Archive for the 'Games' Category

Hardcore Starts at Home

Guilty as charged. The ridiculous haircuts, the ludicrously huge glasses, the ancient headphones, the thousand yard stare. It’s all true. No matter! Nothing focuses you like Combat, Atari 2600 style. It’s the young heyday of the videogame in full swing — my big cousin and I drinking from the firehose.

But what I love is watching my nephews doing the same thing. Except now the console is Wii, the closest thing to Combat is Wii Play Tanks (complete with co-op!), and they’ve traded the rotting yellow hand-me-down headphones for significantly cooler earbuds. And I’ve gone from the hopeless geek to the cool uncle who understands (well, until they see this photo).

Me and my cousin? We’ve both got PhDs. That’s right, here’s proof that violent videogames are the gateway drug to… higher learning. The horror.

Find more full-on immersion at That Looks Awesome! and Game Faces. And enjoy some game nostalgia with the Edge 200.

Final confession: for better or worse, everything I’m wearing in the photo (other than the glasses) is a hand me down from cousins. And they eventually handed down the 2600, too. Rock!

Speaking at Living Game Worlds

Just hit the ground in Atlanta, where I’ll be speaking at Living Game Worlds 4 this week. It’s always great fun to hang out with folks like Raph Koster, T.L. Taylor, Randy Farmer, and Ian Bogost. My talk will focus on the design challenges we faced building games in virtual worlds — the Virtual Team Building Games project, which I lead at IBM Research. Looking forward to some good discussion. If you’re at LGW4, stop by and say hi!

Check out our notes on LGW3 at Inside Living Game Worlds. For more, see the Living Game Worlds site.

We Are 8-Bit

The fourth year of I Am 8-Bit opens tonight in LA — the ever-creative art show featuring videogames re-imagined by artists who grew up with them (or wish they did). Past years have had a broad spectrum from cutesy to badass to rude. (Could anyone who’s played Dig Dug not have seen this coming?) Not everything hits a home run, but that’s what makes the whole thing fun.

Nearly forgotten, I love seeing the most memorable bits of games I grew up with carried forward to become part of pop culture once again, in art, music, clothes, Honda ads. It’s become part of our DNA. Still, you gotta miss the arcades we used to live in. There’s something about those dark rooms punctuated by luminous screens mapped onto mesmerized player faces that home games will never quite duplicate. (The pages of JoyStik capture it well.)

Back then, it seemed like every week brought a new game: ones that felt flawless (the neon vector spikes of Theurer’s Tempest) and others hopelessly broken (days lost misjudging wall heights in Zaxxon). Remember when the visceral feel when Daytona USA first took hold? You never forget your first time. (Maybe that’s why I like that Dig Dug piece so much, eh?)

ia8b amplifies those memories; it’s made me an addict. (I still sport my pixelated excitebike shirt from the first show in 2005.) But I’ve never seen it in person. Until then, us New Yorkers will have to settle for late nights of classic gaming at the fabulous Barcade Brooklyn. I feel a river crossing coming on.

i am 8-bit 2k8 runs through September 7. Catch up on past shows on flickr. For more on 8-bit culture, see Past Prefect and Blip!

images via iam8bit and barcade

Bollywood: The Videogame

In India, Bollywood is king. You see it on TV, in stores, on the streets. So, I guess I shouldn’t have surprised me to find the Bollywood Playstation in Delhi. Love at first sight. (If only I could speak Hindi!)

The game industry in India is an interesting thing. Alongside the Bollywood box were a ton of titles for PS2, PS3, and Xbox 360. Wii, on the other hand, had just one slot in the rack, filled with just one trashy title: Alone in the Dark. Go figure.

It seems strange that Wii, which has done so well in Japan, wouldn’t have done at least passibly in the rest of Asia. One theory for India is that the culture is so IT focused (nearly 40% of jobs are in the sector) that specs rule, and certainly Sony and Microsoft are the ones wielding the big mips. That probably explains the Xbox 360 emblazoned with the mug of a Bollywood star being hawked on TV, too. (Where do I get me one?)

I’ve heard Bollywood games referred to as niche titles. But Bollywood is bigger than Hollywood in terms of tickets sold. And with growth close to China’s and a population set to pass them in short order, it’s only a matter of time before Indians start buying games; lots of them. More games with brown people on the cover? That can only be a good thing.

For more on the growing influence of Bollywood, see Hollywood goes Bollywood! And while you’re at it, rock out to some classic Dil Se and new school Singh is Kinng.

Beyond Good & Evil Returns: Should We Worry?

Beyond Good & Evil is back! We thought creator Michel Ancel AWOL when he hadn’t been seen or heard from since Rabbids launched with Wii, but talk about a fine excuse. Our favorite realistically endowed “are you sure you’re black?” heroine has returned, with Pey’j in tow. (Could Double H be far behind?) This is good news.

Still, you have to worry. After all, even with so much going for it, the original BG&E bombed. And that title didn’t help. I mean, let’s face it, even the most devoted fans couldn’t figure out what Nietzsche had to do with Jade’s exploits. Everyone else wasn’t interested in a game written by a 19th century philosopher. Is Beyond Good & Evil 2 simply a working title? Let’s hope so.

But there’s something peculiar about the game, too. Even though I have fond memories of Jade’s world and its inhabitants, I remember less of what I did there. Where other favorites like Ico and Rez have big moments you just can’t forget (the windmill puzzle, a running man set to Rock is Sponge), BG&E leaves you with something different. Edge puts it this way:

There’s nothing memorable, nothing meaty in any of the game’s set pieces. It’s a game you finish in a happy haze, entranced by your time in Jade’s world, but hard pressed to remember a single fight, puzzle, race, or stealth challenge that stood out. And it’s this, more than anything, that is Ancel’s secret. […] Ancel may not be a master of story-writing, he may not map out the most sophisticated character arcs, and he may not have the instincts to set taut and rewarding game mechanics at the heart of the experience he creates, but he has an ability to create characters with instant resonance — and, if you doubt that, you only need to hear ‘Carlson and Peters!’ echo in your memory to convince you. In a videogame world — where those characters will be acting under their creator’s control for so much less time than in other media — this is unusually vital. (Edge 157)

More than that, BG&E creates a living world — not in the GTA sense but in how your actions interact with and change the place in ways that carry weight. Few adventure games take these kinds of risks when so much time has been put into crafting a world that’s just so. Even fewer dare to swap the central mechanism of affecting change from the pistol to the polaroid. These risks make BG&E great, but they also create confusion. Hopefully, all that pre-production research for BG&E2 has sought to better communicate atypical directions rather than blunt them altogether. What does it mean for BG&E to be “more casual”? We’ll see.

Michel Ancel followed BG&E with a muddy mishmash called Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Raving Rabbids, which matched hysterical characters with one-dimensional gameplay. In the former, Ancel was charged with making some else’s world interactive and in the latter he created characters without much of a world. In a lot of ways, then, coming back to BG&E feels like coming home to the place where so many of his strengths lie. After a few years of creative and monetary missteps, though, does Ancel still have it where it counts? If the fabulous trailer released today is any indication, he has indeed lovingly taken Jade & co to the next level. We want to believe.

Don’t miss the BG&E2 trailer. We last wrote about BG&E in The Sounds of Great Game Places.

Death (and Typing) in Tokyo

Eyes squinting, zero light, monsters everywhere, you’re typing for your life. Yeah, you heard me.

The sudden obsessive uptake of a certain competitive typing game called TypeRacer reminded me of a recent visit to Tokyo. You see, it was there that I saw a couple kids playing Sega’s fabulous Typing of the Dead with unusual fervor late one night in Shinjuku.

For those unfamiliar, Typing of the Dead is a refit of the stunningly mediocre shooting game House of the Dead, but where the former provisioned traditional light guns to dispatch monsters, the latter hands you a keyboard. In TOTD, each word you type right blasts a monster, and speed counts — bigtime. That seemingly minor twist makes a boring game brilliant. If you haven’t tried it, you must.

Typing of the Dead has never appeared in arcades outside Japan (it has seen console release stateside). And it was fun to see Japanese players stuck to it like glue when the game really didn’t get much love back home. Good times, particularly since the kids couldn’t stop giggling to themselves as they nonchalantly typed Japanese characters at blinding speed. Competitive typing, cooperative typing. Either way, it’s goofy awesome.

Ah, Japan. And speaking of Japan, where else can you find fresh pastries just outside the door of an arcade?

Holy cow! Has it really been 6 months since I got back from the Asia trip? I’ve got lots of stories to tell. More photos soon!

That Looks Awesome! Why 3D Immersion Ain’t

There’s been a lot of talk about the value of immersion in 3D virtual worlds of late. Overheard at VW08: “It’s just like the real world, but you’re able to share it with far flung friends and family. You can see them standing there and all the things you do in the real world happen naturally — presence, gesture, place — they all transfer. That is the power of virtual worlds: to be immersed.” Many of us want to believe; especially considering all the sex appeal currently associated with online worlds. But take this example:

Players in World of Warcraft are in the heat of an epic battle. And they’re losing. Just as the last great warriors are about to fall, a sword powerful enough to vanquish the evil one is discovered. But at the pivotal moment when the sword is being handed over to the valiant party leader, the action comes to a screeching halt — and a sheepish farm boy asks: “Uh… How do you hand something from one player to another?” Response: “Bring up your inventory screen Control-I…”

Hello man behind the curtain! This is a classic scene from South Park, but the reason it’s so funny is that it rings true. Immersion in online worlds is beautiful, but it ain’t perfect. Just because a 3D world looks reasonably close to the real one doesn’t mean it’s perfectly straightforward to interact with. Often the contrary.

People are central to virtual worlds, but it’s instructive that we have so many different ways of representing ourselves. Which is the most immersive representation? Which lends itself most readily to deep social interaction? Avatars in Sony Home might look realistic but that level of detail makes them more complex to customize (plus they’re precariously close to the uncanny valley). Representing people as dots makes them super easy to customize but limits expressiveness. Nintendo’s Miis offer a clever middle ground — where the design of emotive avatars is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master.

So, avatars are central to immersion, right? I mean, we’re visual creatures, after all. But so many questions remain: Is it easier to socialize in WoW or IRC? Is it easier to stay in touch using Twitter or Second Life? Folks come down hardcore on all sides. Why? Because it depends. One might be better for presence, the other better for focusing on the thread of conversation. One might be better for being in the moment, another for tracking communication over time. Some folks might find a pure text interface engaging in its simple immediacy; others find a graphical world engrossing for its visual detail. All these things can be immersive.

Text adventure innovator Infocom traded on just this issue — making it known that leaving something to the imagination can be more powerful than laying it all out there. And while Infocom ultimately broke its promise to never make a game with graphics (it’s most masterful games remain the text ones), the point still stands. Immersion is contextual: it’s different for everyone. It’s all about getting into that flow state where the medium disappears and the world consumes you. Which is more immersive: spending years in an empathic online forum for breast cancer survivors or playing Call of Duty 4? Just as I can be equally immersed in a book as in a movie, so I can be equally immersed in a text-based world as in a 2D graphical one as a fully 3D surround sound shutter glasses lights out rumble enabled experience. Want an example? Witness the endlessly addictive ascii art of NetHack.

Immersion isn’t about taking over your screen, it’s about taking over your mind. And it never happens the same way twice.

Impossible Music Manipulation

Imagine reaching inside your favorite song and transforming it. Not just replacing one track with another (exchanging, say, Eddie Van Halen’s solo for your clearly superior version), but altering it at an atomic level. Misplace a finger on a chord or two in an otherwise once in a lifetime take? Grab the notes and move them after the fact. Hell, reorient the whole thing and build an entirely new refrain in a different key with a completely repurposed drum part. Then build a wholly new song.

Once thought impossible, Direct Note Access lets you edit individual notes within flat audio tracks. All of a sudden, any audio source becomes an endless palette. Mindblowing.

Back when Guitar Hero creators Harmonix were a tiny shop struggling to pay the bills, they made a genre-defining game called Frequency. And getting the music for it was tough. That’s because, in order to tell the instruments from one another in their licensed tracks, they had to secure master recordings from the original artists. No small feat, especially on a razor thin budget. That just changed.

But there’s so much more. Imagine the kinds of new music games that could be built, making use of music the original developers never heard or even imagined — building from software that finally understands sound as intimately as the player does. Beyond that, being able to restructure music at a note level opens up tons of fascinating new avenues for electronic and traditional musicians alike. I can’t wait to see where this takes the samplers of tomorrow.

Find more Direct Note Access at

thanks to jesse kriss

No More 8-bit Heroes

It figures. No sooner do I admit to being a closet Xbox 360 addict than a title truly worthy of Wii appears. No More Heroes is in the same instant a glitched out celebration of gaming past and a cleverly different vision for its future. It takes big pixeled icons and cell shaded characters and an 8-bit soundtrack and a deceptively deep wiimote control scheme and somehow emerges with genius. It’s a genius that makes all those disparate elements into a cohesive whole and uses them to blow knowing kisses to those of us who’ve grown up loving videogames. What could fit Wii better? (As champion for what gaming once was and should be again.)

NMH evokes many of the same past perfect memories as Super Paper Mario but, where SPM comes off shiny and polished, NMH continually flies out of left field with its pants around its pixelated ankles, building up macho archetype after macho archetype only to hilariously pull the rug out from under every last one of them (just try recharging your sword). And ultimately it’s walking that fine line between self mockery and serious challenge that gives the game a charm that’s truly special. Well, that and the fact that its lo-fi/hi-fi presentation makes nearly any glitch, accidental or not, seem winkingly intentional.

A friend put it this way: “No More Heroes is a videogame love letter to Jason Ellis.” That pretty much says it. I was in love the moment I got my first phone call. See if you aren’t.

The game is sold out all over Manhattan (I know, I hunted mine down). Clearly, Ubisoft didn’t expect demand for such an offbeat title to be so big. But that’s the hunger of a massive installed base that’s been trudging through shovelware for months. Time will tell how successful NMH is, but its early sales serve as a reminder to developers that Wii is where it’s at. Strawberry on a shortcake!

Visit the No More Heroes website and developer Grasshopper Manufacture. Don’t miss the Edge review.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Xbox

It’s like a disease. In the game industry, everyone starts off the new year listing their favorite games from last (we’re guilty). This year is different — because, when I stopped to think about it, there were so many games I just wasn’t able to play. How did that happen? It starts with three words:

I dislike Microsoft. Okay, that’s an understatement. Growing up at a time when the only way to survive as a young company was to hope Microsoft bought you (because the alternative was to be put out of business by their anticompetitive practices), they didn’t exactly engender much love. Stifle innovation much? Oh yeah.

So when the original Xbox hit, it was nauseating. Another embrace and extend from the master of idea theft, only this time they were moving off the desktop and into the living room. It was bad enough to see Microsoft own the office but attempting the same for the rest of our lives (using the trojan videogame console to monopolize online content distribution) was too much to bear. And paying a monthly fee to play online? No thanks. It didn’t help that they joined the fight with testosterone aplenty, either. I mean black and green on every imaginable surface? (And remember when Bill Gates bizarrely gave away signed keychains to bewildered Japanese Xboxers?) Wrong on all counts, then. Thankfully, Sony won that round of the console wars going away.

But this round? PS3 fell down out of the gate, Xbox 360 stole the hardcore (except for Japan), and Wii? We all knew it would take some time for it to get traction; that much was clear once it was left for dead at E3 2005. When the Wiimote startled us at E3 2006, it was too late. Plans had long solidified to spend the big dev dollars elsewhere and turning the boat would take time. After all, making a AAA title takes a minimum of 2 years — 3 if you like weekends.

The shadow of those early decisions still looms over the industry today, from stories of Wii ports added to the docket at the last minute and outsourced to second rate contractors, to stories of PS3 being the de-facto dev platform because porting to it is such a nightmare (see Burnout Paradise). All signs point to the boat being more fully turned come Christmas 2008, but it’s likely to be slim pickings on Wii for some time to come, even as it sells through the roof.

Gamewise, then, 360 is the biggest beneficiary of the current way of things. This year saw BioShock (talk about environment design), Crackdown (mmm…agility supplements!), Portal (most with the least), Halo 3 (well, co-op, anyway), Rock Band, E4, Forza 2, PGR4, COD4. (They’re a lot of shooters and racers but, for better or worse, they’re also some of the best videogames available.) That’s why many of the Wii faithful I know — the deepest of the deep purple Nintendo fans — did the unthinkable this holiday and bought into the Microsoft agenda, accepting the golden handcuffs of Xbox Live. More surprisingly, it wasn’t even like they struggled with the decision; no, after all the talk, they acted as if buying an Xbox was the natural way of things. And, well, I suppose they might be right. Gamers follow great games plain and simple. As much as we want to believe in the Wii dream, most of the heavyweight developers are still trying to figure out what building games for it means (some are coming). They already understand 360 because it’s an evolution, not a Revolution. I finally bit.

The last time we made this kind of painful choice, we were giving up Dreamcast for PS2. This time is easier because we know Wii won’t die like Sega’s final console, but it’s harder because we’re buying in to an ugly history that we swore not to. Okay, full disclosure: playing great games helps dull the pain a bit.

with apologies to stanley

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