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Archive for the ‘serious games’ Category

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s attitude toward the industry in the past, so I have a responsibility to point out that the administration seems to be getting it.  Last week, he announced the National STEM Video Game Challenge.  It’s the latest in a line of very worthy programs that challenge young students with designing an educational video game.

With some brilliant minds behind it and an excellent group of sponsors, it’s a great program with national scale.  I just hope there’s more where that came from. It kills me to hear about the plummeting interest level in math and science among school-age children, and then hear “these darn video games” blamed for it in the same breath.  Game development is not only the most sought-after career for young people in this country, it’s also a very demanding pursuit of math and science based disciplines.  Harnessing the passion for this industry should be a no-brainer for educators.

My own alma mater, Michigan State, launched an ambitious game design program only a few years after I graduated.  Of course, I’m envious of the lucky Spartans that came after me. Many, many other universities are currently offering or exploring a similar program. We still haven’t seen a University establish itself as THE game design school in the US, so there is certainly some work to do in marketing these degree programs to prospective students.  And it’s up to high school and middle school administrators (throw in K-8 while you’re at it) to make sure their pupils are prepared for them.

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bstnalbumcoverAmid all of last week’s fanfare (particularly in mainstream press) surrounding The Beatles: Rock Band release, I missed this gem – a gubernatorial proclamation from Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick making last Thursday (9.9.09) Video Game Innovation Day.

I work in marketing, and have seen my fair share of appreciation days, town takeovers, and key-to-the-city fluffy publicity stunts.  I mean, just look at some of the language in Patrick’s decree!  But Boston walks the walk in this case.  They’ve managed to retain a healthy amount of area university grads, and stay in the conversation by nurturing hot startups (like 38 Studios and pre-Guitar Hero Harmonix)  and larger studios (2K Boston).  They even flirted with the idea of tax incentives for developers last summer, and will likely revisit the issue in some form in the future.

The longer this industry weathers the economic storm, the smarter state and local officials look in investing in its future for their constituents.  There are some promising first steps to attract talent in Georgia, Louisiana, and my desperately cash-strapped home state of Michigan.  With the right participation at the University level, those investments may bear fruit and incubate a living, breathing development community between the coasts.  There are even some promising first steps being taken to organize devs in NYC.  California and Washington can only satisfy the talent needs of such a robust industry for so long.  Where will the next industry hotbed be?

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As longtime readers of the blog will recall, Liquid Architecture is for the children (not unlike Wu Tang).  With that in mind, I’d like to invite all the NYC-area readers to this year’s edition of Funde Razor.

For the fourth year in a row, Joel Johnson (of Boing Boing and the very awesome Offworld) has put together an event that combines rocking, drinking, and helping out some very sick, scared children.  This year’s Funde Razor will be held on Wednesday, December 10 and once again feature the most impressive pretend rock stars in the tri-state area, along with the door prizes and good times that have combined to raise over $12,000 in the last three years.  Participants will be judged on style points (a first), so this year WILL be awesome, without a doubt.

Where: Village Pourhouse
Address: 64 Third Avenue at 11th Street, New York, NY [Google Map]
When: Wednesday, 7PM to Midnight. (The raffle and prizes should be wrapped up earlier.)
Age: 21 and over.
Price: Free, but bring money for raffle tickets and donations!
Hosts:: Joel Johnson of Boing Boing and Offworld, Miguel “Smeeguel” Molinari and Jennifer Boere of RockGamer.com

Of course, readers in the Denver and Bay areas will want to check out simultaneous events in their locales.  If you can’t make it to an event on the tri-city tour, please consider a donation at Child’s Play .  As you’re no doubt aware, it’s been a tough year across the board for not-for-profits.  For the price of two new games, you could help one of Child’s Play’s network hospitals put one more DS into a patient’s hands, or put some new games and controllers into their library.

Thanks and have a terrific holiday!

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Just in case you missed it, be sure and check out the excellent piece on Spore in the NY Times by Yale fellow and renowned scientist Carl Zimmer.  The Times is hardly ever wanting for quality games journalism, with Seth Schiesel on staff and even the occasional think piece from Steven Johnson in the Sunday Magazine.  But Zimmer’s exploration of Spore is a real gem, because he treats Spore with the same level of respect as any entry in any medium that has the potential to bridge the gap between livingroom and classroom.

I’m sure that one day the medium will mature to the point that stories like this will become commonplace, but for now it’s a high watermark for games coverage in mainstream press.  Also, Zimmer’s piece mentions How to Build a Better Being, a Discovery Channel special that airs next Tuesday (and will come packed in with the special editionof Spore).  As I said before, Will Wright’s showing up in force to promote Spore. We should all enjoy it while it lasts.

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Endless OceanFor all the good press the Wii gets, you hardly ever hear about third party Wii games moving anywhere near the clip that the big N’s games sell regularly. No More Heroes developer Suda 51 made some waves when he pointed it out (then abruptly “clarified” his comment), but as a consumer, it’s hard to get up in arms over this.

Nintendo got updates to its big 3 franchises out in a timely fashion, and they’re all fantastic. By all accounts, the best stuff out there for the system so far. And if Japanese sales are any indicator, they could have another hit on their hands when Wii Fit comes stateside. All tolled, 11 of the 14 Wii games that sold more than a million copies are homegrown Nintendo titles. But the House that Shiggy built isn’t entirely unsympathetic.

In their third fiscal quarter report (released last week), Nintendo pointed out that first-party games also dominated the DS sales charts early in that systems life cycle, but some clever third-party development has normalized that library over the last year and a half. In fact, the DS probably wouldn’t be the king of the mountain if not for nifty games like Capcom’s Phoenix Wright series, Advance Wars, and genre-benders like Hotel Dusk and the soon-to-hit-stateside Proffessor Layton.

Endless Ocean logbookEveryone should be breathing a little easier with last week’s release of Endless Ocean for the Wii. It hits all the sweet spots that Nintendo’s Wii games have: it’s exclusive to the Wii, sports a simple control scheme, and most importantly, appeals to the elusive “non-gamer” that’s driven the surge in Nintendo hardware sales lately.

Quite simply, Endless Ocean has “It.” Honestly, it’s tough to really call this a “game.” Endless Ocean has objectives and rewards, but I wouldn’t a call the scuba dive excursions “missions” exactly. The progress just doesn’t seem to matter much here, and this is a rare case where that’s a good thing. Endless Ocean’s more of an experience. The sea floor exploration, minimal HUD, and rhythm of your scuba create a calming, even therapeutic feeling.

EOA few minutes into Endless Ocean, I was reminded of a recent interview with Chris Taylor, a developer at Gas Powered Games: “When I ride the lawnmower I don’t think about steering and cutting grass… I think about life. I think about work. I think about things I have to do. I recharge – charge my batteries up.” Just like mowing the lawn, I found myself drifting away, barely even thinking about the game.

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Disney Magic Connection

In a handy followup to my last post, Disney just began testing the DS Lite as an interactive guide to the Magic Kingdom.  Dubbed the “Disney Magic Connection,” the custom application, built into a DS retrofitted with a GPS unit, features an interactive map with ride wait times, directions to restrooms and ATM’s, even trivia and games.

This looks like an ideal scenario to show how useful the DS can be as a virtual tour guide.  Hopefully you’ll be able to use your own DS once the program’s finally out of beta.

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You don’t need me to tell you 2007 was a banner year for Nintendo. More than a year after its release, the Wii’s still not sticking to shelves. While the delay on Smash Brothers Brawl was a big disappointment to more hardcore gamers, this year’s new entries in the Zelda, Mario and Metroid franchises kept everyone satisfied, provided they could get their hands on a Wii.

Perhaps the big N’s most impressive feat in ’07 was almost single-handedly saving game and hardware sales in Japan, where they’ve been on a rough slide the last few years. Once the epicenter of the industry, rabid use of cell phones as an all-in-one entertainment device, a heavily mobile population and rising popularity of US-developed titles (think Halo, Guitar Hero, and pretty much any big hit on the Xbox 360) all led to the decline of console gaming in the land of the rising sun.

Japan Wii launchJust like the rest of the world, the Wii got a warm reception in Japan, and Wii titles were consistently top 10 sellers in Japan all year long. But everyone’s favorite little white box is only part of the story here.

What’s particularly interesting about the resurgence of gaming in Japan is that it’s due in large part to obscenely brisk sales of Nintendo DS hardware and software. For those scoring at home, the DS debuted way back in 2004, and is widely considered underpowered in comparison to Sony’s PSP. The almost always spot-on analyst Michael Pachter even called it a “kid’s toy “ recently, even after the sexy hardware refresh that is the DS Lite.

Just like the Wii, the DS’ unique hardware means developers have a lot more to work with than raw power. We’ve seen some plenty of neat in-game applications in DS games, from use of the touch screen in Trauma Center to “blowing out” candles via the built-in microphone in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. But it’s the innovative “non-games,” like foreign language instructional cartridges (using the microphone to check pronunciation), brain trainers, and interactive cookbook titles that have really caught fire in Japan.

There’s lots of room to grow in the “non-game” arena, and I’m certainly intrigued to see what else developers can come up with. Which is why I was particularly heartened to see Nintendo Pres Saturo Iwata say, “We don’t need to stick to a narrow definition of games.” With the explosion in public wi-fi in recent years, it would be especially worthwhile to develop light, location-specific content that could be downloaded to the DS.

marinersWe’ve seen minor demos of location programming at The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, and a really cool interactive menu/instant replay/trivia system at Safeco Field in Seattle. Here’s hoping that Nintendo’s ownership the Mariners organization makes Safeco the testing ground for a larger rollout in every MLB park. But why stop there?

Every public library in the country could make an interactive card catalog, with a book location assistant, available via wi-fi on the DS. And every museum could stream interactive maps to the DS’ touch screen for self-guided tours with detailed info on each exhibit. The low-fi graphics of the DS would keep everything accessible for a wide range of audiences, the battery life on the DS Lite is long enough for at least 3 back-to-back museum visits (even in the labyrinthine Met), and just imagine the additional revenue stream for institutions to rent out loaner DS Lites to unprepared patrons.

At the very least, will someone please, PLEASE develop a wireless, DS-compatible wedding registry program? The current handheld systems at your finer Williamson-and-Barrel Wedding-Barn places are heavy, monochrome bastards with no graphics (just text!) and Atari-era sounds, that are just designed to ensure you make every mistake possible. If they streamed pictures of your registry items to your DS as you touch-screened in your selections, you could at least tell if you are, in fact, registering for the okra or green tea towels. C’mon guys, this isn’t rocket science!

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