Archive for October, 2007

Pop Rocks


Of course, about a minute after I finished last week’s post on Gabe Newell, the always fantastic N’Gai Croal posted a chat with Dave Jaffe over at his Newsweek blog, Level Up.

Much like Newell, Dave Jaffe’s no stranger to controversy, and almost always gives us something substantial to think about. He’s put together a resume of AAA titles, from Mickey Mania starring Mickey Mouse (all I can say is, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it) through God of War.

TM2I recall seeing an interview with him promoting Twisted Metal 2 when I was in high school, and he made such a clear, succinct point about design philosophy: “It’s not all about the technology. A good game designer should be able to take a coconut and a crayon and turn it into something that’s fun to play.” I’m sure I’ve heavily paraphrased here, but it still rings true.

Jaffe had some big, big hits during a critical period in the first PlayStation’s march to dominance. Nintendo 64 had launched with a library that certainly had some gaps, and his instant hits like Twisted Metal and the Jet Moto series made people take another look at the then-floundering PlayStation. These series helped Sony find its audience. They were edgy, reasonably violent, fast-paced and even a little bit dark. N64’s cartridges couldn’t handle games like these, and Nintendo probably wouldn’t welcome Twisted Metal even if it were technically possible. Sony’s older audience lapped it up.

Given their history, it’s no suprise that Dave’s new company, Eat Sleep Play, will distribute their games via Sony’s PlayStation Network. What IS surprising is that the man that gave us God of War will eschew the long-form epic game for bite-sized “pop” games that appeal more to the casual gamer. They’ll all have lower price points (around $10), focus on multiplayer over long, solo campaigns and have dramatically shorter development cycles.

Predictably, Dave’s decision to go after low-involvement games, rather than tent pole the studio with a new IP and epic series drew some scorn in forums. Then again, what doesn’t? The most vocal minority of gamers would rather see guys like Jaffe and Tim Shaefer put out more of the massive hits that we’ve come to expect from them every few years.

Much like in-game advertising (much more on this to come in future posts), I think the brilliance of the casual games economy is left tragically unexplained when it comes to hardcore gamers. They’d rather see Nintendo bundle the Wii with Metroid Prime than Wii Sports, and every 360 include Bioshock over more middle-of-the-road fare like a Project Gotham. No one’s done a good job of articulating to the 30-plus-hours-a-week, 20-pieces-of-software-a-year guys how they benefit from the big players’ efforts to go more casual.

KatamariIt’s fairly simple math: games like Wii Sports and Madden move systems. They help justify a $400 hardware purchase to a soccer mom or ex-jock executive that only purchases a handful of games a year. And the more hardware that’s out there, the easier it is to take a risk on a deeper game like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, or even an off-the-wall game like Katamari. Because once the installed base is high enough, the sales expectations for every game on that system increase, within reason.

Maybe Dave Jaffe will finally get it to sink in. Or perhaps Xbox Live Arcade has paved the way for a greater acceptance of mini-games overall. Either way, here’s hoping some ad wizards can get on this, and help the entire industry capitalize on a very ripe growth opportunity.

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Halo3Sometimes, it’s too easy. In the last two weeks, execs in both the network television and feature film industries have found a new boogeyman: Master Chief. While they’re (quite refreshingly) not blaming games for childhood obesity or antisocial behavior in teens, they are blaming sagging TV rating and a terrible weekend take at the box office on the launch of Halo 3. Wow. Just… wow. Where to begin?

There are actually people, who have jobs and desks and everything, that NEEDED TO FIND A REASON why you didn’t watch a half-hour show about the Cavemen from auto insurance commercials. you’ve got to be kiddingSimilarly, many film execs (who make decisions about how to spend billions of shareholder dollars) felt like they NEEDED TO EXPLAIN why nobody ran out to see either a movie where Ben Stiller gets caught in lots of embarrassing, painful situations (and his balls too! comedy!), OR a movie where academy award nominee former pro wrestler The Rock plays a pro quarterback who is forced to learn some (charming!) life lessons from a delightful scamp (Disney!) that he fathered out of wedlock.

I can almost understand why guys in network TV would be puzzled by low ratings for a new batch of crap and, in their blind search for answers, come up with Halo 3. After all, Americans have been breathlessly following karaoke like it’s a sport for a couple years, so clearly the definition of “quality entertainment” has slipped quite a bit. And they managed to keep the lights on after that year where Uncle Buck: the Show (that didn’t involve John Candy) debuted opposite Parenthood, the Series (that didn’t star Steve Martin), so shows about driving to work and child endangerment can’t be THAT bad, right? If nothing else, those TV execs know that Microsoft bought a – I believe the scientific term is “shitload”- of ad time for the launch.

It’s easier to call shenanigans on the movie execs though. It’s a pretty severe cop-out to say Halo 3 kept young males from seeing an R-rated comedy when Superbad had a monster opening weekend ($33,052,411) the same week that Madden ’08 came out, just a month earlier.

Ultimately, this all comes down to quality of content. Movie theaters didn’t go out of business every time a new Harry Potter book came out, and all the major TV networks outlasted major media events like the Death of Superman comics and the summer of 1977, when apparently everyone felt like they needed to see Star Wars multiple times. Perhaps if they put a better product out there, a well-done game like Halo3 wouldn’t seem like such a threat.

There WILL be more great games, and they’ll command every bit as much attention as Halo3. Hollywood had better come up with a better plan, because this industry isn’t going away.

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Next Generation posted yet another excellent, thought-provoking interview with Valve’s Gabe Newell. If you haven’t checked it out yet, I highly recommend it.

NewellGabe’s a persistently good interview, and while I understand he rubs some of us the wrong way (particularly if you happen to love a console that’s in his crosshairs at the moment), there’s always a lot of thought in what he says. You can really tell that he loves the craft and honestly digs making games for people that love games.

A few highlights:

  • The Wii is a big hole in our strategy right now… The Wii is clearly challenging game designers to think very, very differently. The DS did the same thing. When I saw the DS before it shipped, I thought the PSP was going to crush it. ‘What’s this stupid gimmick with the touchscreen?’ As soon as I saw the games that Nintendo did, as a game designer, I went, ‘Oh wow, I totally marginalised these guys incorrectly’.

Just about everyone that followed the DS and PSP launches can identify with this. PSP was billed as the more “grown up” system – it plays movies and MP3s, shipped with a copy of Spider-Man 2, and had a promising launch lineup with entries like Lumines and Wipeout Pure. Hey, I survived that midnight launch too.

The DS couldn’t compare at first blush. A stellar lineup of third- and first-party titles and a huge, active fanbase put the Gameboy’s little brother on the map. Pokemon’s never been my thing, but I can really see the appeal of being able to play anyone, anywhere. And now they’re just dropping AAA titles left and right, across all audiences.

Just like breakfast food or a really good Dave Jaffe interview, there’s lots of nutritious goodness in there. Check it out. Of course, it’s not all wine and roses:

  • I think [PS3 is] a waste of everybody’s time… I don’t think they’re going to make money off their box. I don’t think it’s a good solution.

It’s no surprise to see mud flung in Sony’s direction… but usually it’s coming from someone at Microsoft, or Sega in previous generations. It’s definitely a risk for a guy at such a freewheeling, platform-agnostic shop to say something like that, but there’s a lot of truth here. And hey, when your IP is so stong that you can rtail it under a name like “The Orange Box,” go nuts…

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ThundercatsJerry O’Flaherty, an art director at Epic Games, has been tapped to direct an all-CG Thundercats feature film. Not a terribly surprising development, considering the cinematic presentation of Gears of War, but a good sign for the industry. The fact that talent from a hot studio like Epic is attracting attention in Hollywood really adds an element of legitimacy.

The real question here is, “when will we see the reverse?” Sure, we’ve had names like Spielberg and Peter Jackson dip a toe into the videogame waters, but no one’s really taken the plunge. And I don’t mean the whole “art influenced by” or “consultant to designers” cop-out, but a full-on powerhouse from the world of film, spending a year+ designing a game.

There’s a very specific set of fans that would buy a game that Tim Burton or Wes Anderson were directly involved with (and very likely, the hardware to play it on), but wouldn’t think of touching a piece of “Nightmare Before Christmas” shovelware. Most licensed games based on movies leave a lot to be desired, and it seems like the movies that should inspire games never seem to get the treatment.

Beyond that, movies based on games always end up terrible. Street Fighter, Resident Evil, Super Mario Brothers… all crap. Hopefully, Thundercats will have more going for itBob Hoskins is Mario

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For Those About to Rock…

Mario 2Since shortly after Nintendo launched the Wii, every Monday’s been a mini-holiday for gamers, when the big N reveals that week’s new additions to the Virtual Console. Last week, they satisfied curiosities and made dreams come true with the first all-import batch of VC titles, Sin & Punishment and Super Mario Brothers: the Lost Levels (Japan’s SMB2).

Sin & Punishment is a well done shoot-em-up. Granted, the VC’s not exactly hurting for these (they’ve got Xevious on there, for god’s sake), but Treasure made this one, so it’s worth a download. By the way, if you have a Wii and didn’t download Treasure’s other fantastic offering, Gunstar Heroes, you’re not allowed to continue reading this.

Of course, I couldn’t resist jumping right into the import SMB2. If you’re even a little bit of a nerd (and you’re reading this, so…) you know the whole story about this game. It never came out in the States, we got a version of Doki Doki Panic with the Mario characters shoehorned in instead, our princess was in another castle, etc. I played through it when Nintendo prettied up the graphics and released it in the Super Mario All-Stars collection for SNES here in ’93.

The beauty of having the emulated VC games on the Wii is you’re playing them in their “natural habitat,” as they appeared on their native console. In the case of The Lost Levels, it’s pretty easy to tell, in the first few minutes, why it didn’t see the light of day on the NES over here. Changes in gameplay are minimal at best – Luigi jumps higher than Mario. Graphically, they’re identical. I honestly wonder how this would’ve been accepted among US gamers that had just recently re-opened their hearts to video games after theET madness that Atari (and Drew Barrymore!) wrought.

Honestly, The Lost Levels looks like someone went nuts with a level editor and the original SMB, and not much else. Maybe the 20 years since it’s release are clouding my vision. It’s entirely possible that I’d have lost my mind over this game if it came out in the US when I was 8 years old and starved for more Mario. But, I think it’s safe to say we expect more from our sequels.

Sports franchises aside, we’ve come to expect big improvements out of sequels. Worlds get bigger, characters get more interesting, maybe we even get online multiplayer in the next go-round. If you’ve spent your marketing dollars properly, a solid sequel can break sales records and move hardware. With that said, one killer franchise could go on seemingly forever, with minimal updates to graphics and gameplay, and hardly anyone could complain. Guitar Hero is an absolute blast to play, three installments later. It’s entirely possible that Guitar Hero is the most sustainable franchise ever.GH

We’re only weeks away from Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock. After a flurry of acquisitions in the offseason since GH2, this installation will be the product of a different developer (Neversoft) than the first two — but nobody seems concerned. In contrast, I can’t even imagine what will happen when the inevitable non-Bungie developed Halo game comes out.

The fact is, Harmonix & Red Octane already did the heavy lifting in this series. Because the levels in Guitar Hero are SONGS (that have already been written, recorded, and certified hits), level design is almost a paint-by-numbers affair. Even with the modest starting point of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, there are more than 40 years of rock songs available. Thus, fresh Guitar Hero levels have been waiting on the shelf for 40+ years, designed by everyone from Elvis Presley to Marilyn Manson.

Beyond the stock of readily available levels, Guitar Hero’s appeal is a textbook case in snowballing appeal to casual gamers. As each edition sells more, and garners new fans, more and more bands will allow, and even push for, their music to be licensed for the game. In fact, the Sex Pistols recorded a master track for GH3, and they couldn’t even be bothered to show up for their own Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction. Need more proof? Check out this year’s awesome, something-for-everyone track list:

· Same Old Song and Dance (by Aerosmith)
· Helicopter (by Bloc Party)
· Stricken (by Disturbed)
· Monsters (by Matchbook Romance)
· Before I Forget (by Slipknot)
· Kool Thing (by Sonic Youth)
· When You Were Young (by The Killers)
· Devil Went Down to Georgia (as made famous by Charlie Daniels Band)
· Sunshine of Your Love (as made famous by Cream)
· Holiday in Cambodia (as made famous by Dead Kennedys)
· Cliffs of Dover (as made famous by Eric Johnson)
· Hit Me with Your Best Shot (as made famous by Pat Benetar)
· Black Magic Woman (as made famous by Santana)
· Story of My Life (as made famous by Social Distortion)
· Pride and Joy (as made famous by Stevie Ray Vaughn)
· The Seeker (as made famous by The Who)
· Black Sunshine (as made famous by White Zombie)
· Miss Murder (by AFI)
· Minus Celsius (by Backyard Babies)
· Sabotage (by Beastie Boys)
· Hier Kommt Alex (by Die Toten Hosen)
· Through Fire and Flames (by Dragonforce)
· In the Belly of a Shark (by Gallows)
· Welcome to The Jungle (by Guns N’ Roses)
· Avalancha (by Heroes Del Silencio)
· Take This Life (by In Flames)
· Number of the Beast (by Iron Maiden)
· Ruby (by Kaiser Chiefs)
· Closer (by Lacuna Coil)
· Cult of Personality (by Living Colour)
· One (by Metallica)
· Knights of Cydonia (by Muse)
· Mauvais Garcon (by NAAST)
· Even Flow (by Pearl Jam)
· Lay Down (by Priestess)
· Bulls on Parade (by Rage Against The Machine)
· 3’s and 7’s (by Queens of the Stone Age)
· Suck My Kiss (by Red Hot Chili Peppers)
· Generation Rock (by Revolverheld)
· Raining Blood (by Slayer)
· Cherub Rock (by Smashing Pumpkins)
· Radio Song (by Superbus)
· The Metal (by Tenacious D)
· I’m in the Band (by The Hellacopters)
· Anarchy in the U.K. (by The Sex Pistols)
· Reptillia (by The Strokes)
· Paint It Black (by The Rolling Stones)
· My Name is Jonas (by Weezer)
· Slash’s Original Boss Battle Recording
· Tom Morello’s Original Boss Battle Recording
· School’s Out (as made famous by Alice Cooper)
· Paranoid (as made famous by Black Sabbath)
· Cities on Flame (as made famous by Blue Oyster Cult)
· Slow Ride (as made famous by Foghat)
· Barracuda (as made famous by Heart)
· Rock and Roll All Nite (as made famous by Kiss)
· Mississippi Queen (as made famous by Mountain)
· Rock You Like a Hurricane (as made famous by Scorpions)
· La Grange (as made famous by ZZ Top)

While I haven’t had the pleasure of playing GH3 yet, be sure to check back for impressions later this month.

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GunpeiAs I write this, today marks the 10th death anniversary of Gunpei Yokoi. I actually had no idea who he was until I saw an obituary (I’m fairly sure it was in an issue of Nintendo Power) shortly after his tragic death in ’97. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, I highly recommend RobotBling’s video tribute to him (via Kotaku).

Yokoi was responsible for some of the sharp hardware ideas that became Nintendo signatures. He created the awesome Game & Watch handheld LCD game series, which was the first Nintendo device to feature the four-way rocker switch controller that would become the heart of the NES controller.Game Watch

They have a neat collection of these at the Nintendo World Store in Rockefeller Center. It’s certainly worth a look if you happen to be in NYC, especially if you’ve never seen a Game & Watch up close – if nothing else, it’s interesting to see how much that design influenced the look of the DS and DS Lite handhelds.

The Game Boy is perhaps the most well-known Gunpei Yokoi creation, and it’s not difficult to see why. It made Tetris a household game, got grown men and women (some without any kids) to pick up a game for the first time, and sold a ton of hardware and software throughout its various iterations.

Yokoi left Nintendo after designing the Game Boy Pocket, but his design philosophy clearly drove the entire project form start to finish. Of course, it’s hard to tell really where that “finish” is just yet, as there are still Game Boy Advance SP’s being sold out there, nearly 20 years after the Game Boy was originally introduced.

Of course, they can’t all be hits. The Yokoi-designed ROB (the Robot Operating Buddy… remember this guy?) and the Virtual Boy never really caught on. Personally, I admire the guy as much for his failed projects as the ones that worked out.

I didn’t know anyone that actually had ROB growing up. He came in at a pretty high price point, only worked with two games (Stack-Up and Gyromite), and you still had to use a controller to keep ROB in sync with what was happening onscreen. Still, ROB allowed Nintendo to deliver on the critical NES launch in the US – it looked like a toy, and helped differentiate the NES from the various Atari and Intellivision decks that were choking bargain bins in the early 80’s.

I’d even go so far as to say ROB was ahead of its time. A product of the 80’s, it relied on noisy motors to move, and a less-than-stellar solution to optically recognize what was happening onscreen. With today’s technology, a ROB that worked much better could be delivered for a fraction of the cost. After all, the Wii remote’s sensor bar allows it to relay spatial data back to the Wii flawlessly.

Beyond the simple mechanics of ROB, I’d argue that the CONCEPT behind it is very much in play today. At it’s core, the whole point of ROB is to use a fun, physical connection to the game to draw in a user that might be intimidated by the NES’s standard-issue gamepad. Isn’t that what made Guitar Hero such a rousing success? And Dance Dance Revolution? The Wii? You’d be hard pressed to find a games-related article in the mainstream press this year that doesn’t at least pay lip service to the rapid growth of the casual games market, and the mainstreaming of people that describe themselves as “gamers.”

Yokoi’s other big boo-boo was the Virtual Boy. It became the butt of jokes almost immediately after launch, with a red-and-black stereoscopic display, limited game library and awkward, isolated play style.V Boy

Yes, it’s easy to pile on the Virtual Boy. But I think this red quasi-portable tabletop system is a shining example of the “blue ocean” philosophy that drives Nintendo today, 11 years before Reggie Phils Aimes made that concept known to the world. It wasn’t designed in response to something Sega had in development, and it didn’t improve on any existing hardware with a bunch of great looking sequels.

The big N took a risk on unique concepts like Virtual Boy and ROB, and they didn’t pay off. But could a company that’s not willing to move the Virtual Boy through R&D ever introduce a system as radically different as Wii? From Miyamoto to Will Wright and everyone in between, this industry’s giants have succeeded on vision and ingenuity. Clearly, Nintendo wouldn’t be where they are today if not for Yokoi’s particular brand of vision from the beginning.

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Why Liquid Architecture?

Welcome to the Liquid Architecture blog. I actually won’t use this blog to discuss liquids OR buildings, so if that’s what you’re looking for… you’re in the wrong place.Sydney

“So why call it Liquid Architecture then, you insufferable jerk!?” Hey, people have been referring to comics as “funny books” forever, and they’re usually neither funny nor books. So, y’know, get off my back. But I digress.

The phrase “liquid architecture” in this case refers to videogames – or at least, the potential games have to effect us, experientially. A bit of a leap? Of course, but check this out – Johann Wolfgang von Goeth famously sad, “Architecture is frozen music… Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music.” Lots of smart men (and women) agreed with him, and it makes sense.

After all, music and architecture are both very personal (even profound at times) labors that their creators share with the public. And while music is a “moving” art form that is constantly being rewritten and reworked (Bruce Springsteen covered Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl,” and so on…), architecture is frozen. Not that it’s a bad thing, but architects don’t perform “covers.” The guys that designed the NYC skyline on the Vegas strip didn’t re-imagine Gotham’s iconic structures – they merely made a hotel/casino shaped like them.NY Casino

I’m certainly not the first to link videogames to this chain. Supposing that architecture is frozen music, it follows that playing games is a similar experience to viewing architecture, only more fluid. Players can move through a game at their own pace (just like walking through a building or reading a book), and the experience is designed by developers, just like authors, film directors, and yes, architects. However, players’ INPUT is essential. Gaming is a truly participatory medium, and players tailor their experience within the worlds developers create. The gaming experience “flows,” as alternating pressures are applied from the developer onto the player, and the player in turn “pushes back.” We solve puzzles, defeat bosses, learn terrain, and gain the upper hand.

So there you have it. Welcome to Liquid Architecture.

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