Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Lucifer Effect

My reading list is getting very long. I add books to my 'must read' list much faster then I pore through my backlog.

Today, reading through my blog roll (perhaps one reason I don't get through my book list quick enough) I came across this very interesting sounding book by the psychologist who ran the 1967 Stanford Prison Experiment called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn to evil.

If you, like me, think the book sounds interesting but worry you won't have a chance to read it for a while I encourage you to read the interview Guy Kawasaki did with the author here.

A question for you all, though: how do you decide what book to read next when your queue starts to get long? Do you choose chronologically?

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Education Through Gaming

A while back I wrote an entry called the 'Wikipedia of Gaming' where I talked about divergent political views being communicated through videogames and how I thought this was a good thing for our industry.

This morning on Next-Generation I saw this article entitled: "Understanding Conflict Through Games" which focuses on a new title being released by Serious Games called "Global Conflicts: Palestine".

I really want to try this game. From the NG article it sounds like the developers recognize the importance of Fun when trying to use games as a vehicle to educate without necessarily compromising on the actual merit of the title as a vehicle to challenge the player intellectually. Too often when I read about 'serious games' I get the feeling that they are so focused on the high-brow that they risk losing our on the potential of the medium to engage, or compromise too much and that the actual 'learning' elements are surface layer at best.

I also like the fact that this game seems to mirror an important reality of the world -- that in many cases, both sides of any conflict worth fighting over have grievances that deserve recognition and can rationalize (if not justify) said party's stance. There is no 'right and wrong' in the Israel-Palestinian crisis and the game seems to do a good job of reinforcing this by making 'staying neutral' the hardest objective to achieve.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Jack Thompson vs Jason Della Rocca

Another very interesting item that came out of the event last night came from Jason Della Rocca, IGDA Executive Director (and Montrealer). Jason runs a blog at Reality Panic and had, a few days ago, used his blog to call out Jack Thompson for, predictibly, immediatly pinning the blame for the VT massacres on the video game industry.

Jack, it seems, didn't take too well to being called a 'Massacre Chaser' (which, it turns out, might have been a prophetic term) and issued a public challenge to Jason to a debate about whether or not not videogames truly teach children to kill.

Jason 'took the bait' as it were, in that he contacted Jack to find out more about how such a debate would work. The entire email exchange between Jason and Jack is posted unedited here and I think you'll find it extremely informative and well worth the read.

In short, Jack's interest in the idea of a debate seems intrinsicly tied to his expenses for the trip being paid and the ~$3000 speaking fee he would expect to take away. When asked if he would do the debate for free, he responded:

That isn’t how it works and I can’t justify leaving my family to go to Montreal on a freebie. Sorry. Have to pay the bills.

I expect to see news of this exchange spread quickly around the gaming industry as it gives us all one more feather of hatred to stick in our collective cap of Jack.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

IGDA Meeting

Update So the GameCafe event was last night and it went relatively well. It took longer then expected to get started as most people ordered food and we didn't want to start the discussions until everyone had eaten and paid their bills. Hopefully for future meetings we'll find a way to have people fed and ready to talk in a more timely manner as more then a few (myself included) had to skip out before the end.

I think the quote of the night has to go to Alex Parizeau (Ubisoft Producer) who was moderating a 'Team/Studio' table. The big take away for him and everyone at his table for the night was the fact that we, as an industry: "have no idea what we're doing" and are only taking the smallest baby steps towards maturity as an industry.


If you live in Montreal and are involved in the game development industry, I hope you'll attend tonight's IGDA event.

The GameCafé concept is a fresh spin on the old roundtable discussion format, with a greater emphasis on intimate interactions in a more casual setting. For our next GameCafé we will explore the future of work in the game industry at three different levels:

Personal Career Level (eg, professional development, credit/trackrecord, quality of life, etc)

Team/Studio Level (eg, corporate structures, team dynamics, production methods, outsourcing, etc)

Industry Level (eg, business models, economic forces, impact of globalization, etc)

Each participant will have the opportunity to explore and discuss all three topics, as well as participate in a group-wide "debrief" at the end.

I'll be moderating one of the two tables on 'Industry Level'.

Hope to see you there!

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

N'Gai and the Art of the Interview

N'Gai Croal is, in my opinion, one of the best gaming journalists in the industry today. His questions are incredibly insightful, penetrating and give his subjects an opportunity to promote their work in deeper and more interesting ways then simply harping on their feature set for the thousandth time. If it isn't already, his blog, Level Up, certainly belongs on your roll. In the short period I've had it in my RSS feed it has quickly joined the ranks of Joystiq and Game|Life as absolute daily must-reads.

Anyone familiar with Croal knows that lately he has been on a huge God Of War II Kick lately. His latest is a series of interviews with members of the core creative team behind GoW2 under the catchy heading: "Team Assault". So far he has interviewed Corey Barlog (creative director), Shannon Studstill (Executive Producer), and Tim Moss (lead programmer and CTO). I recommend them all as examples of excellent questions, but also excellent responses. These people are professional, composed and yet clearly extremely passionate. There is just the right combination (for my tastes) of controlled corporate speak and passionate exuberance that makes for really interesting reads.
I already respect the team at SCEA a great deal for putting out ground-breaking games but the way they've been handling themselves (and handled, I guess) post GOW2 launch has given me a whole new level of admiration. They're making our industry look good.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

An offer you can't refuse Pt. 2

This post from a few weeks ago on a highly creative recruiting strategy attracted significant attention so I'm gambling there are more then a few people visiting this blog who are interested in a follow-up to the post.

Todsy Next-Generation published a piece discussing one game designer (Scott Youngblood) who recieved the infamous FedEx package and was indeed lured away from his comfortable position at Sony to join the Red-5 team.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

War Against The Sun

Like me, my brother-in-law works in game development and is a huge gaming geek. Also like me he has much less time for gaming these days then he once did (his time is even more precious since he and my sister are new parents). As such we make it a point to try and get together at least once a year for a 'War Against The Sun'.

The point of these WAtSes is to simply shut out any and all potential disturbances from pure and unadulterated gaming goodness (ie: wives, children, and yes, any and all consciousness of time) and lock ourselves away in a basement with tinfoil on the windows so as to most appropriately get 'in the zone'.

There will be food and drink on hand, a killer home entertainment system (his, not mine --*sigh*) and, finally, God Of War 2.

For more then a month now we've both resisted not only the urge to play to play, but have also avoided any discussion about the game that might contain spoilers or even to allow ourselves to watch trailers or previews. We aim to go into this weekend with the most virgin senses possible. It would have been nice to have Heavenly Sword or Lair on hand for the 'War' (as we'd like to kick the tires on his as-of-yet unchristined PS3) but the timing was not to be. From the tidbets on GoW2 that I have been unable to ignore, though, I'm expecting that the PS2's swan song should be able to make us forget that we're playing on 'old gen' tech.

If you work in an industry out of passion (as most people in the game development industry do) you owe it to yourself to have your own form of the WaTS to maintain the fires of passion the drive you to do what you do.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Prince Of Persia: Rival Swords

Both the PSP and Wii versions of Prince Of Persia: Rival Swords have been out for a little over a week now and a few reviews have popped up for both. So far on this blog I've only talked about my work on POP games once and it seemed to generate some interest, so I thought some of you might like to read my take on the reviews I've read so far and a little sneak peek behind the development of the titles.

Rival Swords on the Wii

The Wii controls worked for some and not for others but I think IGN was the harshest with their critique of our camera system:
As a result, Ubi has been forced to sloppily map camera controls to the motion-tilt on the Wii remote; twist it in a turn-key motion and the camera will swing left; twist it right to go in the opposite direction. It doesn't feel good and the response time on the camera is imprecise, so you may sometimes overshoot your desired camera view
I'm surprised, really, because the camera control system tested very well during development. Allowing a player to control movement with the analog stick on the Nunchuck while tilting the remote to change camera angles created, we thought, a physical manifestation to the act of looking around that people usually adopted very quickly to. We had wanted to map the vertical camera access to the up/down tilt on the remote too, but doing so caused complications in combat given that we used this movement for sword swings. Ultimately by biggest regret about the camera control is that we couldn't find a way to make vertical and horizontal panning consistent.

The game is currently averaging 75% (down from around 84% for The Two Thrones) which is right about what I was expecting given the lack of new content. I still feel that the Wii controls add a huge amount to the game and very much consider the project a success, if for no other reason then to have validated the potential of the franchise in a motion sensitive controller environment. Ubisoft can now safely argue all the way up the management chain that the gameplay of a POP game can translate well onto a Wii (or potentially SixAxis) control system. If Rival Swords at least breaks even in sales we could potentially convince executives to invest in the development of a POP title from scratch that makes even greater use of the unique control systems.

Rival Swords on the PSP

Unlike the Wii version, Rival Swords for the PSP featured a significant new amount of content: Nine new levels integrated into the story (three long levels, three short, and three that were really just upgrade rooms); three all-new chariot races; and an asynchronous ad-hoc multi-player race mode (that is, you have to be in the same room as your opponent and you don't actually see their avatar during your race but rather you are impacted by their actions, and vice versa).

One thing I'm pleasantly surprised about is that reviewers aren't being harder on us given the difference in content between the PSP and Wii versions considering they share the same name. I had expected people to develop expectations re: Wii functionality based off of the PSP feature set and then be very frustrated at its lack. Clearly there is a desire for more unique content in the Wii version but exact feature parity between the two doesn't seem to be important - this is an interesting lesson for me.

The new single player levels were ignored completely by some reviewers, but Gamespot, at least, thought enough of them to offer the following:
Much of Two Thrones/Rival Swords is spent navigating to and then knocking out sand portals to disrupt the Vizier's supply lines. Instead of giving you the free ride you got in other versions of the game, the PSP version has you delving inside these portals to implode them. The challenge here ranges from maliciously difficult to overly simplistic, though they all provide more background on the story.
We made a lot of tweaks to the difficulty of these levels to try and keep a good flow and in the end I thought we did a good job considering the team that developed this version (Pipeworks software) hadn't been involved at all in The Two Thrones and therefore had an extraordinary challenge in trying to create and inject levels that fit in properly in our difficulty curve.

The biggest complaint about RS on the PSP (pretty much across the board) are audio bugs and a general down-grading of texture quality in some areas.
The audio has its problems as well. The soundtrack offers strong orchestrations and decent voice-work, but can sometimes be out of sync with the on-screen action.
The Two Thrones had a huge amount of data (both art and audio) and so the fact that we managed to fit it all onto a UMD without cutting levels or creating abhorrent loading times was a feat of significant engineering. I think it is still a toss-up whether or not the reviewers would have been harder on us had we made more drastic cuts to ensure less noticeable bugs (ie: cut music payback during dialog) given the fact that we were starting from a well known experience (ie: The Two Thrones).

Ultimately I think both versions will probably settle around the 75% mark. They both have their fair share of problems but, I think, both also have some unique value for fans of the franchise and particularly those who didn't get around to playing The Two Thrones.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The rise of the game development documentary

I'll keep this short because I'd prefer you to use your time watching the actual documentaries in question rather then read my thoughts about them. I'll simply say this: documentaries about the making of video games are getting really good and, you guessed it, I think this is a great sign for our industry. To wit:

Recently released Halo 3 Multiplayer Gameplay documentary:

God Of War 2's 'Greek Mythology' documentaries. Note that I haven't yet seen the net explode with references to these which perhaps makes sense given that Kotaku just posted them today. I wonder whether or not they wouldn't have been more valuable as a pre-release marketing campaign then a post-release buzz maintainer, but I'll get into that another time.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Wikipedia of Gaming

Warning -- some might find this blog post politically charged and perhaps controversial. If the muslim/christian middle-east/west conflict is sensitive for you, you might want to skip this one...

A few days ago I was reading the Globe And Mail and an article on Syrian video game developer -- Afkar Media -- caught my attention. The article spoke about how Afkar Media's games were top sellers throughout the middle east and dealt with subject matter of particular impact for people suffering through the strife of the region. Their most popular title right now is called 'UnderSiege' and "focuses on the lives of a Palestinian family between 1999-2002 during the second Intifada". From their site:
When you live in middle-east you can’t avoid being part of the image, as a development company we believe that we had to do our share of responsibility in telling the story behind this conflict and targeting youngsters who depend on video games and movies (which always tell the counter side) to build their acknowledgment about the world.
I wasn't necessarily drawn to play the game but was very excited by the fact that such a game was being made because, I believe, videogames need the perspective that comes from global collaborators in order to break through some of the limitations that currently plague the industry.

Very few of my friends are still satisfied getting their news from a single source. CNN and the CBC have been replaced in our bookmarks by Google News and Wikipedia. One simply cannot be truly informed about current affairs while limited by the biases and perspectives of a particular news corporation/editor/journalist. Wikipedia gives a less biased view on current events encouraging the democracy of events reporting (still not perfect, but certainly a far deal more fair then Fox News) and google news pulls from so many sources that one can easily cover multiple angles on any given story.

While searching for a link to the Globe and Mail article, I came across an excellent piece on 1up from last September entitled 'Looking for videogames in the Muslim World'. The piece does an excellent job of summarizing the history Islamogaming, videogames developed with a middle-east perspective sharing a common goal: subvert the typical gaming stereotype of Arabs as bad guys by replacing the typical American or European action hero with a recognizably Muslim protagonist.
If videogames are the next Hollywood then we need to be aware of what sort of influence the messages we inject into our games can have on consumers who may be easily manipulated and disassociate their entertainment from fact. I don't think any of us want to see Muslims turned into the one-dimensional token enemy from so many past hollywood movies (thanks to my lovely wife Danielle for the link).

I am not a political person by nature and I'm certainly not one to preach. This topic is much too controversial or complicated for me to change anyone's opinions on through a simple blog post but I very much like the fact that there are those who understand the value of videogames for a communication platform to help spread their own point of view. I especially like it when the message focuses on the dual-sided nature of the conflict at hand and how difficult resolution truly is.

As more 'Game 3.0' services launch and we give more power of expression and authorship to players, we are likely to see more and more instances of both conflict and education within these worlds.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Games in movies -- A New Hope.

Update: This very funny blog entry via boingboing points out a related subject -- the use of computers in general as plot devices within movies. As a proud geek I happily admit that I enjoy a movie much more if their treatment of computers is at least semi-realistic (Trinity in Matrix: Revelations comes to mind).

I've been meaning to blog about this since I read about it two weeks ago, but I had a hard time finding my 'angle' - what exactly did I have to say about it?

Executive Summary: In the recently released 'Reign Over Me' the excellent 'Shadow Of The Colossus' features heavily. Not as a product placement or promotional device, and not as a 'cheap' way to give credibility to a youth character (look, this guy must be a young geeky outcast, he plays videogames) but as a key plot device that serves as a metaphor for the core message behind the movie -- a survivor's attempts to deal with his life post 9/11:
Refusing to accept the death of loved ones. Seeking out an escape from that truth. Giants falling in slow motion. "You could see where someone who was dealing with 9/11 would be engrossed by a giant that keeps collapsing over and over again," he says. Charlie's therapy was Shadow of the Colossus. - Kotaku
The article finishes with this line: 'Reign Over Me' must be one of the first Hollywood films, if not the first, to deal with games thematically and intelligently.

The movie, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have done very well at the box office (yet to break even) so it is debatable how much positive impact it will have on sales of Shadow. However I think the real value here is the evidence of growing recognition from Hollywood that some games can touch people in important ways, carrying layers of meaning and eliciting emotions in consumers (particularly those who have played said game) rather then simply fill time. If you are a Hollywood director making a movie and wanting your audience to feel nostalgia for idyllic carefree summer days of their youth, you might license 'Brown Eyed Girl' (depending, of course, on your target demographic). The fact that directors who grew up with videogames might start to treat the placement of games within their movies in a mature and thought-provoking fashion is very exciting to me.

This isn't to say, though, that I think we ought to be pushing TV and Movies to over-intellectualize games and look for meaning and messages where they weren't meant to be found. Ideally movies would give screen time to a game to reinforce a sense of fun, adrenaline and accomplishment - all key motivating factors for many people who play games.

I shudder to think that the future of game placement in other forms of mass media will all look like this:

What do you think? If a movie gave significant screen time to a character defeating Sephiroth in FFVII, chances are you would be able to identify with their sense of elation, but would a non-gamer?

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World Tour Of Game Development

Patrick over at King Lud Ic has written an interesting 'world tour' of the cities where most game development is done (with a North American focus, but certainly some lip service to the international scene as well).

Interesting reading, if only to test yourself to see if you are aware of where all the movers and shakers are based (I, for example, wasn't quite as well versed with Boston and New York developers as I would have liked).

Seems to me like the type of article that Next-Generation might publish. ;)

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