Sunday, April 30, 2006

Steam Brigade

Here are some names to remember:
Joel Carlson--Art Director
Kirstyn Fletcher--Musician
Colin Fletcher--Programmer
Micah Joyner--SFX Engineer
Ryan Thom--Programmer/Producer

Who are they? The development team behind Steam Brigade, which is a wonderful, unexpected bit of brilliance. Their company is called Pedestrian Entertainment, and they all have huge amounts of talent.

What is Steam Brigade? It's a 2-D, side-scrolling real-time strategy game, and here's why it's so wonderful: imagine Yellow Submarine meeting Dr. Seuss. That's Steam Brigade. The game is bursting with beauty and style, the music is fantastic, and it's full of charm. It's also completely, compulsively addictive.

A demo? Of course, and you can find it here:
Steam Brigade Demo.

And here's the link to the game's website:
Steam Brigade.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Bosnian Pyramid Hoax?

Remember those two stories I linked to recently that indicated there might be a giant pyramid in Bosnia? Well, thanks to Kreg Richmond, here's an excerpt to a very different perspective on what's going on:
The world's oldest and largest pyramid found in Bosnia? It sounds incredible. The story has swept the media, from the Associated Press and the BBC, from papers and websites in the U.S. to those in India and Australia. Too bad that it is not a credible story at all. In fact, it is impossible.

...And there it is. A self-described archaeologist, who believes the Maya and others are descended from Atlanteans who came from the Pleiades, has been accepted as a legitimate researcher by many news outlets. His ideas of early pyramids in Bosnia, which is simply not possible, has been accepted as a major discovery. How could this happen?

If you want to categorize this farce, it seems a standard-issue "amateur/maverick confounds establishment with great discovery" story, which no doubt makes it appealing to uncritical reporters looking for a big story. This kind of tale is a staple of the pseudoarchaeology or fantastic archaeology genre. And the term "pyramidiot" has been applied to those obsessed with pyramids and who offer strange interpretations of them on websites and in books and television programs.

That's scorching. And it comes from the online site of Archaeology Magazine, which is published by the Archaelogical Institute of America. Here's a link to the full story:
Bosnian Rebuttal.


Here's quite a find: there's a secret song in Guitar Hero. According to Trippolette (thanks Kotaku), the song is "stylistically divergent from the rest of the music in the game, leaning more into the genre of prog-rock and even fusion than most of the songs."

There's also a link at that site to a YouTube video of someone playing the song, and it looks very, very tough.

History and the Olive Tree

Sirius sent me a link to a fascinating article over at MSNBC. Here's an excerpt:
Scientists have discovered the remains of a single olive tree, buried alive during a massive volcanic eruption during the Late Bronze Age. A study that dates this tree, plus another study that dates a series of objects from before, during and after the eruption, now offer a new timeline for one of the earliest chapters of European civilization.

The new results suggest that the sophisticated and powerful Minoan civilization (featured in the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur) and several other pre-Homeric civilizations arose about a century earlier and lasted for longer than previously thought.

The new timeframe also downplays Egypt’s role in the region, suggesting that the cultures of the Levant, the stretch of land that includes Syria, Israel and Palestine, may have been a more important outside influence.

It's a pretty remarkable story of scientists as detectives and how complex it can be to decipher history. Here's the full link:
Olive Branch Solves a Stone Age Mystery.

Rising To #2


I don't want to turn into "outrage guy." That's no fun. But stuff is so stupid this week that it's really, really hard to avoid.

Remember the freezing issues with the 360 version of MLB2K6? You know, the issue that turned your sixty dollar game into a drink coaster.

Last night, 2KSports issued this announcement (thanks
2K Sports has finalized a solution that solves the issue found with Xbox 360 HDD systems when playing Major League Baseball 2K6. The 2K Sports QA team pinpointed and confirmed with Microsoft a cache issue with replays that users with the HDD systems may encounter. The cache issue has been limited to less than 10% of the Major League Baseball 2K6 Xbox 360 users. When these machines are powered down during gameplay, the cache on the HDD may become corrupted and may result in the system “freeze” issue. 2K Sports has isolated the cause and has created a Title Update to correct this issue that is now available.

As soon as I read this, I started laughing, because it's obviously complete bullshit. Look at what they're saying:
1. "The cache issue has been limited to les than 10% of the MLB2K6 Xbox 360 users."
2. "When these machines are powered down during gameplay, the cache on the HDD may become corrupted and may result in the system "freeze" issue.

To start with, they're blaming the users, which is pretty funny, since this game is a bug-filled crapfest and the user is the last place they should be looking. Even better, though, it appears that they're claiming that ten percent of users, at least, are powering down the console "during gameplay."

Are you kidding me?

It was easy to figure out from their statement that they still don't know what's really happening. They found one possible cause, an obscure one, and they're so desperate to issue a fix that they're claiming it's the whole cause.

Not to mention pulling that "ten percent" number out of their ass.

So I hopped over to Operation Sports, and the forums are jammed with people who are pissed off. Depending on your luck, the patch may have
1) Fix your freezing problem.
2) Do nothing.
3) Cause freezing for some people who had no problem before.

That's what I call customer service.

I think at this point, we can officially put this game at #2 (with a bullet) on the list of the worst sports game releases of all time.

I don't need to tell you who's #1. Just remember those fumbles where no one tried to recover the ball. Forever.

Dear Sir

The subject line of a "product offering" e-mail I received yesterday:
For your wife’s last b-day you gave her a vibrator because of your hopeless Erectile Dysfunction.

Damn it, man, stop looking through my credit card statements!

The EA Malaise

EA is announcing earnings next week, and they'll probably suck. Again.

They'll blame it on the 360 launch, or the PS3 delay, or Mrs. Johnson's spotted cow that just doesn't give much milk these days.

What they won't acknowledge, though, is the real problem: they're not making very good games.

In the last three months, here are the top rated games at the absolute authority, but it gives a good aggregate of the review scores.

Some of these games are listed multiple times on multiple platforms, so I'm just pulling the highest score regardless of platform. And only games released in the last three months with 20+ reviews are included--75 games met the criteria.

The ranking below is based on average review score.
1. Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (Konami)
2. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2K Games)
3. Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (Ubisoft)
4. Daxter (SCEA)
5. Kingdom Hearts II (Square Enix)
6. World Soccer Winning Eleven 9 (Konami)
7. Burnout Revenge (EA)
8. Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (SCEA)
9. Galactic Civilizations II (Stardock)
10.Metroid Prime: Hunters (Nintendo)
11. Tetris DS (Nintendo)
12. Fight Night Round 3 (EA)
13. TOCA Race Driver 3 (Codemasters)
14. The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle Earth II (EA)
15. MLB '06: The Show (SCEA)
16. Mega Man Powered up (Capcom)
17. Metal Gear Acid 2 (Konami)
18. Tomb Raider: Legend (Eidos)
19. Shadow Hearts: From the New World (Xseed Games)
20. Drill Dozer (Nintendo)

Here are the totals by company:
Konami--3 (1,6,17)
SCEA (Sony)--3 (4,8,15)
EA--3 (7,12,14)
Nintendo--3 (10,11,20)

No other company had more than one game in the top twenty.

EA only has three games in the top twenty, and only one in the top ten. Pretty weak for what is allegedly (according to EA) the best gaming company in the world. It's particularly weak when EA can devote resources to a game that most other companies can only dream about.

Well, maybe EA didn't release many games in the last three months. Let's look at what else they released and where they ranked out of the 75 released games that had 20+ reviews.
29. The Sims 2: Open for Business
31. Black
33. The Godfather
34. Battlefield 2: Modern Combat (360)
63. Fifa Street 2
69. From Russia With Love

Nine games released--three in the top third overall. Average.

The alleged blockbusters Black and The Godfather? Barely in the top half! Something is wrong when a company has a tremendous advantage financially, puts huge resources into two premier games, and those games are barely above average.

These games will all sell better than they're reviewed, because of EA's enormous marketing dollars, but that can't hide the ugly truth: most of these games just aren't very good.

And that's the real problem.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


DQ reader Kai asked me to post this and I'm glad to do so.

Hey Bill,
From Rich LaPorte learning html, to your columns on the front page, to three message boards and a blog, I've been around this community for a long time. So with that in mind I hope you won't object to me asking for your help.

Next month on May 20-21 I'm going to be walking a marathon and a half, about 40 miles, in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Boston. My mother died of cancer when I was only 8.0, and I'm dedicating my Walk to her. The cancer that took her wasn't breast cancer, it was a much rarer form of cancer, but I find the Avon Walk's focus on both fighting cancer and on honoring the women in our lives to be a perfect fit for my purpose.

If your readers can relate to a guy who grew up on King's Quest and Mario Bros. and who balked at jogging -one- mile, let alone walking 40, I can use all the help I can get for this cause and would really appreciate it if you could post a link to my website. This really is a good charity and it does a lot to help keep more mothers, daughters, sisters and wives in our lives.

My Walk page is at , or if that isn't working for some reason, at .

There's a lovely picture of Kai with his mother at the site, and I hope that some of you will be able to contribute. Thanks very much.


From CNN:
Nintendo officially ditched its long-used codename for its next generation machine Thursday, revealing Wii as the final name for the product.


"Revolution" was a great name for a console. It might well have been the greatest console name ever. So, of course, Nintendo changed it to something totally incomprehensible.

Don't even try to tell me you're surpriised. Nintendo is your slightly creepy uncle who never made it past the fourth grade and can't have a normal conversation, but he's a world-class banjo player.

Nintendo is both incomprehensibly brilliant and incomprehensibly stupid, often in the same hour. They get far more credit these days for games they didn't make. You know, like this: "Katamari Damacy? Great game. It's the kind of game Nintendo would make." Except, of course, Nintendo didn't make it.

Instead, they made their sixtieth Mario game. Or the third version of the Nintendo DS.

I still think the Revolution (excuse me--"Wii") is a novel, terrific concept. But Nintendo has no capacity for its own brilliance.

Ton O' News

Lots of stuff happening in the last few days, so I'm going to have one commentary instead of breaking it out into pieces.

First, Microsoft wants to buy Massive. You know Massive--the guys who want to jam ads up our ass in every game.
Excerpt from Yahoo News (thanks Frank Regan):
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq:MSFT - news) plans to pay $200 million to $400 million for Massive Inc., a privately held company that places ads in video games, the Wall Street Journal said on Wednesday.

I think there's one overwhelming likelihood here: Microsoft uses advertising to create a fully-functioning tier of Xbox Live that's free or almost free. You'll still be able to pay the regular subscription price to be ad free, but if you don't want to pay, you can still have access to all the things you couldn't do right now with the Silver (free) subscription.

That's a big win for Microsoft on all fronts. It makes more of Xbox Live available to more people, and it allows them to generate huge ad revenue from the Live service.

Maybe this will shake out some other way, but I can't see anything else that's even remotely logical.

Julian Bell sent me a link to the latest EA class-action lawsuit settlement, which was announced yesterday. The full article is over at Gamasutra, but here's an excerpt:
Software engineers have won a $14.9 million settlement from Electronic Arts, in a settlement of a California class-action lawsuit over unpaid overtime, following a similar $15.6 million settlement reached in October with graphic artists.

According to the new settlement, some of the entry level programmers will be reclassified as hourly workers, making them eligible for overtime pay. In return, they will be allowed a one time grant of restricted company stock, but will no longer receive stock options or bonuses.

... In the wake of the first settlement last year, Electronic Arts reclassified around 440 employees, including 200 entry level artists, so that they could claim overtime. Major deadlines were also moved to Fridays instead of Mondays in order to encourage a normal five day working week.

What I think is most revealing here is what it says EA did after the first settlement--they moved major deadlines to Fridays instead of Mondays. Now this is a company with seemingly endemic problems with their labor practices. It's architectural.

And their big solution is to move major deadlines to Fridays.

Phew, glad that's fixed. Way to go, executives. Light another cigar with a fifty and cash in another ten thousand stock options.

Darren Love sent me some interesting information about next generation DVD players and how much they'll cost. Future Shop (Canada) has a Toshiba HD-DVD player listed for $699 (again, in Canadian dollars, I believe), and a Samsung Blu-Ray player listed for $1299.

That's not going to be absolutely representative of the delta between formats, but a 50% difference is a reasonable guess. So here's the question: can a demonstrably superior format (Blu-Ray) be adopted as the market standard when it's 50% more expensive to buy a Blu-Ray player?

Sony obviously thinks that the answer to this question is "yes." I think they're wrong.

We'll know more when Blu-Ray optical drives for computers start shipping. But the differences in the capabilities of Blu-Ray and HD-DVD may well be lost on the consumer market unless they can see the difference. And they won't be able to, because Blu-Ray's primary advantage to the consumer is storage capacity, not image quality.

This is looking like an utter disaster for both formats, though. Think about it: the 360 was released with more games than HD-DVD or Blu-Ray will be released with films. Man, that's stupid, and it should give you an idea of how badly thought-out the rollouts of these products are. Very expensive, compared to regular DVD players, and almost no content. Why in the world wouldn't you ship these with 50-100 titles available, and premium titles at that?

The Free MMO List

Clyde Bielss has put together an outstanding list of free MMO and MMORPG games. There are literally hundreds of games listed, and each game has a screenshot, a description, and a link to the website. It's a fantastic piece of work, and here's the link (thanks Kotaku):
Clyde's List.

A First Time Event That We Hope Will Be a Great Success

"Hey, they're having a neighborhood event," Gloria said.

"It's about time," I said. "You know I live for those."

"Everyone is bringing food from their culture and we're all going to sample them. Look, here's the e-mail." Gloria pointed to her computer screen and I took a look.

This is a first time event that we hope will be a great success and one we can continue on an annual basis.

The vision here is to set up tables around the parking lot. Each table will represent a culture/country and will have native potluck dishes brought by the attendees. To make things more interesting tables can be decorated accordingly and include an activity or game native to each country that can be enjoyed by the attendees. Below are some of the cultures represented in our neighborhood….

Volunteers are needed to represent as many cultures as possible.

"That's fantastic!" I said. "But it needs a catchy name--how about The Dishes of Dysentery?"

I really enjoy talking to people from different cultures in our neighborhood (even the fellow next door who is Taiwanese, a Mormon, and believes in space aliens, and if you think I'm kidding, go look at the Thanksgiving post from last year). The number of cultures we have here is my single favorite thing about our neighborhood. But unless there's a health inspector at the buffet table with a thermometer and a checklist, no way am I touching any of this food. I'm forty-five and that's the age when everyone and everything starts looking like a germ bomb. In another five years I'll go full-on Ice Station Zebra.

I'm willing to participate, though. And what's most representative of my personal culture would be an oatmeal cookie from Einstein's, a bacon and turkey sandwich from Bear Rock Cafe, and a container of yogurt. Hello, the world!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


From CNET:
The Oklahoma Senate on Monday unanimously approved a controversial bill that would make it a crime to sell violent video games to children under 18, according to The Oklahoman (registration required).

HB3004, by Senate Republican leader Glenn Coffee, adds violent video games to a list of products--including outdoor advertisements for sexually explicit businesses--described in Oklahoma state law as harmful to minors. Coffee said studies have shown that violent games can make kids more aggressive.

The bill passed 47-0 in the state Senate...

I bolded that last line, by the way.

I wasn't going to comment on this, because it's just the stupid-ass bill of the week that will get overturned immediately in federal court, but then I remembered something.

Let's put this in perspective: there was far more legislative consensus with this bill than there was on a voter approved ban on COCKFIGHTING.

For our international readers, that word may bring strange and confusing images into your head. Trust Google, use Google, and then come back.

In 2002, Oklahomans passed a ballot measure banning cockfighting. That's 2002. The ballot measure passed 56.2% to 43.8%. Yes, it's mind-boggling that 43% of voters who participated in the election didn't want to ban cockfighting, but nothing surprises me anymore, really.

In 2004, the honorable crazy nutbag Senator Frank Shurden introduced bills to make the legality of cockfighting optional by county. It failed, but only by a vote of 26 to 22! Twenty-two senators voted in favor of the bill.

Oklahoma: not one of my vacation destinations. Ever.

Rise of Legends: On Its Way

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends has gone gold and will ship May 9 in the U.S. and May 26 in the UK (thanks Game Gossip).

Brian Reynolds has never sucked. And that is a very, very small club.

On Death

Several of you e-mailed me with information on how your favorite MMO handles death. Three games, in particular, seem to have decent systems, and here are some details.

I haven't heard much about Auto Assault (and zero buzz in the first few weeks is a bad, bad sign), but their way of handling death is totally cool. Just reading about it made me curious to play the game. Not enough to actually play, mind you, but it did make me curious.

1. World of Warcraft
As best I can understand, when you die, you're resurrected in the nearest graveyard, and you can either reconsitute yourself there (with some temporary penalties related to weapons and hit points) or go on a corpse run to retrieve your corpse in the field. No XP penalty. I'm sure one of you guys will e-mail me with the exact information, and I'll update this post as soon as I hear from you.

Update: from Paul Costello of
When you die, you click a button and appear in ghost form at the nearest graveyard. You then have two choices.

First off, you can run back to your corpse, and as long as you're in proximity, you can rez with no real penalties, other than about half health, which takes about 20 seconds to recuperate. No XP loss. I double checked that yesterday.

Second choice is you can be resurrected immediately by the spirit healer, which is a ghostly figure that resides at each graveyard. You'd do this if you didn't want to do the corpse run for some reason - maybe you were about to call it a night and are signing off anyway. When you let the spirit healer rez you, you get something called rez sickness that seriously affects your stats, making you pretty much useless in combat. It lasts 10 minutes, a bit less for lower level characters. You also take 25% damage to your equipment, so it'll cost you some money to repair. But you're always repairing your equipment from damage it's taken during combat anyway, so it's really not that big a deal, just more significant than usual. But there's no XP penalty.

2. Guild Wars
From Brian Meyer:
Just wanted to chime in on your MMO comment about losing experience. I haven’t played many MMOs, but I have been playing Guild Wars for about 6 months now and I would suggest that you try it.

The only ‘penalty’ for dying in Guild Wars is a temporary ‘death penalty’. This means that if you character dies, anyone in your party can resurrect you. Each time this happens, you get a 15% Death Penalty added to you. What this means is that your HP and Energy (Mana/MP) are 15% lower than they usually are. Die again, and you now have 30% penalty, all the way to a cap of 60%.

Here is the interesting part: the penalty only applies in the mission you are currently in, and you can ‘work it off’ by killing stuff and gaining XP. So the only way you have to start over, is if your entire party wipes out. In this case, you all go back to the nearest town/outpost.

3. Auto Assault
From Noah Dullis: I was reading your entry about patience and how many games discourage experimentation by punishing the player by setting back their progress when taking chances that don't pan out, particularly with MMOs. I know I've had the same complaint with every online RPG I've played and even now I'm so used to traditional RPGs that I find myself thinking "I should probably save here" just as I'm about to attack a high level mob. It's frustrating. I'd suggest you check out Auto Assault. I picked it up last week and I'm having a blast with it. The change in scenery from sword-and-sorcery fantasy is refreshing enough alone, but the game is very fun to play and surprisingly deep. Most importantly though:

No death penalty.


This game encourages you to be reckless and to have fun. It wants you to fling your car off a 100 foot cliff in pursuit of a car you've been chasing for miles to see what'll happen when you both land. It wants you to barrel into the middle of a mutant stronghold, guns blazing, and see how many of the bastards you can wipe out before you're car explodes and the smokey hulk goes flying through the air with full Havok 2 physics. It wants you to ram your car into the broadside of a tanker truck in the middle of a convoy and see if you can survive the resulting fireball and chaos. And when you wipe out, you just hit the evac button and a friendly rescue team flies in, winches your car up, and drops you off at the nearest repair station, at no cost to you. No money, no item deterioration, no XP loss. It's great.

Welcome to The Gap

As an aside (like that's a surprise), I'm listening to Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps. Have there ever been better opening and closing songs to an album than My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue) and Hey, Hey, My My (Into the Black)? If you ever wanted to know what Neil Young was like and only have ten minutes free, just listen to these two songs. You'll know all you need to and have fifty-seven seconds to spare.

Gloria wanted to buy some shorts, so we went to The Gap on Saturday night. Ladies, here's your fashion forecast for this spring in regards to shorts: Knees are out. Asscheeks are in.

Every pair of women's shorts were either below the knee or threatening to track the crack. So heed this warning, my friends: if you dare walk through a mall this summer, you will see infinite galaxies of cellulite. It's The Year of the Big Bang of the Big Butt.

Gloria was trying on a rack of clothes, and as I went into my screensaver walk--half speed, arms crossed, staring blankly--I noticed three other men doing the same. We looked like airplanes circling O'Hare, waiting for landing instructions.

After a wait of several days, Gloria emerged, and as we walked to the register I saw a trust fund baby standing beside us.

It was a clothing dummy.

"How in the hell did they do that?" I asked, pointing. "That headless clothing dummy has a trust fund, he's eighteen, and he's an asshole."

"You're right," Gloria said. "I bet he has one of those little pastel sweaters, too."

"Which he would have tied around his shoulders--if he had a neck," I said.

On our way out, we saw a woman walking in enormous wedge sandals. "I've never understood why anyone would wear those," Gloria said. "They're just not attractive."

"They look like giant hunks of cheese," I said. "Why would anyone strap a giant wedge of cheese to their foot?"

We just ask questions. We don't always answer them.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Gal Civ II Patch

The Gal Civ II 1.1 patch has been released (thanks Blue's) and you can get it here:
Gal Civ II Patch.

Just like I believe Oblivion will be PC game of the year (already), I strongly believe that Gal Civ II will be Strategy game of the year. It's a terrific game.

Cool Links From You Guys

Somehow I forgot to post this from last week, so here you go.

From David Gloier, a link to a story about a secret Russian nuclear submarine base. Here's an excerpt:
Almost the entire population of Balaklava at the time worked at the Base, even family members could not visit the town of Balaklava without good reason and identification. The base remained operational after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 until 1993 when the decommissioning process started and the warheads and low yield torpedos were removed.

Most of the rest of the story consists of photographs of the base, and here's the link:
Secret Submarine Base.

From Brian Witte, an update on the Bosnian pyramid story. Here's an excerpt from the article over at Yahoo News:
Researchers on Wednesday unearthed geometrically cut stone slabs that they said could form part of the sloping surface of what they believe is an ancient pyramid lying beneath a huge hill.

..."These are the first uncovered walls of the pyramid," Semir Osmanagic, a Bosnian archaeologist who studied the pyramids of Latin America for 15 years, said of the stonework found Wednesday.

"We can see the surface is perfectly flat. This is the crucial material proof that we are talking pyramids," he said.

Full link here:
Bosnian Pyramids.

Dear Rest of the World

I've seen stories indicating that Tom Cruise is visiting your countries and wowing you.

Please, Rest of the World, listen to us on this one: Tom Cruise may look tiny and cute like a Ken doll, but he is a gigantic, scary asshole. Please do not giggle and throw him parades. Thank you.

Gaming Notes

Bill Abner has a Q&A with Gary Gorski about Total Pro Golf, which sounds like it could fill a giant hole in the golf game market. It's an interesting interview and you can find it here:
Total Pro Golf Q&A.

Next, Matthew Sakey has a review of Oblivion. I don't agree with the review (it's far more negative than I feel about the game), but I'm posting it because Matt's an interesting writer and his work is always worth reading. Here's the link:
Oblivion Review.

It's not that Matt doesn't make some valid points--he does, certainly--but I think a game as huge as Oblivion can always be faulted. What's good about the game so overwhelms the negative that I still think, unquestionably, it's the PC game of the year.

Glen Haag sent me a link to a video review of DS Tetris from a site called "The Game Rag." Damn, those guys are funny. Really funny. Here are a few of their latest headlines:
--France Culture Minister Knights Sonic the Hedgehog
--Isiah Thomas Baffled by GM Mode in NBA 06
--Street Fighter II's Zangief Admits to Abusing Steroids
--IGN Says Swiss Miss: The Video Game is "delicious!"

Here's one more news excerpt:
Capcom announced today that they would finance a film adaptation of the video game adaptation of the film adaptation of their Street Fighter franchise.

For gaming, that's Onion quality. Here's the link:
The Game Rag.

Game Tunnel

I really like Game Tunnel.
Game Tunnel.

If you've never heard of Game Tunnel before, it's a website devoted to games from independent developers. They do an excellent job of covering the indie scene, and they also review a ton of smaller games that don't get much attention otherwise.

I'm very confident that as development budgets increase, more and more of the best games each year will come from small, independent developers. Why? Because those huge games will never get finished--they'll be released with huge numbers of bugs, and there will be attempts made to "fix" them with patches, but the games are so big that truly finishing them requires an expense beyond what most companies are willing to commit.

A huge, sprawling game like Oblivion is the exception to this rule, and it's also why a game like this should be treasured. 95% of games this size are either never really finished or just aren't fun. Sports games are the same way--in fact, they're the poster child for this problem. Tons of new features every year, most of which don't work very well, and there's no commitment to fix everything because--hey!--we have to start working on next year's game.

So in an environment like this, the small, independent developer has a huge advantage. He is far less likely to define a game with a vision that can never be completed. He doesn't need to sell a ton of copies for it to be worthwhile for him to continue working on the game. And he doesn't have the corporate mentality that is stifling the biggest game companies today.

One of Game Tunnel's best features is the "Monthly Indie Game Round-Up." Each month, they'll review 10-15 indie games (three reviewers per game), and the reviews are straightforward and useful. They also make it easy to get to each game's website if you're interested. Last night, I reviewed the last several months of columns and downloaded five or six demos that I'll be looking at over the next few days.

I already know that one of them is pretty amazing, and I'll be telling you about it tomorrow or Wednesday.

Here's the link to the Monthly Round-up page:
Monthly Round-up.

The Crush

I really enjoy eating at a place called Bear Rock Cafe here in Austin. It's about five minutes from our house, the food is terrific, and the people there are some of the nicest I've ever encountered in a retail situation. Here's a link to the website (it's a franchise):

I probably eat there five days a week, and sometimes I'll take Eli 4.8 with me. There's an employee at this Bear Rock named Nicki (I'm not sure that's how she spells her name), a very nice lady, and Eli has decided that he has a crush on her.

Actually, he's decided that she has a crush on him. "Daddy," he said last week, "while you were ordering, she was smiling at me. She LIKES me."

So yesterday we go to Bear Rock because he wants to see Nicki (works out great for me because I like the food so much). I've told her that he has a crush on her, so when she sees him she comes out from behind the register and fusses over him for a minute or two. Eli is so shy that he can barely say anything, but he's beaming as we walk off.

We sit down at our table and I say, "You really had a conversation going with Nicki there."

"OH, YEAH," he said. "She gave me THE BIG LOVE."

"And you even managed to not be shy," I said.

"That's right," he said. "You just have to behind your fear and do what you have to do."

Monday, April 24, 2006


Here are a couple of odd but interesting links about commuting.

First, via Slashdot, OmniNerd has the story of a commuter who gathered detailed and precise information on his 20+ minute commute--for a year. It's a pretty interesting read. Here's the link:
Beating Traffic.

I've thought about doing this for my morning drive into work. There's only one stoplight before I get onto the highway, but it's literally a 4+ minute wait between cycles (I've timed it). There's a FedEx substation near us, and they leave en masse around 8. If I get lined up with those trucks, it's a long, long, wait.

There's also an article today at MSNBC titled "The Long and Grinding Road." It's about a group they call "extreme commuters," and here's an excerpt:
"Extreme commuters" who travel more than 90 minutes to work, one way, are the fastest-growing group of commuters, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 3.4 million commuters take that long road to work every day, double the rate of extreme commuters in 1990.

It's a pretty thorough article (for MSNBC), and here's the link:
Extreme Commuters.


I used to be a patient person.

Hey now, stop that laughing. That was a heartfelt admission.

All right, that last sentence was bullshit. I can't even type the word "heartfelt" with a straight face.

There was a time, though, when I could watch an hour of commercials during a football or basketball game. No problem. I watched regular season basketball and hockey. I could replay the same level in a game--fifty times--and it never crossed my mind to stop.

Here's how tolerant I was when I was in my twenties. I played TV Sports: Football constantly (on the Amiga 500, one of the greatest gaming platforms ever). As originally released, the game had a bug where it would occasionally lock up during the cut scenes after a touchdown. When that happened, the Amiga rebooted and you had no choice but to start the game over.

I kept playing.

When the Amiga rebooted, I'd curse and start the game again. Eventually, Cinemaware fixed that, but I played well over a hundred games (and probably rebooted during twenty of them, at least) before they did.

Boy, things are different today.

Yesterday, I watched pro basketball and pro hockey for the first time this season, because the playoffs had started. I don't watch any regular season games anymore, unless it's football. I almost never watch a sporting event anymore without using the TIVO, because I can't stand to watch the commercials. This time, though, I flipped back and forth, because hockey doesn't have many television timeouts.

If you've never seen the NHL playoffs, by the way, there's nothing better in sports. And with the rule changes this year, and the officials enforcing those changes, the game is so much more fluid and exciting than it was before.

So the hockey game ends and I flip back over to the Pacers-Nets game. There's a minute left in the game, and the parade of timeouts begin. Finally with 0.9 seconds left, Indiana takes a two-point lead, and there's a timeout (I'm not sure which team called it). After the timeout, the teams come back on to the court--and the other team calls timeout.

At which point I turn off the television. I've been watching the game for over an hour (I started about halftime), and I've got quite a bit of time invested, but there were so many delays that at some point I just stopped caring.

So last night I was playing Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, which is a phenomenal game, and I spent about ten minutes very slowly and meticulously working my way through part of a level. I've almost reached the next checkpoint.

Then I get shot and killed.

I get taken back--way back. Nearly ten minutes in game time. It may not have been ten minutes for everyone, but I play the game pretty slowly.

So when I realize that I've lost ten minutes, and might well lose ten minutes again, I do the only sensible thing I can think of--I turn off the game.

Back in my twenties, I would have kept playing--and playing--because there was nothing else better to do. Now, though, if a game pisses me off, there's always something better to do. I could make lists of things that are better to do.

I don't know if it's just me that's changed, or if the world around me has--probably both--but it's very different now. And I'm not sure that game mechanics that make you go backwards work anymore.

In the old days, that was part of the challenge. Games were much harder--sometimes, brutally so--and repetition was a key ingredient. Now, though, punitive save systems just seem like a waste of time.

Even worse, checkpoint save systems, which ostensibly increase tension, are just a bad gameplay mechanic. They discourage experimentation. Can you imagine a worse gameplay mechanic than one that actively discourages experimentation?

MMO's are usually the same way, which is why I don't play online games very often. Want to battle something that cons above your level, just for the thrill? Sorry--get killed and you lose experience. Do that two or three times, and you might lose a level that took you hours to reach. So online games, which should encourage all kinds of experimentation to keep the experience fresh, actually do the opposite--they penalize creativity.

That doesn't make any sense.

I don't mind not making progress, but I'll be damned if I'm giving any back.

Friday, April 21, 2006

More Oblivion

I've stopped playing Oblivion.


It's a killer game. I've already put forty hours into it and I haven't been bored for one second. But I really, really want to see this game in all its graphical glory. And my system just can't handle it. I had already decided to upgrade this year, and I'll be building a new system when AMD releases processors using the AM2 socket (which looks like late May). So late last week, I stopped playing. I'm going to wait, grind my teeth for a month, then start the game again with an SLI system.

This puts Oblivion into the special Hall of Fame reserved for games I wanted to play so badly that I bought a computer for them. It joins original inductees TV Sports Football (Amiga 500), Mean 18 (Apple IIGS), and Front Page Sports Football (I didn't actually buy a computer to play that, but I convinced my boss that I absolutely needed a work system at home, then upgraded the hell out of it).

Plus, in another month I'm hoping that the first patch will have been released, many more mods will be available, and the downloadable content pricing will have sorted itself out. Look, I want Bethesda to succeed with the downloadable content. I want them to be able to keep making these great games. I wrote yesterday's column because I believed they were missing a huge opportunity to both increase their sales and increase our satisfaction level.

As it was released, Oblivion certainly represents one of the best gaming values I've ever seen, a 100+ hour game in a rich, vibrant world. Does anyone think this won't be the PC game of the year? Just hand that award out now.

So if I bust Bethesda's chops over something, it's in that context. I hold them to a very high standard because of what they've accomplished. They've earned that standard.

In the meantime, here's another story, this one from James Blair. This has some information that might be a spoiler on a minor quest, so please consider that before continuing (but it's a great story):
I have a thief/assassin character in the game, going through the quest lines for both. I accomplish a job in Bruma, where I dropped a stuffed head on a homeowner while he was sitting in his easy chair below. He had a servant (Gromm I believe). After the job, I collect my commission, and be-bop along doing whatever. Since my thief fence is in Bruma, I was back in town some point later. My fence hangs out in a local bar there, and apparently, so did Gromm after the loss of his employer. The first time back in the bar, Gromm is going nuts and attacks some NPC, who beats a path out of the pub, and Gromm follows him outside. Curious, I follow them both out. Well, the NPC goes away (home I suppose) and Gromm is outside the bar. In a short conversation, Gromm is disconsolate about failing to protect his boss, and appears agitated. I fence my goods inside, and leave with Gromm still sulking outside, but he is no longer attacking anyone, and his weapon is put away.

After some further period, I'm back in town. Back to the bar to meet my fence, and guess who's there? Gromm! This time Gromm goes berserk, and starts wailing on a patron. People take cover, someone goes invisible, the bar owner draws a weapon. Then some guard comes inside. Then it gets interesting. The guard and Gromm take it outside. I guess Gromm has friends, because the fracas quickly becomes Gromm and two friends, and about 3 guards (the bar is near a gate). Then people start running down the street, picking up guards and others along the way. From what I could tell, some were pro-guards and some against. Some people bailed out and ran into buildings. Some came out of buildings and joined the fray.

At the end, there appeared to be a dead guard, no sign of Gromm, and several dead civilians, one of which Gromm killed, some of which were killed by the guards. Now, the most amazing thing of all (to me) beyond this whole affair was that both the owner, and the owner's wife, of a shop called Novorama (or something close) were killed. There is now NO SHOP called Novorama operating. The world was completely and permanently changed by actions I had only remotely been involved in. I've been at this hobby about as long as you, and I've never experienced something like this. My mind is simply blown.

There will be a game released someday without a pre-defined story line, in a world like Oblivion's, and the A.I. will spontaneously generate stories based on character interactions. Maybe that won't happen for ten years--maybe longer--but the day that game gets released, we'll all look back and talk about Oblivion.

Here are links to a couple of resoures that are very useful. First is a link from Vahur Teller to an Oblivion tweak guide.
Tweak Guide.

Second is a mod created by Overlord which assembles a large number of the best mods into one package. Lots to choose from here, and be sure to check out the readme file.
Overlord's Mod Pack.

NPD Sales Data

This is interesting (from Gamasutra):
Following yesterday's announcement that March 2006 U.S. game software sales were $499 million last month, down 8 percent from March 2005, when titles such as Gran Turismo 4 helped drive more significant sales, further data released by NPD has helped illuminate specific titles.

As far as charting specific game sales, it was revealed that, at least by dollar amount spent, Square Enix's Kingdom Hearts II was the most popular North American game in March. However, the game was closely followed by notable Xbox 360 titles Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter and Oblivion, and then by Criterion and Electronic Arts' Black for PlayStation 2.

Notably languishing a little further down the chart was EA's The Godfather, however - the top SKU, for PlayStation 2, made No. 10 in the charts, just above the Guitar Hero bundle at No.11.

There's lots of good, strange stuff in there. First, the PS2 is dead.

Dead, dead, dead.

Let me get this straight. Sony has an installed base in North America of over 40 million units, and the Xbox 360 has maybe 2 million, which means that the 360's installed base is five percent of the PS2. But two of the top three best-selling games in March were 360 games? Ouch. And eight of the top twenty titles across all platforms were 360 games.

So when you hear analysts saying that the PS2 is still going to be well-supported for years because of the size of the installed base, ignore them. That base means nothing if those people stop buying games, or if the market is so saturated with new titles that there's almost no way for a single game to stand out. As a developer, you might well be able to make more money releasing a low-budget, solid game via the Xbox Live Marketplace than you could releasing it on the PS2 platform.

Those sales numbers are certainly going to be skewed to some degree by the higher unit cost of 360 titles. But it also shows that if you make a great game, people are willing to pay $59.95 for it.

What they're not willing to do, though, is pay that for a crappy game, which is why that price point will never hold. And it's also why there are going to be some games that drag studios down with them.

Here's the other item that leaps out like a wet fish to the face: The Godfather, which was supposed to be a gigantic hit for EA, is instead a catastrophe. The top selling SKU of the game finished ONE spot ahead of Guitar Hero?


So let me get this straight: The Godfather had a development budget that was probably fifty times (or more) what Guitar Hero had to work with. It had every game magazine in the country writing glowing previews of the game. It had EA's marketing muscle. And it barely outsells a game that was released over four months ago?


I Think I Saw a Battery-Powered Fondue Pot

From CNN
Almost 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes happen within three seconds of some form of driver distraction, according to the report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

Are you kidding me? Do you mean that the lady driving beside me in traffic yesterday who was smoking, talking on her hand-held cellphone, and drinking a Big Gulp at the same time was distracted?

I can only assume that she'd already finished her taco.

The World of Eli 4.8

Eli 4.8 told Gloria this week that he didn’t like women with bent hair.

The dishwasher stopped working on Monday night, and I was fiddling with it and discussing it with Gloria when Eli walked up. He listened for a few seconds, then said “Well, according to my fascinations, here’s what’s happening. Water from the top is bouncing off near the soap and vibrinating.”

I talked to Eli about teamwork yesterday. I told him that because Gloria was sick, we both needed to help out more. He took the discussion very seriously, and when we were done, he said “We need a minotaur on the team. We need a minotaur in this family. So tomorrow I’ll need to wear a tail and I have to have an axe.”

I vaguely know where that came from, but believe me, sometimes you’re better off not knowing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Gal Civ II Contest

Jason Price over at Talk Strategy ( let me know that they're having a contest to give away a copy of the collector's edition of Gal Civ II. Very tasty prize, and here's a link to the contest:
Talk Strategy Contest.

He's also taking questions about the 'near final' preview build of The Sword of the Stars:


I wrote a while back about a game called The Journey to Wild Divine
( It was a foo-foo New Age game complete with a custom controller that measured your pulse and fingernail salinity (I made up that fingernail thing, but the controller had clips that fit over each of your fingers and it did measure something or other). If you could stand to wade through the New Age presentation, you would eventually get to some meditation exercises, and they were absolutely excellent. Making things happen onscreen by relaxing and slowing your pulse rate makes things happen in your brain. Good things, and I enjoyed the feeling.

I was thinking about this Monday night when I realized that everything in the house was basically broken and I was feeling very stressed. Not the usual stress that I eat like candy on a regular basis, but the uber-stress that I find very difficult to handle (and fortunately, that I rarely feel). So I decided to pull out the game and do a few relaxation exercises, because I can feel my brain starting to focus when I do them.

Of course, I can’t find the CD. I can find the manuals, the “mystical guide” book, the special controller, even the freaking music CD, but I can’t find the damn game CD.

That was actually pretty stressful.

So I emailed Wild Divine customer service and asked them if I could pay a fee and get a replacement disc. Getting replacement discs can really be a hassle, and I had no idea if these guys would be helpful or bust my, um, New Age b***s about it.

Early the next morning, I received an e-mail from Kathryn in customer service. Here’s what it said:
I received your email inquiring about a set of replacement Passage Disks. We can send you out a set of replacement discs at no cost to you! If you could just send me your mailing address I will be happy to put those PC Passage disks in the mail for you right away.

That was it. No hassles, no charge, no problems. And did they sent it out via mule train? No. They sent it out that same day via second day priority mail. Four dollars and five cents for postage.

Now if someone had a spreadsheet in that company and was crunching numbers, they would have kicked her ass. No way is that a profitable transaction, to send out replacement discs for free.

Except that I was so impressed by their service that I ordered the expansion disc, and I’ll probably order anything they put out from now on just because they were so nice.

Goodwill. It’s hard to create a financial model that values it properly.

This Morning Part Two

So about that bowl this morning.

Sure, driving three miles to avoid washing a bowl doesn’t sound lazy. But what if you were avoiding washing fifty bowls by driving three miles?

Our dishwasher is broken. We got a new one for my birthday, which sounds like a strange birthday gift unless you know that our old dishwasher sounded like a cross between a Stomp concert and a cat being beaten. This new dishwasher was incredibly quiet. Stunning, really. And it was particularly quiet after it stopped working. Silent, actually.

I hear hail outside. Big hail. It’s been that kind of damn week.

So once the dishwasher stopped working, I just stopped using regular dishes. And when I wanted to eat some yogurt with M&M’s this morning, and we were out of paper bowls, there was no question what I was going to do.

“Going to the store,” I said to Gloria as I picked up my keys.

“It’s one bowl,” Gloria said. “How long could it take to wash one bowl?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “because I’m not going to wash one.”

“Agghhh!” she said. I’m going to remind her of that conversation the next forty-nine times I don’t have to wash a bowl.

Mark Cuban Meets Bethesda

Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks. He made his fortune by selling for six billion dollars to Yahoo about five minutes before the Internet bubble exploded. And when he first bought the Mavericks, he was one of the worst franchise owners in professional sports, making stupid decision after stupid decision.

This is why Mark Cuban is so successful, though: he got smart real quick.

The Mavericks are now one of the best-run, most prestigious franchises in professional sports. Everything about the team is first-class. And Mark Cuban, who bought the Mavericks in 2000 for $280 million , now owns a franchise worth over $400 million, the fifth most valuable franchise in the NBA (according to Forbes).

He also keeps a blog and personally answers e-mail.

So last night, on Maverick's Fan Appreciation Night, he gave all 19,000 fans in attendance (and 1,000 watching on television) free ticket vouchers on American Airlines. It works out to about $3 million if everyone cashes them in.

How many jerseys do you think that will sell?

The reason I bring up Mark Cuban today is because Bethesda needs to learn from him. They've put out a brilliant, wonderful game, and I'm not exaggerating--truly, Oblivion is a brilliant and wonderful game. And based on Take 2's glowing sales announcement last week, the game's generated roughly $100 million in sales. I know, that's not profit, but any way you slice that pie, it's a lot of damn money.

Here's the thing, though: they know they can make even more money by releasing more content. The Xbox Live Marketplace is perfect for that, and PC gamers are now familiar enough with digital downloads that they're a willing market as well.

Literally, the number of add-ons they could release number in the hundreds, and all they have to do is make us want them.

And that's easy. Man, that is sixth grader stuff.

So what do they do? They release horse armor for $2.50, which pisses everyone off. Then they release The Orrery, which is apparently a 30-45 minute quest that is as mundane as quests come. At least, that seems to be the general feeling on multiple gaming forums I visited yesterday.

Come on, Bethesda. Think. You're not trying to get people to buy one or two add-ons. You're trying to create an environment where people will buy all of them. And you're blowing it. Because it doesn't matter if 100,000 people bought the horse armor. What matters is how many people buy the fiftieth download, and the hundredth, and you're headed in the wrong direction. Fast.

Here's what they should have done. First off, give away that damn horse armor. Just give it away. I don't care how much it cost on the Excel spreadsheet that tracks development costs, because that's the wrong way to think about it. Giving away a download is a marketing expense, and it's no different than advertising.

And the Orrery? Give it away. Again, I don't give a shit what it cost to develop. It's inconsequential, because you're looking at it as a marketing expense. Here's what you do when you give away a few downloads up front: everyone who bought the game, essentially, will download them. That means everyone can find where those downloads come from. And when you start charging for them, you've ensured that everyone knows where to get them.

It's the drug dealer thing--the first hit (or first few) is free.

And you want to keep giving them away, at least things like horse armor. Get people to the download page as often as you can with free downloads, because they will then get constant exposure to the add-ons that aren't free.

If I've gotten free downloads of minor things like armor and mini-quests, I am ten times more likely to actually buy the more substantial items that you're charging for. The key words there are "more substantial." You could charge $3.95 for an interesting storyline that involved a few quests and took 2-3 hours to complete, and we would all buy it. Maybe even $4.95.

The mix of free and paid items is what makes it all work. That's going to generate far more revenue over time than a strictly pay model.

Here's something even better: to celebrate sales milestones, you could adjust the price of future downloads. So after you hit two million in sales, say that all future "category x" downloads will be $3.49 instead of $3.99. And when you hit two and a half million, say they'll be $2.99. It's terrific marketing, because you get publicity for the fantastic sales numbers and those numbers actually wind up benefitting gamers. Everyone wants you to sell more copies of the game because downloads will be cheaper. Get that? Everyone is on your side.

Now if you sit down with your spreadsheets and your data wonks and try to mathematically figure all of this out, I'm sure there will be a hundred reasons not to do it. And all those reasons are wrong. They're wrong because spreadsheets never calculate the true value of goodwill.

So how do you fix the current mini-mess? You announce that the next five downloads are free. Throw out a couple of new models, a mini-quest, a building or something, and give the damn things away. Then mix free downloads and paid downloads, but the paid downloads have to have some meat to them. Money for meat.

And if the numbers guy starts to complain, here's what you do: you take the pointy pencil from his shirt pocket and threaten to jam it in his ear.

Or buy him a DS and a copy of Brain Games, and you'll never hear from him again.

This Morning

I just drove three miles to avoid washing a bowl.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Paraworld Interview: Link Corrections

[Update: Links now fixed in interview.]

My apologies--the last two links in the Paraworld interview aren't working, and Blogger is puking all over itself today, so I can't edit anything in that post without it exploding in bizarre and fantastic ways. So I'm going to post the links "old-style."

Gameplay part two:

Paraworld: The Interview

I went to E3 last year and saw a whole lot of not very much.

That's what happens at E3. The entire E3 experience is generally mind-numbing, because you see (literally) hundreds of games and none of them will stand out.

Paraworld did, though.

It was an RTS game set in a world with both dinosuars and humans. It was unbelievably striking, and I remember thinking "that's the game I want to play."

After E3, I poked around a bit to find out more about the game. Here are a few excerpts from an IGN preview which, except for gratuitious use of the word "cool," had some good information:
Paraworld is an RTS based in an alternate reality where dinosaurs and humans live and fight side by side. Discovered by Charles Babbage in 1815, this new dimension was accessible during a planetary alignment in 1846. There are twenty single-player levels that tell the story of three scientists following up on Babbage's discovery. Once in the primitive world, the scientists begin to unlock a mysterious conspiracy that leads them to reunite the three tribes of the world.

Here's the link to that full article:
Paraworld IGN preview

IGN also had a series of designer diaries with Thomas Langhanki, the lead designer. They're very good reads, and here are links:
The history of Paraworld
Story and protagonists
Single-player, multi-player, and gameplay part one
Gameplay part 2

That last article is particularly interesting in terms of gameplay because it discusses the "Army Controller," which is a unique interface allowing you to access any of your units on the map. Here's a screenshot in case you're too lazy to read the entire article:

All in all, it looks like a fresh, great-looking game, and I've had it on my radar screen all year. It's not very complicated, really:

Here's the twist. Julian Dasgupta, who is the PR manager for SEK (SpieleEntwicklungsKombinat GmbH, and just try to remember that spelling), contacted me a few weeks ago and said that he remembered the E3 column and did I have any questions?

Clearly, he had made some kind of mistake with his mailing list. Not to pass up an unwarranted opportunity, though, I submitted some questions, and Thomas Langhanki answered them. And he answered them thoughtfully, instead of just slamming off some answers.

I tried very hard to ask some questions that they hadn't already been asked fifty times, which is why I linked to the IGN articles previously--they cover ground that I'm not covering in the interview.

Thomas's answers were so thoughtful that I'm posting the interview verbatim, and I hope you enjoy it. Oh, and he references a screenshot that compares the before/after look of the world (which they've greatly improved), and I'm posting it directly above the interview.

1. The game features a distinctive and visually striking world. Did you agree on this look early in the project, of was it something that evolved over time? And who was most responsible for this vision, or was it more of a collaboration among the development team?
The basic idea I had when I started working on the concept was a world featuring dense vegetation, inhabited by many prehistoric animals. Well, and that’s what the game was designed with in mind. It’s also one of the reasons for us building our own engine for the game since the other ones that were available didn’t really meet our demands.

Still, there are parts of the design that changed over time. I see myself a keeper of the vision who ensures that the design follows a certain direction. But I can rely on the members of our graphics team (as well as the programmers, who made everything possible to begin with) and every artist had and has an impact on the look of the game. So, yes, the final look of the game also is a result of the work contributed by the whole team.

As for the elements that evolved? Let’s compare this screenshot of the original Northland setting to the Northland the way it looks now. As you see the game certainly is more colourful now, also featuring higher contrasts. We weren’t really satisfied with the muddy, green/grey look, which also doesn’t work that well in the international market.

2. Does the development team share common influences in literature, film, and games? In particular, what games would you cite as having the largest influence on Paraworld?
If we’re talking about games, I’d have to name games/series like StarCraft/WarCraft or Age of Empires. However, it’s also been books like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lost World” or movies like “Jurassic Park” to be source material.

3. Sid Meier has mentioned that he uses a rapid prototype environment, where they focus on creating something playable as early as possible, make sure it’s fun, then refine it through successive iterations. How would you describe the development process of Paraworld in comparison—for example, could you tell us how long it took from the beginning of development to reach a playable version?
The very first step we made after the basic concept was done, was creating a 2D prototype. Took us about 2 months. It was a single screen/map. All units were represented by small sprites. No animations, of course, that would have been luxury! However, all the basic rules were implemented – you could move around units, gather resources with workers, attack animals and the like. We even incorporated the first version of what later was going to be dubbed Army Controller. It was a proof of concept for us to see whether the basic gameplay we envisioned worked or not. Fortunately, it did work.

Another decision we intentionally made: implementing the multiplayer part before any singleplayer content was done. Why? If the tribes and the units aren’t fun in multiplayer, they’re not going to be fun in singleplayer either – no matter how well the missions are designed. And playing multiplayer matches provided tons of immediate feedback regarding features and skills.

As for successive iterations, the Army Controller and the general interface probably are a good example of this. We’ve had like 7 revisions of it, all done in order to optimize the usability and accessibility. If one compares the first version to the current one, one will immediately spot the similarities. And yet it has changed quite a lot.

4. How has this project been different from the Diggles: The Myth of Fenris in terms of development schedule and complexity? Did the Diggles offer any lessons that proved helpful in developing Paraworld? What has surprised you in the course of developing this game?
Diggles was a rather small project, something we designed with the German market in mind. On average we had like 8-10 people working on the game, peaking at about 15 in the months prior the release.

ParaWorld definitely has a different scope and is aimed and the international market. We currently have about 45 people working on the game. Which doesn’t include the Sunflowers QA team or other third-parties involved in the project. And as you may guess, thrice the team size doesn’t translate to thrice the complexity. It’s more like factor 10. Well, I made up this particular number, but you get the idea. ;)

Diggles wasn’t my first project since I’ve been working in the gaming industry since 1991, but we learned a lot nevertheless.

For instance, it was a real pain to script cutscenes for Diggles. There was quite a number of elements one had not complete control over and that may or may not have worked under certain circumstances. Creating scenes with 3+ actors was incredibly tricky. This definitely had implications for ParaWorld. We built an extensive sequence editor, which offers an abundance of options and gives you full control over everything that has to happen in a scene. Down to every single animation. It’s a very extensive tool and I don’t think any other RTS title features something comparable in terms of options. We intend to release it along with the game.

As I also mentioned before, multiplayer was one of the first aspects we got working in ParaWorld.. Using multiplayer to tune the game was one reason – however, we also wanted to get it done as early as possible in order to address any potential issues in time. We wanted to incorporate some form of multiplayer mode in Diggles, but when we started working on that (late in the development process), it turned out to be rather problematic. Ultimately, we had to drop that idea. That was an experience we didn’t want to go through again.

Surprises? Well, yes. ParaWorld is our first venture into the realm of ‘fast paced RTS games’ and it truly turned out to be a different beast compared to what we had been working on before. Seriously, the difference in terms of speed, UI and the like was bigger than we originally expected when it comes to requirements.

5. What did you think you would be before you decided to get into the gaming business, and where did you first start?
I’ve always been interested in the film business and it’s what I probably would be doing if it wasn’t for games. I grew up in Babelsberg, which has quite some history when it comes to the production of films. Classics like Metropolis were made in the studios nearby. (It should be noted that it’s also becoming more and more popular among Hollywood studios, “V for Vendetta” being a recent examples of motion pictures shot over here.) And despite already having been in the gaming business since the early 90s, I decided to study animation at the Film & Television Academy in Babelsberg, which happens to be the oldest institution of its kind in Germany.

6. During the time you’ve spent playing the game, what would you describe as your favorite feature of the game or favorite moment?
Favourite feature? That would be, without any doubt, the Army Controller. As I already said, we worked a lot on that part and it’s something other games simply don’t have.

Favourite moment? I wouldn’t want to single out a specific one, but when we wrapped up the Alpha a few months ago one could finally see everything coming together – the features, the levels, the cutscenes - that simply was terrific. We had been working on Paraworld for quite a while and we saw that all the efforts put into the game paid off now.

I’d also mention the Games Convention in Leipzig last summer. It was the first time the game was shown to the public. The response was really great. When you’re developing a game for a while you tend to get what one might call a tunnel vision. You become a lot more critical towards your own product than anyone not involved in the development. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like we didn’t believe in ParaWorld. But at some point one tends to only perceive the problems instead of also appreciating the features that work. And the overwhelming feedback we received from the audience at the Games Convention certainly did help put things into perspective again.

7. Is the game still scheduled for a summer release, or is it more likely that we’ll see it this fall? And do you have an American distributor yet?
Summer’s what it’s going to be in Europe for sure. There’s no final release date yet for the US market due to the current situation, but I hope that this will change in the near future. We certainly would like to the see ParaWorld in North-American stores this summer as well.

Paraworld: Last year/this year comparison Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What the?

From Marketwatch:
[Bear Sterns analyst R. Glen] Reid downgraded Take-Two to underperform and lowered his price target of $14 from $17, citing the company's rising costs and the lack of cash generation. Reid wrote that "while the creativity of the company's studios is apparent, the company's ability to execute is not."

He also said that Take-Two's deal to produce games based on Major League Baseball is reported to have been around $300 million for eight years.

I added what I like to call the "WTF bold" emphasis to the excerpt. MLB2K6 has a staggering number of gigantic bugs, a number of bugs that might even rival Front Page Sports Football '99, which was so bad it was first recalled, then abandoned. Why in the world are you going to pay roughly thirty-seven million dollars a year for a license that you will then use to release an absolutely shit game? How in the world do people at the executive level not lose their jobs over this?

Even More Science Links

I see so many interesting science links daily that I can't even post them all.

Science--it's kicking ass.

NEW YORK - Scientists are learning more about what appears to be one of the biggest meat-eating dinosaurs known, a two-legged beast whose bones were found several years ago in the fossil-rich Patagonia region of Argentina.

One expert called the discovery the first substantial evidence of group living by large meat-eaters other than tyrannosaurs like T. rex.

Here's a link to the full story:

Also from MSNBC, a story about octopuses can create part-time joints. Here's an excerpt:
Scientists consider each of an octopus' eight arms to possess a virtually infinite number of degrees of freedom, allowing them to bend and twist freely. But when it's time to eat, octopuses use their flexible muscles to form temporary, quasi-articulated joints that work similar to how human joints function.

Researchers recorded muscle activity in octopus limbs, and found that an arm generates two waves of muscle contractions that propagate toward each other. When the waves collide, they form a part-time joint.

Here's the link to the full story:
Octopus elbows.

Brian Witte sent me a link to an amazing story about a laser that can be painted onto a surface. Here's an excerpt from the story:
...Sargent, a Canada Research Chair in Nanotechnology, created the new laser using colloidal quantum dots -- nanometre-sized particles of semiconductor that are suspended in a solvent like the particles in paint. "We've made a laser that can be smeared onto another material," says Sargent. "This is the first paint-on semiconductor laser to produce the invisible colours of light needed to carry information through fiber-optics. The infrared light could, in the future, be used to connect microprocessors on a silicon computer chip." A study describing the laser was published in the April 17 issue of the journal Optics Express.

Here's the link:
Paint-on laser.

Here's another link from Brian to a story about--nanogenerators.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have crafted tiny nanowires that generate electricity when they vibrate. Just like the quartz crystal in a watch, the zinc-oxide nanowires are piezoelectric, which means bending causes them to produce an electrical charge.

Only 20-40 billionths of a meter in diameter, each fiber partners with millions of others to form a nanogenerator capable of producing significant amounts of energy from the slightest activity. According to the researchers, motions from body movement, the stretching of muscles and even the flow of liquids should be able to generate electric charges in the wires--perfect for implantable medical devices, "smart" apparel and a variety of other applications.

Science didn't seem nearly this cool when I was in college. Here's the link to the press release:

The Others

Lots of good writing from other people today (like that's anything new).

First off, Kieron Gillen has an article in The Escapist about Guitar Hero, and he does an excellent job of capturing the sheer giddiness of the game.

That's right--I used the word "giddy." I have never used that word in my entire life, and am highly unlikely to ever use it again, but in the case of Guitar Hero, it's entirely appropriate.

Here's Kieron's lead:
You hit an unexpected realization: Boston was probably one of the top ten videogame level designers of all time.

Here's the link to the full article:
Guitar Hero.

Second, there are some excellent posts over at The Blog for the Sportsgamer about MLB2k6, including a link to Bill Abner's review over at Gameshark. As bad as this game is (and it's bad, believe me), a new, crippling bug has popped up. Some people are having the season schedule truncated to 10 FREAKING GAMES after the first season in Career or GM mode. Here's Bill's summary of the game from the blog post:
So, to recap, we have a game with:
  • A lot of seemingly random (put highly annoying and sometimes hilarious) on the field and boxscore bugs
  • A franchise mode with piss poor player development (as in they don't develop)
  • Poor CPU manager AI
  • Shitty animation
  • A poor stat engine
  • And now the franchise mode drops games after a new season starts
I think that pretty much sums it up. And this is is a major disaster for 2KSports. Maybe this will force them to spend more time completing their games and less time adding new features that are meaningless unless the game itself works.

Here's a link to the Sportsgamer blog (lots of good stuff over there):
Sports Gamer.

Weird Friday

I was in Barnes and Nobles last week, killing a little time in the music section, when I noticed a guy at the counter. I noticed him because he was pretty enthusiastic and was talking to the clerk at a volume that was hard to ignore. He was a mid-40's guy, like me, and had shoulder-length, wavy hair and a soul patch.

Again, just like me. Or maybe not.

Anyway, he was telling the clerk that he was a singer/songwriter. The clerk asked him what kind of music, and the guy said "I play Dylanesque songs with a gothic feel."

That's one of those sentences where I feel like English is a foreign language. I mean, I know what each of those words individually mean, but the sentence itself is gibberish to me. He could have said "I wear underpants outside my jeans and own a draft horse who farms corn" and it would have made more sense.

Can you imagine what would happen if I tried this? I'd walk into a gaming store and chat up the clerk, then say "I write about gaming."

He'd say "Oh, really? What do you write about?"

"Games, mostly. And, um, my ass."

Tomb Raider: Legend

I looked at Tomb Raider: Legend (thanks, Gamefly) over the weekend.

"Looked at" means about an hour of play, at which point I was no longer interested. That doesn't mean that the game is a disaster--it's not, by any measure--but it's also not something I'd ever spend sixty dollars on.

If you like the Tomb Raider series and were brutally disappointed by the last game, then this game should revive your interest. If you weren't interested before, though, I doubt this game will change that. Lara runs and jumps--I originally typed "humps" there. Freudian slip--and swings on ropes. It's a nice looking game--not spectacular, but solid--and it's animated well, although a few of Lara's animations seem sped up to the degree that they feel out of place. The camera is a problem, as it often is in third person games, as it's relatively claustrophobic and can make it difficult to see what the hell you're supposed to be doing next.

I think the bar has been raised significantly for 360 games with the release of GRAW and Oblivion. It's not the greater power of the next-gen console that's driving our expectations--it's the giant increase in price. And for sixty dollars versus forty, we expect a much more polished and complete experience than we would have before.

So if "Seeing is Believing," as the titillating ad copy said--I've seen it, and I believe it's a rental.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Notes From You

A bunch of you guys (Roy was first) e-mailed me today to let me know that the Microsoft/IPod packaging video was internally produced--by Microsoft! Based on that video, they know themselves very, very well. And does any corporation in this country have LESS of a sense of humor than Apple?

Brian Witte sent me more information about the possible pyramid in Bosnia:
The conjectured height of the Bosnian pyramid is 220m. The Great Pyramid in Egypt was only 146 m newly-built. I recall reading previously that one theory was that the Bosnian "pyramid" was in fact a natural hill that had been shaped, then paved with stone blocks, rather than constructed from the ground up.

Firefox (2)

Nathan Carpenter and Sean Garagan e-mailed me about a Firefox plug-in called "Optimoz," and it's fantastic. It allows you to make all kinds of browser commands with mouse gestures--think Black & White, but not shitty. It's also feels very natural to use.

Here's a link, if you're interested:

Science Links

Here are links to some interesting stories from the weekend.

First, from MSNBC, another search for pyramids, but this time--in Europe. Here's an excerpt:
VISOKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Archaeologists began digging Friday for what they hope is an ancient pyramid hidden beneath a mysterious Bosnian hill that has long been the subject of legend.

The Bosnian archaeologist leading the work says the 2,120-foot (650-meter) mound rising above the small town of Visoko resembles pyramid sites in Latin America that he has studied. It would be the first pyramid ever discovered in Europe.

Initial research on the hill, known as Visocica, found that it has perfectly shaped, 45-degree slopes pointing toward the cardinal points and a flat top. Under layers of dirt, workers discovered a paved entrance plateau, entrances to tunnels and large stone blocks that might be part of a pyramid's outer surface.

It would be totally amazing if true, and here's the link to the full story:
Bosnian Pyramids.

Another big fossil discovery was revealed this week in Nature magazine. Again, here's an excerpt from the MSNBC article:
WASHINGTON - The latest fossil unearthed from a human ancestral hot spot in Africa allows scientists to link together the most complete chain of human evolution so far.

The 4.2 million-year-old fossil discovered in northeastern Ethiopia helps scientists fill in the gaps of how human ancestors made the giant leap from one species to another. That’s because the newest fossil, the species Australopithecus anamensis, was found in the region of the Middle Awash — where seven other human-like species spanning nearly 6 million years and three major phases of human development were previously discovered.

...The species anamensis is not new, but its location is what helps explain the shift from one early phase of human-like development to the next, scientists say. All eight species were within an easy day’s walk of each other.

Until now, what scientists had were snapshots of human evolution scattered around the world. Finding everything all in one general area makes those snapshots more of a mini home movie of evolution.

Here's the link to the full story:
Fossil Discovery.

David Gloier sent me an excellent link to a remarkable discovery of the past. The link is to a story about the first flatscreen television--invented in 1958! Here's the link (and there's a terrific picture):
Flatscreen Television.

He also mentioned separately that Dr. Donald L. Blitzer was being honored for inventing the flat plasma display panel. The surprising part is that Blitzer did this in 1964!

Finally, from Scott Moore, an excellent website that details all the useful spinoffs from NASA research and technology. This has always been one of the relatively ignored aspects of space exploration--that the technological advancements that enable the missions are often eventually used in other, extremely practical, ways.

Here's the link:
NASA spinoffs.


Okay, I'm late to the party here, but man, Firefox kicks ass. I installed in on Saturday and it's just unbelievably good, and I'm not even using much more than tabbed browsing.

If you're like me and have been hidden under a rock when it comes to browsers, here's how tabbed browsing works. You group a set of websites in a folder (much like managing bookmarks in IE), then you drag that folder into your "bookmarks toolbar." For instance, I have a "news" folder with MSNBC, CNN, and the BBC inside. I can open all those sites at once, and they appear as tabs that I can click to.

If you're wondering how it looks, here's a link to a screenshot (just the very top of the browser window is shown):

The coolest thing about this is that the other pages in the folder load while you're just viewing one of them. So instead of opening five or six sites separately, they all open at once, and you can just tab back and forth. So I can view my regular websites (about forty of them daily) much more quickly, with much less waiting.

It's very intuitive and very easy to use. Pages also seem to load significantly faster than when using IE. And there's the security advantage, since eight million people aren't sitting around writing Firefox exploits as a hobby.

I'm really pleased with the switch and only wish I'd done it sooner.

Guitar Hero 2

Glen Haag sent me a link to a Guitar Hero 2 interview over at IGN, and there's some excellent news.

GN: The main new thing in Guitar Hero II is the ability to play separate lead, rhythm and bass tracks, or segments of the song at least...

JT: Yeah, let me explain that. People are really excited about the game, but after playing the first game and being used to it and getting through to expert mode, people just wanted more, and so we knew that for the sequel, "more" means a lot of things. It's not just more music, or more characters or venues, they want to have the full experience filled out. In Guitar Hero 1 you're playing just one stream [of audio], and in co-op mode, you're actually sharing that stream and it alternates back and forth and you share the two channels, the left and right channels. But it's really just one stream that comes off the disc, the lead guitar.

For the sequel, for every song, there's going to be two streams. Some of those second streams are going to be rhythm guitar, and some of those streams are going to be bass guitar. So there's not three streams, there's actually two streams. But with two guitars you'll actually be able to play co-operatively and you're not playing the same exact track, like sharing the lead guitar track. You're actually playing your own track.

...IGN: What sort of stuff did you have to cut from the first game that's making its way into the sequel?

JT: There's the practice mode, the ability to go in and pick a section and loop it. I mentioned, for multiplayer, picking separate difficulty levels... so those are the things we're getting in.

In terms of content, I mentioned more, so we're talking about venues, characters, stuff like that - we're definitely touching everything and giving players more... more to experience. And obviously, if you're playing a bass track, we're going to be looking at including bass guitars into the game as well.

Well, I'm good. I wanted practice mode (in), different roles in multiplayer, and a load songs (there will be 55). I'm still playing this game almost every day, believe it or not, and I think it's been at least four months now. That's how ridiculously fun it is.

Here's the link to the full article:
Guitar Hero 2 interview.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Microsoft and the IPod

Don Slevin sent me a very funny link to a video about how Microsoft would design packaging for the IPod. It's dead-on and you can find it here:

The Jordan (Sunday)

Gloria said her stomach was bothering her yesterday.

This was before she ate black bean tostadas for dinner, chocolate pie for dessert, and blueberry pancakes for breakfast this morning.

I think there was a late-night snack in there somewhere.

So we were sitting in the Pancake House at breakfast this morning, and I said "Where do you want to go for dinner tonight? Enchiladas?" She loves Mexican food.

She gave me kind of a look. "You know my stomach is bothering me," she said.

"You're the Michael Jordan of stomach problems," I said. "Jordan would say he had a sprained ankle, limp onto the court, then drop fifty-five on the Knicks."

I can say that and not get killed--so far--because Gloria is 5'5" and weighs 105 pounds.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Civ IV Patch Plus SDK

Jesse Leimkuehler let me know that a new Civ 4 patch (1.61) is available, and the SDK has been released as well. It's another example of the outstanding support that has been provided for this game. Here's the press release:
2K Games and Firaxis have jointly announced the release of the official Software Development Kit (SDK) for the PC strategy title Sid Meier's Civilization IV.

The SDK contains the core game DLL source code, including the game and A.I. code, and allows players to completely rewrite or modify their own Civilization world. The release opens the door for the mod community, as it allows for the creation of an completely new game that is built around the Civilization IV mechanics, rather than simply a a slightly modified way to experience the same game.

In addition, the companies also released the completed Persistent Turn Based Server (Pitboss) application, which is a dedicated multiplayer server for online and local games that offers players the ability to log in and continue progress in a game at any time. A beta version of the application was released in January.

Lastly, patch version 1.61 was released today as well, which includes numerous changes, additions, and fixes for Civilization IV. For a full list of features impacted by the patch, visit the game's website.

If you want to see the readme for the patch, it's here:

Friday, April 14, 2006

Riley 7.1

DQ reader Scott Moore (our man at NASA) sent in a very funny story about his son, Riley 7.1. It's good to know that Eli 4.8 is not alone.

Just yesterday I was working on the "tree house" (It's more of a 7 foot high deck on 4 posts built between 2 trees, but I digress) and I see Riley 7.1 come running out of the house. I instantly think, "What's wrong? What has his sister done now?"

He finally makes it over to me and says, "Dad, I've been looking for you everywhere!"

"What is it son?"

"I was playing my football game (PS2 NCAA 2004) and Alabama went from all B's to all A's"

"You came all the way out here to tell me that?"

"Yea, it's cool."

"OK, thanks."

So he turns to head back inside, but then stops and says, "Dad, what if I was a cow?"

In the past I would have been stunned into silence, but I've gotten use to these random question out of left field, so I said, "Well, I guess we would have free milk for life and potty training would have been a little harder. And I guess we would have to come up with some kind of bovine adapter to help you use the computer and your game controller."

"So I could still stay in the house?"

"Well, if I were your dad, assuming I'm still human, and mom was human and you were a cow. That's would be one amazing freak of nature and hopefully we could get rich off of it and I could afford to build a larger house and and make your room like a small pasture."

"Oooo, that would be cool."

"Yea, cool."

MLB06: The Little Things

I mentioned yesterday in the column about MLB2K6 that games that feel real lay down layer after layer of detail. There's a terrific thread over at Operation Sports (thanks to Juan Font for sending me the link) titled "The 'Little Things' Thread" that is one giant list of all the special bits of nuance in MLB06: The Show (which, as I've said previously, is the best baseball game I've ever played and the entire reason I bought a PSP).

It's a long thread, but it really captures the spirit of the game. So if you're wondering what the fuss is all about, take a look:

Free registration required.

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