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Game blogs

Walter Kim over at Virtual Reverie talks about the sudden explosion of game development blogs, which I have noticed as well. Bezzie from adds an interesting comment.

I roughly classify the game blogs into the following categories: academically oriented blogs (e.g. How They Got Game), blogs by intelligent gamers, blogs by people with other interests (e.g. Evan Robinson's Engines of Mischief - read his GDC coverage) and blogs by professional game developers (e.g. League of Extraordinary Game Developers and, ahem, this blog).

[Update: Someone corrected me on the background of one blog I mentioned, so I changed that. Also, I'd like to stress that this very simple classification is not meant to be correlated with a blog's value: it's just type. And of course some categories overlap: e.g. Evan Robinson is an experienced pro, he just has things to say about more than just games.]

Meanwhile, I remain dissatisfied. Commenting on various bits and snippets of game development news is easy, but always takes a bit more time than I feel is worth it, especially if I want to add value beyond just filtering these items to my blog. Of course, writing more substantial posts takes even more time. So while I deal with my sense of mission and my short attention span, feel free to give me feedback, either per email or through the fancy-pants comment system, on what you like or don't like about this blog. All five of you, remember, I know where you live.


This has only the faintest connection to interactive entertainment, but I've always found the explanation for Gnomian magic in Reinder Dijkhuis's "Rogues of Clwyd-Rhan" hilariously clever:

"A few notes on the Gnomian transport ritual: Gnomian magic, as has been mentioned before, uses the energy generated by secret conspiracies, redirecting it for magical purposes."

He more or less draws the same cliched scenes, but with a cleverer meaning. At some point, a character who wants to use magic says "OK, think about overthrowing the Gnomian government from within."

No comment

I have just added the possibility to add comments to this weblog using Enetation. Thanks to Walter Kim for telling me about this system. Feel free to add comments, but expect some fiddling and tweaking (and maybe some crumpling up and discarding in case the experiment is not successful).


Walter Kim has a website called Virtual Reverie. According to the titlebar it's about "Inquiries into the internal and external dynamics of VR", but his about page says:

Don't let the titlebar fool you: this is a website about videogames. As of this writing, analytical and critical perspectives on videogames are still relatively new, still in a tempest over what videogames truly are and what they can be. This website is founded on the belief that a certain type of videogame, from its earliest forms to present day ones, are best understood as primitive forms of virtual reality, or VR.
This sounds like an interesting point of view on interactive entertainment. I look forward to reading more.

Update: alas, Virtual Reverie is no more.

Funnest computer game developer website

And the award goes to... Double Fine. From their job section (which I just stumbled across, honest guv'nor):

This job wants you bad! Look! It's totally checking you out from across the room! You keep looking at it, and when it sees you looking, it looks away. But then it looks back and smiles, and you're about to give it the wink you've been practicing all day (to try to make it look not so much like you're having a stroke) but you get a little over-stimulated and shaky and spill your little mini-plate of appetizers down your shirt and onto the white rug, and someone says, "Okay, Boozo. Hate to kick you out of another party, but we all know how this usually ends, Sir Pukes-a-Lot." And while they're hustling you toward the door, you see that it's still there, the dream job, staring at you across the room! Will you break loose and go talk to it? Or will you leave the party with spinach dip on your pants and nothing else? The decision is yours!

Do not be dumb! That is my advice. It has not worked for you in the past, the dumb thing. Give it a rest.

Innovative games

Ever since the early nineties, I have been hearing people say that there is not enough innovation in the games industry. Lately these voices have been getting stronger, as one can see from the reactions to Greg Costikyan's post-GDC rant.

Partially, I share these concerns. There have been many uninspiring clones and sequels, and many obvious techniques and improvements that have taken too long to be introduced. (Look at Zelda: The Wind Waker's amazing reactive character animation, and tell me how this could not have been done five years ago.)

However, I think a fair case can be made that some significant innovation has been taking place right in the middle of the industry, and it has come mainly from Japan and it is happening on consoles.

I don't want to make a simple-minded claim that Japanese developers are superior to non-Japanese, or that there is no innovation coming from non-Japanese or PC developers, but I think generally speaking, Sony, Nintendo and Sega have a better understanding of games as a market similar to movies, toys, or records - including the business need for innovation. Thus you get products such as Rez, Ico, Animal Crossing, Shenmue, Parappa the Rapper, and others which I will describe in more detail below. Each of these games, which all came out in the last few years, are innovative in some significant sense.

Chris Crawford has argued in the past that the difference between Hollywood and the games industry is that Hollywood will fund off-beat titles because they know they need the innovation, whereas the games industry will not. I am arguing that things are not as bleak as all that.

Sony made the development of non-hardcore games a part of their strategy about five years ago (here's an old, but good, CTW article about it). Eidos set up a special label just to publish quirky Japanese games in Europe and the US. (I also think Oddworld's games can be considered innovative: mass market games with a strong social message. I haven't seen that aspect mentioned a lot.)

And - shock horror!- I think the increase in production values and quality makes a significant qualitative difference to the player's experience. Yes, I'm talking about eye candy. Progress in technology is outpacing progress in games, people are approaching photorealism for current game types, and are therefore beginning to look for new things to differentiate themselves from other games. Look at the games from Nintendo and Capcom coming for Gamecube: although many use cel shading or other 'known' techniques, they all manage to develop strong individual styles. (I must add that at this year's GDC, Jason Rubin made a strong case for the opposite argument: that improvements in graphics will make diminishing improvements to the player experience. But I will leave the explanation of that paradox for another time.)

I think a lot of the aforementioned effects are signs of maturation in the industry. All the stakeholders (developers, publishers, players) know and are familiar with certain basic types of interactivity. Developers and publishers are getting more and more familiar with how to develop large 3D games (I think this partially explains the shakedown that is going on in the industry right now). It is no longer a Herculean effort just to ship a game, whether it's good or not. Most developers understand the tools at their disposal now. Now they must differentiate through content and style.

I am not saying the industry is mature: I just believe we have passed a certain point on a curve somewhere. I also hope and believe that maturation does not imply a slowdown of innovation.

I think I know the kind of innovation people such as Chris Crawford are talking about: strong innovation actually involving interactivity, and innovation in broader content matter. And it's true that that kind has been absent for a while. The question is whether that particular direction is so worthy that it makes the other forms of innovation going on right now worthless. (Which leads to the evolution vs revolution debate, which I will not go into here. But I will have more to say on innovation in the future.)

Please note that I am emphatically NOT saying that one form of innovation is superior and that it should be pursued at the expense of all others because it is a shining path to a better tomorrow. And I do realize that being inside the industry means I can mistake microscopic movements for momentous changes.

I believe all of these games were either critical or commercial successes, or both. Whether they made a profit or not is hard to say, even if one were to have sales figures. However, I do not think one can make the argument that these are a few feeble thrashings before innovation in the games industry was finally killed by the cruel hand of capitalism. Au contraire.

A company might get other advantages out of publishing games like these, apart from merely breaking even. I believe that to be a top publisher, you cannot focus exclusively on getting your money back (lack of time and marketing know-how preclude me from making a more sophisticated argument here). Some of these games generate a lot of good PR, be it in the mainstream press, in the special interest press or in the developer community (e.g. Ico). They can improve the image of a games platform and broaden the audience for games. And they can inject new ideas that, even though the original product might have failed, are then reused in other games (although the original developer and publisher may not reap the benefits of that).

Here are some of the games I'm thinking of:

Vib Ribbon, Mojibribbon (which has not yet and may never be released outside of Japan), Parappa the Rapper, its sequel Um Jammer Lammy, all from Masaya Matsuura. All of these games, while being simple in terms of interactivity, are hugely entertaining, make innovative use of music, and have non-standard art styles. Someone is obviously willing to give Mr. Matsuura money to make these kinds of games. (More info on him and on Um Jammer Lammy can be found here.)

Sega's Rez, produced by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. It does not seem innovative when analyzed solely in terms of interactivity. It's a shooter game, a clone of games such as Space Harrier and Panzer Dragoon. However, when experienced in its entirety, it becomes clear that the game's audiovisual presentation and the way it reacts to the player are unique. Mr. Mizuguchi talked about Rez at the 2002 GDC. It is clear that the innovation was not accidental - note the way the development process was adapted to the game. Rez won a Game Innovation Spotlight at the 2002 Game Developers Choice Awards. Mr. Mizuguchi also produced Space Channel Five, a rhythm game with a unique visual style. A sequel to Space Channel Five has been released in Japan.

Ico. In my humble opinion, the most innovative and beautiful game of the last few years. I will spare you my raving for now - suffice to say that it won a Game Innovation Spotlight and was awarded the Excellence in Visual Arts award at the 2002 Game Developers Choice Awards.

Nintendo's Animal Crossing. Basically an MMO game that is neither M nor O. Nintendo has a solid game development strategy that is focused on new forms of entertainment. Without this they wouldn't be where they are today.

Shenmue (and Shenmue 2). A special case of innovation: this is the most expensive game ever made. Yu Suzuki showed everyone what happens when you turn all the production values up to 11, and it makes a big qualitative difference to the player experience. Again, solely in terms of structure and interactivity, this game is fairly conventional. I think this is significant and intend to write about this in a future blog entry.

Silent Hill. A AAA title, one of Konami's top franchises, various sequels were or are being made. It was innovative in the way it moved the in-game camera, the interactive sound (that creepy radio), and the bizarre Lynchian story. Solely in terms of structure and interactivity, it's a Resident Evil clone.

Jet Set Radio. A AAA title, various sequels and ports were made. The subject matter and treatment were innovative.

Fluid and Baby Universe. Two games published by Sony for the PlayStation 1, as part of their effort to expand their market.

Seaman, a highly bizarre game that sold a million copies (!) and to non-hardcore gamers to boot.

Disaster Report. A completely new angle on the survival horror genre.

There are many others: Mister Mosquito, Mad Maestro, Shadow of Memories, Animal Leader, Tail of the Sun... I'm sure there are many worthy games I've forgotten.

Ironically, Mr. Mizuguchi developed Rez in part because he felt a crisis of lack of innovation in the games industry. This is why it is good to push for more innovation, so that we don't get complacent. My point is not that we couldn't use more innovation, just that the situation is not as bleak as one might think.

Akademisch is a new German-language website "dedicated to studying computer games from a cultural perspective". To signal that it's about computer games, it uses low-resolution graphics. Well, at least Pac-Man and Space Invaders are absent.