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New links

As you may have noticed, I have rearranged the links to other sites on the left side of the page. My previous system was too rigid and did not allow me to link to sites I wanted to link to. (Don't ask me to explain the logic behind my previous system.) This approach takes up more space but gives me more freedom. I may tweak the style sheets a bit.

Inside Rockstar Vienna shock horror

Yesterday we had a lot of press people in the office, a very rare occurrence. I am by now so conditioned to the extreme secrecy and confidentiality here that having a bunch of strangers in our project room stressed me out, and I had to leave.

(A little anecdote: Last year we asked a company to provide us with plants. They sent someone to have a look at our office. However, we were crunching pretty hard at that time. Letting her into our project room would have meant hiding everything that could have given a clue to what we were working on. This would have been stressful and taken at least half an hour. We refused to let her through the door. We still don't have plants in our office...)

Futurezone, an Austrian website that is part of ORF, the public television company here in Austria, posted an article (in German) about their visit. It's not too awful. The pictures of the desk, after the picture of the deodorant? That's my desk. My desk is famous. In Austria.

Update: has also published their article. There's one in the print edition as well, but I haven't read it. The Krone Zeitung is apparently the newspaper with the highest saturation rate in the world, i.e. relative to the size of the population, more Austrians read Krone Zeitung than any other nation reads any other newspaper. They do it by squarely aiming for the lowest common denominator. It is quite similar to The Sun and other charming British newspapers.

If you look at the slide show (click on "Bilder"), I'm the guy in the second picture. The pale one, not the bronzed god in the background, that's Clemens.

Growth business

This Slashdot Games article showed me that the MMO item trading business is more advanced than I thought:
With more than 80 employees and thousands of suppliers, IGE is the largest provider in the world of virtual currency exchange and game-enhancement services to players of MMORPGs. The company provides 24x7x365 customer service and tech support from its state of the art operations center in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong.

New Nintendo hardware revealed

Well, bits of it anyway. article. GameSpy article. Nintendo press release.

Update: Thad has a picture of what this beast might look like.

To me it all sounds like a way to make another Game Boy without appearing to make another Game Boy. And focus on games aside, I wonder if it will appear underpowered next to Sony's PSP. Even when 3D capabilities don't seem such a major selling point on a handheld device. On the other hand, Nintendo still knows how to make great games.

Update 2: More concept art.

His Dark Materials

I have just finished reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I can't remember when I last felt that mixture of joy and sadness after having read something wonderful.

I'd never before taken a closer look at Philip Pullman's work. Then, late December, for some reason I cannot exactly recall, it caught my eye (perhaps it was reading that Neil Gaiman is a fan), and I ordered the first volume, Northern Lights (also known as The Golden Compass). These were quickly followed by The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Nits can be picked about these books. There were times where it was not really clear to me what was happening, or events which I felt were important went by quickly or did not seem as dramatic as I thought they should be. But in general I had a great time reading these books, and the good bits more than outweighed the bad bits. The inventiveness of the setting (and the nice way Mr. Pullman handles the exposition), the epic scope of the story (which didn't became clear to me until the second book), the pace of the adventure, the forceful and lyrical writing style, and especially the great characters. Lyra, the heroine, has the same subtle and thoughtful approach to life's problems as Conan the Barbarian, especially in the beginning. But she is not the only great character. Will Parry, Lee Scoresby, Iorek Byrnison (how cool are armoured bears?), Serafina Pekkala, Mrs. Coulter (no relation, but it helped me visualize her as evil), the Gallivespians: they are all original and vibrant.

What reminded me of computer games: the story is set in a fantasy-ish universe with various new physical laws, similar to how fantastic settings are used in games to explain the gameplay. Starting in the second book, the story contains an element which is quite similar to a gameplay element of Zelda: A Link To The Past. Also, although the characters are great, the plot is what keeps things moving (and occasionally one can feel the strain). Objects are very important. Characters obtain objects that provide new possibilities, only to lose them again (the knife, the alethiometer). Other character's won't help the main character until she has performed certain tasks for them, such as gathering objects or information (e.g. Iorek's armour). Many parts of the plot reminded me of typical gameplay elements. Except, of course, that the book evoked much richer and deeper emotions than most games... Here lies our challenge.

Anyway. I regret that I will probably never see the stage version. Apparently it's already sold out, and because of the technical challenge of compressing a universe-spanning fantasy epic into a two-part play, it won't play in other theatres. Well, at least I can read the book about the play.

Good week

You know that feeling when you're playing a game and you discover this room with lots of gold and ammo and cool items? That was what the past week was like for me. It was the first week at work in 2004 for many people in the office, so there was a lot of information on new projects and other changes. Although it will be a long time before I can say anything about the project I will be working on, there is some other news that I will be able to reveal quite soon.

I can say right now that I am going to the GDC, and will be spending time in the US both before and after with some friends (which, alas, means I will be missing the birthday party of another good friend of mine... it is not all good news).

I am also going to Imagina in Monaco, where I will be moderating a discussion on the future of AI in games with Doug Church and John Laird. I have known about this for a long time - the programme has been on the website for some time now - but this seems as good a time to mention it as any. After the conference I will travel around France for about a week and visit old friends.

Everyone in the company received huge bags with Rockstar clothes: T-shirts, sweaters, even socks. And although I am normally someone who scorns merchandising, I was quite glad to get my hands on the brushed steel Xbox lighter that, blinded by arrogance, I had completely missed at the Xbox Live launch event. That green flame is just too cool.

Privately, I received a very nice financial windfall, I found some items which I had lost (including some personal notes on game design), and I started wearing contact lenses. At first I couldn't quite put my finger on how one puts them in, but then it clicked, and it was quite an eye-opener. I am now perfectly capable of putting my finger on my eyeball. Hurrah!

Anyway. This is not the kind of blog where I regularly talk about what is happening to me, but this was just too much good news in one week :)

Top Ten Independent Games of 2003

I recently read this Game Tunnel article listing their top ten independent games of 2003, and I was very disappointed. Most of the games appear to be shoot-em-ups, and they are lauded for having good production values - in other words, for being like commercial games. This is all very honorable, and I'm sure these games are fun and well made, but I must admit to secretly harboring the hope that someone is going to make some kick-ass indie games one of these days that really explore some new directions. Which lets me off the hook for not doing the same thing in a commercial context.

Of course there is no good reason why the independent game community should give the slightest damn about my wishes, but... a man can dream.

Meanwhile, Grand Text Auto compared this top ten with the recent Independent Game Festival winners, and noted that the IGF judges seem to have a greater liking for different and innovative games.

Breaking suspension of disbelief

I find that I use the term "breaking suspension of disbelief" a lot when I write about design, because I think suspension of disbelief is one of the bedrock principles of interactive entertainment, especially the story-based kind I'm interested in. Every once in a while I get really, really annoyed by the fact that I am constantly using a triple negation... There's a good reason for it, apart from the fact it's a relatively common term... but it's still cumbersome.

(There's more on suspension of disbelief here.)