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September 2007

Where to find the best indie games

Cootalot_3 Since my discussion of Knytt Stories on the last podcast, several of you have asked where to find more games by independent developers. Happy to oblige!

I frequent several sites that monitor the indie gaming scene:

                • Game Tunnel features reviews, previews, and developer chats, all devoted to indie games.
                • Independent Gaming is a comprehensive resource. The blog is typically updated several times per day.
  • TIGSource provides up-to-date indie gaming news from a staff of contributors.
  • Mad Monkey is an independent games network showcasing the work of dozens of authors. This site is also linked to the GameDev forum.
  • Jay Is Games focuses on casual games, mostly flash-based, including reviews and walkthroughs.

Finally, if you'd like to get up to speed on indie games but aren't sure which ones to try first, take a look at Game Tunnels's list of the top 100 indie games from the past 3 years.


Game narrative: let it flow

Snake As I mentioned in my last podcast, the game designers who presented talks at the recent Game Developers Conference are really cool. Why? Well, they're game designers, of course...I mean, come on! But they're especially cool because they deliver thoughtful, well-organized presentations--and then post them for all of us to learn from and enjoy.

Patrick Redding is a narrative game designer at Ubisoft Montreal. His GDC presentation focused on building game stories that flow:

Players dismiss a game’s story if it undermines their sense of flow. Game play promotes flow by delivering basic elements ranging from ‘feedback’ to ‘concentration.’ When these elements form the basis for the story, the player accepts the illusion of continuity even if the narrative is constructed on the fly by the game AI.

Regarding why writers are so often out of the loop:

As contractors, they’re accustomed to thinking of the “script” as a thing, a single deliverable possibly tackled in a couple of passes or drafts, but which when complete is then handed off to the dev team (mainly harried audio and localization folks) to be chopped up into bite-sized nuggets that can be shoehorned into the game however needed. Here’s the invoice. Good luck. See you for the sequel.

If you're a Metal Gear 2 fan, beware. Redding admires the game, but not the jarring narrative interruptions:

In the end, loyal MGS fans who have a high tolerance for Hideo Kojima’s idiosyncratic plots and themes were pissed off by how the moment-by-moment manifestation of the story interfered with the gameplay.

One more reason all this is cool: you can download the full text of Redding's talk, including the accompanying Powerpoint presentation here.

Thanks to Click Nothing for the heads up.
Image courtesy of Artgerm at DeviantArt

Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 2

Radioimage_3 A discussion of the silent protagonist in video games; an analysis of why Time Magazine's feature piece on Halo 3 bit the big one; and news you can use - all in this episode of the Brainy Gamer Podcast.

            • Listen to the podcast directly from this page by clicking the yellow "Listen Now" button on the right.
            • Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes by clicking here.
            • Download the podcast here. (right-click and choose save)


Gamers moving in tribes

Wowplayer I have a soft spot for academics who don't talk like academics. So I'm especially pleased by Gamasutra's series of five short interviews with Dr. Ed Castronova, Dr. Aaron Delwiche, Dr. Henry Jenkins, and PhD. Candidates Jeff McNeill and Florence Chee. Each opines on the subject of World of Warcraft's domination of the MMO market:

I started each interview out with a simple premise: that gamers were moving in tribes. World of Warcraft, in my mind, wasn’t the ‘king of the mountain’ because it was the best world out there, whatever our criteria might be. It was prominent because the right people played it, giving it a kind of social gravitational mass. The social bonds, whether forged in or outside of a game, influenced when gamers would move, and for how long they would stay. Some of these interviews dug deeply into this idea, while others carved out their own intriguing territory.

Full article

EarthBound is nothing less than the first work of art to be playable as a video game

Ebmeteor ...or so says Tomm Guycot. His essay is such a fond and lovely remembrance of a truly great game that I simply had to share it with you. Here's a slice:

Replaying EarthBound triggered the almost violent realization that this wasn’t a wacky RPG. In fact, after the first few towns it was barely even funny anymore. This wasn’t a parody of RPG clichés at all! It was about growing up, or about a child’s view of adulthood, or an adult’s view of childhood, or an adult’s view of adult society, or a million other things.

You can read the full essay here.

Why don't the mainstream media get video games?

Flowerchief Last week's issue of Time Magazine featured a piece on Halo as the lead story in its Arts section. I am not the first blogger, forum poster, or Halo fanboy to suggest that this woefully feeble and cliche'-ridden piece of cultural journalism failed on just about every possible level.  As the Guardian's game blog put it:

Hello, this is 1983, can we have our videogame article back?...The ironic thing is, Halo is hardly the standard bearer for the modern literate videogame. Compared to Bioshock it's a Commando comic with pretentions to become a Paul Verhoeven movie.

In the same week, the New York Times ran a story about real money trading in online virtual worlds, focusing solely on mainstream media darling Second Life, an online community that, on its best day, contains roughly a tenth the populations of either Habbo or MapleStory. Exasperated, Nabeel Hyatt raised an angry fist:

For the press to remain ignorant of this being an industry and not simply a single product is now journalistic irresponsibility and they should be ashamed. This is a member of the mainstream press that has not even managed to type "virtual goods" into Google.

Why don't mainstream media outlets like Time and the NYTimes get video games? Why do they so regularly and predictably fail to get beyond the worn out Pong / Pac-Man / Mario reference points?

I think it's because most of them rely on a 19th century model of journalism that continues to define what  the news looks like today. Journalists and editors tend to use three basic criteria when determining what they will deem "newsworthy" - conflict, novelty, and prominence. J-School 101 dictates that a story about a video game is worth writing only if it meets one or more of these standards. Time's dumbed down piece on Halo manages to achieve a perfect outmoded trifecta. It plays up the conflict between Sony and Microsoft:

Halo 3 is...Microsoft's weapon of choice in its struggle with Sony for supremacy...

Halo 3 will run only on Microsoft's Xbox 360 gaming console, lending the Xbox...huge credibility in its costly death match with Sony's PlayStation 3.

It's about driving sales of Xbox 360. Sony has no answer to that. We have a really big chance to put Sony back on its heels.

For novelty it relies on the threadbare but apparently still captivating image of the loner/nerd/fanatic:

There is an invisible subculture in America. Those who belong to it love it with a lonely, alienated, unironic passion.

The Bungies bring a grinding, jeweler's meticulousness to what most people consider an unhealthy amusement for children.

There's a foreign-legion quality to it, as if the company had been created as a refuge for smart people who wouldn't or couldn't fit into more conventional professions.

And for prominence, you can't beat big numbers and big business:

When Halo 2 came out in 2004, it did $125 million at retail in the first 24 hours. Since then, gamers have logged almost a billion person-hours playing Halo 2 online.

We're not just dealing with a game here...We're dealing with a great entertainment property, one that has the potential to be a cross-media property like a Harry Potter or a Star Wars.

People still thought, 'Ah, it's this thing for kids.' Now my partners are Pepsi, Burger King, Pontiac, Comcast. And it's not me selling them anymore." There's an opportunity, in other words, to decloak the Halo subculture, to turn it from invisible to visible.

21st century new media. 19th century journalism. The mainstream media doesn't get video games. Big surprise.

image courtesy of hierophant at DeviantArt

Brainy Gamer Interview: Mark J. P. Wolf

Wolf_2 I'm delighted to bring you my interview with Mark J. P. Wolf, one of the leading figures in video game studies and author of The Medium of the Video Game (2001), The Video Game Theory Reader (2003), and the forthcoming The Video Game Explosion: A History from PONG to PlayStation and Beyond.

Mark  is an Associate Professor in the Communication Department at Concordia University Wisconsin. He has a Ph.D. from the Critical Studies Program of the School of Cinema/Television at the University of Southern California. He is also the director and founder of the Multimedia Communication Program at Concordia.

In the interview Mark talks about his forthcoming book, which he describes as "the first academic history of video games" ; the status of game studies and the value of older games ; and his next major project, Subcreation: Building Imaginary Worlds, which focuses on "the construction of imaginary worlds like those of Tolkien, Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on."

I want to thank Mark for graciously accepting my invitation to chat and for being so generous with his time.

Full interview

More advice for aspiring game writers

Masseffect2 If you want to learn what it takes to write original story content for video games, Austin TX is the place to be this week (see my previous post for more).

One of the upcoming games I'm most excited about is Mass Effect. It's creator, BioWare, continues to evolve the ways games present characters and tell stories. Their pedigree as a creator of RPGs is unparalleled, in my view, especially when you consider the pivotal innovations contained in their incomparable Baldur's Gate series, Neverwinter Nights, and Knights of the Old Republic. When you recall that Bioware's Infinity Engine also powered the superlative Planescape: Torment, well, these guys are really really good.

I'm pretending Jade Empire never happened.

So imagine my excitement when I heard about BioWare's presentation today at GDC Austin called "Writing the BioWare way." Thanks to our friends at Gamasutra, we have a detailed summary of the presentation outlining the entire story creation process behind Mass Effect:

The game is broken into acts, chapters or planets -- whatever system it requires. This helps the writers figure out what they can do in the framework of the game itself. The writing staff also generates asset lists -- characters, creatures and areas required to tell the tale. According to Laidlaw, "You're not going to get these right. But you are going to get close enough for people to work. This is where you tell people what you think you need, and they'll tell you what you can get. And then the fight starts. By the end of pre-production, the team should be ready to generate final content, and have a solid workflow eastablished with the level designers and artists."

Full article

Good game writing...the Star Trek way

Trek The Austin Game Developers Conference is underway, and details are emerging from a variety of presentations made by some of the invited speakers. One of those is Evan Skolnick, former writer and editor at Marvel Comics and currently producer at Vicarious Visions, a division of game maker Activision.

Skolnick's talk entitled "Everything I Needed to Know about Game Writing I Learned from Star Trek" focused on story structure, characterization and world-building using Star Trek as an aesthetic template. Slashdot poster Zonk has posted a summary of Skolnick's presentation. Here's a highlight:

Externalize Internal Conversations - The Kirk/Spock/McCoy triumvirate is a great way to do this. Spock's superego vs. McCoy's id makes for entertaining television and allows Kirk's ego to come to a decision. It allows conversations we have in our head every day to be played out on screen.

When you make characters, ensure their personalities are well-differentiated. Games only have a limited amount of time to establish characterization, and people will muddy the lines between too-similar NPCs. This allows you to avoid clumsy narration, and provides the opportunity to have entertaining, sharp banter. It also allows for the chance to relieve stress through humor. Link

Image courtesy of 7in7ter at DeviantArt

Customizing Bob

Dylan_2 Admittedly, this has nothing to do with games, but when two great forces of the universe--new media and Bob Dylan--come together in pure promotional bliss...well.

I'm not exactly sure how to feel about "defacement marketing," but I confess to immediately customizing my own Dylan video and sending it to my wife.

Click here and say goodbye to the next 15 minutes of your life.

Debut of new game studies journal

Eludamos_2 Eludamos, a new peer-reviewed game studies journal appeared this week. It's available online in either web or PDF format and will be published biannually. Its focus and scope:

ELUDAMOS positions itself as a publication that fundamentally transgresses disciplinary boundaries. The aim is to join questions about and approaches to computer games from decidedly heterogeneous scientific contexts (for example cultural studies, media studies, (art) history, sociology, (social) psychology, and semiotics) and, thus, to advance the interdisciplinary discourse on digital games.

This approach does not exclude questions about the distinct features of digital games as an aesthetic and cultural form of articulation, on the contrary, the issue is to distinguish their media specific characteristics as well as their similarity to other forms of aesthetic and cultural practice. That way, the editors would like to contribute to the lasting distinction of international game studies as an academic discipline.

Happy launch and best of luck to Eludamos!