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games industry

Boutique d’Electronique

by on Jul.15, 2006, under consoles, games industry

EB

Its official. I’m sick of shopping malls. Since moving to Sydney, I have been marched into the cavernous maw of capitalist frenzy almost daily. Suffice to say, its been a challenge to my usual intrepidity. And each time, in a fit of sheer exhaustion and a stark, penetrating need to maintain some semblance of sanity…

…I find myself in EB.

Games here are extremely expensive, but still I have oft-visited this dayglow nest of the ultra-nerd. It’s irresistable. And recently, I chanced upon the ‘once a year’, mega-super-clearance sale.
Guitar HeroPS2 for 186$ Aus? That’s not too bad. It was tantalizing to think, actually. Finally able to play Guitar Hero (and perhaps, just perhaps, beat my friend, Headcrash). Finally able to play Wipeout. Metal Gear. Shadow of the Collosus. Mmmmm….

The list goes on and on. And I might have had one nestled sweetly under my arm had they not been out of stock. But something in me also twigged. Was I selling out, resistance waning into vapour? So I didn’t buy one. Yes, I just finished saying they were out of stock, but I wanted you to think that I had victoriously resisted the evil wiles of Sony. And Microsoft. And Nintendo.

Um, did you guys hear me? I almost bought a console. Can you imagine my state of mind, now?

So yeah, I’ve now got a PSP.

And the clearance sale beckoned. 2 movies (PSP) for 15$. PSP Tomb Raider. A couple of 10$ PC clearance games based on the faintest wisp of memory that they were actually worth playing. Riddick. Dungeon Lords. BF2 Special Forces. It would have continued, this massive geek orgy, had Mel not dragged me out of the store.

I went home, installed the lot. It was all a close call. I think the PSP is as close to console-dom as I’ve come in a long time. I never even owned an Atari. I’ve since returned to the same store in Bondi three more times… resisting the temptation again, each time. Or was I just checking their stock? 🙂

Is it only a matter of time?

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Episodic..bi-annually?

by on Jul.06, 2006, under games design, games industry

HL2E1
So the whole world has presumably played (and perhaps even completed) the latest incarnation in the Half Life 2 universe. My experience with it was quite enjoyable. I downloaded it, played it, and completed the entire enterprise in about three hours. Great! So what do I have to complain about?

Well, its the new entry in the market sloganeering that’s been tossed out into the world of gaming. Episodic Content. Supposedly, this is the “wave of the future”, solving all sorts of nasty little problems in both developing, producing, marketing, selling, buying and playing games. And to some degree, I believe this to be true.

Reasoning it out, bite-size bits of our games get made and sold, freeing us from waiting a year for a “full expansion” to get cooked up pig-on-a-spit style, and forced down our throats in one gulp. Makes sense. Smaller price, smaller timeframe, smaller gameplay. I like it.

I just wish they called it something else.

To me, the notion of “episodic” invokes a somewhat nostalgiac image a small boy… tuning in to the radio each week for the next installment of his favourite serial superhero drama. Or in a more modern sense, scrambling to mininova to download the next episode of “Lost” (present company included).

With the ridiculously named “Half Life 2 Episode One”, its essentially a contradiction. It was half a year late, reduced in scope, and didn’t advance the story in any significant manner. OK, you say, its a game, games don’t tell stories. Then where is the “new gameplay”?

Give me episodic. I’ll pay for it. But give it to me fast. If you’re telling a story, then tell it. If you’re giving us more “game”, then finetune the gameplay. HL2E1 does none of this.

I say lets rename it. How about, Half Life 2 Nano-expansion 1?

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Nintendo Wii

by on Apr.28, 2006, under consoles, games industry

Wii

“WE”.

Yup, thats what its called. Not, “revolution” as we’ve come to know it. But “Wii”. Iconic, unique, and something pushed out and slightly to the left as Nintendo seems to want to do these days.

Do I like it? No! Do I get it? I think I do. Its Nintendo wanting to be totally Nintendo and nothing but. In some dusty city Walmart I bet people try to buy “PS 360s”… so maybe this is the way Nintendo asserts its shelfspace. Something that’s impossible to confuse with anything else.

Prevent brand confusion. Make something unique thats Nintendo. If thats one of their goals, then I believe it’s spot-on. It will serve that purpose justly and reliably. Will we be making fun of the name this time next year?

Doubtful… we’ll all be playing Zelda. 🙂

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Hoping for Utopia

by on Jan.10, 2006, under FPS, game reviews, games industry, pc

dystopia mod

Dystopia, the best Source mod ever, gets to Update 4 this week. Signed, sealed and released! Cyberfans rejoice and a big congratulations out to Team Dystopia.

The update contains two new maps, with numerous gameplay tweaks overall. I am guiltily addicted to this slaverous mix of teamplay and action. Forget BF2! Dystopia features mixed team objectives and dual-sourced gameplay. Play as a decker and breach security systems in cyberspace… or join the fireteam and forage ahead as a heavy mechdroid in meatspace. Its fast. Its hard. But so much variety and choice are packed into this game that its virtually impossible to get bored. An extremely well conceived effort, and a visual treat.

Support the Source mod scene and go vote for Dystopia as Mod of the Year!

Valve and Dystopia

Team Dystopia’s early intentions were to release this as a demonstation of their capabilities. First as a Half-Life2 Source Engine modification, and ultimately as a commercial venture. They’ve met with mixed success, partially due to Valve’s (the maker of Half-Life2) resistance. Valve, rarely famous for kind shepherding of young game-makers, typically likes to completely own property invented within their engine. And with Dystopia, we can only guess that Valve is playing the same old game.

When Dystopia was released, Valve introduced a crashing bug into their game engine, which effectively killed Dystopia completely. Momentum lost. Its not likely intentional, but once that was fixed, we heard murmurings from Valve stating that “commercial-level releases in the mod community are discouraged”, supposedly because quality is “never achieved by indies on the first go”. Do it fast, do it iteratively, and build your fanbase. This was Valve’s preference. Listen to us, they said : Be Like Counterstrike.

cs 1.6

Ah Counterstrike. The mod that grew into the most popular online activity since pr0n.

And Valve owns it.

Now their reticence starts to make some sense. Don’t make your mod perfect on the first go, they say. Perhaps they mean : Let us examine its potential, first. Its too bad we’re a little smarter about this stuff now? The early mod days, including Counterstrike’s debut, had very little engineering sense to them at all. This made quality releases almost impossible. But when you look at the detail and the testing that go into upper-echelon mods today, you’ll find an entirely different animal. Some of them have pros on their teams. Others are funded. And many hope for a commercial payoff one day. The mod scene runs the spectrum, of course, with jokers and amateurs alike. But with Dystopia, it was a wholly different beast, and was professional right from conception to execution. Truly a model that should be rewarded. You can’t really blame the publisher, since its in their interest to see a return on their investment – which was the very platform from which these games have sprung. Yet, arguably, it was precisely those initial successes that fed Valve’s success today. They simply wouldn’t be here if we didn’t want to play the new Counterstrike (including yours truly – seven years running!). Valve wants to own the best of them, and its far easier to do that when they exhibit the merest seeds of success.

Rest assured, there are many people (some of whom I know personally) that are watching the outcome of the Dystopia venture with intense interest. Dystopia’s success could serve as a model for indie gamedev in general. I sincerely hope that Valve does the “right thing” and gives them a Steam publishing deal (like they did with Darwinia, another indie developed game). With quality, with fanbase, with a dedicated team and a healthy product, what do they have to lose?

In the meantime, we’ll have fun with Dystopia, and here’s to one day seeing them take their game to the bank. This stuff is the power politics of business, and Dystopia may not win. Personally, it’s Valve’s loss if Dystopia chooses to go elsewhere. I mean, what if Counterstrike was made for Quake?

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The uncanny future

by on Dec.13, 2005, under computer graphics, games industry

liam
credit : max kor, cgtalk.com

If you close your eyes and peer into the possible future of gaming, you might glimpse an image such as this. Today this noble warrior was generated entirely in Maya3D, but its not difficult to guess that one day computer games will be peopled with characters of such depth and realism. Maybe not today, but one day.

Do graphics make the game? Hardly! Yet I would argue that characters are an equal contributor. Adding personae of such extreme levels will one day take games well beyond that of any Hollywood movie. Not just to watch, but to interact with, to fight against, to hate, to fear, to save, to love. If the gameplay is served by the story, then what a day when the story is served by characters like this! “Video game moments” of yesterday were as evocative for me as movies or novels (even when they werely merely games with text!), so its no surprise that I should greatly look forward to truly rich and interactive characters. It is one of the biggest challenges of this emerging artform. Storytelling without convincing characters is like a movie with bad actors.

This will be a critical aspect that brings the storytelling potential of videogames closer to the mainstream (and one day consume it). Maybe the publishers who relish rich graphics over gameplay have a point in this : they are attempting to expand the market with greater and greater eye-candy (while the rest of us real gamers get bored). Personally, knowing that I got excited in the days of text, I’m a shoe-in for great graphics done right. Give me a game that delivers on all levels of gameplay, narrative, interactivity and characters, and I will be happy. But we know this isn’t true for everyone. Gaming fans are a rarity in my generation (yet less so, I’ve noticed, in the next one).

However, as realistic as computer-generated characters become, there is a well-known problem referred to as “the Uncanny Valley“; the psychological consequence of increased photorealism actually decreases the believability of characters. The argument is that one should avoid (or minimize) the realism of graphics in order to heighten believability.

Personally, I would not shy from realism in this fashion. I see this barrier as part of the cost of having highly realistic characters in an interactive 3d environment. We may have a twinge of a “this is not real” creepiness, yet perhaps this will serve as the best reminder that we are, in fact, only playing a videogame. Is it not a fair trade-off from what we’re seeing these days? Compare the warrior above with the visage of a typical WoW character. I’d take the uncanny valley any day over that! Do non-human characters exhibit the same problem? Is it OK for them to move and appear realistic? Even if the valley rears itself, we’ll instinctively know that they are not real.


One day, that warrior will call out your name as he ambles towards you at the fireside. His footsteps will crunch across leaves as he nudgers closer, and emerges into the flickering light of the fire. Later, he will reveal himself as the King in disguise… and asks you to undertake a secret mission to save his daughter, the princess.


A little corny, but it sounds fun, right? For me, it is truly just as much fun to imagine.

And now a question for you! When will we see graphics at this level in computer games? 2 years? 5 years? 10? Never?

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MMOre NNews

by on Dec.07, 2005, under game reviews, games industry, mmorpg


multiverse_logo.gif

From Terranova, I saw a recent post from Dr. Richard Bartle detailing a new game engine and MMO platform called Multiverse.

Its essentially a “do it yourself” toolchest for online game development. Their idea is to have multiple, singular MMO’s essentially linked to each other by a central registry. This is a serious foray into a distributed model of online games.

Aside from their bluster about “revolutions” in MMO development, its quite interesting. They give you the engine, some pre-canned assets, the server code, and an editor. Create the world you want and voila! Instant MMO. They even host it for you. They make their money by charging you a percentage of your game’s subscription fees.

The DIY aspect isn’t new. Bioware’s Neverwinter provided a dev toolchest with charge-for-use content and they seem to be very successful with it.

Yet, there does seem to be a lot of buzz around Multiverse. Bartle wants it for his research. I think others might like the challenge of making something fun with it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’d like to see what the engine’s capabilities are. Check it.

In other news, I looked at the trial edition of Irth Online, just out of curiousity. Its a brand-new fantasy-themed MMORPG made by a smaller developer in Boston. I would be very tempted to call it an indie MMO, for a variety of reasons. It had almost no press or advertising, which struck me as odd for a brand-new commercial MMO. After looking at the game, I’m not surprised.

Its a complete clone of what we’ve seen already in that genre. Although they’ve obviously worked very hard on it, the most irritating aspects are that its very clunky, confusing and non-innovative. Damn. Every aspect of a typical MMO appears within Irth as if its merely fulfilling a checklist of what an MMO should have, all very hurriedly slapped together.

I don’t want to dismiss it out of hand, but there are quite a few problems with it. Generally, I find it very instructive to look at bad games as well as the good ones. In this case, I’ll suffer through the experience even if its merely to answer the question : is “Irth” an elaborate experiment or a true commercial product?

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Its Hollywood All Over

by on Dec.04, 2005, under games industry, indy

Billfishjump1.jpg

There’s a reason big game fishing is so popular. Even if its a passing thrill, its fun to chase something bigger than yourself.

There has been a consistent murmur out there. A collective disgruntled buzz about games. I’ve been watching as closely as I am able, but to summarize it goes something like this.

Its boredom. Developer blogs, fansites, magazine articles, ezines, and some personal in-game chat all point to it. Its hard to find concrete examples, but I note an unsatisfied yearning for something new and different. Frustration with an interminable stream of derivative crap, siphoned from the big-media trough. And I see the complaint everywhere, from either overt commentary on the “state of the industry” or as a side-comment between players on a CS:S server.

The jaded sentiment is that gamers are getting bored with repeated renditions of games they’ve already played. People are ready for something new beyond lusher, linear games and big-name voiceovers. And like I’ve never really seen before.

Our appeasement, or how to get it, is starting to shift. How so?

Well, for starters, we see the XBox 360. I mentioned it earlier, noting from pure observation that there really truly is nothing new there. But the kicker is that there damned well should be in the face of 50 million dollar marketing budgets! And its not just a matter of big business. Its not simply that budgets for game production are soaring, and are expected to rise. Not just the boggling amount of assets that are required to produce the latest-greatest. Not just that the newest halcyon of NextGen gives us sports games with sweat simulation and FPS’ with absolutely no variants in gameplay. Its about the atoms of game activity. What do we do in the game? How do we do them? Very little progression has been achieved by our big media contemporaries in this vein. They play it safe, because they absolutely positively have to. Its easier to pile on the detail instead of coming up with something new.

So where is the innovation?

Its in the indies. The mythical upstarts. The smaller companies whose concentration is centred on the games they’re making, and not the happiness found in the genre numbers game. The indies take more risk, because they can. They don’t have armies of artists and programmers and suppliers and SKU’s and shareholders to maintain. They are the ones who push the bar sideways instead of upward. They change the playing field. And the communities exert an influence that no Superbowl ad could accomplish. They shift the market to follow them.

Since the first day of this blog so very long ago (10 months?) I have watched the debates swing around. People clamouring to tell us that PC Gaming is DEAD, and that the time for indie gaming companies has long passed the glory days of iDSoftware. I conversed with assorted developers at DIGRA Vancouver, and was met with the same eye-rolling recitation. And its clear to me that people have been overcome by something, perhaps even fear. But after over a year of observation and deliberation, I am utterly convinced that the “indy gaming is dead” mentality is COMPLETE AND UTTER BULLSHIT. In fact, it serves the big media to keep telling you that “making games is too hard”, “it costs too much money”, or “publishers are too restrictive”. Its not that they’re wrong, but the emphasis is. If you’re committed, these things are merely barriers to be navigated. Just think about what they gain by scaring off the masses from innovation. They scare off their most dangerous competition. They are free to churn out the same derivative crud without so much as a blip from underfoot. I set to thinking about these issues some time ago, and I am doubly sure that the world is ready for the next idSoftware more than you can ever believe. The gaming community is fickle, yes, but in this industry (more than most), getting mindshare of the end user is a live-or-die enterprise. And top-down marketing is not going to be able to reign in the enthusiasms of the collective headspace of millions of gamers that talk to each other daily.

Thats essentially my rant. People need to stop thinking that big media owns the space. And don’t think that better games can’t be made by the little guy. Anyone who believes that has been duped (yet again) by news and entertainment media.

I hate to rant about rallying the little guy and then talk about Nintendo. But in the sphere of computer electronics and future media, I really do believe that Nintendo has its sights in the correct places. And they really are innovating when the bigger players bat around around their latest Hollywood-style triple-A contender.

It only takes the will and a small group of committed individuals to innovate. And the time is right.

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Sound and fury…

by on Nov.16, 2005, under consoles, games industry, xbox360

360.jpg

The XBox360 launch lineup was announced recently, and I must say how fascinating it is to watch such big business in motion. Aside from an online hype machine unequalled since… um, never….it is surprisingly very hard to get excited. No really, have you seen the lineup for launch?

Amped 3 (2K Sports)
Call of Duty 2 (Activision)
Condemned: Criminal Origins (SEGA)
FIFA Soccer 06 Road to 2006 FIFA World Cup (Electronic Arts)
GUN (Activision)
Kameo: Elements of Power (Microsoft Game Studios)
Madden NFL 06 (Electronic Arts)
NBA 2K6 (2K Sports)
NBA LIVE 06 (Electronic Arts)
Need for Speed Most Wanted (Electronic Arts)
NHL 2K6 (2K Sports)
Perfect Dark Zero (Microsoft Game Studios)
Peter Jackson’s King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie (Ubisoft)
Project Gotham Racing 3 (Microsoft Game Studios)
Quake 4 (Activision)
Ridge Racer 6 (Namco)
Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 06 (Electronic Arts)
Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (Activision)

I hate to sound cynical or close-minded (no really, I do!), but shooters on consoles are laughable. Maybe X360 will change that (but somehow I doubt it). So we have three shooters for the 360 lineup. And the rest are EA sports (I think EA bought all the teams) and one “RPG-lite” (Kameo).

This is as big a play as it gets in consumerland. An estimated billion dollars in development and marketing. Microsoft wants you to use this for everything in home entertainment central, literally betting that perhaps one day they’ll be able to get you to rent MSOffice on the “Office XBox”. But I digress! So this is big business. And what do we get?

A bunch of EA Sports games.

Anyone out there yawning? where in hell is the Nextgen? We’ve seen all of this. Its interesting to think that in a somewhat lacklustre opening salvo, could Microsoft be hurting its own future? If its content that matters, and they are spending all of this money for a launch, then one would think they’d have titles galore. So what else? Is it chockfull of goodies that any mediaphile would love? Sure, yeah. But again – we’ve seen it allllll before.

Big business, indeed. Wake me up when we hit Nextgen, k?

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Bye bye, Disney…

by on Aug.03, 2005, under games industry, new media

RoyDisney_RIP.JPG

When you think of Disney, what do you think about?

Most likely, the characters. Cinderella, Bambi, Snow White, and so on. Its easy to think of half a dozen or so, all lurking in various parts of our memories. There are so many, and they evoke certain emotions in all of us, whether we like it or not. Starting in the 1920’s, Disney was the big rock dropped into our cultural pond, creating waves that lasted through our parents’ generation, and into our own adulthoods. No one quite did it like Disney. And no one ever will. So why goodbye?

Well, because of our parents.

OK, its not our parents’ fault that Disney is dead. Its simply a matter of how we learned about the world from our parents. They shared their values, shared what they knew. And so, we understood it readily. And to this day some of our best cultural memories revolve around the experiences that Disney provided.

Cue the realities of media. Like many large corporations, Disney looks to the future based on the parameters of the past. That is their mandate – profit predictability. They know the formula, because they pretty much invented it. So that gives them an edge in their domain. Everything you see come out of the Disney corporation is a mechanical variant of what succeeded in the past. I’m not saying its bad – they are truly masters of their craft…

The only problem is that a new craft is coming to the fore.

The ground underneath the behemoth has now shifted. Smaller and lighter media companies are right now moving the playing field – either through a natural evolvement or through sheer invention. Scurrying underfoot of the beast, moving faster and faster until… the giant is forced to play catchup. But by then, its too late. The little guys were there first, and they handle their domains better than Disney does.

And its already happened.

Nintendo, I’m not the first to say it, but I would still like to welcome you to your new domain.

We, as the parents of today, get video games. They are worlds. They are interactive. They weave living, breathing, memories for the children of today. The kids can watch them, play them, carry them around, read them, or listen to them. Think about the difference in experiencing a static character on a movie screen with a character that interacts with you, that you can not only watch and get to know, but play with? A heady experience, for sure! And when our kids grow up, what memories will they be sharing with their children?

See you at the next Nintendo theme park!

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Game Ranting

by on Mar.19, 2005, under games industry

The game industry is practically aflame after the Game Developers Conference (GDC) last week in San Francisco. Several luminaries from various walks of gaming life decided to rant on about the state of “big versus little” and the rising costs and Hollywoodization of the gaming industry.

Warren Spector : “I want to say how this business is hopelessly broken. Haha. We’re doing pretty much everything wrong. This is at the root of much of what you’re gonna hear today. Games cost too much. They take too long to make.”

The thrust of the rant is simple. Big studios are eating up the little guys, destroying the market with crap, and raising the price of entry. The rest of the discussion readily flows out of this complaint.

Matt Mihaly : “Finding ways to fund games isn’t the issue. What you seem to want to do is create Jerry Bruckenheimer movies without studio money. If you want to create games without a publisher, nothing is stopping you.”

This debate, while interesting will go essentially nowhere. I typically side with the little guys, but what exactly do they expect to change? Once everyone has said what they need to say, everyone will go home. Avid VG players would likely not pay attention to any plea from industry luminaries to switch to cheaper made games. These things exist in a market, and market forces have made it this way. It sucks, yes. But inevitable.

Mind you, I’d not dismiss any community efforts like guerrilla marketing. I’ve seen these work.

All I can lend to the topic is a reminder :

In 1993, iD Software created a kickass and unique game. It was so popular, that people passed the demo disk around, as it was that good. FTP servers went up. Positively viral, man. In this story, everybody won. The developer (they made so much money that they actually deposited million dollar cheques into drive-thru ATMs!) & the players (what gamer hasn’t played this? Hell, even my sister has played it). I think GTInteractive came in later and distributed it and its followons. I’m quite sure they made money, too.

Moral of the story : its possible.

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