Archive for the 'Games' Category Page 3 of 7

Past Perfect: Gaming, Music, and Flawed Memory

Ever play a new game and get that “wow, this is just like that game I played as a kid” feeling? Odds are it ain’t; at least if you’re like me. But why is that?

Take Metroid Fusion. On first play, I got those same goosebumps I had when I played the original Metroid. Visually, the characters slotted right into the cookie cut-outs the old characters left behind 20 years before. And the feel was just the same. Or was it? Going back and playing original, it seemed foreign, unforgiving. Lacking all the color and diversity I remembered. Metroid Fusion, then, doesn’t live up to reality, it lives up to an idealized memory. And to build a game that channels that beautifully flawed memory is a special kind of skill.

We’ve seen similar in music. Take, for example, the way LCD Soundsystem’s fantastic Sound of Silver pulls on 80’s memories — but only the good ones. How does that work? Like the Eye of the Tiger riff that hits 3/4 of the way through the first track. It sounds totally lifted from the Survivor song until you go back and listen to the real thing. That Survivor shit is awful! And that’s the magic. You remember it but you don’t.

While playing some games will forever be linked to 80’s styled music in my head, an even more direct linkage is made on the chiptune scene, where folks make music with old school videogame gear. That stuff lives in the nostalgic buzz of childhood gaming memories. You feel it in your bones.

It’s enough to make you want to go back and re-live all those early experiences. Almost. An LCD Soundsystem lyric puts it best:

Sounds of silver talk to me
makes you want to feel like a teenager
until you remember the feelings of
a real live emotional teenager
then you think again

It takes a special kind of looking back to fully appreciate how far we’ve come. The games and music of our childhoods weren’t perfect, but our memories can be. And new games and music that trigger the past can help us reflect on all that’s happened in-between.

What’s the formula for triggering good (and not gross) in our collective childhood media recollection? Who knows. But I’m always in awe when games and music give me euphoric flashbacks to those early days. So I’m happy if the trick stays a mystery. That way, I can put on some Out Hud, throw in Super Paper Mario, and travel back to a perfect past that only exists inside my head. Well, and maybe yours, too.

For more edited memories, see Radio Lab.

Spore Cost What!?

So, Will Wright’s hotly anticipated Spore is running a bit behind schedule. This week found it slipping out beyond the rim into “delayed indefinitely” territory. We’ve come a long way from the famous GDC demo and apparently there’s still a good ways to go.

Given that news, I asked a friend (who’s in a position to know) what the development cost looks like. The answer: “We need to sell 8 million copies to break even.” Ow. If Spore manages that, it’ll end up in some pretty elite company. But, then, if you’re going to pick someone to bet on, Will ain’t bad.

Assuming roughly $10 of every box sold goes to the publisher, that’s an $80 million production cost (8x Gears of War). While nobody said procedural content generation was a panacea, I think a lot of us hoped that it would at least lighten the load as games get bigger and more detailed. Same with end user content creation. And Spore is the poster child for both. In Edge 166, Spore animation lead Chris Hecker talked about their approach:

One of Will’s themes that we’re depending on heavily is ‘if you’re going to fail, fail funny.’ The hope is that if you start making some crazy-ass creature, like this guy has 11 legs. You have no idea how an 11-legged creature would walk, so if he stumbles over himself, it’s like: ‘Hey, that’s on purpose.’ If we can hit one animation that works for 80 per cent of the creatures, do a couple others that suck up the last 15 percent, and the remaining five per cent fail humorously, then we’re golden.

Brilliant thinking, but it seems building the tool that brings that level of whimsy to end user content creation might be more difficult than it initially seemed, even for those as talented as the Spore team. That’s what happens when you go ambitious, though. And, if nothing else, you have to give Spore that. Making procedurally and end user generated content work in one game is tough enough, but in eight games? Yeah, I think slipping a bit is probably mandatory.

We’ve heard that Spore is the game Will Wright always wanted to make. And, of course, following the towering success of The Sims, he’s been given every resource. With many of the typical constraints turned off, though, the question is will Spore turn out to be Will’s equivalent of Bary Levinson’s similarly off-the-leash dream project Toys? Sure hope not. Will’s too nice a guy. Either way, though, I can’t wait to read the postmortem on this puppy.

Eat more Spore at Wikipedia.

Black Women Got Game?: Why Alyx Matters

Yesterday, Valve founder Gabe Newell dropped a not-so-subtle hint that Half-Life sidekick Alyx Vance might get her own game. Props for sticking that neck out.

While she wouldn’t be the first black woman to star in a videogame (that honor falls to Jade or Catwoman depending), it would be a landmark nonetheless — the first black woman to head up a AAA franchise, and one of the most loved franchises in videogame history no less. Not to mention the first black female to appear as a central character in of the testosterone fueled first person shooter genre. (She didn’t even have to double her cup size to do it.) That’s saying something. And, oh yeah, she’d be only the second (or third?) black woman main character ever.

The biggest reason Alyx is important, though, is that both Catwoman and Jade’s Beyond Good & Evil bombed. While there are many possible explanations (a poor license and a poor title, for instance), what’s really important now is for the industry to show that, with the right content, gamers can get excited about playing these kinds of characters — characters that fall outside typical stereotypes. I can’t think of a better company to make it happen than the ever-inventive Valve, particularly since their bread and butter is the hardcore gamer.

Videogames need the diversity. Do it, Valve. Please.

For more, see Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Karaoke Revelation: Subscription Music in Games


Bleary eyed, vocally numb, and partially deaf, we emerged from Korean karaoke bliss in the early hours.

I’ve done my share of karaoke over the years but never have I been privy to the cozy confines of Koreatown’s fabulous karaoke rooms (aka noraebangs). In the past, we hit a karaoke DVD or two at a friend’s party and perused the massive but somehow lacking song books at loud, smoke-filled karaoke bars. So, I was totally overwhelmed by the sheer volume of songs available on a whim in K-town — English, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Latin, Indonesian, and beyond. We’re talking everything from Free Bird to Shimauta to Ludacris’ greatest hits. We hit it all, tambourines in hand. And my hands have calluses to prove it.

Aside from fantastic friends and great atmosphere, then, what really made the night special was access to nearly unlimited music for just a few hours (50,000 Japanese songs alone). That got me thinking: While Steve Jobs clearly has a point that people want to own their music (85% market share can’t be wrong), the same may not hold true in gaming.

Recently, for instance, Karaoke Revolution creators Harmonix started selling song packs for Guitar Hero 2. You buy it, you own it, but only 3 songs at a time and you can’t pick and choose. While it’s a cool idea (and one I’ve been dying for since Frequency), this is one place where subscription could do better. That’s because on karaoke night having bunches of songs at your fingertips for an evening beats the shit out of owning a few songs forever. Variety bests longevity. Of course, licensing fees, bandwidth, and content creation cost are issues here. Still, I’d pay a nice sum to get a few hours with a library of downloadable songs for a Karaoke Revolution party, or even a monthly fee to have that access always. Would you?

I heart Karaoke Duet though I’m pretty sure their neighbors don’t. Image grabbed from Lost in Translation.

It Ain’t Easy Being Mii

It’s safe to say Nintendo’s Miis have penetrated popular culture. And why not? They hit an incredibly great sweet spot between being expressive while staying easy to create and customize (and not-too-kiddy). But as much as they look like you, they never quite will be. That’s because you never really control your Mii. Sure, you can make them swing a racket, throw a punch, even guide them as they go cow riding. But when the closest you come to taking full control of your Mii is grabbing their unruly head between your thumb and forefinger, you know something must be afoot. And I think that’s intentional.

Miis ain’t you and that’s what makes them special. Unlike more traditional avatar worlds like Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the soon-to-be PS3 Home, your Mii has a life of its own — they’re always just slightly beyond your command. It makes them whimsical, it makes having them visit your friends’ Wiis make sense, it makes you always wonder what they’ve got up to when your Wii is off. And, oh, making this doppelgänger not freaky is an accomplishment, too, because they usually are. Very.

Of course, all this could change in an instant should Nintendo decide to put your Mii under your full control in a traditional virtual world. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen. As it is, Miis inhabit a space somewhere between a Nintendog and your character in Animal Crossing; their closest contemporary might be The Sims. But they aren’t Sims because you have such an intimate relationship with them — you don’t give vague instructions and see what they do, you don’t change their environment and see how they react, but you do control them very deeply in constrained situations: say, putting a golf ball into a hole or popping a body into bubbles. And that makes them peculiar. In a good way.

It’s an interesting place to be because nobody has quite been there before. The design challenges are as fascinating as they are complex and what they will bring is anyone’s guess. But here’s hoping the world Miis inhabit continues to be odd. Because it’s clear that Nintendo has something that really resonates here — creating a strong connection between the player and their avatar by making it look like you, while being someone else entirely.

Find out how Miis came to be at and witness the passion they inspire on flickr.

image grabbed from myutopian

Inside Living Game Worlds

What makes a next generation game? At Living Game Worlds III last week, some really bright folks got together to talk about just that question. And the answer came like a chorus: It’s not about wicked-fast number crunching, liquid AI, and poly pushing by the pound, but games the engage the soul and go beyond conventional expectations of what a game should be. Looking back on a day overflowing with interesting people and ideas, a few things stick out:

Katie Salen talked accuracy vs. authenticity, the notion that just because a game accurately models some real-world activity or place does not guarantee that players will perceive it that way. “Reality” is in the player’s head, not in the physical world. Game design, then, is a constant negotiation between design decisions and player expectations. And it’s always different. There’s no one game that every player plays.

Janet Murray made the case that games are our most primal form of cultural expression, even predating speech. They emerged from an urge to document experiences and culture, to reenact them over time and pass them on to future generations. She argued that game play is a central, even instinctual, urge in all cultures and that shows how much further videogames could reach.

Tracy Fullerton pointed out that game mechanics are a significant limiting factor in the industry today. The mechanics are the message; where narrative is the organizing principle of film, mechanics are the organizing principle of games. The problem the industry faces is that new mechanics are hard, time consuming, and costly to develop. It’s easier to stick with what you know works. But developing new mechanics is essential because they are so central to advancing the state of the art — providing game developers access to significantly new and different content.

A particularly inspiring session focused on Games of the Oppressed, featuring three games that aim to help those in need. A Force More Powerful, an RTS-like sim, provides the oppressed masses with strategies to confront and defeat violent leaders using nonviolent means. The now famous (and rightfully so) Darfur is Dying was demonstrated in addition to some lovely avatar creation art for a new title. Lastly, we got a walkthrough of the inner-city afterschool program that designed Ayiti: The Cost of Life, a game that explores poverty and obstacles to education in contemporary Haiti.

Some heated exchanges came during the discussion of indie game festival Slamdance ejecting Super Columbine RPG and the ensuing firestorm of publicity. “Why is it OK to make a film about Columbine but not a game?” being the key question. (Joystiq has more)

The day ended with another central question: Nobody ever told a kid to stop reading a book and go outside, but you hear it all the time with TV and videogames. Why is that? What does that say about the relationship between our culture and gaming? What does it say about the ground game designers have yet to explore? Food for thought and food for the future.

Wii vs. Your Teeth

Seen in a recent demo session at work, these Wiimote plaque removers had me smiling on sight. When the creators controlled a game by brushing their teeth with them, though, I spit out my drink. Welcome to Wii Oral Sports.

The game (shot here) involves keeping your character alive in a perilous fish tank. Only by brushing your teeth with the correct motion and making sure to cover every last tooth can you escape harm. The idea, of course, is that kids don’t do the greatest job of dental care so anything that helps them avoid rabbid tooth is goodness. Some might complain the game has little to do with the real-world task but that just earns extra charm points in my book.

Heck, they even showed playing improves brushing behavior in an experiment. Once the game was taken away, though, bad habits returned. We all know what the solution to that one is, don’t we? Wii for everyone! Nintendo needs to get on the stick.

The demo was titled “Lifestyle Ubiquitous Gaming: Making Daily Lives Fun” and shown as part of PerComm 2007. It was built by a bunch of folks from the Distributed and Ubiquitous Computing Lab in Tokyo.

For more unlikely tooth defense techniques, witness the Cavity Creeps.

Race in Games: The Unanswered Question

Full disclosure. My goal in writing The First 11 Black Videogame Stars was to get people to think, during Black History Month, about the representation of black characters in videogames. Are there enough? Is there enough breadth? Does it matter?

And I love the variety of responses it generated as well as the additional characters folks listed, some of which I totally should have remembered and some of which I’d never known. To paraphrase the lovely LAist, that’s why the web is wonderful.

One thing I heard over and over in the comments is that the ethnicity of the character you play doesn’t matter. (In fact, I don’t remember anyone saying that it did.) I was happy to hear that because it means that there should be no penalty if developers make games with more diverse protagonists. I am convinced that diversity is at the core of the future of gaming because that’s how we reach out beyond the existing audience — diversity of play styles, diversity of subject matter, and diversity of representation. The high definition era becomes the high diversity era.

But a question crept in: If players don’t care what color the protagonist is, then why are such an overwhelming number of game protagonists white?

Have developers simply not caught up with the market’s (lack of) preference? Is market research telling developers that players really do want to play white characters in spite of the responses I’ve seen? Are developers designing characters that look like themselves or their perceived ideals? Or is it something else entirely?

I’ll go out on a ledge and say I think game developers make games with white protagonists because they think their audience relates to them most easily. But I don’t think that belief is entirely unfounded, either. White is safe and relatable. Anything else is risky. And that speaks volumes about our perception of race, even today.

The First 11 Black Videogame Stars

Jade, Beyond Good & Evil's leading lady

Can you name all the black main must-play characters in gaming? Hint: There are only eleven so far.

When I was younger, I always wondered why there weren’t more black superheroes. And, while you could ask the same question today, it also probably matters less. Today’s kids don’t dream about playing superheroes, they get to be the heroes in videogames all the time. So, that got me thinking: just how many black characters are there heading up games these days. I’m not talking about non-playable characters. And I’m not even talking about playable characters in a roster of characters you can choose between (like Street Fighter). I’m talking about the primo alpha prime you-don’t-get-no-say main playable character of the game. In other words, I wanted to find out how many times game developers have said: “You are Black. Period.” Here they are…

Continue reading ‘The First 11 Black Videogame Stars’

It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning

Fun with delinquency in Rockstar's Bully

Out of the UK comes a fantasy role playing game that cost twice what a typical high-end title (like Gears of War) does to develop. So, the selling point is top-notch production values and seriously epic story, right? Not so much. The big deal with this game is that it was designed to teach literacy and math skills to kids. Before you get into that “Games and learning? Blech!” look on your face, stick with me a minute.

At the recent Games for Change Salon at Parsons, I talked to many people who were psyched about serious games, but I also heard from a surprising number of folks who weren’t. The unimpressed said things like: “the more learning you put in a game, the less fun it is.” It’s really not an unreasonable position considering how many examples support the argument (and how few don’t). Raph Koster puts it like this:

Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning. I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging.
The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.

But isn’t that also the fundamental problem? Creating fun game challenges that naturally convey specific (and significant) educational content ain’t easy. That’s because, while some content is fairly easy to teach through in-game challenges (solving logic puzzles being a particularly popular example), others are much harder. How would we make learning the parts of speech fun, for instance? Surely it’s possible, but finding that perfect game element it fits naturally with might take some work.

And this brings out a central challenge for the serious games community: game design is an art. It’s really hard enough to design a game that’s “merely” fun without having to service particular learning goals as well. Doing both is a daunting task and likely explains why more serious games don’t come from the traditional game industry. Fortunately, that’s changing. Nintendo’s Brain Age has been huge, Square’s chief strategist is keynoting this year’s Serious Games Summit, and I’m sure there’s more just over the horizon.

It’s encouraging to see these heavy hitters interested in making learning a central aspect of new games. As the industry grows, diversification becomes an increasingly important survival strategy. And diversity keeps the games interesting, too. Imagine that. If diversity is essential, could it be that some significant part of the the future of games hinges on making them educational? How’d that be for turning the tables?

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