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March 29, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Valve In The Mountain

- Even though you'll see a fair amount of cross-posting between GameSetWatch and big sister site Gamasutra nowadays - at least on the non-link 'opinion' and quirkier stuff - there's still plenty of original content on Gamasutra and sister sites like Game Career Guide of interest to you good folks.

This time around - interviews with the Valve folks behind Portal, a fun look at Super Mario Galaxy's gravity system, Tom Buscaglia on the symbiotic relationship between game developer and his trusty lawyer, and lots more - as follows:

- Still Alive: Kim Swift And Erik Wolpaw Talk Portal
"Kim Swift and Erik Wolpaw are the lead designer and lead writer of Valve's Portal, a game you may have heard of - and in this Gamasutra interview, they go into detail on the game's creation, director's commentary, and, uh, 'time to crate'."

- Game Law: Man's Best Friend Sometimes Bites
"Buscaglia's latest 'Game Law' column sees him suggesting that "just like a kid and a dog, every game studio should have its pet lawyer to keep it safe and secure" - contributing key training tips for both canine and human sides."

- Q&A: Taito's Fujita On Mobile Consolidation, iPod Hopes
"Following up on a recent interview, Gamasutra catches up with Taito U.S. rep Keiji Fujita to discuss the consolidating cellphone game market, Taito games on Apple's iPod hardware, and Square Enix publishing Taito DS games in the West."

- Games Demystified: Super Mario Galaxy
"Want to see how Mario Galaxy created its unique gravity-based physics effects for the in-game planets? Developer Alessi analyzes and reproduces the same concepts with a playable game prototype and source code."

- Student Postmortem: The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom
"An Edward Gorey-like, silent film-inspired art style and the looping of recorded game play mark the USC student game The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom, and, in the latest feature for GameCareerGuide, the team exposes how the distinctive title blossomed in a university setting."

- Resolve Your Resolves
"In this in-depth technical article, Gruen & Story examine anti-aliasing in games, explaining how you can reduce 'jaggies' in your PC title, and save frame-rate, by using many less post-processing passes."

- China Angle: 'China Games And The Troubles'
"In Gamasutra's latest China Angle column, Frank Yu says that while China's online population is booming, the games industry is growing increasingly nervous about government crackdowns following the shuttering of online video sites, and looks at recent controversy over the Beijing Olympics website's co-option of some casual games."

- Y Control: Joe Ybarra On Cheyenne Mountain's Massive Plans
"Cheyenne Mountain exec Joe Ybarra's career has evolved from The Bard's Tale to the Stargate Worlds MMO, and Gamasutra talks to him about the Arizona developer's surprising four teams and multiple MMOs in development."

- Educational Feature: The Fun Instinct
"Game designers need to have an intuitive sense of what is fun, and Spin Master lead designer Tim Lang says you don't have to be born with that trait -- it can be learned. In the latest feature for GameCareerGuide.com, Lang formulates a system for acquiring a fun instinct -- or nurturing ones that already exist."

Quiz Me Qwik: Forumwarz' Robin Ward On Launching A Net.Culture Game

forumwarz.jpg['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subject in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time - the wonderfully odd Web-based net.culture pastiche Forumwarz.]

Browser based game Forumwarz has done a pretty good job of drawing the attention of those who spend their time wallowing in Net culture. Small wonder, really: t's a sharp parody of the many negatives and positives out there, from furries to Boing Boing and 4chan, all wrapped up in a slick self-contained imitation of the web.

There's Sentrillion, the Google-alike search engine, sTalk and Tubmail, the Gmail and Gmail Chat equivalents. Kind of like a more sophisticated version of the front-end to PS2 RPG .hack, except that it's actually fun to play. Oh, and it's all rather funny too.

Then there's the gameplay, a sort of turn-based RPG style that sees players using various methods of annoyance to take down forums, depending on their class. It's bra shots and descriptions of sexual experiences for Camwhores, whining about parents and self-mutilation for Emo Kids and spoilers and “yo momma” jokes for Trolls. Maybe it's just an instilled obsession with level grinding, but it really is quite addictive.

GameSetWatch posted an interview with Robin “Evil Trout” Ward – developer Zombie Crotch Productions' only full time employee – a few weeks after the game's release.

With a little water under the bridge, and the second episode of story content on the way, we figured that now would be a good time to catch up with him and see what the reaction to the game has been like, and how it's affected the way the game's development is continuing:

GSW: What kinds of figures are you collecting about the site's use?

Robin Ward: For game balancing reasons we collect all sorts of information, like what attacks are the most popular for a given class, what the average level of a particular class for beating a forum is and pretty much anything we can think of under the sun.

We also record how long it takes people to finish our introduction sequence so we can tune it accordingly, and we do A/B testing on our homepage. The idea is by collecting lots of statistics, we can tune things in such a way that we create a larger and better user base.

GSW: Anything surprising?

RW: In terms of figures that surprised me, there are tons of those! I was quite surprised to see early on that the Camwhore class was the least popular. I somehow assumed that one would be much more popular. Those numbers have changed now, but it was interesting.

GSW: What are the user numbers at the moment?

RW: We've got 33,000 user accounts, and we get over 10,000 visits a day.

GSW: What kinds of numbers were you expecting at this point? Did you have projections?

RW: I looked around for data on the Internet about how many users games sites get at various times and I found it very difficult to find. So we really had no idea what to expect.

I'm pretty happy with the results do far.

GSW: What kind of feedback are you getting from users about the daily forum limit?

RW: It's what I call "noob complaint”. People come to the site, play for a couple of hours on their first day - which is how long it typically takes to go through all the fun stuff until you've been limited on day one - and bitch because they can't play more.

After a few days, people tend to get why it works that way. The game was designed to be played over several days, and we've timed certain events to happen on certain days.

By the time you reach the Domination end game, the forum visits become strategic moves against other players. Having a limit guarantees that your opponents can't just grind all day to beat you; they have to use the same amount of moves but in a smarter way.

Finally, for the players who don't care about competition, they can throw us a few of bucks and cheat their way right through that limit. Since the cheating has been in place, I've heard very few complaints about the visits.

GSW: Are many people taking advantage of that?

RW: Absolutely. The cheats are very popular as far as our "products" go!

GSW: Are you getting a lot of negative feedback from users regarding the content of Forumwarz? Does any of it surprise you, given the fact that you make it clear that the game is offensive from the outset?

RW: Almost none. One blogger started to review the game, then decided to stop because we spelled “Clans” with a K, as “Klans”. I frankly expected more, even with the whole typing in "I am not
offended easily" thing.

Creating a game on the Internet on our own gave us the liberty to make lots of low brow jokes and we definitely exercised it.

We did squeeze in a couple of very offensive things. The junk item "Mary Magdalene" is one such example. After Drach and I wrote that, I told him it was the most offensive thing we'd ever written. I did some litmus testing with friends as to whether they thought it was too much for us with mixed results, so we just published it in the game to see what would happen.

We've received nothing but praise for it! There's our surprise: our users want more offensive content.

fbook.jpg GSW: So that's what you'll be giving them in Episode 2?

RW: I don't think it's our mission statement for Episode 2, but we certainly won't hold back if we come up with something hilarious. It's more important to us to be funny than it is offensive.

GSW: What is the positive feedback generally commenting on?

RW: The things people seem to point out often are: our clever writing, our slick AJAX interface and our dedication to improving it over time.

GSW: Are you surprised by the level of attention you're getting from blogs and other media outlets?

RW: Yes, but not in the way you might think. I actually thought it would be much easier to get the word out about Forumwarz than it was. We created a spreadsheet of 70-odd blogs, news sites, reviewers that we thought would be interested in the game, and painstakingly went through the entire list emailing every single one.

I hate to admit it, but we receive maybe two responses from that effort, none very high profile. We were basically ignored by everyone.

We continued to hustle though, and with the help of our users we managed to get picked up by a high profile blogger, and then things spiralled from there.

You know the thing is, I don't blame the bloggers. They must receive so much spam from people saying "Look at my awesome product!”. I'm not surprised the majority of those emails are worth deleting.

And I know it wasn't our content, because we were in a situation where one of the high profile sites that featured us previously ignored two emails from us, and then posted it the second another blogger did.

GSW: There's probably a whole other discussion there about the issues raised by the blogging scene. How stable is the back-end proving? Have you had many issues on the technical side of things?

RW: Yes we've had many issues. I think every day we get slightly better at dealing with them. Our game was very stable in development and even during our beta phase, but once we started dealing with 50+ concurrent requests all sorts of new problems popped up related to that. It was also very hard to test for that given the small size of our team and resources.

Less than 1% of all requests to Forumwarz fail, so the majority of players can play through it without any problems. But we're still committed to making things better.

GSW: Is the option for users to generate their own content proving popular?

RW: Very much. Our biggest problem with ForumBuildr v2.0 Beta is that people were creating too MUCH content, to the point where it was overwhelming for others to go through it all. We've just started a new system where each player is scored based on the quality of the content they provide, so good players are encouraged to submit more and players with many bad submissions are encouraged to submit less.

We're only on our second week of this new system so it will be interesting to see how it works in the long term. I imagine further tweaks will always be necessary.

GSW: Do you think the user generated content is going to prove an important factor in the longevity of the game?

RW: Absolutely. Unfortunately it takes us a really long time to create content. Our users will always be able to play through it faster than we can create it. So we need to have ways for them to have fun even while we're not adding much to the Forumwarz universe.

forumwarz.jpg GSW: How is the development of Episode 2 coming along? Have you had to speed it up at all, given the response from users?

RW: It's coming along. We've definitely created some great content for it and I think people will really like it if we can deliver everything we want to. Having said that, if anything it's been slowed down due to our huge response from our users.

GSW: You mean you feel pressure to take on board everything you're hearing?

RW: Well, actually I disregard the majority of what I hear. I get hundreds of emails a day, and there's no way I could get to everything. In terms of supporting Episode 1, I try to address the areas that are causing users the most pain. Also, I try to add the features that I think will bolster the community.

It's very important that the current Forumwarz build runs smoothly and that people continue to have fun. As the only full time developer I've been spending a lot of time enhancing that aspect of things and so far I think people really appreciate it.

GSW: Is there a date that you're working at hitting?

RW: No comment!

GSW: Have you had commercial interest in the game?

RW: In what respect?

GSW: Well, I guess in terms of people showing an interest in the workings of the game, and in terms of using the model for something commercial. I think the game model would work pretty well on something like the DS or PSP - especially in terms of the way the story progresses.

RW: I think that there is a lot of room for big publishers to create web games. If we can create a game on a shoestring budget with a tiny team and get 30k users, imagine what a publisher could do with a decent sized team and their marketing resources.

There's a reason why downloadable games like Xbox Live, PSN and WiiWare are so popular with developers: the games don't cost $10M+ to develop. The barrier of entry for commercial games these days is so huge, it's no wonder that big publishers are looking for some way to alleviate that risk.

Also consider this: there is no certification process for web games, and a huge installed user base - think about how many web browsers there are in the world. Patches can be deployed within minutes. Sure, your interface is a lot more primitive, but there's a lot that can be done.

I wouldn't be surprised if some major companies started looking at web games seriously. Then again, predicting the future is a dangerous thing to do...

GSW: Could you see yourself licensing the technology to other companies or developers?

RW: I feel that the Forumwarz game engine is very specific to the game we've built in it. Having said that, if someone had a good idea for how to implement a different sort of game using it I'd love to hear it.

We do have at least one upcoming feature for Episode 2 that will be purposely more "licensable." So it's something we're considering on the side, but not actively.

GSW: I'm guessing that's something you're not going to expand upon, huh?

RW: It's not our goal to be a licensing company, but we'll certainly think about it as we go on!

GameSetLinks: Pinball To The Grave

- Now, let's start the weekend with some delightful GameSetLink-age, pwning the Internet and making esoteric links your friend since 2005, ish.

This time, Harvey Smith says nice things about Tale Of Tales' latest indie title, James Kochalka advocates for games and kids going well together, and all kinds of other awesomeness occurs. Like this:

witchboy.net » Blog Archive » stones flowers
Harvey Smith critiques Tale Of Tales' 'The Graveyard' (pictured), intriguingly.

Business Week: 'Gaming Trends: 2008'
With quotes from Leigh, even!

Subatomic Brainfreeze: KINGS OF POWER 4 BILLION %
'So yeah, you guys may or may not know about Paul Robertson, but either way, it is clear to me that you should.'

Manifesto Games seeks venture round for indie games » VentureBeat
I love Manifesto, but I think indie is still selective, and venture funding isn't well suited to that.

Oxygen Games - 'Powershot Pinball Constructor'
Nice, Pinball Construction Kit new-style for DS, though I wonder if it has true global sharing - via Packratshow.

Gamasutra - Post-GDC: Aonuma's Reflections On Zelda
Check out the comments for the super DUPER bizarre... fan fiction?

American Elf: 'Level Up!'
The awesome GSW-reading cartoonist/artist/musician James Kochalka on why games and kids mix in good, fantastical ways.

Conserve Our Ocean Legacy: Ocean Survivor Game
A pointed anti-overfishing message via a Flash game - bravo.

Feature Article: The Long Road To High-Def Gaming | High-Def Digest
The history of enhanced resolutions in games!

Yahoo Auctions Japan - a special Pokemon GB auction
Gotta catch em all!

March 28, 2008

Interview: Ugobe's Sosoka On Pleo's Game Design Philosophy

- GameSetWatch recently visited with Pleo, a robotic dinosaur that its developers, Ugobe, call a "life form." We found it quite complex – sensors under the rubbery skin respond to touch, and Pleo is sensitive to light, sound, obstacles and a variety of interaction.

Out of the box, it "knows" a variety of different behaviors, and Ugobe has been releasing more Pleo behaviors accessible with an SD card.

A lot of interaction with the little creature, then, is surprisingly game-like; Pleo’s manual is minimized, prioritizing interaction and discovery rather than specific instructions on how to get it to do various things.

The developer intends to expose the Pawn-based SDK to developers, to allow them to create, share and elaborate on Pleo behaviors. When GameSetWatch's Leigh Alexander spoke to Ugobe chief technical officer John Sosoka, he said he sees Pleo as… a new development platform for gaming?

A Real-World NPC

"We draw from game design," Sosoka said enthusiastically, recalling his experience seeing Davidson and Co. (Math Blaster) through the CD-ROM multimedia revolution, and supporting some contract designers as they formed Silicon & Synapse – the company that would become Blizzard Entertainment. "We’re used to that world," added Sosoka, "So there is a piece of that. This is the first time I got to combine my robotics experience with my game design experience."

He likens developing Pleo to "building this really cool NPC that exists in the real world." Non-player character AI is getting more and more sophisticated with time, he notes, and part of the appeal for players is discovering just how deep that sophistication runs, and figuring out the rules – and the absence thereof – of interaction with those NPCs through experimentation. Like Pleo, says Sosoka, they do things you expect, and then you gradually come to understand what special, unexpected things they can do, too.

"Pleo is those things wrapped together," Sosoka explains. "It’s kind of like an animal and kind of like an NPC. And so, the design issues are along those lines. Being able to have as many of the things that you can expect if it were an actual animal… and then you want to have the way that you interact change depending on what’s going on so, you can build more depth of experience."

Developing The Presence

We told Sosoka some of the highlights of our experience with Pleo: At times we were pleasantly surprised at Pleo’s unexpected responsiveness, like when he seemed to approach the TV to sing and dance during a game of Guitar Hero. At other times, we weren’t sure whether he was reacting to us or not.

Sosoka admitted Pleo is still a work in progress, comparing developing it to the gradual learning curve that occurs in the game industry when new engines and platforms are introduced; the initial efforts are exploratory, and later efforts reflect refinement born of familiarity. "Pleo is a little of a cartoon sketch of what we expect the experience to be," he said.

Beyond the NPC concept, Sosoka has an interesting view of the Pleo experience in the context of video games. "One of the things that really strikes me is that there is something incredibly powerful about being in your physical world, and being tactile, that is just different from games," he says. "Much as I love games, there’s something different about it being in your physical space."

Continues Sosoka, "One example I use lately is… that you play the same game with a Wii controller that you played on the computer, and it’s a different experience. Just that little tiny experience makes it fundamentally different because you’re engaging other senses… kinesthetics and all those other things. So with Pleo, we’re going down that path of creating this new technology… this is a big space to explore and we’ve all kinds of opportunity to explore it."

A New Platform For Game Experiences?

In that vein, Sosoka hopes to share Pleo’s technology platform openly with other developers. "We designed things in order to allow you to control it through its USB cord, you can control every motor. And then we built a little virtual machine and a little scripting in, like you would in a game, but instead of using Lua and Python – we didn’t have space – we used one called Pawn. We built this virtual machine in from scratch, and built the high-level behaviors on top of that to make sure that it really worked, instead of just building it in for other people to use. We actually use that for the high-level stuff."

Then, the team set it up so that users can write their own scripts in Pawn and create their own sound, animation and other behaviors. Sosoka also worked with universities to get some units into human-robot interaction study programs. "We’re working now in going out to art schools and animation schools for people to experiment with," he adds.

Sosoka hopes that providing the tools will help other people to "use Pleo for something wildly different from what we’re doing." Ultimately, he hopes they will explore what it means to create a game experience with a component of interaction in the physical world "I think that this is a really cool thing that you can do using a lot of the same skills you’ve already developed for game design," Sosoka says excitedly. "Pleos can talk to each other through infrared. You could do kind of interesting, coordinated things… performances, cool stuff like that, and just make it up… and on an SD card, you have room for lots of content."

"This could be a new kind of game platform," Sosoka states. "Normally the way we think about games is you build the whole world. It’s really interesting… to think about taking all your skills from building a NPC or a hero character, and create one that can see things and can hear things and can detect things and can feel things. And you have this chance to build a character in the game -- except you don’t really build the game. The ‘game’ is your world."

"Ultimately," he concludes, "I’d love it if people could develop their own personalities for these life forms… but if they could develop their own content, we could provide a mechanism for people who didn’t want to share it, but wanted to develop commercial content – we’d love to develop an avenue for making that happen. We could potentially have developers that could use this as a small game platform. That would be fun for us."

Gamasutra Webcast To Feature Introversion On Procedural Content

-[Wanted to mention this HP/Intel-sponsored webcast Q&A sister site Gamasutra is running next week - with our own Brandon Sheffield quizzing Introversion's Chris Delay on procedural content - should be interesting, we hope, and there will be an archive after the fact if you can't make it to ask questions in real-time, boo.]

Gamasutra is reminding readers of its first-ever live webcast Q&A for Wednesday, April 2nd at 11am PST, with Introversion Software (Darwinia) co-founder Chris Delay being quizzed on procedural content in the company's upcoming titles such as Subversion.

Interested parties can now register for the event, which is sponsored by major technology companies HP and Intel, and also includes a second presentation from Paul Campbell, founder of HP Gaming Business, discussing the company's 'create, power, play' motto.

In addition, those Gamasutra users attending the event on April 2nd who fill out a post-event survey will be entered into a drawing for an HP L3065 30” Flat Panel Monitor.

In the starting in-depth technical Q&A, Introversion Software co-founder and lead architect Chris Delay (Darwinia, Defcon) will discuss the use of procedural algorithms and techniques to create assets in the company's thus-far mysterious Subversion.

Introversion has previously discussed procedural content as part of an exclusive GameCareerGuide.com article on the subject, explaining of its use of it at the time:

"With each new generation of console, the costs of creating game content, in terms of both time and money, are increasing at a tremendous rate, and it is just unfeasible for a small developer to be able to keep up with such escalation. This is where Procedural Content Generation comes in handy. Procedural content is content that has been created by a computer algorithm rather than custom made by an artist. This content can be created completely dynamically, or can be generated based on some external input, from a user, or a text file, for example.

Let’s say that, as an independent developer, you wanted to make a game in a similar vain to GTA3. You could spend months working on a single city, adding buildings and texturing the world, or you could spend a few weeks working on a way of creating these cities procedurally, the end result of which would be that you have an almost infinite number of cities that you can play through, with a vastly reduced development time.

You might argue that a city created in this way would be far less detailed than one created by hand, but that all depends on how much effort you wanted to put into your dynamic content. Your dynamic buildings could be simple boxes, with textured windows and doors, or you could have the buildings include real, dynamically generated windows based on the size and architecture of your building, which could then be textured depending on the neighbourhood that it is placed in."

The included pictures show that, for Introversion, "after a week's work, we now have a way of generating fairly convincing city layouts with dynamic buildings, whose size is dependent on the population density of that area of the city."

These and other discussions will be on show at the event, during which users will be able to use chat capabilities to answer polls and ask questions in real-time. The event will also be archived for later viewing, and interested viewers can register now for the webcast.

@Play: The Delights Of Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer DS

Roguelike column thumbnail ['@ Play' is a kinda-sorta bi-weekly column by John Harris which discusses the history, present and future of the Roguelike dungeon exploring genre.]

(Note: screenshots from the Super Famicom fan-translated version.)

In recognition of the U.S. release, after more than ten years since its Super Famicom origin, of the DS version Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, our column again focuses on that game.

It's very long this time, and divided into three parts:
Part 1 is an introduction to the game for people who have never played roguelikes before. There have been so many negative reviews of this game, written by people who should really know better, that I think a little consciousness-raising is called for. That's what Part 1 is about.

Part 2 is a guide to first-timers to help ease their first trip through Kobami Vally and Table Mountain.

If this seems like rather a lot, well, it is. I was encouraged to see that it's finally available in local department stores! I hope this means that it's selling better than expected. It seems that there's already a Wii update of Shiren in Japan. That could very well be the coolest cool thing of all... just maybe, if the DS version does well, they might consider localizing that game too?

Well, let's not get our hopes up, shall we?

(This column is focused mostly on new players. If you're an old-hand with the Super Famicom game, here's a list of some of the differences between it and the DS version: Download file. Thanks to Teasel from the NeoGAF forums and Gabikun of GameFAQs for some of the items. Further thanks to Lord Gek for pointing me to Gabikun's list.)

Part 1: Why You Should Play This Game

What is it that reviewers have against Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer?

"Everything about this game is excruciatingly painful to anyone who associates the words “video game” with fun and exciting."

I take serious issue with dismissing the game as "painful." Getting killed in ludicrous ways is part of the fun.

"However, due to the turn-based nature of the game, the entire experience feels stop-and-go. Attacking enemies is a quick, no frills affair with only the minimal amount of animations. Granted, this is a port of a Super Nintendo game, but even other SNES RPGs managed to have a little more pizzazz. When we bust out a Lightning Staff or breathe fire thanks to Dragon Herb, we certainly wouldn't mind a smidge more style. We just lit some undead soldier on fire after all, give us something to "ooh and ah" over!"

If this guy played an ASCII roguelike it'd probably burn his eyes. And I can't believe he is criticizing a game for being "stop-and-go." I can recognize that he's trying to say something unique, but what does that even mean?

"On the downside, the dungeon generation can be moronic and if Shiren dies, he loses everything - all the items, money, and powers he attained through hours of questing are gone. Games, in general, have gotten easier since this title was originally released on the SNES and this unforgiving style simply won't fly with players raised on newer games."

Re: moronic, realism is less important than being fun, and the layout of the dungeon levels is less important than what they contain. The fact that games have gotten easier is not seen, universally, as a good thing, even among people who only recently started playing. There must be some reason torture games like I Wanna Be The Guy have gained in popularity, and the main quest of Shiren, while hard, is far from torturous.

"All told, there’s not much special to Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer. The game is boring in the early going, and then it becomes scary. Who wants to explore so badly that they’ll die and go back to zero? This could be yet another example of a product that makes much more sense in the region in which it was initially created. And so, I’d suggest Shiren go back to Japan."

The boring early levels are there for fortify the player character for the later levels. Players need to use the treasure found in the first half of the game to survive the second half. This is all by design.

"Imagine if Satan were to create a video game. If he did, he’d probably join forces with Chunsoft to create Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer.
The game is a roguelike dungeon crawler that spews Japanese gaming out of every orifice imaginable.[...]"

(Sega Nerds)

The reviewer misspeaks: roguelikes are really more Cthulhu's bag. "Spewing Japanese gaming" sounds like something I did when I watched a roommate play through Kingdom Hearts. I won't touch upon the "every orifice imaginable" phrasing, except to say that my nightmares feature some pretty funky orifices, and only a few of them show up in Shiren.

With all these reviewers lining up to take shots at the game, you'd almost think it was already out for the Wii....

I can't fault them to some extent, as roguelikes are still kind of obscure. (I hope that @Play will eventually help to alleviate this condition.) But to hear people whose job it is to recommend games for people to play rag on one of my favorites of all time, and I've played a great many, is kind of infuriating. And it looks like I'm not the only one who really likes it, either. So the best thing I can do, as I see it, is present my own view. Here it is.

The first thing you should know about Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, and something that I wish each of the above reviewers had been told before they wrote their pieces, is that it is a game.

That may seem like an obvious statement, but it's not as simple a declaration as it may first appear. While the G in RPG stands for Game, many are not games in the strictest sense: they care more about storytelling than play, and there is no real way to lose. The definition of game has been only recently expanded to cover the kinds of things most CRPGs are. Some still hold that opinion even now: the kinds of person who turn their nose up at RPGs are probably influenced by those old definitions.

In a Final Fantasy or a Dragon Quest, if your party is wiped out it is not a real failure, for you can always return to your last save. So long as the player doesn't do something grossly stupid, like selling all his equipment and wandering the wilds naked, he's not going to fail at the quest. Meanwhile, Shiren the Wanderer is a game in a more fundamental sense, the sense that you can actually lose at it, and probably will many times before you earn your first win. While it is not real-time, it is still much like a classic arcade game, where games nearly always end by losing. As Dwarf Fortress reminds us, losing can be fun.

But it is still a role-playing game. It and other roguelikes arguably have better claim to that title than other CRPGs. There are games that got inspiration from the earliest incarnations of Dungeons & Dragons, but even now roguelike games, with their "no do-overs" policy, their dependence on player preparation, strategy and volition, and their opportunities for creative play more profound than just hitting the X button repeatedly, feels more like a pen-and-paper RPG session than many Western RPGs, and nearly all other Japanese ones.

The word volition up there isn't used casually, and it gets to the core of what makes roguelikes and traditional CRPGs, which both spring from the same ideas and ancestor games, so different from each other. In traditional games, the player is told, pretty much, exactly what to do and where to go. There may be some subquests, but the focus is on the main story, and there's not a lot the player can do to affect the route he will have to take. Roguelikes require that the player, instead, perceive what his needs are himself, take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves, and make his own way through the dungeon. You cannot play a roguelike passively, letting a story wash over you. You must drive yourself forward and accomplish the game.

Of all roguelike RPGs, Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer may be the best first-time introduction that has yet been created. It is challenging, but not overwhelmingly so once you learn the rules and how to escape from trouble. While new players still tend to die a lot, they can still make some progress in each game that makes later attempts easier, the artwork, animation and writing are entertaining enough that players can have fun even if they die, the controls are much simpler than the every-key-does-something norm of the genre, and there are few "instadeaths" compared to a game like Nethack.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer is a DS game, but it is based on a Super Famicom game released over ten years ago that was never released outside of Japan. The dungeons are random, but there is a logic to what happens in them. This logic means it is a game in which amazing things can happen: a monster that attacks the player with an explosion might accidentally kill another monster, thus gaining a level, and becoming a far deadlier monster in the process.

Back in 1996, a guy named Alan Kwan wrote up a couple of stories about the game, based on his own playing, and posted them to Usenet. These stories are how I first learned about the game, and they are still excellent introductions. If you really want to know what playing it feels like I cannot recommend them more highly:
Story 1: Dark Owls, Super Tanks and Menbells
Story 2: Theft, Master Chickens, and Staves of Misfortune

I also devoted three columns to the SNES Shiren some months ago, that used lots of screenshots and explanatory captions to describe the game. Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3

Some things Shiren the Wanderer is not:

  • It is not impossible. People do win this game. You'll win too if you stick with it, at least the main Table Mountain quest, I guarantee it.
  • It is not mindless. Far from it, it requires far more strategy than nearly any other non-roguelike RPG.
  • It is not badly made. Shiren the Wanderer is really very well-designed. It has the tightest core game system of any top-tier roguelike other than Rogue itself. Nearly every item, even supposedly bad ones, has a purpose. Every monster, even those with tricky attacks and abilities, have strategic ways to make them less dangerous, even harmless.
  • It is not unfair. The great majority of situations have ways out of them. Sometimes, it is true, you may have to make a sacrifice, or the way out is not to have gotten into it to begin with, but there are usually ways to have seen them coming. With good planning and economical use of resources, you can do a lot to ensure you'll have the tools to survive the later half of the game.
  • It is likely not the same as other random dungeon games you may have played. Although nearly all random dungeon games are inspired by roguelikes, many of them neglect important features. Even among roguelikes, Shiren's a bit special. In the taxonomy of the genre, it's closer to being a Hack-like game than a 'Band, but it's really closest to Rogue itself.

Part 2: For New Players

Some tips for players going through Table Mountain for the first time:

The beginning of roguelike wisdom is in recognizing critical moments. A critical moment is a turn in which, if you don't do something important, you may die before you get your next turn. For example, if you're next to an enemy who has just hit you for 20 damage, and you have less than 20 HP left, that is a critical moment because you may die if it gets another attack. If you swing and try to kill the monster, you might either not do enough to finish it or miss, in which case if he doesn't miss you may take 20 HP of damage. Even if you know you could kill the enemy with one blow nine times out of ten, you should not take that chance unless you can certainly kill it or have no alternative. There are lots of monsters but only one Shiren, so over the course of the adventure luck tends to favor the enemy.

That is a simple example, but there are so many special monster abilities that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize danger. Most critical moments in this game are caused by damage done by monsters. One of the most reliable responses to a critical moment caused by damage is to push a Chiropractic Jar, which fills up your hit points. These jars are common and can be used multiple times each, make healing easy if you have a spare turn, and you can't heal yourself if you're dead. If in doubt, heal.

If you often find yourself running out of food, consider trying these things:

  • There is a free Big Riceball available from talking to a guy across the counter in the tavern in Canyon Village. After adventuring some and finishing some subquests, you can eventually get free free fill-ups in Mountaintop Town.
  • Sometimes completing one of Fay's Puzzles is worth a free riceball.
  • There are ways to get a little extra fullness without eating a riceball. Herbs and meat give you 5% and 10% fullness, respectively.
  • The longer you wait before eating a Big Riceball, the more use you get out of it. In a sense, every percentage point a source of fullness will take you over maximum is wasted food. It's usually best to wait until you're actually starving before eating it.
  • Riceballs are harmed by Rotten Traps unless they're in some container. With a little searching, quite suitable containers are not hard to come across and identify.
  • While finding riceballs in the dungeon is random, there are monsters in the game that make food, and monsters are less random than items. Making effective use of them is tricky, but not hard with a little thought.
  • There are two guaranteed shops in the game that often have riceballs in them.
  • Staying at an inn fills up your hunger meter. If you're approaching a town with an inn in it, you should probably not eat a riceball, but wait until town. New to the DS game, you can leave these towns and return to them to regenerate their stock.
  • Don't wander around too much. You get hungry as turns pass, and walking around is how most turns are wasted. Don't take the long way around a dungeon level if you can help it, don't waste too much time healing up, don't run from fights more than you have to, and don't spend a lot of time leveling up.
  • Some monsters make you hungrier as a special attack. Deal with them quickly to save your stomach.
  • Finally, if you're really out of food, you can still make do for a few turns. Running out of fullness doesn't mean you die instantly, you just are unable to heal naturally and lose one HP a turn until you eat. If you have reliable means of healing, you can keep going for a short while. If you're getting near the end but your food stores are depleted, a sprint to the stairs can be effective. I've won a game while in starvation mode.

If you've got an extra stuff, use excess resources first. Dragon Herbs are one of the more useful items, able to destroy most single monsters in one turn, but if you have several of them they should be an early recourse in a tricky situation.

If your inventory is full and you really want to pick up another item you might have to make a hard decision as to what to take with you and what to leave behind. One option is, instead of just dropping something, think if something you're carrying can be usefully used up first. Of special note is when you're carrying Medicinal Herbs, Restoration Herbs and Chiropractic Jars. Chiropractic Jars are the best healing items in the game: they fill all your hitpoints instead of 100 at most, and they can each be used multiple times. If you have several Chiropractic Jars you're probably set as far as healing goes. In this case, if you're suffering from full pockets, consider eating the Medicinal Herbs and Restoration Herbs when you're at full hitpoints. This both frees up inventory space and increases your maximum hit points by a small amount. Of courfse, if you haven't found any Chiropractic Jars you'll need those herbs for healing.

One of the hint-providing characters in the game offers a tip that makes it sound like all shields make you hungrier but the Armor Ward shield makes you more hungry than usual, and Hide Shields make you less. This is not exactly true. Most Shields don't affect your hunger rate at all. Only the Armor Ward shield makes you more hungry, and the Hide Shield makes you less hungry than even if you had no shield. Without a shield, you lose one fullness point every 10 turns, but with a Hide Shield you lose one every 20.

The walls in dungeons are interesting because, unlike with water, trees or pits, you cannot cut across their corners by moving diagonally, either to move or attack with a weapon. This means, if you're standing in a doorway, usually only one monster can attack you. But a few monsters have attacks that can hit through corners, particularly any monster with a flame attack. While most swords cannot attack across wall corners, the Razor Wind sword can, as well as arrows, staff blasts and thrown items.

In a tight spot, one-use items should be used before wands. Shiren has very limited inventory space, and a wand is potentially several escapes in one slot while a Dragon Herb is only one. There are plenty of exceptions to this though: Dragon Herbs are the most powerful instant damage item, and some scrolls, such as Blastwave, Confusion and Sleep, can affect a whole room.

Blastwave Scrolls become less useful for clearing our Monster Houses later on. In Table Mountain, even reading two such scrolls will probably not clear a Monster House, although it'll probably make it much easier to kill the monsters in melee. A FAQ for the SNES version on GameFAQs claims that reading a Powerup Scroll before reading a Blastwave increases its power. I have yet to confirm this, however. (It also says that reading multiple Powerup Scrolls have a cumulative effect.)

Keep food in Jars of Holding to protect them from Rotten traps.

Most item-destroying enemies cannot destroy your currently-used equipment.
Curse Girls & family can now curse any item. Non-equipment cursed items cannot be used, but can still be thrown.

Don't keep all your food in one jar, so you don't lose access to all your food because of one inopportune curse.

If you really need the contents of a cursed Jar of Holding, you can get your stuff back by throwing it at a wall. The jar will break and your stuff will be released onto the floor. But if you can wait, it's best to use a Scroll of Blessing so you can keep the jar.

The Fowl family of enemies can electrify items. Charged items cannot be used, dropped or thrown, and vanish once off the floor. It's unknown, currently, if there is a way to rescue a charged item before it evaporates. Fowl-class enemies don't seem to be able to affect jars, but this may be inaccurate.

Rice Changers CAN affect jars. Make an effort to kill them before they get into melee range. If you're trapped, you can protect important items by dropping them, for Rice Changers can only transform stuff you're carrying. (Note, however, that Field Raiders also appear on the Rice Changer floors, and they can turn items on the ground into weeds.)

Here's a table of which monsters can affect which items, based on personal observation. I do not claim that it's perfectly accurate, especially for Fowl, but it seems to hold up for me:

Effect Equipment? Jars?
Fowl: Destroy N N
Rice Changer: Transform N Y
Curse Girl: Curse Y Y
Walrus: Steal N Y
Slime: Corrode Y, only N

When you hit a normal-speed enemy with a Wand of Sloth, slowing it down, you have one turn before it gets its next move. If you slowed it because it can kill you in one turn and it's adjacent, the best move to make is to step away from it, so it'll use its next move to catch up. Then you can kill it easily using hit-and-run tactics.

The most common wands, in order from most useful to least, are: Bufu, Paralysis, Postpone, Sloth, Doppelganger, Knockback, Lightning, Switching, and Steadiness. But each has particular instances where they excel: Doppelganger is the only wand that can potentially save you from a whole Monster House, although at the cost of allowing foes to promote. Lightning is good if you have no arrows. Switching is best in opportunistic situations, but can sometimes instantly get you from the middle of a Monster House to the door or staircase. Steadiness is hard to identify, but in the Table Mountain adventure it's usually the wand that doesn't cause anything to happen when swung at a monster.

One of the most frustrating situations in the game is being attacked by a wall-pass monster inside a wall. Monsters that can pass through walls are unique in that, while embedded, they can attack without you being able to hit them back! One of the most deadly later monsters, Death Angel, has double speed, double attacks AND wall-pass! If you're in a corridor and don't have a pickaxe, the only effective way to fight them is to move along the corridor, offering it free attacks, until, in the process of following you, it moves into the passage. Don't skimp on the healing if this happens to you.

Room-affecting scrolls, if not used in a room, work only on the spaces immediately surrounding Shiren. A notable exception to this is the Monster Scroll, which turns a room into a Monster House, complete with loot. If it's read in a corridor, the game will teleport Shiren to a room before it takes effect.

New to the DS version is the ability to go backward through the stairs, to previous levels, up to a point, but items usually aren't generated on the ground on such levels except in shops. But monsters that drop items upon death do still appear and leave loot behind, and if you go back a floor because you fell through a pitfall (which happens on the Table Mountain levels, which go up instead of down), then you WILL find items on that level.

One of the cooler things about the game that people don't suspect at first is that some items have special effects when thrown. Dragon Scrolls, when read, blast in front of Shiren with fire breath, but they also have a similar effect when thrown, and if thrown with a Pitcher's Armband they can affect a whole line of monsters. Bottomless Jars, if thrown and broken, create pitfall traps. Break a Walrus Jar and its walruses become monsters on the current level -- useful because they leave behind loot if killed before they steal from the player. If a Monster Jar is pressed, its monsters jump out and surround the player, but if the jar is thrown and broken the monsters are confused. If you really need to kill an enemy from a distance, you can throw spare weapons and shields. Finally, while the game suggests throwing staves if they are out of charges to get one last effect, it is possible, though rare, that a thrown staff will have no effect.

Three floors in the Table Mountain quest, in particular, are unusually dangerous and should be evacuated as soon as possible. Levels 15 and 16, the marsh right before Table Mountain, are the "drain floors." They have several monsters that can lower your strength, corrode equipment, destroy items and drain levels. The experience you could earn from defeating them, and even the loot you could get, is generally not worth the resources lost in exploring them, so my advice is to head through the exit as soon as you find it.

The other super-dangerous floor is 26, the Ravine of Illusions, a somewhat-open level containing Skull Wraiths. Skull Wraiths are the third level of the Skeleton Mage monster, and have much more dangerous wand effects. They can paralyze, confuse or put you to sleep, turn you into a monster or even a riceball, temporarily seal your inventory, and drain levels, all from a distance. Just being in line with a Skull Wraith is a critical moment: a single unlucky shot can end your game. If you get paralyzed or slept, they may well get the chance to get several more shots off on you before you get another turn. Skull Wraiths are among the most dangerous monsters in the game, and should be neutralized as soon as possible. If you paralyze one, it's recommended that you do NOT wake it up to kill it unless you can finish it immediately.

From 26 on to the end, the game spikes up in difficulty. In addition to Skull Wraiths, Dragons appear on these floors. Sprinting to the stairs is often a good idea.

To handle level 30: the boss monster, Tainted Insect, looks imposing and has a bucket full of hit points, but can be affected in all the ways the other monsters can be. In practice, the Skull Wraiths on this floor are much more threatening. But when the boss is killed, all the other monsters die as well, and the boss won't appear on later runs through Table Mountain.

In roguelike news....

The 7DRL Challenge has finished another competition, and as usual, a number of fascinating ideas have come out of it. In the past it's given us such clever games as DoomRL and ChessRogue. Among the winners this year is Fatherhood, a game without monsters where the player must save his homeland from flooding while tending to his three children; Numbers, a game that drills the player's math skills as he goes; and Tribe, a turnabout roguelike where the player leads a band of goblins against the adventurers that have long persecuted them. And in the tradition of taking a pre-existing video game and making a roguelike out of this, this year has given us MegamanRL....

Uh, Mega Man? What? Why? How?

About a month ago the Nethack community suffered a grievous blow when the largest public Nethack server, alt.org, went down, it seemed for good. Public Nethack servers are particularly awesome not just because all the players contribute to a shared high score list, but because people can encounter bones levels from folk they've never met, and it's even set up so that games-in-progress can be watched, and in-game mail be sent to players via Nethack's Mail Daemon monsters. All this via telnet. This is the place that has now hosted two games with scores that came in at the highest integer the game can count to. Welcome back alt.org!

GameSetLinks: Welcoming Captain McGrandpa!

- Be praised, the weekend is almost here, and with it a fresh batch of newly caught GameSetLinks, a wriggling and a jiggling on the Internet filament line, or summat.

Particularly fun here - the TIGSource 'Video Game Name Generator' entries are _all_ now available to play, former co-worker Frank is masterminding some potential silliness at GameTap, and Kudos creator Cliffski reveals the social meaning behind his virtual lottery tickets never paying out. And that's GameSetLinks, folks. Onward:

GameTap: 'Captain McGrandpa - Memory of the Forgotten'
Oo, 'mysterious' new April 1st debuting GameTap Original, eh?

The Independent Gaming Source: Video Game Name Generator game competition voting started
Wow, 48 entries? Tres impressive.

CNET Internal Memo: ‘Difficult Decisions’; Realignment; May Raise Capital For Foreign Ops | paidContent.org
Not sure if this affects GameSpot significantly.

Watch Castle Crashers levels made in real-time - Xbox 360 Fanboy
See Paladin draw!

MTV Multiplayer » Deciding The Fate of Dante and ‘Phoenix’ — How Capcom Predicts Game Sales
Interesting look at retail prediction methodology, pt.1.

The debate over videogame "addiction" | GameCritics.com
Academic journal discussions on the concept - intriguing stuff.

Cliffskis Mumblings...: WARNING - Do NOT attempt social commentary
Haha, the lottery ticket in indie life sim Kudos has zero chance of winning, to make a social point!

Christian Allen's Corner: Piracy Doesn't Matter? O....K....
'A certain PC title (not one I worked on) I looked at the online stats for sold around 300k in the first month after launch. Three days BEFORE the game launched…one MILLION people were playing online.'

GameVideos.com - Off-Road Velociraptor Safari '1UP Review'
A really enjoyable, slightly ranty avant-ish review of the weirdass game from the IGF co-organizers.

March 27, 2008

Opinion: Feel Lucky, Punk? The Game Writing Fallout

- [Think the reaction to Adam Maxwell's game writing article was over? Not so - Kelly Wand, the writer on the Dirty Harry game discussed in the original opinion piece, has penned an editorial explaining Harry's (mis)conception and why game writers matter.]

“A man’s got to know his limitations.” – Clint Eastwood as “Dirty” Harry Callahan

For the record, I like Adam Maxwell. As the writer in question to whom he refers in his piece (“The Case Against etc.”), I found our work relationship on Dirty Harry consistently constructive, courteous and professional.

We got along. Ironically (perhaps mistakenly), I gathered that he liked my actual contributions, so while his solitary focus on our collaboration as the “most compelling fact behind avoiding writers [sic]” came as a bit of a surprise, I’m reasonably, maybe naively, sure that he’s speaking from the heart and not just nursing bitter memories of a grandiosely ill-starred production. He was an oasis of sanity.

Usually in this biz, it’s egos that sink projects. I never got that vibe from Adam, and I think he’d agree that I too was always about the material. So even though he’s chosen to reference the experience as proof that writing in games is irrelevant to their success or quality, I genuinely believe he’s speaking from the heart.

I’ve heard this attitude before, from designers, producers, journalists, even other writer types. And every time I find it a remarkably revealing insight as to just how derisively they view the creative process in general and the legacy of electronic entertainment in particular. It’s indifference to mediocrity, usually posed as a loaded “either-or” analogy.

We writers face this a lot; it’s a hazard of the trade. But it does get to us. Many of you are probably too young to remember, but one time there was even a nationwide “strike” over the net financial value of professionally composed sentences.

And ultimately even the richest accountants in all the land were somewhat swayed that words matter at least a little – economically, anyway. Which puts them all ahead of Adam.

Record-Straightening 101

Adam seems to imply that having “3-4 hour” story meetings every week denied him the ability to focus on his myriad loftier more technical chores, and thus the game was never finished as a direct result of my time-consuming intrusions.

First off, these sessions rarely lasted longer than an hour, unless you count lunch, which I often skipped because I was usually up all night writing. A lot. In fact, page-per-day-wise, Harry was the most grueling wringer I've ever worked on. Nevertheless, I nailed every deadline, draft after draft, all of it vetted and re-vetted by multiple production companies and the devs themselves, writing and rewriting for six months until everything fizzled out and now there is a totally different game in development that we are not working on.

Not once during that entire interval did I ever manage to see a single playable build or even a finished level, after over a year and a half of development. Granted, I’m no designer but maybe, just maybe, the technical bog was tangentially related to the Collective having a higher turnover rate than a slaughterhouse kill-floor; I rarely saw the same level designer twice.

But let’s even give Adam his four hours a week. Is that more time and effort than he’d have spent with a quote-unquote designer covering story issues? Or than he’d have ideally devoted to writing it all himself? (For the record, he is an obscenely fast typist.)

Design, Writing Not Synonymous

Maybe so, since he considers writing too inconsequential to begrudge even that much. The crux of his piece is that writing is an inferior discipline to game design (itself a far more amorphous skillset) because writing is “inherently linear” and game design “isn’t.”

But form follows function, in writing, in design, in everything. Any game story – hell, any game, is to some degree linear, and to the degree that it’s not, the writing needn’t be either. Even pseudo-free-roamers like BioShock, MMOs with level caps, every dialogue tree ever, every quest log entry – everything ends, one way or another, sooner or later.

Writing, Adam observes, is limited by having to rely on “sequences of events.” As opposed to gameplay?

Adam also appears to frequently conflate design and writing, as if the two were synonymous. Every vocation has its own elite based on excellence of performance, from writing, coding, voice acting and lighting to musical composition, unit balancing and map architecture.

Yet he states unequivocally that he’d rather hire a designer than a writer, since the designer can also write, while the writer will never be a competent designer. Isn’t the reverse then also true? And by that logic, should film studios only hire writers who are also competent cinematographers, actors, and set designers? Would Adam have passed over a talented voice actor who wasn’t also an accomplished programmer?

The Thoughtless Are Rarely Wordless

As some posters have already noted, every game is its own beast. Some are more literary by their natures than others, and to marvelous effect -- Planescape: Torment and Portal featured writing that vastly and directly enhanced the playing experience; Lumines maybe not so much. But what doesn’t appear to trouble Adam at all is that no one inside or out of the industry takes the writing in games seriously.

It’s universally considered puerile juvenilia, largely because the majority of it was dashed off by designers who consider themselves writers (based solely on their game-, blog-, or talkback-post-writing credentials). Adam, like Roger Ebert, is mistaking a quality control problem for an innate flaw of the medium.

I’ve heard (and believe) tons of depressing horror stories about arrogant and/or stupid writers for hire who make us all look bad. Writing must serve the game, as it should always serve the material for which it’s intended. Adam’s free to disallow writers from his hiring practices; for my part, the desire to improve the literary cachet of electronic entertainment, to make games more emotionally resonant and smarter, is often the loneliest feeling in the world.

What I find especially ironic about Dirty Harry forming the basis of Adam’s thesis is that that project in particular was such a stacked deck, it makes an unusually poor example for even his salient points.

Dirty Harry featured a slew of A-list actors like Clint Eastwood, Gene Hackman, Laurence Fishburne… inked long before Adam or I came aboard as pinch-hitters - a once-in-a-lifetime cast of veteran Hollywood acting talent. And while Adam will likely agree that star power rarely makes for better games, there's ample evidence that it does help sell them. Laying blame for that whole cycle exclusively at the doorstep of the last writer to step up to the plate is kind of like blaming polar bears for global warming.

Conclusion: Where The Ideas Came From

Finally, consider the “Dirty Harry” character for just a moment. After Clint’s steely sneer and the distinctive roar of his Magnum, his most recognizable trademark? The lines. Hilariously blunt, poetic, iconic catch-phrases that have been co-opted by Presidents and remain immortalized in the public consciousness even decades later. “Go ahead, make my day.” “Feel lucky, punk?”

Writers, not game designers, came up with those. Supposedly a writer himself, Adam condemns game writing for offering little in the way of nutritive value. What he doesn’t seem to realize that it was never intended as food.

It’s the salt.

[Kelly Wand has served as writer or creative consultant on numerous games for a miscellany of companies, among them “Dirty Harry,” “300: March to Glory,” “Over The Hedge,” and “Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust.” He reviewed games for Computer Games Magazine and a truncated version of his former column Random Incoherence currently runs in Total PC Gaming Magazine.]

COLUMN: 'Save the Robot': The Lone Adventures of Steve Jackon's Sorcery!

Khare%20Cover%20Cropped.jpg[Save the Robot is a biweekly column from Chris Dahlen crafted specially for GameSetWatch, dealing with gaming as pop culture and cult media.]

This month’s tributes to the late Gary Gygax gave many of us a chance to look back at our own days of playing Dungeons & Dragons. Some of our greatest game designers first cut their teeth on fantasy thanks to tabletop RPG sessions, with a brilliant dungeon master leading his players through a brainblowing fantasy improv jam.

Of course, for most of the kids who invested in a few books and the starter set of dice, D & D meant making one kid sit there behind a screen - usually the cover of whichever module you were following, to the letter - while everyone else waited to kill stuff and find another Ring of Protection +1.

But even those kids, who plodded through the game until their 9 PM curfew, had a leg up on the lowest caste of D & D players - the people who played by themselves. And I was one of them. How do you play Dungeons & Dragons by yourself? Well, you roll a character, give it a name, and you follow the module room by room, fighting, looting, fighting, looting, slapping on new gear, and fighting again. You don’t need a DM; you just need a long, slow night that needs killing.

The industry was well aware that they had customers who even their other customers wouldn’t be seen with. TSR published modules for solo play, such as Blizzard Pass or Midnight on Dagger Alley. Invisible ink hid all the surprises, at least for the first guy who played through.

And then there were the gamebooks.Back in the ’80s, everykid who was anykid read the Choose Your Own Adventure series. These gimmicky books were such a hit that they spawned dozens of imitators - puzzle choose-your-adventures, horror choose-your-adventures, and so on. But probably the best came from Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, with their Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks system.

Jackson and Livingstone raised the genre to a real role-playing game: you rolled a character who kept an inventory and toughed it out in combat on top of the usual “If you take the left branch, turn to page 20″ action. Of course, Jackson and Livingstone have said they weren’t cashing in on Choose Your Own Adventure: they were cashing in on Dungeons & Dragons, and meeting the needs of kids like me who needed a solo adventure.

The magnum opus of the series was Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!, a set of four books released by Puffin from 1983 - 1985. The other night, when I pulled the books out and flipped through them for the first time in decades, all the details came rushing back - like John Blanche’s wily, intricate ink drawings, which were slimy and gory, dusty and sinister. Or Jackson’s prose - not as compelling as the art, but give him credit: he constructed the greatest saga in gamebook history.

Shamutanti%20Inset%20Shrunk.jpgA few things put Sorcery! above the regular Fighting Fantasy books. The rules were more complex, thanks to the magic system. You memorized a few dozen spells, some that you could cast on the fly, and others that needed some kind of an object or totem, from a handful of pebbles to a green-haired wig.

Jackson was a stickler about making you memorize the spells: to play by the rules, you had to remember the three-letter codes and ingredients for each spell before you started, and stop yourself from checking again until the adventure was done. Jackson also demanded that you remember codes and page references from book to book, instead of writing them down. At a time when most computer games don’t even expect you to take notes, a game that uses your actual memory feels strangely immersive.

The four Sorcery! books formed one epic storyline – and it was a pretty standard one. In book one, you set out as a textbook hero who had to cross a strange land to recover a treasure called the Crown of Kings - or, as they would say in Hollywood, the MacGuffin. The journey took you across gentle plains in the first book, through a treacherous city in the second, across harsh badlands in the third, and finally, to the dungeon crawl of the Mampang Fortress, where you face the inevitable big boss.

Your character is a blank slate, with no name and no history. And that’s what makes the saga effective: The gamebook sticks you straight in the story, without making assumptions about why you’re here.

In a fascinating article from the official Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks site on how to write a Fighting Fantasy adventure (registration required), we read: “For the most part, don’t waste space describing what the reader’s character is thinking. Instead, write effectively about the five human senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch and let the reader’s own experience fire the imagination.”

Like most gamebooks, Sorcery! effectively plays like a maze, with one or more right paths and a lot of dead ends. In each book you’re searching for the best path - the one that’ll get you all four verses of the poem to get out of Khare, or that’ll lead you to all seven of the serpents in The Seven Serpents. And most of the time, you’re depending on trial and error.

Early in the second book, you have the chance to help a bum on the street - and if you roll him over, you face a walking corpse that’s ready to eat your face. Near the end of the book, you find another bum – but this time, if you’re smart and steer clear, you miss a vital clue. Sometimes you can fight way out of a tight situation, and other times the book doesn’t even give you that: you wander into a field of black flowers, sniff poison, and drop dead. Time to start over.

But it’s worth starting over, because that’s how you get more content. And that’s the appeal of these books: there’s so much content. Something else is always around the corner. It never drops into a routine or a grind; the adventure keeps drawing you in. And when you finally hit the end? There’s no big revelation, no character growth, no reunion with your true love or party thrown by all those strangers you saved. You just have the satisfaction of knowing you finished. And you did it all by yourself.

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

GameSetLinks: Retro Mash-Up Insanity Edition

- Ah, yes, a little further GameSetLink-age for your wazoo, and this time, a fairly major cornucopia of linkage, including Second Life-rs branching out into ARGs, for starters.

Also below - a Dobbs Challenge update (reminder - the $1,000 'first month' part of the competition ends fairly soon!), as well as the mentioned/pictured neeto indie yoink-age of 'Rom Check Fail'. And onwards:

Millions of Us » Blog Archive » The Reality of Producing an Alternate Reality Game
The Second Life worldbuilders diversify further, I note.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - News: BusinessWeek Arcade
Wow, BusinessWeek has an indie game portal now? Mind boggles.

Positivity Part 1: Royalties | metablog
'The main problem we have with retail-level royalties is that they lead directly to retail-level quality.'

Klei Entertainment Inc. » Blog Archive » “Crap” games are not the problem
More Metanet fallout: 'Really, lots of shitty games isn’t the problem. The problem is one of control and visibility.'

comics212 - never safe for work. » Blog Archive » PiQ Issue #1: Post-Mortem
Superdetailed slam of the new multi-artform (including game) mag. Unfair? Dunno. Interesting? sure.

YouTube - missFlag - Still Alive (Portal) HIGH QUALITY
Audio only, but yesh, more covers x infinity, yay.

Dobbs Challenge - And We’re Off!
The first updates in the $10,000 'mod a game with source code' competition sister site Dr. Dobb's Journal is running. Yay.

Online Game Fest | GameFest.UGOPlayer.com
Am helping to judge this - should be interesting, hopefully.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - Freeware Game Pick: Rom Check Fail (Farbs)
Awesome mashup concept alert.

Game Studies - Who’s Who and What’s What… « Digital Worlds
Interesting diagram on the overlap between audiences for game websites.

March 26, 2008

In-Depth: Inside Puzzle Quest - The Postmortem

- [Completing the 'best of GDC 2008' series, this Tom Kim-penned write-up sees Steve Fawkner, president of Australia's Infinite Interactive, discusses the development Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords, giving insight into the melding of both match-three puzzle and RPG gameplay elements to appeal to both casual and hardcore players.]

Steve Fawkner began by introducing Puzzle Quest as a project that Infinite Interactive had to start to get themselves out of trouble after a significant period of poor decisions and low-selling games.

The project had to fulfill several criteria: it had to be possible to execute with a small studio and it had to be possible to pull off in a short time with a reasonable number of staff. They examined trends in PC gaming and decided to look at where the industry was heading.

They concluded that games were simultaneously heading in a more casual direction as evidenced by the success of PopCap-style titles, and still held a strong beachhead with more traditional core RPG-style titles such as Elder Scrolls Oblivion IV. They decided to aim for something in the middle. This choice seemed to fit the core competency of the studio: delivery of a focused project with a core mechanic of fun, easy to learn game play.

When they looked at the staff they had at their disposal, they found that most of them were designers. No artists, no graphics programmers, just a few designers with some basic programming skills. This lead to executing a game that was pretty heavily design-focused.

They decided to apply their usual approach of iterative design, following the four word mantra: "Clear Goal, Loose Plan." So they knew where they were aiming, but weren't quite sure how they were going to get there. Their faith was that if they began development, in the process of iteration the game would become clearer and clearer as they went along.

Iterative Design

The inception of the game concept was a "happy accident" caused by the process of iterative design. Steve started his plans with the ideas that he really liked Bejeweled and he really liked RPGs. Putting the two together seemed to result in a style of game that landed in that sweet spot the studio was aiming for, and seemed to be something compelling enough to play. He made a few versions that "sucked," and fixed those up over a month-long period until he ended up with something that "was pretty cool." Even at that point, the studio knew they had a game that would work.

Infinite Interactive fleshed out Steve's early prototype to get it to a stage where they could show it to some potential publishers. Once the design was stabilized enough, they threw out most of the code and started to build it up from scratch with a reference version to keep them honest.

This is the "Design and Review" process where the studio compares where the game is to the original prototype and they examine if they are straying too far from the original plan. Of course, straying from the original plan can be healthy. But at times, they decided that it was better to keep to the simplicity of the original design.

Next, they had an honest discussion at what core skills they could bring to the game. They knew they weren't good at art, they weren't going to be able to port the game efficiently to other platforms, and they also knew that Steve couldn't negotiate a business deal to save himself.

Even at that early stage, they saw the potential appeal that art direction could add to the game, they identified that publishers would probably want to port to other platforms, and they hired an agent to represent them in their business deals.

The last piece of the puzzle was to leverage their own original IP: until the game was close to publication, they called it Warlords: Champions. Although the name was never meant as anything more than a placeholder, it got them through to a stage where a publisher was willing to pick it up and back it properly.

Selling The Game

The next part of the quest was shopping the new game around. Infinite Interactive really wanted to build more presence on the handheld platforms -- the Nintendo DS and the PSP -- as well as gain some presence on the downloadable console space such as in the Xbox 360's Live Arcade. In order to gain a foothold in these new territories, they really needed help from a publisher. So they started showing the game around.

Steve explained that having an innovative product can sometimes make the pitch process even more difficult because publishers like to be able to predict how many units they will move prior to backing a title. As an example, he noted that they tried to sell the game to an unnamed publisher who loved it, but wouldn't pick it up. As the pitch process went on, they started noticing that several names on the net play high score list always came from this particular publisher. So when they called to follow up, they were told, "Oh, we really love the game. So much so, that we decided to start a high score leader board. But we still won't pick it up." Eventually, Infinite Interactive hooked up with a like-minded publisher who saw the potential for the game -- D3 Publisher.

From the start, the project incurred a lot of risk. But the way to mitigate the risk was to outsource pieces of the project properly. From the start, Infinite Interactive handled the PC and Xbox Live SKUs. D3 partnered Infinite Interactive with Vicious Cycle who provided artwork as well as the PSP, Wii and PS2 versions, and with First Playable and Engine Software who did the DS port.

But outsourcing is only a good short term solution. Although it allows for rapid release of multiple SKUs, all of the work produces no licensable technology for the primary developer. The way to handle these shortcomings is to have an extremely polished design and front end so that the back end development is mostly porting the technology to other platforms. Meanwhile, Infinite Interactive was hard at work trying to hire a team to develop their own in-house proprietary engine technology.

It wasn't long before things started going wrong.

Project Hurdles

Code Portability
The team had not worked on very many platforms other than PC and some playing around on PSP. In the case of the Nintendo DS, as good a platform as it is, code portability between the DS and the PC isn't that transparent. For example, standard list implementation isn't very good on DS. So for these cases, the programmers had to work on their own technology to overcome those obstacles.

System Constraints
Back in the days when Infinite Interactive used to work on 640k DOS machines, the team was used to running out of memory and having limited graphics power. But on more current platforms like the PSP and the DS, they started running into custom limitations in graphics power, stack sizes, and even Read/Write limitations with UMDs on the PSP. On the DS, the team was so inefficient with their code that screen refresh used up all of the available memory. The lesson is that programming on modern PCs will make you lazy.

Cartridge Sizes
Committing to a cartridge size with a publisher isn't one of those things that you can take back later. 4K is four kilobits, not 4 kilobytes! So when the publisher asks how much storage one needs for saved games, there is a pretty substantial consequence to changing your mind down the line. On the PC, the saved games were 14K. The team had to compress the 14K into 200 bytes in order to fit their storage requirement. Eventually, they were able to squeeze two saved games into 512 bytes. But it cost the team somewhere between two and three months.

Accessibility Complexity
The team had scheduled three months to accomplish the Xbox 360 Arcade port. The implementation actually took them 6 months because of TCR accessibility implementation issues. As a word of advice, Steve recommends that developers who plan on doing multiplayer implementation on modern platforms get a hold of the TCR checks as soon as possible and read them thoroughly. If possible, talk to a QA team that deals with these issues on a daily basis and run multiplayer screens by these teams as soon as possible. If Infinite Interactive had the foresight to do that, they would've saved themselves a lot of time in the multiplayer implementation.

D3 set up the focus testing, which actually uncovered a wealth of useful information. First of all, the team found that the name of the game, Warlords: Champions was reminding people of a fighting game. So as a first response, Steve came up with Puzzle Quest. No one liked it at first, but the name soon grew on them. The second finding from the focus groups was that girls weren't happy playing the game. All of the women asked, "where are the female avatars?" This was done purposefully to save on localization expenses. But when they ran the numbers to add the female-centric content against the potential increase in sales, they decided to pull the trigger.

As a result, Puzzle Quest had too many words: over 100,000 of them! By adding dialogue for the female avatars, the team ran into gender issues in French, Italian, German and Spanish translations, and with the Japanese language, the team didn't realize that the form of the language changed if a speaker was older or younger than a listener. So now, rather than only having to worry about male and female issues, they had to translate old female to younger male, and every other permutation. The lesson learned was, if one can hire staff that speaks other languages, go ahead and do so!

Session Takeaway

Things learned

* Time spent polishing is time well-spent. The extra time spent certainly resulted in additional sales. Focus and usability testing makes a difference.
* Good design is still important: A graphically simple game can still sell quite well.
* Focus groups are awesome: the title change, the addition of female avatars, and the shifting of the style to something a little more anime in execution all turned out to be great changes.
* Good QA teams are even better than focus groups: even though a few bugs slipped through, a solid QA team really helps.

Improvements for next time

* Work more closely with marketing to maximize how many games are sold in to the stores. This can be done by identifying whether the game has an instant appeal.
* Work with marketing to deal better and smarter with the press.
* Make sure the game is nice and showy to ensure that the press doesn't have to spend hours trying to find the most appealing parts of the game.
* Improve the build pipeline to minimize production times and bugs.
* More respect for what the casual gamer really wants.
* Some of the standard RPG conventions were absolutely mystifying to casual gamers, such as matching purple gems to level up.

World of Warcraft Exposed: Why WoW Made It BIg

['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a brand new weekly column by Michael Zenke about the culture and experience of the globe's biggest online game phenomenon, the ten million subscriber-strong World of Warcraft. This first column explores how WoW became so popular in the first place.]

The WoW BC Collector's EditionMassively Multiplayer Online Games are officially mainstream. A title from the genre has had an entire cartoon episode made about it, features in an advertisement starring Mr. T, and hosts some ten million players worldwide. World of Warcraft is a fundamentally important element to the MMO landscape, but more than that it's an ecology, a society all its own. In World of Warcraft Exposed we're going to try to take you beyond the surface of this fantastically successful enterprise.

Why has this game spawned such a rich culture of podcasts, Youtube videos, bloggers, forums, and news sites? What's it like to play World of Warcraft as a new player? What's it like to work your way up through the levels, and what's the experience of playing at the endgame like? All of these topics, and more, we'll explore in future series articles.

Today, though, we're talking about success and the mainstream. We know WoW has hit it big. What we don't know - what we don't think anyone could claim to know for certain - is why exactly Blizzard's behemoth was the one to break loose from that nerd stigma. World of Warcraft's launch and subsequent popularity is a singular event in the history of gaming. Why this game? Why not titles that went before it, like the comic-esque title City of Heroes? Why not Star Wars Galaxies, a title with a huge built-in fan base? Why not WoW-launch contemporary EverQuest 2, the successor to the original MMO superpower?

There's no one answer to that question, of course. There are as many theories about WoW's popularity as there are MMO commentators. It's in between those theories that I think real insight can be found. As much as the venture capitalists might like to hear differently, there's no one reason why World of Warcraft has achieved the success it has. So with that in mind, let's approach Azeroth as a sociologist might: what drives people to inhabit this world?

[WoW Box Set photo courtesy karenchu121's photostream]

Cut the BS

If you had to pin me down, and forced out of me the #1 reason for WoW's success, it would all come down to one simple word: fun. I'm not talking about some sort of elusive concept here; not the pursuit of fun or the idea of fun, but the real deal. World of Warcraft was one of the very first MMOs that you could hop right into and have fun - right away. Ten second after entering the world you've got your first quest. A minute after that you're in combat for the first time. Combat in World of Warcraft is simple, clean, and well-explained. Every step you take in your first hour of play is right down the path towards fun. There are no barriers, to insane design decisions, no hoops you have to jump through - WoW lets you have fun, right away.

This newbie experience philosophy extends all the way up to the heights of endgame play. Certainly no one is going to explain to you how to complete an end-level raid dungeon; there's no tooltip for that. But raids, guilds, groups, they're all put on the path towards the goal of fun. Endgame play is just like the newbie experience, only moreso - low barriers, constant feedback that you're making the right choice, enjoyable rewards.

Lunar Fest FireworksThis all sounds like kindergarden-level obviousness, but I can't overstate how important this low-barrier approach is to World of Warcraft's success. In the original EverQuest, at launch, you spent long minutes waiting for your character's health to regenerate after every fight. Spellcasters had to meditate, essentially vulnerable to everything in the gameworld, for even longer minutes to get mana back.

Star Wars Galaxies ceased having any form of direction or purpose the instant you stepped out of the tutorial. Final Fantasy XI essentially forced you into a group at level 10, and punished you with level loss if your avatar died too often. Making it easy to have fun, making almost every act of play inside the gameworld an enjoyable experience, may be WoW's greatest success.

To A Mirror Finish

Fun is an elusive concept, though, right? So let's break it down a bit. The quality of World of Warcraft's design and conceptual elements - the keys that allow for that high level of fun - comes from constant clarification and refinement. The lengthy Beta testing phase that WoW went through before it released, the dedication to great design in Blizzard's corporate culture ... it all adds up to the word polish. Polish has been taken up as the banner, the rallying cry of game designers both in and out of the MMO genre. Meeting the high quality standard World of Warcraft has set requires an enormous amount of polish; so much so that WoW's success is often said to hang on the game's polish.

What's fascinating about World of Warcraft, and what makes that argument such an easy one to believe, is that Blizzard has applied so many levels of polish to the game. From the Macro- to the Micro-, everything hums and clicks together like so much clockwork. Two opposing factions, both with distinctly different races, offer players two substantially different paths to follow. Before the Burning Crusade expansion, these factions also had slightly different classes - more meaningful choices. The user interface is achingly simple and yet amazingly powerful. The yellow exclamation point above a quest-giver's head - a blindingly obvious decision, but extraordinary in 2004 - offers connectivity and continuity for the player.

You can drill all the way down through the game to reach even the smallest level, and still find polish. The mage tower in the Human starting zone of Elwynn, for example, is peppered with memorable characters and stories; there's even a magic globe that you can use to see a far-off locale you won't reach for another dozen levels or so. The game's NPCs are peppered with clever pop culture in-jokes, Easter eggs for the observant player. Lore-addicted roleplayers can comb through hundreds of in-game books to learn more about Azeroth's history.

The game is far from perfect, of course, but the sheer level of sophistication and development that World of Warcraft shows at every level is staggering. Almost intimidating. The amount of money that was spent bringing this game to market seems almost ludicrous, right up until you experience a new dawn on the docks of Southshore or witness a heated exchange between two vibrant characters in an Outland tavern.

Everybody Likes a Good Story

Sylvanus SingsWhile most MMO players will tell you they flip past the quest text without reading it, the fact that WoW had a well-codified questing system at all was something of a minor miracle in 2004. Compared with the guessing games of previous online games, World of Warcraft's quest journal was a revolution. This system of directed experiences is another well-referenced reason for the game's success.

Even though players may be ignoring the story reasons for completing quests, the rewards of xp and in-game currency lead them down that storied road just the same. Quests act as landmarks and signposts in what would otherwise be (and was, in previous games) aimless wandering and meaningless grinding for rewards.

The trick is that even as quests attempt to tell a story, what they're really doing is leading the player around by the nose. "Kill 10 rabbits and then talk to Bob" is a fantastically simple task, but if the rabbits are halfway across a zone map and Bob is all the way over in another hamlet, that charge carries some powerful ramifications. Designers know that the player will have to travel to one specific area of the map to carry out the task, and will end up in yet another part to turn in the quest. By seeding the hunting zone and the hamlet around Bob with further quests, interesting challenges, beautiful landscapes and a sense of danger designers are assured that players will have a certain level of quality in their gaming experience.

Again, this seems deceptively obvious in retrospect. Why wouldn't designers create a world with this kind of directed experience in mind? The reason is that word "world". World of Warcraft is much less a world than it is a very elaborate game. The Blizzard designers ensured 'game' would be the take-away from their Azeroth; while it might have been interesting to see Stranglethorn Vale with a living ecosystem or provide meaningful AI life to all city NPCs it would have detracted from the reality of WoW as a game. Whatever wasn't fun was removed, whatever was boring was polished, and the story of a character's adventure through this online world is all that truly matters.

Mom's Computer

It’s tempting to see the huge number of people that play World of Warcraft as purely a function of game design and mechanics, but there are other elements at work too. For example, the fact that people can play the game at all ... Going back to the lowering of barriers to fun, WoW’s low system spec, the incredibly forgiving requirement it places on computers, is another pillar on which the game’s success rests. Despite this, many player cite the game’s pleasing presentation as a compelling reason to play.

The key is that Blizzard solved the ‘issue’ of graphics through artistic presentation instead of raw horsepower. Azeroth’s unique art style, a combination of anime-inspiration and western comics, draws the player in to the online fantasy with minimal stresses on the average PC. It’s something many design houses don’t address well, to their detriment. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes failed miserably at launch last year – it also overtaxed a brand new machine and required 20 gigs of disk space. It’s easy to assume that there was some connection there.

What's the Most Important Thing About Comedy?

Timing. Many people believe the same to be true about World of Warcraft’s success. That magical moment at the end of 2004, so goes the theory, was a pregnant point in the MMO genre. Games had been released for the past two years that tantalized the gaming public, but didn’t deliver. There was a lot of interest in the genre, but nothing accessible enough to reach a truly mass market.

Pitted against EverQuest 2, WoW went up against a recognized brand that had completely lost its way. Though modern EQ2 rivals World of Warcraft in some ways for polish and fun-ness, at launch the game was a confused mish-mash of poor design concepts. Into this special moment, hyped by months of open Beta testing and happy players, Blizzard dropped a bombshell. The rest, as they say, is history.

All Tomorrow’s Parties

A Burning Crusade VistaAs Blizzard’s game has evolved over the last three-plus years, many of these major elements have been further refined. The level of polish is still at a genre-defining level. The narrative that guides players through old Azeroth and into the Burning Crusade expansion’s Outlands area is stronger now than ever.

And – despite the kvetching you see on the official forums – the fun factor in World of Warcraft has never been higher. The few barriers between the players and fun that existed have systematically been lowered over the last three years. WoW’s current place in the Western marketplace is unparalleled as far as both numbers and cultural cachet – and, of course, another expansion is just over the horizon.

As the weeks continue to pass here on Earth and in Azeroth, we’re going to try to continue to explain the fascinating puzzle that is World of Warcraft. From basic elements like what you should know before you make a character to high level social trends, World of Warcraft Exposed is going to give you the thousand-foot view of an online phenomenon. Here’s hoping you’ll keep reading.

[Michael Zenke is a freelance games writer. He's a lead blogger at the site Massively.com, and has had the pleasure of writing for sites like Gamasutra, 1up, Joystiq, The Escapist, and Slashdot Games. You can read more of Michael's ramblings on Massive games at the MMOG Nation blog.]

Tetroid 2012 - DemoNetLabelArkaTetris Weirdness Alert!

So, I've been involved in the netlabel scene for a good few years (uh, at least 12) with my Creative Commons-licensed online electronic music label Monotonik, and before that the Amiga demo-scene, so it was neat to get a note from Jan Robbe of net.label entity on a GSW/netlabel crossover:

"Our own little netlabel/indie game scene marriage spawned [NTT040] Tetroid 2012. In short, it's a psychedelic Tetris clone (with references to Mr.Driller and Arkanoid as well), featuring 21 [music] artists. It is meant to bring experimental electronic music closer to the people. Programming was done by Toxie of the Apocalypse Inc demogroup [who also created Tsunami 2010, a 96k (!) Tempest2K clone of some repute]."

And sure enough, here's a slightly grainy YouTube video of the game, in all it's psychedelic glory. It's a shame it 'borrowed' the central Tetris mechanic so obviously, because it would have been neater just mashing up the block puzzle concept in a different way. Nonetheless, check out the Tetris => Arkanoid screen flip at about 00.35, great concept:

Ah yes, some more info: "All the info/screens/youtubes can be found at http://www.entity.be (blog) or simply by clicking on the latest Entity netlabel release @ http://www.entity.be/entity... Some direct links to the game: http://www.download.com/Tetroid-2012/3000-2111_4-10822130.html, http://www.archive.org/download/ntt040/ntt040-tetroid_2012.zip, http://www.entity.be/tetroid2012/ntt040-tetroid_2012.zip."

March 25, 2008

GameSetLinks: Playing With Affect's Toolbox

- Yeehah, all kinds of goodness in this particular caboodle of GameSetLinks, with a whole weekend of web-based exploration to lay out in the course of a week of glorious http referrals.

These include a postmortem of the intriguing but ultimately underexploited indie title Play With Fire, and some thoughts on creating emotional response as game designers. Here goes with some linkaaage:

Ian Bogost - Private Eyes / They're Blogging You
More Kotaku iconography!

Moogle.net » Blog Archive » Little Change, Big Consequences
'No matter what we do, sometimes the wants need to wait for next time.'

Multiple:Option: Game Melody Oratorio
More awesome homebrew: 'Game Melody Oratorio teaches simple game melodies via a virtual piano.'

The Independent Gaming Source: GDC-inspired 'Owl Country' game
All kinds of ridiculous in-joking, but such delightful indie zeal.

Tale of Tales» Blog Archive » We made a new game!
'The Graveyard' - from the makers of The Path.

Surfer Girl Reviews Star Wars: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.
Some interesting L.A. Noire gossip in here.

The Indie Gaming Primer « Thank You For Playing
A slick set of six.

Only a Game: Play with Fire: Post Mortem
'This post examines the many things that went wrong with this project – and also the many things that worked out nicely.'

The Plush Apocalypse » Blog Archive » The Toolbox of Affect
'At the simplest level, you need to feel what you want the player to feel - if you don’t, you’re in trouble.'

Press The Buttons: Miistery Science Theater 3000
Two of my favorite tastes!

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': Future Hairy Racers — WipeOut Pure Artist Neil McFarland

-[Jump Button is a new weekly column by Drew Taylor, written specially for GameSetWatch, that focuses on the art and substance of video game culture.]

'Passing through the mouth of Venus,' says Neil McFarland.

'Passing through... the driver is riled and beguiled by a procession of gigantic beauties,' he says to me. The 34-year-old illustrator describing his contribution to what is arguably the best piece of free downloadable game content ever made.

'Gripped with paranoia and fear in the all-seeing eye tunnel,' he adds. 'Blinded by Medusa, and reborn anew at the completion of each circuit.'

His word-images, this should be the way all video games are reviewed. In narrative. In dialogue. In fan fiction. Using words soft as breasts that when caressed leak all over the screen or page in a myriad of colored pixels and ink. Purples. Oranges. Mauves. Crimsons. Cyans and blonds.

At the very least, it should be how the Omega Pack is described. A four track wonderland (YouTube videos) for the futuristic PlayStation Portable racer WipeOut Pure, made free in 2005 to everyone in Europe, Australia and New Zealand as a giant suck-up, featuring the unique work of UK artists and designers. Jon Burgerman, 123Klan, Mark James, Neil McFarland.

Jon's circuit—complete with chimpanbees, dancing sausages and sheer character design genius is the reason I download the pack; I've always been a fan. But it's Neil's Paris Hair track that gives me the Flash Gordon moment.

A sense of flinging oneself into the void, only to become trapped in an off-world sideshow recreated from drug-induced visions of hair, melancholy and Barbarella-like pleasure tortures. An uncomfortable memory of sitting in a car with a mate (who would later become a youth pastor) as he confesses to having recently cheated on his girlfriend by fingering a woman in the very seat I'm occupying.

-I never had a real job says Neil, father now to 7-week-old twins, husband to Pippanella.

Neil listing his work history as 'published comics, pornography, sold paintings, design for mobile phones, animate for TV and internet'.

'I am who I am,' he says, 'because I always drew, was left alone a lot as a child and have been exposed to some amazing people, places and chemicals'. Growing up, he says, I was inspired by comic books, 2000AD and Robert Crumb. 'I then discovered the work of Jamie Hewlett. He painted Tank Girl so beautifully, and with such energy, that from then on a strand of my own work was based on this love of the powerful female figure'.

Looking at Neil's track, at his wider body of art, I have no doubt that this is why he was approached to contribute to the project. What I'm even more confident of is the fact that the developers had no idea that the Omega Pack would completely redefine the game. Re-imagine it. Re-emotion it.

'I'd like to think that [my track] is as far from the established aesthetic of WipeOut as is possible, and that it evokes the spirit of my own work,' says Neil.

-'For the gamer, I hope it's a track that's fun to play, surprising, and at times distracting to fly through. I want people to feel that they have entered into a lysergic fun fair and that [my art] has added a whole new atmosphere to this terrific game.

'[I want] to convey some kind of feeling in my work,' he says. 'I always want it to communicate more than just a design aesthetic or an editorial idea. The huge psychedelic influence on my work can come across as sadness or longing, but I think this is a by-product of trying to capture that state of mind of being “out there”, disengaged from trivial matters and contemplative.'

This is not slick, futuristic FX300 anti-gravity racing anymore. This is voyaging and voyeuring. Traversing—now with 40% more eye-shadow and uncertainty. Downloadable content that doesn't just skin, but reaches inside and rummages about with the heart and soul of a game. Rummages with hands made of loss and maturity and shame and vulnerability.

Extra costumes that turn Kratos into a banana are great. That put Lara in a Think Geek-inspired bathing costume are brilliant. Content that allows Frank West to slice and dice zombies in 10 new ways is awesome; download them all. But this is an opportunity for something more. This is DLC that is able to revision the game world. Given to an artist and re-souled. Marketplace points for a new experience. A new religion.

This is Neil's dream. Post Orange Box and teleport gun. Post Elebits.

He wants in. And not just a track.

-'A first-person shooter', says Neil, spasming with inspired possibility. 'How about Half-Life? I'd turn it into some kind of pie fight or paint ball extravaganza. Ludicrous costumes and character animations, insane architecture and a wigged out soundtrack.'

This is Neil, thinking about WipeOut Pure, imagining a new Halo. A new Zack and Wiki, Metroid Prime, Guitar Hero 3. Imagining a Paris Hair Mass Effect. A mascara-filled, prehensile curl-laden World of Warcraft.

Neil imagining what he'd do to a Grand Theft Auto. Red cordial-like.

'I'd trip it out!' he says, mentally crossing speed pads. 'Round off some corners. And... Wow. I have to lie down now.

'Thinking about this makes me dizzy. I could quite happily disappear in that design job for a year or two.'

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. He has never been to Paris, but would like to get his hair cut more often.]

2008 Austin GDC Announces Call For Submissions

-[Aha, we've announced a call for submissions for the 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference this September - if you like MMOs, audio, or writing (also pina coladas and... oh, forget it!) you might want to consider submitting a lecture, yay.]

The call for submissions is now open for the 2008 Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC). Submissions to present lectures and roundtable sessions will be accepted for review by an advisory board until Monday, April 14th.

Presented by Think Services, a division of United Business Media, organizers of the industry-leading Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Austin GDC is a three-day event taking place at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas September 15-17, 2008.

The Austin GDC focuses on three main tracks: Game Audio, Writing for Games and the largest Online Games section of the conference. The Online Games track goes even further in depth, featuring five sub-tracks of its own, including:

- Business and Marketing
- Design
- Social Networking & Community
- Technology & Services
- Worlds in Motion (Virtual Worlds)

The Austin GDC advisory board includes two new members, Raph Koster from Areae, and Mark Terrano from Hidden Path Entertainment. The advisory board also includes 18 other industry experts, including: Midway’s Marc Schaefgen, Dolby’s Lori Solomon, Multiverse’s Corey Bridges, BioWare’s Rich Vogel and Gordon Walton, writer Susan O’Connor, and several others.

“We are excited to embark on the next chapter of the Austin GDC,” says Izora de Lillard, Event Director of Austin GDC, “Our theme this year ‘Evolve to Win’ reflects the need for developers to challenge themselves to think ahead in terms of community, online games, writing and audio for games. This year’s conference program will not only reflect new trends and technology in the immediate future of digital entertainment, but also include thought leaders with unique insight towards the long term evolution of game development and the industry.”

Submissions are also being accepted for the Game Career Seminar which will be held in conjunction with the Austin conference.

For a detailed list of topics and to submit a speaker proposal, please visit the official Call For Submissions page at the Austin GDC website.

March 24, 2008

Opinion: Writers And The Game Industry - A Rebuttal

- [Adam Maxwell stirred up a hornet's nest with his argument against writers in the games industry - an editorial Maxwell has since commented on further on his personal weblog - but the IGDA Game Writers SIG isn't going to stand for it. In this rebuttal, Brainstem Games' Ron Toland aims to put the "well-circulated myth" that "writers are nice to have, but completely dispensable." to rest.]

In his op-ed piece, “The Case Against Writers in the Games Industry,” Adam Maxwell articulates a well-circulated myth: to make a good game, writers are nice to have, but are completely dispensable.

It is time for this myth to be laid to rest. It needs to find its place in the graveyard of outdated truths, along with the line that “you don't need artists to make good games,” or “you don't need designers to make good games.”

As we can see from Maxwell's article, he is completely in thrall to this myth:

"Had I been hired simply as a writer that would have been the end for me. You see, that studio imploded very shortly thereafter, but it’s not that implosion that would have doomed me -- as a designer I survived. No, what would have doomed me is the simple, and some would say sad, truth: There is no places for writers in our industry."

I suspect that Maxwell survived because he carried the label of designer, even though what he was doing was (technical) writing. Why would the label "writer" have hurt him? Because of the myth about writers in the games industry that he still believes.

This myth is based on a profound misunderstanding of the role of the writer in game development. Maxwell provides several examples of this misunderstanding:

“When a writer sits down to build a story, they are usually building a plot.”

There are two mistakes in that sentence. First, building a story means building characters, the relationships between those characters, the setting around the characters, and the conflicts—plots—that involve the characters. Second, game writers should never sit down alone to build a story. They should meet with the entire team so that the art, sound, game mechanics, and story all work together to craft an interactive experience.

"The work of the writer is inherently linear – the work of the designer is typically *not*."

A bold but bogus claim. Has he never played D&D? Read an RPG module that accommodates several different paths to play through? Read a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book? All of the above were created by writers. All use non-linear storytelling.

Conversely, the work of the designer is often very linear. Super Mario Brothers is an incredibly linear game. So are Portal, the Heroes of Might and Magic series, and many others. All of those games were designed to be linear, and are great games.

Games are often linear because of limitations in technology and time. Writers can help make that linear experience feel more free than it really is, by involving the player in an unfolding story.

"...a writer expresses the plot by putting together scenes"

False. Portal has no cut scenes, but plenty of plot, all expressed through dialogue, character and setting. These were crafted by the writer to provide what the designers felt was missing from the game. Rather than do it themselves, they did the right thing and called in a professional. The result was one of the year's most impressive games.

"This is why the writer’s work is linear -- the writer’s power depends on the sequence of events."

Again, false. It seems he's got movie scriptwriting confused with game writing. It has been established in the games industry that the two are different, and require different skills.

“...that’s something you can never say about a writer. No matter how well written, a story can’t make the game better."

Strange words, since this is exactly what the lead designer on Portal said at GDC during their postmortem. They had the game mechanics down, but needed a good story, and a good writer, to make the game better.

Maxwell also goes astray when he asserts that a lack of authorial control cripples game writing from the start:

"...authorial control is not something native to video games...It exists, I don’t deny it, but where it exists it does so because it has been enforced. Special effort has to be made to accommodate it; in the early history of gaming new technologies had to be created to enable it at all, in fact."

The notion of authorial control is another myth. Does the director of a film control the conditions in which I see it? Does he know how often I'll pause a DVD to go grab some popcorn, or when I might doze off and have to finish the movie later?

The idea that artists can control how audiences experience their art is a false hope. Games, with their inherently interactive nature, just make it more obvious. Good writing in a game can have just as much emotional impact as good writing in movie, so long as the writer knows how to use the medium.

Even worse than his myths about game writing, Maxwell has mistaken beliefs about the role of designers:

"A writer might create the characters, and a writer certainly architects the plot of a game’s story, but the work a player actually sees and consumes? That is the work of the designer..."

That's a pretty hefty claim. Do the designers also create the art consumed by the player? Or write the code that enables the game mechanics? Or compose the music playing in the background of the game?

No. Neither should designers be the primary person on a team concerned with story.

According to Maxwell, the designer's job isn't made any easier by the presence of a writer:

"Case in point, as a part of my job on Dirty Harry, I met with our writer once a week to discuss the story, his progress in the script, changes we had made to the game that he had to accommodate. It was a great process that really helped the game, but it was also a 3-4 hour event, once a week....During that time, I was not balancing weapons, implementing core game play systems or overseeing the work of the rest of the team, which was what my job description actually called for...I’m not saying this time was wasted, but it was time where part of the game design was suffering for the sake of the writer."

A wonderful anecdote that fails to prove his point. Is he claiming that, as a designer, he never talked to the programming team? Never once stopped to see what an artist was modeling, or talked to the art team? And I suppose he never spoke to the sound designers, either?

Didn't those meetings take time away from working on game mechanics? Or are they properly recognized as being part and parcel of developing complex software with a team of people?

Instead of showing how inconvenient writers are, Maxwell's story supports the idea of having a writer on staff and integrated with the development team. That would give the writer direct access to all departments and give the designer more time for balancing game mechanics.

His worst mistake is that he implies that designers are the only people required to make a good game:

"Designers give us puzzles to solve, worlds to explore, new ways to interact and above all, new games to play...Even in a linear single player experience where story is king -- say an old school RPG, writers alone can’t get your game done; you will need designers to implement game play."

False. Game development teams give us new games to play. You can't have a game without programmers. A game without artists is going to look terrible. A game without designers won't have good mechanics. A game without sound designers is going to sound cheesy. A game without writers (or someone acting as the writer, even if they're called a designer or narrative designer or scribbler-in-chief) will probably be full of clichés. Just like movies, games require a lot of different disciplines to come together and make something fantastic.

Writers are not game designers. Nor are they merely dialogue-generation-machines. Writers use story—character, setting, and plot—to enhance the experience of players, just as sound designers use music and sound effects to improve the player's experience.

There are many tools in the writer's toolbox for conveying a game's story. Story can be expressed through dialogue, or the graffiti on a cement wall, or the name of a character. This is the writer's unique role, their place on a team of talented people with different skills.

Can you make a game without a writer? Yes. But, like a game without sound, their absence can be felt. Development teams need writers to help them craft the best stories they can for their games.

Better stories lead to better games. And that's good for everyone.

[The IGDA Game Writers' Special Interest Group was formed in 2002 to improve game writing as a craft and combat the myths surrounding game writing. They offer an active community to support anyone involved in game writing, from dialogue scripters to narrative designers to those managing writers. They encourage anyone interested in the topics discussed to visit their website or their wiki to learn more about them and join the conversation.]

GameSetLinks: From Falcon To Fallout

- Ah yes, a little more GameSetLink-age to start the week, and there's some fun stuff in here - including some of the post-fury discussion on the Metanet comments on Xbox Live Arcade, of course.

But also in there - qDot working towards an open-source driver for the Novint Falcon, which is one of the most fascinating pieces of game peripheral hardware ever offered, but has had some serious game adoption problems - with even the games it ships with being less-than-awesome demonstrations of the tech, I'm afraid. Still, haptics! Onward:

The Problem with Experience-Based Writing (Magical Wasteland)
'We still need articles like Rogers’ passionate, plausible and consequential interpretation of Mother 2, but we also need something more.'

Top 5 Botched PC Gaming Launches from 1UP.com
'Installing a new PC game can be something like a blind date.'

GameOfTheBlog.com: Is this really necessary?
'This' would be 3 different chicken-themed DS games. I blame Europe, randomly!

Dispatches: No More Heroes, Part Two; Or: A Perfect Day For Bloodfish at Game Design Advance
This game seems to be inspiring a lot of intriguing articles.

Flash Of Steel: 'Tom versus Bruce Online'
These are some of my favorite pieces of writing ever (from Games For Windows mag), great to hear they're coming online.

Rockstar slow to release in-game GTA IV screens | Xbox 360 News | GamePro.com
Racist user comments aside, this is headslammingly bad as an angle for a story.

Nonpolynomial Labs News: "That thingy that feels"
Using the Novint Falcon for hacked-up good, perhaps?

David Hellman » Blog Archive » The Art of Braid, Part III: World 2 Comes First
Gonna keep linking these, since they are great.

NeoGAF - View Single Post - N+ Developers talk XBLA: "There's like 100 games, and they're all shit." (plus more!)
A fair point, following up on Metanet, about XBLA releases being of variable quality in any given month!

In Defence of the Apparant Shitstorm | metablog
Metanet follows up on the Gamasutra interview - some amelioration, perhaps, but just a bit.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Brazilians Need Action Now

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I had the intention of writing this week about Hard Drives, the greatest magazine that Larry Flynt Publishing ever produced (I kid, I kid, but it's close), but I can't find my sole example in the bookshelves. So, how about a little Brazilian programming instead?

Collectors of obscure old video games know that Brazil was an extremely unique game marketplace during the 8 and 16-bit eras. The Odyssey2 somehow emerged as the top console of the classic era, Tec Toy produced all kinds of Brazil-exclusive Sega Master System and Genesis titles, and the marketplace until approximately the mid-90s was mainly occupied by the SMS, the MSX computer, and half a dozen NES-compatible pirate consoles.

There was no dedicated game mag in Brazil during the 80s, when arcades and pinball was where the main action was in the country. (Odyssey Aventura, the locally-produced newsletter for Philips' console, lasted eight issues.) This changed in 1990 when publishing outfit Editora Abril produced Ação Games, a special one-off edition of kids' sports magazine A Semana em Ação (The Week in Action) devoted entirely to console stuff. One more one-off was produced in 1991, and then Abril went out of business. The Ação name was bought by rival publisher Editora Azul, and beginning in October 1991, Ação Games became a monthly publication.

Ação was arguably the most influential game mag of the era in South America. It had an officially translated edition (called Action Games) in Argentina, and before a year had passed, it had no less than four monthly rivals in Brazil: Games, VideoGame, Supergame (Sega-exclusive) and Game Power (Nintendo-exclusive). The latter two combined into a single multiplatform title, Super Game Power, in 1995.

Thumbing through these mags, one gets the idea that Brazilian editors and publishers really loved GamePro. Supergame and Game Power both had official licenses to translate content from IDG's mag, and Ação's visual design was basically a clone as well -- the difference, of course, being that instead of ads for the TG16 and Super NES games, these titles had spots for pirate NES consoles and shady-looking mail order places.

What makes Brazil mags unique, though, is their art -- unlike most other countries where the game industry mostly revolved around pirates, the magazines here were pretty high-quality productions, with lots of original articles and artwork (most of which is actually good, remarkably).

Sadly, most of these mags went belly-up in the late '90s once the Internet took over as the chief source of game info. I admit to not knowing much about modern Brazilian mags; titles I'm aware of currently in existence include EGM Brasil, Official Xbox Magazine, PlayStation (a homegrown PS mag), Gamemaster (another homegrown multiplatform mag), and Nintendo World (which appears to be Nintendo Power in translation). If you know of any more publishing right now, I'd love to hear about them.

[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 at PiQ magazine.]

March 23, 2008

GameSetNetwork: From N Plus Drama To Stapler Plus Jello

- Ah yes, plenty of goodness in this week's links from Think Services' suite of B2B-ish game sites, including Gamasutra, Game Career Guide, Worlds In Motion, Indie Games, and more.

In particular, we have the controversy over N+ rubbing shoulders with a really fun Ian Bogost column on pranks in games, as well as some analysis of EA's marketing muscle, a neat Foundation 9 interview, and a plethora of other pieces, some obscure, some not so. All good output, I think - here we are:

N+: Beyond The Postmortem
"What's it like getting a game onto Xbox Live Arcade? N+ creators Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard of developer Metanet - and Nick Waanders, president of XBLA N converters Slick Entertainment - don't mince words in this discussion of the service."

Sounds Of The Snow
"In one of the more unconventional Gamasutra articles we've ever published, Finnish game sound designer Tapio Liukkonen (Broken Alliance) writes passionately about the need for authentic winter sound recording in games."

Q&A: CDC's Williams Talks East Meeting West With Lunia, EVE
"CDC Games has found success operating the Korean MMO Lunia in the U.S., and also runs CCP's EVE Online in China. Given recent U.S. successes for Lunia, Gamasutra spoke to CDC's Ron Williams about the interesting particulars involved in making the East-to-West connection from both ends."

Persuasive Games: Video Game Pranks
"In his regular 'Persuasive Games' column, designer/writer Ian Bogost looks at the history of the prank in video games - from Easter Eggs through Sim Copter and Syobon Action, with particular reference to Gareth's stapler."

The Divnich Tapes: Why EA's Marketing Brawn Should Entice Take-Two
"Concluding his Gamasutra-exclusive assessment of February's hardware and software trends, simExchange analyst Jesse Divnich analyzes Army of Two's retail success through marketing, and argues Take-Two should reconsider Electronic Arts' takeover offer because of its sheer marketing muscle." Also see Divnich on hardware sales compared for the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, why the video game industry is outperforming expectations despite our slowing economy, and software predictions for March.

Focus On Korea: Ntreev's Kang Talks Pangya, Westward Moves
"Continuing its examination of the Korean game biz, Gamasutra speaks to Jamie King of online game developer Ntreev about their titles, including Pangya (Super Swing Golf) and Trickster, and discusses the difficulty for Korean companies to break into the international console game market."

U. Mich's 48-Hour Development Contest: Stephen Colbert Games!
"The University of Michigan hosts an annual game development challenge, in which small teams of students have just 48 hours to develop a video game. GameCareerGuide.com is running an exclusive five-part series written by the contestants about their experience making a game in just two days." Also see - Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. Also... Stephen Colbert!

A Coalition Of Developers
"Foundation 9 (Death Jr.) is likely the biggest developer conglomerate in the world, with more than 800 employees - so how is it doing in 2008, and what on earth is its 'Total Quality Initiative'? Gamasutra finds out..."

COLUMN: 'The Aberrant Gamer - Auto-Neurotic Asphyxiation'

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

We throw around lots of insults on message boards and comment threads, but there is perhaps none so common – and so virulent as fanboy.

What does that word even mean? Dictionary.com has no idea, but UrbanDictionary.com has several definitions. “A passionate fan of various elements of geek culture… but who lets his passion override social graces.” “A person who is completely loyal to a game or company reguardless [sic] of if they suck or not… a pathetic insult.” “An arrogant person… [who takes] the console war very seriously, as if it were a real war.”

Perhaps only in games does being a passionate fan become a negative. In film, hobbyists might have loyalty to certain directors or screenwriters, and comics has its Marvel versus DC – but is this sort of aggression so prevalent on movie or comic book websites?

This column has been quick to evaluate mob psychology in gamer behavior and condemn it as one of the major elements restraining games from attaining widespread social legitimacy. But fanboyism is a much more complex issue – particularly because none of us is immune. Not even the press.

The "Friend Response"

The human brain is engineered to respond with fondness directly proportionate to how often it sees something. Faces that it sees on a regular basis are programmed into the mind’s memory as “friends” – regardless of whether or not that’s really the case. Watch the same news anchor on a nightly basis, and your subconscious will instinctively consider that person as an ally of yours, even if you never meet the newsman face to face. When the mentally unbalanced send emotional letters to newsdesks or stalk actors, convinced that the actor is “in love” with them, it’s a maladaption of this so-called “friend response” mechanism, the stalker’s brain becoming all-too-convinced that that regular visual presence is a genuine element of his or her life.

But despite how people behave in comment threads, you don’t need to be insane to have a “friend response.” Just take the case of what might be called the average lifelong gamer. Chances are, his or her first console was a Nintendo, and his first favorite game was a Mario, maybe a Zelda. Even in eight bits, those characters were preserved and personified in a chain-reaction of positive association – perhaps even more quintessential than being “real people,” Mario and Link became proxies for our positive associations with our experiences. Mascots for our pleasure, just as they were for the company they represented.

Our Secret Language

-We often discuss our desire for characters we can really believe in and fall in love with. But Mario, Sonic, Samus, Snake and others have even transcended characterization; during our long relationship with them, they became more like a language – just like a word, each of them is a single-symbol shortcut that corresponds to a distinct emotional loyalty, reinforced by the fact that for most of our lives, gamers have felt part of an exclusive minority culture. That also explains the affinity for Atari T-shirts, 1Up mushroom wristbands, and game-related forum avatars and profile pictures – though to us gaming is as important as any other hobby would be to non-gamers, we are more likely to attach to symbology, and more passionate about the color of the flag we carry.

Most lifetime gamers, then, have a built-in bias engine, whether they acknowledge it or not. For some, it’s much more conscious and overt – hence the “Fanboy” network of platform-specific sites, hence forum flamewars, hence almost frighteningly irrational ire over certain reviews. Most reviewers dread having to evaluate a new flagship Nintendo title of the Mario or Zelda heritage; while the PlayStation 3 struggled to gain traction in the market early on, every new release was viewed as a flashpoint as fans were desperate for a killer app, and detractors were eager to see it fail. Those early reviews, then, might as well have been a general’s decision in a war.

For others, it’s beyond awareness – I certainly do not suggest that all gamers are conflict-craving flag-carriers who flock to message boards to vehemently defend even the slightest perceived insult against their favorite characters, developers, publishers, consoles, what have you. But the truth is, the cultural lexicon of games is still so young that it’s quite small, and therefore the repetition of certain elements or characters over time has been, and continues to be unavoidable.

None of us did not grow up with Mario, for example, and none of us is immune to the “friend response” of that repetition. And even those of us that might have managed to avoid the tide of early fandom have probably developed a counterculture – in favor of PC adventure games, in favor of the Japanese import palette, in favor of another, less-appreciated mascot, with our faith all the stronger for having been minimized in an already-small arena.

Inherently At Odds?

There’s a quintessential conflict here, however. A reviewer must weigh, for example, a Nintendo franchise title in the context of the franchise’s history. Should someone who’s never played a Mario game in their lives be reviewing Galaxy? Shouldn’t Metal Gear Solid 4, when it’s time comes, be weighed at least somewhat in the context of its prequels? Shouldn’t games intended for the core market be evaluated by someone from the core market?

In any event, game journos play a lot of games. A lot. And it shouldn’t be otherwise; how else to generate an educated opinion but from experience? Game fans deserve evaluation from writers with at least as much experience as they themselves have.

Reviews, then, demand that same kind of strong experience that also cannot prevent that cultivated, long-lived emotional response from becoming an ingrained subconscious reaction. Every reviewer, whether he or she is aware of it or not, is a fanboy.

I would like you to briefly indulge me by participating in an exercise. Remove all of the mascots and familiar faces from Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and replace them with original constructs. Notice, if you will, the somewhat clumsy user interface, the high percentage of total content that must be unlocked to be enjoyed, the complete lack of usability of the Wii controls, and the lack of significant graphical or gameplay progression over the previous generation. It's true that even then, you’d have a good game. But would you have a 10 game?

What does it mean that I’m hesitant to even state my opinion that it’d be a 7 game? And what does that crap even mean, anymore?

Hanged In The Court Of Opinion

-Game reviewers are taken to task often brutally if the readership catches even a whiff of bias. Lately, discussions of game journalism have revolved around whether reviewers should be “fully objective” or not – as if such a thing were possible. Game reviewers are cut of the same cloth as their audience, and having made their career out of it, might even be more likely than the audience is to have a few hairs rise on the back of their neck at the sound of the Hyrule Overworld theme, no matter in what context they hear it. They’ll never be able to completely resist the flood of positive association they feel when they see a familiar character, hear a familiar tune – a positive flood that can, and probably often does, influence a positive impression of a game.

In this Metacritic-driven era, then, where game companies must show high scores to their investors and where those scores determine their next moves, it’s love that makes the world go round. Fanboyism rules the video game industry.

What’s the solution, then? To accept that reviewers will be inherently biased toward their cultural icons and attempt to assemble as diverse an opinion pool as possible? To demand more “outsiders” write major franchise reviews, even if they’re less knowledgeable about the context?

The idea that game reviews somehow need reform or lack integrity is as prevalent as it is because fanboys are consistently displeased with them. It’s because of people’s innate, inherent and inextricable personal passions that the game audience is so impossible – just utterly impossible – for reviewers to please, to say nothing of game developers.

This constant discontent has the potential to disillusion both game journalists and game development. Fanboyism has become the stalker’s dangerous obsession with the TV news anchor, the unbalanced person who strangles a lover to death.

No 'Objectivity'

It may not be possible to stem the tide of fanboyism. It may not be desirable, either – who wants to be told that they must love their favorite thing less? But can it be de-venomized, at least, to minimize its ripple effect on people’s careers, and by extension, the health of the industry?

It can begin with game reviews – just picture what the industry would look like if there were a commonly agreed-upon moratorium on numerical scores. Second, let’s let go of the idea that a game review is akin to a product evaluation – it is that, but let’s accept that they’ve attained a complexity that completely invalidates the way we once did things, parsing games out by their technical components and then switching, jerkily, into an evaluation of subtext and the subtleties of personal experience.

If a reviewer’s positive experience of a game is influenced by its familiar franchise elements, it’s not a disqualification – it’s safe to say that most of the fans would experience that same influence. But for the sake of the industry’s future, the stamina of the developers (and please, the sanity of the journalists), let’s relinquish this idea that there is such a thing as “unbiased” for any single one of us, no matter how hard we try. I propose we embrace our own subjectivity, neutering fanboyism by accepting it -- because it sure ain't going anywhere.

[Leigh Alexander shamelessly declares herself a Metal Gear Solid fangirl, but still is too scared of you to discuss her console preferences. She is editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets, and maintains her gaming blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]

GameSetLinks: My NES Must Go On

- Ye gods, the blogosphere is wide and long and full of slithy toves, and that's why, dear reader, you need GameSetLinks to navigate you through an extremely large amount of websites in an extremely short amount of time.

This time out - more Street Fighter HD game balancing goodness, the bootleg Titanic NES RPG, indie game goodness galore, and a terribly headlined but not unreasonable overall Daily Yomiuru game book review. All this in one short post! And go:

Capcom US - The Blog: Behind-the-Scenes: Rebalancing Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (part 8, Sagat)
This whole David Sirlin-written series is excellent, from a game-balancing perspective.

Arcade Renaissance: What is really going on with Tekken 6 and US arcades?
Looks like cabinet price may be stopping a Western release?

CinnamonPirate.com : Prepare yourself, for tonight we board IN HELL!
Gigantic, neat review of the bootleg Titanic RPG for the NES.

Akihabara Channel » Best Bishojo Game of 2007
'Getchu-ya’s online website, Getchu.com announced the result of their online poll that was conducted during the month of February, voting for the best 2007 Bishojo games' - some links NSFW, interesting subgenre peek.

Knut Müller - Interview - Adventure Classic Gaming
Another nice subgenre interview, for the Rhem creator - Myst-like artgame fun.

TheStar.com | entertainment | Pilgrim's progress for graphic novel fans as Cera touted to star
Lot of video game references in the book too, obviously. Good news all round!

The Independent Gaming Source: Video of 'Glitch Racer'
The next game by Toribash creator Hampa - freeform racing physics fun, looking v. intriguing.

insertcredit.com: 'News: Obscure fighter emulation roundup'
And sure enough, there's a lot of obscure 2D fighters here!

Video game designers not the pasty-faced geeks of old: The Daily Yomiuri
Ouch, what a terrible headline. Still, actually not a terrible review of a neat book we've extracted on Gamasutra.

IGN: RetroCity Podcast Episode 1
Blimey, Paul Norman - everyone's going retro (good page views!)

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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