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June 7, 2008

COLUMN: Quiz Me Qwik: 'Gemini Strays Into Innocent Sin'

p21.JPG ['Quiz Me Quik' is a 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 - a translation project for the unreleased in the West PS1 Atlus RPG Persona 2: Innocent Sin.]

It was suggested to me by Simon recently that this column could possibly be renamed, to reflect the apparent focus on hacking and translation. Oddly, while I realised that I have been conducting a number of interviews based on these subjects, it wouldn’t really have occurred to me to centre the whole column on them. I wouldn’t actually describe myself as being particularly obsessive about homebrew or fan-translations or hacked level-sets or graphics patches.

It’s actually the obsessional behaviour of the people who do these things that interests me most. Not everyone’s obsession is unhealthy, exactly – though I did have an interview request declined by a young lady who had written well over 250,000 words of Sonic fan-fiction over the past six years. Most times, it's actually really cool to see what people are spending their time doing. The amount of work put in by the people I've been talking with lately is nothing short of amazing, not to mention the level of creativity involved.

Also, to be fair, I kind of like the name Quiz Me Qwik.

Anyway, case in point: Gemini's ongoing translation of PlayStation RPG Persona 2: Innocent Sin. While the project was begun some time ago, he's only been working consistantly on it since January, and already has around 80% of the work done. That's a pretty amazing effort, but then, Gemini is pretty passionate about the game.

The Persona games started with Revelations: Persona back in 1996. The next iteration was split into two installments, Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment, with a story that spanned both games to a degree, though the former was never released outside of Japan. Depending on who you believe, this might be because of the optional homosexual relationship that the main character can engage in, or possibly because of the story that focuses on the resurrection of Hitler. Or neither.

[UPDATE: Commenter Baines also notes another possible reason for the game not debuting in the States, something Kurt Kalata also mentioned in a 1UP article: "At the beginning, your characters band together and kill their high school principal. Sure, he's a murderous lunatic who's threatening their fellow students, but in the wake of the Columbine incident in 1999, schoolyard violence could not be taken lightly."]

In any case, while there have been multiple translation guides for the game, there's never actually been a full patch. With the first one presumably just a few months away from release, now seemed like the perfect time to chat with Gemini about the project, and his Persona fandom.

GSW: When did you first encounter the Persona series?

Gemini: Sometime near July 2001, the day my cousin bought a copy of Eternal Punishment in English. Unfortunately his copy was a bootleg with the whole debugging code still active, so it was almost impossible to play.

GSW: Weird! What kind of stuff would it do, and when did you get the chance to play through it on a normal copy?

G: It's a retail version with some more menus to do weird stuff like altering character stats in battle, explore any map - including debug rooms - watch movies, etc. It has even a neat utility to create temporary maps with the characters you want.

I played the actual retail version about two years ago, a couple months after I started getting interested in Innocent Sin.

GSW: Did you ever play the first one?

G: Yeah, I did play the first Persona, if that's what you mean by the first one. I played a little of both Japanese and North American versions, but I found both pretty boring. I guess first person dungeons aren't really my thing.

GSW: Have you played through the untranslated Innocent Sin?

G: I'm still playing it. The Japanese used in this game is quite complicated, so it takes a little to read and understand all dialogues. On the other hand, my translator played it completely with the clock counter maxed out to 99:99:99, so I can get from him all the information I need.

p21.JPGGSW: That's a hell of an effort. I guess this translation is for you as much as anyone. What's your Japanese like, by the way?

G: Well, this is like the hardest project I've ever worked on, so it's important to me as a challenge to my programming skills. As for my Japanese level, I've been studying it for about five years: first year on my own, and then I took it as my University major.

GSW: Do you think Innocent Sin greatly enhances the experience of playing through Eternal Punishment?

G: If you are the type of player who loves to understand everything about a game, it's definitively a yes. Eternal Punishment contains many references to Innocent Sin that you can't really catch if you didn't play the games in order. It's nice when [Innocent Sin protagonist] Tatsuya Sudō mentions the "other side" and you actually know what that it is and what happened back then.

GSW: How would you rate the Persona 2 games in comparison to the rest of the series?

G: IS and EP are the best for sure, with Innocent Sin being the best in both the series and the RPG genre. And to tell you the truth, I don't like the rest of the Persona games at all, especially Persona 3. It lost so much without [producer Cozy] Okada and [artist Kazuma] Kaneko, and Persona 4 doesn't look much better either.

GSW: Seems like a lot of Persona 2 fans don't like Persona 3 that much. I haven't played Persona 2, but I do like Persona 3 a lot. What's the problem with it, and what could Persona 4 do to make up for it?

G: I can't stand the game's setting and character design in Persona 3. I also hate the strong dungeon crawler aspect they gave it, which never was part of the Persona series. The problem is that Persona 3 - and [expanded edition] FES, too - is completely alien to the series, as if it was a completely different game with just the Persona label on it, to make it look cooler; more appealing or something. Persona 4 looks a little better, especially the new dark TV plot, but it looks too similar to the third one, so I will probably just ignore it. No Kaneko and Okada, no party.

GSW: Is the subtitle of your translation blog - "Where Atlus fails, we don't" - tongue in cheek, or do you really consider it a failure of Atlus to have not released the game?

G: It's nothing actually serious, just a crazy catchphrase. It refers to the fact that Atlus never released some of its best titles, like Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, as well as Innocent Sin. I know they were only a small company back in the PlayStation period, but it's strange how they didn't fix this problem now re-releasing them on the PSP, since Atlus is a lot bigger and stronger.

Marketing works in a weird way, but maybe I'm just a retro gamer freak, who knows?

p21.JPGGSW: I guess it's just that they feel the money spent on localisation wouldn't be worth it, considering the amount of sales a PS1 RPG would generate on the PSP. It does seem like they're doing a better job by their fans these days though, wouldn't you say?

G: Yeah, Atlus is doing really fine in these days. They are probably the only company to release many titles in the States with some of the best translations ever. It's fun to see how companies like Square-Enix can't even release quality translations with all they money they have.

GSW: How do you explain the fact that Innocent Sin was never translated?

G: Some pointed out Nazis and homosexuality being the major problems, but I think it's just a marketing affair. Atlus US didn't have much money at the time, so they probably had to choose which of the two episodes to bring to the States, and they went for Eternal Punishment as it's the conclusive Persona 2 chapter.

GSW: You mean you think it would have been an issue with marketing if the game had been released?

G: That's just my theory, so I may be wrong. But considering censorship wasn't really a problem in the PlayStation period, I believe it was just a marketing issue involving money.

GSW: When did you start work on the translation?

G: August 2006, but I kept working on it for no more than two or three months, as I had to move to Japan for a little while. The project officially restarted in January 2008.

GSW: You've made some pretty serious progress since January, then.

G: Absolutely. Hack-wise, most of the recent progress comes from all the new tools I developed for my previous projects. Also, experience plays an important rule in all this magic.

GSW: How many people have been involved with the effort over that time?

G: I'm not for huge teams - I hate coordinating many people - so it's mainly two: Tom and I. Tom is the main translator. He's incredibly fast and accurate, probably the best translator I've ever seen, and his style is so good it doesn't even need much editing.

GSW: That's pretty impressive, man. I mean, you must be aware of the just how many translation projects are started and not finished - did you ever worry that this might not get finished?

G: I did at a certain point, which is the gap between December 2006 and January 2008, when my translator wasn't available for the job and I was working on other projects, like Dracula X and Tales of Phantasia, both for PlayStation.

GSW: What made you decide to work Eternal Punishment's Black Joker persona into the game? How much of a challenge has this been?

p21.JPGG: I have a fetishistic love for the Black Joker, and the cause is probably that it's one of Kazuma Kaneko's coolest artworks with this Joker in his first form. It wasn't really difficult to import his files into Innocent Sin, since Eternal Punishment's format for character animations is very similar to IS.

Unfortunately the work on the black Joker hasn't been completely done; currently he's only a graphics swap for Apollo. I'm not even sure he will be present in v1.0 of the patch.

GSW: Does that leave it open for other hacks of this sort?

G: It does, it does. I was even thinking about some crazy ideas on how to recycle the P2 engine to make "something", but it's a secret for now.

GSW: Have you found the graphics translation particularly difficult?

G: Positively difficult. I had to ask somebody to draw a title screen for me. I'm not good at all with graphics jobs, unless it's a matter of a few pixels.

GSW: What kinds of problems has that brought up, then?

G: All the graphics tasks consist in removing the current text on an image, redraw the background, and then draw on it the English version of that sign trying to keep the style as close as possible to the original. I'm also having a problem with one of the shop preview thumbnails having a Japanese sign on a wall, even though the actual room has it already translated. I'm still looking for a solution for that.

GSW: Have you worked on any custom software to make the whole effort easier?

G: I have custom software for all of my translation projects. My translator currently works with an editor I made on purpose for him, so that he can have handy stuff like an in-game preview of dialogues. It's nothing as professional as programs like Trados, but it works fine for this project.

GSW: From what I've seen of it, wha you've put together is an impressive piece of software. Is it game specific, or could it be used for other translations?

G: For now it's Persona 2 specific, but my code is pretty easy to maintain, so it can be adapted to different games and text formats. I intend to recycle some of its features for an old project of mine which needs it badly.

GSW: What have been the biggest technical challenges?

G: Rewriting the way the game manages messages, which is still a work in progress. The original system is not suitable for any occidental language and it wastes a lot of space in memory, something vital for a good quality translation. Not enough space for new messages means bad or shortened translation, and that looks so not professional to my eyes.

p21.JPGThere was also another big problem with memory issues about text structures. Atlus used a very optimized - and crazy - method to force the game to refresh screen drawing several times when a message was being displayed, but it used a lot of memory for characters on screen and caused crashes with English text as it uses many more characters than Japanese. I found a solution to that problem that not only fixed memory issues, but made the game playable on PlayStation 2, since the high refresh rate caused a lot of lag.

GSW: So it performs better on PS2?

G: Yes, it does. It works a lot better on the PSP too, but unfortunately Sony's emulation core is heavily bugged so the game is unplayable and totally unstable when you enter in battle.

GSW: How seriously are you thinking about implementing an English dub into the game? I saw that mentioned in the comments section of your site just recently.

G: I think it would be cool to have an English dub for the translation, but for now I see it just as an extra and I don't want it to cause delays to the release date. Also, I usually prefer Japanese dubs when available, so I'm sticking to that for the moment.

GSW: You've also mentioned a plan to translate EP bonus content Samaru TV. Where does it fit into the series, and why is this going to be a relatively easy job to translate it?

G: I have absolutely no clue what it contains - I gave it a try only once. In fact we are still discussing whether to tackle it down or not. The disc is heavily based on Innocent Sin, that's why I think it would be relatively easy to translate. All the work on IS can be recycled on Sumaru TV, so it's some sort of copy and paste job rather than a complete translation project.

GSW: I guess it's a matter of seeing just how burnt out you are after this one, eh?

G: Exactly. No matter how strong your will can be, a translation project turns your interest into obsession.

GSW: What kinds of negative feedback have you had about the project, and how do you respond to it?

G: Some were bitching about spell names, because my choices looked somehow "wrong" to them, even though they were proved to be 100% correct in most cases.

To make a concrete example, I remember some dude claiming that the word "Meghid" (an actual word which derives from "Meghid-dohn") was plain wrong and that "Megido" was the actual transliteration, which also corresponds to Atlus' official name. And I'm sure some will complain about "Nameless" being referred in our version as "Nanashi".

GSW: Why not go with Atlus' official names though?

p21.JPGG: Because those are Atlus US' official names. R&D1's names represent what they were actually supposed to be. Anyway, most spell names we used are derived from Eternal Punishment's US version, so consistency is somehow preserved.

GSW: Are you finding that a high percentage of the negative feedback tends to be criticism of translation choices that you're making?

G: The only negative feedback I got was about the translation, but there is no way you can avoid this phenomenon. Nitpicky people and wannabe translators are always around the corner, no matter what you do. I've learned that there is no perfect translation, so I tend to ignore this kind of people and I focus on having the best possible results.

GSW: And, after all, the positive feedback has been coming in thick and fast.

G: Well, that's the best part of having a blog!

GameSetLinks: The Black And White Approach

Yesh, the weekend brings spirit and unwork and a whole bunch extra GameSetLinks, headed out by a totally odd Gamasutra commenting experience and Tim Rogers' latest completely freeform hack through a game review on Action Button, huzzah.

Also suspended in here like Christmas decorations on Tim Berners-Lee's tree - 1UP takes a look at weird peripherals that you might possibly use to game with, and IGDA columnist Jim Charne takes a look at evil, evil software patents waiting to destroy your game, allegedly.

Double triple go:

Sexy Videogameland: Truth is Stranger Than Fanfiction
On an odd Gamasutra commenter - we've noticed this going on, and are perplexed, in a slightly voyeuristic way.

ACTION BUTTON!!: Tim Rogers reviews Call Of Duty 4
'I’ve said, before, that games can perhaps never be “art” because I seriously can’t think of a single game that some jerk can’t just pick up and immediately tilt the right analog stick to one side, cackling as the camera spins in circles.' Gloriously OT.

Six Technologies That May Shape PC Gaming's Future from 1UP.com
Fun stuff, including the inevitable Novint Falcon - psst, 1UP, I think your features-only RSS feed is busted.

Law of the Game on Joystiq: Legal machinations of machinima - Joystiq
Good piece on legality of machinima - via Free Pixel.

insertcredit.com on the Japanese 'moe' version of the Daisenryaku WWII game series
'That is a Nazi in a bikini spreading suntan lotion on a (I assume) British soldier.' Oh dear.

IGDA - Famous Last Words - 'Submarine Patents'
About silly patents that are '...generally unknown, lurking below the surface, and appear unexpectedly to torpedo games, publishers, and developers who may have unknowingly (or otherwise) infringed.'

VerticalWire - Novastrike debuts for PSN
'NOVASTRIKE is also going to be the first self-published game on the PLAYSTATION®Network' - true for North America, at least, and as I've discussed voluminously, interesting that it took this long.

Disney Buying Storytelling Social Net FanLib; DigiSynd in Process | paidContent.org
Wow, Disney buying fanfic site - interesting user-generated content ramifications.

Los Angeles Times's new technology blog
Has Alex Pham writing on games sometimes, def. worth checking out.

Linger In Shadows and the PS3 Demoscene : Edge
Nice to see someone else in the game scene covering the demo scene.

Eegra: Updates five times a week. Usually. : Tips for Games Journalists
Quick everyone, Google to see who made these mistakes in the first place - I'm eating, shooting, and leaving before I find out any of them are me.

Interview: The State Of Russian Gaming, According To 1C

[It's nice to check out the regional gaming scenes sometimes, and Russia is one of the most intriguing ones, with a massive, largely PC-based submarket that's starting to produce some genuinely interesting games. Hence, this Mathew Kumar-helmed chat with pre-eminent Russian game publisher 1C.]
The Russian market is booming, with companies such as EA making inroads, and Russia's largest publisher, 1C (Space Rangers, IL-2 Sturmovik) knows the market better than anyone.

Most recently, the firm is reparing for the international release of the latest title from Russian developer Katauri, Kings Bounty: The Legend - a fantasy RPG title based on a classic New World Computing IP, and has just announced its first multiplatform titles.

We caught up with 1C sales director Nikolay Baryshnikov to talk about the current climate in Russia, the company's continuing international expansion, and to discuss the games which have been hits in Russia -- if perhaps unknown here.

What has 1C been up to recently?

Nikolay Baryshnikov: We've traditionally covered the former USSR territories as a publisher, but now we have an expanded international presence. We want to keep our leadership in local markets, but expand our activities abroad, and have made several agreements with Western companies to bring our titles to other parts of the world. We would like gamers all over the globe to have a chance to play our games, and are starting to sign more publishing deals with European and US developers which we will announce very soon.

You've also been doing a lot of expansion -- purchasing Ino-Co, Cenega...

NB: These are actually not the only purchases we’ve done recently. Expect some news pretty soon! We are actively strengthening our development and international sector. Cenega Publishing was renamed 1C Publishing EU and covers large deals in Central Europe. We have also opened offices in London (1C UK) and in Beijing (1C Asia Pacific). We have also closed two big publishing deals with Atari and 505 Games which will bring our games both to North America and Europe.

We have recently signed a deal with GDL, which will also allow us to ship some of our older titles which never made it outside of Russia to other European countries. There are some pretty good games in our back catalogue so why not deliver these to the audience in Europe?

How has the distribution agreement with Atari been?

NB: We have already released several games together and are now preparing for our biggest launch -- King’s Bounty: The Legend. This should become one of 1C’s biggest titles -- I was really impressed by the overall quality of Katauri’s latest game. These guys have proved once again (since the release of Space Rangers) that they can deliver highly addictive and interesting games.

There were some doubts since after creating a space game it is not that easy to switch to fantasy, and many fans in Russia were demanding a third game in the Space Rangers saga, but the developers decided to do something really different. It turned out to be another big success for them. The game has been recently released in Russia and got both great ratings in the press and high popularity among gamers.

What other games have you published that were popular in Russia?

NB: It's difficult to name just a few. Among others I would like to point out the Soldiers: Heroes of World War II/Faces of War – action/RTS series which features a complex AI and physics systems(every single item on the map is destructible); Perimeter, an innovative RTS which has terraforming as a part of gameplay; and of course the Space Rangers titles, which are an interesting mix of RPG, adventure and turn-based battles in a huge living world which acts on its own, even without interference from the player.

The are also several titles only recently released that definitely deserve players’ attention. Ones like Fantasy Wars, a turn-based strategy title, and Death to Spies -- stealth action taking place during World War II.

In comparison, which of 1C's titles have been most popular internationally?

NB: Our biggest success was the IL-2 Sturmovik line-up that sold all across the world, even in Japan which is considered to be a very “console” market. The second biggest 1C title was Hard Truck 2: King of the Road which did very well not only in Russia, but in Germany and overseas in the US. Both franchises sold over 2 million units worldwide each.

How bad is piracy in Russia now?

NB: The situation with piracy has improved a lot in recent years. I can’t say that we have managed to eliminate all pirated products, but it is not dominating the market anymore as it was 5 years ago.

Still the piracy level is probably around 60-70%, as opposed well over 95% in the past.

Despite that, PC games still seem to be your main interest (and the main interest of other Eastern European countries) Do you see that changing?

NB: It's true, PC games still occupy the biggest part of the market, but the situation has changed a lot recently. The share of console titles is getting bigger each year. Quite a number of Russian developers have been developing console game as well. I think that this tendency will keep on evolving in the upcoming years as well although PC games will still remain a huge power on the local market. We have two console titles coming out this year from our internal developers as well.

How big are you now?

NB: 1C now has over 900 employees in the HQ office alone and covers a huge territory. 1C’s distribution network covers major Eastern and Central European markets. 1С products are distributed through a network of partner companies in 600 cities of Russia and CIS -- around 8000 partners all across Russia and the CIS plus our own retail chain which includes about 40 shops in all major Russian cities.

How has the Russian dev scene been developing?

NB: The Russian game industry is growing and I would say getting older and much more professional. It is getting very similar to Western Europe or the USA. More and more Russian developers have started working directly with Western publishers to create games for them. This brings foreign experience and methods. Game development in Russia is becoming more professional and more expensive. In terms of costs it is becoming comparable to Western standards.

How do has development differed in Russia?

NB: Some years ago game development in Russia was more a hobby than business. But things are changing fast and, just as I have mentioned before, our industry is moving towards international standards. There are still some peculiarities though. Many Russian developers still put the most effort in the creative side of their project -- they want to deliver something original above all else.

Yes, a lot of people have thought of Eastern Europe as a place for outsourcing, but thanks to developers including CD Projekt, GSC, etc. people are noticing the original titles.

NB: We've never thought of Eastern Europe as an outsourcing market only. As the leading publisher in the region we always had quite a significant share of games developed in Russia and other ex-USSR countries in our portfolio. Even more, some Western publishers are developing their games in Russia. We’re not talking merely outsourcing, but full-scale game development done by a Russian studio.

So is it still a place you think western publishers should look to for outsourcing?

NB: The situation is changing and more companies are doing full-scale development but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any companies providing quality outsourcing services either! However, the level of experience and professionalism of Russian teams allows them to produce more than only outsourcing.

Does the Russian government show any interest in the industry?

NB: No, the government treats the game industry just as any other industry in Russia. There are absolutely no benefits.

June 6, 2008

Best Of Indie Games: Love the Beagles

[Every week, IndieGames.com: The Weblog editor Tim W. will be summing up some of the top free-to-download and commercial indie games from the last seven days, as well as any notable features on his sister 'state of indie' weblog.]

This week on 'Best Of Indie Games', we take a look at some of the top independent PC Flash/downloadable titles released earlier this week - three commercial indie releases at wildly variable and endearing price points, and an equal number of freeware games, including new titles from the creators of Crayon Physics and Ablation.

Game Pick: 'Love' (Fred Wood, commercial indie - demo available)
"A minimalistic platformer with twenty playable levels, four hidden stages, eleven different tracks, and seven endings. All at the cost of one measly dollar. The demo offers a tasty five levels to sample as well."

Game Pick: 'Planet of the Jellies' (Petri Purho, freeware)
"A new monthly game from this year's IGF Grand Prize winner, marking the first anniversary of Crayon Physics' public release. Match invaders drawn in a wobbly line art style to rack up points in the endless invasion mode."

Game Pick: 'Stardrone' (Orb Games, commercial indie - demo available)
"Stardrone is a new one-switch arcade game with puzzle elements, created by independent developer Orb Games. Take control of a drone as you make your way through over fifty stages with varying mission objectives."

Game Pick: 'Kaiten Patissier' (Alpha Secret Base, freeware)
"An action game with puzzle and platformer elements, built around the concept of rotating the levels to re-adjust the locations of walls, floors, ceilings, and even boxes. Works on Windows, Linux and even GP2X platforms."

Game Pick: 'Battle of Tiles' (Bimboosoft, commercial indie - demo available)
"A simple yet strangely addictive strategy game, where players have to decide on the attack formation of their army before rushing into combat. Odd name for a software development company, but nonetheless the game is an absolute bargain at only a fiver!"

Game Pick: 'Rescue: The Beagles' (Nenad, freeware)
"A new platformer by the developer of Counterclockwise and Ablation, where the objective is to save the required number of dogs from the hands of evil researchers in each stage to progress. Levels are procedurally generated, the action comes thick and fast, plus the inclusion of an online high score table ensures that players will be coming back for more."

In-Depth: Valve On Team Fortress 2 - Devs As Service Providers

[So, Gamasutra editor at large Chris Remo was at large in Seattle for Valve's announcement of Steam Cloud and general 'PC not dead' chatter last week, and decided to write up some of the presentations - which were fascinating - in more detail. Hence this, from the patient and smart Team Fortress 2 chaps.]

During a recent small-scale Gamasutra-attended press event held at Valve's offices in Bellevue, Washington, designer Robin Walker spoke on the importance of communication between players and developers of modern PC games.

He also discussed how the unique advantages of the PC platform provide the most fertile ground for keeping a multiplayer game community robust and active.

Though Valve shies away from titles amongst its staff, Walker is certainly the most visible designer on the company's hit class-based shooter Team Fortress 2.

In his presentation, he described Valve's plan for the game and how the Steam distribution service facilitated it, as well as how continuous content updates have allowed the team to refine its design sense.

"You Are Providing A Service"

Said Walker, "Being close to your customers - being able to talk directly to your customers - is valuable." That lack of barriers between developers and consumers was a theme to which Walker returned often.

"We've been making multiplayer game titles for about a decade now, and we've noticed a couple of key components to a successful multiplayer title," he continued. "One, that it innovates in gameplay both on release, but also over time post-release, and that those innovations are significant and of interest to customers."

"Secondly," he continued, "that they provide continuous content updates post-release, so the game is a living thing. It never gets boring, it keeps growing. The way to define this is you are providing a service to your customers. You're not providing them with a product and then saying, 'I'm done with you.' You are fundamentally viewing them as someone you are a service provider to."

Shipping a game doesn't mark a development endpoint, said Walker, but rather the start of a back-and-forth in which players provide input with gameplay behavior and verbal feedback, and developers respond with design and content updates.

"Instead of us thinking our job is to talk to them through press releases, we think shipping them content is the way we talk to them," he said. "We listen to what they say, we make changes to our design, we ship those changes."

Avenues Of Feedback

Drawing a contrast to what would be practical on consoles, Walker said Valve has shipped 53 updates to Team Fortress 2 via Steam's auto-updating system since the game shipped last October.

"On a closed console system," he explained, "certification costs would prohibit that off the bat, then the amount of time it would take to cert 53 updates would be further prohibitive."

The TF2 team has used a variety of methods to analyze player behavior and reactions to game changes. That includes examining the vast amount of gameplay data recorded by Steam, but also keeping up with more traditional communication such as forums and email - Valve is well known among hardcore gamers for being uncommonly responsive to emails sent directly to employees.

"It's not just us talking to them, they talk to us, and the closer we are to them, the more effectively they can talk to us," he said.

Walker stressed how important it is to use as many types of responses as possible when shipping class updates, new maps or map changes, and Achievements, because those new updates and changes will lead to further refinements, making it crucially important to fix misjudgments before they reverberate into larger problems.

"We're going to make a bunch of compound decisions downstream of those, and I need to know that these are the right decisions," he elaborated. "The closer I am to my customers, the more effectively they can talk to me, the better my future decisions are going to be."

Refining Team Fortress 2

Bringing the focus of the talk more towards Team Fortress 2 itself, Walker described the three major long-term goals Valve had for the game: it shouldn't get boring even over long periods of time, customers should continue to get content indefinitely after release, and players should be rewarded for their time investment in the game.

Since it is impossible to conclusively predict the behavior of hundreds of thousands of players over months, there isn't any way to conceive the practical points of the post-ship plan beforehand. Said Walker, "Steam, or any system like Steam, allows me to iteratively get there, step by step, and measure effectively, and make sure my decisions are being influenced by what my customers are telling me, and that I haven't gone too far off target each step of the way."

As an example, Walker pointed to the recently-released Medic pack, which added a slew of class-specific items and Achievements alongside the new Goldrush map. The update was conceived when Valve realized that, as an inherently support-oriented role, Medic was among the least-played classes - even though gameplay data shows that when players choose Medic, the whole team scores better. "So if I can get more medics playing, everybody wins," the designer said.

Valve's update added items intended to change gameplay, encourage Medic usage, and reward those who play the game. It also added a variety of Achievements - some of which, it should be noted, have been criticized for encouraging players to engage in behavior that is unhelpful to their teams.

When this criticism was raised, Robin acknowledged that Valve took something of a buckshot approach with that first round of class-specific Achievements, in order to gauge player reaction to various extremes and provide a framework of data with which to design further Achievements.

"Achievement design, in particular in the multiplayer space, is still the realm of assumptions," he admitted. "It's not terribly specific. We don't, as designers, yet understand how to build the perfect achievement."

Walker said one of his goals is to ensure Achievements are not simply score-oriented, but also contribute to the overall player-designer feedback loop. "We think achievements can be much more than that," he said. "They're a way for us to talk to our customers about what the game design is about, and what kind of behaviors we would like them to exhibit in multiplayer games. So we have a strong vested achievements in learning to build good achievements."

Boosting The Player Base

Unsurprisingly, when the update was released, Medic usage hit an inflated peak usage of 32 percent of all players in all games - and team scores shot through the roof. What was more important however, was what happened in the weeks that followed; Medic has now settled into a position as the third most popular class.

A corresponding free play weekend doubled the number of people playing TF2 for the weekend's duration, but - again, more indicatively - that increase tapered off into a persistent improvement. After the free weekend ended, average simultaneous players increased by 22 pecent.

Walker said the lessons the company learned about achievement design, will be rolled into the next pack, for the Pyro. "In particular," he noted, "one of the interesting things we learned is that the degree to which an achievement is earnable through general play versus specifically trying to earn an achievement is a key component to how likely customers are to game it versus earn it legitimately. This exposes how we can learn specifically from our customers from having a conversation with them about game design."

"Things I Don't Spend Time Thinking About"

Walker moved onto a segment he called "Things I don't spend time thinking about," devoted to three major points that have long been thorns in the side of multiplayer game developers but which, he claims, are no longer difficulties for Valve: piracy, cheating, and updates.

On piracy: "Today, I don't worry about that at all. Steam - and if I were on some other PC system, it would probably have its own system - just takes care of this for me."

On cheating: "I don't have to worry about cheating. Steam takes care of that for me. If I see a cheater online, or my customers are hacking my game somewhere, I just send that to the Steam team, and they make sure that cheat is essentially banned."

On game updates: "I don't want to as a game designer be thinking about bandwidth when thinking about the kind of content I want to provide to customers... I don't want to think about how this update is going to disrupt my communities [due to version fragmentation]."

(It should be pointed out that Walker's dismissive attitude towards these three sticking points masks what is undoubtedly still a significant amount of effort elsewhere in Valve's offices by Steam developers to allow the individual game teams to pay those issues little heed themselves.)

Walker summed up the bottom line: "Many of these things I've described really come down to the fact that I don't want anyone between me and my customers. I want to be able to write code today, and I want all my customers running it tomorrow. That's the world I want to be in."

"Then," he continued, "I'm making game design decisions fundamentally about what my customers want most. I'm not trying to please some strange set of constraints or goal that some intermediate person has, who, by being there, almost by definition is not going to have the same goals as my customers."

Conclusion: Developers As Service Providers

Finishing up the talk, Walker returned to his initially-stated thesis that game developers must think of their roles in a community-oriented way.

"We believe that game designers need to start thinking about their games as services," he said. "Part of the reason for this is because, as I've described, in the multiplayer space, your ability to succeed as a product is a function of your ability to ship new content and your ability to measure that content and the success of it. Your ability to do both of those is fundamentally a function of how close you are to your customers."

"If you're not close to your customers," he concluded, "or there are other people between you and your customers -- who you have to run things by, OK design decisions, and then ask for the data -- instead of being able to view it raw and control what data you want and how rapidly, then you are going to cut down your ability to succeed as that service dramatically."

GameSetLinks: Attack Of The Fridays

Ah yes, a return for some further GameSetLinks, headed by another look at the iPhone app Trism - a game whose popularity feeds into the concept that the iPhone could be a DS 'killer' - which isn't actually true, since they serve different markets, but is an interesting thought.

Also in this set of links - the McDonalds ad based on Line Rider, a good longform piece on the rise of games as a 'human product', and the TriForce scooping the world in, uh, badly drawn sketches of theoretical things. Investigative journalism!

Avast, and away:

YouTube - Trism for the iPhone : Second Look!
You may remember we raved about this a while back - looks like it's gonna be pretty interesting, though the video is a little marketing-y for me, sorry.

Battle of the brain games: Lumos Labs raises $3 million, Fit Brains debuts » VentureBeat
VCs are digging brain games, it seems.

Original Nintendo Stadium Events Cartridge | NES | gameSniped.com
Wow, $1800 for a single non-prototype NES cartridge.

The Triforce » Blog Archives » PS3 Wiimote Exclusive!
Cutting edge Internet journalism FTW!

Cover story: 'Rage against the machines' by Tom Chatfield | Prospect Magazine June 2008 issue 147
Excellent external perspective on the rise of gaming: 'games are human products, and lie within our control.' Via Driph.

YouTube - McDonald's Line Rider Commercial (30 secs)
Hey, it's the big time for Line Riding, innit?

Vertigames: 'More'
'Everybody wants their game, whether the one they’re making or the one they’re playing, to be jam-packed to the gills with stuff. Why?'

Pictures For Truth - official site.
Amnesty International game about the Beijing Olympics and human rights, interesting - tho slightly browse and language-mangling, hee.

The Jace Hall Show - official website
So the ex-Monolith/WB boss is doing a web show for Crackle.com which "...will feature celebs like Christina Milian and Wilmer Valderamma as they hang out with Jace and channel their inner video game geeks", a PR tells me. Oop, and it's just debuted, with a Duke Nukem gameplay preview, or something wacky. Very odd.

Digital Eel on the 'Weird Worlds' free soundtrack release
Yay, free weird music from weird indie stalwarts - also that Dominion 3 banner ad (keep reloading!) is AWESOME.

June 5, 2008

Chewing Pixels: 'Video Game Review Scores: Pointless or Pertinent?'

- ['Chewing Pixels' is a regular GameSetWatch column written by British games journalist and producer, Simon Parkin. This latest instalment deals with video game reviews and scoring - the good, the bad, and the ugly.]

Last month a British games journalist reviewed Xbox Live Arcade’s Penny Arcade Adventures for two different publications. In one of the magazines the game scored 4/10 while, in the other it was awarded 68%. While it’s a discrepancy that caused some to raise their eyebrows, most commentators acknowledge that the difference simply reflects each publication’s own particular use of the numerical review scale.

Two weeks later Microsoft announced their plans to remove games with an average Metacritic score of 65% or lower from their XBLA service. If the decision on whether to keep Penny Arcade Adventures on the service were to be based solely on the judgement of this reviewer, its fate would swing on which review was looked at.

While a game’s Metacritic or Gameranking average score has often been used to dictate the size of a development staff’s bonuses, EA’s decision to use numerical scores as the criterion for dictating whether games can be sold on their service or not has elevated the numbers issue a whole new level of consequence.

Some argue that scores represent different things to different publications, one title’s 4/10 being another’s 68%. Others question why, when scores rarely tally with a game’s commercial success, we should use them to make commercial decisions? Always, the question behind the question is: do review scores actually matter and, if so what do they even mean?

At a glance, review scores seem to be the most harmless of things. While good critics will bemoan having to reduce a 1000-word piece of incisive criticism to a number on a 10 point scale (or, um, 19 point scale if you’re GameSpot), to the average consumer they offer a useful shorthand reference point with which to compare different titles and inform buying decisions.

But to fully understand the confusing tangle review scores have landed both reviewers, consumers and the wider industry in, it’s important to understand their origins. Review scores are a system imported from those publications that review and rate consumer products like televisions and toasters. For example, look at this review of the Canon EOS400D camera. It’s 25 pages long and is the most objective dissection of this model of camera as it is possible to create.

Every aspect to the product is pulled apart, rated and weighed with statistical graphs and comparative data. By the end of the review you know every single detail about the camera and how it empirically compares to its rivals.

It’s a huge exercise in absolute objectivity and, at the end of the gigantic review the author sums up the good points and the bad points and there is no shadow of a doubt that everything said is ‘factually correct’.

Additionally, there is a place on a defined scale of quality upon which the product sits at that moment in time. It compares to other cameras on the market in defined ways, despite being a complex product. Using the review data it would be possible to arrange all of the digital cameras into a ‘truth’ line of quality, with the ‘best’ camera sitting at 100 and the ‘worst’ at 1 and to place this camera somewhere along that line, thus communicating to a consumer its relative and inherent qualities in a single representative digit.

It seems sensible then to believe that such an exercise could be applied to video games to construct a similar scale of quality. Indeed, this is exactly what many video game consumers want from their reviews.

The average reader (even if they don’t know it) is after a complete objective, scientific comparison between game x and game y with data and statistics and, finally, a numerical point on a linear scale by which they can compare, for example, Mass Effect with Rock Band and see which one is empirically better.

Except, of course, video games don’t work in the same way as toasters or digital cameras. Sure, they have mathematical elements and measurable mechanics and it’s possible to compare the number of polygons between this one and that and spin out ten thousand graphs detailing how two specimens compare. But, unlike with the Canon EOS400D, I would have no idea at the end of those 25 pages which game was better or where they would sit on the ‘true’ scale of quality.

Games are experiential and it is impossible to be wholly empirical or objective about them. Game reviewers instead present their experience of the game with, hopefully, lots of reference points and their weight of knowledge behind them. They might make empirical comparisons between game x and game y’s framerates but they will also argue whether they think this in any way effects the experience for better (in the case of bullet hell shooters such as DoDonPachi) or for worse. They have to argue their points because there isn’t data on the overall, indefinable quality of a game.

In the early days of magazine publishing, video game reviewers would often break a game down into all of its constituent parts (graphics, sound, ‘lastability’ etc), score each on a comparative line of quality and then present the average of those scores as the game’s overall measure of quality.

However, this approach presumes that it’s possible to put each of a game’s constituent parts on a definable scale of quality. The truth is that gauging a game’s graphical appeal is a subjective pursuit in the same way that trying to comparatively score a Monet against a Picasso would be. Call of Duty 4’s competent stab at sunset-drenched realism has a certain appeal, but then so does the 8-bit elegance of a Chuckie Egg or Geometry Wars.

Secondly, games are more than the sum of their parts. You could have a visually astounding videogame with a gut-wrenching soundtrack and astute, nuanced voice acting and it could still be terrible to play and vice versa. Aggregating scores from extrapolated game elements tells you nothing anyone would actually want to know about a videogame.

At this point, defendants of the review score will offer: ‘Why not just review the game on how fun it is, then?'

The problem with wanting a purely objective ‘review’ of a video game is made doubly complicated by the fact that a video game’s purpose is never so narrow nor so easily defined. Consumer goods have a very clearly defined job to do. A digital camera is there to take the best possible photographs, a toaster is there to make toast to whatever specification the consumer requires in the shortest and most efficient timescale. And because their purpose is tight and the measure of the product’s success easily calculable, they lend themselves to ‘review’ and ’score’ testing.

In contrast, the purpose of a video game is much less narrowly defined. Most game ‘reviewers’ would say that the purpose of a game is to be fun and to entertain. But actually pinning down such abstract concepts is tricky as there are as many criteria and understandings of what is entertaining and fun as there are humans. Thus, reviewing a video game in the same way as you’d review a digital camera or other similar consumer product is inappropriate or, at very least, misleading.

All this is not to say that review scores are entirely meaningless or misleading. In fact, they do have a very clearly defined purpose; it’s just that it’s a different purpose to the one that’s widely understood.

Scores have come to represent whether a game over-achieves or unde-rachieves on the preview hype that was generated by the publication ahead of its release. As previews in the average video game magazine are so heavily influenced by advertisers (after all, a preview is offering no judgment on the quality of a game, so a magazine/website can print riotously positive spin and maintain clear conscience) this weighting of preview coverage sets imbalanced expectations in readers.

Rather than focusing on the most interesting, promising or innovative games coming out, readers are made to get excited about those whose publishers pay the most for, be it directly through advertising or indirectly through the general marketing promotion of a title.

This is why when a game like Koei’s Bladestorm gets 8/10 in some publications, readerships become incredulous. Their expectations for the game haven’t been set that high because they were being fed hype of a different flavour.

Then, conversely, when Metal Gear Solid 4 scores an 8/10 on Eurogamer last week, the readership revolts the other way - because that’s far below their expectations. Remember: in both cases nobody but the reviewer had played the game at the point the reviews came out - why then were people so quick to damn each respective score (for opposing reasons) if they’ve no hands-on experience?

Scores then become a reference to a game’s preceding hype. An 8/10 for a game that was hugely hyped to hobbyist gamers is a punch in the stomach for excited fans (see the anguish exhibited in the MGS4 comments thread). Conversely, an 8/10 for a game nobody cares about is viewed a gross over-generosity.

And that, is why video game review scores are pointless: they often answer a pertinent question that nobody realised they were asking.

Column: Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic - 'Welcome to the Phantasy Star Online'

['Welcome to the GameSetWatch Comic' is, once again, a weekly comic by Jonathan "Persona" Kim about the continuing adventures of our society, cultural postdialectic theory, and video games.]

This time around, Persona takes a look at one of my favorite online games of all time, Sega's Phantasy Star Online, with a particular eye to the treasures like the super-spectacular weapons that may (or may not!) be hidden within the secret item boxes that you bring to the in-game store. Haw.

Those tekkers are just messing with you

[Jonathan "Persona" Kim is a character animation student at the California Institute of the Arts. When not playing horribly addictive online games, he continues the Mecha Fetus revolution on the Mecha Fetus Visublog.]

GameSetLinks: The Midweek Madness Is Upon Us

Starting up the midweek shoesaw of highlights from Gamasutra and our other sites, there's a pretty large amount of neatstuff already - headed off by retired Supreme Court Justice O'Connor (pictured) frontlining an educational game about American courts (we'd like to think she'll be a bit like an EA Sports cover-star), and Insomniac revealing new East-Coast digs.

Also in here - good quality chats with the Konami folks about Metal Gear Solid 4 and a giganto Bungie & Halo 3-related megafeature, plus the triumphant return of the Gamasutra Podcast, with Tom Kim quizzing GameCity's Iain Simons in his signature fashion.

And them's the news:

G4C: Justice O'Connor Announces Our Courts Learning Game
"At the closing keynote of the Games For Change conference, retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced that she is collaborating with game and education leaders from Georgetown Law School to create Our Courts, an upcoming online civics learning program for middle school students."

In-Depth: Insomniac Talks New North Carolina Studio
"Ratchet & Clank and Resistance developer Insomniac has revealed plans to open a new studio in North Carolina in 2009 - Gamasutra speaks in detail with founder/CEO Ted Price and new NC studio director Chad Dezern about the deal and the state of the developer."

Game Law: Get Your Pigs in a Row!
"As a developer, how do you plan the next game while completing the existing one? Veteran game lawyer/consultant Tom Buscaglia examines snakes eating pigs, metaphorically, for the answer."

Q&A: Konami's Payton, Imaizumi Look Back On Metal Gear Solid 4's Creation
"On the eve of Metal Gear Solid's release, Gamasutra sits down with producer Ken Imaizumi and AP Ryan Payton to look back on the game's creation, its eschewing of vertical slice development, and the reality that Grand Theft Auto IV is a "hard act to follow"."

Gamasutra Podcast Talks With GameCity Director Iain Simons
"Should publishers put creators forward to talk about the game-making process, rather than simply promoting product? In the return of the Gamasutra podcast, Tom Kim talks to GameCity festival director Iain Simons about making the industry more palatable to a wider audience, and what the future of his UK-based game festival holds."

Q&A: CyberConnect2's Matsuyama On Naruto Tech, Plans
"Japanese .hack creator CyberConnect2 is also noted for its series of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja games, and with its cel-shaded PS3 Naruto debut due later this year, Gamasutra talked to CyberConnect2 president Hiroshi Matsuyama about technology, game engines, and developing for the Western market."

Bungie In 2008: Reflecting On Halo 3, Moving Beyond
"With Halo creator Bungie newly independent, Gamasutra sits down with staffers Brian Jarrard, Mike Zak and Chris Butcher to discuss the creation of Halo 3 and the company's attitude going forward."

G4C Keynote: Zimmerman, Gee On World Changing Games
"How best can games be used to affect real world change, and what do developers have to address to make their games more engaging? At the keynote of the ongoing Games For Change conference, James Paul Gee and Eric Zimmerman spoke broadly about the power of games as a learning device."

Q&A: Trion On Platform, Von Caneghem MMO, Sci-Fi Channel Deal
"Online world firm Trion World Network has revealed its first projects - including a Jon Von Caneghem-helmed fantasy themed MMO, and a Sci-Fi Channel co-developed online game to intertwine with a TV series, plus PS3 certification - and Gamasutra talks with CEO Lars Buttler and Van Caneghem for full details."

Games For Health: What Rex Ronan Teaches Us About Health Education
"At the recent Games For Health conference, academic Cynthia Bates referenced games from The Oregon Trail through Super Nintendo anti-smoking game Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon to discuss how games have educated on health, and how they might do so in the future."

June 4, 2008

Healthcare Giants Talk Games For Health Initiatives

- [There's actually been a string of these Games For Health-related write-ups on Gamasutra and our Serious Games Source subsite, thanks to notetaker Kyle Orland and embellisher Mathew Kumar, but I'm just cross-posting the particularly interesting ones. This one is just that, since it shows that big companies are starting to care significantly about games as a medium.]

Continuing our coverage of the 2008 Games For Health conference, we feature a panel included several different major healthcare organizations, including Kaiser Permanente and Humana.

Each discussed their involvement creating games for health, with some of the educational titles cited including The Amazing Food Detective and Re-Mission.

The Amazing Food Detective

Dr. Trina Histon opened by introducing the audience to her employer Kaiser Permanente: America's largest nonprofit integrated health care system with 13,000 physicians and 156,000 employees.

Histon explained that they were "looking for a 21st century equivalent for 1940's cartoon signs encouraging workers to 'EAT RIGHT!'" as part of their weight management initiative. So they looked at game development, producing The Amazing Food Detective, a game aimed at children aged 9-10.

"Developing games is a bit of a departure for us," she admitted, "but the obesity epidemic can't be solved by medical community alone. Health plans offer prevention and surgery, but they were looking for a broader reach: Trying to reach community through schools and children. Physicians weren't on board right away – we had to work with them to convince them sitting in front of computer/TV is worthwhile. The game tells you to go be active after a timer runs out."

Similarly, scholastic partnership was important: the game is available over 5000 schools, and has won several awards (IMA Award, Parenting Award, KIDS FIRST! Award) making it easier for Kaiser Permanente to use video games in future.

In the game, players "solve" the case of why certain kids aren't healthy, and Histon pointed out several important points about the project:

- The game was based in evidence -- pediatric research – and not "just gimmicky."
- The title had a broad reach, available in both English and Spanish, and further, the game was culturally sensitive with the in-game children from different ethnicities.
- The game helps improve health literacy: "Don't make it tough to understand," Histon warned.

The hope, Histon felt, was that "In 20 years, we can look back and say this helped get rid of the obesity epidemic."

Humana Games

Next, Paul Puopolo, head of Consumer Innovation at Humana, explained Humana's involvement with Games For Health. They chose to look at health "across the board,"

Puopolo explained, working on preventive health, disease management, social well-being, beginning with pilot program with exergames in 2007-08: Generation FIT in middle schools, dance mats in assisted living facilities to help muscle/bone development and other solutions for the workplace.

As a specific example, Puopolo described an initiative that Humana had run in middle schools, where "pedometers meet Webkinz" in a competition. They gave pedometers to 20 students in 6 schools and performed a competition on how many steps they could take.

More steps equaled more points, and more points equaled an ability to modify virtual buses and drivers, which went around the world (virtually) teaching the participants about geography on the way. "in 4 and a half weeks, 120 kids walked 6364 miles," Puopolo revealed.

Furthermore, Pupolo revealed the Humanagames.com initiative, a new portal set up to raise awareness of health issues and present Humana-associated research.


Finally, Michael Rosenfield from CIGNA took the stage to discuss the creation of Re-Mission, a much-discussed 20 level game in which players shoot cancer cells and "manage life threatening side effects", helping to explain and .

"My colleagues gave me a blank face 18 months ago when I talked about games," Rosenfield said. "We're always looking for neat ways to engage our 'constituents': employers, employees, etc, but games weren't on our checklist."

"Then we ran into [game creator] HopeLab," he said. "They helped us figure out how to engage users, be fun and, what's more, in a way scientifically proven to make a difference. The science is key in convincing people to sign on."

15,000 copies of Re-Mission were distributed to anyone (not just CIGNA members), and they found the game inspired children with cancer, giving them a sense of control.

"People tell us the game is really hard, really challenging," said Rosenfield. "I tell them, 'so is cancer. Families are also affected and can learn from the game. The whole system is involved, and we never expected that."

COLUMN: Why We Play - 'Problematic Peripherals'

MD_ACC_Activator2.jpg [“Why We Play” is a weekly column by NYC freelance writer Chris Plante that discusses how videogames benefit us when we are away from them, in the real world, and what brings us back. This time he lunges for the peripheral controller's jugular.]

I loathe peripherals. So when my girlfriend reserved a video game for the first time a month ago, what should have been a benchmark in our relationship was handicapped by a mandatory white-slab, which now rests on our living room floor. That’s right, we, along with my grandmother, my mother, and millions of other non-gamers, are Wii Fit owners.

Nintendo’s recent addition to the Wii Sports canon may be a blast (and even healthful), but it leaves me perplexed: didn’t we buy the Wii for its innovative Wiimote, a device that promised unfettered control—no more wheels or maracas or dance pads or guns or guitars? But between the boxed-in Mario kart wheel and Link’s crossbow, the classic controllers and Wavebirds, and the guitars and drums I cannot find room for Wii Fit; my shoebox apartment hardly has enough room for me. What’s a city gamer to do? After all, peripherals, along with consoles (read: giant peripherals?) require two things: money and space.

Allow me to extrapolate my peripheral melancholy, because right now I must sound like a loon harping on my terrible luck—“I own too many video games!” That’s not the case, rather I’m dismayed that so many recent game and console launches have required more and more real estate. And I am one of many that don’t have the space to share.

The Cost of Control

But first, money; it’s now obvious that video games are more financially divisive than ever. We have, for the first time, three wonderful and successful systems that offer unique experiences and capabilities. Also, each has their exclusive games. Sure, some of us may have an allegiance to a particular console, but most would love to (and few are privileged to) own all three home consoles.

This has divided shape a gamer community divided—one similar to the Sonic/Mario wars of the early 1990’s; and while the Hedgehog may have hung up his shoes, his replacements’, Sony and Microsoft, communities have their Master Chiefs and Solid Snakes to cheer for and grovel over.

Competition may be healthy, but dividing consumers is bad business. Consumers from other markets have refused to be divided as we most recently saw with Blu-Ray and HDDVD. Why then should gamers be expected to either own multiple systems or miss out on exclusive products, while music, movie, and literature fans have standardized formats?

It’s an important question that many have tried to answer, and, honestly, I can’t hope to solve the problem today. But part of this issue, the rise of multiple console homes, has created the problem I originally discussed: peripheral stockpiles.

Space: The Crowded Frontier

While it may be broad to generalize consoles as peripherals—though Microsoft had no shame promoting the Wii as a 360 peripheral a la the 36Wii—it is important to consider each console requires their own unique controllers. If you’re fortunate enough to own all three core-consoles, you may own Rock Band for the PS3, Guitar Hero 2 for the 360, and WiiFit for the Wii. As my grandfather would say, “That’s a lot of shit.”

Space, then, may be as important a divider for future games as the money to buy peripherals is today. While we may be decades away from the 20’x20’ VR treadmills stationed at research labs, its not unreasonable to imagine similar, truncated devices stuffing our dens. Yet, home ownership’s declined and urban living has increased; as we are forced into smaller houses or apartments, peripheral ownership has and will become more difficult.

It’s the rhythm game advent that’s left my one bedroom apartment shock and awed as if a hand grenade detonated a Fender factory. With little closet space, guitars are slid under my couches and behind my headboard; drums are tightly stowed away in the ottoman. And while I can’t complain—I’m lucky to have the gear—my super can and does.

When I take time to excavate my Rock Band equipment for a Saturday night jam session, only a few hours may pass before stomping comes from above and shouting from below; then, knocks at the door and requests to ‘Sell my toys on E-bay,’ result in a game party cut short.

Space is not just physical real estate, but also the proximity to those around us. And the newest peripherals are noisy. While I may sound like a grumpy old man with this peripheral rant, it is the actual grumpy old man two floors up that’s made a Guitar Hero III party day dream material.

Making Space Out of Nothing

With no space to store peripherals and paper-thin walls, sometimes I crave the retro ‘controller and couch’ gameplay. And I’m not the only one. Many fellow New Yorkers have sold their gear online to appease touchy neighbors and venomous landlords. While others, dedicated Guitar Heroes, have searched out basement or first floor lofts to ensure rehearsal space; some players have even organized Guitar Hero nights at local bars to house their full force, head-banger sessions.

While this may be acceptable for rock games, what about the Wii Fit, which excels in a small, hushed venue, but still requires big movements, floor stomping, and general broo-ha-ha (listen, I play yoga for keeps)?

Then there are the controllers. If a player wants to own a Wii for multiplayer they must own four Wii-motes, four nun chucks, and four classic controllers. Then there are the optional crossbows, wheels, gun holsters, Nerf sports gear, and guitars. If they own more systems, they may have the same controllers and peripherals, as the consoles lack interchangeable control methods.

And as Microsoft moves into motion controls, we may see normal controls, motion controls, and additional devices (see: Balance Board) for each console. The plastic pile will continue to grow, but there’s only so much space under beds, in closets, and atop bookshelves.

What Can Studios Do

Our problem’s clear: the combined success of three consoles along with the sudden popularity of peripheral games has made barriers between consoles stronger than ever before. Now we don’t only have game collections limited to particular machines, but controllers. While previous console generations had the occasional light-gun or maracas for niche gamers, the current generation promotes and heavily relies on guitars, drums, and, now, balance boards.

Worst of all, the Wii, what should have been a no-peripheral messiah, has become number the one offender with its odd variety of plastic controls, and, with the Balance Board's success, a bevy of unknown add-ons to come.

If games continue to move towards niche peripheral markets, studios must fight to standardize controls. USB 2.0 and Bluetooth are great staring points, and it wouldn’t be difficult for Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft to firmware update universal wireless control. Is this unreasonable to expect, definitely, but it might be wise for developers and peripheral designers to develop their own universal controls. If prevented, these studios should stand up to the console makers on the consumers’ behalf. Why shouldn’t Rock Band 2’s instruments have PS3/360 compatibility?

Consoles attracted me with their plug and play nature, but as peripherals, add-ons, and software installs become commonplace, the console/PC gap has dwindled. Now, I think we must embrace the universal benefits that come with PC gaming. Let’s start to demand more standardized controls.

What Can We Do

We need to do more than discuss standardization. Hardcore gamers must become more lenient with their fellow gamers. Recently, expectations have been made amongst hardcore players to play every game for every console. Ever. That not only applies to current gen, but to past gen. For example, look at the NeoGAF reaction to N’Gai Croal’s ‘dirty little secret’—he’s only been a gamer since 1999! Zut alors!

If a hardcore gamer must own every new and old peripheral and console, then the hardcore would be limited to the wealthiest--those with the cash and space for an enormous video game catalogue.

We should expect designers to develop quality alternate controls for those that can't afford the major peripherals, or ask for smaller, cheaper peripherals. We shouldn't be expected to sacrifice entire paychecks for major releases. And we shouldn't expect other gamers to do so either.

While the Wii Fit will no doubt be a welcome addition to my apartment, it will come at the cost of a guitar and a coffee table, which will find new homes via Craigslist. It also will come along with a painful cut into my savings. But this is expected amongst gamers; we’re always hungry for the greatest and latest, and scoff at those players who wait months or years behind the trends.

Then again, I imagine they scoff at us sacrificing furniture and paying $90 to do yoga in our living rooms.

[Chris Plante is a freelance writer living the post-collegiate pauper life in New York City. By night, you can find him at HardCasual.net. By day, he produces theatre and television.]

Design Lesson 101 - World in Conflict

worldinconflict.jpg['Design Lesson 101' is a regular column by Raven game designer Manveer Heir. The challenge is to play a game from start to completion - and learn something about game design in the process. This week we take a look at Massive Entertainment's PC real-time strategy game, World in Conflict.]

The majority of real-time strategy games on the market follow a similar formula: collect resources, build a base, pump out units, research upgrades, demolish enemy, win. Resources are at the core of the strategy in these games. Given two similarly skilled players, it can often be expected that the player with the most resources will win the game.

These systems rely on divvying up the resources among the players in the game. One player gathering resources reduces available resources for another player at any given moment. When there is a fixed amount of resources on the map, it reduces available resources for other players permanently.

Massive goes a different route with the resources in World in Conflict and is able to create a more intimate experience because of it.

Design Lesson: World in Conflict minimizes resource management, allowing the game to concentrate on constant action through tactics rather than large build times

World in Conflict has a simple resource management system. The player is given a fixed amount of resources to obtain units with. Shortly after you requisition units, they are air-dropped into the game, eliminating the need for building bases. Immediately, this leads to a unit-centric, tactical feel to the entire game.

By giving the player a fixed pool of resources, the decisions that have to be made are reduced, but not minimized. You must still make unit selections. Do you wish to have a mix of air and ground forces, or would you rather have a squad of heavy tanks that are vulnerable from air attacks?

Once those decisions are made, the player attempts to take their objectives. The number of units being controlled are usually under a dozen (in single player at least), so every unit matters. When a unit dies, however, the resources that were allocated to obtain the unit are not lost forever.

Instead, what World in Conflict does is return the resources to the player. Not immediately, however. Instead, the resources trickle back in over time. Your resources aren't constrained by how well or poor you are doing in the game (at least not constrained for very long).

By doing this, World in Conflict avoids the snowball effect that exists in many real-time strategy games. In many games once a player gets the upper hand, it quickly snowballs into victory without much chance for retaliation by the opposition.

The death of one unit can be replaced, but not immediately. You may have to wait a couple minutes in order to be able to afford replacing that unit. If you incorrectly spent all your unit points on an air force, only to find the enemy base swarming with anti-air defenses, you can get tanks next time instead.

There still is a disadvantage to losing units, however. There needs to be consequences for a players choices, both positive and negative. Otherwise, the tactical decisions made will be meaningless.

In World in Conflict, the negative consequence of losing a unit is the time it takes to get a replacement. Having less units affects the player's ability to hold control points. Holding control points affects the drop-position of new units. If the player is forced to drop units further back from the front line of battle, it's more difficult to reinforce, take new control points, and make positive progress in the game.

Due to this, the player cannot just haphazardly throw units towards the enemy. Throwing an entire squad off to die isn't viable. It will take a decent amount of time to fully regroup. You may be on a timed objective, meaning each second is critical.

With so few units per player, it is important to make each unit and decision count. This combined with the fact that you don't have the manage building bases, means the player is working directly with the units for the majority of the game.

By directly working with the units, the player is involved in the action more often. You are not managing a fight on four different fronts. Instead, you are making sure your mortars are taking out distant targets, and that your anti-air guns are eliminating incoming helicopters. You are making regular, tactical decisions rather than just defaulting to whatever the AI wishes to do with your units.

This creates a more intimate feel to the combat, since you deal with small numbers of units. Additionally, this style leads to more constant action within the game. There is rarely a case where you build up an army to march over the enemy. Instead, you quickly receive units and move them to strategic locations for combat.

You are constantly, actively engaging in combat and squad tactics, not deciding what discipline to research for upgrades and building up base defenses. World in Conflict, more often than not, is a game about taking, not defending.

With this, Massive has been able to make not only an excellent game, but one which caters to many types of gamers. It has a feeling of constant action, not one of waiting. This opens up the genre and makes it potentially more palatable for gamers who do not like the slower pace of many real-time strategy games.

At the same time there are enough tactics involved on the unit level to make decisions important and deep, for the real-time strategy fan. This gives World in Conflict a unique feel from most other real-time strategy games and helps it feel new and interesting during play.

Bonus Design Lesson: The intimate approach to tactics in World in Conflict allows the game to tell a strong, emotional story

In the single player campaign, the USSR invades Seattle during the Cold War. In it, you plays as Lieutenant Parker, who is commanding a squad during the invasion.

The story introduces you to a number of characters through in-game cinematics, dialog during play, and out of game cinematics. There's a Captain who often doesn't listen to authority. There's the Colonel who consistently takes big risks. There's the grunts who you get to know on a personal level.

There is a real story going on here, with actual characters, and Massive works hard at trying to forge an attachment between the player and the characters. You learn about their back-stories. You learn why they are fighting, what they've been through in their pasts, and how they react to adversity.

This is reinforced in-game by the small squads you control. By having such a unit-centric approach to the game, I often felt empathy for my units. In games, such as Relic's Dawn of War, I have often just amassed the largest army possible, damn the casualties, and marched forward to victory.

Because this isn't possible in World in Conflict, my emotional attachment to my individual units was greater. I didn't want to lose units, not just due to tactical issues, but because I actually felt like a Lieutenant commanding a company of soldiers (at least what I imagine that would feel like). I felt empathy for the characters in the game. I got chills at times and even felt a small amount of sadness at specific points in the game.

None of this could have been accomplished without feeling that close, intimate attachment to the units of World in Conflict. The design decision to make a game focus on a small force of units, rather than large armies, enhanced my empathetic response to the story, as my emotion bond to the characters was reinforced by the gameplay itself.

This results in a well-told narrative, filled with emotion and character, something which many real-time strategy games lack.

[Manveer Heir is currently a game designer at Raven Software. He updates his design blog, Design Rampage, regularly. He is interested in thoughtful critique and commentary on the gaming industry.]

Gamasutra, Intel Debut Visual Computing Microsite, Blog

- [This is a fairly big launch over at big sis site Gamasutra, and includes independent technical articles and blog content alongside Intel-specific news on what they (including Project Offset, aha!) are up to in this visual computing area. So there.]

Gamasutra has partnered with Intel to debut a new 'visual computing' Gamasutra microsite, as part of a long-term agreement which includes a VC-specific weblog and a host of subject-specific features.

The debut of the sponsored section includes the first Intel-created sponsored technical feature, a technical piece on procedural terrain generation with fractional Brownian motion.

In addition to bi-weekly Intel-sponsored technical features, the section will also include bi-weekly technical articles supported by Intel, and commissioned and sourced independently by Gamasutra's editors - with the first to debut next week.

The microsite, which will deal with technical subjects ranging from rendering and shaders to all aspects of visual game creation, has also added a visual computing-specific blog, being updated three times weekly with links to the best blog and community content.

Videos included on the launch version of the page give new insight into the now Intel-owned Project Offset game project, with other key properties such as the Havok middleware line and the recently discussed Larrabee graphical technology also expected to be focused on in the future.

Gamasutra readers can keep up with the 'visual computing' technical features by visiting the microsite or reading the traditional Gamasutra features page. In addition, the Visual Computing weblog page will list all major updates to the site alongside its regular content.

GameSetLinks: Croaking Up The Hits

- Time for another bumper set of GameSetLinks, again extended to 15 links (just count the quality!) as we frantically try to get back on track and not serve ze rotten fish to you, timing-wise.

Some neatness in here includes Alex Trowers talking Bullfrog history (the original home of the Molyneuxtor, lest we forget), as well as some overlooked hints about what the return of the Gizmondo might involve, Double Fine Comics, Tom Chick getting his own Sci-Fi-backed blog playground, and all kinds of other insanity.

You have twenty seconds to comply:

Gaming Verdict - Article: Alex Trowers - The Bullfrog Story Part 1
V. neat history in progress of the seminal Britsoft developer - via RPS.

FPR: Carl Freer Buys the IPR Assets of Gizmondo Europe Ltd in Liquidation
Yes, the return is nigh - selling to someone who helped sink it in the first place is... interesting.

Media Power Inc. Donates $5 Million for Augmented Reality Research at Georgia Tech
Not sure anyone has spotted this - 'augmented reality', $5 million, alert, alert - this is clearly the Gizmondo AR tech trying to get rebooted. That's a gigantic research grant, too.

Nerdcore: 'Double Fine Action Comics by Scott C'
With forward by Schafer. Geek out!

Fidgit - new Sci-Fi Channel game blog
Not really about sci-fi games, edited by QT3's Tom Chick, bizarro world!

GameSetWatch - COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/31/08 - comments
Notable because PlayStation Official Mag reviewer of MGS4, Rob Smith, chimed in that Konami gave him no restrictions on what he could mention in his review - unlike some other outlets.

Japan's Hotshot Game Designers Bet on Indie Gore | Game | Life from Wired.com
'Everyone watched as a good chunk of Sega's marketing budget, that exactly two years ago would have been spent on a massive E3 booth, literally went up in smoke.' Awesome line, Kohler.

Anti-Feministing: Debunking The Argument Against GTA IV
'I think Rockstar's core tenet, actually, is to force people to consider moral depravity, not to beg them to embrace it.' Meh, I kinda disagree. They hint that you should embrace it to advance in the game, perhaps. But love ya anyhow, Leigh!

GameSpot News: 'PressSpotting: The May Round-up'
Def. a good column, def. lost in the clutter at GameSpot.

Player vs. Everything: Online Games and Sex - Massively
Fun essay - unfortunately Massively has too many posts for me to follow regularly, doh.

THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Tokyopop: Hey, dude, totally bad contract!
The comics blogosphere deconstructs a much-decried TokyoPop comics contract - interesting to compare/contrast to game contracts - here's the other side of the argument, though.

The Escapist : Inside Job: Revisiting Quality of Life
Erin Hoffman looks at feedback on the recent Gamasutra article on QoL which interviews her (as EA_Spouse).

What's New in Indie [May Edition] by Game Tunnel
Still hanging in there, with Noitu Love 2 and other notables.

MTV Multiplayer » Capcom, Sony, Media Debate Possible Reviewer Neglect Of Downloadable Console Games
I somewhat think reviewing, as a concept, is rapidly decentralizing now, but it's interesting to see what's NOT being covered as its relevance grinds to a halt.

NCSX Video Games and Toys: ' 13-Sai no Hello Work DS'
More DS productivity software, this time... mini-games to teach kids what they want to be when they grow up?

June 3, 2008

COLUMN: 'Roboto-chan!': Zone of the Pretenders

['Roboto-chan!' is a fortnightly column, by a mysterious individual who goes by the moniker of Kurokishi. The column covers videogames that feature robots and the pop-cultural folklore surrounding them. This edition covers the functional issues that have plagued Konami's ZOE games and where they originated from.]

zoe_vo_edit.jpgIn December of 1999, SEGA released a nigh-on arcade perfect port on their ill-fated Dreamcast for Virtual On Oratorio Tangram. Like the Saturn port of its precursor, it also featured a bespoke controller to emulate the arcade version’s original setup: a pair of twinsticks. It was critically lauded by almost all Japanese (and many Western) publications and did quite well in terms of sales too.

The thing with the Virtual On series though is that they've always been focused around human multiplayer. In that regard they are practically peerless. As to their singleplayer "experience"; it's almost been an oversight.

Even Hajime Katoki's mecha design was forcibly restrained for the various Virtuaroids, as the 1995 original had very stringent polygon counts which set the aesthetic. The first two Virtual On games in fact are almost exercises in functional minimalism.

Yet Virtual On, as a series, has had a remarkable amount of design-based progeny over the years but in the case of Oratorio Tangram such “offspring” would only be a few years away.

Cue Hideo Kojima…

Zone of the Enders (2001)

zoe_cover1.jpgZone of the Enders, or just plain ZOE, was a game set in the far off future in an O’Neill-esque colony in orbit around Jupiter. A force of mecha, known as orbital frames, infiltrate the colony in the hope of capturing a new experimental prototype orbital frame called Jehuty. As if the parallels with the original Gundam narrative aren’t striking enough: the game’s protagonist, a young boy by the name of Leo Steinbeck, stumbles upon Jehuty and is conveniently blown into its cockpit resulting in much mechanical ass kicking of the enemy forces.

Functionally, the control of Jehuty was uncannily akin to piloting a Virtuaroid. In that, Jehuty had two main modes of combat; dash based long ranged attacks and circular strafing melee attacks. However, unlike a Virtuaroid, Jehuty had no means to cross the distance between ranged and melee combat effectively.

In Virtual On combat was linked by fixed length dashes, which interconnected until the player reached a close enough range to swipe them with a melee attack. ZOE had an analogue dash function, which meant there was no functional linkage between ranged and melee combat. This was compounded in the original ZOE due to the slow speed at which Jehuty moved and initiated its attacks.

The only real functional progression ZOE had over Virtual On was the means in which Jehuty could circle strafe its melee attacks in a spherical fashion. Admittedly the bulk of ZOE’s combat was similarly planar to Virtual On but the melee attacks could operate properly in three dimensions: as you circled underneath or above an enemy orbital frame to slice them from behind. Unfortunately the speed at which Jehuty moved made this rather mundane. Doubly so when the enemy units could manoeuvre at a greater speed in some instances, ultimately rendering the melee combat almost random in terms of its effectiveness.

zoe_screen1.jpgIrritatingly, the initial narrative in the first ZOE game was actually quite sketchy and the game ended in a manner almost cursory. I say irritating, as the over arching conflict and back-story are genuinely fascinating and, in my opinion, rather well wrought. Thankfully, the second game does help to cover the meat of the narrative in a more thorough fashion, though more of this later.

The focus of ZOE though was predominantly that of the singleplayer progression, so direct comparisons with Virtual On are only really valid in terms of the game's core mechanics and not the over arching narrative (as Virtual On technically doesn't have a gaming narrative, though there is an awful lot of print based literature for Virtual On but it wouldn't be fair to include that here). ZOE was trying, albeit in a very clumsy way, to re-create an anime narrative that gamers could partake in and that is laudable.

In addition, Yoji Shinkawa’s mechanical design was and remains incredibly progressive. Arguably, Shinkawa’s artistic proficiency helped give a much-needed lift to the mediocre and dated gaming functionality.

ZOE was also memorably bundled with a Metal Gear Solid 2 demo, to the point that almost everyone bought the game for the demo rather than the mecha game with its name on the box. It was a shrewd move, as the sales would have been a useful bargaining tactic to make more games and allow Kojima et al to creatively “branch out” into other genres.

Anubis (2003)

anubis_cover1.jpgTwo years after the first ZOE, Anubis was released. This was quite a substantial improvement over the original game; both in terms of combat speed and functional variety, but it still suffered from the same issue between the two modes of combat.

Jehuty also had a greater array of weapons at its disposal now and a far more effective grab move, as you could utilise elements of the environment and even enemy units as impromptu melee weapons. Yet, the two elements of combat were still very much separated from one another. Even later in the game when Jehuty is upgraded to the point it can use a function called "Zero Shift", that crossed the gap between the two elements of combat by teleporting the player to melee range almost instantaneously, felt very clumsy as it required no tactics to use effectively.

Anubis also suffered several silent revisions in Japan improving boss balancing and enemy squad AI until that culminated in a final "Special Edition", which more elegantly solved the issue between ranged and melee combat by having more intelligent squad based AI. This forced the player to approach groups of enemy orbital frames with greater care and an intensified sense of spatial awareness. Even then this improvement only accentuated the brilliance of Oratorio Tangram, which a few years prior had managed to incorporated all these elements in a seamless whole.

Anubis also finally covered the bleak narrative in far more detail. Gone where the shonky CG rendered cutscenes and instead replacing those with traditional cel-shaded animation, which fitted the whole mecha anime influence more convincingly.

anubis_screen1.jpgIn all fairness, Anubis’ narrative was impressively executed. Not only was it very well written but it produced a functional context where Jehuty and the main protagonist, now by the name of Dingo Egret, really were the nexus that could turn the tide against the terrifyingly potent Bahram forces. Throughout the game there is an oppressive sense of foreboding that frames the action in a way that gaming doesn’t normally experience very often.

The only other mecha gaming series that comes close to this level of narrative is Armored Core but that has never been given an adequate localisation, mainly due to its subtlety most probably. Anubis is far more straight-laced in terms of its plot in comparison, so the subsequent localisation was more manageable.

anubis_artworks.jpgAgain, Shinkawa's design work was breathtakingly executed. With a whole new graphical engine, using subtle elements of cel shading on some of the explosion effects and just a fantastic use of lighting, the mecha design was simply radiant. Even the brilliant useage of the Vic Viper fighter from Gradius as the basis for a transformable mecha was a stroke of genius. Thankfully, there is an excellent artbook available (as seen to your right) which shows the work that went into these designs and whilst Kojima bizarrely seems to take credit for the games (despite simply copying the core mechanics from Virtual On), it's Shinkawa that should be given a greater level of creative credence. As he's managed to encapsulate the real robot design mantra in a way that's beautifully ethereal. Something almost no-one, bar Mamoru Nagano, has managed to successfully pull off.

Due to the lack of Metal Gear Solid demo bundled with Anubis, its sales were more inline with the game's target demographic. Even in Japan it was very much a cult hit, doubly so abroad. This was unfortunate as Anubis was definitely a superior game when compared to ZOE but its actual popularity cast a more realistic shadow over the series' future.

Zone of the Ending?

Despite the excellent Fist of Mars, which is a capable Super Robot Wars clone, the PlayStation 2 ZOE games leave a fair amount to be functionally desired.

Due to the barren landscape of mecha gaming outside of Japan, a large number of people fallaciously assume that games like ZOE and Anubis are without peers. That these games are even a pinnacle for the mecha gaming genre. Unfortunately, they aren't. Functionally, ZOE still has issues that probably can't be resolved (even the ACE games suffer from a similar, though less obvious, flaw). Kojima has sidetepped these problems by making greater emphasis on the narrative, to the point that an anime series has spawned from the games.

This is not to say that this isn't a worthwhile endeavour, as gaming narrative is something that requires further development and it even fits well with the influences from mecha anime in this instance. Yet, you're still controlling a mechanical avatar throughout the narrative and this is what ultimately constitutes the bulk of the game.

As such, it might be worth considering that the functionality should receive as much attention as the plot. At the very least hire Juro Watari and the remainder of the Virtual On team to do it properly.

[Kurokishi is a humble servant of the Drake forces and his interests include crushing inferior opponents, combing his mane of long silvery hair and dicking around with cheap voice synthesisers. When he's not raining down tyrannical firepower upon unsuspecting peasants in his Galava aura fighter he likes to take long moonlight walks and read books about cheese.]

2008 Paris GDC Announces Quantic Dream, Sony Lectures, Art Exhibit

- [Since I'm out here in California, I've been paying perhaps less attention to the upcoming Paris GDC - which we co-run with the Game Connection creators - than I should have. It's taking place in about three weeks, and the line-up is starting to look frighteningly good - suspect you European folks should take a look!]

Paris GDC organizers announced today an art exhibition, a line-up of research sessions, new speakers, and that a limited number of passes are available before the event sells out.

Video game professionals who wish to attend Paris GDC, the second French edition of the Game Developers Conference set for June 23-24 at the Coeur Défense Convention Centre, should register online at the Paris GDC website.

A new art gallery feature, the Entertainment Design Expo is presented by Connection Events and The Building Studios, an entertainment design studio initiated by Viktor Antonov. This non-profit project aims at promoting art through video games. Khang Le (Project Offset), Stephan Martiniere (Uru), Daniel Dociu (Guild Wars) and Jeff Ballinger (Team Fortress 2) will exhibit original masterpieces at the Paris GDC 2008.

Said Viktor Antonov and Svetlana Ilieva, co-organizers of the Entertainment Design Expo, “Contemporary concept designers, with their superb technical skills and wild imagination are our best tour guides for a trip to far away galaxies and into the world of modern science fiction. The Entertainment Design Expo presents the work of four of the most influential concept artists in the gaming industry, all recognized for creating dream worlds of mystery and beauty."

In a new addition to the development-focused talks, research sessions will be presented by the leading European and French research laboratories. These sessions will cover topics such as procedural generation of worlds, perceptual audio rendering, and emotional and communicative virtual human.

The research sessions are supported by the French clusters cap digital and Imaginove - whose main objective is to enhance collaboration between the research laboratories and the video game industry.

The latest main conference speakers confirmed include: Allan Murphy (Microsoft); Lionel Lemarié (Sony Computer Entertainment Europe); Ian Baverstock (Kuju); Chris Mottes (Deadline Games); Guillaume de Fondaumiere (Quantic Dream); Franc Hauselmann (Ubisoft); and several others.

Conference organizers have previously announced that Blizzard's Rob Pardo, Battlefield Heroes' Ben Cousins and Mark Healey and Alex Evans, co-founders of Little Big Planet developer Media Molecule are some of the keynote speakers for the event.

Other notable speakers include Valve's Kim Swift discussing Portal, Obsidian's J.E. Sawyer on 'Developer Facilitation of End-User Content Creation', and many more. Interested parties can visit the Paris GDC website for the complete list of speakers.

Opinion: Is Gameplay As Narrative The Answer?

- [In this impassioned opinion piece, movie and game writer Justin Marks (Street Fighter: Legend Of Chun-Li, several unannounced game projects) looks at the interplay of story and gameplay in today's AAA games, suggesting that artfully story-entwined gameplay is what many major titles are missing.]

My friend Ben Fritz, who writes for Variety.com's videogame blog The Cut Scene [where a version of this essay also ran], had an interesting bone to pick recently with Grand Theft Auto IV. In an essay titled "Narrative sophistication vs. open world," he mentioned the ever-present problem in these sandbox games when it comes to balancing a confined story with the fact that you can literally do just about anything:

"How can players seriously believe Niko’s on a date when his girlfriend doesn’t mind that he’s carrying a knife, walking her through a 5-foot-deep pond and getting in numerous car accidents? Why can a distinctive-looking illegal immigrant commit hundreds of carjackings and nobody seems to care?"

Basically, Ben is bothered by the fact that while you can do anything in the open world environment, the story actually operates on a very set track, going from plot point to plot point as if no one in Liberty City had any idea that you just spent the last two hours initiating a five-star police chase that culminated in your plunging a car off a bridge and then swimming back to a safe house.

In the context of an increasingly sophisticated open world where Liberty City actually feels like a living and breathing universe, the game's rigid narrative structure is becoming a bit, well... tired. But I don't mind the fact that GTA's gameplay sometimes bounces up against the narrative. The question I want to explore is this: Why does my gameplay have to be constantly interrupted by this reductive thing called a story?

Story As Accessory

Before we begin, let's call a spade a spade here. It's been a few weeks, we've all had a little perspective, and I think it's fair to admit that the game press may have jumped the gun a bit on their exuberance for Grand Theft Auto IV's storyline. Simon Parkin, in his Chewing Pixels column for GameSetWatch, was even bold enough to come clean about his hyperbole. It's not, as IGN amazingly called it, 'Oscar-caliber.'

The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).

The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?

After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory -- a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?

The Star Wars Arcade Days

In Jesper Juul's July 2001 essay "Games Telling Stories?," he discusses Atari's 1983 arcade version of Star Wars, which utilized moving polygons in a flight simulator engine to re-create the famous third act of the movie:

"The primary thing that encourages the player to connect game and movie is the title Star Wars on the machine and on the screen. If we imagine the title removed from the game, the connection would not be at all obvious. It would be a game where one should hit an "exhaust port" (or simply a square), and the player could note a similarity with a scene in Star Wars, but you would not be able to reconstruct the events in the movie from the game. The prehistory is missing, the rest of the movie, all personal relations."

In other words, he's saying that in the early days of limited graphics and reduced processing power, games had to resort to external packaging to inform the user as to what kind of world the narrative was taking place in.

Strip away those accessories - the words Star Wars on the outside of the console, the X-Wing-like cockpit, Obi Wan's voice playing on the speakers behind us - and all you have is an abstract shooter involving lines and polygons. It could just as easily have been a game version of The Last Starfighter or even Top Gun.

Story was simply an excuse to charge the gameplay with more meaning.

GTA IV & Portal

But here we are today, in the era of the Playstation 3, and clearly we've got enough processing power to handle a firm integration of narrative and gameplay. Story must exist on a much more sophisticated level, right? Not as much as you'd think.

As many developers can attest, many games are re-appropriated into different titles several years into the development cycle, simply by altering the story to suit another brand. It happens way more than we'd like to admit. It's an unfortunate by-product of corporate economics, but also an indication of just how far we still have to go as an industry when it comes to creating games with sophisticated narratives, i.e. non-disposable narratives that couldn't simply be stripped and re-used elsewhere without ruining the inherent game.

In the field of architecture, this was a principle debate during the emergence of the Modern movement. Classical architects were too often content to simply emulate archetypal forms in the facades of their buildings - forms which brought no organic function to the rest of the structure. The key to the maturation of architecture, the Modernists believed, was to created works of art where form and function - or story and gameplay, in this analogy - were irrevocably and organically linked.

To our credit, there have been a few games that have managed to accomplish this in recent days. Portal is the first that comes to mind. Without a single cut scene, or even so much as a reference to some kind of back-story, it manages to transport us into the virtual space of its plot, allowing us to deduce our own way through its elaborate puzzles and come to our own conclusions about the conspiracy that is amiss.

We don't need Niko's idiot cousin to tell us we're about to be betrayed --- in Portal, we actually act out the story as part of the gameplay. The same goes for Ico, which does in fact utilize cut scenes from time to time, and yet they are brief, to the point, and earned by the narrative. After navigating through the mysterious castle for several hours, we're starved for information, dying to hear what is going on. The cut scenes play into this desire, giving us what we want and allowing us to feel that we've fulfilled it through our achievement in the gameplay.

But for the most part, we as an industry are stuck in the same trap that GTA exemplifies. We value narratives in games, we understand their purpose and their necessity, and yet we have no idea how to parse them effectively into the game's interactive structure. As technology gets better, the weaknesses of poor story integration are more exposed.

Even in GTA IV, possibly the pinnacle of mainstream gaming to this day, we are still very much stuck back in the time of the Star Wars arcade game, playing through an awesome experience while having our story force-fed to us via external packaging.

And to those who would complain, "Yes, but you can skip through the story if you don't want to see it," that's exactly my point. No one would say the same thing about the Sistine Chapel: "Yes, but you can skip through that lame entrance portico." It's all part of a complete work of art. To say that one part is lesser diminishes the value of the whole.

Stop Writing Stories

So how do we get out of this trap? For starters, more story is not the answer. There are games (non-RPG games, mind you) that believe turning inwards and building out an infinitely large plot thread somehow makes the narrative more effective. In reality, it's just more interference.

Even better story is not the answer. That's been a symptom recently too - bringing on high end screenwriters to punch up dialogue, as if that had anything to do with the game's playability. An "Oscar-caliber" plot is still going to be skipped over if it doesn't augment gameplay.

As a screenwriter, let me be the first to state that I don't play games because I'm looking for clever narrative. I play them because I'm looking to inhabit another world. One where I can forge my own story, or at least believe I'm forging it via a cleverly-immersive narrative, and then laugh or cry along with its results.

And while this opinion has been stated before by other (probably better) game writers, I want to repeat that the best experience I've had writing for games has been when I'm brought on so early in the process that the writer is a genuine member of the team, not just a work for hire.

We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.

Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.

The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.

And yes, this argument doesn't just apply to open world games. Even traditional narratives-on-wheels have had the bar raised. Call of Duty 4 has effectively shown that with a certain amount of inventiveness (dying of nuclear radiation? Flashback sequences from the POV of other characters?), games can actually defy the predictability and inevitability of basic story blueprints.

It just takes some thought and a little bit of willingness to go off the beaten path. Because for what it's worth, the game industry is not the interactive little brother of cinema. Ask any overzealous industry pundit (I won't name names) and they'll give you a thousand reasons why gaming is a superior art form.

And yet despite our arrogance, we still act like we're just the doting charity case, clumsily marrying sophisticated gameplay with narratives that better belong somewhere else. This industry is better than that. We need to stretch further.

I say stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them.

GameSetLinks: All Aboard The EA Tourist Express!

- Yep, time for some more GameSetLinks, headed up by Electronic Arts' fascinating Hong Kong product showcase, as photographed by those nice import-crazy guys at SiliconEra.

Also in here - Russell Carroll on difficulty in games, hard sci-fi writers on how much D&D means to them, and MSNBC going crazy happy over the independent games movement, yay.

Also, I somehow got behind in the GameSetLink-age, so it's gonna be 15 links per round-up til we're up to date again, blimey.

To the stars:

ScottishGames.biz: White Space Is Open For Ideas
Some good progressive state-supported stuff going on in Scotland, then.

BBC NEWS | Technology | How games will change the world
'How long before you find yourself proudly appending your Brain Training data or your Hexic high scores to an online application form?'

Top Ten Classes In MMOs « Broken Toys
MMO developers, that is - cheeky man.

Music Catch: A Game of Music And Catching | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
Hey, this is neat. Thanks RPS!

Siliconera » Electronic Arts as a tourist attraction, inside the EA Experience
Interesting, a Hong Kong showcase store just for EA games/merchandise.

Play This Thing! | 'Eminent Game Designers'
Oo, a list to poke at!

6 Differences - Splitting the Difference | The New Gamer
'6 Differences is a truly modern difference puzzle. Instead of cartoonish scrawls developer Ivory Boy sets a mood.'

Siliconera » Rock out with Detroit Metal City and D3 Publisher
'D3 Publisher picked up the rights to Detroit Metal City, a Japanese manga about Negishi Souichi who becomes a death metal singer.' Music game thrash DS alert (pictured)!

My Influential Women List - Random Encounters
Always good to see an alternative to the Gamasutra list, some good picks there.

Mockingbird - The Game Making Game
Neat, super simple web-based game making tool - lots of irreverent mash-ups are easy to make, one suspects.

Video Games Business & Marketing: Take it Easy on Me - Difficulty in Games
'Developers who have played the game over and over don't realize just how much harder it is for the average player to do what has become second nature to those who created the game.'

Clarkesworld Magazine » Of Dice and Men: Modern Fantasists and the Influence of Role Playing Games
Pen and paper gaming, mainly, but China Mieville and some other neat folks talk D&D and their fiction - via GamePlayWright.

davidjaffe.biz: Hmm....I dunno...
Interesting musings on games + deeper meanings, pointing to wider history: 'there's not alot- anything?- that I can point to in my board/card game collection that evokes deep philosophical discourse and/or deep, emotional release.'

I heart indie games — and you should too - Citizen Gamer- msnbc.com
More mainstream love for the indie games movement, including brief quotes from me, yay.

auntie pixelante › glitchds
Oo, 'a sequencer for the ds that uses conway’s game of life to generate music' - and a new sample pack uses material from my old Amiga .MOD buddy Mortimer Twang, too!

June 2, 2008

Game Developer Career Guide Calls For Student Feedback

- The editors of Game Developer magazine, Gamasutra.com, and GameCareerGuide.com [and GameSetWatch, nuh!] are inviting current and prospective students in University game programs to take part in the first-ever Game Developer Career Guide Student Survey.

The survey, which is anonymous, intends to discern in aggregate the types of schools that current game students are attending, the quality and breadth of the courses, and what sort of placement or support programs are in place.

The results of this survey will be included in Game Developer’s Career Guide Fall 2008 issue - due out in late July, available for purchase online, and distributed for free at major game consumer and trade shows, including Penny Arcade Expo, Austin GDC, GDC 2009, and many more shows to be announced.

Highlights of the survey, which is intended to help shape the future of game education by examining current satisfaction levels with existing tutoring, will also be available online on the Gamasutra and Game Career Guide sites following the magazine's debut.

Students, please take the time to complete the brief survey, which takes just a couple of minutes or less to fill out.

Opinion: Who's Afraid Of GameStop?

- [In this editorial, originally printed in Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, senior editor Brandon Sheffield tackles the difficult relationship between developers/publishers and retailers such as GameStop, suggesting it's time for a change.]

Shamefully, almost everyone in the industry seems to be afraid of retail. I spoke with a number of people at the DICE Summit a while back, and while some agreed that digital downloads are making headway, nobody sees it replacing retail.

One trend I’ve noticed in talking to people about this issue is that there’s a tinge of fear of retailers, GameStop in particular, as though that relationship needs protecting. We don’t want to badmouth them or ignore them because we don’t want to make them mad.

But how much do they really do for us these days? GameStop makes the vast majority of its profits off used games, as we all know, and it’s the largest shop in which to purchase electronic entertainment.

To encourage consumers to buy used games, they often have limited stock of new releases – when was the last time you were able to buy a large new release from GameStop without a preorder? Did you then drive a few miles to a Best Buy or a Target and see the game in piles?

It doesn’t take a genius to see what’s happening here, when GameStop makes 50 cents on the dollar for a used game, versus 21 cents on the dollar for a new one. Since GameStop and Game Crazy are the only major retailers where you can return games, they’ll be the ones re-selling them used, no matter where you bought them.

Why Be Nice?

Why then, do publishers, and developers by extension, so carefully defend GameStop and their ilk? Why not move to digital distribution? Why aren’t downloads the dominant model for PSP games?

Nobody is returning XBLA or PSN titles, and consumers aren’t complaining either, because the games only cost $5-$20 apiece. On top of that, they got to try the game before buying it.

Target has recently announced that it will begin selling more used games. This likely means more games sold, but less profit for the industry itself. So why is everyone afraid to bash retail?

Now is the time to do something about this. Some games already can’t even make it into GameStop, and are only sold online in places like Amazon.com. Why then, do we kowtow to GameStop, and indeed, let their buyers choose what games may grace their shelves?

To boil down a very complex issue, it seems to me that it’s because we let them. It’s not possible to outlaw used game sales, I can’t pretend that. It’s been attempted in Japan – almost any import Dreamcast game or early-mid PS2 game will have a ‘not for resale’ warning on the back, but it gets resold anyway.

These companies rely on developers and publishers for content, but they make more money off the games than we do, in many cases.

Cold Feet

Industry leaders seem to be wary of moving online for a few reasons: not everyone has a game-capable PC, downloads can be large and slow, and then there’s piracy. But console game downloads are also becoming quite viable (Warhawk), with full games released on all major consoles now, even on the PSP.

People will wait for downloads, and broadband penetration is better than ever, besides. As for piracy, how many people are pirating World of Warcraft? Or Steam?

My friend Thomas Grové has an idea for a content delivery portal for PCs in which a single person, or group of persons with a little money, put together a non-profit portal. This portal would take only 5-10 percent of the games’ revenue (or whatever it took to maintain minimal staff), and give the rest to the developer directly.

In this scenario you could charge much less, and still make decent money if your game is any good. It would move developers from being work-for-hire to work-for-profit.

If someone had the time, energy, or resources to accomplish this, it would be the de facto delivery platform for game content, and service the industry as a whole more than it would service a specific company. I’m not totally sold on this idea, but it’s a step in the right direction.

That’s what we should be thinking about now – how can we get content into the hands of consumers without giving a third party a big piece of the pie? I’m asking you. I’m not the creative genius here, I just ask the questions.

COLUMN: @ Play: Towards Building a Better Dungeon

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

I've beaten the drums pretty loudly for roguelikes here, I suppose. They are a style of role-playing game that has much to teach game designers, in its tactical depths, its subtle incorporation of logical puzzles, its open-endedness, and the sheer variety in them. As said last time, nothing in computer roleplaying games so preserves the spirit of 1974-vintage, Original Dungeons & Dragons as roguelike games do. I've cheered for roguelikes so much, in fact, that I believe I'm allowed a bit of pessimistic contemplation here. Roguelikes are great, yes, yes, but they are not perfect. There are some things lacking with them.

In this, I'm not talking about the kinds of things dredged up by many game reviewers when they're forced to comprehend a roguelike for the first time. Like the absences of: a central narrative; scripted events; clumsy metaphor; and amnesiac fourteen-year-olds somehow seeking absolution for their dark pasts while saving their generic fantasy world from empires fueled by the corrupting forces of Chaos with the aid of a dozen anime stereotypes.

Roguelike games do not lack for these things, because they never wanted them to begin with.

But if viewed in the light of classic Dungeons & Dragons, of a semi-adversarial game between players and a referee set in an ancient dungeon filled with all manner of tricks, traps and treasure, there remain some important things that roguelike games lack.

These lacks, nearly without exception, come from their following of Rogue. The ways that Rogue fails to measure up to the spirit of OD&D are also the ways that they fail. If one makes a study of the evolution of game design, one finds that this is completely common throughout the game industry. The first game of a genre gets its inspiration from some outside source; other people or companies, seeking to duplicate its success, make games that seek to improve upon the original by addressing its faults, but lacking the knowledge of the source material that the first game had; still other companies build upon those; and so on, until Strat-O-Matic sports has mutated into Madden '08.

But to return to the subject, these are all things that are not necessarily problems with roguelikes, but for some reason continue to be. These are things present in D&D that are not typically followed by roguelikes, and could conceivably gain by adopting. Well, I think so anyway:

D&D has much more interesting traps than roguelike games

rubegoldberg.gifD&D traps can be nearly anything imaginable; pressure plates, tripwires, magical detectors, monster cages, flame shooters, etc, but roguelike traps are uniform in comparison. The only way roguelikes can get away with this is because nearly every other CRPG has even less interesting traps, if they have them at all.

Rogue's trap model is very simple, and every roguelike I can name adopts it unquestioningly. Some of the spaces in the dungeon contain traps. The player is not shown those spaces at first glance, but if he steps into one it is revealed, and the player might be harmed by the trap.

Searching while on a space adjacent to the trap may reveal it, but searching every space takes too long and will likely cause the player to run out of food or die to wandering monster attacks, so in practice the player must forge on despite them.

In roguelike design theory, traps exist to provide a cost for careless exploration. It is impossible to entirely negate the danger from traps, so the player must instead reduce this risk by not stepping on unnecessary spaces, and retracing his footsteps whenever possible. This is a useful idea, but the game already includes the food requirement pushing the player towards move conservation.

In classic D&D on the other hand, traps are everywhere, and an integral part of the game. Often, especially in older modules, they can be deadly all by themselves. Traps are not placed willy-nilly but tend to guard things, like treasure or important rooms. And while surviving or defeating a trap is worth little or no experience points, any treasure guarded by the trap is worth experience in versions up to and including 1st Edition AD&D.

Exceptions: Nethack's rolling boulder traps are multi-part, and its bear traps and land mines can be disarmed, carried around, and even reset. These are recent additions however. The game still mostly follows Rogue in its trap model.

All monsters are, in tactical terms, the same size

In roguelike games, a pixie tends to be the same size, in terms of the game, as a dragon. Gnomes and giants take up the same space on the grid. They can all fit through the same doors, and down the same narrow passages.

Again, Nethack has an exception to this. It expended a good amount of code in making its long worm monster, which can extend for many spaces through the dungeon, and be split in two like an earthworm. Mystery Dungeon: Shiren the Wanderer, and some of the other Mystery Dungeon games, have some boss monsters that take up 2x2 spaces. Although those games aren't against conveniently forgetting this at times: their size doesn't seem to deny them access to narrow passages.

bigmonst.pngPossibly more roguelikes have not tried to simulate monsters more than one dungeon space in size because doors and passages tend to be one space wide, and it would limit their mobility. A monster bigger than that won't be able to leave the room it was generated in. In OD&D, it should be noted, passages are usually 10 feet wide, equivalent to two game "spaces," and nothing says the dungeon designer has to use standard doors for all rooms.

Hidden doors are all identical

OD&D had only three character classes: "Fighting Man," Magic User and Cleric. The final core archetype, Thieves, didn't enter the game until the first supplement. Before then, traps were detected and handled in what we might call "narrative space." The referee explains the surroundings to the player, and that description contains the clues that might lead the player to examine the trap's hiding place by investigating and asking about it, perhaps then disabling the trap by taking explicit action like pulling a lever or cutting a wire. (If this sounds a bit like playing a text adventure game, it's no accident. Colossal Cave was likely inspired by this style of Dungeons & Dragons, and Dungeon/Zork definitely was.)

When Thieves entered the game, they could find traps simply by succeeding on a die roll. This is the beginning of the game's trend towards including rules abstracting everything out. Finding secret doors, one of D&D's most thrilling discoveries, also comes down to a die roll. Instead of pressing a loose brick or finding a hidden lever, the player simply must search. Roguelike searching works the same way.

(A thread on therpgsite.com explains a bit better what this kind of trap description adds to the game.)

Stairs not matching X and Y positions between levels

A fact I find interesting: no roguelike game I've seen even attempts to have stairs and other ways of going between levels be logically consistent with each other. Unlike D&D dungeons, stairs on one level almost never match up with the same location on the floor below. In other words: if you find two stairs next to each other in a game with multiple stairs (like Angband or Dungeon Crawl), if you were to go down each of them, you would probably end up in spots far removed from each other on the next level. Stairs don't preserve X and Y location when taken, they instead come out anywhere on the next level. And pit traps lead to a random location on the next floor that changes every time they're fallen down.

This may seem minor, but it prevents the level generator designer from including intra-level mazes, like places where the player must travel back and forth between two levels to ultimately find the way down to still deeper areas, or secret rooms that are intended to be found by finding stairs from the prior level that can be found by paying attention to the level.

There is a technical reasons that roguelike games do this. Rogue was created at a time when computers had very little memory, so levels are generated when entered instead of at the start of the game. Later games aren't so restricted in memory, and some games like ADOM, Crawl and the 'Hacks either save levels not being explored to disk or keep them in an alternate memory buffer, but they still generate the levels on a need-to-see basis.

While the initial entrance to the level could be guaranteed to be a suitable location for stairs (that is, not in a wall), if the levels were to get generated in a non-linear manner, inconsistencies could arise. If levels 15 and 17 get generated before level 16, then whichever entrance to 16 is used first could be guaranteed to get a consistent staircase, but the stairs to the other level might not. Forcing staircase locations before the map is created means that level must be build around them, and random map generation is still enough of a black art that this might be regarded as being too difficult.

Now of course, this is only the case if the whole dungeon isn't created at the start, when these matters could be resolved simply. And even if the game doesn't keep the whole dungeon in memory at once, a sufficiently-advanced generation algorithm certainly could ensure logically consistent stairs. That no roguelike to my knowledge, and certainly no major game in the genre, has done so yet is strange.

Item identification is much easier than classic D&D

One of the most interesting things about roguelikes is how item descriptions and types match up. All items of a given type share a description. Bubbly, yellow, milky and purple potions are different types, types that might not be known at the start of the game but persist during it. All types of one description are the same, so once one is known, they're all known.

For Rogue the item system is well-balanced, for there practical limits on the number of items that could be generated on each level, there were no guarantees that any specific item would be found, and even if the player managed to explore down to Amulet level, chances were high that some items would never make an appearance. The result is that, even at the deepest levels, players continue to find unknown objects, good or bad, whose types must be discovered through expending resources, insight, process of elimination, or risky usage. And since no item is really essential to win and there are tricky uses for some bad things, even an exceptionally unlucky player who only finds bad stuff still has a chance.

This balance has changed as roguelike games became more complex, and dungeons increased in size. In a game of Nethack, nearly all random items will be generated, either randomly or from guaranteed creation, before the player reaches Gehennom, halfway through the dungeon. Those items which are certain to show up do so because a few kinds of items are necessary to win: a means of crossing water, for example, will probably be needed on either the Medusa, Castle, Juiblex or Plane of Water levels. On the other hand, successful Angband players spend lots of time farming levels in order to find the stuff they need. Angband changes item generation probabilities as the player gets deeper into the dungeon, so not only must he know what he needs, he must know the levels it's found on.

The roguelike identification system was inspired by Original Dungeons & Dragons, in which items were much harder to figure out. Many items had secret switches or command words that activated their powers, and did nothing until those were found. Cursed items had much more variety, and were much more diabolical. There were a number of extremely bad items which looked exactly like more valuable stuff, like potions of delusion. A bowl commanding water elementals is a very useful object, but it looks exactly the same as a bowl of watery death, which can kill a character so dead that even a wish won't bring him back. These items seem to exist only to punish players who might try to figure things out through observation! Enough referees must have seen this as unfair that most recent versions of D&D de-emphasize the identification of treasure. In an OD&D game he ran in 2005, Gary Gygax himself told his players what most of the stuff they found was, although there were some exceptions to this.

Whether this aspect of Dungeons & Dragons, that even with experience there are items that are fatally indistinguishable from each other, is good or not I don't think I can say. I recognize why it's there, but I lean against it. Item identification has become a uniquely distinguishing characteristic of roguelike gaming. And yet, the identification game of roguelikes other than Rogue tends to get easier later on to the point of meaninglessness. Especially in Nethack: most of its items will be discovered before halfway through the dungeon, and this is unquestionably one of the sources of that game's declining difficulty midway through. Fixing this problem would require design innovation, but there's no reason to believe it's impossible.

Lack of multiplayer

multiplayer.png Adding multiplayer to (insert roguelike name here) is one of those features that seems so obvious, but makes their programmers weep openly. The Nethack Dev Team has a whole item on their FAQ devoted to rejecting this idea. The problem is that roguelikes are turn-based. If you're in the same room as another player, and he nips off to the bathroom for a while, what do you do in the meantime? Twiddle your thumbs?

The reason multiplayer would be important to roguelike games is that it is a feature of pen-and-paper roleplaying that is lacking in CRPGs: the participation of other players in the game making it into a social experience.

It is the one aspect of old-school roleplaying gaming that another genre arguably does better than roguelikes: MMORPGs may have plexiglass-coated designs that reduce player classes to a surprisingly limited set of archetypes, prevent characters from ever dying or even suffering any serious losses, and typically have designs that center around combat as the be-and-end-all of RPG play, but by gum, they do let you cooperate with your friends.

To their credit, MMORPGs actually solve it fairly well. The biggest change they seem to suggest is that a multiplayer roguelike should be mostly real-time. But in addition to the fact that this would completely change the way a roguelike game is implemented, it'd mean that players would no longer be able to sit and fully think through the ramifications of their moves before making them. These unexpected ramifications are a major part of the appeal of many roguelikes.

So fixing this problem is not a trivial matter. But it could well be solvable. In fact, it may have already been solved: the Angband variant MAngband is a full, internet enabled, real-time variation of Angband. I haven't looked into it much yet, but it's been around for years and is still undergoing active development. It seems to have an active player community too.

Many years ago there was a project called Interhack, which purported to be a multiplayer recreation of Nethack. Its developer claimed to have devised a system he called "surreal time," which shifted between completely turn-based and real-time play depending on how close players were to each other. Alas, it seems its developer became disenchanted with the project along the way, or became involved in an altercation with some of the Nethack player community, and removed all traces of the project from the internet. But undoubtedly, there are important lessons there for roguelike developers contemplating allowing more than a single player into their dungeon at once.

Wired's Game|Life recently reviewed the new Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. While I agree with the idea that the game is tired in that the games are dull (as I remarked before), it should be noticed that this is a direct consequence of the supposedly wired item that it's a roguelike that's not punishing. If only I could shout this through some kind of Internet loudspeaker so I wouldn't have to explain it yet again: a roguelike game that isn't dangerous is pointless. Without a strong narrative to carry them, they amount to just bumbling around and hitting stuff until they die – like nearly every other CRPG out there, but without even the pretense of advancing a story.

The sooner this basic, but essential, concept is learned by both players and reviewers, the sooner developers will be able to abandon attaching yawn-inducing narratives to them, and be able to devote their energies to making their games deeper. Which, if they're going to compete with open source computer roguelikes, they are absolutely going to have to do.

This pretty much concludes our examination of roguelikes in the context of Dungeons & Dragons. Next time out on @Play, we start examining the games of the Roguelike Restoration Project, by taking a look at SuperRogue. See you in two weeks, more or less.

GameSetLinks: Getting Judgy With Slapping

- Ah yes, end of the weekend, time to start up the GameSetLinks again - some of which are hanging around from late last week, so apologies for the vintage, in a couple of cases.

But most of them are pretty good fun, and reasonably timeless - notably The-Inbetween on 'judgy gaming', plus more 'World Ends With You' love and faux fanfiction for totally obscure Japanese period face-smiting gaming. Like it.

Ready, steady, cook:

the-inbetween.com: 'Judgy Gaming'
'I wonder if the mainstreaming of videogames warrants a re-evaluation of the failure responses they generate.'

Kotaku: 'Gallery: Magical Segata Sanshiro Mullet Makes Rambo Return'
This is all kinds of awesome silliness re: Sega arcade gun game.

Eegra: Rose and Camellia Fan Fiction - Chapter Three
Wow, deliciously obscure dojin game riff.

How Can We Do It Differently? - The Quixotic Engineer
More raves for Square Enix's 'The World Ends With You', this time with bullet points of differentiated features.

Day By Day - This Year in Games: Jan-May 2008 | The New Gamer
More people should keep gamelogs, it's interesting.

Water Cooler Games - Sun's 'Identity Hero'
'The game is cute and high production value, but more importantly it does what so few advergames bother to do: it simulates (albeit abstractly) the features and functions of the product advertised.'

Insertcredit.com on 'Genmu no Tou to Tsurugi no Okite'
My insano co-worker Mr. Sheffield on a first-person DS Japanese dungeon-crawler with a super-duper retro mode and other neeeat things.

Old and New: Aging Games and You « High Dynamic Range Lying
'Could it not then be said that what changes over time is not the game, but ourselves?'

Videogame Sex | GameCulture
Double whammy of amusing videos about, uhh, sex/games.

Beckett Massive Online Gamer announces 20 most influential in MMO biz
Hey, Beckett had a good idea - good for them!

June 1, 2008

COLUMN: 'Game Mag Weaseling': Mag Roundup 5/31/08

When it rains, it pours in Mag Roundup. Two weeks, there were hardly any magazines to talk about -- this time around, everything came into my mailbox all at once, even the two flight-sim magazines whose subscriptions are (thankfully) about to run out.

We're beginning to enter the boring season not just for mags, but for games, too -- but that's a good thing, because it means we'll see more creativity and originality from mags as they attempt to fill the pages with fresh content instead of the usual previews and reviews. Ostensibly. It'd be nice, anyway.

Let's go forward and see what's new in the mag scene -- and if there's any controversy to be found in the MGS4 reviews that're starting to creep out...

Electronic Gaming Monthly July 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Gears of War 2 (split cover)

People may think the GoW2 piece is the highlight of this issue, but it's not -- even though Shoe goes above and beyong, asking Cliffy about a million questions from message-board posters and presenting the usual boring "new guns, new modes" information in neat and eye-catching ways.

It's not the Metal Gear Solid 4 "review," although that's generating the most discussion online -- the editors decided against giving out scores due to "the limitations Konami wanted to impose on our comments," so they just printed a five-page roundtable instead, one mostly filled with praise but also throwing a few jabs (the control system's not as good as Splinter Cell's! Oh noooooo!). It's not even the "Gun Show" spread, where they ask military advisor Hank Keirsey for his take on the Gunblade, the Gravity Gun and other fanciful video-game weapons -- hilarious stuff.

No, the highlight of this issue is the frowny-faced Miis used to illustrate the front-end investigation piece on Nintendo's lackadaisical online strategy. Miis using telegraphs, cans and strings, and a cell phone tied to a headband to communicate with each other. Absolutely tremendous.

GamePro July 2008


Cover: Halo Wars

With EGM more-or-less calling out Konami's demands on print media this issue, readers are undoubtedly looking toward reviews in other media with an eye that's more than a little jaundiced (if not sneering entirely). GamePro's dense five-page review practically gushes with praise -- the only faults being the lack of a tutorial and "long-winded at times" cinemas, which is sort of like saying going through security at O'Hare is "a little annoying."

The Halo feature this month is in the classic, all-encompassing GamePro style, giving a ton of details on what the game will be like and backing up nearly everything that's written with an explanatory screenshot. There's also some info on the other Halo projects coming, including a look at the aborted DS Halo and the purported film that has about as much a chance of happening.

PlayStation: The Official Magazine July 2008


Cover: Metal Gear Solid 4

PTOM's "world exclusive review" (the FDA really ought to start regulating this term they way they do "low-fat" and "organic") features a lot more detail on the game itself other print looks and also features Rob Smith declaring it'll always be in his top-ten list, no matter what games come out in the future. Considering the mag just put GTA4 on the cover last month, that's saying quite a lot.

Still, this and GP's review once again begs the question of what EGM was so concerned about that these two mags weren't. Is there some deep, dark secret that Konami doesn't want getting out before June 12? Or is it just the usual "keep the AAA game under wraps as long as possible" shenanigans that Konami did with MGS3 too? We'll see, I reckon.

The MGS4 bit is the biggest feature in this mag, which is otherwise dotted with previews (Fallout 3 and a roundup of shooters), reviews, and a tongue-in-cheek guide to surviving the PS3 RPG drought with suggestions including LARPs, renaissance faires, reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, and learning a new language like Al Bhed. Now that's how you fill a spread, gentlemen.

This issue of PTOM is also noteworthy for using the word "hotsclusive" in a news piece on LittleBigPlanet, a word invented by yours truly right in this column -- Google it if you don't believe me. I'm going to be in the OED (and/or Variety) if this keeps up!

Nintendo Power July 2008


Cover: Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia

As always, Nintendo Power pounds down the most hotsclusives per capita in its News section, which is almost entirely filled with the first screens of this or the world print premiere of that. It continues with the cover feature on Order of Ecclesia, which is packed with lovely character art and info.

Iga doesn't comment much within, but that's because he sort of wrote a five-page piece right afterwards going over Castlevania's history and his takes on all the games and series of the past. Brilliant...but not as brilliant as NP interviewing Yuji Horii for the Dragon Quest DS roundup that follows; the dude barely shows up in Japanese media, much less US outlets.

Maybe it's just the fact that Nintendo has quite a bit more presence this generation than last, but NP seems to be consistently kicking ass these days. I'll even forgive them for spending two pages on an interview with Strong Bad in a feature located in front of all this other cool stuff.

Official Xbox Magazine July 2008 (Podcast)


Cover: Shaun White Snowboarding

The Future mags just can't get enough snowboarding this summer for some reason. I suppose something has to fill the pages now that GTA4's been digested and the summer's suddenly looking a little barren for 360 owners. It's not a throwaway piece, though, because the design on it is pretty brilliant -- quite a bit like what you'd see in a snowboarding magazine, although I'm still not too sure what's so special about this game that it deserves a cover more than, say, Ghostbusters, which gets a much more full-featured preview piece inside.

Top highlight for print-mag buffs is "King of Diamonds," an extremely silly three-page piece where Logan Decker runs around San Francisco with an Xbox Live Diamond Card to see if it's actually worth it. The verdict: Most food-service retailers think the card looks pretty rad, but they don't know WTF to do with it.

Also, Microsoft is still putting Halo 3 ads in OXM. It's like the Jak 2 of 2008.

Tips & Tricks July/August 2008


Cover: Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

Still going! This cover's really nice, too. The inside is still straight-out strategy, though, with 12 Brawl pages, six on Army of Two, then lists of codes. Badabing, badaboom.

Beckett Massive Online Game July/August 2008


Cover: Age of Conan

Despite cheap printing, boring features and a regular comic strip with about the same entertainment quality as The Family Circus, Beckett MOG shows no signs of going out of business anytime soon.

There is the something of the beginning of critical coverage in this issue, though, as seen in a feature on the top 20 most influential people in the MMO industry. Too bad the rest of the mag is the usual -- basically updates on all the current games, filled with jargon and assuming previous knowledge that nobody but those actually playing the games in question would know.

Very Special Issues

wiigamersguide3.jpg   npposters.jpg

It seems safe to say that GamePro's Wii Gamers' Guide has replaced Code Vault by this point. It's nothing very fancy, but definitely an improvement over CV -- you've got a neat roundup feature or two, reviews, previews, strategy, the whole bit. It all seems like original content as well. I wonder why the back cover has an ad for GTAIV, though...

Meanwhile, Nintendo Power Posters is exactly what it is -- no editorial content, just 40 posters, printed on really heavy stock, for ten bucks. Great stuff if that's what you're looking for, actually -- I like the two Okami ones the most, although having the Twilight Princess art that was on EGM's cover a couple years back in an uncluttered state is nice, too.

[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.]

GameSetPlaying: The Mister Raroo Edition!

- [You may remember that we sometimes publish 'GameSetPlaying' round-ups, discussing what games we've been checking out. Well, new GSW columnist Mister Raroo takes the helm in the newest GameSetPlaying to discuss what he's found the time to play lately. It looks like someone's got Nintendo Fever!]

Wii Fit (Nintendo, Wii)

I’m glad I preordered this a couple months ago because it is hard to find. My coworker Raquel told me she’s so tired of trying to find a copy that she might just buckle and pay the absurd asking prices it’s currently going for online. I had initially thought the $90 price tag was too high, but after seeing the quality of the Balance Board, not to mention the substantial amount of content on the disc, the cost seems very fair.

Wii Fit has actually kept me very motivated to use it since release day, mainly because when all is said and done, it’s a lot of fun! I surprised how much I like the Yoga exercises, though my balance and leg strength are still terrible at this point. The Balance Games are excellent and I can’t get enough of them. They make me hope the rumors of a Wario Ware game that uses the Balance Board become a reality.

The World Ends With You (Square-Enix/Jupiter, DS)

My long-time message board pal Brandon Sheffield said this game is “Pretentious self-indulgent Nipponophile wankery.” Though in many ways that’s very true, I’m still having a great time with it. I’ve been playing The World Ends With You daily on my lunch breaks and trolley commutes and it’s got a hold on me.

What I find so appealing about the game is how every element comes together to provide an experience unlike anything I’ve really played before. While at its core it's an action-RPG, the dual-screen battles and overall flavor make it feel very fresh. I could do without some of the eye-rolling angst in the dialogue, but I can look past that and enjoy everything else this bizarre game has to offer.

Rhythm Tengoku (Nintendo, GBA)

With the announcement of Rhythm Tengoku Gold, I was inspired to dig this game out of my GBA collection and play it anew. I loved Rhythm Tengoku when it hit in Summer 2006, and I still love it today. In many ways, the game is like an interactive music album and I’ve been having a great time replaying my favorite minigames/tracks.

I particularly like the Bon Odori stages as they make me think of all the fun times I’ve had participating in the annual Obon celebration at my wife’s Buddhist temple. Last year’s Obon was especially fun because it was my son Kazuo's first time. I had him strapped to my chest in a Baby Bjorn and he smiled and laughed as we (clumsily) danced to the music. I can’t wait for this year’s Obon!

Beautiful Katamari (Namco-Bandai, Xbox 360)

This may be the weakest of the console Katamari games, but I still think it’s a pretty good time. It’s a shame that some of the content is tucked away on the disc until you pay to unlock it (including my favorite stage—the Mechanical one!), but that’s life in the microtransaction era, I suppose. That said, I still have been having plenty of fun with Beautiful Katamari, mainly because games like this just never get old to me.

I’m wary of playing my 360 these days because I don’t want to get yet another Red Ring of Death, but when I do turn it on, it’s usually to play this game. Beautiful Katamari is actually one of Kaz’s favorite games, and he’ll sometimes walk over to sit in my lap and watch the vibrant colors when I play it. Of course, it doesn’t take long before he starts trying to “help” by reaching out and pushing random buttons on the controller.

Endless Ocean (Nintendo/Arika, Wii)

I’ve had a fear of sharks since I was a little kid, probably because my sister somehow convinced me that Jaws could eat me if whenever my feet were on the carpet (logic be damned!) and she wouldn’t let me up onto the bed or couch so as to be safely out of the reach of those imaginary shark teeth. Thus, games with underwater sections have always given me the willies. Heck, even the sharks in Ape Escape creeped me out!

Endless Ocean has helped to ease my fears, if just a little bit. The sharks in the game won’t attack you and, ridiculously enough, you can even pet and feed them. I really like the open nature of the game—just dive where you want and see all the aquatic life you can. There are some small missions you can partake in if you want, but it’s all up to you. I mainly play this game with Kaz at night right before bed. Endless Ocean has a calming effect and as Kaz sits next to me and watches me play the game, he starts to fall asleep before too long.

Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo, Wii)

I sure am playing a lot of Nintendo games lately, it seems! I do own other systems, but nothing coming out on those platforms has really seemed too exciting to me. Mario Kart Wii has received somewhat of a mixed response from both reviewers and gamers, but I’m having a wonderful time with it.

I scoffed at the Gamestop clerk when she asked if I wanted to buy a second wheel, stating, “Pfff, I’m not even going to use the first one.” Surprise! I love the Wii Wheel! And, even bigger surprise! My wife loves Mario Kart Wii! Within a day we had purchased a second Wii Wheel.

The best part of Mario Kart Wii has been playing online against my brother-in-law Thomas and his son Mario. Mario talks a lot of trash when he plays games, especially Mario Kart. Therefore, it was especially satisfying when one time while playing a team match against Thomas and Mario, their connection was “accidentally” disconnected. I guess it was too much for Mario that Team Raroo was crushing him in every race!

So how about it, dear GameSetWatch readers - what have you been checking out recently, video game-wise, and what did you think of it?

GameSetNetwork: The Week In Review

god.jpg Due to the holiday on Monday, we haven't had a GameSetNetwork round-up - of neat original articles on Gamasutra, GameCareerGuide, and our other sister sites - until now. Which means there's a whole heap of stuff to get through, headed by John Harris' 'Game Design Essentials' entry on Atari.

Also hanging around in here - some top-level chats to senior types from Valve, Epic, and Midway, as well as a good piece on agile development at Large Animal Games and a discussion on happiness and how it relates to game design, *grin*.

So some links:

Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games
"Atari Games, in its heyday, produced some of the most brilliant game designs the world has ever seen - from Marble Madness to Tempest and beyond - and Gamasutra compiles the 20 essentials throughout the company's long arcade career."

Introducing Scrum At Large Animal Games: A Look Back at the First Year of Agile Development
"NY-based developer Large Animal (Rocketbowl, Snapshot Adventures) switched to the Scrum method of agile development last year, 'sprinting' to complete individual game elements - here's just how it went."

Giving Games A Voice: Sony's Dialog Manager Greg deBeer Speaks
"Voice acting is a surprisingly vital part of character-based game creation - and Gamasutra talks to Sony dialog manager deBeer on his work aiding titles from the God of War series to Uncharted: Drake's Fortune."

The Pursuit of Games: Designing Happiness
"In a thought-provoking article, Page 44 Studios (Tony Hawk) designer Lorenzo Wang looks at recent research on happiness, focusing on six key findings that can help us all make better games."

Book Extract: Dungeons and Desktops: 'The Silver Age'
"Excerpting from his 'Dungeons & Desktops' book on the history of CRPGs, Matt Barton looks at 'The Silver Age' of role-playing games, from Richard Garriott's Ultima I through Sir-Tech's Wizardry and beyond."

Valve: PC Has 'Perception Problem,' Piracy Reflects 'Unserved Customers'
"During a small press event held at its Bellevue offices, Valve outlined the state of PC gaming as it sees it, painting a bright picture for the segment. Included are thoughts on emerging markets, piracy, and the PC's "distributed management problem.""

god.jpg In-Depth: Mark Rein On Unreal Engine 3, The State Of Epic
"Unreal Engine 3 is the dominant game engine in the next-gen marketplace - but what's in the future for it and its creator Epic Games? Gamasutra talks in-depth to Epic VP Mark Rein on Unreal Tournament III, engine licensing, and the state of the market."

ION: Fuel's Robbins Exposes Secrets Of An Advergame Developer
"In this session from the ION Conference, Fuel Industries' Brian Robbins, whose company makes advergames for major brands from Jim Beam to McDonalds (pictured) and beyond, discussed why "making fun games associated with well-known IPs without paying license fees" may make the space more interesting than many think."

Q&A: EA's Schofield Ventures Into Dead Space
"EA Redwood Shores' sci-fi horror title Dead Space is a high-profile original IP title for Electronic Arts - but how was it greenlit, how is it being developed, and how will it stand out? Gamasutra talks in-depth to executive producer Glen Schofield to find out."

Educational Feature: ‘10 Myths About Game Degrees’
"Dr. Andrew Tuson of the Department of Computing at City University London debunks 10 misconceptions about game development degrees in a new GameCareerGuide.com article."

In-Depth: Midway CEO Booty Talks State Of Company, Tech
"Midway interim CEO/president Matt Booty is a 17-year veteran and former programmer at the company - and Gamasutra talks to him about his unique perspective on the still struggling-publisher, its unified $100 million 'Midway Core' engine based on Unreal Engine 3, and its key 2008 line-up."

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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