Over the weekend, I spent some time watching this video:
Rockman Lovers Drivin' Lamborghinis
Throwback videogames, digital distro, and atavistic joy
The relentless march of technological progress burdens game developers by forcing teams to repeatedly spend time and energy learning the idiosyncrasies of the latest gear rather than sharpen their skills on a single toolset. As a result, few gaming platforms are explored to the depth that other creative technologies have enjoyed. Compare the number of DJs still playing vinyl records on Technics-1200 turntables to the population developing new SNES titles.
"[The simple fun of a classic Mega Man game] doesn't fit into the grandiose and expansive world that the consumer gaming industry has become, and so you have to make games that match the current expectations."
The unnamed force here is the cash factor. Consumers paying top dollar for the latest-gen console expect to be dazzled. Developing a title that could have come from that grey box in the closet is incredibly risky. Fortunately, the growth of digital distribution is sufficiently shifting the financial balance to permit long tail niche development to seep into gaming. (Though Geoffrey makes a good point in complicating notions of "niche" in his earlier entry on the subject.)
The latest issue of Nintendo Power reveals that the next installment in the Mega Man series will be a "new NES game" complete with chiptune soundtrack and faithful 8bit graphics.
According to the article, the popularity of retrographics on t-shirts and other nostalgic bric-a-brac convinced Capcom that it was the "right time" to revive the original Mega Man aesthetic.
This announcement is an encouraging sign that the unfortunate neglect of past platforms by the mainstream gaming industry is beginning to ebb. Free from the need to create playable demos of the latest hardware, studios can nurture a unique language and approach to game design and development.
Innovation along many axes will finally break the brutal linearity characterizing many of the last decade's popular titles (Doom begat Half-Life begat Halo 3...). The beauty of Flash-based titles like Dino Run is an early indication of the potential in joining a persistent platform to yesterday's aesthetics.
In its pursuit of "the upper-limits of 8-bit", I suspect Inafune's team will be surprised to discover a ceiling of considerable height. Let's hope they inspire others to similarly explore past aesthetics, constraints, and joys.
WiiWare, PSN, XBLA and the Long Tail
Ever since I first heard about Nintendo's WiiWare, Sony's PlayStation Network and Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade, I've been excited about the opportunities these services provide for so-called 'long tail' content. We've already seen new inroads being made into episodic gaming by Telltale Games' Sam & Max and Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People and by Penny Arcade and Greenhouse Games' On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode I. All of these games are based on relatively niche properties, but are garnering some real attention despite never appearing on a single Best Buy endcap.
Today I caught word of two more intriguing projects coming to WiiWare, although their 'niche' status is somewhat debatable.
Sometimes narrative as narrative is the answer
A few weeks ago in Game Set Watch, movie and screenwriter Justin Marks chided the game industry for calling the story in Grand Theft Auto IV "Oscar-worthy". In the article, Marks wondered if gameplay as narrative is the answer.
The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).
I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, but then wincing at some old, overworn ideas as his essay continued. By the time the essay started to near the end, Marks was returning to some familiar, obvious claims:
We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.
This is all very, very old news. Marks' assertions and observations are fair enough, except that like most generalizations, when extended out to encompass everything it falters and fails.
Take the Rorschach test
This game had been on my list of "games I should play" for some time, mainly because I have this thing for adventure games that has lead me to write my dissertation on them. I'm happy to see that there are still innovations possible in a genre that many have declared to be dead (or at least, to have committed suicide). Rorschach is not a commercial game, so I guess it counts as indie. The truth is that it's not a complete game, but a really good prototype wrapped in quirky and loopy charm. The game designer is Jens Andersson, lead designer of The Darkness, and the artist is Ida Rödén.
GAMBIT '08 students settling in
This summer's interns have been in Cambridge for a little over a week now, and so far they've taken to MIT like ducks to the Charles River. Or like swan boats to the pond in Boston Common. Or, well, like video game fans to a video game lab!
A palpable sense of camaraderie is already growing between many of them. (Of course, an unexpected 24-hour layover in Chicago while en route from Singapore might have something to do with that. Still!) The Singaporeans and the Americans all seem to be hitting it off well and the mentors from both continents are already starting to bat research ideas back and forth. The MIT orientation sessions last week included lectures on everything from team roles to specialist training to the importance of branding (that last one was mine) and we've already had several truly excellent guest speakers, including friends of the lab Darius Kazemi and Jeff Ward of Orbus Gameworks, who spoke to our group about the joys of prototyping. Right now our teams are being paid a visit by game industry legend Warren Spector, who has been regaling us with tales of his days working on System Shock, Deus Ex, Ultima and Thief. Good times, good times.
In short, overseas friends and family checking this blog for news of their Singaporeans can rest assured: the GAMBIT lab is currently filled with laughter and hijinks as the teams get to know one another and start paper-prototyping their games. I've already been accosted multiple times by students running around with... Ah, but I can't mention that yet. Friends and alumni of the lab, if you thought last year's lineup was awesome, wait until you see what this year's crew is cooking up. Stay tuned to this blog and to our Flickr group, our YouTube channel and our Facebook page. We've got some excellent stuff in the works!
William Uricchio to present learned lessons from GAMBIT at GLS 4.0
William Uricchio, the co-director of Comparative Media Studies and a lead principal investigator for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, will present a selection of lessons learned from the lab's first year in existence at the fourth Games, Learning and Society Conference July 10-11 in Madison, Wisconsin. From the conference's website:
Can we make a game that can be played equally by sighted and sightless players (AudiOdyssey)? How do we make a multiplayer game where the collective behavior of the players shapes the simulation (Backflow)? These are some of the research challenges presented by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab in their 5-year initiative to bridge the cultures of engineering and humanities. GAMBIT Game Lab incorporates academic researchers into the process of game development, and provides a space for researchers to work across and learn from both Eastern and Western cultures. In this fireside chat, William Uricchio, a lead principal investigator of GAMBIT Game Lab, will share the techniques and strategies that have been particularly effective... and those that were not. How does this project compare with other cross-disciplinary game development initiatives, like the Dutch GATE project? Where are they going from here?
More about Uricchio can be found at http://gambit.mit.edu/credits/#wuricchio or at http://www.glsconference.org/2008/person.html?id=326; more about the Comparative Media Studies program can be found at http://cms.mit.edu and more about the Singapore-MIT Game Lab can be found at http://gambit.mit.edu.
AudiOdyssey in the press, with a quick correction
It's been a busy week for GAMBIT in addition to our preparations for this summer's wave of students, we've also been getting a lot of buzz in the press about one of last year's games, AudiOdyssey. The game has already gotten some good press from WIRED, CNN, the Game Career Guide and Gamasutra, but now we're also getting attention from CNET, Wii Fanboy and a whole host of others. Definitely not a bad way to start the summer!
There is one thing we'd like to clarify, though. Although AudiOdyssey was developed to use the Wii controllers, it is not a game for the Wii it's a game developed in Flash to run on PCs. It would definitely be cool to have the game show up on the Wii at some point, but the AudiOdyssey folks are currently focusing their attention on new projects. Watch this space for possible announcements about said projects later this year!
Other places talking up AudiOdyssey around teh Intarwebs include:
For more information on AudiOdyssey, check out our earlier blog post profiling the game. For screenshots, a trailer, credits, system requirements and downloading instructions, please see the AudiOdyssey homepage in our Load Game section.
GAMBIT Highlights a Year of Development & Research: Backflow
This is part four of a multi-part series reflecting back on some of the games developed during the first year of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a five-year research initiative created to address important challenges faced by the global digital game research community and industry. Last time, we looked at Wiip, a casual game designed to exploit the expressibility of the Wiimote. Today we focus on another game developed during the summer internship program, Backflow.
Backflow is a casual city simulation designed for mobile phones. Unlike games like SimCity, where players build the city themselves, players help their city grow by managing the waste disposal infrastructure of the city.
Players direct the flow of the city's waste through underground pipes by controlling the flow at each intersection. Each type of waste must be sorted into the appropriate bins so that it can be brought to the correct processing facility. As items are recycled they turn into resources that can then be traded with other players or used to purchase upgrades for the city. Upgrades attract more people, which in turn cause more waste to be produced at a faster pace. If waste is sorted into the wrong bins, however, pollution increases in the city and people begin leaving in droves.
Press play for a video walkthrough of the game.
The research goal for Backflow was to design a "participatory simulation", a multiplayer game where the collective behavior of the players helps to shape the simulation. Fabian Teo, one of the artists on the team, saw a similar relationship between the actions of individuals and the environment and thus the idea for a game about waste management and recycling was born.
The resulting game was designed as a casual-style game that borrows elements from both city simulations and resource management games. The hybrid nature of the game allows Backflow to be played for only a few minutes but also makes room for long-term strategy. The game also requires that players work together to trade surplus resources in order to purchase city upgrades that require scarcer resources.
Backflow was a 2008 Independent Games Festival finalist in two categories: Innovation in Mobile Design and Best Mobile Game.
An extended version of Backflow is currently being developed at the Singapore branch of the GAMBIT Lab.
Backflow was created by Marleigh Norton, Eric Klopfer, Neal Grigsby, Zulkifli Salleh, Brendan Callahan, Fabian Teo, Chen RenHao, Wang Xun, and Nguyen Hoai Anh, and contains original music by Guo Yuan and sound effects by "Fezz" Hoo Shu Yi. Backflow can be downloaded here.
GAMBIT Summer Orientation '08 - Singapore
You never realise how blissful it is to have a quiet day just sitting in a chair at the office until you've spent two weeks' worth of very hectic orientation activities with 45 budding game developers.
The official Singapore-based orientation activities for the GAMBIT '08 students have finally drawn to a close yesterday. We ran them through a huge series of talks, workshops and team-building activities, focusing in turn on all aspects of game development - the entire gamut of design, production, art, audio, code, QA, localization, research, audience and genre, cultural differences, professionalism, the various game companies in Singapore, and even how to pass their first hiring interview in the industry. It was insane. It was crazy. It was one of the most enjoyable times of the year.
Actually, now that I think about it, it was way longer than two weeks. It started nearly a month and a half ago, when we first invited the new generation of Scrummasters to sit in on the different meetings we had ongoing in the Singapore lab. They observed and watched as Zul and I, the two producers in the lab here, conducted our Sprint Planning, Daily Scrums, Sprint Reviews and Retrospectives, and design meetings. They asked questions, and we tried to pass on to them as much of the lessons learned over the last year as we could.
Then we turned it over to them.
Already, this generation is forging legends and memories of its own: from the epic Scrummaster vs. Scrummaster showdown during the orientation card games, to that unforgettable night at Hooters, to all the in-jokes about mentors... this generation has become, in just this short period of time, the seed of something great. I can't wait to see what they're all going to come up with over the next 9 weeks or so.
This summer's going to be a blast!
What Games Can Learn From Shakespeare: Part One
Everybody can learn something from Shakespeare. Scholars refer to his deep understanding of the human condition as one of the keys to his universal appeal, across languages, cultures, and time. Understanding his plays was a motivation to improve my English when I was a teenager (I'm not a native speaker and no, I didn't learn my English all from Shakespeare, else thou wouldst be reading Early Modern English now). I find what I learned studying Shakespeare during my undergrad and graduate school relevant and useful to what I do now as a videogames scholar. The relevance of Shakespeare does not only have to do with writing, but also with the design of the game, from how to give cues to interaction to how to involve players into the gameworld.
So videogame makers, particularly designers and (obviously) writers, can learn quite a few things from the Bard of Avon. Let me count the ways.