damage-inflicting attacks Kratos has that stem from a simple button command. They hit many creatures at once in most cases or leave the creature in a vulnerable state -- and in some cases, both. The moves also serve as a little flash, and make beginners feel really powerful when they see the blades spinning all over the place.

Like I said before, the other games only have Post-hit frame canceling, and use this to teach the player, "watch before you attack." God of War allows almost all of the basic attacks be canceled anywhere, including Pre-hit frame, to make life easier on the player.

The L1+Button specials, though, possess enormous damage potential in certain situations, and thus are not able to be canceled until Post-hit frame for balance reasons (infinite lock down loops, mostly). Moreover, for novice players, they are used to teach the concept of risk vs. reward, without placing this burden on the basic combat, which would make the game much harder for the average player.

I know this can be argued from many different angles with regards to balancing - but trust me, I have heard them all, and this was the decision we made. Feel free to tell me how foolish we were anyhow.

At the end of the day, you have to look at your intended audience, and I think we captured our audience the best we could. To those that were left upset and disappointed because of 4 little moves in the game that cannot be canceled earlier, then I am sorry you missed a much greater experience.

It’s easy to say God of War is flawed, but the fact remains that it is the only American action-adventure game ever to get the attention of the Japanese. I grew up playing their games, and wanted to make a game that felt like a Japanese game, but played balls-out like an American movie, and God of War allowed me to do that. It is not perfect, but it spoke to some people, and that is all we can hope for as game developers.

By the way, God of War has some serious fun with cancels. Press square once, then try any of the following if you don’t believe me.

Walk (Navigation) = Post-hit frame
Jump = Pre-hit frame
Roll (Evade) = Pre-hit frame
Magic = Pre-hit frame
Throw = Pre-hit frame
Guard (Parry / Block) = Pre-hit frame
Weapon Swap = Post-hit frame"

[This article was adapted from a piece originally printed on Eric's 'Pushing Buttons' weblog - thanks to Eric for permission to reprint it here.]

IndieGames Interview: Kloonigames' Petri Purho

[Conducted by Tim W. over at our sister blog IndieGames.com: The Weblog, here's an informal chat with Petri Purho, the developer of IGF finalist Crayon Physics Deluxe, amongst a host of other neat indie titles.]

Hi Petri, how about a little introduction for the readers before we begin with the questions?

Well, I'm Mr. Purho and I'm probably the best known for being the guy behind Crayon Physics. Also I've made couple of other lesser known and more sucky games, which I've published on my blog: Kloonigames.

Do you keep count of how many experimental games you've released so far? Any favorites besides Crayon Physics?

I think there are now 17 games (I'm not sure), and there have been a number of favorites besides Crayon Physics. I seriously like SM Word a lot, but apparently I'm the only one :) Pluto Strikes Back is probably my other favorite and Amazing Flying Brothers is quite fun also. And I really kick myself in the head every once in while for making Daydreaming in the Oval Office.

What's the status of Crayon Physics Deluxe, any updates on that? Will you be releasing it as shareware or freeware, and when?

Officially the status of Crayon Physics Deluxe now is release 13. Don't know what that means, but that's the official status. The game is in the works and I'm still the only developer doing it. Hopefully it will be out sometime, but it could take a while. I'm planning of releasing it as an shareware and I don't have clue when it's ready. I seriously don't.

After I get back from GDC I'll write some kind of status report on Crayon Physics Deluxe, as there are a lot of people who have been emailing me about it and asking if anything is happening because I haven't blogged about it. I just figured it's better to keep your mouth shut than to yap all over the place like you're Peter Molyneux.

You'll be headed for the GDC in a few days' time. What are you looking forward to the most?

Meeting all the fellow indies. I mean I get to meet Cactus, Joakim, Dylan, Ron, Tale of Tales folks, Sean Chan, Cryptic Sea guys. And hang out with Kyle and Phil... It's gonna be fun.

I probably forgot someone, but there are so many people in the finals :)

Who are your favorite indie game developers?

Of the top my head Kyle Gabler, Jonathan Blow, Jonathan Mak, Cactus, Joakim, Phil Fish (Fez just stole my heart).

On that topic, have you played World of Goo, Braid, Everyday Shooter, Noitu Love 2 and Fez?

I've played Braid, Fez, World of Goo, and tested Everyday Shooter (I wish I had a PS3). I can tell you those games are going to rock when they come out; I'm sure there will be an indie revolution.

Name your favorite game from cactus.

Mondo Medicals, Psychosomnium (I had to check how you spell that) and Seizure Dome. Also I enjoyed Clean Asia, but it was too hard for me.

Which are your favorite IGF final entries? Any picks?

Don't tell the other developers, but my favorite would be World of Goo. But if they ask I'm loving Audiosurf and Synaesthete also very equally. And Gesundheit! also.

Seeing that Audiosurf is now available on Steam, and you've mentioned that Crayon Physics Deluxe will be shareware, have you considered taking the same distribution route?

Well that would be a good option, but I haven't heard anything from Valve yet, so if Gabe is reading this email me.

When you've started out Kloonigames, how long did you plan to stick with the experimental idea? How many more years of experimental games can we expect?

Well I was quite pessimistic at the time I started out Kloonigames. I thought I'd be very happy if I made it through the first year. And honestly I thought I'd quit there. But it kinda grows on to you. You can't go over 30 days without making a game. It's impossible :)

Don't know how long I'll keep on doing it. Probably as long as my life allows me to.

Have you noticed any other developers attempting the same?

Well I found out that someone had ripped of some of my blog posts and was running a very similar blog. Then there's the other rapid developers, but honestly I think the rapid development comes from the CMU's Experimental Gameplay Project.

Are you happy with the response for the site?

I've been extremely happy with the response. It's been much much better than I could have ever hoped. I never thought I'd go to GDC. Let alone be an IGF finalist there.

What do you think of IGF itself? And the indie games development scene?

I think it serves it's purpose well. I heard some criticism about some art games not making it to the finals. I assume they were talking about The Zoo Race. And if that's the case then I agree with the criticism. The Zoo Race should have definitely been nominated for every category.

Seriously, I'm all for the art games. I honestly like them and I wish they would get more exposure. If there was an art game conference/exhibition somewhere I would definitely want to go there.

Played any good indie games lately? Anything deserving of mention?

The last two games were Sean Chan's qrp and Mark Johns' Shit Game. I liked both of them, but for different reasons :)

qrp especially was very inspiring, but somewhat limited. I'm not sure I figured all the there was to figure out about it. Also I finally played Passage properly and I enjoyed it. My late games collection is quite artsy. Especially with Shit Game being there.

We're two weeks' away from the end of the month. Any ideas of what you'll be creating next? Do you plan to release the updated version of Grammar Nazi before GDC or after?

Yeah I've been planning of doing (and actually I've worked on it already) a game about web hosting companies. I had to quit working on it, because I was afraid I'd never get my files back from my ex hosting company if I released it :) My lawyer told me to say that the game has nothing to do with the hosting trouble I had couple of weeks ago. I did Grammar Nazi as a replacement game. I originally meant to do it 2 hours, but that didn't work out too well :)

I'm hoping of releasing the (Grammar Nazi) update before GDC. I was actually supposed to work on it today, but then you harassed me into giving you an interview. So you're to blame for it being late :)

Opinion: PS3, Blu-Ray, & Sony As 'Global Infant'

- [In a fiery opinion piece also printed over at Gamasutra, game designer/author Ian Bogost examines NPD chart trends to suggest that Sony's lack of unified message on PS3, Blu-ray and the 'average consumer' is rendering ineffective its pitch to users.]

Sony is a global conglomerate which is significantly different from its hardware competitors in the video game industry. It makes consumer electronics ranging from telephones to computers to GPS units.

It publishes video games, movies, and music. It also maintains an army of support businesses, including banks, insurance providers, facility management companies, staffing services, and packaging providers.

The business strategy makes sense: control as much of the market for both electronics and the media we use them for. That’s why Sony purchased CBS Records and Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s; they wanted to own part of the content people played on their Walkmans and VCRs.

The problem is, Sony’s corporate subsidiaries don’t work well together, on a scale far worse than other multinational conglomerates. The company is more feudal state than networked global multinational.

Sony, Divisions, & Co-Ordination

I’ll give you just one example from a previous life consulting for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The first installment of Spider-Man was about to come out, and Columbia Tri-Star was really banking on it; unlike many other studios, Sony didn’t own a film franchise. ImageWorks, the studio’s visual effects arm, was doing all of the CG for the film.

Their offices sit across the sidewalk from what was then called Sony Pictures Interactive Network (SPiN), which developed interactive properties for the Sony Pictures Entertainment companies. But when SPiN wanted to use poly-trimmed Spider-Man 3D assets to create games and other interactive applications, personal politics made things impossible.

This wasn’t just Sony, but also Hollywood, where everyone jockeys for the next job up the rung all the time. When you think about it, it makes sense from ImageWorks’ perspective; who wants their highly crafted, high-poly character models looking crappy online before the film’s release? The same thing happened when Columbia Tri-Star marketing wanted to get their early film exclusives on memory sticks that ship with Sony electronics.

These are good ideas for the company in general, but troublesome ones for individual units whose executives and managers don’t want to rock their own boat to support someone else’s. There are many more stories like this; just ask your friends who used to work at a Sony division but left or were laid off after one of their many reorganizations.

Sony's 'Mirror Stage' In Effect

In one of his earliest innovations, French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan suggested the name "Mirror Stage" for the moment in a young child's development in which it recognizes its own image in a mirror. Before this time, the child has no sense of its own body as a whole, but only as a loose assembly of fragments: arm, hand, leg.

So, while sometimes we might be tempted to say that Sony is one of the dumbest corporations on the planet, it would be more accurate to say that it's one of the most infantile. Sony is like a baby that doesn't know its own arms aren't alien beings smacking its unwitting face.

The situation has improved somewhat over the years; early copies of the PSP shipped with a copy of Spider-Man on UMD, for example. But the company’s head still suffers at the bludgeoning of its limbs. For example, despite the relative popularity of film licenses, very few films from the huge Columbia Tri-Star and MGM back catalog have been adapted for videogame.

Blu-ray's Mirror-ing Issues

But now Sony’s videogame fiefdom has found an unexpected servant in the Blu-ray format, which, ironically, may end up saving them in the long-term.

Back in October 2007, market research firm NPD Group reported PlayStation 3 sales that trailed behind every other console, including the PS2. Nintendo sold over four times as many Wiis that month in North America, and Microsoft over three times the number of Xbox 360s.

But according to the latest NPD report, 269,000 PS3s left store shelves and entered American dens in January 2008, only 5,000 sales fewer than Wii and 39,000 more than Xbox 360. From bottom of the barrel to leading contender in a fiscal quarter isn’t bad - even if some other hardware firms are claiming shortages.

A major factor in the turn of the tides is the Blu-ray optical disc format. Before and just after the PS3 was released, Sony defended the machine's high price by citing the built-in Blu-ray movie player as a consumer motivator. Yes, the system is more expensive than its competitors, they admitted, but it can also play high-definition movies.

Despite these claims, Sony never really marketed the PS3 as a home theater system, and the company itself probably had very little to do with the PS3’s recent success. In early January Warner Bros. endorsed Blu-ray exclusively. Blockbuster Video, Netflix and Wal-Mart recently announced that they’d carry the format exclusively, effectively dooming HD-DVD.

Anyone who had been on the fence about high-definition home theater now has all the reason they need to climb over to the Blu-ray side. After all, a cut-rate Sony Blu-ray player costs $400-500 list — the same price as a PS3. By all accounts, the PS3 is a great deal, almost a two-for-one videogame/high-def movie system.

Where's The Blu-Ray/PS3 Marketing Crossover?

So why hasn't Sony followed through and marketed the machine more directly as a Blu-ray player? For one, they don’t have much content worth tempting mom and dad, grandma and grandpa. After all, there are plenty of Blu-ray movies, and they run across the whole spectrum of film genre: everything from Ratatouille to 300, from Planet Earth to Casino Royale. For someone who might not otherwise buy a PS3 but enjoys HD movies, maybe they would also enjoy Madden or The Simpsons Game.

But Sony hasn't exactly made it easy to know that would be the case. And there are essentially no PS3 titles for, let's say, more sensitive souls. FlOw might be the closest thing, and there's no way you'd know it even existed unless you read the game trades. And even then, it's too abstract for my mom, and it can only be purchased from the arguably less-than-usable PlayStation Network Store.

Despite market research reports that suggest the broad expansion of game playership, the incremental advantage of a videogame machine would be lost on a whole segment of buyers. Those other folks are buying Wiis instead.

PS3's Casual Need?

Here's a speculation: the PS3’s future success is tied partly, and perhaps strongly, to the availability of games for the less experienced, more casual player, who is part of a household in which high-end home theater is valued. Yet, as far as videogames are concerned, Sony has ignored both casual gamers and home theater buffs.

The situation for casual games is quite simple: what few casual PS3 games exist are hidden intractably in the PSN Store. Things are more complex when it comes to home theater fanatics. Think again about Sony Pictures huge back-catalog. Everyone who bought a DVD since the late 1990s now has to consider buying it again on Blu-ray.

Take 1982’s Annie, for example, a Columbia Pictures release that is also Amazon’s top-selling DVD musical. Wouldn’t a new bonus feature like a PS3 game offer an incentive, not to mention an interesting format and constraint for film-to-game adaptation? Don’t hold your breath: home video falls under the auspices of yet another division, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Conclusion: Sony As Colossus

One of Sony Computer Entertainment’s best titles for PS2 was Shadow of the Colossus, a game in which the player battles huge mythical creatures to resurrect a young girl.

In a press release about the January sales figures, Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton praises his division’s accidental success: “The PS3,” says Tretto, “demonstrated continued momentum.” But even this tepid word is too strong.

Unlike the awesome colossi, with their formidable and deliberate brawn, Sony lumbers through inertia, not momentum.

February 17, 2008

Newsflash: GameSetApparel Shirts Available At GDC!

-I'm sure regular GameSetWach readers recall the four limited-edition GameSetApparel T-shirts we launched last month, and have insisted on making a lot of noise over in recent weeks.

Well, GameSetApparel sales have been going pretty well from our secret mothership that is mail order, but we wanted to bring the shirts 'to the people'. And we have succeeded!

Therefore, this week, all four shirts will be available for $20 per shirt at the merchandise store of the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco's Moscone Center - specifically, on the second floor of Moscone West.

We have M, L, and XL versions of all the designs right now - look for them in the book store half of the set up, which is just close to the escalators at the Moscone. And please tell your friends, naturellement.

GameSetNetwork: Unto The GDC Breach, My Friends

- So, the engines are revving up, and GDC is just a few hours away from getting off the ground. In fact, tomorrow morning you'll see Gamasutra's special GDC coverage page quickly getting up to speed with all kinds of goodness from the various Summits on Monday and Tuesday - before blasting into high gear from Wednesday to Friday with the main session content.

In fact, we've started off with GDC Conference Director Jamil Moledina's 'best-of' session picks, including some at the end there which you might want to check out for 'surprises' and other reveals, shh.

And GameSetWatch itself will be updating throughout the week with some lighthearted posts from me (when I have time!), and hopefully some neat crossposts from guest GSW editor Andy Baio of Waxy.org.

But in the mean time, let's have a quick wander through some of the top game design and interview articles Gamasutra and sister sites posted in the run-up to the show, eh? Here goes:

- Expressing The Future: Tetsuya Mizuguchi
"Q Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi is best known for titles spanning Space Channel 5 to Lumines, and following the release of Rez HD for XBLA, Gamasutra quizzed him in-depth on the game's significance and the future of gaming."

- Stories From The Sandbox
"In this in-depth design article, veteran game designer Sorens examines the 'sandbox game' genre, advocating - with plenty of practical examples - that "designers can and should do more to exploit... player-generated stories"."

- Designing Games That Are Accessible To Everyone
"In this Gamasutra feature, AudiOdyssey co-developer Glinert explains why usability and accessibility are vital for creating tomorrow's hits, focusing on design principles for targeting and satisfying the disabled gamer."

- GamesOnDeck 'Road To IGF Mobile' Features
Ahead of Tuesday's announcement of the first-ever IGF Mobile winners, check out Mathew Kumar's final chats with some of the neat independent mobile developers making innovative, good-looking or otherwise not-boring cellphone and other mobile device games - yay.

- Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette
"In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column on sociopolitical games, designer/author Ian Bogost analyzes the 'vignette' that is Hush, a student game which movingly chronicles the massacres of the Rwandan Civil War."

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 2/16/08


Waahh! It's getting warm outside in Houston already, but not warm enough for the damn cockroaches to leave me alone! What part of "I set off a bug bomb" don't you guys understand, you spiny bastards?!!

Things are busy as always in magazine land, and so click on for all the new mags that hit shelves in the past two weeks... with some exceptions. (The new EGM's on shelves but I've been receiving it very late in the mail lately. There's also a new issue of Beckett Massive Online Gamer but I can't be bothered to go out to the car to fetch it.)

Game Informer March 2008


Cover: Aliens: Colonial Marines

The cover is exclusive this and exclusive that, and it's pretty hot names, all of it, especially for a March 2008 issue of a video-game magazine. But the Aliens feature inside is about two spreads' worth of content stretched out over five; it reads like the author copied the PR guy's presentation verbatim, and there isn't even much commentary from the developers, save a few quotes here and there from creative director Brian Martel and design lead Kevin Schuler. The pictures are nice, of course, but the text is purely "IGN exclusive preview". The same deal with the Champions Online and Red Faction pieces, both of which has an enormous, boring text deck on their opening spreads that all but tells you to flip fo the next article.

Overall I wonder if the middle of the magazine could've been better off with the GTA4 piece headlining the Previews section getting bumped up to feature status. It describes a bunch of neat little pieces of minutiae I haven't read anywhere else, which maybe coulda made for a neat EGM or GamePro-style change of pace.

Connect is wonderful as always, the highlight for me being the interview with Eidos US head Bill Gardner (who looks a dead ringer for my father). EIC Andy McNamara's editorial also touches on the topic of review scores, since Shoe is hardly the only editor accused of payola in this business:

"People always seem to assume that we are somehow being paid for our reviews or that we simply don't play the games. The idea that these things are even brought up at all blows my mind... In my 17 years of being here at Game Informer we have never been banned from a company for a poor review, and there is a simple reason why. Companies may not always agree with what we say, but we back up our reviews with research and insight that explains our position and why we like or dislike a game... Sometimes you agree with us and sometimes you don't, but don't ever accuse us of not being honest or passionate about video games, because at the end of the day that's our job."

I have the impression this is a little easier for Andy to say than Shoe since just about the only controversially poor reviews I've seen from GI are for certain Nintendo series, and Nintendo is famously hands-off about this sort of thing. But an EIC's job is nothing if not stressful -- you can never satisfy everybody, or even most people.

Nintendo Power March 2008


Cover: Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World

Hey, when did Casey Loe start working for Nintendo Power? He wrote the cover piece this month and it's not bad, although the game's still early and the non-interview text falls into "I'm writing for IGN" mode pretty quickly itself. Other features on Speed Racer, Bully and baseball games are all-right reading in and of themselves, and this issue is also the one when NP finally gets around to its 2007 awards.

Magazine dorks unaware of NP's yearlong "20 Years of Nintendo Power" series are totally missing out, by the way. This month Scott talks about the best and worst covers in NP's history, where he mentions Zelda: OOT's cover as "one of the best" and the "Wi-Fi Connection" cover from January 2006 as "quite possibly our worst cover ever." It's great stuff because not only is he listing up this stuff, he's also explaining his choices from a publishing-industry perspective -- it's like a crash course in game magazine design, if you're sick of reading my crap.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine February 2008


Cover: Far Cry 2

This issue seems enormous, but it's 100 pages as always -- the thickness is thanks to Cellplay, a heavier page stock than Future's other mags (is this on purpose?), and a few advertisements and inserts printed on even heavier stuff. A piece on LittleBigPlanet promised last month didn't work out in the end, so instead we have a preview on Far Cry 2 which is pretty good readin' and a "2008 PS3 Game Planner" which is pretty obvious filler. (Yeah, I know, there are only two full-time editors and one full-time art guy who also writes, it's a drag, but...)

Most interesting are the front and back ends of the mag, where you get some more interactive content going -- and interview with the PSP marketing guy at SCEA, a look at the guy who did a remake of a GTA4 trailer in the GTASA engine, and so on. But still, get some more content going, gentlemen!

Official Xbox Magazine March 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Left 4 Dead

A giant preview-feature issue! Noooo! :-O This is the first time a Left 4 Dead piece has looked interesting enough to read, but man, when a mag preview is under 100 words and there's like 20 of 'em, woss the use? This, plus 2007 awards, plus Cellplay, make this OXM an issue without any real features to speak of, the first one in a long time. I hope next month's better!

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


Cover: Battlefield Heroes

This is my fave mag of the past two weeks. Again GFW is demonstrating a fervent, unflagging desire to make a magazine that does something nobody else does in print. So you've got a cover feature that goes beyond the PR bullet points and explores the trends behind DICE's design choices; you have a 2007 awards feature that sums up the previous year in important advances and moments rather than game titles (Play's roundup did this too and I apologize for not mentioning it earlier); you have a handful of small features about topics like MMOs for little kids and covering Middle Eastern conflicts in games.

I think this single issue represents many of the ways I'd like print mags to go, and I think all of you should pick it up for that reason alone.

Video Game Collector #9


It's been just about a year since Shawn Paul Jones and Chris Cavanaugh released an issue of this US-based classic game mag, one that got distribution in Blockbuster stores for a while (I don't know about now, though). This issue is being distributed to subscribers as more-or-less free by way of apology, and the editors promise a new and bigger issue very soon.

In terms of design VGC is undoubtedly a fanzine; in terms of content it's very text-heavy and the pictures are obviously all taken from Google searches; and half the magazine is still useless checklists. Retro Gamer out of the UK is better than it in literally every way imaginable. Grr, grr, grr.

[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.]

Game Programming Tests - Fight Or Flight?

- [In this detailed opinion piece, veteran programmer Jake Simpson explains the 'most loathed' game programmer tests often used as part of game industry interviews, outlining possible methods and his recommendations for good results on both sides.]

Programmer tests are generally one of the most loathed parts of the interview process, on both sides. But every game programmer interview should include some kind of test to make sure the applicant can walk the walk as well as talk the talk.

There are a few types of tests a programming applicant can expect to see. The first is a pre-interview test, which may be given by email and may either come before or in conjunction with a phone interview or screening.

The second is an in-house test, which is given as part of the face-to-face interview and is completed on the spot.

The last type is a take-home test that's given after the interview, which asks the candidate to complete longer assignments that are usually very closely connected to the day-to-day work the applicant can expect to see when employed, although these are more generally given to content creators (creating a level and so on) than to programmers.

How these tests are handled matters immensely, both for the candidate being grilled and the panel of smug arms-folded engineers doing the grilling. Are the interviewers asking the right questions to get the answers they need to make a good judgment call? Or are they just trotting out their favorite trick questions so they can feel vaguely clever that they know the answers and the applicant doesn't?

Now from the point of view of the technical testing, this engineer is firmly of the opinion that pre-testing is the way to test basic programming competence.

With most job applicants, the interviewers have only one day in which to base a judgment call that can impact the applicant's life. Changing jobs can often mean moving, packing up family and so on -- and for the interviewers too, since they'll be working with the new hire day in and day out for possibly years.

Sticking an applicant in a room to complete a technical written test, letting her chew her pencil and desperately try to remember what C++ operators can't be overloaded, is probably not the best use of that small amount of time.

Technical tests need to be like filters. They need to help the hiring company figure out which applicants they should spend their time and money on bringing in house.

Be aware though, that this process is negative filtering. Someone who does well on a technical test isn't necessarily a good programmer and won't necessarily fit with the group, but someone who does poorly definitely won't be a good programmer.

The idea is to find out whether that someone at least sounds technically competent before they set foot in the studio. At that point, the hiring company is making a few assumptions about the person and can safely move along to other things when the interviewee shows up.

What is a Written Technical Test?

The first thing is to understand the purpose of a written technical test. Its purpose is to

1. test domain knowledge
2. test general programming acumen and
3. give the interviewers an idea of the candidate's experience.

It's not designed to reveal how applicants think, uncover their deep knowledge of STL edge case implementations, or see how they react to logic problems.

What's in this Mythical Written Test?

Written tests usually contain a range of questions. They typically include:

* algorithmic questions ("Write a function to do such-and-such.")
* language questions ("What's the construction order of an inherited class?" - whatever that language is)
* domain-specific questions ("What does a vertex/pixel shader do?" "What's the equation for specular lighting?")
* and basic trig math ("What's a dot product, and what is it used for?").

When it comes to the basic trig math questions, it's considered good practice to allow the candidate to write solutions to functional problems in a given range of languages rather than just C++ or C#.

Domain-specific questions are usually broken up into several sections, which might ask the applicant to answer all the questions in just one of these sections, since it's not right to expect graphics programmers to understand A*, for example. The domain-specific stuff is the hardest to write since only the hiring team knows what their studio requires. Sometimes questions can even be written for the specific person being interviewed.

How deep the questions go is a shop-by-shop decision. But be aware that just because the quiz-makers can answer their own questions doesn't mean they should expect the average programmer out there to be able to as well. This can be a problem in some programming tests, and applicants shouldn't be discouraged if they encounter this problem. It's not about (or at least it shouldn't be about) how clever the test maker is. It's about how clever the company expects its prospective employees to be.

Another problem that sometimes arises in programming tests is a logic bomb trick question. A classic example is a question that asks about the weight of an anchor in and out of a boat. With these kinds of questions, either the respondent has heard the riddle before or hasn't, and either knows the answer or doesn't. Because most respondents can't work out the solutions on the spot, the questioners don't get anything out of asking -- except maybe a little power trip. Plus, nothing is gained if the respondent does answer correctly.

When I create a programmer test, I tend to intersperse some essay questions with code ones, requiring the candidate to use his or her own voice in some of the responses.

Some applicants will cut and paste directly from the internet, which is what the essay tests are designed to catch - mostly direct cut and pastes are obvious since the style and verbiage drastically changes in each answer. Even if the applicant converts other peoples answers into his own words, that's ok, because you have to understand the answer in order to do that, which is what the test is about in the first place.

Speaking of the internet ... Some companies administer take-at-home tests, which some people fear allows the job candidates to look up answers. Well, sure, but that's fine. That's how they're going to be working day to day, by looking stuff up, so why not let them do it on a test, too?

A good programmer is not defined by whether she remembers the code for a dot product; it's defined in how she uses it. There's definitely some value to programmers who understand the root of what the equation means, but that's very hard to test in a written exam. That kind of stuff needs to be done on site.

What to Expect

Timed tests should be the norm, whether given in-house, via email, or as a take-home exam. When not done on site, these timed tests may give the interviewee a few hours or even a full day to turn the test around. Companies generally don't give applicants more than a day or two to complete them, as the goal is for the applicant to be able to solve the problems or look up the answers independently, not troll the internet for days on end or have someone else answer the questions for them.

Something else applicants might see is a section on each question that asks how long the candidate predicted it would take to answer the question, how long it actually took, and the relevance they judged the question to have. Applicants may be asked to send back answers to their "predictions" immediately so that they cannot go back over them afterward and make the answer reflect the actual time taken.

A feedback section for open comments might also appear. These sections give the employer further clues as to how the candidates think and communicate, as well as giving direction to how they can more finely tune the test in the future.

Finally, the most important thing from the employer's perspective is to be able to interpret the results. What do the answers mean? Only the exam-makers can judge what level of answers are accepted. Companies that are very experienced at giving programmer tests often have several different people grade the tests rather than just one, which helps to ensure that the grading is fair.

[Jake Simpson has been in the industry for longer than he cares to remember, although if he starts waxing on about working on Elisa, just buy him another beer and tell him to stop talking rubbish. He's been involved in making games for everything from the Commodore 64 all the way to the modern PC, with stops along the way to work on arcade machines for Midway in its golden era. Currently he works for Linden Lab making a second life for everyone, although as he confesses he often has his hands full with just the first one. Email him at jakesimpson100(at)yahoo.com or through his blog http://blog.jakeworld.org/.]

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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