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03/18/2007 - 03/24/2007

PlanetFargo: I For One Welcome Our New Robot Guitar Overlords

March 23, 2007

I'm also a cartoon in real life. It's time to take a break from all the frivolity I normally post on here and talk about a gravely serious issue that impacts us all.


Of course you don't believe me, which is why I'm directing you to The Guitar Heronoid Page. Yes, it's a robot that plays Guitar Hero. The Guitar Heronoid was built by a group of Garage Geeks in Israel. The most interesting thing about this project was the purity of it: the team didn't want the robot to 'cheat.' It actually reads video signals from an un-hacked PS2 and then literally plays a normal guitar controller with terrifying robot hands.

Live in fear.My one consolation with respect to the horrifying possibilities is that the fret hand has five fingers but no opposable thumbs. That means the robot could never strangle me while I sleep.

If a rock robot has no thumb, is it capable of throwing the horns? What exactly WOULD it throw? I digress.

When it came time to design the body, the team was originally going to build the robot hands onto a human skeleton. You know, like the kind you'd see at a doctor's office or biology classroom. They nixed this idea, which is a real shame, because it so totally would've looked like The Grateful Dead's Touch of Grey Video. As it is, the body looks like a mannequin, which is good. If it looked any more human, I'd be forced to buy a dog in order to sniff them out like in the Terminator movies.

Next came the robot brain, which is capable of determining the fate of the human race in a millisecond. The Guitar Heronoid analyzes the video signal by looking for bright spots moving down the screen. This is important to know, because it means should the Guitar Robot ever run amok with a machete I can escape by wearing black clothes and a ninja hood. It's fortunate that I have all of that here at my desk for just such an occasion.

But seriously, let's talk about ROCK. How well does the Guitar Heronoid do? Could it beat a human? Could it beat resident GameSpy Guitar Hero champion Sal "Sluggo" Accardo, who I've written about extensively, and who regularly posts videos of him getting five stars at expert level for the Buckethead song? We approached Sluggo with information about the guitar robot tentatively, afraid of how he might react knowing that he would soon be replaced by Sluggo 2.0. But he helped me to regain my hope for the human race by shrugging and sniffing unconcerned.

"Robot can't do star power," he pointed out. "It's not beating anyone."

That's right. THAT'S RIGHT, ROBOT!! You don't got game, you got NOTHING! Maybe someday in the far-flung future they'll invent a guitar robot with articulated Elvis hips and automated headbangatron with patented David Lee Roth ego-simulation circuits, but until then, Rock is a strictly human endeavor.

Although, just in case, I'm still hoarding ammunition.       -Fargo

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Posted by at 11:12 AM PDT

Games Community Kongregate Goes Into Open Beta

March 22, 2007

I'm also a cartoon in real life. Here's a fun link to surf around in today: check out Kongregate. In press materials Kongregate fashions itself as a YouTube social network for games (today's hint: the best way to score investor money these days is to call yourself the "YouTube of ______." Example? "We're the YouTube of Cat Food.") The site has assembled a collection of talented flash developers and wrapped the games around a chat interface so that you can be a part of a community while you play.

The idea has some potential, assuming the games are good. And that's where The Fancy Pants Adventures comes in -- this thing is a blast. (There's also a preview level from the sequel.) Go ahead and try it -- yeah, right now. Put away the first-person shooters for a second and just play around in the Fancy Pants world. Run up a hill at full speed and then do a backflip -- feels good doesn't it? This is what games should be.

I would write more, but ... the pants call to me.


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Posted by at 4:02 PM PDT
Edited on: March 22, 2007 4:03 PM PDT

Reader Lashback: The Truth About Game Testing

March 21, 2007

I'm also a cartoon in real life. In yesterday's blog I talked about in-house vs. public game testing, in response to this Daivd Perry interview where Perry suggested that the days of in-house game testers might be a thing of the past. I disagreed, pointing out that a combination of testing strategies is the best way to polish and perfect a quality product. But those of you who mailed me afterwards -- including many of you from within the industry -- had even stronger opinions.

My favorite email came to me from Shatter, himself a former game tester:

"What kind of asinine upper management looking for a way to cut further costs asshat idea is it to eliminate testing?" -Shatter

Shatter eventually left the industry due to burnout (the condition, not the game), and he points out that game publishers who continue to pay poor minimum wages and fire the QA staff with each successive product can't hope to get the quality testing that software needs. Then there's this note I got from Wraith808, who still is in the industry but who got his start as a tester. He talks about the skills required to effectively test software:

"Eventually I moved into development, but I've never forgotten the lessons I learned in my days in QA. I learned that it was not something that could really be effectively taught, and it was not something that could be done effectively by someone that didn't have the background and mindset for it. Just like programming (although hacks in each area can fake it), QA is an artform -- to be able to winnow out not just the obvious bugs that 80% of people can and will find, but the other 20% that while they may not show their head often, will ruin the users day if he does find it. Then to be able to reproduce it. And then be able to document and explain it to a Developer that doesn't want to believe it's there because he can't reproduce it. Or those bugs that everyone *does* find, but no one knows how to reproduce or communicate what it is effectively...

Original testers had a tough time.

Games that are not professionally tested are just like any other software that isn't professionally tested: prone to bugs and annoying nagging problems that keep the software from being all that it could be. No piece of software is 100% bug-free, but if you want to get it as close to that number as possible, you'll have to have someone who is dedicated to finding that bug. And it's even more crucial in games, where a "beta tester" is nothing more than someone who wants to play a game in advance in most situations -- not someone who will dedicate the time to rooting out a bug that he sees one time. The more likely response will be 'Oh, someone else will find it...' and the game will suffer for it."

In an era where game budgets are spiraling out of control, it's easy to see why developers and publishers are looking for ways to save money. But cutting down on in-house testing (or cutting it out entirely) is just going to hurt the game and create more work in the long run (who here is sick of day-one patches to fix bugs? All of you? I thought so.)

That said, there's definitely a role that community testing can play -- an open beta with a large player base will discover gameplay issues and performance problems that an in-house testing team may never uncover. Community testing is perfect for adding that final layer of balance and polish to a game that's nearly done. Solid game development requires a balance of both and a commitment to the quality of the final game. Blizzard VP Rob Pardo talked about this in Blizzard's keynote speech at the Austin Game Developer's Conference -- Blizzard has a "culture of polish" in place that focuses on quality throughout the entire development process. You can't do that if you save your game testing for the community at the end of the process!


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Posted by at 10:18 AM PDT
Edited on: March 21, 2007 10:19 AM PDT

The End of Game Testers?

March 20, 2007

I'm also a cartoon in real life. This Interview with David Perry on Next-Gen hits on a lot of topics I've been blogging about lately. David Perry, founder of Shiny and developer of classics like Earthworm Jim or MDK, recently tore off on his own to begin consulting for the industry. This landed him in the lap of Acclaim, where he's helping to develop new strategies for bringing Korean MMOs to the American market. You'll remember I spoke with Perry last month about his upcoming Top Secret game, where he's inviting the gaming community to actually come aboard and help with the game development. The best contributor will be named creative director for Acclaim's next MMO project -- See the interview for details!

In the recent Next-Gen interview, Perry talks about giving the community even more of a role in game development. He suggests that the era of the in-house game tester (remember the movie Grandma's Boy?) might be coming to an end. "The concept of traditional testing is going to become more and more consumer based," Perry argues. He goes on to point out that 3000 consumers hammering away at a game and submitting feedback is way more efficient and more effective than hiring an in-house team of 30 people. Not to mention way cheaper.

Perry is right that community testing can be very powerful. Here at FilePlanet we facilitate beta tests for developers all the time -- Check out the Phylon beta! -- and there's no better way to get focused feedback to make a game better.

But I disagree with Perry that this will make in-house testing obsolete. In order to get really good community feedback, the game has to be playable. Assuming you're not paying them for their time, gamers will give great feedback once a game reaches the point of being fairly enjoyable, but is looking for that final level of play-balancing and polish. Throwing an unplayable game out to public testing is a recipe for frustrating a lot of players and generating a lot of bad buzz before your game is even done. That's where in-house testing comes in: It's an ugly job, it's a hard job, and game testers never get the credit they deserve. But They're an important part of the game development process that gets a game off the ground.

Quality Games Done Right

I think a great example is the Age of Empires III development team at Ensemble Studios (Try the Age III Demo). Ensemble's offices have a built-in LAN center, complete with video monitors in a lounge outside that show the game in progress from multiple viewpoints. Not just the QA team but every developer at Ensemble participates or observes mandatory game sessions of the game in progress, continually tweaking and refining the product. Afterwards, Ensemble brought in RTS fans from around the community to participate in the final feedback loop. The result is one helluva finished product, built from extensive internal and community testing. Not every developer has those kind of resources, but that's the way to go.

Speaking of Age of Empires III, Download the Strategic Objectives map and check out the contest associated with it. Talk about community contribution -- the author, Moshe Levi, incorporated a new game type into the map including fixed gun emplacements and forts that can be captured and re-captured. It ends up playing out a lot like Company of Heroes. Great stuff!       -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Posted by at 10:45 AM PDT

The Top 25 PC Games Ever

March 19, 2007

I'm also a cartoon in real life. I thought that headline would grab your attention. The IGN editors have been making some waves during the springtime gaming lull with a series of the Top 25 games for every system. Oh, now you want links you say?

I wanted to focus on the PC games list in my blog today, because it was the most interesting animal. It's relatively easy to name the greatest, say, Xbox games ever because you're only looking at a span of about five years (2001 to 2006), and during that period the system was unchanged. But how do you name the top 25 PC games ever? You're looking at at least 20 years of history, with games ranging from text adventures to modern 3D eye-poppers. That's a tough call.

So the PC team over there made an interesting choice, which was narrowing it down like so: "What were the greatest PC games ever that are still pretty playable today?" That changes things! Let's look at the Unreal series, for instance. To me, the original Unreal Tournament was the most important and significant game in the franchise -- while the first Unreal was a beautiful game, UT was more playable, integrated some nice multiplayer technology, set the tone for the series and was damn fun. But, while the original UT is still pretty fun today, you can definitely argue that Unreal Tournament 2004 holds up a lot better, especially with the Onslaught mode. So UT2004 made the list and the earlier games didn't.

The result is a list of 25 games that are still really fun, even if they aren't the most important PC games ever or even the greatest games of their era. I still disagree with the list on some points (I can't believe IGN's number one choice was number one, I would argue that Total Annihilation shoulda maybe squeaked onto the list somewhere, and I still think NetHack is among the greatest games available on any PC), but I think overall the list is pretty solid. Check out the Top 25 PC Games!


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Posted by at 10:04 AM PDT
Edited on: March 19, 2007 10:06 AM PDT

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