Monday, February 28, 2005


CBS News has an interview with Jack Thompson in which he claims that video games don't offer legitimate compeition to their players. Actually, the phrase he used was “no sportsmanship.” Which is hilarious because 1UP.COM just ran an interview with Tomonobu Itagaki about the upcoming Dead or Alive tournament. Among the competitors will be the developers of the games. He urges players to become champions for their home countries and “I can tell you,” says Itagaki, “that those who wish to challenge me personally should step forward and speak up.” Now let me remind you that half a year has passed since the Evo2K4 SF3 Championship, where a Street Fighter III player won by parrying fourteen times (even once is incredibly hard) and driving the room wild. No sportsmanship my ass!

Incidentally, Joystiq's take on the interview and Jack Thompson's hidden message is one of the funniest things I've read all day. I'm not going to quote it. Go see it for yourself!

But how about competiting in the game of life? Like, say, getting into college? Can videogames help you there? Well, let's see now... Joystiq just picked up a story about how a Student Writes Essay on His CoH Experience, Gets Into College.

So I guess they can.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Want To Be An Artist?

Anyone who wonders what's involved in 3D animation should head to G4tv, where there's a feature on Maya Modelling. It's not a tutorial, but it does tell you what's involved in each step. And if it's that sounds interesting then get a copy of the Maya Personal Learning Edition (it's free) and try it out. Maya is very, very popular among professionals.

Artistic fields, like the film and videogame industries, hire based on talent. It's not just whom you know or what you've done before, but also how cool your demo reel (portfolio) looks. I know a guy who used to work in a warehouse, but spent his shift time sketching rather than working. Well, now he's an animator working for EA! He showed me his production drawings for GoldenEye and they were mind-blowingly great. And the subject of GamaSutra's current Artist Gallery: Laura Schumacher (free registration required) spends her free time “doodling... to generate ideas:” art is something she can't not do.

So if you're already a good artist but know nothing about Maya, check out the G4 article.

And if you have no interest in doing art, check out the article anyway for an idea of just how hard it is.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Why Jack Thompson Is Wrong

I think everyone who reads videogame blogs is familiar with Jack Thompson, the lawyer on a personal crusade against the entertainment industry (and that includes videogames). His latest project is the GTA lawsuit. Well, Technology | Grand Death Auto tells the real story; the kids that are the subject of the lawsuit didn't even know what they were doing when they decided to shoot at trucks. They expected the shots to just bounce off. Yes, they were that stupid—one has an IQ of 91—but so much for Jack Thompson's theory that the games made them violent enough to commit murder. Meanwhile, Shaun McCormack has posted some Jack Thompson emails which show how small-minded the lawyer really is.

Well, Jack Thompson, if videogames train children to be killers then why would children's hospitals across America accept donations of videogames? And for their patients, no less? That's right; a short time ago, Penny Arcade held a donation drive to make that happen. Wil Wheaton covers the story here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Thinking About Tomorrow

A skimming of the past few day's news has me thinking about tomorrow. I'm not talking about the short term questions, such as Nintendo's DS vs. Sony's PSP (which no industy professional can predict); I'm thinking a little farther.

As CBC News' Viewpoint: Greg Hughes observes, the type of videogaming that started with the NES generation has grown up with its audience and these days, "an interesting story and characters means as much as a snazzy graphical interface." How wrong can he be, given that one of the most anticipated games these days is Final Fantasy XII? Even games aimed at the lowest common denominator are aimed at boys past the age of puberty.

These games already have global appeal. In the Arab world, for example, Video Games Thrill Some, Vex Others. Teenagers and students use them for social events, and the detractors there raise the same issues (pandering sexism, damage to eyesight, contributing to youth violence) as the games' detractors here in the West. Meanwhile, a special version of Unreal Tournament is being readied to train US troops in how to use their body language correctly and not get killed in Iraq. The game works because it simulates everything it needs to and responds as the soldier goes through it.

It's obvious that videogames are a valid artform. They transcend attempts to translate them to other media; the Guardian just published a blistering critque of the gaming press' inadequacy, and Game Brains' current feature is the crash of the Alone in the Dark movie. Greg Hughes mentions the narrativist model of videogame theory, which posits that they create a cyberdrama in which the player stars. How can any other medium even begin to capture that?

This is where we are. What's next?

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Death of a modded xbox

My Xbox just died. It was special to me because I'd modded it myself and immediately escaped into the world of homebrew console software. I played a perfectly emulated Super Mario Bros. on it just for the coolness of playing my favourite NES game on an Xbox. Another program, the Xbox Media Center, is based on the same source as MPlayer for Linux and MPlayerOSX for MacOS, and better than either because it supports the Xbox remote. Other great (but illegitimate) programs include xbomberbox2, the most beautiful clone of Bomberman ever released, and DVDX, which transforms the Xbox into a region-free DVD player.

The Dreamcast hacking scene is well-known, well-documented, and active. The Xbox hacking scene is that, times ten, because an Xbox starts out more powerful than a Dreamcast.

Well, my hacked xbox died today. When I turn it on, the reset button flashes red and green (what the Xbox scene calls "fragging") and I see nothing on the screen. I'd so stripped one of the screws the first time I opened the cover that I can't get it off to repair what's inside.

I'm not going to tell you what to think about all this. That you will decide for yourself.

Monday, February 21, 2005

It Takes Two

Matthew Sakey's current Game Over column on the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) webpage argues for deeper games. To make this happen, he says, we need the support of the gaming press. “The press would do well to take note of that trend and include more coverage of, and applause for, what's happening thematically in some games. This means longer reviews, deeper analysis, and more editorializing.” If the gaming press embarrasses itself, he says, it embarrasses the entire videogame medium, taking it down a notch, and the quality of games goes with it.

Not in response to this, The Second Life Herald runs an article about how an Extinct Native American Tribe Finds Second Wind in a virtual museum built using the Second Life engine. The headline is self explanatory, the story incredibly moving. All games are simulations of some sort, and this is should alert people about what videogames can do.

The New York Times story about how the Story Line is Changing for Game Makers and Their Movie Deals, covering the opposite end of the spectrum, tells us how games based on movie licenses need to be rushed to market, and how games based on children's movies usually have low-budgets as as well. The article, oddly, does not mention Bioware's very good Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, which was based on a movie. Bioware is now working on one of its most exciting games yet. As detailed at Gamespot's approving Jade Empire Limited Edition Q&A, the game will include “a very interesting character modeled after the classic monk out of literature and films.” I think Matthew Sakey will see this as a step in the right direction.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

In with the old

Blizzard Entertainment has released the 1.12 patch for Starcraft. It's still officially supported, still being improved, seven years after it came out in 1998. And people still play it. Professionally. In official competitions.

The Megaman Collection came out half a year ago. The Megaman X Collection is on its way. Meanwhile, the Sonic Mega Collection just came out and it's been getting good reviews. All of these are releases for current consoles (PS2, Gamecube, XBox).

We live in a time where re-released NES games, ported to the Game Boy Advance but otherwise identical to the originals, are priced as high as new releases.

And with Mario Cart coming to Japanese arcades, Shigeru Miyamoto says "he is honored to have Namco's Pac-Man as a guest in the game."

Why do these old games captivate us even after time has moved on? Are they simply the games we played back when we were really into games? Perhaps, but the the rereleases I mentioned aren't collector's editions with expensive packaging and memorabilia; they have similar packaging and seem to be aimed at the same market as every other game on the same shelf. No, I think what these games have in common is depth. They were so packed with content that you could find new things even after playing them for years. See the Tool-assisted console game movies for some examples of this.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

When Worlds Collide

Sony's launch slogan for the Playstation 2, “Live in your world. Play in ours,” now seems like the pinnacle of corporate responsibility. Sony sold a new experience that people would want to explore for days at a time, and at the same time warned their customers to maintain a life outside the game! I can't imagine Sony ever acting like that again, not with Everquest II as a hot product. Now, BBC News | Technology | Losing yourself in online gaming is full of stories of people who play Everquest (or Worlds of Warcraft) for eleven hours a day or more, cancelling their real lives to do so. “As gaming becomes ever more mainstream, and games ever more immersive,” says the BBC, “there will be no hiding place for social problems.”

Sony, taking advantage of this, has signed a deal with Pizza Hut whereby you can order pizza from the game interface, have the credit card you used to pay for the game billed, and have your dinner shipped to your door. All without having to even get up to pick up the phone. And this deal is only the beginning. Chris Morris' current "Game Over" column for CNN Money, quotes Sony: “We don't want to do anything that will take people outside the game experience. We don't want to create armor that has the Nike swoosh or you have to drink Coke for health.” In other words, Sony plans to introduce even more in-game advertising that works at a subliminal level, affecting the player without being noticed.

People, games are fun. "Addictive," even. They work on a deep enough level to influence you without you noticing it. I hope we'll all remember that while we play in their worlds, we still live in ours.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Why the PSP will fail

From Engadget: Sony reveals pricing for first UMD movies as well as all of five launch titles: XXX, Hellboy, Resident Evil: Apocalypse, Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and House of Flying Daggers. These aren't exactly the best-reviewed, most popular, or even cult classic movies of the past few years. Quite the opposite, in fact. The long-awaited "Final Fantasy VII: Advent's Children" is still vaporware.

Let me get this straight. The PSP requires movies in a proprietary format and costs more than a portable DVD player. It also plays games, but will only have 3 hours battery life (the GBA SP's lasts 16 hours). I've seen pictures of people holding it, and it looks at least as bulky as an Atari Lynx.

Look at the history of handhelds. Technically, TurboExpress and the Sega Nomad pwned the competition. Like the PSP, they had hardware comparable to their console counterparts (they had to; they played the same games). What sunk them was their poor battery life, bulkiness and massive price: the exact same weakness that the PSP now has.

If the past can tell us anything, it's that the Playstation Portable will fail.

Of Light And Darkness

18 year-old Devin Thompson (who had previously been arrested for stealing cars) shot three police officers in 2003: When caught, he uttered a phrase that I should take for my email tagline: "Life is a video game. You've got to die sometime." Now attorney Jack Thompson is using the lawsuit bought by the victims' family as a springboard for his one-man crusade against the entertainment industry. As Grand Theft Auto sparks another lawsuit, Thompson will try to prove in court that the GTA games trained Devin to murder.

Doug Whatley's company, BreakAway Games, makes "serious games" for the vertical market. In an interview with Gamasutra he reveals that his biggest client is the US military. He mentions "Fortune 500 companies that will spend five to ten million dollars on a training games" and that "if you're teaching leadership skills to business leaders, there's a whole wide range of game types and styles that you could do." He has even worked on a VR project aimed at relieving the pain that cancer patients feel in chemotherapy.

This is where it comes together. No-one in the videogame world will ever look at Jack Thompson as anything other than a lunatic, while most who read Doug Whatley's interview will admire him. But doesn't Whatley's career prove Thompson's point? If videogames can train you to lead in business then what else can they train you for?

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Come Walk With Me

I believe that the first game with a warning label was Techno Cop for the Genesis. Titles like Death Duel and Slaughter Sport made it to that console soon after. The Genesis, after all, was a console for big kids and who didn't want to be as childish as those who still played the NES. Cut to the 90's. Eric Harris was a DOOM fanatic before he rampaged through Columbine High School. In 2003, two Grand Theft Auto III players acted out the game, killing one person and putting another in the hospital.

When I mentioned the GTA case to one friend (Rothgard on EQ2), he said, "well that's the audience that that game is aimed at."

Right now, the Interactive Entertainment Merchants Association (IEMA) is fighting a bill that would restrict the sale of violent video games to minors, while yesterday, GTA creator David Jones talked about All Points Bulletin, his upcoming MMORPG about gang war. As quoted in the TeamXbox article, GTA Creator Unveils All Points Bulletin, Jones states that "it has been [his] dream to create an online game experience that provides the player with the ultimate freedom to do whatever he wants." I wonder what he sees the average player of that game as.

All art is aimed at an audience. Is it ethical, then, to design games that appeal specifically to an audience prone to real-life violence? The answer: I don't know.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

This Is Where The Tech Is

Steven Pool's Trigger Happy mentions companies that make their living programming physics engines to sell to video game firms. It gives the example of MathEngine, and mentions that MathEngine often has to tweak its work to make it less realistic but more conducive to gameplay. This mirror's James Cameron's comment (found on one of the supplements on the Terminator SE DVD) that you cannot mathematically determine what works in art.

Today, FileFront has a new article, F! True Project Story: The Havoc Engine, which profiles another one of these companies, Havoc. A previous version of their engine powers Half Life 2, which is one of the most amazingly realistic games I've ever played. Now, having released a new version of their engine, they intend to someday model the movement of hair and clothes.

What about simpler 2D games? Simpler? Only by degrees. Joystiq has a new entry, See how a computer thinks, and run away screeching, reporting on just how many things a computer considers when making a single chess move. It's mind-blowing.

This is where the state of the art is.