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04/08/2007 - 04/14/2007

Good Game Licenses Never Die

April 13, 2007


My green cartoon shirt was recently washed. Remember Fallout? If you've been a PC Gamer or RPG fan anytime in the last ten years chances are you do. And that's what makes the name valuable! Even if you never played the original game, there's a good chance you've heard all about it from a friend. For gamers, Fallout means roleplaying in a darkly humorous post-nuclear wasteland. It also means award-winning gameplay and great writing. That name's got street cred. It's worth something.

It was definitely worth something to Bethesda: Bethesda just bought the Fallout license for a tidy $5.75 million. Gamasutra has additional details. "Hold on," you might be saying, assuming you talk to your monitor a lot. "Isn't Bethesda already working on Fallout 3?" Which frustratingly wasn't at E3? Yes, yes they are. Until now Bethesda (creators of the Elder Scrolls series, so these guys know next-gen RPGs) was only using the name under license. Now they fully own the franchise.

What About the Fallout MMO?

Duck and Cover, bitches! Good question! In my December 13th newsletter (shortly before I kicked off this blog) I talked about Interplay's plan to develop a Fallout MMO. I was skeptical that this project could get off the ground, given that at this point Interplay is a name and a collection of properties but not actually a development studio. Interplay has been trying to raise $75 million in order to get an MMO underway. At the time I called the plan "overly ambitious," since MMOs are expensive and risky even for established teams, and $75 million ain't a lot of dough for games like these.

That's where the $5.75 million comes in. The sale means that Interplay and Bethesda switched roles -- now Bethesda owns the property and Interplay is licensing it. Interplay can use this $5.75 million to bring in a handful of talented people and to rough out the shell of a game design, maybe even a working prototype -- instead of the Fallout MMO being an idea on paper, it'll be something that investors can take a look at. That money won't be enough to build a game, but it makes for great seed money in order to start work and attract more investment.

So maybe we will see that MMO by 2010. And it's reassuring to see that Bethesda is so committed to the franchise -- I'm expecting some sweet things for Fallout 3. This news makes me feel all warm and glowy.

Or maybe that's the radiation.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Posted by at 11:09 AM PDT
Edited on: April 13, 2007 11:42 AM PDT
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Oh, Brave New Whirled!

April 12, 2007


My green cartoon shirt was recently washed. The game development industry is like a jungle where the weak are devoured alive. Their still-beating hearts are ripped from their broken carcasses, spattering creative juices across the dense underbrush before disappearing into the maws of big lumbering commercial behemoths who crank out sequels and movie spin-offs. If that's the case, then small indie developers are like ... musclemen with loincloths and they ... they swing from vines. I think. Still with me?

Let me put it this way: There aren't a lot of small developers who are able to crank out really original titles, and find success while they're at it. We should celebrate those who are. That's why I love the guys from Three Rings, the creators of Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy. Starting from a small team, they took a novel idea and made as their first game one of the most successful indie MMOs out there: Puzzle Pirates replaced combat and crafting with fun single- and multiplayer puzzles, creating a massively multiplayer game that sucked in a casual audience. Three Rings proves that there's room in our industry for games that think outside the box.

Whirled!
Very few screens of Whirled are floating around.

So you can imagine I'm excited about Whirled, the social online world experiment from Three Rings. Read the interview we just did on GameSpy.com! Whirled is an online universe created entirely by the players, a social space where you'll be able to create and trade avatars, items, backgrounds, even minigames, and enjoy the community that grows out of it.

Hold on while I put on my turban -- I will now attempt to predict the future of Whirled!

1. It will be hideously ugly. Yep, character models of completely different styles will clash with garish backgrounds and an insane color palette. Most of Whirled is going to be hard on the eyes. But you know what? That's okay. Spend ten minutes on MySpace and you realize that people don't care what a community looks like so long as they can use it to build whatever they want.

2. But talented people will bubble to the surface by creating cool content. Whirled appears to be a hybrid between 2D art and 3D locations, and it looks like it'll be much easier to edit than full 3D worlds like Second Life. People who do create quality content will become celebs in the world of Whirled, and people will flock to the areas that are well designed and contain the fun content.

How Whirled Can Succeed:

Based on my not-so-hard-to-make predictions above, the real measure of the game's potential will be based on two things. First, how good are the content creation tools? If they're easy (and more importantly, fun!) to use, then the quality of content is going to soar. But an even bigger issue is creating an easy way for people to find the cool stuff. User-created worlds are filled with junk, but if players can quickly find and share the gems among the trash, the overall experience is going to be great.

It's ironic that we gamers have to depend on 'The Little Guy' to make the most impactful, forward-thinking games in the industry, but that's the situation... Here in the jungle. Read the GameSpy interview for more!

      -Fargo

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Posted by at 11:25 AM PDT
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The Future of Consoles

April 11, 2007


My green cartoon shirt needs to be washed. This last week an illuminating pair of interviews were posted about where the console industry is heading. First you had Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights (Legacy of Kain, Eternal Darkness) talking to GameDaily.biz about "one hardware platform to rule them all." This was followed by John Romero (Doom, Quake... Daikatana) who, in an interview with Adrenaline Vault, predicted that consoles as we know 'em will be replaced by more PC-like machines.

Dyack's comments came a couple of pages into a lengthy interview, with his main message being that consoles need to unify the hardware in the same way that DVD is the accepted format for movies:

"[I'd like] one hardware platform to rule them all. It's what happened in the movie industry. I think we're moving towards a homogeneous platform whether people like it or not. At the end of the day, I think it's in everyone's best interest that there be one hardware console, whether it be Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or whether all three of them got together... we'd rather spend time making the games than worrying about the hardware." -Denis Dyack

Romero had a similar vision:

"Next-gen console is big but its future isn't too bright with the emergence of cheap PC multi-core processors and the big change the PC industry will go through during the next 5 years to accommodate the new multi-core-centric hardware designs. My prediction is that the game console in the vein of the PS3 and XBOX 360 is going to either undergo a massive rethink or go away altogether. The Wii has the perfect design for a console that doesn't pretend to be a PC and is geared more toward casual gamers than hardcore gamers. The hardcore gamers are going to either be playing on their PCs or a new PC-like platform that sits in the living room but still serves the whole house over wifi, even the video signal." -John Romero

Of course, as we can all see with the HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray fiasco, companies don't always agree to align their interests to what's best for the consumer. Pinning down what's going to happen in the console world over the next ten years is tricky. But the idea for a single hardware standard isn't new: Trip Hawkins tried to do this with the 3DO console. The 3DO ("Audio... Video ... 3DO." Get it?) was a standard spec that any company could license and build. Despite the power of the hardware and its bleeding-edge technology (it played CDs!), the 3DO ultimately went under thanks to a $699 price tag and too much competition in the space.

Nowadays, Sony and Microsoft both want a standard console platform -- they just want to be the standard! Given the nature of the console industry, I don't see this changing anytime soon. Hardware manufacturers make too much money from the licensing fees everyone pays who makes software for the system. The only way that changes is if consoles find another way to make money (ie, downloadable games) and the whole business gets upended (Romero is hinting at just that). I'd like to see that, but it'll be a long time coming. And right now cooperation between the big players (i.e. Microsoft teaming up with Nintendo, long rumored) seems pretty unlikely. Until then, we gamers will always have an array of hardware platforms that we'll have to pick from, like it or not.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Posted by at 10:56 AM PDT
Edited on: April 11, 2007 10:59 AM PDT
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East Meets West: When Virtual Worlds Collide

April 10, 2007


My green cartoon shirt needs to be washed. Next-Gen has posted a great piece about Korean vs. North American MMO game development, including commentary from Richard Garriott about the early development of Tabula Rasa. We get a brief glimpse at an untold story: how and why the original design for Tabula Rasa -- along with two years of hard work -- was scrapped. Originally the game was being developed on both sides of the Pacific, a cross-cultural attempt to create an MMO that would appeal to both East and West.

It failed because the differences in taste between gamers "over there" and "over here" are wider than you might think. Cultural expectations come into play. For instance, heroes in Korean games are small and frail -- they defeat big strong enemies because of their cunning and inner strength. American heroes are muscular and powerful. You can imagine the disconnect as design teams tried to share assets across the ocean. Garriott describes it: "...When we create heroic characters and try to send them over to Asia they're saying, 'why are you making me play these big, dumb brutes who are clearly evil?'"

I first started following the Korean gaming scene with this piece I wrote in 2003, just as American companies were seriously looking at the success of online games in Korea and trying to figure out how to make it work over here. But tastes have changed on either side of the ocean since then. For one thing, there are a couple cross-cultural hits: World of Warcraft and Guild Wars are managing to find audiences worldwide. But more importantly, tastes are changing. Years ago most Korean PC gamers could only play from PC Baangs (Internet cafes). Nowadays more and more Korean families have a PC they game on while at home, so solo-play is a little more popular than it used to be. And here in the 'states, player-vs-player combat is more popular than it was a few years ago (again I point to Guild Wars and World of Warcraft). As the Garriott points out in the article, as time goes on the gap is shrinking rather than widening.

I did disagree with one thing in the Next-Gen piece. It said that Guild Wars was among a crop of games "certainly not designed by trans-cultural teams or with any cross-cultural motives in mind." But I visited ArenaNet a few months before the release of the Guild Wars, and I can tell you first-hand that hitting the Korean market was a high priority for these guys. Many of ArenaNet's designers were old Blizzard veterans who had created BattleNet and StarCraft. They saw firsthand how powerful that community could be, and made design decisions based on how well the game would play overseas. It is possible to create a worldwide hit by design.

      -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 9:38 AM PDT
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Readers Respond to the Power of Games

April 09, 2007


My green cartoon shirt needs to be washed. Last week I blogged about the impact games have on people, and asked some pointed questions about the positives and negatives. Naturally my inbox was flooded with responses, so a big thanks to everyone who wrote in! Here are some choice quotes about the impact of games -- kicking off with some notes about their emotional power:

"As far as learning something from a video game I remember the first time I played one of the WW II shooters (it was either "Call of Duty" or "Medal of Honor") landing on Normandy, doing the "take two steps and respawn shuffle" when it really hit home how hard that must have been in real life. I'd always know, in some intellectual way, how hard it was but I had one moment there when some inkling of that reality hit me -- no coming back to life, no more baseball, no more wine, women and song -- just one bullet. Made me appreciate life that much more....
    As for Guitar Hero, I'm not a big music fan, and the game doesn't have a lot of appeal to me, but I love the idea of games that are competitive without being violent. And if playing "air-guitar" hasn't ruined the current generation of musicians and musician wanna-be's then I doubt a computer game will."
-Mike McBride

"About the things games taught me, it's simple: if you fall, if you loose, you can start again, see how you failed, and retry with a different approach or strategy." -Gustavo Campanelli

[Regarding basic legal lessons learned form Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney] "Being a lawyer will never be this much fun IRL. But I do know that your respect for the legal profession will soar after completing an entire PW title. Prepare to feel heart-wrenching loss if you screw up and your innocent client is found 'guilty.'" -Kreig Bryson

The Psychology of Gaming:

In my essay what I really wanted to get to the heart of is what the difference is between games that inspire you vs. games that purely entertain, and why we can learn positive lessons from some titles but ignore the negative values in others. Reader Zeke Ogburn did his best to tackle this -- unfortunately I don't have space to reprint his entire email:

"The line is, I suppose, human psychology. We all have dark urges and thoughts, and seeing as we're mostly not marching on battlefields or tracking down our food for the next few days, that morbid nature and curiosity are expressed in books, movies, television, and games. In the same way, stories of heroes are played out for us, urging us to achieve greatness that we don't generally find by leading your army into victory or winning a joust, or taking down a mammoth and dragging it back to the cave with your clan." -Zeke Ogburn

"I think it depends on the player's interests and maybe mental dispositions if you can call them that more than anything else... take my case for example: I enjoy football (I suppose that would be soccer for you), writing, drawing and engineering, and I play football Sims, FPS, and RTS regularly with the effect that when a score a great goal or make a great play in-game I try it out afterwards in real life. I've even paused the game and stepped into the hallway to try a dribble or stepover as soon as Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney do them in FIFA 07!! ... At the same time I thankfully have experienced no urge to kill people with piano wires or to walk up the street with an AK-47, dressed in a counter-strike terrorist outfit." -Tomas Rojas

Games as an English Tutor:

FilePlanet's international contingent came out in full force to talk about how they learned to speak English from games, which I presume is great if you ever need to shout "Come with me!" or "Get the girl!" or "Nobody can stop me!" in an English-speaking country.

"I have learned many skills by playing a lot of games. To name a few:
  • Co-operating with people from different cultures and countries
  • Speaking English
  • Quickly adapting to new situations
  • Properly managing my finances
  • " -Roberto

    "Above all I think they are great language teachers. Most of my English (if not all) comes from videogames! I could not be writing this if it wasn't for videogames." -R. Rieckhof

    Is There a High Cost to Rocking Out?

    My original story talked about Guitar Hero backlash. Will the game inspire people to learn a real instrument or discourage them from the hardship of actually learning to play? Most (but not all) readers agreed with me that GH will inspire people:

    [After giving his son & daughter Guitar Hero for Christmas] "Within that first year my son was taking lessons and now playing the guitar at what I would consider a decent rhythm. His teacher is using Guitar Hero for his students to teach them the basics of rhythm (timing). So I would say Guitar Hero is not only getting kids interested in music it is also teaching them." -Greg

    ...but Kevin here scores some points by taking me to task:

    "While I enjoy the Guitar Hero games, the concept of Rock Band literally scares me. We could have a generation playing watered down versions of musical instruments and thinking that they've accomplished something meaningful? Dear Lord! The fast food lifestyle has finally hit both gaming and music. GH promises an easy learning curve and a small skill set... GH simplifies guitar to the point that you won't get frustrated. It gives an unrealistic expectation. You say in your post that you did try guitar, though you gave up relatively quickly. I'm sure that your story is practically universal for GH players trying guitar for the first time." -Kevin McHugh

    Miscellaneous Thoughts:

    "If games truly teach you... then I'm a counter terrorism expert, and along with the crack team of other Xbox360 players we can have the war on terror won in under 30 hours." -Da Luniz

    Scott K. wins the honest man award:
    "I'm afraid in 8 years being glued to computer games I have not learned any new skills or nor have I been inspired to do anything worthwhile. I'm sorry if I have let you down but I'm just a complete airhead anyway." -Scott K.

    And finally, ColKurtz was the only reader who wrote in to talk about the social effects of a group game like Guitar Hero:

    "Guitar Hero might not inspire musical genius, but at least it's a reason to invite a few friends over. I'm old enough to remember a time when 'multiplayer games' meant split screens and sharing the same couch. The social aspect of video games is diminishing as gaming becomes a more immersive and, at the same time, solitary activity. The anti-social potential of a game like GTA is probably more dangerous than its content." -ColKurtz

    There you have it. Now, I'm not going to argue that games make people smarter... but judging by the depth and quality of the responses I got from my essay, I think you could make a strong case. Thanks to everyone who wrote in!

          -Fargo

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    Posted by at 11:26 AM PDT
    Edited on: April 09, 2007 11:30 AM PDT
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