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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Blocked from Access

Did you know that 8.7% of the male population is affected by some level of colour blindness? I didn't, until I read Brannon Zahand's thought-provoking insight detailing the accessibility features (or, lack of) offered to today's gamers. This statistic is evidence alone to support the existence of a significant market proportion, alienated by the lack of tailored functionality to meet their needs. Imagine being unable to distinguish between the colours yellow and green... now imagine trying to play Tetris with this disability - where did the fun go? I originally intended my last sentence's example to be Bejewelled, but after looking at a screenshot I found that a simple and effective evolution occurred during a decade of puzzle gaming - Bejewelled features gems shaped according to colour, meaning that the colourblind can play by observing an alternative attribute. Bejewelled highlights the ease in which an oversight can be repaired, conferring financial advantages to the developer and accessibility to the gamer.

Zahand illustrates how the question is often asked 'How do we get little Sally or Grandpa to play our games?', surely including the unwilling into our gaming fraternity should become a long term goal to be pursued after the willing but unable have had their problems addressed?

If we are to truly believe that gaming is able to unlock a new, higher level of human consciousness, as I adamantly profess, then inclusion of the willing should become the gaming industry's primary goal.

Just a short anecdote before I sign off. I played Planetside using Teamspeak for the best part of two years, during this time my outfit (guild/group) insisted that all members join the voice communications server so that they could partake in the audio chatter and instruction that would be issued by a human voice rather than via text. A few months after this policy began, outfit command noticed one of our crew who was never on Teamspeak and rarely followed orders... a conversation over private messages ensued. The commanders were ashamed to learn that their disgruntlement was directed at a deaf man. His impairment had led to the anger of his peers and his own lack of integration with the outfit. Understanding and compassion went a long way to heal the rift but unfortunately, in this instance, my outfit's reliance on audio communication led to our deaf soldier moving on to keyboarded pastures, green with a capital 3.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Serious Stuff

Gamasutra covers a story announcing the latest Serious Games Summit, which you can find here. The conference, centered in Washington DC, will run on 30-31st October of this year and cover such topics as "A Virtual Orchestra Game for Introducing Children to Music", "Serious Stuff Gamers Do"and "Using Real-world Gaming to Achieve Real-world Goals".

You can find further information on CMP Games Group's other major event - the Games Developer Conference - here.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Fun... Just 'coz.

Storyline is not important in games. Games which possess the greatest longevity are games that don't tie the player down with restrictions. Humans play games to escape from life's demands, not to be accosted by a giant calculator. At the dawn of gaming, Pacman, Gauntlet and Joust, under the constraints of exceedingly limited memory and processing power, provided gamers with memorable experiences worthy of the title they have earned themselves - 'Classic'.

Today our community finds it hard to exalt in praise any game which doesn't attempt to bring - for example - conspiracy-laden, philosophical, multiple-conversation pathed, dynamic, revolutionary, emotionally charged, voice acted by that guy that plays Jean Luc Picard on Star Trek... well I forget where I was going with this, but our community would appear to feel cheap or dirty in hailing a game for being simply fun, demanding nothing less than Patrick Stewart.

And so I'm happy to have spent the weekend playing Just Cause with my friend Colin. JC (simply a coincidence that the abbreviation for Just Cause emulates our messiah?) grants its player the freedom to explore and cause mischief with total disregard for fun-wrecking constraints. Unlimited dual-pistol ammo, infinite parachutes, the ability to breathe underwater and a healthy chunk of bullet-absorbing flesh all grace the secret agent avatar of JC. Avalanche Studios have performed a modern day miracle in their developmental quest for fun over fuss.

I'm certain that I'll be playing JC for weeks... or at least until Friday when my pre-ordered copy of Company of Heroes arrives. And as for liberating, freedom granting, FUN games of the future... its only a short while until Will Wright's Spore is released.

You can purchase Just Cause on all platforms from Play right here, and this website has set itself a mission of keeping the Spore release date up-to-date (current ETA for Spore is March '07). I'm excited already!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Beep Beep

Just Cause arrived on my carpet this morning. By midday I was in love. It's now mid-afternoon and I've dashed to the library to tell you about it. Only I won't, because I haven't played enough of it yet to form a solid opinion other than OMG GOOD. Instead I'd like to tell you about my ailment. I'm cursed with an inability to make quick decisions. When behind the wheel of a speeding car in San Andreas or indeed, a plummeting whirlybird in Just Cause, I see all the directional and tactical options available to me and choose none of them. I panic. The result is usually a head on collision with a lamp-post, bounding over the central reservation or taking a newly acquired superbike for a swimming lesson.

But I'm sure my reactions would be even worse if it were not for computer games. I write this several days after Paul from Mode 7 Games commented, "Why do people always talk about games improving reaction time?". I've struggled to find empirical proof that games can help reaction speed, although there is a wonderful gaming network out there encompassing Serious Games Initiative, Games for Change and Games for Health. The network recently held a conference in Washington DC "to showcase their socially responsible games" - Games for Health. There is a potential for games to help humans improve themselves, as demonstrated by this event. What has yet to go beyond circumstantial or alleged evidence is that gaming can have a positive cognitive impact. I hold the opinion that gaming knowledge is only one well documented study away from making this leap.

I believe that with each and every horrifically mangled death, I learn a little more about myself. I hold out hope that one day, I'll learn to slow down.

A Sub-Species of 'Geek'

My scribblings about The Daily Telegraph have led to these comments made on Jim Rossignol's blog. The discussion is of a higher standard than the tripe one usually finds on Splines.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Red Ring

Ex Box

The above video is a demonstration of what happens when your XBox 360 decides to give up on life. 360 apathy remains a worryingly frequent occurrence to owners, and now, Microsoft. Whereby the death of a good friend used to be remedied only through a costly repair, the philanthropist owned company now offer a free return and repair service for all affected customers, including a refund for anyone who had to shell out for fixing the console themselves.

Is this the next step of the 'dispatch then patch' trend seen in PC Gaming since the beginning of time? I hope not. When any product, software or hardware, is released unfinished and requiring a fix; I cry a little, and then spray Lynx Africa into the atmosphere to punish this cruel and unforgiving world.

You can find Microsoft's tips to fix the red ring of light here. Their final tip is "If the Customer Support agent cannot help you resolve this issue, return the console to Microsoft for repair".

Danelaw

Foreigners... they come to our country after years of hard work and government grants and they give us their games. Well I won't stand for it, not any longer. Wait, what am I talking about?

Norwegian minister for culture and church affairs, Trond Giske, recently criticised the UK government on their lack of support for the gaming industry. He made this remark shortly after awarding grants to Scandinavian games developers:

"I view [gaming] as a cultural industry ... people develop their impressional skills, their ability to see the world in different angles and ways, and I think it's very important that we have ways of telling stories from our own culture"

You can find the full story as reported by Gamesindustry.biz here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Strong Currents

On Monday the CMP Games Group, organisers of the Games Development Conference (GDC), became the latest of their ilk to announce an increase in their budget and scale following the demise of E3. Next year's March GDC will take place in San Francisco and accommodate an attendance of more than 12,500 industry insiders, compared to the new E3 aiming to draw an audience of 5,000.

As predicted by almost everyone, the fracas resulting from the loss of E3's prominence has caused many of the tiny fish to swim beyond their usual hunting grounds. Some will most likely be carried away by the current, but others will grow beyond their own slimy comprehension. The gaming community will be well fed.

You can find more information on this story at the GDC website.

Deli's Gone Sour

Last Thursday I posted this about a supposed 'nifty deal' I'd found on the net. Well, I haven't ordered from this website because I thought it seemed more than a little dodgy, the prices too cheap for their own good and a swift Google search resulted in a forum on which one of the members said they had been ripped off by Mobile Xperts, and others claimed the falsity of their business.

Just to be safe I'd say steer clear. You can purchase Nintendo DS Lites for the same price as the old Nintendo DS from gaming stores throughout this sceptred isle.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Think of the Children

The Daily Telegraph has embarked on a campaign to 'Save our Children's Childhood'. The newspaper claims that 'Junk Culture' (which includes gaming) is harming the development of young people. A letter to The Daily Telegraph sparked off what is now an inferno of regular coverage of the issue. The reasoning behind classification of gaming as 'junk' follows the regurgitated, simplistic and ignorant arguments of the past, whereby video games coerce kids into staring at a screen rather than socialising or exercising in the fresh air. The fiery letter furthered the fodder for my rebuttal by alleging:

"Since children's brains are still developing, they cannot adjust. . . to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change,"

The letter was fronted by people whom should be role models and authority figures to children - 110 teachers, psychologists, and children's authors contributed to the wording. It would seem that the above quote would be better applied by removing the first six words and applying it to the authors of the comment.

Its true that sitting in front of a display, whether it be for gaming, viewing or typing an essay for school, can have a detrimental effect on health if taken to excess. But the point is that children are able to live their lives as they and their families choose. My friends and I were always almighty geeks at school, and yet we still found opportunity to meet up and breathe in as much fresh air as one is able to in our climate. As a child, I was eternally grateful for my computer as it liberated me from the constraints of the real world, gaming was not only a form of escapism but a chance to talk to new people online, improve my reactions and learn about democracy's value over despotism (My passion for history was kindled by early experience of Sid Meier's games).

As the common sense adviser for the authors of this campaign, I recommend that they access their tech trees and prioritise research into developmental biology and that they endevour to abolish sensationalism within their cities. Jean Piaget (linked above) presented widely accepted evidence to support a theory that children are not mini-adults, and that their potential for development and for learning new skills is far superior to that of a fully grown adult. We should not expect children to think and behave the same ways as an adult, but instead encourage them to develop in the way that best suits them.

Erm Erm Oh

There's a lively discussion regarding virtual property theft going on over at Game Politics' live journal.

I'd write about it, but this library doesn't have the caffeine supplies of my usual blogging venue *cries*

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Review: Pathologic


I have never played a game like Pathologic. I've wanted to write this piece for some time, but to convey the correct message demanded that first I put the game into context by writing the main articles of the past couple of days. So, Pathologic is a risky, artful venture. But is it any good? Read on...

Pathologic finished development by Ice Pick Lodge and had its Russian release in 2005, the game was met by critical acclaim and won a rich vein of golden awards including 'Best Debut of the Year' and 'The Most Non-Standard Game'. Non-Standard is an understatement. Pathologic starts as it means to go on; A troupe of children march to haunting, simple, oddly catchy, sombre funeral music, a girl buries her doll in the earth as others watch on or play instruments. This game intends to suck you in and freak you out.

Gameplay revolves around your efforts to fight against an invisible, omnipresent and apparently undefeatable enemy - a disease. There are a total of three characters to play the roles of, each with drastically different perspectives on the outbreak. All three must gain the trust of the plagued town's community, manipulate others in order to reach their own goals and survive an increasingly hostile environment despite their own frailty. Time passes, your character gets hungry, tired and ill; You explore once safe districts to find them swamped in a green haze, infected; What seemed like a long wait until Day 2 becomes a frantic rush to complete your assigned tasks by Day 3. With each hour the odds seem all the greater stacked against you. When the seemingly insurmountable obstacle is overcome, the sense of reward, relief and satisfaction really has to be experienced for you to know its immensity.

The player is presented with a surrealist world which embraces the supplementation of the realistic with the absurd. Towering constructions defy gravity and common sense, accepted by the townsfolk for their twisted, spiraling existence. NPCs acknowledge their own limitations by highlighting your own importance, the game treats itself as a play in which only the player knows the lines. The soundtrack is augmented by sound effects, both easily recognisable (a dog barks as you turn a corner) and unfamiliar (as you walk along the train tracks, something whooshes past your ear). The graphical style is basic, but provides the level of visual detail the game requires; the facial textures come close to being as impressive as Oblivion's, conversations are accompanied by a black and white picture of the character you are speaking to, making dialogue an intimate affair.

And yet there are problems. The translation is impressive, considering that the original game was worded in Russian theatrical tongue and had to go through a far more complex process than a direct linguistic conversion. Unfortunately, the text often falls short of being wholly understandable. I was often left equally amused and confused by the choices presented to me as conversation options. Some quests are left vague to the point of requiring a walkthrough to even find the correct area in which they take place, and often involve long, trudging walks through a largely bland town, back and forth, in order to complete them. On the 2nd day, food prices increase ten-fold, meaning cash that the player might like to spend on ammunition or protection from disease has to be cyphoned off into keeping their character from starving. To make this worse, the protagonist must have some kind of space/time fluctuation within his digestive system, because even if I were to pawn all of my possessions and spend all my currency on a loaf of bread and some milk, my avatar would be hungry again before I'd wiped myself clean of crumbs.

Pathologic is a deeply engrossing, rewarding, frustrating, unique experience. The game demands your patient attention, and reciprocates with constantly pleasurable feedback. There is no instant action to be had here, if you are looking for cheap frills then look elsewhere. If you have read my articles of the past two days, and thought to yourself what a shame it is that so few developers take the risk to try something unconventional, then this is the game for you. Ice Pick Lodge deserve the massive success they have had with their game.

You can purchase Pathologic at Play.com and the forums are here - believe me, you'll need the help they offer.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Disconnected

Hi ho! Another year of university begineth, and I must away. I'm moving all my gear and my body into new accommodation in Lancaster tomorrow, and I'm going to spend the next few days crying. Why? No internet. I'll get it fixed up pronto, but until the time of pront I'll be updating Splines with puffy red eyes at the library on campus.

Take Asia [Part 1]

In The Importance of Risk in Basic Game Design, James Portnow eloquently theorizes on the value of binary 'win/lose' scenarios within games, elaborating on why reward must be accompanied by risk-taking to provide truly interactive entertainment for the player. Although the right honourable Portnow writes of risk in the 'frog-navigating-busy-road' sense, I'd like to take a different approach and consider some of the risks developers can take in game design.

Let's start with the simple, indisputable stuff and work our way to greater levels of abstraction. By and large, the games industry lives and dies by its profits, so the term 'risk' to a developer, publisher, stockholder... whomever... means asking 'Will this game sell enough copies to feed my seven wives?'. The answer is invariably to either develop a game based on the Harry Potter license or, unfortunately, risk loosing some of those wives. The truth is that a game licensed on a successful property bares lower financial risk to the parties involved in its development and distribution.

[I'll take a small aside to note that a significant portion of video game sales can be attributed to either 'dormant' or 'occasional' gamers or to non-gamers buying a present for their gaming relative/friend etc.]

Generally, a risk arises when a new, unconventional gameplay mechanic is developed either as an addition to, or re-working of, established gaming staples, or as an attempt to spawn a new genre brought about by developers placing a previously unseen feature as the pivotal aspect of the gameplay. An example of the former would be Prey's portals and nausea-inducing gravitational quirks; Human Head Studios developed these features to supplement the standard FPS at a risk to their financial stability, the risk being increased development time, greater cost, and no certainty that the new feature would improve upon the FPS formula. Bullfrog's Syndicate would be an example of the latter; the 'living' city becomes the game, and the squad based shooter takes a step backward. Bullfrog took the greater risk, the possibility of developing a product ridiculed by the community and ignored by the retailers.

A risk we occasionally see developers take is in placing their chosen gameplay element before all other usual crowd-pleasing factors. Introversion's entire repertoire consists of outstandingly entertaining, badly selling games. The risk of putting gameplay before graphics is that CD/DVD cases do not convey game design genius very well. Punters are likely to choose Flashy GraphX Shooter IX over Darwinia because... well, they don't know better, bless 'em.

This piece has gone on way longer than my usual blabberings, so I'll end it here. I know I've missed quite a bit of potential developer risk taking such as ARGs and new distribution methods. I'll get round to writing Part 2 another time... and if you think I've missed anything else then make a comment and I'll mention that too.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Deli Sandwich

I've been looking to buy a Nintendo DS Lite and I found this rather nifty deal. Its twenty pound cheaper than the high street and includes a copy of New Super Mario Bros. Expect to have me raving about the princess being in the other castle very soon.

Behold

Can games be art? Opinion remains largely divided on this matter; one point of view being that the interactive nature of gaming takes the artistic license away from the 'author' and thus video games cannot exist as art, the other perspective being that the developer utilises the medium of gaming to craft their unique vision within which a player is able to explore and appreciate their surroundings.

The screenshots below are both taken from Buka Entertainment's Pathologic. On the left, the main menu, a colour vanquished male grasps a scalpel hidden behind his back. This is the last image the player views before the game begins. To me, the image connotes paranoia, uncertainty and horror... all common themes within the game. The scalpel itself is the first weapon 'The Bachelor' (one of three playable characters) gets his hands upon. The opposite image is taken from within the game engine, note the lack of HUD, there are no distractions around the edges leaving the player's attention to lay firmly on the developers' portrayal of the world. A solitary female strides down a jagged cobbled path into the mist, flanked by twisted architecture contorted in upon itself. You can click on each of the pictures to load a full screen image.












I don't advocate that all games are art. As in cinema, for every Citizen Kane there is a Snakes on a Plane. For every Fallout there will be a game with lesser artistic clout. Vincent van Gogh famously remarked :

"I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream"

When each of us experiences a game, we are living the dream of another.

There will be a review of Pathologic on Splines this Saturday.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

My Knee's Loose

Make yourself a cuppa and settle down to learn something about investigative journalism. Although this isn't games related, I'm keen on knowing your views on this issue. I felt more than a little disconcerted after watching these profound videos, this kind of television news coverage is something alien to me.

Avast Leyland Yee

Gamasutra has got together three of the industry's most clog wearing clever sorts and asked them about the current state of the PC game business. Their answers lead to a clear consensus; PC Gaming has become a substantial niche within the games industry, at the fore in terms of innovation, development and distribution options but neglected by consumers opening their pockets to the accessibility of the consoles.

I won't attempt to summarise the article because the three dudes keep their comments concise and interesting, so it's well worth a read. Instead I'd like to focus in on the analysts' views on the MMO market and its importance in negating the effects of piracy.

I hadn't previously realised the reason for the massive uptake of MMO gaming in Asia was due to the saturation of the Eastern gaming market with piracy, leading to commercial demand for a product that could generate revenue during its time installed on a machine rather than prior to installation. The natural solution to this demand is the now well established tradition of MMO payments through subscription and (in Asia) micro-transactions. Because of this mechanic, piracy is removed as an option for players as the game itself can be provided for no charge and all other payments are made on the server using a registered user's bank details.

This system has rewarded developers for their lack of faith in gamers to pay for their games, and shown that players are willing to open their wallets when they have no other choice. Of course, I am making a sweeping generalisation. There will always be gamers who find themselves morally obliged to purchase any and every game they play, and others who will avoid playing any game they can't obtain for free. Most of us gamers probably fall somewhere in the middle, and because of this it is the middling majority that developers hope to sway by implementing innovative payment mechanics.

Thankyou for your time; And remember, Archlord is not innovative, Archlord sucks.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Touchscreen Starcraft

Heckendorn

I'm usually completely unaware of the development of hardware techno-wotzits happening all around me, but this week a couple of tactile tidbits caught my attention.

The video above shows a demonstration of Blizzard's Starcraft, operated via touchscreen. I hope this is the future of the RTS. Once the rapid-click online gamers attune themselves to this new method of strategic control, bypassing the mouse and having a player use their digits ought to reduce the time between instructions being mentally processed and physically issued. The player will literally feel 'hands-on', manipulating a game using fingers is not only cool, but aids immersion by requiring gamers to reach out and touch their units. On the down side, physically disabled gamers may find touchscreen control an obstacle to their enjoyment of the game and wireless keyboard users/lazy sods that play from their beds will have to get closer to the screen. An easy fix would be to make touchscreen gameplay an optional feature in future games.

I don't know much about Linux, but my limited understanding has me believe the main difference between Linux and Windows is that the former is open-source, that is, a user of Linux may freely alter the OS code to their heart's content. If that is truly the case then surely the only barrier to touchscreen gameplay on Windows would be a patch on behalf of Microsoft. This website offers monitors capable of touchscreen functionality on all versions of Windows (bar Vista) so perhaps the future is already here?

The image below shows an XBox 360 running gleefully in the form of a laptop. The Lappy 360 contains all of the hardware you would find within an XBox 360, plus 17" HD monitor, Wi-Fi adapter, a keyboard and a water-cooling system. This catatonic creation is the work of Ben Heckendorn; You can find his official site here, but as it is currently running very slowly, (likely due to popular demand) you can find Joystiq's coverage of the story here.


Monday, September 11, 2006

September 11th

Five years ago to this day, advocates of intolerance won themselves a victory; They sparked off a chain reaction by which governments were able to invent an impossible war and in doing so, restrict civil liberties and alter global politics for many years. I think it would be insensitive to rant against right wing policy today, so instead let's have a gander at the effect the September 11th attacks had on the computer games industry.

After a tragic loss, humans are compounded to assign blame. The media, gaming in particular, took a lot of flak during this time. Microsoft's Flight Simulator was removed from the shelves of high street stores because it was viewed as a potential terrorist training tool. Microsoft responded by removing the feature of planes able to explode on collision with buildings in all of their future titles. Written on September 21st 2001, How video games influenced the attack on America provides insight into the journalistic mindset before widespread disillusionment set in. The author of this article wraps up by commenting :

"You have to wonder what else terrorists are learning, thanks to the wonders of computer-based education."

I'm not aware of a single game in existence that teaches players to crash planes into buildings. Microsoft's game contained this feature for the spectacle, the entertainment factor of seeing a virtual plane crash and explode. An exploding plane teaches nothing but the fact that planes explode when impacting a solid surface at high velocity, as even the most brainwashed simpleton ought to realise.

The industry was not united in woe, however. Kuma War, a military FPS game developed by Kuma Reality Games, features regularly updated episodic 'missions' based on current conflicts happening around the world (although mostly in the Middle East). At the time of writing, Kuma War has released 76 'missions' and attracted Iranian uproar after releasing "Assault on Iran" in September 2005. Kuma War has certainly benefitted from a popular urge to 'defeat' terrorism. The same is true for America's Army, their website proudly claiming six million registered players.

The September 11th atrocity relocated the boundary over which controversy exists. Developers have come to realise that the global fear of terrorism can either have a game banned from sale, or guarantee huge profits. Another layer of exploitation has been plastered over the consumer. Knowledge and free discussion are the tools of our liberation.

You can find a long list of audiovisual entertainment effected by the September 11th attacks on Wikipedia.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Games and Music, Light and Magic

Video Games Live! Almost makes me wish I lived in America.

I Am Your Father (So get off the PC)


Children : Centre of their own known universe. I've had the pleasure of two young cousins keeping me company this weekend, and I was more than happy to reward their curiosity about my gaming rig with an introduction to Lucas Arts' Lego Star Wars.

I was amazed, particularly by the young lad, Sam, how quickly kids can grasp the concepts (jumping, shooting, protecting, collecting) and the techniques required to control a virtual avatar. Within seconds Sam was one with the Force, climbing all over Tatooine as though it were a computerised extension of the playground. Sam's younger sister, Ellen, was keen to ensure her fair share of turns within the galaxy of child's play. Ellen would petition cousin DuBBle to have Sam extracted from the keyboard's embrace, and without a grown up on-site there was a clear and present danger that battles for junior Jedi supremacy may erupt.

It's great to see kids enjoying modern games in the same way we found ourselves charmed by the pixellated pleasures of a past era. In a time not too far, far away, both parents and children will have grown up alongside gaming. It is only by increased awareness that the myths and fears surrounding video games will be dispelled. I think a disturbance in human-cyborg relations is well overdue.

On a more or less related note, developer Traveller's Tales hopes to produce a Lego Batman game. TT holds the rights to Lego games until 2012, so expect to see plenty more of those blocky rascals before that date.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Don't Cry

Bernd Diemer, senior games designer for Crysis, says the 360 and PS3 can't handle his game. I can't help but feel as though Crytek have shot themselves in the foot by placing the graphical demands for Crysis so high. Perhaps the next-gen consoles will see a DirectX 9 port of the game some time in the future.

Neitzsche Elves


Last month, ShadowBolt commented that if he knew the formula to World of Warcraft's success, he would sell it and live in a house made of candy. He will be pleased, because Rob Pardo - Vice President of game design at Blizzard - unveils right here the philosophy behind the game.

The crux of Pardo's thought lies in regarding the MMO game as a giant doughnut. You might be thinking that the vast seas of gold have driven Pardo bonkers, perhaps you're right. But seven million people agree with this madman's philosophy, so I'd say it's worth paying attention to. Pardo suggests that the doughnut consists of two key components, the core, which represents the hardcore gamers, with the doughy goodness representing the casual gamers; as the population expands, the goodness grows faster than the core and thus Blizzard must cater for both audiences. Blizzard aims to provide something for everybody, but there is a problem. These are Rob Pardo's words:

"[W]e try not to compromise. It usually results in both sides being dissatisfied."

So... content suitable for everyone, but compromising for no one. Tricky. Pardo takes the attitude that this obstacle can be overcome by introducing a plethora of varied challenges, and ensuring these additions are thoroughly playtested by gamers hailing from all walks of life. By assembling a varied group of testers, Blizzard try to attain the most diverse range of feedback possible. "Don't ship until it's ready" would appear to be the guiding force behind World of Warcraft, and although I can remember those early weeks of lag and protest, this statement seems to have served Blizzard well.

Can Blizzard truly hope to provide for all castes of player? I applaud them for such lofty aspirations but I believe they are a long way from achieving this goal. When I began playing, I had expected more from the Player Vs. Player combat, perhaps for the contested zones to be truly fought over. The battlegrounds are fun, but I'd prefer an element of PvP in which the repercussions extend beyond a round. WoW still has a long life ahead. Hopefully in the future we will forgo piloting hovercars and consuming food pellets in order to defend Ironforge against the Horde.

I've only covered a fraction of Pardo's philosophy. If you are even slightly interested in the development of MMO games, the top link is well worth a read.

Friday, September 08, 2006

No News

Joystiq's currently most remarked upon post (receiving 1042 comments since it was created yesterday evening) has today spawned an apology on behalf of Christopher Grant, Joystiq's editor. The original post, entitled 'Major next-gen console news coming tonight', created speculation and excitement amongst Joystiq's users. Unfortunately, the 'major' news turned out to be disappointingly dull news. You can read the full apology and comments here.

In other news, Splines is now rated on a blog listing website under 'news'. So what's the news? As far as this post is concerned, the news is that there is no news. Tom Cruise.

Second Class Gamers

Good news for both the poor and the rich, Sony's Playstation 3 will not be released in Europe before Christmas. Cash-strapped parents and huge American corporate entities, rejoice! The PS3 release date remains November for the US and Japan, but frogs, krauts and Europeans will have to wait impatiently until March 2007.

The reasoning behind this? A Sony spokesperson, quoted from Games Radar, explains :

"[The problem is] caused by the delay in the mass production schedule of the blue laser diode within the Sony Group, thus affecting the timely procurement of key components to be utilised in PlayStation 3".

If only Europe could be treated with equal respect to the US and Japan by these gaming monoliths. I understand that Europe is secondary to the potential customers in the US and the sheer fanaticism of gamers in Japan, but there is a healthy and eager audience waiting in Europe. This announcement is practically a national disaster for Sweden. Can you really imagine Lara Croft training at her stately Texan ranch, or Mario and Luigi, keeping the U-tubes of Osaka clear of koopas? Europeans have given the gaming industry much, and we want to keep on giving. Why don't you corporates give us a chance?

LFG

World of Warcraft has reached the 7 Million subscription mark. Amazing, considering in March of this year I was taken aghast when Blizzard announced they had attained 6 Million subscriptions. Take a moment to imagine how popular this game has become. Picture 7 Million people typing LOL all at once.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Xenophobic Newts Attack

In the hubbub of recent times, I've forgotten to mention a major Microsoft maelstrom gaining in power and heading directly this way. Microsoft's XNA has recently been released, for free, in beta format; this rather impressive piece of kit provides a framework for budding independent developers to create games for Windows or XBox 360 using the C# programming language. If you click on the FAQ on the XNA website, you'll find a surprising level of functionality for a beta program. The main restriction at this time is the lack of ability to export and play the games on a 360 (added in an update in Spring 2007) and the need to shell out dosh for a 'creator's club' subscription, allowing for file sharing between creators and costing 99 dollars/year.

Seemingly, the motive behind Microsoft's continuing support for their XBox franchise has been in knowledge of the upcoming release of XNA. With XNA, Microsoft benefits by essentially allowing non-employees to do the job of designing games for both Microsoft platforms, the indie developers benefit by being provided with a powerful and flexible framework to supplement C# and gamers stand to benefit (in the long term) when the results of a greater variety and quantity of new games begin to filter through.

You can download the XNA Beta here. Were you wondering what XNA stands for? It's not an acronym, it just sounds good.

Incoming

Worthy of a read is this Gamasutra interview with Introversion's Mark Morris. Mark comments on the role Microsoft's XNA is likely to play in encouraging indie developers, and lets us in on some new information in regards to upcoming Introversion titles.

Defcon, Introversion's game based around inter-continental nuclear war, due out later this month, will be distributed via Steam and also available on the Introversion website. Oddly, the Introversion website claims a September release date, but all my other sources claim the game to be released next month.

Also, Darwinia seems likely to be released on an as yet unnamed handheld console. The low technical demands and total genius of Darwinia ought to make this a guaranteed hit.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Viking Adventures

Proving that a highly motivated test subject can carry out rather complex tasks whilst enduring the most intense pain, here is my first and last webcomic.

Developing Nations

'How To Succeed At Indie Development', on Gamasutra, provides fresh insight into the oft-forgotten world of the independent developer. In the article, "The tricks that publishers can play" is outlined as a danger facing the small development studios. In the action of submitting a portion of their independence, an indie developer risks losing their profits and intellectual property to the claws and sub-clause of a publisher. Avoiding the pitfalls requires skill, in choosing the right publisher and in working through the contract with a fine comb.

The contribution that indie developers make to the wider games industry is phenomenal. Rather in the way the PC is used by established developers to test a 'risky' IP, such as The Sims (So Mr. Wright, your new game idea is for a virtual doll's house?), the advantages inherent within the independent nature of indie developers allows for experimentation and innovation. Encouraging skilled but un-published programmers to keep on trying - through government grants to act as a catalyst to a fledgling sector of our industry, or simply words of encouragement or promises of job prospects from within the gaming world - can only help the gaming industry.

The Gamasutra article mentions a scheme in Canada which offers loans for game development, re-payable only if the game is a commercial success; this essentially removes the fear of failure which may prevent potential indie developers from taking even the most tentative steps into the murky waters of development. I can't imagine the Canadian loan company making anything but a loss from this venture, but in the UK we have a National Lottery, of which 28 pence from every pound ticket goes towards monetary grants for good causes. Perhaps the many gamers of this sceptred isle would be open to the prospect of playing with Dale Winton's balls if they thought he could pass on our squandered cash to the indie developers.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Pulsating Inconvenience

I've been out and/or hungover most of today, explaining the lack of any proper update. In a striking display of placing aesthetic before content, I've updated the counter and added Games Radar to the links, from which I found this golden nugget. Splines will be back in service tomorrow.
Time

Games blog? Nah you came to the wrong place mate.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Human Computation

Luis von Ahn is an assistant professor in the Computer Science Department at Carnegie Mellon University, he gives a presentation on the power of combining human minds. It's fascinating stuff, if a bit long, give it a chance eh?

Gaming with a Purpose

In the above video, Luis von Ahn demonstrates how groups of human minds can be utilised as a distributed processing network. Professor von Ahn illustrates the potential for human processing by providing these statistics :
  • 9 Billion Human-Hours of Solitaire were played in 2003.
  • The Empire State Building took only 7 Million Human-Hours to construct.

To clarify, the term 'Human-Hours' equates to the measureable time unit that our species commits to a certain undertaking, for example mowing the lawn may take 1 Human-Hour, a week's time at work may take 40 Human-Hours and persuading your girlfriend that computer games are worth trying cannot be measured in Human-Hours.

Professor von Ahn has teamed up with Google to put these 'wasted' Human-Hours to good use, and to encourage people to work for free. How does he intend to do this? By designing computer games of course! In the video, Professor von Ahn describes three games - ESP Game, Peekaboom and Verbosity. All of which are 'fun' to the extent that they can be proven to have been played for significant, multiple sessions. The games are free, and all of the data collected by the games can be transformed into metadata to be associated with Google images. If you want to know more about the games, watch the video.

I'm in two minds about all of this. On the one hand, these games are allowing for humans to dedicate their leisure time to the futherance of the species, however minor that progression may be, collecting metadata can have a knock-on effect upon development in other areas. For example, the information collected from Peekaboom can allow the 'training' of an AI to develop their own image recognition skills, thus furthering their capacity for intelligent behaviour. The potential benefits for the visually impared is breathtaking, if all of the images of the web came with captions that a software aid for the blind could read, browsing could become an experience closer to what a healthy eye percieves of the internet.

If solitaire can be deemed as a waste of time, what does that say for our highly esteemed computer games? Would Professor von Ahn like us to all stop playing Half Life 2 so that we can help society from our sweaty sanctums? To that I say nay. Addictive and fun his games may be, but until a data collecting tool with added joy capabilities can compete with the sense of time and place, the immersion, the thrill, the intrigue, the potential for new ways of thinking about life, about people, about the world; until my brain can be mined by reticulated splines, I'll be sticking with our games.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

For Great Justice

Click for funny.

This Month in Games

Ah, September. Geeky prospects steadily increase as the hours of daylight lessen. There are quite literally several good games to play this month. Let's have a brief look at some of them.

Just Cause, developed by Avalanche Studios, makes me feel all wobbly inside. The player is set loose on a beautiful, massive, volcanic island complete with America-hating government and very exploitable civil unrest. Add to this the ability to drive any vehicle, the prospect of skydiving with a re-useable parachute and a skybox that extends far above the clouds and you have a game a far cry from any other.

Company of Heroes is released on the 29th and developed by Relic. This game is going to be very popular. Relic's last development, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, showed the team's talents for creating tactile, varied and balanced RTS games. With CoH Relic would appear to have outdone themselves; its Axis Vs. Allies with all the bravado you would expect, with accurately modelled structural and human destruction resulting in a constantly morphing battlefield. The player's intelligent use of cover, suppressive fire and combined assaults ought to determine victory.

On September 12th, developer TT Games brings us Lego Star Wars 2. The original trilogy gets a knowingly satirical chunky lego makeover.The first in the series was a hilarious, stupefyingly cute game, made for the experience of cooperative play. LSW2 delivers more of everything that made the first so good, adding in vehicular combat and puzzle solving sections.

If you are going to buy just one of these games then don't. Find an easily accessible source of somebody else's cash and use it to furnish your gaming needs.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Got Disposable Wealth? Be The Archlord!

It's a wonderful concept that games like WoW can offer a month's entertainment for the cost of one trip to the cinema, ten fairground goldfish or indeed five minutes button bashing on a slot machine. So it is with dismay that I read on page 11 of this month's PC Gamer that Archlord, a new MMO that ShadowBolt and I were looking forward to, plans to greedily charge its players over 27 pounds per month for the privilege of earning more experience points than their less financially gifted playmates. The 27 pound charge will earn players the payment class of 'Lord', with lesser real world cost, and in-game reward, coming associated with classes 'Knight' and 'Squire'.

We as gamers and as consumers should not expect developers, publishers or indeed any other company to stand as beacons of ethical guidance to us all. We live in a society in which corporations set their prices accordly to maximise profits and yet still remain competitive with their rivals. The demand for a product also plays a huge role in it's pricing, (why else would kinder eggs cost so much?!,) which is why we have power as consumers. Let us not demand Archlord as long as its developers plan to implement these ridiculous charges. There are plenty of MMOs out there with fairer schemes for payment. Schemes that do not dictate your status within the game world according to your monetary assets in the real world. Let Archlord's lack of sales force it's makers to either rethink their marketing strategy or have their game sell so poorly that nobody else ever tries to exploit gamers in this way again.

You can contact Codemasters, the company responsible for Archlord at press@codemasters.co.uk.

Bully who?

A number of gaming websites are reporting that Rockstar's upcoming multi-format title, Bully, will not be released in Europe under this name. Instead Europeans can expect to be playing Canis Canem Edit which apparently means Dog Eat Dog, and is the motto for the school in which Bu... (The Game) takes place.

I don't understand the reasoning for this name change, especially considering the main fracas over Rockstar's game has been located on the other side of the pond. Although British MP Keith Vaz did call for Bully's immediate rating or for the game to face a ban from sale in the UK in 2005, Rockstar have not been ones to show themselves willing to alter their game to suit political machinations.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Oh Glorious Day

Both PC Gamer and Edge magazines are released in the United Kingdom today. It's like christmas for me, and so I'll be drinking myself braindead and sobbing quietly in the corner.

UK PCG - The Lamer Gamer?

There's a new PC Gamer Podcast out and the team are celebrating a whole year of stimulating our cochleas. I love the US Podcast, but I'd sell my soul for a UK Podcast. How is it that the yanks can do it but the limeys can't?

Masters of the Past : Hostile Waters


I love my mothership! All games should be required to feature at least one super-sized carrier with manufacturing capabilities, by law. Only two series of games do their motherships well enough to meet my standards, and one of them is Hostile Waters, developed by Rage.

Hostile Waters gripped me from the very outset. The player is introduced to a peaceful planet, Earth, several decades from now, and to a society which is forced to re-learn war in order to defend the significant freedoms it has earned in an era without conflict. The game presents this future Earth as a world with clean, medicated air, allowing for the perfect health of every person; a planet with the ability to create food and provisions for all by utilising nanotechnology. As Walker - one of the main characters in this involving tale - phrases it, "we stand on the verge of greatness". Those who wish to destroy these achievements are the "dinosaurs", the old leaders of Earth who wish to return back to a time when labour was rewarded with money, and money allowed individuals to exist. The story is told through excellent voice acting and a powerful, moving script.

The game mechanics are superb. It is in credit to the storyline that I fail to mention gameplay aspects until my third paragraph. Victory conditions both begin and end with your mothership, Antaeus. The mothership (a naval vessel classed as an Adaptive Cruiser) is capable of using nanorobots to convert scrap into anything from a helicopter to a tank, and placing a chip with the 'soul' of a dead soldier within the new unit. The player is treated to a display of sophisticated AI which had no parallel at Hostile Waters' release date in 2001. It is worthy of note that just a year previously, Daikatana was released, supposedly boasting incredibly complex AI and failing to deliver. Antaeus' 'souls' are supremely capable at pathfinding and combat, able to attack and defend whilst holding position if the player were to leave them to their own devices. I believe Rage intentionally didn't grant their AI the capability to show their own agressive initiative, placing the burden and challenge of achieving victory upon the player. The mothership itself is able to bombard the nearby terrain a limited number of times per mission, and only after repairs are carried out on the main guns of the ship in an early scenario. The player is able to take direct control of any of the units Antaeus produces and perform all of the actions a 'soul' would be able to.

The soundtrack is never anything but superbly appropriate, exciting and emotionally evoking. The graphics are more than a little rough around the edges by today's standards, but their basic nature removes nothing from Hostile Waters' rewarding gameplay experience. As a bonus, this game aught to run on any rig purchased this century. Buy Hostile Waters and you will not regret your decision. It is available from Gameplay at £4.99.

Edit : Blogger doesn't get on very well with pounds sterling, I can't remove that silly letter before the price, sorry. In a related complaint, Blogger finds itself in a state of confusion any time myself or ShadowBolt try and write within another word processor. Any help with this issue would save my backspace key from erosion.