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Archive for November, 2010

Two words: Tim Schafer.

Two more words: Grim Fandango.

I’ll be on the road until next Wednesday.

But come back them for what I consider the most moving moment in games in the past month or so.

Drive on.

 

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Just a note on this holiday that disabled gamers don’t whine about disabilities.

They adapt.

They become enabled.

And then they play.

Which is a fine way to enjoy Thanksgiving.


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So how to wrap up the series about TV and movie executives knowledge of videogames?

At the Future of Television East conference, the first guest was Matt Blank, Showtime’s longtime CEO. Along with HBO, Showtime features the best dramatic series on television. From Weeds to Dexter, the quality is compelling, moving and addictive.

Surprisingly, one of the first things Blank mentioned upon being questioned was videogames. This would have never happened a few years ago. When I asked Blank about videogames, it was clear that Showtime wasn’t about to make a console game or PC game or any over the counter product. But Blank did fairly enthusiastically highlight some of the Dexter games on the Showtime site and one for the well-reviewed download for the iPad.

Primarily, Blank seemed most enthused about the possibilities for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 as delivery systems for Showtime content. “I look at the PlayStation 3 almost the way I look at WiFi connected Blu-Ray player,” said Blank. It’s another box that has the potential of sucking you in to become a fan of Nancy Botwin or Dexter Morgan.

But gamers need more than a link or a download or a video snippet on the PlayStation store. If they watch via a game console, they expect some cool additional content. Showtime, and any cable company delivering shows via the PS3 or the 360, should be aware of that.

-Harold Goldberg

 

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You could tell he gets games. Probably the most outwardly passionate executive at last week’s Future of Television East conference was Alan Seiffert, a senior vice president at SyFy Networks. He was engaged. He sat forward when he spoke. He was animated. He was proud of his company.

Some executives sat on these panels acting smugly or looking as if they would rather be elsewhere. Maybe it was because they had pressing work to do. Maybe it’s because the topics at these panels are too much about trends. And the same trends are covered in other, similar conventions.

But Seiffert was different. He talked about games as if he cared. He talked about games as if he didn’t understand why everyone else wasn’t as passionate as he was when he said, “We’re doing something revolutionary by partnering with Trion Worlds to make an MMO that will run in tandem with our network television show.”

The party line is that it’s not just an MMO based on a TV series. According to Trion CEO Lars Buttler, the TV show and the MMO depend on each other to move forward. In other words, they will co-evolve. It’s not the first time something like this has been attempted. Star Wars: The Clone Wars, for instance, has a sister MMO that’s updated with new content, pretty much as each show premieres.

But Trion is hot right now as company. Rift: Planes of Telara, its upcoming MMO, has generated much salubrious buzz. And if the TV group and the game group can truly work together – a ginormous if – who knows what kind of music – and videogame history – they can make together?

So that’s why Seiffert was stoked. SyFy could change the nature of games as far as transmedia goes. And even if it doesn’t change everything, small steps forward are important, too.

You have to wish the other executives – all obviously smart people – had the same enthusiasm about games. If only love for games was a virus. The other could have caught the bug from Seiffert.

-Harold Goldberg

 

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At the Future of Television East conference last week, Microsoft’s Frank O’Connor sat on a panel that focused on the grail of transmedia. Halo’s franchise development director is a shortish, stocky guy who looks like a feisty boxer. And he’s proud bordering on arrogant about the lauded series of games that sold so many Xboxes.  “We want to have Halo on any screen we have access to,” said O’Connor. That would be the height of ubiquity indeed.

After the panel, a high level network executive came up up to O’Connor and said, “We want to do something with Halo.”

O’Connor shot back, “Bring piles of money.”

The executive, taken aback, responded, “For Halo, we will.”

Moments later, I spoke with O’Connor in a lounge area, fashioned for the event by conference producers outside NYU’s new Stern school of business auditorium.

The first thing O’Connor said was, “There will be a Halo movie.”

Still? After all these years, after the end of Peter Jackson as the director and Denzel Washington as the star, you’re still talking about it?

“Everyone wanted to do a Halo movie, the director, Microsoft, the highest placed people at movie companies.”

So what happened? “It was the lawyers,” said O’Connor. “When they went behind closed doors with the contracts, things fell apart.” O’Connor said that the primary sticking point was the fact that Microsoft owns all rights to Halo, and that means licensing as well. “The problem was that the movie company couldn’t make any money beyond the movie.”

Hollywood is populated by a weird breed of bean counters and lawyers. They expect, said O’Connor, to make money even on a movie that bombs at the box office, not only through DVD sales, but through licensing products with both alacrity and occasional abandon. They couldn’t do that with Halo, so the project grew fallow.

O’Connor is adamant when he says Microsoft would happily permit any prominent director to shine in his or her own way on a Halo film. “If Danny Boyle wants to make a Danny Boyle-style movie, that’s great. Let Danny Boyle be Danny Boyle. We would not constrain a director.”

But perhaps the smartest place for a Halo project would be at a network like Showtime or HBO. “We’d love to see Halo as a television series. Look what HBO did with Band of Brothers or even Rome. Something like that would work because the Halo universe is so vast.” In a miniseries or a longer running series, fans would be treated to deeper, more explorative narrative that drills down deep into the Halo mythos — if the writers and directors were intelligent enough.

Then, he said it again: “There will be a Halo movie. We don’t need a movie. But we’d like a movie. We’d like the moms of gamers to see the movies because they would love our characters. Maybe we’ll even fund it ourselves.”

It makes sense. If a group of fans can make a something as moving as what’s below, imagine the possibilities for a Halo movie done right.

-Harold Goldberg

 

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Today, at the Future of Television East conference at NYU’s Stern School of Business, I heard a fair amount of high level executive talk about TV and videogames.

The good news? TV executives seem to care about games far more than they used to.

But how much knowledge to they actually have?

Starting Monday, I’ll parse what I heard.

But first, I’ll start with a provocative interview with Frank O’Connor, Franchise Development Director for the Halo franchise. O’Connor flew in from Redmond to be part of the conference.

-Harold Goldberg

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Back in the raging 1990s, Oscar-nominated animator Bill Plympton partnered with 7th Level to release a game based on his over-the-top cartoons, many of which had been seen on MTV and in the culty animation festivals that were becoming so prevalent in many cities.

By today’s standards, Take Your Best Shot, Twisted Arcade Games for Twisted Minds, was more a collection of mini games than something you could sink your teeth into and remember.

Fast forward to 2011. Plympton’s feature-length Idiots and Angels is released to wide acclaim. To me, it looks like his masterwork, a film that could become an landmark downloadable game in the hands of a humor-oriented game design genius like Tim Schafer. Or even the noir-inspired Danes at PlayDead, the makers of Limbo.

The bar in which much of the film takes place evokes a ‘Drinks for my Friends’ Mickey Rourke in Bukowski mood — with a twist.  You feel as you watch the way Hobbes must have felt in medieval England as he contemplated his social contract. Life in the bar seems “nasty, brutish and short.”

So how is that a game? If it were only about a bar, it wouldn’t be. But Plympton’s angry anti-hero has a problem. He sprouts wings and becomes an angel. Every time he slices them off, they come back, stronger and bigger. The thing is, he hates being an angel. It doesn’t suit him.

He hates doing the good things his angel wings make him do.

And in that thought is the germ of a great game. Your goal would be be remain earthbound, to release yourself from the heavy pressure of doing good. But becoming bad again won’t be so easy. Once you do get rid of the wings, you become another character who is forced to become an angel with a different personality.  For different reasons, she doesn’t want to be an angel, either.

The game could be informed by Peter Molyneax’s  Fable series or the upcoming Epic Mickey from Warren Spector, Each time you cut your wings, you’re forced to make moral choices. You could bomb the town you hate, which happens in the movie. Or, you could fly above and save the weak in a deal with the devil to become your old, bad self again.

In other words, the possibilities for Idiots and Angels are endless.

-Harold Goldberg

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It’s cliche to say that most movies turned into games are mediocre, or worse. After all, they’re based upon branding and focus groups and generally are marketing tools more than inventive games that move games forward.

But just imagine what a terrific platformer director Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away would have made.

What a great loss it is — not having a game based on this touching, imaginative, generally haunting film about Sen, a plucky (even loud) girl who loses her parents in a strange spirit world.  Sen is boisterous, independent, heroic, as a adventurous as Link from The Legend of Zelda.

And just contemplate the possibilities of game play:

The pampered, giant baby as a frightening boss.

The mysterious train treading through water and perhaps halting at some new stops along the way for missions.

The mysterious, black-goggled janitor hovering over his furnace with his spider-like minions deep below the town could have a Pikmin feel.

The parents turned into pigs and lost in a pig sty add anything from fighting pigs to puzzle solving.

Riding Haku in his dragon form adds thrills as well.

It’s a movie just begging to be a game.

How did game developers, corporate or indie, miss Spirited Away? It won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, for God’s sake.

It’s a total failure on the part of the industry for critics and game fans a like.

I counted at least 20 scenes that could have been riffed upon for an adventure-based platformer. Here’s the complete 2001 movie via Google Video. Watch it and judge for yourself even as you’re moved.

-Harold Goldberg

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If you’ve won in small claims court, congratulations. You feel justified, even rejuvenated. You’ve been through a lot, and  you’ve come out victorious.

Or have you?

Most publishers will pay you within a month of the court date.

On rare occasions, however, they won’t. In that case, you’ll have to hire a City Marshall to find the offending publisher and force them to pay. These investigators can dig into their bank accounts and take your money from them.

But that means more waiting to be paid and more paper work.

So, you’ll have to ask yourself, does it really pay to sue? It does if the payment for your work was fairly substantial. It does if you shed blood, sweat and tears on the story.

It does not if your payment was low, your work was quick, and you simply want to make a point. Make that point to your close friends. Don’t make that point publicly. It doesn’t look good and it could very well hurt your career in games journalism, which otherwise can be long and profitable.

After you’ve sued, can you ever work for the publication or Web site again? I have, even with the same editor. If you don’t get along with the editor, just wait. Editors change quickly. Magazine and Web site focus changes, too. But one thing shouldn’t change – your rights as a writer.

Neither should your honesty and affability when dealing with your editors. If you have an attitude, if you think you’re so good that you can’t be replaced, think again and change. No one is irreplaceable. But if you’re an agile writer and work with your editors to help them shine, you’ll rarely be without work.

-Harold Goldberg

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As an example for videogame journalists, I’m detailing a small claims  suit I filed against a travel magazine that was led by, in this case, a less-than-honest editor in chief.

So what happened when I took the train downtown to court on a chilly spring evening?

In front of a genial mediator, I pled my case. I showed him the contract, the email threads and the receipts for expenses to South Africa.

The editor pled her case as well. She said she didn’t have the money to pay me. The mediator leaned forward and said, “Are you paying your staff?” “Yes,” she said. “But…” The mediator interrupted, “Are you paying them every week?” “Yes,” she said.

The mediator asked if that was her signature on the contract. “Yes,” she said. “But…” Again the mediator interrupted. “Then you have to pay this man. This man has a contract. He did the work. This contract is legally binding. And you’ve incurred interest as well,” he added.

I was happy, to say the least.

As an aside, it used to be that you had to travel to downtown Manhattan to file a claim. The process took hours. Now, through a third party service, you can file a claim electronically for a mere $14. But you do have to travel downtown to small claims court for the case itself. Once you arrive for your court date, the legal representative for your  publisher may ask for more time and the case may be adjourned. That means another trip to court. But you’ll get your day with the mediator. And, as detailed above, the mediator generally looks kindly upon you, the litigant – as long as you can prove you’re owed money.

What happens once you’ve won the case? How do you collect your payment? And, once you’ve sued, can you ever write for the same publication or Web site again?

-Harold Goldberg

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