Thursday, February 28, 2008

Indie Ethics

Boy, those indiependent games have just been taking off, lately! Jonathan Mak's (depicted above) Everyday Shooter got picked up for distribution on Sony's Playstation Network service last year, 2D Boy's World of Goo is apparently getting distribution via Nintendo's upcoming Wiiware service, and millions of people have played Desktop Tower Defense - I count two people in Morgan Library playing it right now! Come on, guys. Don't you have papers to write or something? Geez.

Alex Pham of the LA Times wrote a piece about the recent success of indie game developers, entitled "Indies start to make their mark" - it compares development frameworks like Microsoft XNA to ding-dang youtube, which is gutsy, I'd say.
Much as YouTube is giving unknown video auteurs a chance to find audiences, the video-game industry is opening its doors to upstart developers. Major companies including Microsoft and Sony Corp. are starting to snap up and promote games by amateurs and indie developers as an antidote to the soaring budgets of mainstream games.

Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo Co. have built online stores where millions of players can buy and download games via Internet-connected consoles, bypassing traditional retailers that refuse to stock anything but blockbuster titles.
Those new distribution methods, like Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, strike me as being especially promising for future independent development, especially when games like Metanet Software's N+ ended up as the #1 game on the service last week. Heeere's hopin'!

Jonathan Mak gives sound advice
In a wonderfully tangential turn of events, 1up's got a pretty neat series of interviews with Jonathan Mak and a few other independent developers. I was goofing around with Game Maker on Tuesday night, and there's a lot of good advice in there for aspiring game designers (possible alternate term: "game goofballs"):
"If you have a turd and you try to add stuff on top of a turd, it's still going to be a turd," says Mak. First, focus on the initial interaction and what makes it cool. "If you look at [Metanet Software's ninja-themed puzzler] N, just moving the ninja around, just doing the wall jumps, is already fun. It's not fun to the point where you're like, "Aw, I can't wait to move the ninja,' but it's already really interesting."
My favorite piece of advice ties back to my earlier experience with the Game Maker tutorial, something I'll get to in a minute:
1UP: You have this inspiration for a game, for a core interaction. What is your process for taking it from this "may be fun" to the prototype stage, and how does this develop into a full-fledged idea?

Before I answer this question, I want to append something to the first question. I don't exactly remember what it was, but don't make a design doc. Forget the design docing. Whatever the way Ubisoft does it, don't do it. Just don't do it. There's no need to do that. They need to do it because they have to make money, or else people lose jobs. You don't have to that. You always have a job. You employ yourself.
Right, so I was working through the initial Game Maker tutorial, and the first thing it has you do is write some design documents. You know those banner ads that implore you to "SHOOT OSAMA BIN LADEN TO WIN A FREE IPOD!" or all manner of similar objectives? This game they want you to write a design document for is pretty much that game.
(From the Game Maker tutorial) The second step in creating a game is to write a more precise design document. You are recommended to always do this before making your game, even if it is very simple. Here is our design document for Catch the Clown.

Catch the Clown design document

Game objects:
There will be just two game objects: the clown and the wall. The wall object has a square like image. The wall surrounding the playing area is made out of these objects. The wall object does nothing. It just sits there to stop the clown from moving out of the area. The clown object has the image of a clown face. It moves with a fixed speed. Whenever it hits a wall object it bounces. When the player clicks on the clown with the mouse the score is raised with 10 points. The clown jumps to a random place and the speed is increased with a small amount.
This is... probably how genocidal dictatorships get started, on some level. Some guy unquestioningly writes the design document for the Final Solution and awayyyy they go! So, yes. Good advice, Mak. Eschew that corporate jibba-jabba. Mmmm hmmm.

The most complex game ever made
On the opposite end of the indie games spectrum is Dwarf Fortress (see image), an independent game developed by two guys, Tarn and Zach Adams, who now depend on donations to make a living (they're developing the game full-time). It helps that they have a cult following - Dwarf Fortress is probably the most complicated game ever made, and it runs entirely in textmode! No actual graphics to speak of!

Gamasutra has an interview with the Adams', and they do a pretty good job of summing up the game's staggering scope in the first couple of paragraphs:
The scope of the game defies belief: it contains an extensive world generator, a three-dimensional cellular automata system for simulating fluids, naming languages for all major races, an economics simulation, and even a complete Adventure Mode in which the player can explore abandoned fortresses. It's so detailed that large web communities have sprung up around the game, both on the developer's forums and Something Awful, where players trade stories about what happened in their games. Some of these stories have even become popular outside the game's community.
Most of the interview consists of elaboration on the game's technical side, but the Adams' make sure to discuss their basic inspiration for the game's "generic fantasy setting":
Tarn Adams: What's left to answer is why'd we be so into doing a fantasy game. That's probably the same as everybody else: Tolkien, D&D, myths, and of course, the movie Beastmaster. (We like the part where the evil priest is like, "You'll be sacrificed to 'The God of AAaa,'" like they didn't even bother thinking of a name, just powering through on the power of their badassedness.)

I think that's about it for now. Have a good weekend!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Tomonobu Itagaki is Kind of Insane

Tomonobu Itagaki (depicted above), the director of fabulously successful and schlockrageous franchises like Dead or Alive (no, not the Takashi Miike film! Nor the adaptation) and Ninja Gaiden, is probably insane. I say this after reading a story in the Daily Telegraph, in which Nick Cowen describes him as a "celebrity in Japan," moments after mentioning the abjunct failure of his games outside of the western market.

This put my brain close to explosion, because nothing about this guy, outside of the fact that he wears his sunglasses at night and has a couple of katana mounted behind his desk, seems to indicate that he's a celebrity. My gut reaction is that Nick Cowen got duped. Or... something. I mean, I can't take the article seriously in the first place because of paragraphs like this:
"In Japan, games producers enjoy celebrity status, while their Western counterparts are considered - at best -successful nerds and- at worst - juvenile delinquents. There, video games are regarded as an art form in their own right; one that sparks fierce debate on internet forums between the occasional and obsessive players."
Yes, Cowen is trying to convince us that angry internet forum arguments are a good way to gauge the cultural importance of video games in Japan, even though there is almost no legitimate evidence to back up his claims. I'm getting sidetracked here. The above article is dumb, but Itagaki is insane.

Take, for example, this 2002 interview with Itagaki from now-defunct XBN magazine, in which the man comes across as some kind of lecherous cyber-pimp:

XBN: A lot of men will buy [Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball] because of the attractive chicks. What is the most risque element you've included in Beach Volleyball?

Itagaki: You'd be surprised, but this is not really a sex game. The girls are beautiful, but I think of them like daughters. They're my babies!

The tone of the review is treacherously maladroit throughout, but the best quote, to me, is near the end.

XBN: Do you consider it normal practice to slag off your competitors?

Itagaki: Okay, let me tell you the real story with that. Back when the original DOA came out, Namco aired a radio commercial insulting the series. As the father of DOA, I will never forget an insult to my family. I will get them back with nuclear missiles more than 100 times for that. I will never forget it.

"I will get them back with nuclear missiles more than 100 times for that" is probably a mistranslation, but is it safe to say that Itagaki's original intent was one of near-total insanity? I'm banking on yes. Bonus points to whoever angrily uses "I will get you back with nuclear missiles over 100 times for that!" in an argument.

Of course, there were also those allegations of sexual harassment back in 2006, but talk about unsurprising.

I'm going to wrap things up with a video from Stephen Totilo's MTV Multiplayer blog, in which Itagaki himself commands us to stop mispronouncing his name, moments after mangling the title of his upcoming DS game "Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword." Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Professor Layton - A Man With a Top Hat

Professor Layton and the Curious Village is a recently-released game for the Nintendo DS from developer Level 5 that attempts to combine a big book full of logic puzzles with a gorgeous adventure game motif. It strays dangerously close to being artificial, hollow and stupid, but it manages to keep all of its wheels on the ground long enough for the whole endeavor to end up being pretty wonderful.

So, hey: most immediately striking to me was the game's art style, which, as a few friends of mine noted, strongly resembles that of The Triplets of Belleville. It's an immediately appealing aesthetic choice, especially considering how eagerly other developers seem to be gravitating towards horrible schlock when it comes to these kinds of things - that's a topic for another day, I think.

Our two protagonists are Professor Layton, who is a man with a top hat, and his ward, Luke. Layton isn't some kind of crime-fighting genius. He's just a smart guy with a reputation. Both he and Luke are big fans of puzzles, which is the important part, because the game takes place in St. Mystere - a town where everyone is obsessed with puzzles.

It's kind of a stupid conceit, because the result is that everyone in town is just a construct, serving only to relay another puzzle to Layton.

"Why not celebrate this fine weather with a puzzle?" says one of the fairly deformed inhabitants of St. Mystere, a man responsible for taking care of the town's long-abandoned amusement park. "Let me tell you one of my favorites."

You are then taken to a completely different screen, where you are told the number of the puzzle (No. 088 in this case), its name, and how many points it's worth when solved. This is the core problem of the game, but also, strangely, why it works so damn well. Even if the adventure game portion ends up being nothing more than window-dressing, the puzzles themselves work so well on their own that you accept the set-up voluntarily. As an example, here's No. 088 itself:
"A tennis ball has rolled its way down into a hole. This particular hole is extremely deep and has a sharp bend in the middle, making the ball impossible to retrieve by hand. To make matters worse, the ground around the hole is made of hard clay, so digging the ball out isn't an option.

However, you have something incredibly commonplace on hand that you can use to get the ball out. What do you use to get the ball out? Answer in five letters."

Feel free to answer in the comments if you think you know the answer!

In-game, you can ask for a hint if you get stuck - each problem has up to 3 that you can use as a last resort, but each hint requires that you use up a "hint coin." Unfortunately, the only way to find hint coins entails tapping every possible point on each screen with your stylus until you randomly find them. Oh, sure, they tried making this fairly reasonable, putting coins in the most visually interesting parts of each screen, but then there are the ones that are hidden in random pixels of floor tiling, and you groan. Even so, the fact that you have to pixel-hunt for objects which have no major influence on the rest of the game means that, even in its failures, Professor Layton and the Curious Village still manages to solve a cardinal flaw in point-and-click adventure games, which frequently required clicking all over a screen for objects required to advance.

Would this game work better as an unadorned series of puzzles? I'm not sure. The huge variety of puzzles (over 130, with a new downloadable puzzle every week) is staggering, and I have a feeling that it would be a little overwhelming without the adventure-game context to keep things moving along. It's flawed, sure, but there's no question that it makes the game significantly more compelling just by being there. Does that make any sense? This is a great game just by the nature of the puzzles themselves. That Level 5 bothered developing a gorgeous adventure game instead of lazily shoehorning all the puzzles into a menu and slapping Professor Emeritus Akira Tago's face on the cover (which, apparently, they were planning on doing originally) is kind of great.

Anyway, even if the characters who give you these puzzles are ridiculous and transparent, Level 5 founder Akihiro Hino promises in this Gametap interview that they totally realized it was retarded and tried to fix it in the sequel, which is already out in Japan and coming out here eventually. Unless the first game bombs miserably in the US, which won't happen because you are running out and buying it right now. If you aren't convinced, you can even go and play a flash demo over at the game's US web site! Yes! Please do this more often, developers!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Lookin' back - Mr. Driller G

Mr. Driller G is the third game in a Namco-developed puzzle game series that seems to have dropped off the face of the map around 2004 or so. The first game in the series, released back in 1999, bombed miserably in the US despite a pretty big push from Namco, but was popular enough in Japan to foster several sequels, only a few of which made it to American shores. Mr. Driller G was not one of those games (it was released for the Japanese Playstation in 2001), but I decided to take a look at it anyway. I'm... regretting it now, but here goes!

The original Mr. Driller's core play mechanics have remained nearly unchanged through the many iterations of the series: starting from the surface, drill through the fruitcake-like depths of the earth to reach a certain depth. Like-colored blocks will stick together and can be drilled away at once, while the brown "x" blocks require more drilling to remove and will also drain your supply of oxygen. Besides these basic rules, the flow of the game consists of rushing to the bottom without being "crushed like a frickin' omelette", while also making sure to pick up oxygen capsules to prevent a case of Surprisingly Adorable Asphyxiation.

Unfortunately for me, Mr. Driller G is a lot like its sequels on the Gamecube, Game Boy Advance and Nintendo DS, which means I don't have a lot to talk about! There's Mission Driller mode, where you start at one of several different cities with the aim of drilling to a specific depth. There's Time Attack Driller, which is pretty self-explanatory. Finally, there's Scenario Driller, which is... pretty boring.

Well, that's not entirely fair! It's got some things going for it, aesthetically. Structurally, it's set up to look like a series of episodes in a hypothetical Mr. Driller cartoon show. What's odd is that it takes some of its stylistic cues from Clutch Cargo, or any cheaply produced work of American television animation from the 50s and 60s, instead of from Japanese animation of the same time frame. They only went halfway, with the voice acting and dialogue being entirely Japanese, but it's an interesting choice, regardless.

Anyway, that's the interesting part. The boring part: Scenario Driller eschews the speed and skill-focused play mechanics of the other game modes. Normally, your oxygen supply decreases at a constant rate, effectively serving as a time limit. In Scenario Driller, however, your oxygen decreases by a set amount every time you drill through a block, and serves as a limit on your movement, instead.

The other big change is the inclusion of "Dristones," which appear a little more often than oxygen capsules, and have a variety of effects - destroying all like-colored blocks on the screen, changing one color block to another, refilling your oxygen, etc.

Unfortunately, their implementation is clumsy. To use a dristone, you have to open up a separate menu and make a selection, which kills any flow the game may have had. The result is stuttering and boring, in addition to being a little unnecessarily time consuming when compared to the rest of the game. Kind of a shame, but I'm sure that there are also people out there who really dig dristone mode. Hmmm.

All the modes are complemented with a really wonderful, almost over-produced soundtrack, courtesy of Go Shigo and Tomoko Tatsuya, the game's sound design guys. They really outdid themselves, to the point where they smartly decided to reuse the music from G in Drill Land, a sequel to this series released on the Gamecube in 2002. And hey, thank goodness, because while there are no videos of G on youtube, there are plenty of Drill Land. It's a very similar game, with a lot of the same music, so it should suffice as a video demonstration of what G's all about.

On Thursday: Professor Layton and the Curious Village gets a stern high-five.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Talkin' 'bout Super Mario Galaxy

I have a pretty big assignment due in my magazine writing class today, so I figured I'd just sum up some of my thoughts about Super Mario Galaxy, which I borrowed from a friend of mine about 2 months ago and just recently finished. Did it live up to all of those brain-burstingly high metacritic scores?

Well, yeah. Mostly.

The biggest issue I had with the game's design is its thoughtless adherence to "lives." That is to say, every time you accidentally send Mario into a black hole or wall of spikes or some other Bad Thing, Charles Martinet screams in his faux-italian accent and "TOO BAD!" hops apologetically onscreen. This is enough, right?

The issue is that following every one of Mario's untimely demises, you get docked a "life" before getting sent back to a recent section of whatever stage you were on. This makes sense for plenty of games - the original Super Mario Bros. and its many sequels (of which Galaxy is a proud member, to some degree) all had the same concept.

Thing is, those early games were all designed around it - the original Super Mario Bros. had a scoring system, and if you ran out of lives your score was reset in addition to sending you back to the beginning of the current world.

In Super Mario Galaxy, though, there's no point - if you die, you're just going to try again, and the game gives you no reason to fear running out of lives outside of the minor inconvenience of having to see a slightly different screen after Mario bites it for the last time. The existence of lives feels so thoughtlessly implemented that I wonder if the developers even seriously considered what they were doing when they put 'em in.

It's made even worse by how generous the game is with 'em. Nearly every time you resume your game, there's a letter waiting for Mario from Princess Peach ("Dear Mario: I'm far away, but it's cool because I know you're coming to rescue me something something") with 5 extra lives inside. Every time you collect 50 star bits, you get an extra life, and I frequently found myself finishing stages with over 150 of the doodads.

Yes, that was the worst thing I could find to say about the game, which was pretty ding-dang magical for nearly its entire duration. When I realized that the other worst thing I could think of saying about the game is that it makes you press the A button too much when exiting from a stage, well.

I'm going to come back and really fix this blog entry up in a few hours, I think. After I take a nap. Yes.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Maaaannn - the new Advance Wars kind of blows

I've been sloowwwly playing Advance Wars: Days of Ruin, the recently released sequel to Intelligent Systems' long-running portable strategy series. Slowly, because despite all the attempts to reinvigorate the long-running strategy franchise with streamlined play mechanics and a faster pace, the result is inexplicably more slow and ugly than any prior entry in the series.

It's also a really cynical attempt to reboot the franchise with a spookier setting and characters more likely to appeal to non-Japanese audiences. This didn't seem like a terrible idea at first glance, but the execution - goodness, it is bad.

The premise at the outset of Days of Ruin is that a world already plagued with war between massive super-powers ends up getting suddenly smacked around by meteors. Nearly everyone dies, and those who survive have to live under massive clouds of smoke and ash.

This is a sorta-interesting premise, but it simply doesn't work for Advance Wars. The core play mechanics of the series have always revolved around the capture of cities. Cities generate revenue, which you then use to produce tanks, planes and boats, and hey - in a world destroyed by meteors, how can there still be tons of cities and factories lying around ready to crank out weapons of war? It simply doesn't make sense.

You can see the game's scenario writers struggling with this obvious problem through the first few maps. Characters lament their inability to find any survivors. All the cities they find have been destroyed. The world is a pockmarked wasteland.

Then you get to the fifth map, and suddenly you done playin' some Advance Wars. All those cities and bases that you couldn't find are suddenly in ample supply - the constraints of the game's design demand it.

Of course, the post-apocalyptic setting also gave Intelligent Systems the chance to create an entirely new cast of characters, nearly all of whom are boring or obnoxious (see image, then groan). It feels like... what was the point, exactly?

Did I mention that the graphics are totally hideous, a mess of browns and purples with weirdly amateurish, overscaled unit graphics during battle animations? Yup.

Prior to the game's release, Nintendo's PR line was that the reasons for the "radical changes" to the game's tone and gameplay all stemmed from the central idea of a creating a faster turn-based strategy game. And hey, that sounded great! My biggest problem with every other game in the series is how quickly maps would degrade into a big slog, with turn after turn after turn of tedious unit management.

So imagine my surprise when Days of Ruin turned out to be even more tedious than the previous games! Yes, there's a new bike unit that can move as quickly as tanks while still being able to capture cities. And yes, battleships can now move and fire in the same turn, making them absolutely terrifying in most situations.

None of these things, as it turns out, makes the game play any faster. I remember the last map in the original Advance Wars taking something like 30 turns the first time I played it. It was an epic slog, but it felt like a fitting conclusion to the campaign.

Map 21 in Days of Ruin, however, took me 32 turns to finish. Map 22 took about 35, and by this point my brain had had enough. I was sick of putting up with the game's annoying nonsense, sitting around in the bowels of Morgan Library between classes playing a game that I frankly wasn't enjoying.

It's a shame, too, because I was hoping for better. I'm always one to give these kinds of things the benefit of the doubt, but in this case Days of Ruin is simply a case of less being less. Bummer.

Oh, and before I forget - out of the ten games I tried playing against other players online using the "play anyone" setting, eight of them cheated in some way. They either had infantry units that dealt 99 damage, or infinite funds. Oops!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

"Until I f---ing die or until I am incapable of doing it anymore.” - No Country for Old Arcades is great

photo credit: Oscar Chang

Geez, the arcade industry in the US is a mess. When was the last time you went to an arcade? Never? The only one left in Fort Collins is that god-forsaken Tilt in the Foothills Fashion Mall, and it's a microcosm for why arcades are dead across the country - the games are all ten years old and broken in some way, the guy at the front desk is surly and unhelpful, and the whole endeavor feels unnecessary and pointless.

So thank goodness that Jared Rea of Gametap decided to start writing No Country for Old Arcades - the first article series I've seen to cover the few remaining worthwhile arcades in the United States with professionalism and a genuine interest.

The first article covers Sunnyvale Golfland, which used to be a testing location for many of the biggest arcade game developers back in the 80s. He speaks to the current owner, Jason Kenny, along with expert fighting game player John Choi, and ends up piecing together the location's importance in video game history, along with some ideas as to why arcades in the US are in their current, sad state.

The second article, on the other hand, focuses its attention on the absolutely insane Keystone II, which is a guy's house. A house with many arcade games in it, but a house nonetheless. The owner, who is referred to only as "Albert," allows a limited number of people - all hardcore fighting game players - to come to his house via reservation on Keystone II's web site. He maintains the machines in his home on a donation basis, and his wife is eerily accepting of the endeavor.

Both articles are excellent pieces of mag writing, so go read them. Rea plans on visiting more great arcades in the coming weeks, and I'm looking forward to seeing what places he digs up and puts in the spotlight. With arcades close to dead in the US (and rapidly moving in that direction in Japan according to a recent Reuters article), they deserve all the attention they can get, y'know?

Friday, February 1, 2008

Iwata Asks, I Froth

For the past eight months or so, has been generating a diabetes-inducing level of hype for Super Smash Bros. Brawl, the just-released-in-Japan sequel to 2001's Super Smash Bros. Melee.

What is there to say about Melee, at this point? It was the Nintendo Gamecube's best selling game, and people are still playing it, casually and seriously, seven years after its release. An exceptional record, to be sure.

I remember thinking it was a wonderful game in 2001, and my appreciation for the game's wide appeal and surprisingly deep play mechanics has diminished only slightly over the past seven years.

Reading the daily updates at, however, put me in a strange state of malaise. Brawl looked like Melee but with more stuff. More characters, mostly boring. More doodads to thoughtlessly collect! More music from more musicians! More modes, including (seemingly crippled) online play and a level editor!

It was this last point that made me begin to think that, more likely than not, Super Smash Bros. Brawl was probably going to be ridiculously great. And yet, strangely, my apathy persisted until this previous Wednesday, when the game saw release in Japan (it doesn't come out in North America until March 9).

Spearheading the game's release was a remarkably interesting PR interview between Satoru Iwata, the current president of Nintendo, and Masahiro Sakurai, the lead director of both Smash Bros. Brawl and its two prequels.

The interview reveals the spur-of-the-moment nature of the game's development, including the surprising fact that, if Iwata hadn't mentioned the possibility of a new Smash Bros. during his speech at E3 in 2005, the game would probably never have been made.
Actually, I was a freelance game developer at the time and had planned to use E3 as a means to gather information on the newest hardware and software and figure out what I would work on next. And then I met up with [Iwata]. I had some other job requests already and had a hard time making up my mind. In the end though, I decided there were no other jobs with the potential that I could get people to be as happy as the Smash Bros. project. After all, it was already clear that lots of people were looking forward to it. So, I decided to accept the project. Or, accepted that I had no choice but to take it.
What's especially interesting to me about this is that Sakurai left Nintendo in 2003 because he was tired of developing sequels and rehashes (see sidebar). Was Sakurai developing this game begrudgingly? Even if he was, some of the information from later in the interview sounded too potentially insane to dismiss:
Let’s talk about music next. The music for the previous Smash Bros. titles was truly amazing, but the music for Smash Bros. Brawl is something else entirely.

You think we went overboard?

Maybe just a bit. (laughs)

Actually, the department that handles contracts and copyrights said this game has thirty games worth of music.

Wow. Sorry for getting so carried away. (laughs)
I know how Sakurai feels, since I intended this blog entry to be about, I dunno, a third of the size that it is now. Let's wrap this one up with a couple of youtube videos - what really sold me on the game, in the end, were the implications of the stage editor.

Next time: A shorter entry!