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Saturday, August 20, 2005

BatJack Game Controller

Get them while they're hot, or at least until Thompson threatens a lawsuit.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Online Muggings

The Register reports that a man has invented an invincible software bot in Lineage II for the sole purpose of mugging people, taking their goods and then selling them to auction.

Cybercrime, I hardly know you anymore. It used to be that you would just bother yourself with the occasional buffer overflow or improperly secured database. Now. Now it's come to this.

The Real Cost of the 360?

Kotaku points out that for some people, the real price tag for the 360 is pretty high. He adds up his list of components and comes up with a $640 checkout, w/o tax ... and that's before buying any additional games. I wondered about the same and came up with an almost identical number. I don't have an XBox, so I pretty much need the HD to play earlier games. Without wireless, there's no point in trying to get it online at my place (honey, can you hand me that 50 foot ethernet cable? honey, stop beating me with that 50 foot ethernet cable ... ) and I obviously need Live as well. So with a game and everything, I'd be looking at around $700 to be all XBox'd for Xmas.

In a sign of true kismet, I have a PC coming in from eBay for far less than that, even including shipping. The box was a real find considering it's better than the one I broke in nearly every concievable way except that it's only a P4. It is, however, a custom plexiglass rig ... so it's sufficiently pimped for at least a year or so.

Cannot Stop Me With Paramecium Alone! has yet another great list of Engrish in games (thanks insertcredit). In college, we'd play Forgotten Worlds when we were really drunk, and found parameciums to be hilarious.

This Kingdom Doesn't Rule

I had high hopes for Graffiti Kingdom, the PS2 game where you draw up your own monsters to do battle. It sounded like such great divergent gameplay , but unfortunately it just doesn't shine:

Until you do, "Graffiti Kingdom" is pretty boring. At its most basic, the game is a plodding, uninspired beat-'em-up with lousy controls, sometimes repetitive dungeon-style environments and frustrating jumping puzzles.

While the enemies are widely varied and brilliantly designed, they tend to follow the same basic strategies, and beating up on them gets old, no matter how bizarre or unique they are. They aren't exactly intimidating, either, running a broad gamut that ranges from little flappy puffball things to Tinkertoy-looking dragons.
-- ...Kingdom isn't worth ruling

This review, and most others, agree it's worth a rental ... but that's about it. This kinda shows the downside to trying innovation in a title. As Unfettered Blather pointed out, it's not just the idea that counts, but how well you can make it dance as well.

Swedish Game Research Review

Because back in April we were still jolly, carefree and thinking that the whole world loved electronic toys, I think this Swedish study on video games went largely unnoticed:

Lager and Bremberg reviewed 30 studies from around the world that explored what effect video and computer games had on children's intelligence, aggression and weight. "We looked at how games affected spatial abilities, reaction time, aggressive play, thoughts, feelings and behaviour," says Lager.

They discovered strong evidence to suggest video and computer games are, in fact, good for you. "All the studies that looked at spatial thinking showed computer games have a positive effect," says Lager. "Playing also reduces children's reaction times."

The study discounts the link between games and violent behaviour or aggressive feelings — although a child who has been playing a violent computer game is more likely to pick up a toy sword or toy gun than a child who hasn't, according to the report.

So much for the "debate being over", as certain paranoid lawyers have tried to declare. The problem that people have is that guys like Thompson have raised the bar so high on what video games can do that it's meaningless. The witch-hunt is constantly trying to assert that video games are related to violent crimes, and yet not court nor researcher seems to agree with them anywhere on the planet.

And yet - I don't think many people would disagree that a fourteen year old shouldn't play Manhunt. Since the majority of kids of are playing Manhunt got the game from an adult, why is it so hard to ask the question ... why are parents still buying this for their kids and how can we stop it?

As long as the witch-hunt continues to blame retailers and tries to make wild associations like linking games to murder, this debate will never get back to anything resembling rational.

Update: Apparently Jason a la IGDA got punted from an NPR show on the topic. What goes on here? Is there any bit of the mainstream media willing to have an honest debate about this?

Stargate Round 2: Namco jumps in

According to Gaming Horizon, Namco has agreed to publish Stargate SG-1: The Alliance and has even put up a web page for the game. Interestingly, JoWood's logo appears on that page, possibly meaning that the ownership issue has been far from removed.

The heart of the issue here, of course, is money. Perhaps Namco can grease the wheels enough to make JoWood and Perception play nice?

Update: Rumor mill has it that Namco was part of the equation all along.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Halo 2 Goes Multi-Team

Hot off the heels of me complaining about the two team limit in FPS games, Bungie apparently seeded a viciously smart but slightly unstable AI into the past to remember to post this just in time:

But the really big news is that our next set of Matchmaking Playlist updates (which is roughly scheduled for September) has some cool oddities in it. Multi-Team! This whole playlist revision will be among our most significant Playlist updates to date, because it introduces a bunch of new stuff, rolls in the new maps, and makes some tweaks to the starting weapons in a number of instances.

Multi-Team, in this instance will largely consists of 4 teams per game, with 3 players per team (3v3v3v3).
-- Bungie Weekly Update 8/12

When pressed about why they would do such an insidious thing, Bungie had this to say for themselves:

Variety is a large key to Halo 2's multiplayer success, and support for multiple teams adds new dimension to the gameplay experience. Modes like Capture the Flag become much more interesting as four teams vie for one prize, turning the battle into an absolute frenzy.
(thanks Sara!)

Four team games have bounced around the mod communities for a while, but it's nice to see Bungie take this step for Halo 2. Moves like this make me think again that Quake 4 only having basic DM and CTF setups may not be enough to capture the online crowd these days. Course, Enemy Territory is sounding very sweet.

Thanks to Tony D. ButtonMasher for giving me a heads-up that Bungie was adding these modes.

That Rag Fu That You Du So Well

Outside Looking In has a brief sitdown with the maker of Rag Doll Kung Fu.

The Price Wars, Begun Have They

As most probably already know, Microsoft has taken the what-some-might-call-bold move of releasing multiple editions of the 360. $299 for the "cheap" and $399 for the "not so cheap". Meanwhile, Kutagari has announced that Sony will start accepting loan applications for the pre-purchase of a PlayStation 3. Please have three forms of identification and a pay stub handy if you please.

So what is going on here? Well, one thing gamers have to remember is that the first XBox was by far the most subsidized game console in the history of game consoles. Microsoft may have achieved their sales and market goals, but they took a big bath of red stuff in the process. Their stated desire was to make the XBox division profitable by it's third generation. So obviously, the second generation has the pretty hefty task of making the division at least a little less crimson.

Hence, a more expensive system with more expensive upgrades. Sony signalling that they're willing to ask a decent chunk of change for their next set of hardware has undoubtably opened the playing field a little bit as well. However, since Microsoft is first to the diving board, they appear unwilling to remove the historical $299 price point from the table. So we get two editions.

In some ways, it's pretty smart. Provided that the "Core System" can be upgraded to have the same abilities as it's bigger brother, it might allow early adopters to step in without the additional $100 entry fee. The 20GB on the expanded system alone is worth $99, so the additional wireless controller, headset, Live account and HD cabling make the $399 a pretty reasonable amount for a bundle. On the other hand there's the extra confusion that the $299 setup isn't really $299. Without a hard drive, you'll have to at least get a memory card, and they're around $40. So you really have a bundle for $339, without a HD and extras, and a bundle of $399. The $60 spread there hardly seems worth the additional trouble.

I wonder if Microsoft has studied it's history well enough. Add-on systems have sold notoriously poorly for consoles. Sega tried it several times with absolute failure and the concept of an add-on hard drive has almost become an industry joke. This setup means that developers can't rely on gamers having a hard drive ... severely limiting it's functionality as a game add-on ... and we still haven't heard anything from Microsoft about HD-DVD ... but the last rumor was that it might be an after-market add-on as well.

By creating a lowball market, it seems Microsoft is selling the hard drive short. Not to mention things like WiFi and high density media. If the market can't fully bear down on the technology because they can't be sure of the audience, the consumers might not have much demand on it. If all the hard drive can do is hold media ... well, people already have an iPod for that these days.

The XBox 360 will sell well, I'm sure. In either configuration, it's an extremely powerful Media PC for the living room and offers cutting-edge gaming at bargain prices, even for four Franklins. Still, tiering the platform feels like a misstep and an opportunity for Sony and Nintendo to score a few points. If they can offer a solid package that's simpler for consumers and developers - they can probably still ask for more than $299 and win out here.

Course, last I checked the PlayStation 3 would bundle it's HD seperately as well, so maybe this is simply new age of configurable consoles.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

RoundTable: Innovation In First Person Shooters

Corvus chose a topic rather dear to my heart with this roundtable. When I first moved to Chicago for a job I started to get interested in getting back into modifications and mapping and the like. I even mapped out the office for both Half-Life and Unreal Tournament, the two games we LAN'd frequently at ... er, after work. This was pre-Counter-Strike (well, technically almost the exact same time ... I think I downloaded Beta 3 after a year on the job) and modding was still pretty underground and certainly not any kind of commercial factor.

I partnered up with one of the programmers and we started to work on what we thought would be a decent twist for online gaming. It was going to be a class-based online sci-fi shooter, a kind of humans versus aliens, with the twist that the alien side would win if they "converted" all the humans and the humans would win if they exterminated the alien hive.

We never got past the design phase, but about a year later I decided to go ahead and write Bounty War for Unreal Tournament. Since then, I haven't really been able to play shooters without wanting to tinker with them. It's kind of a curse of modding, once you really get it into the system ... you half expect every game to ship with a few open classes and a compiler.

My personal belief is that the FPS genre is one of the more stagnant out there, and largely it's been mods which have pushed most of the innovation forward. Class-based gameplay? I think that dates back to Future V Fantasy, and definately crystalized in Team Fortress. User Economy? Counter-Strike. Capture the Flag? Threewave. Most of the mainstays of the FPS games we play today came from user modifications which the industry adopted. Heck, I put out Containment way before Epic added Invasion to UT2004 and it was among two or three similar offerings at the time.

Now, however, mods aren't as interested in pushing the envelope. Because most mod teams these days are large and desire to break into the industry, mods have also increasingly started to fall to market demands. Mods have become larger and have much better asset creation than ever before, but they've also become more derivative and less innovative. That's certainly not intended to be a blanket statement, there are some trends worth noting that I'll get to in a moment, but for the most part it seems that first person shooters have lost the majority of the creative spark which mods granted. Fact is, it's a lot easier to be creative when you know you can't make a profit.

Worst thing is ... I'm not sure there is a solution that. The industry has adopted mods as a recruiting tool and as a value-add marketing concept. It would be neat to see something like Epic's Make Something Unreal focus primarily on innovation rather than a "whole package" approach, but I don't foresee that happening soon. Studios want to preview talent, not ideas, these days.

What are gamers missing out on? Where could shooters be going? I haven't skulked around the mod forums much recently, but these were the kinds of things I wish studios would play around with more:

Cooperative Play
Not just in terms of a fancier single player or more people online at once, but real coop mechanics. Use the concepts of team play but focus on the social dynamics of the team. A truly cooperative survival horror is a concept just waiting to be perfected.

Beyond Red Versus Blue
The two team concept of online shooters is rapidly becoming wholly ingrained. Pro-gaming has made it even more desirable so that clear winners are available.

But it's an unfortunate limitation. I wrote Riftwar specifically to test out three team mechanics for the Total Conversion I was working on (that never saw the light of day). Three teams instantly raises the level of chaos for an online game and for a class-based game like Riftwar, it added a another layer of depth and variety.

Even more desirable would be ad hoc teams. Design a game where people are allied on the fly rather than divided equally. Instead of modelling the game after a football field, model it after a city - where players team up to achieve a common goal ... and betray each others just as easily.

Player Customization
Class-based play allows players to choose from a pre-set group of options. Economy based play allows players to pick and choose from select options. There's a next step in this evolution, I think, where players are allowed even more RPG style control over what their avatar can do and how. Deus Ex style augments, stat boosters, whatever ... there's few games out there that really lets you "roll your own".

So much of shooters depend on multiplay for replayability. Once you get done with the "story" you apparently go into the "arena". Story's over, start fragging your friends. Naturally there's a lot of reason for this - but how come nobody has tried to do a non-linear shooter with say, random areas or missions?

Genre Mashup
Natural Selection and Savage proved you could combine RTS and shooter aspects. Deus Ex showed us you could do RPG elements. What else is waiting for someone to try and combine?

Modal Play
I had forgotten about this one. Freehold had a convention called Navi's which allowed people to swap between abilities (the Navi would adjust it's own abilities) and you could also adjust your shield. Shields in Freehold didn't degenerate, they just lowered damage ... but higher shields would slow you down. Most games you have to swap out inventory or swap classes to adjust your play style, whereas modal play allows you to do it on-the-fly, in the middle of the game.

Well, that's the rant. Currently the FPS genre seems mostly interested in making really pretty CG movies that you can blow stuff up in. And I'm all for that. But I also think that there is so much more. Sorry folks, I don't find a new physics engine to be all that innovative (or another gun or TK power that simply uses it), or another kind of rendering, or another trick to hide polygons. Yeah, OK, they are definately important technical achievements - but they won't be pushing the genre forward as an experience nearly as much as someone who expirements with the gameplay itself.

As a fun game, feel free to name a shooter and I'll offer how I'd tinker with it. I haven't played them all, simply most.

Der Roundtable:

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

IGDA Gets Sexah

IGDA has added a Sex SIG to their lineup, which for the new kids is old man parlance for blog. It's a relatively serious and upfront look at sexuality in games today and the issues surrounding it. In other words, it's probably the worst porn blog on the net. One of their first posts link to the ESRB's current list of nudity in games. I didn't realize that Indigo Prophecy has "Blood,Partial Nudity,Sexual Themes,Strong Language,Use of Drugs and Alcohol,Violence". I'm so getting that game.

It's a keyboard .... with lasers ...

Well, it's not quite the 3D holographic display I'd like ... but the Virtual Laser Keyboard is pretty close:

The Virtual Keyboard uses light to project a full-sized computer keyboard onto almost any surface. Used with Smart Phones and PDA's, the VKB provides a practical way to do email, word processing and spreadsheet tasks, allowing the user to leave the laptop computer at home. VKB observes the user's finger movements to interpret and record keystrokes. Since the virtual keyboard is an image projected in light, it completely disappears when not in use.

Sounds kinda handy, and the $200 price tag isn't too unreasonably for device which will outgeek nearly every other keyboard on the block. ( thanks OhGizmo! )

This Space Is Desperate

Apparently Jagged Blade Software released Desperate Space, which is a kind of mission based Asteroids, although I do see a severe lacking of asteroids in the screenshots. It be for Windows only, so I can't try it out. But it's free. It sounds very similar to some of the things I'm working on with UAC, but it does have the distinct advantage of being playable and available, I'll grant it that. (thanks

Monday, August 15, 2005

As Long As I've Got Serenity

The Girl and I spent a lot of time in the land of Sci-Fi this weekend. It pretty much consisted of Red Dwarf, Destroy All Humans, StarGate, Destroy All Humans, Battlestar, sleep, Destroy All Humans, Destroy All Humans, Firefly, Destroy All Humans, Constantine (much better than I expected), Destroy All Humans, sleep, Destroy All Humans, Teenagers From Outer Space, Firefly, Firefly, sleep.

Did I mention that we finished Destroy All Humans? We did.

Anyway, we've been re-watching all of Firefly. Actually, we finished that this weekend too, started from when Seth was visiting. Firefly is up there with Sports Night for a show I'll be able to rewatch literally an infinite number of times. I have mixed feelings about the upcoming movie. I am certainly damn glad to get it, but nothing will compare to, well as Whedon put it, the 190 page epic which was essentially Season Two and his first attempt at a movie script.

I guess if Serenity makes about $80 mill it will be up for consideration for sequels. I'll be doing my part.

Talk To Me, Jamie Kane

While aware of the BBC ARG Jamie Kane, I hadn't paid much attention until Boing Boing reported of it's invasion on the Wikipedia. ARGs are kinda weird beasts on their own right and often require a bit of role-playing from the players so seeing an overzealous fan try to update the real world with a fictional one, isn't really odd at all.

Kane also apparently has an element of ELIZA to it, pushing elements of the story via AI chatterbots. Somewhere out there exists a proper mixture of text adventure and text messaging, and it seems Kane is moving the goalstick out a bit.

Not sure if I'll dip in or not. ARGs are kinda hard to get into and even harder to get out of and I've got no idea if I have the time for that right now.

Update: Registered. Talk to a chatterbot acting like a 19yo boy band fan, which I gotta say is a bit of a barrier. The subject material isn't just IM culture orientated, but teen band orientated as well ... and I'm not really much of a member of either.

The chat was semi-convincing. Clearly a lot of hard work went into it, but it wasn't like "Jess" isn't capable of making a few stumbles. Turing's going to have to wait a little longer I guess. The trendy thing for describing HCI these days is declaring residency in the Uncanny Valley, and well ... the chat was definately somewhere between intrusive and casual.

The Terror Of Video Games

And here I thought video games were just violent forms of media capable of creating an entire army of child assassins. Boy, was I ever niave:

Iqra not only sold hatemongering Islamist literature, but, according to The Wall Street Journal, was "the sole distributor of Islamgames, a U.S.-based company that makes video games. The video games feature apocalyptic battles between defenders of Islam and opponents. One game, Ummah Defense I, has the world 'finally united under the Banner of Islam' in 2114, until a revolt by disbelievers. The player's goal is to seek out and destroy the disbelievers."
-- Thomas Friedman, Giving the Hatemongers No Place to Hide

Great. Talk about focusing on the negative. Not that video games can't be designed to deliver political or religious messages, mind you. Although I find it interesting that even Friedman's description is meant to scare us ... although I don't see much difference between what he describes and a game about the Rapture. Pretty much ends the same for disbelievers, now doesn't it?

Worse, according to Slate - the game isn't even overtly religious in theme:

If you ignore the titles of the Ummah Defense games and the occasional in-game messages—"Alhamdulillah, You Destroyed the Command Ship!"—it's impossible to tell that you're playing an "Islamic game." When I destroyed the third of the four command ships controlling the "Flying Evil Robot Armada" in the first Ummah Defense, I didn't ruminate on whether my real-life allegiance should be with the robots. I just thought, only one more ship to go!
-- Chris Suellentrop, The Evildoers Do Super Mario Bros. (thanks gewgaw)

Friedman declares that we also need to shine a bright light on the "truth tellers." Hate to tell you this, Tommy, but you don't do that by exaggerating the truth.

Console Role Playing Cliches

Someone has compiled a massive list of overused mechanics for console style RPGS. For instance, here's a bit on gender equality:

Gender Equality, Part 1 (Feena Rule)
Your average female RPG character carries a variety of deadly weapons and can effortlessly hack or magic her way through armies of monsters, killer cyborgs, and mutated boss creatures without breaking a sweat. She may be an accomplished ninja, a superpowered secret agent, or the world's greatest adventurer. However, if one of the game's villains manages to sneak up and grab her by the Standard Female Character Grab Area (her upper arm) she will be rendered utterly helpless until rescued by the hero.
Gender Equality, Part 2 (Tifa Rule)
If any female character, in a burst of anger or enthusiasm, decides to go off and accomplish something on her own without the hero, she will fail miserably and again have to be rescued.
Gender Equality, Part 3 (Luna Rule)
All of the effort you put into maxing out the female lead's statistics and special abilities will turn out to be for naught when she spends the final confrontation with the villain dead, ensorcelled, or held hostage.
Gender Equality Addendum (Rynn Rule)
In the unlikely event that the main character of the game is female, she will not be involved in any romantic subplot whatsoever beyond getting hit on by shopkeepers

Also, the big list of RPG plots. Thanks, IndieGameDev.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Apple May Owe Microsoft For Every iPod Sold

A little off topic, I know, but ... meh, it's a Sunday.

Apparently Apple was a little late in their patent filing with the iPod and Microsoft may have rights to some of the key components, including music menu software. According to this article in the Independent, Apple may end up owing Microsoft up to $10 a pod.

Naturally, there will be some lawyers getting paid overtime before this is all through.

Quake, Free and Clear

One of my favorite things about id is Carmack's ongoing efforts to release all their old code under GPL. According to blues, he just accounced at QuakeCon that Q3A will be GPL shortly, making everything pre-Trinity .. er Doom 3 ... open to the public.

That just rocks. Blues even points to the release of Silver Wings, pictured to the right there, a Quake I based arcade style shooter. And of course the Quake II engine has been used for projects like UFO: Alien Invasion (and inspired by X-Com). The wealth of technology this shares with community (and by the terms of the GPL ... keeps on sharing) is immense.