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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Saturday, November 08, 2008

The Reticule

Yay! There's a new PC gaming blog in town, and I just happen to write for it. Please check it out, I think it will be rather good.

Don't consider Splines dead, but rather an inquiry into the effects of prolonged inactivity and solitude on the bloggy brain. I hope to resuscitate Splines after the tenure of generic time-sinks has passed me by. Until then, Colin, you should probably remove me from your RSS feed. See you on the other side!

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Interview with Asi Burak - Co-Founder of Impact Games

After the ambiguity of my last article accidentally insulted a member of Impact Games' community, I reluctantly reasoned that my chances of attaining an interview with co-founder Asi Burak were somewhat diminished. Although I welcome any effort to expand the remit of games, I think I'd been mistaken for someone who's content and conservative of the retirement home diet of drip-fed grey gruel and extreme violence upon which most gamers are currently sustained. Luckily for me, Asi's the forgiving and resilient sort - perhaps he has to be - he explains, "[I'm] actually used to harsh criticism from hard core gamers".

After a bit of apologetic email bouncing, Asi and I's relationship had recovered to the extent that an interview seemed possible. Intimidatingly, Asi'd only recently been siphoned for words by The Guardian, yet I think the Splines interview is special (not only in length and garish appearance) because Asi's unguarded and contemplative words reflect on his character and motivation to deliver the experience, knowledge, and stimulation required to think for oneself. From speaking with Asi, it's clear that a shared culture of thought and understanding will become the means to improve life on this conflicted Earth, and he's making quite the impact.

This dialogue is formatted oddly and it's full of spelling mistakes because it was birthed in cyberspace - like the orbital foetus at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey - so please understand that it's been hard to make the kid presentable.

[17:37:15] Sean Garland says: Peacemaker was originally due to reward its players with the Nobel Peace Prize once they'd met the goal of bringing peace to the Middle East. Shortly before Peacemaker's release, the Nobel Foundation issued a cease and desist letter to Impact Games, demanding that the prize be removed from the game. Were you surprised by this order? How did you react?

Asi Burak says: yeah

completely surprised

in fact, i even think that we were approaching them at some point letting them know about PeaceMaker.

it was opposed to all the support we got in media outlets, the community

if the guys at the foundation had stopped to play the game, they would have seen it adhere to the kind of values they propagate, right!

instead of them being glad we are using the prize their lawyers came at us


the irony is

that we actually got a lot of criticism when we used the nobel prize

especially from the israeli/jewish side

why do you think that was?

since arafat recieved the prize, it is somewhat tainted for some people

as Oslo was controversial and never really resolved the conflict

and some israelis never fully trusted araft as a diplomat

and someone who can take it to the end

but thats politics

our response by the way was to fully comply

best to avoid the lawyers eh!

it was def something you could argue as fair use but we didnt have the resources nor the energies to deal with it

and end of the day- if they dont see the merit, let it be

after we removed all mentions we actually realized that the loss is minor

do you think perhaps a new generation of nobel employees will see things in a more sympathetic light?

i hope so

like u said- probably they never played the game

if it was a book or an essay i am sure they would have investigated it

but they have no capacity to deal with interactive media and understand it

Play The News' concept is lofty and unconventional in that it raises awareness of real world events and entertains while doing so. Can you describe the creative process your team followed to produce the outlandish phenomenon we know as Play The News?


u cant separate it from peacemaker

peacemaker is the father

its an evolution

when we presented PM around the globe, spoke with users and read their emails there were 3 core issues coming up all the time:

(1) can you do it about my conflict? or about my domestic issue that keeps me awake at night?

(2) can you update it according to the headlines? on a daily basis?

(3) can the community participate?

all were impossible with the PM model, to deal with another subject matter would take us at least a year

and it had no community, streaming capabilites

adding those was feasible but not justified in business terms

so we said- why instead of going deeper we'll go wider / shorter?


the main feedback that came from people who liked PeaceMaker was a lot about engagement and understanding of news events

less the peace message, much more about context in interactive environment

like: i learned in one or two hours more than i understood in years


don't say edutainment!

no no

we are very much opposed to the "education" or "edutainment" label

would you call a documentary "an educational movie"?

or a non-fiction book "an educational book"?

well, i suppose not

the educational value is incidental

why any game that smells of infromation and meaning we push to the classroom?

do you think a relexed learning environment is superior in some way to the classroom?

hard to say

i also dont feel i have enough expertise in education

i have a feeling that interactivity can do things that traditional methods cannot do

but i also have a feeling that games cannot answer everything

([by the way], fascinating how the community practically demanded PTN from you!)

yeah- thats the power of the internet

the immidiate feedback

does Impact Games have any plans to introduce their games to the classroom?


not solely for the classroom

we had some interesting discussions with educational publishers

big ones in the US

that were interested in PtN junior

a version for education

that is fine, as it is an incarnation

but doing something solely for the classroom is against everything we believe in and advocate :)

why's that? why take a principled stance against entering the classroom?

no no

many teachers use our products in the classroom

thats terrific

we get emails all the time, and they are usually by their intiative

we didnt really market there

what im saying is that as an additional distribution channel

one more segment it is terrific

but not as the core thing

its a kiss of death in my opinion

do you mean the label 'educational' [is the kiss of death]?


the fact that games that are positive have to be "educational"

as i mentioned - u dont have that in mature media

discovery channel is main stream

CNN investigates is a prime time show

Al Gore's movie won the oscar

thats [where] positive games [or games about current events] should be...

games should be in a situation where they're not rendered special by being informative


and also not segregated

again going to other media, and this is what the guardian piece is talking about:

there are no movie-goers or radio listeners or Tv-watchers

everybody is one

with mature media everybody finds his favorite flavor

with games were still in the trap

who is a gamer and who is not

mature mediums are broad enough to accomodate all sorts

and i feel its a matter of time

right- we need to diversify

luckily, the world is not waiting only on impactgames :)

check what happens on Facebook, phenomena like the Nintendo Wii

games for brain training on the DS

breaking the boundaries of traditional perceptions about who is a gamer

and what a game is

but i think you've carved yourself a rather interesting niche

and i believe that PtN can get much much larger than what it does now

there's no other games company attempting a similar task to Impact Games, as far as i know

not on a commercial level

some have tried

but its not their sole mission

and a lot is done on the non-profit side

u can check "Games for Change" and their community

How do you envision Impact Games' future? Will Play The News continue as Impact Games sole project, or could there be another game on the horizon?

def we could do other stuff

but i think that we didnt scratch the potential of PtN

a few directions were going:

(1) signing up partners

we never intended to create a new desitnation site but partner with media channels

so imagine news games on CNN, the New York Times or BBC

that's a brilliant idea

(2) other platforms: like mobile or other social networks beyond what we did with facebook

(3) user generated games

(4) other verticals

what else could you predict beyond news?

TV shows?

stock markets?

again. if we build it right and with the right partners we can make it big

TV is actually interesting as it is all around episodic content

if you think about it, just like in the news, events open and close, open and close

so its easy to structure ptn around TV shows

except with the news, it's sometimes hard to predict when the closure will come

thats the fascinating thing about it

that its not a TV writer who structured it

An awful lot of events happen in the real world, and the Play The News team can only report on a few of them. Do you worry about bias in the stories selected for Play The News?

before i address bias

as for quantity- again, going back to the partners

imagine that they support the creation

so instead of one game a day we create 10 or 20

so then we could be less biased

and ideally we could present the NYT game next to Al-Jazeera

it could be even on the same subject but the way you design it will make all the difference in the world

which roles and actions you chose?

which event is the one you focus on?

ideally, once again, i'd think that the broader spectrum of choices will represent the game coming into maturity

more choices, more user input, more stories told from more perspectives


and ultimately the users creating the games themselves

after all, the platform is made exactly for that

that's what i'd love to see

Currently the choices offered to your players are decided upon by Impact Games. Is there a chance that users could submit their own options in a future iteration of the game?

yeah- im talking about the next step:

make a game about your town

let other people rate it and the best games will get up in the rating

top of the pile

but as you say- letting people add actions would be a nice step

nice first step

ah, the Reddit mechanic

very democratic

yeah, like [Digg]

there are many directions

but limited time :)

i have to admit, i assumed that PtN was going to be a short-term project

it's great to be proven wrong!

not at all

internet apps are full of potential

its like coming to YouTube at the very beginning and ask them- so your whole business is video upload?

those ideas that take off are pretty simple

and unlike "titles" they evolve

yeah, if there's a demand

so people who judge internet apps as "titles" look at them as "frozen"


its more than about demand

execution, the right timing, viral growth

after all for every successful app there are dozens of clones

and only few make it

but demand would be the cornerstone of success, right?


not sure :)

i mean, no matter the finesse of the operation, it cant succeed unless someone has a use for it

we know that people out there are interested in news events

we know the traditional media is losing custoemrs to more sophisticated engines

like - digg

like - google news

and RSS feeds

so if we design the right stuff for them and do the right marketing we should capture some of that market

but it all takes time to reach the tipping point

i've not seen any of your marketing

where can it be found?

there is none really

we have a lot of publicity

and our approach to media channels

is all about using their channels and user base

so imaging someone sitting on a story and he can just click "play it"

and its a win win

i get exposure to their audience, they add engagmenet to their passive content

that's a superb plan, i can imagine it working brilliantly


Is the Impact Games team a diverse one? do you think you'll need to diversify further to broaden the scope of your reporting?


we are now only seven

one writer

i imagine that if we succeed in our plans

and expand

we will need more writers and content experts

build a small newsroom 2.0


i wish you all the luck in the world

in business terms its challenging

[because] the growth is expensive

but satisfying?

more than that!

we already created some change

and impact

small as it is

where have you seen the impact?

well, with peacemaker

the peres center distributed 100,000 copies in one day in israel and palestine

it was the talk of the day, after all its a small community

(relative to the US)

but also...

again- on a small scale

when people read the guardian

or see our stuff elsewhere in the news

it gets more traction to the message

the message i got out of peacemaker was that the two sides are not adversaries but working to accomplish the same goal


excellent idea to get out into the community

yeah we were lucky to have such exposure

but its only one portion of what one needs to do

in a world with so much information

its like a few pings, weak signals

and u can get a larger signal only with customers

like u said-

real people who enjoy it and use it

and it fills something missing for them

im off man- have a great weekend over there

[18:25:26] Sean Garland says: you too - dont brainstorm yourself into oblivion!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

24/7 Ticker Tape Parade

I want to tell you about a game called Play The News. It's made by Impact Games - the most hypocritical of game developers - for whilst Peacemaker emerged from their offices, their seemingly innocuous production process continues to churn out ammunition for debate with the 'games are mindless' clan. As critics fall, clutching their garlic, into conveniently placed prison colony furnaces, the power generated by Impact Games' minimal input (a website, a news story, and a decision for players) is highly efficient because it's the community which drives the brain-whirring mechanism of Play The News.

I'm uncertain whether Play The News ultimately qualifies as a game - it bears all the hallmarks of a modern news website, replete with reader's comments and the option for you to 'yay' or 'nay' the words of another person depending on whether they rung true or struck you as tone-deaf; yet the archetypes of gaming will swiftly be evidenced to you after the topsoil is unearthed. You'll be wooed by Play The News' achievements - become a Charismatic Debater by posting 10 comments and earning a yay or nay for each, or achieve Presidency of the USA by establishing principles then abandoning them for electoral gain (this last example may not be part of the game) - but the most woosome way Play The News flaunts its gaming credentials is by ensuring your interactions are meaningful by asking you to opine and predict upon the outcomes of ongoing events, and emailing you when the results are out. In my opinion, readers disgustingly transform into gamers when their interactions result in an emotion. People can experience pleasure through their sucessful interactions with a technology, and it's in this way that I believe Impact Games are encouraging people who'd normally not find an interest in the news to Play The News.

Play The News is free, follow the link on the top line of this article for more.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Iron Sky Trailer

Iron Sky Details

In 1945 the nazis went to the moon, in 2018 they are coming back - that's the magnificent premise of Iron Sky. The film is bound to be of educational value to us all, come the inevitable uprising of comfortably distant extremist ideologies. With its visuals and fascinatingly ridiculous subject matter seemingly designed to tractor in the grazing geek, Iron Sky instantly sucked me in, despite furtive attempts to avert my gaze and attention by using tabbed-browsing. If you're a member of the gaming tribe, Iron Sky will probably spark pangs of familiarity within you. I've spotted the callsigns of some of my favourite games - Fallout, X-com, Wolfenstein - and I'm sure you'll develop a list of abductions you think Iron Sky has committed upon our culture. So it's with an entirely failed effort to create tension that I remark that it's a shame Iron Sky isn't going to be made into a computer game... oh but it is!

Details regarding the Iron Sky game are sparse. Unusually for a game developer, rather than throwing a few crumbs for the internet to swoop on and speculate over, Energia are inviting the winged community to the dinner table where their foul manners and rancid input are appreciated. Energia are the Finnish creators of Iron Sky (their previous project was Star Wreck), so perhaps their nationality serves to explain the unfamiliar and alien way they've chosen to respect and value the opinions of their fans. Whatever the explaination, Energia's exotic culture deserves an entire refrigerator dedicated to it at the supermarket. Shame there's no more details.

Tension sucessfully created! If you goose-step this way, we have an interview with the director of Iron Sky - Timo Vuorensola.

Splines: I love how you're encouraging community input on Iron Sky, and you seem to have created a culture of sharing on your forums, your blog and on Wreck a Movie in which the importance and impact of the individual is upped. How do you feel, as director of Iron Sky, about relinquishing control over the creative process?

Vuorensola: I'm not worried about that, because eventually I still have the control. More than handing out creative control, I'm extending my brain and using the community as an extended hive mind to ponder matters I need ideas for. But eventually, it's my decision on which stuff ends up on the film.

I think that Iron Sky's visual imagery is its strongest dimension. I'm a little concerned because the images on your website are restricted in that they only portray Nazi space technologies. Jarmo Puskala writes on his blog, "we want to create a whole world- with history, future and unlimited posibilities", do you think Iron Sky will be able to grow to meet this aspiration? For example, could you tell our readers how the history of Earth in Iron Sky differs from our own timeline - are the world's governments prepared for the lunar orbitskrieg?

What Jarmo there means is that we want Iron Sky to be not just a movie, but more of a sandbox where people can in the future start building on the things we throw in the air with Iron Sky. Therefore we build Iron Sky in a very open-ended model, paying a lot of attention to details and reasons, much more than we would if we were just making a film - we want to have a working universe for people to build on, and think that our film will hopefully just be a kickoff for a landslide of hundreds of stories that can be told in this world. We haven't yet revealed anything more about the history timeline of Earth.

Do you intend for Iron Sky to extend its space flight of fancy beyond UFOs and into the realm of other outlandish Nazi mythologies such as the reich's meddlings with the occult?

We haven't revealed these details either.

Discussion then veered towards the Iron Sky computer game:

You've crafted a pen-and-paper roleplaying game for Star Wreck, and now Jarmo Puskala says that he's hoping there will be a full-blown computer game to accompany and extend the Iron Sky universe. What stage of development is the game in right now?

We started to work on the Iron Sky game about a year ago in a very conceptual level, finding a good partner to do it and finding out funding sources.

Puskala states as fact that the best game ever made is UFO: Enemy Unknown (I can provide evidence that this is indeed the case) -can we expect the Iron Sky game to bare any similarity to UFO?

I don't want to rule out that possibility, but more than that we are looking into the world of good old adventure games, which all of us as Energia seem to love so much.

The Iron Sky movie will be distributed to theatres and directly to your fans via the internet. Would you consider a purely digital distribution method for your game? In your opinion, can film or game creators earn a greater reward for their efforts if they neglect traditional retail methods?

Nowadays the media depends on the traditional distributors and their valuechain, and breaking that chain is always hard, and should be led by those responsible for the distribution, and not so much by those responsible for the content itself. We took the whole chain in our hands with Star Wreck, and it led us to a success, but it's not to say that it could work again, since handling those chains is an art itself, and we've seen many more failures there than successes. Therefore, anything about Iron Sky or Iron Sky game distribution hasn't been decided. We care now only about producing the quality content, and keep on looking for the most intelligent distribution options and possibilities.

Thankyou for your time and sincere responses, Timo, and best of luck with Iron Sky!

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Review: Mass Effect

Mass Effect could benefit from more corridor combat. The shooter - a genre with which Mass Effect clumsily flirts - is oft criticised for its use of corridors to channel the player from one point to another. Bioware's new-found territory has people-funnels in abundance, yet, like the oilfields of Nigeria, Mass Effect's resources are misused by those who have taken charge of development. For example, rather than coupling claustrophobic corridors with the shock-value of a wall-bursting insect warrior, Bioware have chosen to relegate the man-shafts to the role of safe zone, and conversely every (disfunctionally common) lobby area predictably becomes an arena. Safe zones provide a welcome respite and a chance to save progress - there's no saving during combat, or even if there's a faint whiff of enemy - yet as only the deranged would deem Mass Effect a linear game, I would have expected Bioware to take advantage of the immediate quality-of-life benefits a modern corridor can offer.

With all major travel-tube related gripes out of the way, it's time introduce those unfamiliar with the game to its premise. It's a lot like Spore's creature creator, in that you take into your hands a lump of un-loveable clay (that's the guy on the box art, by the way) and mould him into an irreplaceable urn of great unfurling depth, history, and insight, or even into a girl. Soon, your evolutionarily triumphant Adonis will be in space, dominating lesser species (if you chose to be a carnivore/Renegade) or helping them out, perhaps by dancing (as a herbivore/Paragon). I ended up as somewhat of an omnivore, and Mass Effect excels in that it allows you to be both a Paragon and a Renegade - there's no arbitrary dichotomy between good and evil to be found here - and you might even find yourself sympathising or disagreeing with your friend over what constitutes Mass Effect's 'baddies'.

An online friend and myself reached consensus on the issue of AI teammate pathfinding when Steve remarked, "I wanted to summarily execute them quite a lot". Your buddies will both get stuck on objects and on occasion they'll refuse to budge from an unobstructed spot, seemingly disillusioned by the realities of space war. Perhaps Wrex - the token Klingon-alike character - expected blood, guts, and the horror (the horror), rather than the clinical character of this resurrections all round future fracas. Frustratingly, friendly fire is disabled.

Frustration was not the only emotion Mass Effect evoked in me. Melancholic moments froze me - Wrex like - with dejection. I'll reveal a minor (easily-missed) experience to you, but the most heart-wrenching hinge on your own decisions and will act as great engineering works on the flow of Mass Effect's Mississipi. I found myself on a planet under siege, ack-ack wounding the sky as synthetic troops assailed barely entrenched colonists. The dead lay underfoot, so it was to my surprise that I noticed one fallen fellow's gaze tracking my movements. I approached him and at that moment he was extinguished. I didn't realise this immediately, I'd assumed he was placed there to set up a 'fetch me 7 pints of blood' mission, so I did a silly dance, circumnavigating his cooling corpse in an effort to see his neck spring into swivelly action once more. Then, the event I'd just witnessed sunk in. I moved on, my resolve to thwart the siege hardened. Conversely, I felt a pang of anger directed at Bioware when an opportunity to free indentured torture victims was stolen from me as a single jail cell was unopenable, dooming the aliens within - this is not acceptable in a game you're claiming to be superior to a console port, Bioware! And while I remain full of ire: there isn't enough of a visual impact as a result of player decisions - when I restore a colony's desperately-needed water supply, I want to see the colonists quenching their thirsts when I return to town, Bioware! BIOWARE!

Because we don't yet live in The Future, Mass Effect's facial animation and general graphics wondrousness remain only close-to-perfect. Though generally 'awesome' is both an applicable and mandatory description for many of the game's panoramas and bleepy-bloopy Star Trek Original Series deco interiors, facial animation can't quite escape the ugly Scottish ravine. Disturbingly, the transition between characters' facial animations is handled rather haphazardly, the result being what appears to be a cast of incredibly nervous people who suffer from anxious tics whenever you speak to them.

It's a shame that this is one of those games which refuses to cooperate with 'return to Windows' commands, because the music is just terrible - the tracks are short but unfortunately they repeat. I prematurely ended each of my visits to Normandy (an Earth Alliance frigate and one of Mass Effects' hub areas) because my cochlea couldn't cope with another plinky-plonky soundwave collision.

The game has been played, the plinks, plonks, bleeps and bloops have been tallied, and we have a verdict. Mass Effect isn't the groundbreaking game I'd hoped it would be - it remains a accomplished RPG with a terrible inventory and fantastic graphics. The graphics and the inventory cancel each other out, leaving gamers with a good RPG that almost any gamer will enjoy.