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April 12, 2008

GameSetNetwork: The Week In Review, April 7th-11th

- Once again, time for links to some of the best stories posted on our other sites - including Gamasutra and Game Career Guide, among others - that you might have missed this week.

Once again I'm taking advantage of Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt's email to press, and adding a few other choice links from various parts of our universe - including the highlights of the MI6 game marketing conference that were sufficiently game-ish. Hurray:

Moving The Industry Forward: Peter Molyneux Speaks
"Talkative and opinionated as ever, in this exclusive interview, Peter Molyneux talks about his feelings about how our industry fails to serve a broad enough user base, and how he hopes to challenge that with Fable 2. 'My dream is to play a computer game with my wife. She hates video games.'"

Analyze This: Is The Video Game Industry Recession-Proof?
"An interesting and relevant question for sure – we have three experienced analysts - Nick Williams of OTX, Jesse Divnich of The simExchange, and Ed Barton of Screen Digest - tackle the issue of where we might be headed, economically."

MI6: Gaming 2020 Panel Predicts A More Casual Future
"The title may not grab you, but the content should. Led by outspoken analyst Michael Pachter, a panel discussion which included Peter Moore and Nolan Bushnell among other luminaries discussed where they see gaming in the year 2020. Moore predicted the end of traditional consoles -- 'I think we have to look east for indications of where this business is going... With the retail/console model we're kidding ourselves.'"

Understanding Free-To-Play: Nexon's Min Kim Speaks Out
"Most people seem to be aware that MapleStory is popular, but with its popularity comes an increased emphasis on other publishers moving to a free-to-play model. There’s a lot of confusion out there, so we always like to talk to Nexon’s Min Kim about sorting all of that out. Definitely give it a read – there’s plenty here, including a bit of info on Nexon’s new Western development studio."

Design Language: The Portal Paradoxes
"Plenty of people have talked about Portal over the last several months, but here, veteran game designer Noah Falstein - co-creator of Sinistar and LucasArts veteran - kicks off his new regular feature column by taking a critical look at what made it work so well, from opening moments to “Still Alive”."

In addition, here's some bonus links:

MI6: The Five Rules Of Marketing BioShock
"At his MI6 session on marketing 2K Boston/Australia's hit Xbox 360/PC title BioShock, 2K director of marketing Tom Bass revealed the five secrets to its success, from not underestimating the consumer to putting a heavy focus on building and maintaining a strong community."

The Casual Games Manifesto by Daniel Cook
"Casual games are vital to the future of the biz - but how does a developer navigate the middlemen-strewn digital distribution future? Daniel Cook has a manifesto to help casual game devs get loyal customers with great social games."

Analysis: Microsoft On The Secrets Of Marketing Halo 3
"In a presentation at MI6, Microsoft staff dissected Halo 3's marketing for an audience eager to discover the secrets of the game's massive success -- particularly from the perspective of its incomparable media blitz last September."

Student Postmortem: The Art Of Board Game Design
"Board games are the topic of a new student postmortem on sister site GameCareerGuide.com, as students at Savannah College of Art and Design constructed a paper-based game called Rats based around 'paranoia'."

MI6: ESRB, Sony, Microsoft Talk Policing User-Created Content
"A notable MI6 Conference talk on Tuesday saw ESRB president Patricia Vance discussing problems - and some solutions - around regulation and rating of video game content with reps from Sony, Microsoft, and moderator N'Gai Croal of Newsweek - full details within."

Educational Feature: ‘Student Postmortem: AudiOdyssey’
"Singapore-MIT Game Lab has created AudiOdyssey, an innovative Wiimote-utilizing game that can be played equally by both blind and sighted players, and sister site Game Career Guide is featuring an in-depth postmortem of the inventive title."

Analysis: 49 Million U.S. Gamers Buy Used Games
"At this year’s MI6 conference, the organizers commissioned research firm OTX to survey the video game resale market in the United States, revealing the fact that 60% of all U.S. gamers buy used games - Gamasutra has full research commentary and slides from OTX's Nick Williams."

Opinion: Why Do Good People Make Bad Games?

- [In this editorial, originally published in the April issue of Game Developer magazine, Game Developer editor Brandon Sheffield wonders why people with passion, creativity and the best intentions end up making licensed games that... fail to make the grade.]

There are a lot of things that frustrate me about the game industry, and to read my monthly editorials you might think I dislike it. But I don't, of course. The frustration comes from love and an awareness of unrealized potential that I think almost everyone in the industry also feels.

Specifically I've been thinking recently about why good people make bad games. It's amazing to me that I can go and speak with someone working on a movie licensed title, and they'll be full of legitimate enthusiasm, real ideas, and almost convince me - OK, this time they're going to get it right.

Then the game comes out, releasing day and date with the movie, with under a year of development time, and totally flops critically.

What's depressing about this scenario is that nobody wonders why. Everybody on the team already knows! The schedule was too short, the demands from the licensor were unreasonable, and the project wasn't well managed.

I've heard of licensor requests such as the hero not being able to die, or appear to be mean, or that developers couldn't use X character from the franchise yet, because they're saving it for the sequel, even though the books upon which the movie is based have been out for years. So why do developers do this to themselves?


Yes, money. What other explanation is there? Companies need money to survive, and there's plenty of it in license tie-ins. I understand why some companies do it-they still haven't had a breakout hit, or are still finding their specialty, so are doing licensed games until they can figure it out (though some might say if you can't figure out the market, why are you still in the business?).

But for companies with a pedigree, and a stock of original IP, and the bright, creative people available to make more-why? If you know that 80 percent of these games are going to be poor, and difficult to make and complete, and if you know that the project will most likely not match the vision, why sign on?

And you, reader-why do you do it? There's a lot of pressure to stick with one team for the long haul, but what about realizing your dream as a developer, or making your creative mark? It's true that licensed games can be good, or at least have glimmers of brilliance.

I've seen it in Ubisoft's King Kong and some of the LucasArts Star Wars games for instance, as well as the Konami Simpsons arcade game, and Capcom's DuckTales on the NES - but these are, of course, the exceptions, and I don't know that most people have any such illusions when making a game based on, oh, let's say Jumper.

The Best Intentions

It's not just licenses, either. I see conferences and talks on the future of games and design, and the true integration and collaboration of games with other media, and many of these ideas are sound, genuinely intriguing, and some of them are even possible to implement. Yet, where are they?

There are so many fantastic ideas out there not getting realized. Grand Theft Auto is a classic example of a difficult-to-realize concept getting honed into an almost universally influential game experience. Games like that don't happen without someone taking the plunge.

That's the big question. How do you take that plunge? I can't count how many people I've talked to who have great ideas for games, or who had better concepts for sub-par games that were eventually released. Why don't their games get made? Too daunting? Too many bosses?

My coworker and previous editor-in-chief of Game Developer Simon Carless says that in his experience, the only way to make a very different game if you've got an idea is to just get some coders and artists, and make it. I think that might be the case right now. But it shouldn't be. There should be methods within our current structure which allow individual creativity to blossom.

It's said that there's only so much original IP to go around-only so many brilliant studios out there. Maybe that's true. But with the number of intelligent people in mediocre studios, there could be quite a few more brilliant ones.

Take a look at our Salary Survey article (the results of which will be printed on Gamasutra April 14th), and if you're not all the way at the top of your respective field yet, maybe it's time to cut your losses with your work for hire company and join or form one with more potential.

I'm just saying. If you're one of those with ideas, vision, and passion for this industry, don't waste it at a studio that doesn't respect you enough to let you bring those things to light.

GameSetLinks: Mr Game & Watch's Moral Dilemma

- Yay, totally the weekend, and the weather in Northern California seems to be hotting up as we approach the cataclysmic summer period. Still, the GameSetLinks are doing similarly, even if we do say so ourselves!

Particularly notable this time round - some snickering over Super Smash Bros Brawl's nonsensical-ish story, as well as GameTap Read on indie games and a Game Career Guide MMO competition. Go go gadget links:

Smash Bros. DOJO!! on the Subspace Emissary Mode in SSBB.
"Mr. Game & Watch does not have any concept of good and evil" This could have been better, oh dear. Via ErrorMacro.

Kotaku: 'Announcement: A Call to Ban'
Crecente is just mopping up the inevitable nuclear fallout, but it's good that he cares.

IndieGames.com - The Weblog - GameTap: The State of Indie Games
Great weeklong series by GameTap Read on indie, I get interviewed at some point too.

Butchering Pathologic - Part 1: The Body | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Yay for creepy weird Russian games.

Worldwide Releases of This Week | Game on game
Ah yes, more 'Gem Pour: Casks'.

Wired: 'Trying to Design a Truly Entertaining Game Can Defeat Even a Certified Genius'
Or Multiverse => Neverwinter Nights forced conversion, mebbe. Think I rode that horse before.

Gametrailers.com - Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People - Debut Trailer
Completely awesome alert.

James Portnow's Design Challenge - GameCareerGuide.com
Nice idea, more of a verbal challenge than a coding one.

[op3n]029 - SIMON CARLESS - h0l @ Monotonik's Oddly Retro 'Age Of Netlabel IDM' Mix
I made a little Creative Commons-licensed legal mix of my music label and other neat net.labels' electronic headphone listening music. Off topic, but please enjoy fer, like, free.

GameTap Read - All Recent Articles
Mentioning them twice in this round-up, but yay, finally a working RSS for GameTap Read.

April 11, 2008

Quiz Me Qwik: OK Impala - Meet The Dutch Translation Guru!

-['Quiz Me Quik' is a new weekly GameSetWatch column by journalist Alistair Wallis, in which he picks offbeat subjects in the game business and interviews them about their business, their perspective, and their unique view of life. This time, we check out the, uhm, premiere unofficial Dutch NES game translation master.]

The most striking thing you’ll notice looking through the work of Dutch fan-translator OK Impala! is his choice of games: the first batch included NES titles like Tetris, Ice Hockey, Duck Hunt and Super Mario Bros. The games were released locally, but never translated into Dutch. It’s estimated that over 80% of Netherlands residents speak conversational English to a high degree, but according to OK Impala!, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re happy playing games in English – especially in the case of long RPGs.

Even now, the majority of games are released solely in English, though OK Impala! notes that this is changing slowly, particularly on DS and Wii.

Most of the games translated have been SNES and NES games, however. OK Impala! selects his games generally on the proviso that he enjoyed them as a kid – which seems like a pretty logical way to choose. No point spending hundreds of hours on something you hate, after all.

Recently, working with a team, OK Impala! translated The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past; the most intensive work he’s ever taken on, and the largest Dutch game translation effort ever. The project received massive attention from Dutch gaming sites, and has been hailed as a success.

We decided to delve further into the Dutch scene with OK Impala!, asking about the hows and whys of his work, as well as trying to figure out exactly what his damn problem with Sega games is.

GSW: What made you decide to take on the task of translating games into Dutch?

OK Impala: Back in 2000 I stumbled upon the translation scene. It was amazing! Fans translating wonderful Japanese RPGs that were never released in English. That way I could finally play Final Fantasy II, III and V, but also the Y's series, Tales of Phantasia and many others.

I had - and still have - a deep respect for the translators of those games. I longed for translating games myself. Though since I don't understand anything of Japanese, translating those games wasn't an option.

At that time there were already a lot of foreign translation groups, especially German, French, Spanish and Greek (of the famous Greekroms.com) translators. Dutch translations were almost non-existent. Therefore I started translating games myself.

GSW: Are there other Dutch translation groups now?

OK: No, not that I know of. It's really a shame since so many countries have several groups, even for small languages. I guess we aren't proud enough on our language.

GSW: Were the smaller NES games you started with a way of getting the hang of the translation process?

OK: Yup, I started with Super Mario Bros. since I found a translation program for it. It was a nice tool which displayed all text of the game and you could easily change them. The first Dutch translation by Ok Impala! was born. After that I started experimenting with other games to get the hang of hexediting. I translated Tetris, Ice Hockey and Duck Hunt. I released all four games when my website was founded.

GSW: How did you do the translations in the beginning, and at what point did you start working with hex? What was the difference?

OK: Super Mario Bros., the first translation, was done with a translation tool. Later on I mostly used hexeditors for translations. But I also used Nesticle for small graphical changes. When my translations got better and the games more complex I used Tile Molestor and insert/extraction tools.

GSW: Were those games really not released in Dutch previously? Is that the case with many games from that era?

OK: Nope, none of my translations were released in Dutch previously. In the Netherlands, almost no games were translated in the past. One of the few Dutch translations was Lufia II - Rise of the Sinistrials. Lately it gets more common, especially on DS and Wii that games are translated to Dutch. Even the menu of the Wii is in Dutch now!

GSW: Are there a lot of games that still aren't released in Dutch?

OK: Yes, most of them. But with the "casual gaming" audience trend, you see many games translated on DS and Wii.

-GSW: Does this affect many people, or would you say that most Dutch gamers are bi-lingual?

OK: Opposed to what "gamers" in the Netherlands believe, it really does make a lot of difference for people to understand a game. Many Dutch people think that we all understand English and want our games in English too. I really don't believe the majority of the Dutch people really understand what's happening when a game is in English.

GSW: That's interesting. Why do you think that is?

OK: The problem is that when you know a language "good", it will help you understand the basics of a dialogue. However, the deeper meaning of things will pass you by. Another problem is that many "gamers" think a game sounds more "cool" in English and it doesn't sound well when you translate it to Dutch. In most of the cases that's caused by the English translation of the game itself - which is pretty bad - not by our language. I think a good Dutch translation can really add to a game and show more details of the script.

Another important point is that many people don't want to play games with a lot of English text. It's like reading an English book; most people in the Netherlands read Dutch books although they watch English programs - with Dutch subtitles - listen to English music, etc.

When it gets more complex, like in books and many games, it's just more comfortable to read something in your native language. And I'm not even starting to talk about children who don't understand English at all and still would like to play games.

GSW: How have you selected the games that you've worked on during that time?

OK: Mostly I selected the games I enjoyed playing when I was younger. And I tried to work on a translation that I could actually finish. Translating Chrono Trigger would be great, but is simply impossible if I'd work on it alone.

GSW: You've worked with teams before, right? Is it easy to find people to help out?

OK: Actually it's pretty hard. There are always people that are enthusiastic and want to help out. Though often they disappear when it really gets down to "getting things done". Another problem with translating is that you must be able to formulate nice sentences in Dutch; it's very hard to find those people too.

GSW: I assume you were mostly a SNES and NES gamer? Did you ever consider doing a Mega Drive or Master System game at any point?

-OK: Yeah, I considered it but could never think of a game really worth translating. To be honest, I think the NES and SNES games, especially RPGs, were way ahead of what was available on the Sega systems at the time. Many Sega games didn't age that well either. Many old NES/SNES games are still very enjoyable by people now.

I'm a Nintendo fan: you can tell, can't you?

GSW: Sacrilege! You should check out the Phantasy Star series.

OK: I did, I did...but I couldn't shake the feeling that it would've been a very nice 8-bit RPG at the time. The games just can't match RPGs like Final Fantasy VI, Lufia - Rise of Sinistrials or Chrono Trigger, for example.

GSW: Why did you retranslate Lufia II?

OK: I didn't. The only thing I did was ripping the Dutch ROM and creating a patch so you could use the US ROM for playing Lufia in Dutch. Mainly because the Dutch Lufia II ROM is pretty hard to find.

GSW: What were the problems you encountered with the first Zelda game?

OK: Well, as always: limited space for my Dutch sentences. The English in that game isn't that great either. So I added as much to the Dutch translation as possible, I think the dialogue in the game is much better now opposed to what a literary translation would give. Another problem that put this project on hold for some time was the colors used in the opening text. Took me some time to find out how to change them, but the end result turned out nice!

GSW: What other problems exist with translating into Dutch?

OK: Space problems, all the time. We use a lot of words to describe something, while English tends to use words with more meaning. So, I had to use abbreviations from time to time. I tried to use them as less as possible, since they are ugly. Another problem, sometimes the English translation itself is pretty terrible. Than you basically have to spice up the translation, to make it sound right in Dutch.

GSW: That's cool. You're effectively localising the games, then.

OK: Indeed, a literal translation is worthless most of the time. However, I tend to keep all original names and such.

GSW: What project are you most proud of?

-OK: The last project I released, Zelda: A Link to the Past. Since it was the largest game I ever translated. I worked on it with several other translators and it took years to finish. All things I learned in the past translation projects I could use for this game. It's still a terrific game and playing it in Dutch just gives me a smile.

It really fits to the cartoon style of the game, gives it some extra charm. I feel it's a nice tribute to a game many of us played when we were young.

GSW: Why do you think it adds to the charm?

OK: Well, the game has some strange kind of humor, also found in Link's Awakening. It's a serious story, but still it isn't taking itself too seriously. In Dutch it really fits the mood, like you're watching some kind of high quality child cartoon. Would've been great if I could have played this game in Dutch when I was young, I would've understood the humor a lot better!

GSW: Are there projects still in the works?

OK: Currently on the translation part only Faxanadu. Besides I'm working with Stifu on Epic Racers - a complete hack of Super Mario Kart with new drivers, courses, graphics and so on. And Ancient Tales: Prophecy of Sadness - my own RPG, which has been in the works since 1999.

But real life takes more and more time. I have a great job in which I can accomplish many things I like, but that also means I have less time for the Impala. I still try to work on my projects from time to time. All my projects got finished somewhere in time, so there will be more Ok Impala! releases in the future. Though it will take some time.

I still have dreams like translating Lufia: The Fortress of Doom, Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy VI or maybe one day creating my own Lufia game. So who knows what time might bring...

One thing is for sure, OKImpala.com will be there for some time to come!

Opinion Rebuttal: Si, Ceci Est Un Gamer

- [Following Douglas Wilson's impassioned opinion piece discussing why developer and gamers alike should step away from a militant defense of the artform, writer Rene Patnode steps in to respectfully suggest that the phrase 'gamer' should not be a dirty word.]

Doug Wilson is a personal friend of mine, and therefore I was quite shocked to see his recent opinion article on GameSetWatch. I know Wilson to have a very long history of playing video games and to be very knowledgeable about them in all aspects historical, cultural, and technical. In short, I would not hesitate to call him a gamer, nor would I do as he does and hesitate to call myself a gamer. I am, moreover, proud to do so. In fact, when I first read Doug’s article, I was wearing a t-shirt that had no design save for the affirmative statement “gamer.”

I’m a sociologist by training, and I’m very interested in the topic of sub-cultures whether one is speaking of gamers or any other group. As such, I believe that Wilson incorrectly chastises the totality of the gamer sub-culture while correctly criticizing unfortunate behavior of certain members of that sub-culture. I would like to offer a rebuttal on behalf of gamers everywhere while pointing out what I feel to be valid concerns in Wilson’s argument.

A Matter of Culture

To begin with, I fundamentally disagree with Wilson’s program to dismantle the gamer sub-culture. Foremost, it is not such an easy task as he seems to suggest. I identify as a gamer because there are certain life experiences I share with other people who also play video games. Among these: learning to blow into an NES cartridge if it stopped working, throwing water on the dragon in King’s Quest I, and fiddling with QBasic trying to program my own games. If I speak of these things to another gamer, I can assume a level of understanding that I would not find elsewhere.

Granted, these examples are old, but even if were speaking to a younger player, there would still be some degree of commonality: we would hold the same awe for people who have mastered “Through the Fire and the Flames.” Hell, I was ecstatic the day I managed to get 100% on that song on easy difficulty, which at that time was quite non-trivial for my clumsy fingers. My point here is that dropping the term “gamer” from our vocabulary would in no way deconstruct the essence of the culture to which it refers. It is a useful term that signifies something real.

Wilson’s analysis does point to the fact that this essence of the gamer culture may change even if it is not outright obliterated. I couldn’t agree more. What changes is the specific knowledge that constitutes the boundaries of the culture. There was a time when knowledge of arcane commands was essential to even start a game. I began playing PC games when it was still necessary to fine-tune one’s autoexec.bat and config.sys to get a game running.

Nowadays, the wonders of plug-and-play (and anyone who was around for Windows 95 is now laughing) have mitigated the importance of that knowledge. Arcades and consoles, of course, have always been plug-and-play in a manner of speaking, but as everyone knows they used to have their own tactic of exclusion: old games are generally much harder than those of today.

Wilson’s comparison to TV is therefore not quite accurate; there has never been anything exclusive in the practice of TV watching. No special knowledge was ever required. Different shows may develop independent fan bases, but that is not what Wilson is addressing here. At most, the cost of a television set might limit those who can purchase one, but then it becomes a question of class, not sub-culture.

With contemporary games becoming more accessible for a variety of reasons, and the requisite knowledge requirements becoming lowered, more and more people will start to identify themselves as gamers. Some of these latecomers may then ironically resist the enlargement of the gaming fold.

A Matter of Identity

In so far as gamers self-identify as members of this sub-culture, any challenge to the constitution of the sub-culture necessarily challenges the identity of the members. More specifically, the fact that parents and grand-parents may become gamers thanks to Wii Sports is frightening. Not only do parents just not understand, we don’t want them to understand, as their understanding changes that which is understood.

But, as Wilson suggests, this fear may be irrational. While I agree that it may be in our best interests to continue the process of opening up gamer culture, I stop short, however, of using the reticence of gamers to do so as an indictment of the whole sub-culture. If it were, every other sub-culture (or at least those attached to popular culture) would almost certainly be guilty of the same sin. Within music, fans often speak of some band having sold out.

I remember the fury I felt when I was watching VH1’s Behind the Music and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich responded to critics with “yeah, we sell out... every concert.” I felt, and I imagine others felt, cheated by Mr. Ulrich. Our years of dedication to the band were not being respected. But Metallica didn’t listen. They continued with their new direction and brought in new fans; old fans went and found new bands. In the end, everyone was happy. For another example, two words: Jar-Jar Binks.

In the final analysis, change to the fan sub-culture appears inevitable, but yet so are reactionary responses from the fans. But those responses are soon swallowed up by the progress of the sub-culture on the whole. Given this inevitability, is there reason for concern?

After all, the course of history has already begun to unfold. In the same way we gaming old-timers may look down on PlayStation fanboys (for the record, I’m a Nintendo man), those same gamers who cut their teeth on the PS2 may denigrate the n00bs who are just learning to waggle their Wii-motes. Wilson’s critique may in fact stem from his own nostalgia for the good old days before a series of tubes became the internet we now know and love, and flame wars became easier to ignite.

A Matter of Maturity

I do think Wilson was correct to note the immaturity that plagues a good portion of the gaming community as it tries to navigate the current phase of its development. I think we are all familiar with the kind of language that one might encounter on Xbox Live or in internet forums. At best it may be obscene; at worst, it is racist, misogynist, or homophobic. If you visit Kotaku or similar sites and read the comments posted in response to Wilson’s article you will encounter such kind of retorts nestled among those with far greater nuance. Once again, I know Wilson personally, and I can confirm that he is neither an idiot nor a feminine hygiene product. Unfortunately such accusations only serve to confirm Wilson’s thesis. To the individuals who have written in this way, I will answer directly: there are more effective ways to respond to someone with whom you disagree. (Which means: please don’t flame me also!)

I believe that gamers had every right to be angry with Cooper Lawrence and Kevin McCullough. Just because they are symptoms of a greater malady does not absolve them of their culpability. They are professionals after all, and they have some degree of professional responsibility. Further, gamers, as a sub-culture, have no less right to defend the perceived honor of their culture than any other group has.

I too long for a day when video gaming is not treated as an infantile pastime, and a change in the popular consciousness regarding gamers is only likely to occur if more and more gamers assert their identity as valid. It is rather unfortunate that those gamers most likely to assert themselves may be exactly those most prone to engaging in ad hominem arguments. It is this minority (the stereotype) that Wilson is truly addressing; let the others come forward to show him that he is wrong.

Likewise, I too have been guilty of declaring Hillary Clinton’s disdain for games as one of my reasons for not supporting her. I do so not because I think video games are necessarily the most important thing in the world or even in my life but because I do not trust anyone who would so blindly accept reactionary dogma. She is guilty of no more and no less than Lawrence and McCullough but her influence has the potential to be far greater, and so I find it difficult to put my faith in her to break away from the status quo and lead the United States in the direction it needs.

Conversely, I do not find Barack Obama’s comments related to games to be of the same magnitude, and thus he still receives my support. But I recognize that other individuals (including other gamers) might think differently than I do. They may even vote Republican, and I respect that choice even if I don’t agree with it.

A Matter of Respect

If we gamers wish to be respected as a sub-culture, we must all learn how to respect those whose opinions differ. Gamers should not think they have the right to respond in whatever immature fashion they choose. If nothing else, their methods only provide more fuel to the proverbial fire. Fortunately, both Lawrence and McCullough have retracted their positions somewhat, but the methods that some gamers used to influence those retractions are unlikely to dissuade new critics from sprouting up. If Clinton does in fact win the nomination and then the election, I hope some of my peers will think twice before they assault the internet with incendiary remarks. Otherwise she will be even less likely to see the error of her ways and to divert her anti-game agenda.

Historically, it is important to realize that media other than video games have been subject to criticism by uninformed pundits. In addition to being a gamer, I am proud to call myself a fan of The Simpsons, which I have watched since the very first season. At that time, the show was in very much the same boat as games find themselves now; it was blamed for the downfall of the morality of American youth.

Nearly twenty years later, The Simpsons are broadly hailed as one of the all-time achievements of the small screen. Granted, anti-Simpsons sentiment did not obtain the same political visibility; as far as I know no legislation was threatened that would have affected its production. Nor did it have to contend with an accusation as pointed as that which says video games are murder simulations. Yet, more generally, we’ve been here before. And survived.

I may wish, as Wilson does, that gamers were more politically active in issues that don’t involve gaming. But how can I discern from a forum post on a gaming blog anything but what a gamer thinks when she’s reading a gaming blog? Expecting her to write anything that’s not game-related is unreasonable. She may, like me, go from reading Blue’s News to the New York Times. Or she might not, which is also her right. I, the observer, cannot know for certain unless I administer some kind of large-scale survey of gamers that measures political awareness. (Hmm, I’m a sociologist... maybe I should do that!)

However, even if the results of such a survey were disappointing, it would not necessarily point to the political apathy of gamers so much as it might point to the political apathy of Americans in general. I’m not sure I agree gamers should be held to a higher standard.

In conclusion, I would like to declare my whole-hearted belief that gamers are worthy of respect. I also believe that history has shown that the larger American culture will come to respect us as it has most other sub-cultures. But the trick here is that the respect will come more quickly if we gamers let it. In this aspect, I think Wilson and I are in agreement.

GameSetLinks: Meow Meow Cat Cat

- Ye gods, will this week never end? Well, it's almost getting there, so time for a dab more GameSetLink-age, started out with - of course - Japanese freeware games about cats, in case you were yearning for them.

Elsewhere in this link block, CGDC Flash game goodness winners, a totally insane Bourne Conspiracy press teaser chain of events, and much more.

[Oh, and hey BoingBoing Gadgets, do you read GameSetWatch or did you come across Bubba Lego-Tep some other way? Seriously, I'm pretty sure I'm the only person insano enough to read PlanetDoom's RSS feed in my 'leisure time' nowadays (the source of that particular piece of randomness).]

Anyhow, potential whining done, definite linking commence:

Who On Earth Is Yoshio Ishii? | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
I approve of this random freeware creator (Cursor*10) driveby profiling.

Shacknews: An Off-Road Interview with the Raptor Safari Creators
The Flashbang folks are starting to get famous. This is neat.

videogaming247 » Blog Archive » Worldwide releases: Friday April 11
Oh dear, 'Gem Pour: Casks' makes another appearance.

TOJam - Toronto's Indie Game Jam homepage
'TOJam #3 is ON ! May 9 - 11, 2008'. It's now accepting applications, hilarious Canadians!

Jay Is Games: CGDC5 casual Flash game competition winners
These are COMPLETELY awesome.

Kotaku: 'Professor De Marco and the Mysterious Cell Phone Part 3: The Reveal'
This is pretty damn neat, publicity campaign-wise (it's for The Bourne Conspiracy).

nihilogic: Super Mario in 14kB Javascript

Joystick Division: 'Give 'Em Enough Trope'
'Some of these tropes concern gameplay mechanics, while others tie in the story structure of games into the greater scheme of fictional narrative, but all of them are instantly recognizable to most gamers.'

Siliconera » Konami to rock gamers with a revolution?
I'm very surprised Konami hasn't pulled out the guitar guns yet, given their history.

Ste Pickford's Blog: 'What To Blog?'
Actually quite rambly, but in a good way. One gem: 'None of the ideas we've had in the last three or four months could possibly have been designed on paper at the start of the project.'

April 10, 2008

Q&A: Englobe's Edwards Talks Gaming's 'Geocultural Risks'

- [This Mathew Kumar-conducted interview is a really interesting look at an ex-Microsoft exec who helps examine the cultural problems possible when you're releasing the game worldwide - and he has experience on games like Halo 2 and, uh, Kakuto Chojin to back it up. It's perhaps something only the largest games would want, but for those, it seems potentially v.important.]

Gaming has always been a global business, but as the industry matures and games become more complex, there is more and more risk in localizing titles without taking into account cultural differences.

Englobe is a consultancy that specializes in examining these "geocultural risks", and Gamasutra talked to founder Tom Edwards about his history in the industry, including a discussion of his work with Microsoft Game Studios titles such as Halo 2 and Kakuto Chojin.

Could you introduce yourself?

My name is Tom Edwards and I think I’m something of a unique hybrid of an academic geographer and cartographer by training; global program manager and educator by experience; and a corporate geocultural advisor by choice -- coexisting with a passion for technology and games.

Sometimes I like to tell people that I’m essentially a gamer who became a geographer and geocultural consultant, because games have been a part of my life for the better part of it (I’m old enough to have played Pong and Space Wars when they first showed up).

How did you become “a geographer and geocultural consultant”?

I went into college in aerospace engineering because I thought it would be cool to go into space someday. Well, I’m far too right-brained for calculus so I switched majors to industrial design at Cal State Long Beach -- because I had learned that Joe Johnston and some other Lucasfilm storyboard artists had gone there. I did that for 2 years with my goal of working for Lucasfilm, but I quickly tired of being forced to draw things I didn’t want -- like pencil sharpeners, tables and cars.

During this time, I had planned to minor in geography because it’s always been a strong interest for me, but one day I decided to change majors (again) and it proved to be a great fit. Cartography in particular was a great combination of my creative side but also an interest in representation of real-world issues. I went on to do my master’s thesis on using virtual worlds technology for geographic information, and have finished most of the requirements for my PhD (except the dissertation!)

I’m very much a sci-fi geek -- enthralled by the old Twilight Zone and Outer Limits, then original Star Trek, old Harryhausen movies, 2001 and I was 12 years old when Star Wars released so I was branded for life. I ran a sort-of Star Wars-related role-playing game for several friends for about 10 years and that was great fun while it lasted -- and yes I do have my own Jedi costume. So I try and balance my interests in the real world with my interests in all things imaginative.

I am very passionate about geographic literacy (or the lack thereof) in the US and beyond, so I’m involved in efforts to improve geographic understanding (including the use of games!)

How did you become Microsoft's "Senior Geopolitical Strategist"?

I started my Microsoft career when I was in my first year of doctoral work at the University of Washington in 1992. Our geography department got a call for a cartographer and two of us grad students applied -- myself and Whit Alexander, who would later go on to co-create Cranium. Whit got the job but then hired me to help with the workload, and thus I worked as a cartographer on Encarta Encyclopedia and Encarta World Atlas for about three and a half years.

When I got my headcount position, it was designated as “Geopolitical Specialist”, with my job being to keep all the mapping products current and “geopolitically-correct” from country to country. As I performed this work, people from across the company started asking me all kinds of questions about flags, boundaries, cultural faux pas, and it became clear that a broader resource for these types of questions was needed. So I created a proposal for a small team, shopped it around to various VPs, and finally gained approval.

As a result in 1998 I created the “Geopolitical Strategy” team at Microsoft with the mission of centralizing corporate policy on sensitive geopolitical and cultural issues -- to ensure consistent handling across the very wide range of products and locales. We created guidelines, ran classes, performed content reviews, and created various tools to enable product teams to effectively deal with this more qualitative aspect of content. With only three people including myself, it was a daunting task but very rewarding.

Can you talk about your work with Microsoft Game Studios?

I started my work with games at Microsoft with consulting on Flight Simulator -- long before the Xbox or Microsoft Game Studios existed. When MGS was created I got involved with the key people in the production line, particularly the user experience and editorial folks, and we initially set up some ad hoc content reviews to ensure things were being checked before heading out the door.

This evolved into a more formal “geopolitical quality review” process in which we took a very proactive approach, which was somewhat unprecedented in the industry, to geopolitical risks -- starting with the earliest design concepts.

The process wasn’t a “political correctness” review or a form of internal censorship -- it was really geared at maximizing the number of global players who could enjoy the games without being distracted by political and/or cultural issues. I worked very closely with a wide range of people, from designers, writers and producers to the marketing and legal people.

From roughly 1995 to 2005, I personally performed the geopolitical content review for nearly every 1st party Microsoft game for PC and Xbox, as well as reviews on many 2nd party and some 3rd party titles.

What kinds of issues cropped up over that time?

A lot of people know the story of Kakuto Chojin: in this hand-to-hand fighting game, the developers mistakenly included audio which contained chanted verses from the Islamic Qur’an. While the issue was immediately fixed, there were packaged copies of the game which were released and they inadvertently ended up in unintended locales where such a thing would be very sensitive -- such as Saudi Arabia.

The issue became headline news in some Muslim countries and eventually the heat against the title became so significant that it had to be globally recalled. So in the end, that one audio file eliminated all the great development effort.

During the geocultural review of Halo 2’s content, the original name for the Arbiter character -- Dervish -- was identified as a potential problem. Out of context, the name ‘Dervish’ wasn’t too sensitive as it’s a title from the Sufi sect of Islam. However, within the game’s context this Islamic-related name of ‘Dervish’ set up a potentially problematic allegory related to Halo 2’s plot -- the U.S.-like forces (Master Chief/Sarge) versus Islam (the religious Covenant, which already had a “Prophet of Truth” which is one synonym for Mohammed).

Mind you, this was not too long after 9/11 so the sensitivity to such issues remained high. In the end, the character name was changed to ‘Arbiter’ -- which in my opinion worked much better for the character’s role in the narrative.

How did you come to start Englobe?

After 13 plus years at Microsoft, I felt that my mission to “institutionalize” the accountability for geopolitical issues had been mostly achieved. While I really loved my job, I knew it was time for new challenges and I felt that I had a solid skill set that I could apply to other companies and types of products. So I left Microsoft in March 2005.

Not being a “real” business person, it’s been a challenge to get a viable company off the ground but I have felt invigorated by the challenge and it’s been a great experience expanding my reach to a wide range of other companies. Just like I did within Microsoft, I find I still have to do quite a bit of educating about what the whole “geocultural” thing means, but if I get a chance to explain it to potential clients/companies, they usually get it right away -- it’s not rocket science, it’s about doing good business in a global environment.

So what is it that Englobe does exactly?

We’re a niche consultancy that focuses on the geocultural dimension of content. This effort is centered around my 16+ years of experience in dealing with a very wide range of content-related issues across many locales. At its core, Englobe helps companies avoid making serious geopolitical and cultural faux pas and errors that can yield local customer backlash -- or worse -- a product ban by a local government.

The core of Englobe’s business is performing "Geocultural Quality Review", which is my process of examining a piece or body of content for potentially sensitive issues. It’s useful to think of geocultural review as inoculation and insurance. The “inoculation” step is about introducing preventative measures into the game development lifecycle to prevent known issues.

This is not about being “PC” with content, it’s simply about maximizing the global viability of the content, and the “insurance” step is about performing due diligence within fiscal reason to develop content with a defensible intent. If an issue does result, the rationale behind decision-making will already be documented.

So how much importance do geocultural issues have in the world of games?

The geocultural dimension has a huge impact on games, but it’s usually perceived as a localization problem. The truth is that most game localization usually does not account for the geocultural aspects of content, such as how the content will be perceived from a local political, cultural or religious viewpoint.

Ratings boards simply do not review games for this type of content -- they can’t tell you if a game is going to be a political or cultural problem in a certain locale as they’re focused on age-appropriateness rather than locale-appropriateness (there is a connection there, but age remains the key factor in their reviews).

One recent example would be the use of the Manchester Cathedral in the game Resistance: Fall of Man. The game developers inserted a beautiful re-creation of the cathedral in the game -- which on the surface isn’t so bad (although some buildings are sensitive and/or actually have copyright protection). But the violent action of the game actually took place within the cathedral and the Church of England was not pleased with their sacred landmark being used in this way.

Another good example is the game Hearts of Iron, which was banned in China because Tibet and Taiwan were not shown as Chinese territory. The territorial divisions made perfect sense for game play -- ala the board game Risk -- but China’s government was unwilling to accept the historical context of the game’s content.

Yet another example is how Ghost Recon 2 was banned in Korea because the story featured a rogue North Korean general who was trying to consolidate power. The Korean Media Rating Board (KMRB) considered the content to be too politically sensitive and they banned the game because in Korea, any depiction of North and South Korea at war, or any portrayal of North Korea as a villain is considered to be very sensitive.

Very recently, there was the issue of apparent lesbian love scenes in Mass Effect which was overplayed by certain media outlets, but it was enough to prompt Singapore to temporarily ban the game.

The bottom line is that a game’s development and design can be perfect, the localization done very well, the marketing executed well and so on -- but all it takes is just one geocultural issue to potentially derail a game title in a particular market (or more). So I view a geocultural content review as a critical part of game design because we have to realize that there is a global audience -- even when you don’t intend your title to go to certain markets.

This doesn’t mean sterilizing the game content to be suitable for everyone, but it does mean making good, proactive choices in a surgical manner so that perhaps that one or two content items in the game can be tweaked in order to maximize the game titles global reach, and therefore revenue.

The key is that game companies need to realize the importance of this content aspect and then plan for it in their development cycle. In my experience, typically at least 75% of potential issues can be avoided if a geocultural review is performed very early - such as on the initial design and overall back story and characters. It’s much cheaper to course correct early on than late in the dev cycle.

Reminder: The Dobbs Challenge $1,000 'First Month' Challenge To End

- [As mentioned before, as part of my work with Gamasutra and Game Developer, I also manage Dr. Dobb's Journal, the seminal programming website/magazine - founded in 1975. We're doing the Dobbs Challenge game competition, and the First Month deadline is coming up - might be a good chance for GSW readers to do some neat code and/or art hacking and win out!]

GameSetWatch sister site Dr Dobb's Journal has announced that the $1,000 First Month Challenge, an initial prize for the best game produced by modding the Dr. Dobbs Challenge game within a month, is to close April 14th.

The First Month Challenge is the first prize category in the inaugural Dobbs Challenge (a special game competition brought to you in association with Dr. Dobb's Journal and Microsoft) and The Dobbs Challenge organizers have noted that “work-in-progress” games are completely eligible for the First Month Challenge prize.

All entrants are free to continue to developing their project for the final deadline (for all prizes) on June 13th -- including Best Windows Game ($4,000), Best Windows Mobile Game ($2,000), Best One Button Game ($1,000), Best Game Starring Dr Dobbs And The Defy All Challenges Crew ($1,000), and Best Total Conversion ($1,000) - for making something that's completely different in genre/style from the original Dr. Dobbs Challenge, but still keeps 'collect Visual Studio icons' as the mechanic and starts from the same codebase.

To participate, interested parties can firstly download the specially created 'Dr. Dobb's Challenge' games for either Windows and Windows Mobile. Then they can win from a prize pool of $10,000 by modifying the games using a trial version of Visual Studio 2008, in association with competition sponsor Microsoft.

Full source code and art for the games are freely provided for programmers and artists to 'mod' the results and win prizes, and all you need to know to participate is available on the official website.

The Dobbs Challenge organizers have also unveiled their first “Editor’s Choice” mod (the submitted mods that have most impressed the judges so far) with Georg Rottensteiner’s expansion to Dr. Dobbs Challenge, which features a level editor, new art, sound and scrolling levels.

Georg explained his choice to include a level editor as “a needed add-on: while text based levels are nice for casual editing, in the long run an in-game editor is better; you see exactly what you're doing and what's it going to look like. And it lets me create new stages faster!”

He also included tips for people wanting to create graphics in the style of the original game (“I cheated a bit; painted new tiles in twice the resolution and simply scaled them down”) and creating sound effects:

“I've been using DrPetter's sfxr sound tool for additional sound effects. It's an awesome tool that lets you create random 8-bit style sound effects and play with the parameters. Highly recommended.”

COLUMN: 'Jump Button': The Promise Of Style — Faceplate Collector Josh* aka 'Taco Head'

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

I'm more than 10,000 kilometers away from home, the TV in my hotel room is displaying an attractive woman in a red leotard, and immediately my thoughts turn to the launch of the X-box 360.

The woman is twisting faux-effortlessly on a lightweight steel and rubber contraption, and all I can think about are plastic homages to Test Drive, The Outfit, PGR3 and Gears of War.

The woman is smiling, turning left, smiling, turning right, smiling smiling smiling, but in my mind's eye it's Xbox 360 faceplate collector Taco Head (real name Josh*) that's looking back at me, short dark hair and caffeinated green eyes, the word 'promise' on his lips.

'It all happened in the Summer of 2005,' Josh says, as if reciting a net romance blog. 'The “NextBox” was finally revealed to the public during E3 as the 360 we know and love today, but the release date of November seemed like it would take an eternity to come.

'At that time, I had taken my family to Palm Springs for a long weekend and had recently gotten a PDA phone with a web browser. I remember being out at the pool surfing eBay and I came across a listing for the #1 of 5,000 E3 faceplates. Instantly, I knew I had to have it.

-'It was the first one of its kind, and the system hadn't even launched yet! But it wasn't easy. This was just the first of many “negotiations” with my wife to secure a rare faceplate.'

Still Josh, now a 37-year-old director of operations for a software company in Southern California, explaining the initial attraction.

'I'd long been a big fan of the first Xbox because its PC-like design seemed to inspire the hobbyist crowd and had generated so many interesting home brew applications and hardware mods.'

'So when I first learned what Microsoft had in store for the 360, I thought, “Wow, these guys have really listened to the hardcore gamers”. There was the Xbox Media Center functionality (although not quite as robust as first hoped) and the dashboards, themes and faceplates. They were really going for a customizable game console that you could make your own.

'I was extremely curious to see what interesting faceplates would be manufactured. Here you had regular guys making all kinds of cool mods in their garages for the original X-box, and now it was going to graduate to the mainstream.

'Or... so I thought.'

-What Josh is talking about here, retrospectively, it's the promise of gaming with Home magazine style. Consoles that can—with the snippety-snap of a piece of plastic—take on the personality of us; and create chic from geek.

This is the gaming world's version of glamour commercials. Mascara ads promising longer lashes. Lipstick testimonies of wetter, fatter, glossier pouts. Ab muscles where there weren't any. An end to erectile dysfunction, acne and loneliness. A more beautiful us.

What Josh is getting at, what he's saying is that this was to be the eternal opportunity—handed to gamers by Microsoft and the Xbox 360—to outwardly express their gaming style. The convergence of hardware and artware. A new Xbox, only now with 15% less boring.

For Josh, the promise was too great to ignore. He had to collect.

'Originally, I envisioned myself picking up a few of these cool little plastic faceplates here and there and putting them up on my shelf,' he admits. 'But soon I ran out of space and was packing them in bubble wrap and shipping them off to my storage facility.

Due to time and budget constraints, I decided to focus primarily on first party plates, game release plates, event plates and signed plates, and I wanted to keep track of what was in the wild, what I'd acquired, and most importantly, which plates I was going after next. So, I made a faceplate index (found at Josh's ad-hoc gaming blog) because no-one had done that yet, that I was aware of. If I've learned anything at all, it's that there are a lot of really nice people all over the world that have a love for gaming in common. I never claimed to be a professional. I know my pictures are okay at best and that the index is a long cluttered table, but it serves its purpose for now and people seem to like it. I try to update it at least weekly.'

-Josh is right; for a web page committed to sought after designer pieces, it lacks fanfare; high gloss images that induce catatonia with their awesomeness, web 2.0-ness that magnifies the envy.

But what is there is a serious, serious collection of one-offs and must-haves. Charity signed ice hockey faceplates, Zero Hour plus DOA tournament plates, an X05 Amsterdam J Allard signed plate, a range of hand spraypainted Gorillaz plates that formed part of a mural wall, a limited edition Prey faceplate, a Blue Dragon Pack (with figurines), Stranglehold, Dead Rising, FEAR and RARE Viva Pinata dev team plates.

It's a collection of gamer love, of faith in the promise, of digital fatherhood. A collection any rival would love to get their hands on.

'Early on, my strongest competition in securing rare faceplates was Sean “Rhinotronics”,' says Josh. 'It was great because you thrive on the competition as a collector. I had a bunch of pieces that Sean would have loved and vice-versa. There were some others that had a piece here and there that I wanted, but he had the most serious rare collection next to mine. He was featured in the (US) Official Xbox magazine several times as a faceplate collector, but for business reasons he sold off most of his collection a while back. He was nice enough to offer me first pick at some of his items, which I happily took him up on.

-'Again, though, my wife needed some convincing that spending so much money on pieces of plastic was a good idea.'

Maybe not his wife, but Josh, he gets that faceplates aren't plastic, in the same way that a photograph isn't just chemicals on a piece of paper. More than just the promise of style, they're the visual stimulus of an emotional and psychological attachment. The proudly displayed memory of gaming.

The olive green and gold designs of the ChromeHounds faceplate isn't about coloured, textured plastic, it's about intense multiplayer squad-based mech battles at 2 am. The DOA Extreme 2 plate isn't about a hot Asian chick in her swim wear, it's 'independent jiggle physics' and voyeurism. The Perfect Dark Zero faceplate, about the excitement of N64 games coming to 'next gen'.

This is what's been forgotten, says Josh.

Adding, 'I think manufacturing a faceplate to support your game release is a powerful marketing opportunity that's often squandered. Early on, publishers would offer a nice faceplate in a box as an incentive to pre-order a game. The artwork was decent and you felt like you were getting quality.

'Over time less effort was put into the process and you'd most often get a blurry glossy logo slapped across the front. Maybe the drop in quality was because the public wasn't going ape over faceplates like Microsoft had hoped, I don't know.

-'A great example of how to make a faceplate for your fans is the BioShock faceplate. It came as part of a nice promotional box with other materials and looks great. But look at the Collector's Edition of BioShock and you'll see that you're dealing with a company that really cares about its product and its fans. All it takes is a little effort. I'll buy from those guys every time.

'Ultimately, though, what's fascinating is that here we are—nearly three years after the 360 faceplates were unveiled—and the scene has come full circle, [back to the way things ended with the original Xbox]. Today, commercial faceplate production has dropped off, but custom-modded faceplates are hot.'

*Full name not given at Josh's request.

[Drew Taylor works in the games industry in Australia and writes video game culture articles for various magazines. The first faceplate he owned was a promotional item for the game The Outfit. He would love to design his own and have it manufactured.]

GameSetLinks: Shooting Game Historica Gets Opa Opa

- Yeehah, we speed past midweek, and in honor of Ikaruga being released on Xbox Live Arcade, it's time to point and stare at the new shooting game miniatures being released out of tiny figure-obsessed Japan.

Also notable - a micro micro-review of the Jackass game, various discussions of the 'GamePro incident', and a random link to the scarily awesome Attack! Books, which I am willing some NGJ-ish lunatics to set up an analogue for in the game arena, like, now. Maybe Running With Scissors could help? Anyhow:

NCSX: Shooting Game Historica Vol. 2
Oo, Opa Opa from Fantasy Zone, how cute.

Gameprwned - Quarter To Three Forums
Discussing the GamePro prank - you know, I do wanna say it was meant to be 'good-natured ribbing' but it came off as a bit dickish to some. Sorry 'bout that.

Wired News - AP News: 'Study: Editor-Reader Gap in News Sites'
'58 percent of editors said letting journalists join online conversations and give personal views would harm journalism, but only 36 percent of the public agreed.'

Eegra: Who's down for a SHINDIG?
It's Eegra, so it has to be fine! Game competition time!

Welcome to Special Round: Phantasy Star Complete Collection OR: M2 does a wonderful job
Didn't realize this: 'Besides including the English-language versions of all the games on the disc, you can play both games with sped-up combat and walking speeds, and every game on the compilation lets you adjust the difficulty a little bit.' Nice!

Level Up : The Big Idea: Is the Term 'Gamer,' Um, Played Out? And If So, What Should We Replace It With?
Referencing Douglas Wilson's GSW article of recent.

Kotaku: Guitar Hero Iii: Charlie Daniels - Guitar Hero Perverted My Song
This is weird and funny and upsetting and weird.

Jackass the Game (ps2: 2007): Metacritic Reviews
Developed by Sidhe (Kiwis of Gripshift fame), I just rented this, it's surprisingly decent actually - good-looking for a PS2 title, but needs more ragdoll.

PSO-World.com - PSOX News > US XBox Server Closure Notice
Latest in a stream of PSO server closedowns for earlier versions - reminder that MMOs are not online forever.

Attack! Books - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Someone needs to do something like this for game writing, I think.

April 9, 2008

Gamasutra Nominated For 2008 Webby Award

- [Worth a brief mention, innit? Though we've managed to win out twice in a row - the trophies are on my desk right now, he said smugly - I think we may have hit an impasse, up against the likes of Croshaw and Kohler. We'll see!]

Leading game industry site Gamasutra is pleased to announce that, after winning in its category for the past two years running, it has once again been chosen as a finalist for the 12th Annual Webby Awards in the 'Games-Related' category, a significant achievement for the Think Services-run site in the competition that the New York Times calls 'the Oscars of the Internet'.

The Webby Awards are presented by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, a 550-person judging academy whose members include Internet co-inventor Vinton Cerf, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington, "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, and Harvey Weinstein.

Other nominees in the 'Games-Related' category this year are Wired's Game|Life blog, casual site Gamezebo, game culture site The Escapist, and the RockBand.com official community site.

As well as the academy-voted choice from the finalists, The Webby Awards also give the global Web community an opportunity to decide who will take home a Webby. Starting today through May 1, the public can cast their votes for a separate public Webby award in the Webby People's Voice Awards site.

Winners will be announced on May 6th, 2008 and honored at two ceremonies in New York City: The Webby Film & Video Awards on June 9th and The Webby Awards Gala on June 10th. All winners will take to the stage to deliver their speeches in just five words.

Past headline-grabbing speechmakers include Al Gore ("Please don't recount this vote"), Beastie Boys ("Can anyone fix my computer?"), and Prince ("Everything you think is true.")

Q&A: Greenpeace's Al-Hajj Talks Green Consoles

- [This Alistair Wallis-penned interview ran late last week on Gamasutra, and is notable because I think it's one of the first times someone has followed up with the organization and quizzed them in more details on their skewering of game hardware companies for not being sufficiently 'green'.]

International activist organization Greenpeace recently released an updated version of its report ranking the three current games consoles in terms of their environmental impact.

Amongst the considerations taken into account are the recyclability of the consoles, the use of hazardous materials in their manufacture, and the use of energy while in idle mode.

In most respects, says campaign coordinator Zeina Al-Hajj, the console industry has a lot of work to do. While Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo comply with laws regarding hazardous materials, Greenpeace is challenging the companies to move beyond what is currently required by law to create a greener console.

The organization is also asking for greater transparency in regards to the manufacture and disposal of products, as well as the company’s individual environmental policies. Al-Hajj notes that while Sony and Microsoft have been forthcoming in opening a dialogue to aid this, Nintendo has so far refused to comment – despite already having the greenest console on the market.

We spoke to Al-Hajj, and asked about the report, and where she hopes the industry will go in the coming years.

I just wanted to begin by asking how you got involved with the whole campaign in the first place.

We’ve been running a campaign in Greenpeace for greening the electronic industry since 2004. We’re aiming to challenge the electronic industry as a whole, and mainly the big names in the industry – the big brands putting product on the market – on their environmental policies. Although this is one of the most fascinating and unique industries that has changed our way of life, the industry hasn’t really looked at their environmental responsibilities when it comes to operating.

That can be evidenced by the amount of waste being generated, and unfortunately because of the content, this waste is hazardous waste. There is a lot of data, mainly released last year, about the climate impact of the industry – its CO2 emission, calculated to roughly 2% of global total. That puts the industry on a similar standing as the aviation industry, and 2% may well be a mild estimation. It’s possible the actual figure is higher.

From that challenge, we have a guide that assesses the environmental policies of the big brands. We started focusing on PCs and mobile phones, because they are the most widely used products, and the lifespan is short, so they’re generating huge amounts of environmental waste every year.

Then we added to that report TVs and games consoles. TV because it’s an old product we’re seeing everywhere as waste, and games consoles particularly because it’s one of the products being put on the market with absolutely no environmental recognition whatsoever, and that’s quoting the industry itself. When you speak to the leaders in that market – Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft – environment is not a concern in the production of those products.

Primarily, they’re being produced with usability in mind, and the amount of applications that can be used with it.

We came across it when we started learning more about the industry. Sony is a key example, because they were on our ranking system from the beginning. All the commitments we got from Sony in regards to improving their range of product stopped when it came to the game consoles. They looked at their mobile devices, they looked at their laptops, but when it came to game consoles, they never improved on it or made any commitments to improve it.

Because it is one of the booming fields within the electronic industry now, in terms of consumption, money being put into it, and the amount of product being sold globally – as well as the growth of those sales – it raises a lot of concern for us, because it’s going to end up being waste. And when they do, without companies looking at environmental impact, it’s going to be hazardous waste. That’s what we’re challenging the industry to look at.

It’s something that you’ve only really started looking at recently then?

Yes, just last year when we came across it, and that’s when we launched the website: The Clash of the Consoles, which challenges the three leaders in that field to take on board environmental policies, and to put on the market a greener game console. Because what’s on the market now is far away from that.

What were your findings, on the whole?

First, as a component of it, you have to realise that all electronic appliances are compliant with a regulation from Europe called the ROHS – Restriction of Hazardous Substances. This directive was passed in the EU, and says that any product sold in that market needs to be free of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and two types of polybrominated flame retardant.

All the electronic industry players must comply with that, otherwise they can’t sell their product in the EU market. And because it’s a global industry, the impact of that directive is on a global level. All products are free of lead, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and two types of polybrominated flame retardant.

The industry has already started to improve, but that’s not enough. The amount of chemicals used by the industry, and the toxicity of the chemicals, is very high. We’re challenging the industry to eliminate additional chemicals, like all types of polybrominated flame retardant and PVC. They’re used by the industry, and when those products become waste, it’s hazardous waste.

None of the game console manufacturers have made any commitment to this, or put on the market a green device free of those additional chemicals. They’re free of lead, cadmium and chromium – they have to be, because that’s the law. To give you a comparison: Sony has a VAIO laptop that’s free of PVC in most of its components, as well as polybrominated flame retardant, and they’ve eliminated lead in the screens now. That’s not the case with their games consoles.

That’s the challenge for us: to make sure the industry starts implementing the changes they’ve made with other electronic products.

The energy consumption is another element that we’re now adding to our assessment of the industry, and we started doing that with the games consoles from the beginning. There is a huge difference between the three main consoles.

It does seem like a very noticeable difference.

Exactly. There are two points to flag when it comes to energy; firstly, there is no real global standard that will give you a monitoring for how much energy a product uses. There’s the recognised energy star, which PCs and laptops adopt, and that’s a US based standard, though it is becoming a global standard. But that doesn’t exist for game consoles. So far, they’re using the same standard as desktops when they try to assess them, but there’s no existing standard for game consoles.

With the three main products now sold on the market, the Wii from Nintendo does stand out. Of course, from an application point of view, there’s a huge difference between the Wii and the PlayStation. We’re fully aware of that. But even on idle mode, which is basically just switching on the console, the difference is huge – it’s 15 watts for the Wii, while it’s 128 watts for the PlayStation 3. That’s almost 1000% more. It’s scary to see those differences.

And yes, when you have millions of units of these products being sold globally, you’re contributing to climate change, and environmental problems, and there’s a need to act. For us, we see the problems that exist in that, but if Nintendo can manage to cut down the idle mode energy usage to 15 watts, why can’t Sony and Microsoft?

That was one of the things I wanted to ask – why that difference does exist. Are there things Nintendo is doing with the Wii that seems focused on energy consumption, even in some small form?

Well, that’s the dilemma that we’re having with Nintendo now. We’re not getting any reply from them whatsoever, since we started trying to communicate with them, and that was before we launched the game console website. It’s interesting for us in this campaign as Greenpeace, because we’ve been in touch with all of these companies, and we have constant communication via face to face meetings, conference calls, email exchange – they’ve all been aware of our campaign, our demands.

We discussed the challenges with them, and why certain companies are not acting on that. Nintendo stand out as the only company who has refused to communicate back, so far.

Speaking as someone who writes about games for a living, not getting a response from Nintendo is actually nothing new. [Laughs] They’re not the most communicative of companies. It’s not just you.

Oh, really? Well, we don’t even know how they manage to cut down their energy consumption to that level. We’ve tested those three devices in our lab and we have seen them, worked with them – we played them, to understand. [Laughs] We’re not big gamers here, but we tried to understand why people would pay to have them in their homes.

The Wii stands out in terms of size, and if I compare them visually, the Wii uses more standardised material – it’s all done using the same material which makes it easier to recycle.

What kinds of things are you talking about, in terms of recyclability? Is it something we’ve seen in previous console generations, that they have been recycled in some way?

No, that’s what we’re discovering now. There has been no responsibility from the console industry – particularly Nintendo and Sony, since they’re older than Microsoft in the business. There’s no responsibility whatsoever, in terms of environmental policy.

Sony started, as of last year, a program in Japan – because the rules there are very strict in terms of recycling. And because of the pressure of our campaign, they went in to a whole new level of that in the US for all products, including the game consoles, which marks the first time we’ve seen that. But there’s no data in regards to how much is being recycled and what is being recycled. That’s the whole dilemma with the industry.

In the EU, in addition to the ROHS directive, there’s a specific directive that refers to accounting for waste from electronic equipment that came into force in 2005. til now, 70% of the electronic waste collected within the EU is unaccounted for. That’s EU, which has very high environmental regulations, and where a lot of things are being implemented, and it’s one of the few places that does have that law regarding waste. We really don’t know what happens.

Most of the programs are being put into place now, because the pressure has been high enough in the past few years that people are starting to act. We don’t know what drove Nintendo to start doing the things they’ve done with the Wii. There are clear marketing reasons, in terms of changing their audience for a more family focused audience, but we don’t know whether the choices they made to cut down on energy consumption and make it more recyclable are driven from that reason.

When you look at their environmental website, it’s one page, and there’s really nothing there. That’s part of the challenge for the industry – to start being transparent. It’s so that not only Greenpeace can say, ‘Oh, you didn’t say this here’, but you guys – the media – and the consumers can say, ‘I want to go to their website and figure this out; I have an old Nintendo I don’t want use any more, and I’d like to have it recycled. What do I do with it?’

None of this data is available. What is available right now, is that Nintendo is committed to the environment, so they recycle in their offices. Okay. Good work guys, but that’s not the issue. The issue is the responsibility to their product.

Sony and Microsoft have started replying between the last ranking guide in December last year and now. They started recognising that there is a problem, and have said that they will start acting on it. So there’s movement there.

But you’ve had no assurances in regards to their actions in the past?

Not yet, no. It takes time to change a policy. We’ve started seeing change in the PC and mobile industry after a year – it does take time to start being transparent, and start making the data available.

We recently did another study launched at the beginning of the month about the green products already available on the market. So we did a survey asking the industry to nominate their greenest products. The game console industry didn’t even respond. They don’t even have a product to nominate, whereas the PC and mobile and desktop did.

There was criteria for them to respond to – questions that would allow us to determine whether the product was really green or not. We don’t have a green product yet, but the Sony VAIO stand out, and the mobiles from Sony Ericsson are the same.

One of the criteria we tried to work with was, in terms of energy, in addition to knowing how much energy the product consumes when using it, is there data regarding the consumption during its production? No company was able to give us this data. Not because they weren’t willing to share the data, because some of the data we get from companies is confidential, and we keep that confidential because it relates to trademarks or whatever. It’s that they don’t even have this data.

They don’t have an idea, say for the mobile I’m holding right now, in regards to the energy put into it for it to be produced. How can they cut down on that if they don’t know? How can you solve the problem if you don’t even know about it?

Is that just a reflection of current manufacturing processes within the industry?

Partially, yes, because it’s really a global industry, where your laptop is assembled in one country after one component is built in one country and another comes from somewhere else. It’s really global. It’s scary, actually, that the industry doesn’t understand its responsibility.

Take Dell for example – they don’t touch a laptop as a company. They outsource that to second, third and fourth tier suppliers, then at the end put a Dell stamp on it. So how can they know what happens along that chain? That’s what the industry needs to start looking at, because if they don’t know what they’re putting in their products and what’s happening in regards to energy, how can we start making this industry green?

How green can the console industry get?

Energy consumption can definitely be reduced, and Nintendo is a key example – from a product end, you can make that happen. For its whole lifecycle, none of them have that data, so they need to work that out before they can focus on cutting energy consumption down throughout its production as well.

In terms of the chemical use in the console, it’s definitely possible, because we’ve seen it in the mobile and PC industries. Chemical use can be eliminated, and the industry has eliminated lead, cadmium and chromium following the ROHS directive.

It’s very possible for the industry to produce a greener product and put it on the market.

The industry is unique in the sense that the products are durable. It’s not like the mobile and laptop industry where laptops have a very short lifespan. They lifecycle for consoles is normally up to five years. They don’t change the design for four or five years, and that’s a very positive aspect from an environmental point of view. The longer the product life, the less resources you’re extinguishing and the less waste you’re generating.

So, in terms of Sony’s 10 year plan for the PS3, that’s obviously a very positive thing.

Yeah, exactly. There are elements that they’re taking on board, and that’s why producing a greener game console is definitely possible from an energy and chemical point of view. The durability is already there.

What is needed is for the industry to challenge itself in terms of knowing the whole lifecycle of its products and putting that effort into the next generation of consoles.

Is that something you’re hearing from Sony and Microsoft, at least? That they’re committed to that, or considering the possibilities of that?

With Sony, we have a commitment to improving the chemical usage of their products right throughout the range. They’re going to take responsibility right throughout that range. They’re moving faster in mobile and laptops and even PSP, or at least that’s what we’re reading in their commitment and on their website.

That’s why the challenge is, if Sony will move, because they have done so in a faster and stronger way than the other companies previously, then that can be a good example. The latest version of the PlayStation – the 40GB one - improved on the energy usage of the previous iteration, reducing it to 128 watts. They are starting to act. The original PS3 used 199 watts.

Have we seen a difference with the Xbox 360 over its lifecycle?

They’re all improving, yes. They have the Elite one, which uses less energy than the original Xbox 360 – that one, on idle, used 170 watts, and they reduced it to 97 watts now.

It’s very obvious that they’re all acting on the energy consumption. On the chemical use, we haven’t seen a shift. We’ve seen promises, but no shift in reality. We’re hoping that with the designs of the new devices that they’re now working, those elements will feature.

That’s exactly why we launched this campaign at this time, because we know that they must all be designing right now and working on their new products. We hope that will influence them into looking at environment when doing that.

So, you’re looking to have more of a dialogue, as well as the results?

Well, the dialogue is happening, with the exception on Nintendo. So that’s not the aim – the aim is to get a game console with environmental features on the market, in terms of it being as energy efficient as possible, and being green in terms of its chemical usage.

Is there a good chance of that happening?

We believe so, because the pressure is mounting on the industry, and the environment is becoming a factor. When we released our study into the greenest products on the market there was a big IT fair in Europe, CeBIT, and the main theme there was ‘Green IT’. It’s being discussed, and after three years of campaigning with us talking about green IT and it not being an issue on anyone’s agenda, it’s now being featured on consumer shows.

That’s fantastic for us to see, and we know now that the industry has started to react on their responsibility. When the data was announced regarding the industry being responsible for 2% of global CO2 emissions, which was a study done by Gardener, a big research institute, and they basically said, ‘Bad news; you guys are similar to the aviation industry. But the good news is you have a lot of ways to act and give a better performance’.

The industry is starting to act, because environmental issues are key right now. No one can ignore climate change, and no one can ignore their responsibilities. Nobody wants to see these mountains of electronic waste being scrapped in China and India by kids. No company wants to have its branded game consoles scrapped that way. Some are acting slower, so the challenge is how fast we can get them to act.

It’s not a matter of if they will do it, it’s a matter of when they will do it.

World of Warcraft Exposed: A Moviemaking Culture

['World of Warcraft Exposed' is a 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 week's column looks at the artform of machinima as it relates to the game and player culture.]

Boomkin!The stereotype of the online gamer is one of antisocial maladjustment. That gamers in general still bear some degree of negative stigma should be instructive on that stereotype’s accuracy. In fact, online game players – especially MMO players – are highly social creatures. Societal norms, language, and even art forms all evolve from the interaction of so many creative individuals in one ‘space.’ World of Warcraft is no exception to this rule, and in fact the artistic culture surrounding WoW may be the most deep and varied of any online society.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the wildly successful ‘machinima’ scene surrounding the game. Machinima, the art of creating a film entirely within a gamespace, has been popularized in general gaming culture by work in the Halo games. These works are primarily humorous in nature, typified by the wildly popular Red vs. Blue series. For World of Warcraft players, machinima has grown to fill many roles; humor is often a part of the experience, but drama, instruction, passion play, bragging, and a number of other motivations fill YouTube with a host of Azerothian films.

Today we’ll take a brief look at this aspect of Warcraft culture. We’ll examine some of the motivations for creating these movies, explore what they imply about World of Warcraft’s place in popular culture, and highlight a few of the best examples of the art form for your viewing pleasure.

Why Make Art Here?

Though making videogame movies is slightly less ambitious in scale, George Mallory’s famous quote about his Everest ascent (“Because it’s there.”) applies equally well to this art form. World of Warcraft players bring to their hobby a wide array of talents and gifts. While most players see only a place for entertainment, others see Azeroth as an opportunity for creation. It’s not a blank canvas, of course, but for the machinima-maker that’s almost certainly part of the charm. The constraints and challenges of working inside Blizzard’s creation allow for standout artists to really make their mark.

The most common type of WoW machinima is created entirely in-world on the live servers. That is, the video is shot purely inside World of Warcraft on the public servers paid users inhabit. Many of these works are very simple productions, simply showing gameplay overlaid with music. There is a great deal of talent required to make one of these work well, but many of this particular type of video can be seen as ‘bragging’.

Guilds will often create elaborate videos showing their completion of high-end game content, such as this well-known run through the ‘Blackwing Lair’ instance. Gamers who enjoy Player vs. Player combat are well known for this kind of activity, and their aggrandizing productions can become quite elaborate. The works of Akrios are a high-quality representation of this style of machinima.

ahnold.jpgWhile simple music overlays are very common, they don’t convey story very well. For that, many players employ character animations called ‘emotes’ to mimic the appearance of speech and physical interaction. This last is especially difficult, and takes careful planning to pull off; World of Warcraft characters are not physical objects, and may pass freely through one another.

This is done for game design reasons, but makes it extremely challenging to mimic even something as basic as a handshake or hug. Even despite their crude tools, artists can handily create the appearance of speech and conversation. The result is the complete gamut of emotional performance, with the only limiting factor being the quality of the artist-chosen voice-over actor. Humor is one of the most prevalent modes of performance, of course, with the ‘switcher’ videos being a fine example of both emote performances and in-context hilarity.

Some of the most talented machinima artists don’t bother staying within the confines of the game world, or the World of Warcraft live servers. The use of 3D manipulation software packages like Maya and simple tools that allow the viewing and animation of World of Warcraft art assets add a whole new layer of complexity to fan-made videos. These creations can have World of Warcraft characters acting in ways not possible on live servers, in-game.

The ‘Snacky’s Journal ‘series is a great example of in-game footage combined with 3D manipulation to create an engaging experience. The most dedicated of these artists go so far as to set up their own emulations of the World of Warcraft service on private servers. There, they can modify fundamental art assets in the world, change basic server rules, and spawn monsters in strange or unusual places.

While technically against Blizzard’s terms of service, the understanding in the community seems to be that they’re perfectly valid forms of artistic expression. Without private servers to work with, many of the most popular machinima artists would be denied a powerful and flexible tool.

Pop Culture Relevance

South_Park_machinima.jpgFans of the machinima art form have been thrilled to see that World of Warcraft’s explosive popularity has resulted in a pop culture relevance for World of Warcraft videos as well. You can’t get much more mainstream than a Toyota truck commercial.

A machinima featuring a Toyota Tundra slaying a dragon in may not seem very important, but it’s a ground-breaking sign of acceptance of MMOs in the public forum. Blizzard Entertainment itself has used in-game elements for a popular series of commercials. Public personas like Williams Shatner and Mr. T are shown as players of the game, with their characters and adventuring exploits a prominent selling point for the game.

Undoubtedly the most famous World of Warcraft machinima falls squarely in the realm of pop-culture relevance: the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft”. That episode of the popular Comedy Central show sees the series protagonists confronting and defeating another player in World of Warcraft.

Large portions of the show are entirely machinima-based, with the normal voice actors overlaying their performances on specially-shot in-game footage. The basis for the episode was entirely rooted in the series creator’s appreciation of the game; this one episode (and the WoW trial discs that later shipped with that season of the series) firmly pushed the game into mainstream consciousness. With another expansion to the game slated for later this year, it’s likely there are several new examples of World of Warcraft in the mainstream to come.

The Best Of The Best

If you were previously unfamiliar with the genre of WoW machinima, the sheer amount of content can be overwhelming. There are several thousand in-game movies floating around out there, and the vast majority of them are not very good. Here are some reliable favorites, the greatest hits from World of Warcraft's varied and diverse society:

- The Internet is For Porn, a voice-over machinima using Avenue Q's well-known song.
iss_wallpaper02.jpg- Illegal Danish: Super Snacks and the sequel Escape From Orgrimaar are quite possibly two of the best-produced machinimas made in the genre. Likeable characters, hilarious dialogue, and a great deal of manipulated assets marks these as standout works.
- The Ballad of the Noob shows off original storytelling/songwriting within the World of Warcraft context. Plus, it's got a catchy tune.
- Ni Hao deals with the very real issue of gold farming in a non-serious but still culturally relevant fashion. The player's view of this cultural situation, both slamming the farmers while using their services, is very noteworthy.
- The very recent MMOvie uses foul-mouthed and humorous dialogue, private servers, 3D manipulation, and high quality voice acting to parody a number of popular commercial movies; pop culture will eat itself?
- If, instead of socially relevant works, you're looking for pure entertainment, you can do far worse than the works of Baron Soosden. Soosden is very best 'music video' artist in the field right now, possibly best known for his piece backing Flyleaf's "I'm So Sick."

For further viewing, I suggest the site Machinima.com, WarcraftMovies' Hall of Fame list, and the WoW Insider Column MovieWatch. Some of the best artists out there are still making their names, and won't show up in a hall of fame or top ten list. Make sure to try out anything that sounds interesting - the very worst you can expect is to be bored.

GameSetLinks: Bubba Lego-Tep Wins Best Mod Name Ever Award

- Hee, time for some more fun GameSetLink-age, headed by a really silly-sounding Doom 3 mod - probably not spectacular to play (and who knows? it might be!), but conceptually wonderful.

Elsewhere, the kind of fun that we have includes, paradoxically, some suggestions on why modding seems to have diminishing returns nowadays, as well as Red Vs Blue's new machinima and the New York Times on blogger burnout. Which I promise not to succumb to. Onward:

Bubba Lego-Tep - GameArtisans
A Lego... Bubba Ho-Tep... Doom 3 mod! Via Planet Doom.

BBC - Scotland - videoGaiden
The Consolevania guys do their awards, with Jonathan Coulton, and much ridiculousness.

VGChartz.com | Xbox Live Arcade charts for this week
Some good (if estimated, but NOT guessed) XBLA sales updates.

MMOG Nation » /. FYI
Michael Zenke, my Slashdot Games successor, moving on to freelance goodness at lots of places.

Bow Street Runner: Jay is Games
Webgame from Channel 4 - 'a dark and historically accurate journey through old London, presented with live actors, voice narration and full motion video for an impressive cinematic experience.'

Red vs. Blue · RvsB Reconstruction
'Rooster Teeth Productions is proud to announce our newest series, Red vs Blue: Reconstruction.'

Cathode Tan: Here We Go Again: Make Something Unreal
'Every generation of the Unreal engine has resulted in a mod community which is smaller and more closeted than one before it.'

DP’s Gamer Blog : Watch Morgan Webb Totally Degrade Video Games on the Tyra Banks Show
'This is a typical situation that perfectly highlights the perception problems that our industry continually faces among such audiences.'

Upcoming game from Namco - AFREC! « Arcade Heroes
Arcade game in which "...players can record over Anime, Movies and more as voice actors."

In Web World of 24/7 Stress, Writers Blog Till They Drop - New York Times
This is a major problem for me, my staff, everyone who understands why timing matters on the web.

April 8, 2008

Q&A: Stardock's Wardell Talks Distribution Revolution With Impulse

- [Stardock's Brad Wardell is a friend of Gamasutra and associated sites, and he promises a postmortem of Sins Of A Solar Empire for the site rather soon, yay. In this Christian Nutt-conducted interview, he chats about the digital store reboot that has Gas Powered Games all atwitter (Demigod pictured!), for one.]

In this wide-ranging Q&A, Gamasutra talks with Brad Wardell, founder of publisher Stardock (GalCiv), about how its new distribution platform Impulse could breathe new life into PC gaming.

The series has a unique opt-in subscription and microtransaction model and MMO developer services, and details on its exclusive publishing deal with Gas Powered's forthcoming Demigod.

Can you introduce us to the concept behind Impulse?

Brad Wardell: Impulse is going to be our new digital distribution platform. We've been doing digital distribution for years and years on our own stuff. We had Totalgaming.net for games, and Object Desktop for non-games.

What we've done with Impulse is we're consolidating it on one platform, so you can literally manage all of your games or all of your applications and tools and utilities all in one place.

Historically, we've just put our stuff, or if indie developers wanted us to distribute their stuff, we'd let them, but we didn't really push it. Now, with Impulse, we're going out and getting major third-party games and applications put on here as well. By the end of the year, you should be able to get most games on Impulse.

Is this going to adhere to a genre strategy? Is this all going to fall in line with what you're known for?

BW: No, it'll be all games. You'll be able to get to them on the Internet. For example, players would have a choice between various publishers like THQ or Sega, etc.

So it's sort of a Steam competitor, then, but more broad?

BW: Yeah, exactly. It's more broad. We like Steam, and I'm currently playing Team Fortress all the time, but we've talked to a lot of publishers and developers who do not want to replace Wal-Mart at retail with a digital front. They want there to be more avenues for them.

I know there's Direct2Drive and GamersGate and other things like that, but in terms of a consistent platform where you can just manage and run your games and be a part of the community and that sort of thing, that's what Impulse is bringing. We're starting to go out and get not just game content, but non-game content as well.

What kind of stuff?

BW: Well, for example, we just signed Gas Powered Games' Demigod. Stardock is going to be the worldwide exclusive publisher of that, at both retail and digitally next year. I believe we're going to have most of the game publishers on here as well, we hope, by the end of the year. Demigod will be coming out in February next year.

But when it comes to non-game related things?

BW: Oh, non-game? I can't talk about it yet.

Just broadly, I don't mean specifics. What kind of content?

BW: Like paint programs, antivirus, disk defragmenting...

What about media content?

BW: We're not going to be doing movies or music for that. We have a lot of work with the PC OEMs, and we don't want to try and compete with the any of the things that are going on there. It would make it much harder to get it distributed widely.

The main reason we wanted to talk to you guys about this is because I know you guys have been covering how the PC game industry is going from here. Impulse has integrated into it support for what is called mini-subscriptions and micro-expansion packs.

Currently, a lot of people think that a subscription model is the only way to go, with some sort of MMO, but what we think is that a lot of games will come out with support for people purchasing additional content. That itself isn't that new, but that includes also having optional subscriptions.

You could, for a few dollars a month, subscribe to something where you keep getting new maps, new characters, and new items, but it wasn't required and you weren't forced to subscribe -- and that's the critical part. A lot of people will go, "Why do I have to be nickel-and-dimed in every single game I play?"

But if you get into a game and really like it, then here's an option to get new stuff out of it, rather than the current model, which is "Publisher gives developer big advance. Game gets made. One patch is made, then expansion packs." That's it. Then all the people who are into the game are basically abandoned after that.

It would be subscription-based -- so it would be a monthly charge?

BW: You would be able to do both. You would have that option. You could either buy the subscription and get all the content as it comes, or you can pay another price and get just the content that you want to get.

It sounds potentially like the microtransactions model, like buying swords and stuff for a game.

BW: The thing that's nice about subscriptions is that the developer then has a steady stream of revenue coming in, so they can then start to plan out. The problem with microtransactions on their own is that they're kind of hit-or-miss. And microtransactions lend themselves a little bit more to abuse than subscriptions.

For example, we're well-known for releasing free updates with new features. We don't want that to go away. We're going to continue to release... like with Demigod, we're going to be doing free updates for that for a year. We don't want someone paying five dollars for horse armor or something like that. We want people to get that sort of thing for free. But if they want to get significant new content for a game that they love, here's an option to do that.

So we're talking about something more significant than a single item?

BW: Exactly. You don't want players to feel like they're being nickel-and-dimed. But at the same time, for people who really got into a game, they don't want to feel abandoned after a year, which is the current PC model.

Well, for years, I thought it would be nice if console games... it wasn't feasible up until the current generation that it could support something like that.

BW: Yeah, they didn't have that.

But it's an idea that I, as a gamer, personally had years ago, the idea that "Why can't we get additional content for these games that we love so much?" They're kind of self-contained.

BW: And yet make them optional, so you don't have to. If I want to play [a game] and I like the game as-is, I shouldn't have to pay for a subscription if I don't want to. But if I really get into it, and it starts giving me more realms to explore, more castles, and more armor -- all kinds of cool stuff -- I'm willing to pay for that.

You know... it doesn't take that many people to make it worthwhile. I mean, even if you only have 100,000 or 150,000 people subscribing, or even 10,000 people subscribing, you're making $100,000 a month. That's enough to have a dedicated team constantly enhancing the product year after year.

Well, the same thing is true of Nexon, who do MapleStory. They're totally microtransactions, but I think it's something like three percent of the people who play actually buy a lot of items, but that's enough to give it a huge profit, basically.

BW: Exactly.

There are some people who just play for free.

BW: Right. But it's a win-win for gamers and a win-win for developers, because the current PC game model is just not that stable. The whole "spend millions of dollars on a game and then one expansion pack..." Even if it's a hit, it's really hard to recoup it, especially in an age with World of Warcraft and things like that.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about piracy and how that affects the market.

BW: Yeah, I wrote an article on it.

I'm familiar with it. I see it both ways, kind of. Obviously, I agree that not putting in the aggressive copy protection is better for everybody, because it's cracked anyway, and it just creates a really unpleasant experience for people who actually pay, rather than creating a barrier for pirates.

BW: Exactly. Not to mention that an increasing percentage of PC users have laptops, and if I can't play a game on my laptop, I'm not buying it. And if I'm going on a trip like this, I'm not taking a bunch of DVDs with me and my games. Every little bit matters to me.

You just want to install on your laptop, and your desktop, and just...

BW: Play it whenever I feel like it. If I'm paying $40, $50, or $60 for a game, don't treat me like a criminal.

Speaking of which, if you have installed multiple times, how do you manage the save file across multiple installs?

BW: The save file?

You know, like your progress in the game. Is that something you've looked into?

BW: It depends on the game. Demigod is going to have a persistent universe, so all your characters and stuff are server-side. But what I'm saying is that it's not the platform that does that. It's the individual implementation from a game point of view.

Going back to the piracy thing, I think it must be an issue, though.

BW: Oh yeah, piracy is a huge issue. But there are ways to solve it. I don't like piracy. It drives me crazy when I see my stuff up on some torrent, -- especially when some people go there and criticize the game -- but the solution isn't to make it harder for the users who bought the game. That's the thing that's insane. That's not stopping the pirates. That's just making it inconvenient for the users.

The last time it came up for me was with Starforce, which really was a PR nightmare for them, more than anything.

BW: Oh yeah, because it would install hidden drivers on your machine. No game or piece of software has a right to install drivers on your machine without telling you what they are. That's really a problem. And that hurts their sales in the future.

But here's the thing. What we do with our games, like Sins of a Solar Empire, we've already released two updates for it, and we have another update coming out. We can control who gets those updates, because we have every serial number that we've actually shipped that's out there and is connected to a person's e-mail address. So sure, pirates can get your game, but at some point, it's more convenient to just buy the game.

If you support your products after release, you keep getting people who will convert over because it's just too much of a hassle to pirate. And the people who don't are not a lost sale in the first place, because they never would have bought it.

Do you have any research besides your success that suggests that supporting the game after release does increase its sales?

BW: It would be so hard to do a truly scientific study on that, but I think common sense says it does. First of all, every time you do an update, you get some media coverage of it, so that's almost like free advertising.

Two, some number greater than zero of people who want to pirate it who don't want to go through the trouble of trying to find yet another update are going to buy it. So it's certainly not going to cost you sales. Therefore, it has to increase sales.

I'm just thinking about the cost of developing the update.

BW: It doesn't cost very much. Like on Demigod, we're going to do a full year of updates for that, too. Gas Powered Games has converted over to the way we're doing things.

When you're doing the budgets for your game, you know this far out for a game that's not coming out for a year that you're going to do a full year of updates for Demigod. How does that affect the budget? Do you decrease the budget for the initial product, instead having a full budget over the course of the product's lifespan which includes all the updates?

BW: We just increase the budget overall. So the main game doesn't lose anything. You just add a little bit on the back, and you're going to make it up in extra sales.

That's really interesting, because it sounds so counter to the mercenary way that a lot of things in the game industry are run.

BW: Yeah, but everyone says that the PC game industry is dying. Maybe they should change course.

It's a discussion I've had. I think when people say the PC game industry is dying, they mean that the way we've done the PC industry for the last 20 years is dying, and they sort of equate those. The way we've been doing it is the PC gaming industry. It's not. It just has to evolve to survive.

BW: That's what Impulse is about, putting in the features necessary to allow to evolve to the next level. Integrating extra content into a microsubscription and microexpansion packs, letting people get to their games however they want.

If I buy a game at the store, let me download it through Impulse, so I don't have to worry about losing a CD... not having any sort of copy protection, and it will be so seamless. Some of our games have activation. Galactic Civilizations II does. But nobody notices it, because they're downloading it through this anyway, so it's not a big deal.

You're talking about how you'd be frustrated if you couldn't play your game on your laptop and PC, yet you're talking about activation. So you'll have to activate once, and then it will be okay?

BW: Yeah, once you activate once, you're set.

So the impetus is just to have a user-friendly service?

BW: Right.

You said you're working with other publishers. Do you have a set of standards they have to adhere to, or do you just say, "Your rules are your rules?"

BW: It depends. We're getting more comfort with the way we're doing things. I can't speak for any particular publisher, but generally speaking, even what's on Steam usually is not that draconian.

Sure. It's almost like a philosophical question, getting people to understand their audience. It's a big problem in all markets right now, I think, is the disconnect between the audience and the people who supply the content a lot of the time.

BW: We're hoping that Impulse can provide a game development platform for developers, so, for example, where Steam has specific features [via SteamWorks] for first-person shooters, we're going to have persistent universe support and that kind of thing for strategy games and so on.

So support for game developers... pro or indie?

BW: Both. Sins of a Solar Empire and Demigod will both be able to make use of the matchmaking services, and you'll have a persistent character in Impulse that you use between games as you build up your stats, and you'll have friends, and that kind of thing.

So it's sort of a metagame.

BW: Exactly. But it gives a reason for people who are into one kind of game to try out another game and that sort of thing.

Are we talking like an Xbox Live sort of thing, where you have a name and points that you earn?

BW: It's a little bit more than that. The community thing isn't in yet, but you'll be able to have your own blogs, talk about your own experiences, setting up clans, and that sort of thing right within it. You can work with other people, play games with other people, and give tips and tricks to other people within it.

One of the things Demigod is going to have in terms of a persistent universe is that you have this world full of arenas that you keep conquering, but it lasts between games. It's kind of like what you were talking about earlier, where it's not just on my local machine. I'm part of a virtual world.

I'm just trying to get a handle on how much is tracked between different games.

BW: It'll depend on how much each publisher wants to participate, really. Valve has Steam, but Stardock's Impulse has the advantage of Stardock being an actual game publisher as well. Obviously, Valve can do it on Half-Life and their own games, but we have Gas Powered Games' games in there, and Ironclad's, and they'll all have the seed of something that others can grow and make use of.

So say you buy one of your games at retail after this service is launched. Will it install this service as part of the retail disc?

BW: Yeah. We want people to make use of this because for one thing, it will let you re-download the entire game. So from a support issue, if they've damaged one of their CDs, we don't want people to think like, "Oh no, my CD is scratched."

Once they get on here, then from then on forever, they can re-download the entire game and not have to worry about their CD. Even if they lose their serial number, they only need their username and password on this. Even if they lose that, they can get that e-mailed to them.

That's sort of bridging the gap between the retail present and the online future.

BW: Right. We make no distinction where you buy. People who buy Galactic Civilizations 1, back from 2003, in Germany, they'll be able to download this and be able to download all the latest versions of Galactic Civilizations from scratch. They don't need their CD anymore. They can just toss their CD.

They just need the key.

BW: They just need the key that came with it.

Going back to the question about discussing Impulse as a development platform, you talked about attracting indie developers and maybe pro developers. Are you just talking about using this as a distribution channel for them, or also...?

BW: A little of both. On the distribution sidethere's professional developers and professional publishers. We'll use Gas Powered Games as an example, because they're a professional developer, right? They make their game, and then someone like Microsoft or THQ in the case of Supreme Commander, or in Demigod's case Stardock, publishes it. But historically the developers are cut off. They're at the mercy of the publisher.

With Impulse, though, they can actually generate money by using Impulse to sell their game. Because we have an affiliate system, which is something that no one else has. Let's say if Gamasutra had Impulse. When you install Impulse from Gamasutra, it would print to the registry the Gamasutra affiliate ID, and every time someone ever bought a game or anything from Impulse, Gamasutra would receive 15 percent of the gross on it.

What's nice is that developers, even the ones that have publishers, can essentially push their own game and still make 15 percent of the sale, which is nice, because historically, they're locked out. You can tell people to go to Best Buy, but there's no affiliate system for that or Steam, or what have you. There's no affiliate.

Even today, if a publisher puts their title on Impulse, anyone can try to sell it, just like if my title is at Amazon.com, there's nothing stopping anyone from trying to get people to buy it from Amazon.com.

Yeah, I guess my only question is... you're talking about Gas Powered, how they're published by THQ, and obviously THQ has a relationship with Impulse, but what about for the theoretical publisher that doesn't have a relationship?

BW: Right. In that case, if they don't have their game on Impulse, there's nothing we can do, but it creates an incentive for everybody to put their title on Impulse, because it's a way of generating higher amounts of revenue. Let's say for example THQ used Impulse as their store. They would get the 70 percent royalty because they're the publisher, and then they get another 15 percent as the affiliate, so they're making 85 percent. That's better than the typical e-commerce solution. If you went to Digital River or whatever, they can't even match that.

When it comes to development, you're not offering any tools or anything? You're just trying to attract developers to distribution?

BW: Demigod's going to be the first one to make use of this...

The flagship?

BW: Yeah, flagship of additional services that are going to be able to apply to developers. If you want a persistent universe, if you want to provide subscriptions to your users, if you want to provide mini-expansion packs, we can do that.

In fact, we already have that on the desktop side. It's like, here's my software, and then I can have this extra content that just pops in here because I'm subscribed to Object Desktop. It pops up every month, and I can try that out. Right now, because we can support that right out of the box, a developer or publisher who goes "You know, I'd really like to do this. I'd like to be able to provide this,"...we're the first platform that can seamlessly do that kind of thing.

It's interesting, because right now there are so many strategies percolating around the industry, and so many platforms, that I don't think anyone knows how things are going to shake down now.

BW: I don't know if there's one way it's going to work, but I think most people will agree that they've played at least one game in their life where they would say, "You know, I would pay a few dollars a month if that game kept going and going year after year." Especially if it's optional. I want to stress that. You don't want people to feel like they have to pay for some service to get to play the games.

That's why free updates are so important. You have to say, "We're doing free updates, but for the hardcore people who want to see new stuff being made..." That part, you have to say, "All right, what are some new things that you guys want to see?" You talk to your community, and they'll tell you what they want to see, and you make it. At that point, obviously you weren't holding back stuff, because the users themselves are the ones who came up with it.

Interview: Greg Maletic Talks 'Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball'

- One of the most intriguing documentaries about electronic games in recent years isn't even about video games, believe it or not. It's 'Tilt: The Battle To Save Pinball', the Greg Maletic-directed doc that's out on DVD today, April 8th.

Rather than hamfistedly trying to explain it myself, how about let the documentary creators explain it? "The situation facing the pinball designers at Williams Electronic Games in 1998: come up with something new, or see the world's largest pinball manufacturer be shut down forever.

And Williams' designers did come up with something amazing: a brand new kind of pinball machine—"Pinball 2000"—that fused video with classic pinball gameplay, preserving what was great about pinball yet opening up all-new possibilities for a product thought to be on its last legs.

Yet soon after its successful and highly-profitable launch, Williams pulled the plug, leaving behind unanswered questions and abandoning one of the world's great design organizations. TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball is a documentary that tells the story behind one of entertainment's most mysterious failures."

GameSetWatch was lucky enough to catch up with Tilt's director, Greg Maletic, via email. Maletic, who explains his interest in the subject on the official movie site, kindly took the time to chat in detail about the documentary and Pinball 2000.

What's your background as a film-maker? I see you are also (simultaneously) a technologist?

I don't have a background as a filmmaker; this is the first time I've tried to make a film. I'm a software developer by training, though I've dabbled in a lot of things over the past several years, like starting a software company, and becoming an illustrator. I currently run the design team at a web marketing company called Bunchball.

Regarding the term "technologist," I guess that applies, but it's probably a bit grandiose. (I think that was first used in reference to me after I wrote a pretty well-read article about my experience working at Apple Computer, as the product manager for a stillborn technology called OpenDoc.) So in the sense that I like telling stories about technology, then yes, I guess I am a technologist. But that probably doesn't make me too different from a lot of your readers.

Explain briefly how you decided that the Pinball 2000 series was an important milestone that deserved a documentary?

Three reasons; the first is that it tells a story of obsolescence that every technology will face, one day or another. We always see stories about up-and-coming products; we less often see stories about ones in the throes of extinction. (Someday, someone will make a similar documentary about "obsolete" technologies like the personal computer and the cell phone. It eventually happens to everything!)

Secondly, I think the story does a great job communicating how elusive success can be: the people who designed Pinball 2000 were the best at what they did, they were highly motivated, their product was cool and actually succeeded in the market...and yet they failed despite all of that.

Finally, looking from the micro- perspective, it was a significant milestone in pinball design. Regardless of what you think of the Pinball 2000 machines that were actually built, one of the under- appreciated aspects of the platform was the degree to which it made pinball comprehensible to the novice.

Prior to Pinball 2000, all of the methods that the pinball designer had for communicating with the player were broken. If you wanted somebody to hit a particular target on the playfield, you could flash a light in front of it, but good luck: most of the pinball lights are flashing all of the time, so it's hard to make the player notice. You could put a message up on the orange, dot-matrix display, but people never look at that thing while they're playing. You could have some digitized dialogue tell the player what to do, but it's hard to describe the location of a target with speech.

With Pinball 2000, it was simple: put a Martian--or something else people intuitively want to hit with a ball--in front of the target. That's it. It was a breakthrough. None of the "normal" ways that people thought video could be added to pinball (like, for instance, putting a monitor in place of the backglass) solved this very fundamental problem.

It's worth pointing out that the documentary didn't really start as a "pinball documentary"; what I had intended to make was a film that showed the product design process. I love learning about how things get made, and I thought that a film that went really in-depth into how some cool product was born--the market, technological, and aesthetic forces that shape the things we use--sounded great to me. I'm a big Disneyland fan, so I looked into doing something on theme park rides, when I thought that I should probably take on a tiny project first in preparation for the "real" one.

The Pinball 2000 idea was the "tiny" project; the further I got into it, however, the more I could see that this story was way better than the one I had planned on doing.

Why was it better? It wasn't just a dive into a technology; the Pinball 2000 story had a plot. Plots are important; without one, this film might have just turned into an overview of pinball history, which was something really I didn't want to do. (I didn't think a survey of pinball history could grab a non-pinball fan the way that a more plot- oriented story could.) And it was fortunate that the story ended up as a kind of tragedy. Tragedy makes for drama.

- What was the most exciting part of making the documentary, for you?

There was no part of it that I didn't love. I loved meeting the guys who worked on Pinball 2000. I think it comes out in the film that I desperately wished I could have been one of them, working on something amazing that no one had seen before, with a bunch of super-talented people.

I also loved doing the animation and graphics for the film. I wanted it to feel like you were thrust into the middle of this intense pinball world, and the graphics and animation were part of that. Going through that process also opened my eyes creatively, because now I make my living as an illustrator more than a software developer. (Though I do still love writing software.)

Finally, I just loved the whole editing process. There are a million tiny decisions to make when cutting a film, and something I didn't appreciate before I started is the degree to which -all- of those decisions impact the story.

I mean, if some guy makes a point, and you linger on him for a second longer than necessary, you're telegraphing the audience that, hey, -this means something-, whether you intended it to or not. Cut it shorter, and it becomes background information. Play the wrong snippet of audio from someone's interview, and their observation about a particular pinball machine turns from thoughtful criticism into outright slam. Everything matters.

Did the fanboys help end up killing Pinball 2000 by being overly extreme/negative about the video game elements?

I don't think so. The machine was a hit with distributors, who were the ones that were actually paying Williams for the product. And the two Pinball 2000 machines--Revenge From Mars and Star Wars: Episode I-- earned well on location. It wouldn't be a stretch to call both of them "hits."

I think the fanboys in any category tend to underestimate what a tiny piece of the market they are, and pinball is no exception. No product can be a hit with just their support. Conversely, their support definitely helps, but it wasn't critical to a product that had as big a market as pinball did in the '90s. (It's a little different today...the market is so small now that every player counts!)

I know the negative advance reaction to Pinball 2000 caused a lot of frustration for its designers, because much of that reaction fomented before the product was ever introduced. I think the designers' attitude was, "geez, guys, can you give us a break? I mean, we're trying to keep this company going, after all." The outside community didn't quite realize what was at stake; I think they just thought Williams was trying to jazz up the pinball product for the heck of it, when in fact, it was a last-ditch effort to keep the market alive.

Also, I think some of the fanboys didn't realize how "faithful" to the pinball spirit these designers were: they didn't want to see pinball changed into a video game any more than the fans did.

Why aren't there more companies making pinball machines in today's market?

Pinball is a very difficult product to make: expensive to design, expensive to ship, and expensive to maintain. Operators want to put "easy" products on location; pinball isn't one of them. Now, that's always been true.

But we're currently in an environment where 1) coin- operated games in general aren't doing well, and 2) there are more easy-to-maintain alternatives than ever before, in the form of Internet jukeboxes that can be administered from a central location, or bar-top casual video games that are lightweight and don't take up any floorspace. Fortunately, pinball, it has to be said, is an incredibly fun and appealing product, so it's still able to withstand that onslaught. But it may not forever.

Is there room for more niche pinball companies like Stern?

I'm not an expert in the business side of things, but I'd say there might be room for one more pinball company, maybe somewhere outside of the U.S. to address foreign markets. Probably no more than that.

If I were starting a pinball company, I might want to do it in Europe; pinball is big over there, and you could avoid the shipping charges from the U.S., plus the currency fluctuations, and be able to deal more directly with problems like metric measurements, foreign coin and bills, and language and cultural issues.

I've seen a review of Tilt which suggests that the movie doesn't really address the perspective of the execs at Williams. What did you do to try address this issue when shooting the documentary?

I did try and get two of the biggest Williams execs on board, one of them being Neil Nicastro, then the CEO of Williams, and a featured player in the documentary. I spoke to him on the phone back when I started the film and tried to get him to sit down for an interview.

Though he was very cordial, it was clear he didn't want to be involved. He probably didn't see much of an upside to his participation. And as CEO of a public company, he is in a difficult position. He probably thought that I was going to skewer him, but that absolutely wasn't my intent.

The other exec I contacted was Ken Fedesna--I think he was the Executive Vice President at Williams at the time--and I'll assume that he felt similarly to Neil.

I certainly would have liked to have had management's perspective, but I think the film works well in spite of the fact that the interviews are one-sided, i.e., the only people you see in the film are members of the Pinball 2000 design team, and no one else. It gives the film a very intimate feel, almost like you're a part of that team. As a downside, it could make the film seem naive and simplistic, but I think the designers in the film come off as so thoughtful and credible that you trust their opinion. If they say Pinball 2000 was a good idea, then, hey, it probably was.

Are you planning to do any follow-up or any other documentaries in this area?

Not right now. I'm all about marketing this film, trying to figure out whether it's a financially feasible proposition to make a documentary like this one. In terms of making money off of this film, I didn't really care; it was a labor of love. But if I were to take on another film, I'd want to have the business aspects of the endeavor lined up in advance.

Do you own one or both Pinball 2000 machines? If so, how often do you play them?

I own Revenge From Mars, not Star Wars (nor the conversion kit.) Sometimes I play the machine a lot; right now I'm in a bit of a downturn in my playing because 1) I've been incredibly busy with other projects, and 2) there are a couple of minor things that need to be repaired on the game (the left flipper is a little weak, and there are a few lights out), and I absolutely hate playing it when the machine's not in perfect condition.

And just so you don't think I'm a pinball bigot, I also own a custom MAME cabinet that I'm really proud of, with a cabinet that I styled, and a Java-based front-end I wrote for game selection. I love current video games, but I'm really into '70s and early '80s-era retrogaming, too.

[Thanks again to Greg for this in-depth interview. Tilt should be available for purchase today, and the two-disc DVD has all kinds of goodies, including: "More than three hours of extra interview footage, including never-before-seen insights into the process of designing a pinball machine with industry greats Pat Lawlor and George Gomez." In other words, yum.]

GameSetLinks: The Return Of The Pinball Wizard

- So, welcome to the post-weekend, and this set of GameSetLinks concentrates on a wide diversity of randomness, including and not limited to the recent championships at the wonderful Pinball Hall Of Fame in Las Vegas.

Also in there, somewhere, somehow, is some sharp ramblings (oxymoron?) on 'intertextuality in games', as well as The Lost Ring ARG getting more publicity and some more travelogues from Italian arcades - one of the more diverse but more fun line-ups we've had recently. Enjoy:

One planet, under pinball - Las Vegas Sun
'In an increasingly divided and chaotic world, advocates pin their hopes on unifying, but waning, game.' Via Arcade Heroes.

Crummy.com: 'Intertextuality in Games'
'I love it when a game references another game.'

Blogging For Dollars: Calacanis explains how Denton rips off his writers with "best pay in the business"
More interesting discussions of pay structure at Gawker.

ASCII by Jason Scott: Scanning Infocom
Wow, Steve Meretzky has ASTOUNDING archives of the history of Infocom, I had no idea. Waiting for them to appear online, now...

WFMU's Beware of the Blog: Freezepop of the Current Gaming Music Future Future Future Perfect
'Our song Less Talk More Rokk was on an iTunes electronic top song chart for a year, mostly in the top 20 and had great sales primarily due to the games. now every band wants to get in the game and we're flooded with requests...'

Game-ism: 'Still Alive? She’s Free.'
Really creepy, but thoughtprovoking sketch of what GlaDOS looks like, underneath the machines.

Hit Self-Destruct: Vienna
Discussing The Third Man and Mechner's The Last Express, abstractly and intriguingly.

An Online Game So Mysterious Its Famous Sponsor Is Hidden - New York Times
NYT piece on 'The Lost Ring' ARG.

What They Play - Grand Theft Auto IV: 11 Things Parents Should Know
John Davison's blog tries to lay it out for the adults.

Insomnia | Commentary | Untold Tales of The Arcade: Taito Think Tank
About girls who are great at playing obscure Taito games in Italian arcades. A unique writing subgenre, to be sure.

April 7, 2008

GameSetFocusOn: How We Made GamePro Look A Bit Silly

Hm, faithful GameSetWatch readers, it's time to admit something rather naughty. We played a little practical joke on IDG's GamePro.com, because we noticed them 'borrowing' some data from us without crediting.

The following is a cautionary tale about plagiarism and factchecking. If you are a professional journalist, please avert your eyes. If you're at all tickled by 'things game journos do to amuse themselves', please continue reading, forthwith.

Part 1: 'Release This' & The Gunny Sack Trilogy

So this whole little trip started with Gamasutra contributor Danny Cowan, who spends quite a long time every week scouring and cross-referencing to create our official 'Release This!' column, running down the worldwide game releases for the week. This isn't always the most straightforward thing, especially for more obscure releases, so it takes him a good while.

Recently, Danny started getting suspicious that certain other websites were 'borrowing' his release list without crediting. So he decided to include a game that, uhh, might not actually exist, into the 'Release This!' column last week, to see what would happen. Can you tell which one it is?

It's actually surprisingly difficult to work out the ringer from that list - I mean, even 'Great War Nations: The Spartans' sounds a bit suspect. But it's actually 'The Gunny Sack Trilogy', which is an acclaimed book by writer M.G. Vassanji, apparently focusing on Indians living in East Africa. But it's not actually - and has never been - a game.

Still, GamePro seemed to think it was, and they listed it as such in their update on March 31st - and also syndicated to GameTrailers.com and to other IDG sites such as PCWorld.ca. Oh dear. Visual proof below:

Part 2: The Casual Brilliance Of 'Gem Pour: Casks'

So, at some point during last week, this jape became better known to the Gamasutra editorial staff, and we were, of course, thinking of doing a MAJOR EXPOSE.

But we figured (and Danny agreed) that it might be fun to finish off our pranking in style. Thus we have this week's release list, posted just this morning:

Among such unlikely titles as 'Plushees' for Nintendo DS (really exists!) and Dirty Dancing: The Video Game (really exists!), there's also the spectacular and obviously smash hit casual PC puzzle title, Gem Pour: Casks.

We're guessing it's one of those Bejeweled type games. Oh, looks like GamePro has heard of it too:

But it's a bit weird that they've slightly brainlessly printed it, given its anagram-based derivation. Ouch.

Sorry, GamePro guys, but it does take us a good while to synthesize those release lists, so you should probably know better than Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V. Meanwhile, we'll be giggling relentlessly for the rest of the afternoon, if that's OK with you.

[UPDATE: Commenter Mike reminds me that Gamasutra had its own version of GameProGate last year, when NeoGAF caught our naughty UK editor David Jenkins sourcing translations of Japanese Media-Create charts from those forums without proper credit, using a similar (and possibly inspirational!) method. This was rectified by some updated credits and a little trans-Atlantic swearing. So we, also, are not angels - heh.]

Gamasutra Adds Staff To Award-Winning Sites

- [We're cross-posting this everywhere today, so GameSetWatch is not to be left out! As you'll see, we've added the awesome Shacknews alum Chris Remo to our already award-winning staff, as well as super-smart Eric Caoili to help run a lot of our subsites - while Leigh Alexander transitions out, sniff.]

Leading game industry site Gamasutra has announced new additions to the staff of its award-winning web publications, with former Shacknews EIC Chris Remo joining its suite of websites as Editor-At-Large, and Eric Caoili now aiding as Gamasutra Associate News Editor and Co-Ordinating Editor of its market-specific sites.

Remo, one of the main architects of the recent renaissance of veteran gaming site Shacknews as Editor In Chief, as well as a Founding Editor at respected game culture site Idle Thumbs, will join Gamasutra and associated sites as Editor-At-Large to help shape and evolve website strategy, as well as usher in a major upcoming site redesign.

In addition, journalist Eric Caoili, contributor to sites including 4 Color Rebellion and the AOL-owned DS Fanboy and Wii Fanboy, will be aiding as Gamasutra Associate News Editor, as well as acting as Co-Ordinating Editor for the company's market-specific subsites.

Caoili's co-ordination responsibilities include writing or co-ordinating editorial for online worlds weblog Worlds In Motion (replacing Leigh Alexander, who has taken a new position outside of Think Services' sites), cellphone game site Games On Deck (replacing Mathew Kumar, who is now moving to contribute to Gamasutra), and 'serious games' site Serious Games Source.

Remo and Caoili join an two-time Webby award-winning Gamasutra staff that includes Edge Online alumnus and Gamasutra News Editor Brandon Boyer, and game journalism industry veteran and Features Editor Christian Nutt, overseen by Think Services group publisher Simon Carless.

Think Services' unique editorial structure also allows significant symbiosis between Gamasutra and sister publication Game Developer magazine, headed by Insert Credit co-founder and Senior Editor Brandon Sheffield and Production Editor Jeff Fleming - as well as input from leading educational game website Game Career Guide, run by GCG Editor Jill Duffy.

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Just Checking In


I'm in Japan right now and therefore don't have much interest in sitting down and writing a full column about esoterica game magazines right now (forgive me, Simon, there's just too much beer to drink and it's not going to drink itself!), but I thought I'd at least share a few of the things I've procured while I'm here.

In this picture you can see two items that you probably wouldn't be able to find in your typical used bookstore. On the left is the first issue of Famitsu Comic, a magazine that compiled and expanded upon the assorted manga that Famitsu printed in its mag circa 1991. It lasted a whopping two issues before getting relaunched as Fami-Comi, which enjoyed existence as a seasonal title for a year or two afterward.

On the right is issue number 13 of Game Freak, a fanzine about video games from the early 1980s that was chiefly edited by Satoshi Tajiri with illustrations by Ken Sugimori. This, of course, is the same Game Freak that later became a developer and invented the Pokemon series -- Tajiri designs/executive-produces the games, and Sugimori drew all 151 original Pokemon himself.

Game Freak the fanzine lasted from 1981 (when Tajiri was just beginning college) to circa 1986, by which time both chief contributors had enough professional magazine work to quit the doujinshi scene.

The 28-page zine, mostly written longhand in Tajiri's loopy handwriting, offered advanced strategy and tactics for arcade games; this issue I found teaches me all about getting high scores on Gaplus, the overlooked (and extremely difficult) Namco arcade shooter.

Otherwise, I'm mainly taking my parents to all the touristy bits of southern Honshu until next weekend. See you later!

[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.]

GameSetLinks: The Terracide Of Your Life

- Time to start the week with linkage, then, and our GameSetLinks neatness starts out with GameDaily talking to the New York Times' games critic as part of the new-skool Media Coverage column, for starters.

Also notable - a fun fan-filmed account of the worldwide shooter tournament at a recent classic gaming convention, plus a Flash-based spirograph and a whole other plethora of goodness. Please to enjoy:

News: CVG Magazine returns! - ComputerAndVideoGames.com
For game-specific specials in the UK, starting with GTA IV - but neat news! Via Bittanti.

Eidos Montreal to make Thief 4? | Rock, Paper, Shotgun: For The Purposes of Ballyhoo
Linking solely because Gillen riffs about Terracide (pictured), which I, uhh, actually worked on.

Shoot The Core: World Shmup Open 08
Really fun YouTube doc of the Midwest Gaming Classic shooter tournament from this year.

isotope3 at prototyprally
Oo, a 'Flash spirograph' - a fun toy, if not actually a game.

Water Cooler Games - Play the News Game
From the Peacemaker creators, web-based news gaming that's meant to be 'fantasy sports meets the evening news.'

GameDaily's Media Coverage interviews Seth Schiesel
The main New York Times game writer chats - v. interesting indeed.

How Accurate Are First-Person Shooter Weapons? - Gaming - Rainbow Six Vegas 2 - America's Army - Popular Mechanics
Popular Mechanics is a pretty cool mag.

Siliconera » The cost of My Life as a King
Some ideas on the micropayment costs for the Final Fantasy-themed WiiWare title, at least in Japan.

the2bears.com » Cannon Macro Language ver.0.2.0
Shmup-related scripting language alert.

Gametrailers.com - Pinball FX - Rocky and Bullwinkle Trailer
Not the classic Data East pintable tho, sigh.

April 6, 2008

Libraries And Gaming - The ALA Blazes The Way!

-[We don't tend to reprint press releases verbatim here at GameSetWatch. But the role of libraries in promoting and legitimizing gaming as a public-funded community activity is _tremendously_ undervalued and it's awesome to see the ALA supporting it in such a major way.]


Libraries host gaming program and events on April 18 for gaming @your library

CHICAGO – Libraries are bridging generations by offering a new educational and recreational format – gaming. Hundreds of libraries throughout the country will attract new users by hosting gaming programs and events on April 18, 2008, in celebration of gaming @your library, taking place during National Library Week that celebrates the popularity and educational value of games.

"Libraries are changing and dynamic places, and are continuously offering new formats and innovative programs and services that educate, entertain and expand interaction with their patrons," said ALA President Loriene Roy. "Expanding a format such as gaming is yet another example of how libraries are reaching diverse users."

Historically, libraries are well known as key providers of print resources, but as libraries continue to change to meet the needs of their communities and users, so do the formats they offer. Libraries still provide traditional services, but continue to enhance services by offering CDs, DVDs, e-books, videogames and programs like family gaming nights.

Public libraries are holding video tournaments and creating Gaming Clubs, bringing in gaming equipment, video screens and providing a social experience not found elsewhere in the community. A sample of the types of games offered are "Dance, Dance Revolution," "Super Smash Brothers Brawl," "Guitar Hero," and "Rock Band." As a result, library attendance among some of the hardest to reach demographics – kids, teenagers and college students – is growing exponentially.

In addition to being a big draw to younger library users, many games appeal to entire families. With new systems like the Nintendo Wii and a mix of traditional and modern tabletop games available, all members of the family can play – from kids to grandparents.

Three generations have grown up with videogames (Generation X, Generation Y, and Millennials), and Baby Boomers and members of Greatest Generation are now playing games more than ever before.

For example, the Old Bridge Public Library (N.J.) is using videogames as an introduction to technology for seniors. Not only are these users gaining experience and confidence with these new systems before moving up to computer classes, but they also are being taught how to use the equipment by local teens in a reverse mentoring program.

Not all games are right for every library user. Just as with television shows, movies and books, parents need to take an active role in observing the gaming activities their teen/child participates in at the library. While there are some games making headlines for their violent content, the truth is that 85% of the video games sold in 2007 were aimed at kids 16 and younger and considered 'family friendly.' Only 15% of the games sold in 2007 were intended exclusively for adults.

Gaming is like any other extracurricular activity and it should be practiced in moderation in the same way as television, movies, and Internet usage. Kids often play video games at home, but playing them at the library makes it a more social experience they can share with their family and friends.

A study of adult gaming at the Public Library of Charlotte Mecklenburg County (N.C.) found that patrons who attended gaming events at the Library were more open to reaching out to librarians when they needed answers to questions.

Myths about gaming:

*Gaming offers no educational value - In fact it's nearly impossible to succeed at most board and video games without a broad array of literacy skills.

*Video games create a noisy environment - It's true that kids, adults, and seniors playing videogames can produce more noise than other library activities, but libraries often have special areas for gaming far from those who need/want a quiet space to enjoy other library services or they hold gaming events after the library closes.

*Games are for kids - Gaming isn't just for children and young adults anymore. Recent statistics show that the largest group of online gamers is middle-aged women who play games such as Bejeweled and Bookworm between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m.

For more information on gaming @your library, please visit www.ala.org/gaming."

Interview: Jupiter One's Colwell Talks Music-Game Convergence

- [Christian Nutt originally conducted this interview for Gamasutra a few days back, and it's a bit of an odd one - with a member of a band who doesn't even play games that much. But it's fascinating in illuminating Electronic Arts' music-game crossover masterplan with its publishing label Artwerk - and the power of games in popularizing music.]

In 2007, Electronic Arts partnered with record label Nettwerk One to create a "full service" music company called Artwerk - effectively making EA co-owner of a record publishing label.

The intention of the label is to promote signed and unsigned artists - including Junkie XL and Datarock - and cross-promote them, with many Artwerk musicians having their tracks appear in EA games such as Burnout Paradise and the Madden series.

It's an adjunct effort to EA's previously-established EA Trax program of licensed music, and Gamasutra recently spoke to EA worldwide director of music and marketing Steve Schnur on the program.

After talking to Schnur, Gamasutra caught up with Zac Colwell, keyboardist for Artwerk signing and Brooklynite indie rock band Jupiter One about his band's connection with Artwerk and EA Trax, and the increasing convergence of the music and video game industry.

Can you give us a little bit of background on your band?

Zac Colwell: Sure. K Ishibashi -- the singer -- and I met during a touring show that took us around the country. We did a nice little job, and we were roommates, and had some common interest in music, and found ourselves in New York a few years later and started the band.

We finally found Dave Heilman -- you know, the right drummer -- and Mocha, K's wife, has been with us all along, too. She started the band with us. It's like, you get to take all these cool people who all do the same thing. Other than that, it's the same old story.

How did you first get involved with EA Trax?

ZC: Artwerk, our publishing company, is run by Steve Schnur. He's a fan of the album, and he's got a great team there who all liked the album, apparently. They figured that a few of the songs from the album... the album's kind of diverse, we tried to make it diverse as possible, and it seems diverse enough to put three or four different songs in different games. It was basically our publishing company who decided. They actively sought out the licensing opportunities for the games.

So Artwerk is a joint venture between EA and Nettwerk Records.

ZC: Yeah.

When you got involved with Artwerk, did you know that it was a game-oriented company?

ZC: Yeah, we knew that. We knew when we got involved with them, and we thought it would be a cool thing if we could get into a video game. Most of the bands they have are much bigger, established bands, and we're just a little indie band from New York at this point, you know? We thought that was pretty cool. Yeah, that was one of the cool things that we thought about when we first met them. They mentioned that kind of thing.

So did they put out your CDs as well?

ZC: No. They do publishing, but the label -- it's called Cordless -- it was founded by Jac Holzman, who was the guy who started Elektra back in the day. He was kind of a forward-thinking dude, and Warner had him create Cordless, because when they thought of trying to get on the digital front, they called the guy who was their most forward-thinking, who was Jac Holzman. They started Cordless. Cordless is also associated with some of the staff of Lycos, another Warner Bros. thing. So that's the label. On the publishing side, it's Artwerk, and then they also handle the games.

When you got involved with this, did you think it was more like a marketing opportunity to get exposure for your music?

ZC: It had some appeal. These days, it seems like everyone's so marketing-savvy. Feist is in iPod commercials, and Of Montreal is in an Outback Steakhouse commercial. All that stuff. I think it's interesting that these kinds of media outlets are all right again. Because in the '90s, that was intolerable to fans.

I think it's thrilling that they have real bands in games, instead of just whatever fantastical soundtrack somebody comes up with on a MIDI keyboard, you know? Like last night, we Bowery Ballroom in New York, and one of my friends I hadn't seen in a long time came over and said that her brother, who she doesn't think has very hip taste in music at all... she heard Jupiter One coming from his bedroom, and she peeked in and said, "You've heard of Jupiter One?" And it was because it was in Madden or FIFA or something.

So yeah, I don't know. For me, basically it's just really surprising to me that this kind of thing happened at all. Who would've thought that bands would be in video games and be promoted that way? I definitely didn't see it coming. But it's a real blessing, and we've made a lot of fans from it.

Do people come up to you or post messages on your MySpace saying, "Hey, I first heard this in Madden?”

ZC: Yeah, it's the majority of our messages, especially YouTube, are from people who heard us in Madden.

Did you start to sell more records when you started to get more exposure through EA Games?

ZC: Yeah, a little bit. There's a lot of downloads of single songs that went up. It helped a lot for sure.

When you're writing a song and you know you have this deal, does it affect in any way your creative process? Do you try to write a catchy single, and then think instead of a single that might go on MTV like in the past, that it might be a single that might stand out against the crowd in an EA game?

ZC: No, I don't think so. We didn't do that in the first place, because these songs were written a long time ago. It took so long to get the album made and finished and everything that... the fact that almost every song on the album is licensed to something, whether it's a TV show or whatever, the fact that we didn't have that in mind...

I think maybe the sound of the record is a little cinematic sometimes, and it lends itself well to the cinema, or TV shows, or video games. We just keep doing whatever we do, and I think it's just a coincidence that people think that it fits their media well, you know?

Do you have any control or input into what kind of games your music gets in, or does EA just pick and choose what they like and match it to what they want?

ZC: They choose what they think. They're the experts. But I imagine that we can send them flowers and chocolate and stuff to influence them.

Do you play games at all?

ZC: I'm not good at them. I try. I haven't had a system for a very long time, so whenever I sit down and try to play, it's embarrassing, because I suck. But it is fun to struggle with it.

Maybe you should try Nintendo Wii. That's a little bit different.

ZC: (laughs) Yeah. I tried that for the first time the other day. We were in a van going to DC, and I was just telling the bass player that I tried that. It's really fun. He said those guys are geniuses, referring to video game programmers in general.

Yeah. It's really interesting. Things are changing a lot now. Just this, the fact that a band can get significant exposure from a game, is a big change too, for artists.

ZC: Yeah. It's really interesting to watch. It's like watching New York City change or something. You hear people say, "Oh yeah, things were so much different back then," and next thing you know, you've been here as it changes. But you know, technology and media and all that is changing so fast in our lifetime. I guess it's not any faster than it has been, really, but it feels like it now, because it seems like a lot of miracles that are happening that if you showed it to somebody five or ten years ago, they'd freak out.

When you started the band, did you think you'd be recording and releasing an album, and people would be buying it on a CD, rather than getting your exposure thought YouTube, MySpace, and video games?

ZC: Yeah. I mean, I still buy CDs. I always thought people would be buying CDs, but people like to download a lot and all that. I don't know.

It is kind of interesting, because there's a mixture of established artists and new artists going into the games. EA has another game called Burnout Paradise, and I know you guys have a song in that.

ZC: Yeah, we've got one in there called Fire Away. That's good fun.

We met those folks over there when we were in LA last time at EA. They're just like music fans. They're really cool. They get excited about it, and they go, "Yeah, this would be cool in there." Then they just do it, or their department makes a suggestion.

They make it based on how excited they get about something. It's not really a cold science or anything in picking the tunes. It's just music-loving people over there that try to put good things inside.

GameSetNetwork: The Best Of The Week

- So, time to produce linkage to some of the best stories posted on our other sites - including Gamasutra and others such as Game Career Guide - that you might have missed this week.

This time, I'm actually taking advantage of the fact that Gamasutra features editor Christian Nutt sends out a little email to notable fellow members of the press every Friday, highlighting some items they may want to reference or link. So the commentary below is selected extracts from Christian's - even if the Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V is all mine! Bonus links underneath his picks:

EA Goes Free-To-Play: Battlefield Heroes' Producer Speaks
"I don't think Battlefield Heroes is getting a ton of press, but it's an interesting game. I heard a lot of people write it off as a Team Fortress 2 clone because of the aesthetics, but it's really something totally different. The Asian free-to-play model is going to start impacting games, particularly PC games more and more, and that's what this interview is about."

Fixing Online Gaming Idiocy: A Psychological Approach
"This article may have gotten the most attention this week. A former Microsoft developer writes about the need for instituting features into games that discourage players from acting like asshats -- which I think is a very good idea. The idea of engineering social expectations into games rather than just glumly accepting that people who play online are dickheads and there's nothing we can do about it is pretty novel."

Gaming Addiction: Clearing the Air, Moving Forward
"An article by a researcher and writer into game addiction which tackles the topic candidly, discussing the very fact that the industry doesn't seem to want to deal with it. It's an interesting topic because it's very grey -- we have a few extreme cases of fatal game addiction, but we generally all don't think it's a big deal. But if we don't examine it, we'll never really know, will we? That's the point here."

Postmortem: Saber Interactive's TimeShift
"TimeShift may not have been the best shooter released last year, but it had the most fascinating and unusual development history. Here, the developers discuss bringing their game to completion through a publisher change and platform shifts."

Bonus links are as follows:

Sponsored Feature: RAM, VRAM, and More RAM: 64-Bit Gaming Is Here
"In the fourth Microsoft-sponsored article on Gamasutra's XNA-themed microsite, XNA Developer Connection's Walbourn discusses the rise of 64-bit computing and gaming on Windows, explaining the technical specifics and programming advantages of 64-bit."

Online Community Management: Communication Through Gamers
"In this in-depth Gamasutra analysis, MMO community liaison Wera analyzes the art of game community management, suggesting success comes as much with vibrant social community as gameplay."

The Law Of The Land For Game Writing
"Writing for video games is different from writing for any other medium - and knowing that is the first step to becoming a video game writer. James Portnow shares some other tricks of the trade."

IMGDC: BioWare's Walton Talks MMO Creation Essentials
"At last weekend's Indie MMO Game Developers Conference in Minnesota, Gamasutra was there to hear BioWare Austin co-studio director Gordon Walton parsing out some essential lessons for online game creators, suggesting how indie efforts should differentiate from AAA online games at every stage of the process."

Sharing the Design
"One of the challenges of being a game designer is learning how to share the theoretical ideas and notions that make up a game project. How do you divvy up and share an idea? How does one person take ownership of another person's idea, or more accurately, a small sliver of it? Brandon Van Slyke, a designer at Vicarious Visions, tells why sharing is good -- and how to do it."

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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