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Archive for March, 2012

This week, I was invited to preview the Creatures of Light exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History. The well-researched exhibition, which opens on March 31st, was presaged by a smart and elegant press conference. There we sat, surrounded by the kingly, fossilized dinosaur giants of eons past. Up to the stage stepped Ellen Futter, the renowned museum president; she began a short speech that was perfectly written. Dr. Futter spoke of bioluminescence and fireflies in a way that reminded of the beginning of Capote’s A Tree of Night. Her concise beginning paragraphs were almost literary in tone. Like the opening of the eponymous story in Capote’s short tome, I could immediately see what she was talking about as if a movie were playing before me frame by frame.

Michael Novecek, the museum’s provost of science, was equally articulate as he spoke of bioluminescence in history, dating as far back as Aristotle. Aristotle named 180 species, including a bioluminescent organism as early as 350 B.C. I often enjoy speeches by our finest videogame developers. At that moment, though, I wished their speeches had the rich context and historical perspective of Futter’s and Novacek’s short, sweet remarks.

Journalists then moved to the exhibit itself. As if in a science-laded haunted forest, pitch black darkness was illuminated by a giant bioluminescent mushroom model. A few crooked steps later and there was a cave you could step inside of. There, the glowworms from the Waitomo Cave in New Zealand held court. They lure prey from what look to be long, lighted fishing lines. There was an homage to the dinoflagellettes from the lagoons in Vieques, Puerto Rico. When you go in the water and move into them, they light up. At the exhibition, you could make a dinoflagellettes follow you and light up as you walked through virtual water. Haunting music from an Emmy award winning composer filled the room. A short movie featuring a deep ocean Loosejaw Dragonfish looped over and over again. IPads were placed at many of the kiosks, adding interactivity and knowledge to the mix.

It reminded me that videogame level designers have been adding bioluminescent themes to their games for a very long time. I’ve certainly seen bioluminescence in Halo and Rayman games. Most recently, the new Xenoblade Chronicles features an area called Satorl Marsh, which is full of the kind of naturally glowing beauty which makes the museum’s show so compellingly resonant.

Every kind of media was represented at the museum – except for one.

The thoughtful exhibit could have benefited from a small game that showed bioluminescence in action. Something casual along the lines of one or two levels that mimicked Angry Birds – but with a bioluminescence theme – would have gone a long way to immerse the exhibit-goer in the sheer beauty of the phenomenon. Or the museum could have designed something like FlOw with a Loosejaw trying to attract and eat a variety of bioluminescent shrimps. What I’m saying is that a few levels that riffed on any the important, popular casual games of the last few years wouldn’t have been expensive to make. And they would have been as memorable – or perhaps more memorable – as any of the awe-inspiring displays in Creatures of Light.

-Harold Goldberg

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A funny thing happened at GDC this year. I noticed it before even touching down inSan Francisco. As I booked my week-long gauntlet of previews and interviews, a trend emerged: many of the games I was carving out time to check out at were of the free-to-play variety.

“Nuts to that,” I thought at the time. “I’ll make that coverage as short and sweet as possible so I can concentrate on the good stuff.” That’s the funny thing, though. In my final analysis of GDC 2012, I realized that I spent more time covering and getting excited about the free-to-play content I was seeing about than anything else.

In many people’s minds right now, free-to-play is FarmVille or free-to-download “Lite” versions of popular games. It’s fueled by micro-transactions and it’s often ad-supported. These things tend to leave “serious” gamers with a negative impression.

The thing is, developers get that. Or they’re starting to.

Sure, micro-transactions continue to be central to making the concept of free-to-play work as a business. But the people who make these games are starting to understand the nuances of what does and doesn’t fly with an audience. A lot of them already recognize that players don’t want a “pay-to-win” framework where someone can get an in-game advantage simply for having more money.

Ironclad Games is taking an extreme approach with Sins of a Dark Age. By all appearances, this is a current-gen-quality multiplayer real time strategy hybrid. It works sort of like League of Legends on one level, with each player on a team taking command of a single hero unit that can be leveled and geared up over the course of a given match. Each team is also overseen by a commander, who is responsible for big picture resource/troop management and strategic planning.

There are multiple heroes and commanders in Dark Age, and you’ll be able to buy them using earned in-game credits. The thing is, you won’t be able to buy these credits with cash money; you can only get them for playing the game. The only thing in Dark Age that you can actually spend money on is purely cosmetic; Ironclad will be selling a variety of skins for each character. The idea is simple: create an environment that players want to keep coming back to, and they’ll spend money on these cosmetic virtual goods to distinguish themselves from the masses.

Sony Online Entertainment’s PlanetSide 2 takes a wholly different approach. It’s an elaborate PC-only multiplayer shooter that pits three wholly unique factions against one another in objective-based battles. Imagine the class-oriented scope of a Battlefield match, except this is spread across an entire continent, complete with its own weather regions and controllable resources.

Money spent in Planetside 2 can cut down on a player’s time investment as far as unlocking new content goes. But the weapons, vehicles, upgrades and gear that you’ll use have all been designed to support different roles on the field of battle. You can’t spend money on some uber-powerful shotgun that would require others to put in 100+ hours of play to unlock. There’s a cost/benefit ratio attached to any store item and it isn’t purely cosmetic.

Piranha Games is taking a similar approach with Mechwarrior Online, a free-to-play PC-only mech-based shooter. You can earn gear for your mech or purchase it using real dollars. But all of it qualifies as what Piranha calls “sidegrades.” For example, you might prefer rapid-fire, low damage rockets for short-range engagements over long-range, high-damage ones. Business models like these cleverly step around the concept of “pay-to-win” by offering gear that isn’t better or worse than anything else. It’s just different.

Will new approaches like these pay off in the long run? Really though, the content speaks for itself. Planetside 2 isn’t just similar to Battlefield in the sense that it offers multi-role first person shooter combat. It also delivers current-gen visuals that, on higher settings, easily match and beat plenty of console titles. Mechwarrior is powered by CryEngine 3, and it certainly looks the part. Dark Age isn’t as visually complex as the shooters, but even that packs plenty of visual punch when you zoom the camera in for closeups.

The good news is that these examples are just scratching the surface. Auto Club Revolution from Eutechnyx looks and feels like a F2P take on Forza Motorsport, bringing some elaborate community features into a car culture-focused racing game. CCP Games goes even further, with the PlayStation 3-exclusive Dust 514 hooking directly into the single-shard MMO universe of EVE Online. Even Crytek is jumping into the F2P arena, with the CryEngine 3-powered multiplayer shooter, Warface.

These are interesting times for gamers. Free-to-play is no longer a facet of the business that applies only to the so-called “casual” market. There are games coming soon that the serious gamer audience will want to play and, more importantly, want to keep playing.

I’m not suggesting that full-priced retail releases are going anywhere anytime soon, but the creators of those experiences really ought to pause and consider the implications of competitors offering similarly high-quality games at no cost. Putting brand/franchise loyalty aside, what are you really getting out of a $60 game that you can’t get out a free game in the same genre? If GDC’s parade of top-shelf free to play titles is any indication, that’s a question we’ll be considering quite a bit more in the coming year.

-Adam Rosenberg

Adam Rosenberg, an avid member of the Circle, writes for G4TV.com and many other outlets. Right now, he’s on a cross country trip with his father. And he’s likely playing games on the trip as well.

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I am walking along one of two creeks that cut through the city of Austin, Texas. The grackle birds are cawing loudly, proudly singing. It is early morning, and some of the homeless people who live along the trail are sleeping or just rising. In the water, which has risen from a heavy rain, is a paperback book. I bend over to fish it out of the six inches of muddy creek water. It is a copy of The Purpose Driven Life, the self help book by evangelist Rick Warren.

Seeing the book makes me think about Warren Spector, the lauded game maker whose new offering I am in Austin to see. Spector is an evangelist for Mickey Mouse, particularly his Epic Mickey videogame franchise. It’s well known among gamers that this obsessive Disney fan has a separate house devoted to Disney memorabilia of all stripes. He loves Disney so much that Spector took a group of game journalists on a tour of Disneyland a couple of years ago. (I did not attend, but I hear it was both engaging and inspiring.)

There was much hope for the first Epic Mickey game, which appeared on the Wii console in 2010. Spector’s team had gone the extra mile with research and his enthusiasm for all things Disney, Mickey and Oswald was evident during interviews. He just seemed so happy to be making the game. That, too, was inspiring. Passion about just about any kind of art form is infectious. You can see it in people’s eyes; they seem uber-alive when they speak.

When Epic Mickey was released, however, the wound it had was a severe one: the so-called camera, the way you see the world Spector and his team led you to, was off – badly, so much so you’d get stuck behind something. Or you’d get downright dizzy.

It was not a failure for Spector. But it was indeed a setback, a mark on the career of a beloved game maker. Could Spector come back from some very negative press?

Flash forward to March, 2012. In Austin at an event at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in the Spirit Theater, the lights went down in an auditorium that is most often used to display a multimedia history documentary. During a trailer for Epic Mickey 2: The Power of 2, which includes a playable Oswald The Rabbit, the seats actually shook during an onscreen earthquake. The gathered members of the gaming media saw a rare cartoon from 1928 featuring Oswald as a hobo on a train, one that featured a darker, daring Disney who was less concerned with morality and more concerned with hilarity at any cost. It was said that only a dozen people had seen the newly unearthed animation. As more of the game was unveiled, Spector made it clear that 700 people worked on Epic Mickey 2, and the first issue they dealt with was fixing the camera. In fact, he said there were 1,000 improvements to the camera.

When I played the Wii game, it was evident that the game makers were still perfecting the camera. There were still issues, but the game played better than its predecessor. When I played the PlayStation 3 version, there was far less of a challenge with the camera. However, the game crashed toward the end of my 15 minutes of play. (This happens a fair amount of the time when an unfinished game is demoed.) Epic Mickey 2 won’t be released until the Thanksgiving holiday period, so there is nearly seven months for the developers to make the way you play the game closer to perfection.

What really resonated was the addition of songs to the unplayable scenes in the game. In Epic Mickey 2, there’s no rhythm game to play in these song-rife scenes. But the whole game certainly will be enhanced by these musical numbers.

Spector called Epic Mickey 2 the first videogame musical. Certainly there have been songs in games before this. You can even consider Parappa The Rapper a kind of musical, for instance. What Spector probably meant is that there may never have been original songs of this quality in a musical game, songs that really move the story along, songs that cause earworms by sheer virtue of catchy melodies, songs that warm the heart, songs that are as memorable as those included in a great Disney film.

-Harold Goldberg

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Last year at the Game Developer’s Conference, I bumped into one of the best known daily games reporters in the business. Like me, he is also an author. He  knew I had a book that was about to hit, and he kindly suggested that I get in touch with a French publishing representative called Jean-Marc Demoly.  The writer mentioned that Demoly would be publishing one of his books and that Demoly was looking for compelling tomes about videogames that were first published in the United States. The writer looked happy about the prospects, and had good things to say about the publishing professional he had recently met.

After an introduction via email, I got in touch Jean-Marc, and I suggested that he move quickly. After an excerpt appeared in Vanity Fair online, there was a small buzz surrounding All Your Base Are Belong to Us. In fact, another French publisher had made an offer for French rights. Jean-Marc, however, offered substantially more money. But the other company had a track record of publishing literary books and even had worked with my friend, Nick Tosches.

After reading the book, Jean-Marc seemed the most enthusiastic. To my agents, I said, “Let’s go with the house that knows videogames best.” In other words, “Let’s go with Jean-Marc.” My agent was wary because he’d never heard of MCES Publishing. He suggested that we add a line to the contract that stipulated all money be paid upfront. I agreed since I had never heard of the house, either.

Once Jean-Marc received the contract, his emails to me became less frequent, and soon, non-existent. Then, he wouldn’t respond to my notes, either. Via Facebook, I tried to contact the publisher himself. In a short note, he wrote that he wasn’t involved in the company any longer. And he said he didn’t know where Jean-Marc was.

It was completely frustrating, not only because I’d been scammed, but because this happened in the book industry. One of the things I consider when I think about book publishing as compared to print journalism and online journalism is that the people involved in books have often been more collegial, perhaps because there’s more at stake. A book could and should have a long tail. It should sell for years, not for just one month, one day or one hour.

What I didn’t know is that Jean-Marc did the same thing to my well-known writer friend.

Jean-Marc made him an offer.

And then he disappeared.

Who knows how many other authors have been fooled by this man?

Thankfully, my agents were savvy enough to curry interest again with the respected French publisher. They made a deal which, I’m told, should bring me royalties for years to come.

So what is the takeaway here? If even seasoned journalists can be fooled by a gregarious charlatan, how do you protect yourself when your tome is offered for sale around the world? The only thing to say here is to forget charm and enthusiasm when it comes from an unproven entity. Listen to reasoned arguments from your agents. And stick with the company with the proven track record.

-Harold Goldberg

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