Games * Design * Art * Culture


Thursday, March 31, 2005
Games are Eeeviill
Hillary Clinton just lost my vote. What the hell is wrong with these people? Lieberman wants to censor the game industry too, and for that matter, I couldn't bring myself to vote for Gore, since his wife was instrumental in self-censorship by the music industry. And these are supposed to be Democrats?

For the record, Senator, Grand Theft Auto does not encourage people to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them. Grand Theft Auto allows you to drive up to a prostitute; have the prostitute enter the car; have the car rock for a bit; and have the prostitute leave the car, the net effect meaning a modest reduction in your money stat and a modest increase in your health stat. Grand Theft Auto also allows you to run over people, and also increases your money stat when you do. (Which is bogus, btw--realistically, you should be required to get out of the car and rob their corpse. As it is, it's too easy to get some money quickly by mowing people down--which, of course, also increases the 'wanted' stat and, if you do too much of it, winds up with a lot of cops showing up who want to take you down.)

In other words, the "fuck prostitute then kill her" is not "built into the game," but an emergent behavior that arises from a game that allows you to fuck prostitutes, allows you to kill people, and awards you money (but also applies negative sanctions) for killing people. For a "thug simulator," it all sounds pretty reasonable to me, actually.

Note also that "fucking prostitutes" happens in a pretty discreet, almost G-rating way. The car rocks. Whoo hoo. I'm getting excited just thinking about it. Not. The real focus of the game is on violence. Which is All-Amurrican, after all. And a whole lot less disturbing in GTA than in, say, Reservoir Dogs. But nobody's calling for censorship of Quentin Tarantino.

I do wish Democrats would get it through their pointy heads that the reason the Republicans have been as successful as they have is not because they cater to the "moral values" of fanatical religious nutcases, but because they emphasize freedom--and portray liberals as out-of-touch elitists who want to reduce individual liberties in order to achieve woolly-headed ideas about equity of outcomes. They way to fight that is not to cater to moral-values fanatics, who are about as likely to vote Democratic as to volunteer to be inoculated with leprosy, but to emphasize the aspects of freedom that Democrats support, and Republicans generally attack--like, say, freedom of expression.


Friday, March 18, 2005
Snowing in Tampere
In Scandinavia for two weeks, so I may not be posting much for a bit. But:

Three Rings, creators of Puzzle Pirates, has released their source (or parts of it?) under the GPL, and will host games developed with it. (Um... Not up on the intricacies of open source licensing, but doesn't GPL basically ban all commercial uses? And why would I want to run an MMOG, with conncommitant bandwidth and server costs, if I can't charge at least enough to cover expenses? But maybe I've got that wrong.) Via /. Games.

Also, Fargo has solved the problem of distribution and marketing for independent games. Although I don't know about that game with the harmonica. He also says he'll review any indie game that "makes him laugh out loud..." Maybe it's time for me to dig out my design for "Where the Fuck is Carmen Tiajuana."


Wednesday, March 16, 2005
RAS Obit in the Times
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/16/obituaries/16simonsen.html

Registration required.

Surprising and gratifying, IMO...


Tuesday, March 15, 2005
Link Bar Indies
A minor thing, but I just added links to indie game sites in the bar at left. Happy to add more, email me if you want to be added. Basic rules: a) games must be available for download at the site; b) no puzzle/word games; c) multiple games available, no one-offs (well, except for MMOGs); d) and I have to think what's on offer is at least decent.


Sunday, March 13, 2005
Doing Something About It
Years ago, I had a Soapbox piece in Game Developer on the need for an alternative distribution channel for independent games. Essentially, the argument is that both movies and music have this--and the existence of indy music and films both helps to reinvigorate the mainstream industry, and also to support--not at a rockstar/matinee idol level, but at a middle class way--a large number of people, who get to pursue their art. We didn't have that. We still don't.

How do we create it?

Over at A Shareware Life, Thomas Warfield says:


    If you turn on your computer and fire up your internet browser, you will find something called the "world wide web". It's been around awhile, over 10 years now actually. You'll find that it makes an excellent distribution system, in fact one of the best ever invented. All you have to do is develop a game and put up a web site. If the game is any good and appeals to any one, some people will buy it.

    It is a simple distribution model:
    Develop a game yourself at your own expense.
    Distribute it yourself on the internet.


This is all well and good, and there are some people who make a living off pure shareware. But frankly, it's not very good. Virtually every independent developer sells their game from their own website, as well as through whatever other channel they can find--and everyone I've talked to says they sell only tiny numbers that way. Volumes through other channels--whether that's the portals like Yahoo Games! and such, or via Digital River, or whatever--are always larger, usually by a factor of ten or more. The fact is that you can distribute readily through the Internet, but it's awfully hard to market through the Internet. A box on a shelf serves as a billboard for a product. Conventional retail release ensures review attention. Gamers still assume that a game that doesn't have a conventional release must inherently be inferior--and gamers have yet to develop an aesthetic that says "Gameplay is what matters, and I'll accept lower production quality for superior gameplay." There are, in other words, a confluence of problems that need to be solved: a change in gamer culture, a path to market, a source of finance, and a means of marketing.

Brian Green (of Meridian 59 fame) says:


    In the end, we need to do something. Sitting around doesn't do it. Even starving for our art isn't doing it. The publishers have money, and as they say, "Money talks, bullshit walks." I appreciate the honesty it takes to rant in a public forum like that, but let's face it: a rant is just so much bullshit put into words.

    So, what are we going to do? Can we, as designers, put away our egos and start working together? Can we come together and save the medium we all love? I'm tired of being a lone voice in the wilderness. I've spent myself into tremendous debt trying to just do "cool games" and hoping the market will take notice. I hear the same rant over and over again: alternate distribution, support the indies, etc, etc. We can repeat these wards against the larger games industry until we're blue in the face, but until the rubber hits the road we have NOTHING. Nothing except for the large publishers that honestly care nothing about the success of our games, only in the potential revenue streams that will buy the execs their next imported sports car.


And he's absolutely right: My rant is bullshit. It points out the problem, but does nothing to solve it. What would?

Some folks look to downloadable games. And I have some hope that the downloadable market can be broadened away from word games and "pick-three" puzzles, and that the audience can be broadened from its female, middle-aged core to other demographics; certainly, Play First is trying, with games like Oasis and Diner Dash. But it hasn't happened yet, and it's equally likely that the market will ossify, that downloadable publishers and portals will eventually resist carrying other than the tried and true sorts of games they know appeal to their core audience. Pop Cap, which announced a deal for Oasis at last year's GDC dropped the game, after all, I presume because they had second thoughts about its salability in the downloadable market--and nice that Play First picked it up, but this does give one qualms about the viability of innovative product in that market.

As for mobile--licenses rule, today. Very hard to do anything that isn't attached to a brand, and that won't change unless the mobile business model does. Forget mobile for the foreseeable future.

In any event, in both those markets, many game styles aren't going to work; if Brian were to try to sell the Meridian 59 client through Pogo.com, he wouldn't get very far. Nor would games like Laser Squad Nemesis.

In some cases, we do see people succeeding: Matrix Games is an example. The publish mostly computer wargames, a genre that was a big part of PC gaming in the 80s and early 90s--and a genre with devoted fans. The problem is that there aren't enough of them; you won't sell 100k+ units of a new Gary Grigsby game through Wal-Mart and EB and the rest. Matrix used to be a small, but conventional boxed game publisher--and they occasionally get a game into retail. But they've managed to shift their audience primarily to online sale. Shrapnel Games does the same (and has some games in other genres, too--turn-based fantasy, 4X, and a M.U.L.E.-inspired game).

In both cases, these are companies that have established a following of people who frequent their sites and look forward to their titles, and that's great--but it's not a general solution for the problem of independent distribution.

Garage Games is trying, and it's great that they make the Torque engine available at a very low cost. But essentially, they're trying to solve the problem with technology--and the problem isn't really technology, but marketing.

In truth, if I knew how to solve the problem, I'd be out looking for venture capital today. And here are some ideas I've had over the last few years--ideas that probably wouldn't work, but might be something to jumpstart your own thoughts:

1. Distribute through music channels. I actually put together a business plan for this, but eventually decided it wasn't going to go. The idea is to do games that have some kind of appeal to people in a record store: some might be music-themed (ala Rez or FreQuency), some might feature music from artists who might think the venture cool (Moby's a gamer) with a chunk of the revenues going to them. Games are CDs, and record stores know how to stock and sell CDs--and you could try the same kind of guerilla marketing approach that works for indy bands.

2. Create a magazine. Back in the day, Strategy & Tactics succeeded because it included a "free" game with each issue of the magazine--six games over the course of a year at a subscription cost of about the retail price of two games. It was a great deal for board wargamers--and even though the per-unit margins were lower than for SPI's conventionally published games, they made it up in volume, in essence. A non-magazine game would typically sell 5k units; the magazine's circulation was 30K+. And the magazine games had some after sales, moving into boxes later. The magazine also served, in essence, as a catalog for the company's other games, and helped to build a large fan base for the company. Would gamers go for something that promised "a complete, free game in every issue?"--even if the games were indie rather than conventional retail product? Could a magazine be used to foster a culture of gamers interested in indie games? Would indie publishers be willing to accept, say, a couple of bucks per copy sold--muchlower than margins elsewhere--in exchange for the exposure that would bring? Idunno... A back of the envelope calculation implies you'd need a circulation base of at least 20K to make it work. Might be hard to get, with indie product.

3. Create a consortium of indie developers and a portal to compete with Real and Yahoo! and the like; pass on a higher share of revenues (the portals typically take 50+%, a reasonable margin at brick-and-mortar retail, but pretty ridiculous for online sale). Use it to try to create a critical mass of indie consumers. You'll never get the traffic of Yahoo! Games, but maybe you can create a bigger market for games aimed at a different demographic, and provide developers somewhat better margins on at least a portion of their sales.

4. "2Cool4GameStop." Put together a POP display with say a dozen slots, and get it into as many funky retail channels as you can--hobby game stores, cybercafes, whatever odd distribution channel youc an cobble together. The sell to the retailers is that these games will NEVER be available in conventional software outlets. Use guerilla marketing, manifestoes, and outrageous stunts to try to get across the message that, like indie music and indie film, indie games are expressions of individual artistry and therefore better than the crap from the majors.

I'm not convinced any of these ideas work--and I'm reasonably convinced it would be damned hard to get financing for any of them.

What are your ideas? Is there some way we can figure out to make it work? Can we dance this mess around? In comments, please: And if something strikes me as something to work on, I'll repost it here for further discussion.

Update: Jason Kapalka of Pop-Cap says, in comments" ....we didn't drop Oasis because it wasn't "commercial enough." We didn't drop Oasis at all. Mind Control software bailed on us under ethically and legally questionable circumstances." Okay; I was speculating with no real information on the subject, and I take it back. Andrew Leker and Marc LeBlanc are friends, so I won't assume this is the whole story, but really, Pop-Cap is, in general, a Force For Good, and helped establish downloadable as a viable market. Apologies.


RAS: RIP
Oh.... damn damn damn.

Shouldn't be up now, but I'm on left coast time, still... Started going through my accumulated spam, and I have a note from Brad Hessel (forwarded by Eric Smith):


    "I regret to inform you that Redmond A. Simonsen passed away on Tuesday.

    "As you probably know, Redmond had been battling severe heart problems for the past couple of years. Apparently he suffered a series of attacks over the past couple of weeks that were in-and-of-themselves too mild to set off alarm bells -- he had just switched to a new medication and was attributing worsened symptoms to that -- until on Monday when he suffered a major attack. He was hospitalized but by that point his heart was severly swollen and the doctors estimate only 4% of the tissue was healthy..."



Before I go into the personal bit, I'll explain why you should know Redmond's name, even though you probably don't: Redmond coined the term game designer. Before he did, we had no good term; game inventor, game author... but he put his finger on what we do. Redmond established the look for the graphics of the board wargame. Redmond wasn't the first to design a fantasy/science fiction boardgame, but he almost single-handedly established it as a successful genre... And Redmond was a kick-ass game designer in his own right. Go find a copy of StarForce: Alpha Centauri, or Sorceror.

Tscch... that's totally insufficient. But I suppose if Redmond at least gets a footnote as the coiner of "game designer," it's something.




Every time I pass one of the buildings that used to hold the offices of SPI, I want to turn in. I want to go to the elevator bank, and press the button. I want to ride up to the offices, go in through the door, and walk down the hall. And I want to turn in to Redmond's office, find him there, playing with his cameras and reflectors, or his light-table and exacto, and have a conversation. There are other people I miss from those days, but when you come down to it, there's no one I really need to talk to. Just Redmond. And I imagine him there, working away, as he did, virtually 24 hours a day, looking up--not with a smile on his face, but a nod of acknowledgement, putting down the camera, and ready to advise. I almost can't imagine him in any other setting.

I'm not just saying this now, to make a point. I try to avoid walking past 257 Park Avenue South, or the building that used to be called 44 East 23rd (but now has a Fifth Avenue address), because I know I'll find myself grimacing and lowering my head, and muttering "those days are gone" to myself. I can't help but find myself thinking that if only I go in and find the elevator--I can go up and talk to... to Redmond.

With JFD, Redmond founded SPI, and established the first real game geek enterprise, but while I still admire Jim, Jim is an operator. Redmond was a decent human being. And very likely, Redmond was the first human being on this planet--with the possible exception of Sid Sackson--to think seriously about game design.

I find myself wanting to talk about the things I learned from Redmond, but I almost don't know where to begin. But perhaps this will suffice: before computers were anything that existed outside academia and government, Redmond taught me about UI. He taught me about the importance of graphical representation of information, how showing could be vastly more important than explaining, how a clever visual system could transform a game from mediocrity to fascination. Before digital games existed, he taught me the importance of math in games, the use of algorithmic systems to create gameplay. And he taught me the importance of decency and attentiveness to your customers in business: Redmond made it a point of personal pride to respond to every customer complaint, and on more than one occasion, raised holy hell with the customer service or warehouse people to ensure that complaints were addressed.

Redmond Simonsen was... is... was... one of the smartest, and most decent men I've ever known. After SPI imploded, and he moved to Texas, I kept on expecting to hear about the next fantastic thing he'd done--but life is not always kind to the best among us, and Redmond was, I suspect, like me, prone to black depression. I don't think he ever did find again his muse.

I haven't seen him in twenty years, and exchanged email with him in those years only once or twice. I'm wondering why that's so, now.... And I suspect it's more than a little because I didn't want to see him diminished, to find that the man I admired so greatly had not found his way, had not found something worthy of his many talents. That's more to do with me than him: the bleak fear, the sinking feeling that you haven't done anything worth a damn in twenty years. I guess I feared that if I met him, I'd just see another middle aged guy, damaged, as we all are, by life. And what I wanted was the competent, creative, self-assured, impressive--if geeky and socially somewhat inept--fellow who was, when you get down to it, the only thing approaching a mentor I ever had. I didn't want to see him diminished; I just wanted to take the elevator up, and have a conversation in his office, amid the smell of the rubber cement and the photographic equipment.

I do that, sometimes... Visit him in his office, I mean. In my dreams. I suspect I will again, in years to come. And if there is an afterlife, I hope to see him there again. It's where he belongs: designing the graphics for the next game.

This will mean something to some readers and nothing to others: As art director, Redmond chose cover illustrators for several of my early games. I think there's no doubt he had an amazing eye for talent. One of my games featured cover art by Charles Vess. Another by Howard Chaykin. They were then basically complete unknowns.

Some years ago, I wrote an obit for Dani Bunten, and thought I'd summoned... a sufficiency of emotion. But while Dan/i was a friend, s/he was not someone who was, when you get down to it, someone fundamentally important to me: I do not dream about seeing Dani again. Today, I'm feeling bitterly ashamed that I never did look Redmond up, on my (infrequent) visits to Texas. And I am very, very sorry that I will never see him in the flesh again.

Update: In comments, both Kevin Wilkins and Eric Smith take me to task for suggesting that Redmond didn't do much worthwhile in his later days, pointing out that it's ridiculous of me to say so, since I didn't keep in touch with him. Point taken. Although I'll point out that I also implied that I feel I haven't done much worth the powder to blow it to hell in the last several years--and that this was projection more than anything else.


But It's Over Now
Okay, so I delivered a rant at GDC at a session moderated by Eric the Z (with Warren Spector, Brenda Laurel, Jason Della Rocca, and Chris Hecker also ranting)... And I may never work in the game industry again, but hey... It was fun. Packed room, and I got a standing ovation. At dinner afterwards, Will Wright gave me a thumbs-up, which felt good. It's been boingboinged, and Alice posted a summary, but here's the text I was working from... I probably ad libbed a bit from it, but anyway.




<disclaimer>
My opinions are emphatically not those of my employer.
</disclaimer>

I don't know about you, but I could have been a lawyer. Or a carpenter. Or a sous-chef. Before I get rolling here, I want to ask all of you a question. Who here is here because, you now, developing games is, like, just a job, doesn't really matter, whatever, it pays the bills. Put up your hands.

And who's here because you love games?

Yeah.

I don't know about you, but the things I've heard here at GDC have made the future of this industry clear to me. With the arrival of the next gen consoles, the whole cycle is about to be ratcheted up another notch. We're going to go from $5m budgets to eight figure ones. We're going to go from dev teams in the dozens to dev teams in the hundreds. It's all going to be BIGGER, as Iwata-san says.

Is it going to be better?

I've been doing some research recently into the history of British and American boardgames in the 18th and 19th centuries, and I'm seeing an interesting pattern--one that persists into the 20th centuries, into the digital era, and through the modern day. It's a pattern that Dan Scherlis describes rather cynically this way: "Genre is what we call one hit game and its imitators." Jeffreys publishes "A Journey Through Europe," and suddenly we have a whole genre of track-based travel games. One fishing game appears, and we have dozens. Mansions of Happiness begets dozens of games of moral improvement, George Parker creates the business game, Little Wars spawns miniatures. Charles Roberts creates the board wargame, D&D produces the RPG, Magic: The Gathering produces the CCG. Donkey Kong appears, and we instantly have dozens of platformers, Akalabeth and Wizardry produce the digital RPG, Dune II and we have RTS, Doom and the FPS, The Sims, and the autonomous agent game.

Games GROW through innovation. Innovation creates new game styles. Innovation grows the audience. Innovation extends the palette of the possible in games. The story of the last twenty years hasn't been, as you've been sold, the story of increasing processing power and increasing graphics; it's been the story of a startling burst of creativity and innovation. That's what created this industry. And that's why we love games.

But it's over now.

As recently as 1992, the average budget for a PC game was $200,000. Today, a typical budget for an A-level title is $5m. And with the next generation, it will be more like $20m. As the cost ratchets upward, publishers becoming increasingly conservative, and decreasingly willing to take a chance on anything other than the tired and true. So we get Driver 69. Grand Theft Auto San Infinitum. And licensed drivel after licensed drivel. Today, you CANNOT get an innovative title published, unless your last name is Wright, or Miyamoto.

How many of you were at the Microsoft keynote?

I don't know about you, but it made MY FLESH CRAWL. The HD Era. Bigger. Louder. More photorealistic 3D. Teams of hundreds. And big bux to be made.

Not by you and me, of course. Not by the developers; developers never see a dime beyond dev funding. By the publishers.

Those budgets, those teams, ensure the death of innovation.

This is not why =I= got into games.

Was YOUR allegiance bought at the price of a television?

Then there's the Nintendo keynote. Nintendo is the company that brought us to this precipice. Nintendo established the business model under which we are crucified today. Nintendo said "Pay us a royalty not on sale, but manufacture." Nintendo said "We will decide what games we allow you to publish"--ostensibly to prevent another crash like that of 83, but in reality to quash any innovation but their own. Iwata-san has the heart of a gamer--and my question is, what poor bastard's chest did he carve it from, and how often do they perform human sacrifices at Nintendo HQ?

My friends, we are fucked. We are well and truly fucked. The bar, in terms of graphics and glitz, has been raised and raised and raised until no one can any longer afford to risk anything at all. The sheer labor involved in creating a game has increased exponentially, until our only choice is permanent crunch and mandatory 80 hour weeks--at least until all our jobs are out-sourced to Asia.

With these stakes, risk must be avoided. But without risk, there is no innovation; and innovation is what drives growth in games.

But it's okay, because The HD Era is here, and big bux are to be made. It doesn't matter if all we do from here to eternity is more photorealistic drivers and shooters with more polygons on the screen; it doesn't matter if our idea of innovation becomes blowing into a microphone--because after all, look on the bright side. Bing Gordon's wallet will be thicker.

I say--enough.

The time has come for revolution.

It may seem to you that what I've described are inevitable forces of history, and there's some truth to that. But not fundamentally. We have free will. And our current plight is the consequence of individual choices.

EA could have chosen to concentrate on innovation, rather than continually raising the graphic bar to squeeze out less well capitalized competitors, but they did not. Sony could have chosen to create a Miramax of the game industry, funding dozens of sub-million titles in a process of planned innovation to establish new world-beating game styles, but they declined. Nintendo could make dev kits cheaply available to small firms, with the promise of funding and publication to to the most interesting titles, but they prefer to rely on the creativity of one aging designer.

You have choices, too. You can take the blue pill, or the red pill. You can go work for the machine, work mandatory eighty hour weeks in a massive sweatshop publisher-owned studio with hundreds of other drones, laboring to build the new, compelling photorealistic driving game-- with the same basic gameplay as Pole Position.

Or you can defy the machine.

You can choose to starve for your art, to beg, borrow, or steal the money you need to create a game that will set the world on fire.

You can choose to riot in the streets of Redwood City, to down your tools and demand an honest wage for an honest eight-hour day.

You can choose to find an alternate distribution channel, a different business model, a path out of the trap the game industry has set itself.

You can choose to remember WHY we love games--and to ensure that, a generation from now, there are still games worthy of our love.

You can start today.





Some explanatory notes: I'm playing off the Microsoft and Nintendo keynotes. Microsoft gave away 1000 Samsung HDTVs to roughly one in three of their audience (you got a tag when you entered that was black, blue, or yellow, and yellow wound up winning). Nintendo's keynote was actually pretty good--Iwata-san, now Nintendo's president, explained his past as an actual game developer, with the claim that "I have the heart of a gamer." I was inordinately cruel to him, really; Microsoft came across as greedheads, while Nintendo came across as a company that, when you get down to it, does care about gameplay and innovation. But--they did set up the basic console model for games, they have acted like greedheads in the past, and, well, it was too good a line to pass up.

More coherent thoughts on the conference later, perhaps tomorrow, after I've had a few hours to delete accumulated spam.


Monday, March 07, 2005
Milton Bradley
Some months ago, I read Phil Orbanes THE GAME MAKERS, which is essentially a business history of Parker Brothers--and well worth reading, if you're interested in the American boardgame market. (It isn't without flaw--Phil wrote it with Hasbro's full cooperation, so, for example, you won't get the full, somewhat seedy story of Monopoly's rip-off of Lizzie Magee's THE LANDLORD'S GAME here). After finishing it, I lamented that we don't have equivalent histories of McLoughlin Brothers and Milton Bradley, the two other important firms in the early development of American boardgames.

But, as it turns out, we do, at least for Milton Bradley: IT'S ALL IN THE GAME, by "James J. Shea as told to Charles Mercer", Putnam, 1960.

Or at least sort of. Roughly the first half of this book is a bio of Milton Bradley, the fellow who founded and lent his name to the firm; the second is a sommewhat dubious hagiography of James J. Shea, who (we are to believe) rescued MB from near-bankruptcy during the Second World War and put it on a sound business footing in the years after. And, of course, the story ends in 1960, so we don't get the story of how MB ultimately wound up in the hands of Sauron. Sorry, I mean Hasbro.


And it may be somewhat quixotic to post a review of a book that is long out of print and more than 40 years old, but then, I do have a habit of tilting at windmills, don't I?

Milton Bradley was a son of New England, of a line dating back to the early days of the Masschusetts settlement, who, in the 1850s, settled in Springfield, working as a draftsman. He became interested in lithography, and in 1860, started a company to produce lithographic prints, still working as a draftsman as a freelancer. In late 1860, he used his lithographhic press to publish his first game--THE CHECKERED GAME OF LIFE, essentially a track game, with a square grid connected snakewise (right end of bottom row connected to left end of second row, etc.) and advancement based--not on the roll of dice, because good New Englanders would not permit dice, those elements of gambling and incumbent sin, in the house, but on the use of a teetotum, essentially a polygon, sides numbered, with a stick thrust through the middle. You spin the stick, it land on one side, the number on the side indicates the number of squares you advance. Theoretically, Hasbro's current THE GAME OF LIFE is "based" on Bradley's original design, but the gameplay of the modern title is wholly different.

Over the course of 1862, Bradley apparently sold 40,000 units, primarily to retailers in New York; today, I'd consider that a pretty stellar launch for a hobby game title, and given the primitive retail channel (and small national population) of the time, a pretty stellar first effort.

Bradley was a devout Methodist, a denomination that then barred dancing, theater attendance, and gambling; apparently, he had some difficulty persuading his pastor that his occupation was kosher. The publication of Bible Study Cards doubtless helped (and helped persuade them that not all "card games" were inherently instruments of the devil).

Bradley, but contrast to George Parker, was not what I would recognize as a game geek, even in a 19th century context; he seems to have viewed himself as an inventor, with games only one of a variety of things he invented, and which his company sold. Among other things, he invented the Zoetrope {find an URL}, essentially flipbook animation inside a round spinner, as well as somethhing the modern version of which you've probably seen at Staples: one long cuttinng blade, a straight-edge to lay paper against, a sharp bottom surface, for cutting multiple copies of a printed work with precision.

However, Bradley himself seems to have viewe not his games but his educational products as his lifework. In 1869, he became interested in the educational theories of Friedrich Froebel, a German who created the modern idea of preschool and kindergarten education, and launched a line of educational toys and games aimed at educators, despite the fact that the kindergarten movement in the US was barely nascent. Subsequently, this expanded to include blocks for math education (precursors to Cuisinaire rods), alphabet blocks, platonic solids, water colors, finger paints, and--well up to 400 items, per Shea. And, apparently in 1960, the "educational division of Milton Bradley" was still highly important to the company, and a substantial contributor to the bottom line. I wonder when that fell apart--certainly, the Milton Bradley portion of the Hasbro website no longer has any such thing. And probably for good reason: all of these items are basically public dommain, commodity items, and in an era where commodity items are best and most efficiently manufactured in, say, Guangdong province, any American company that wants to survive had better find some competitive advantage like, say, games with protectible IP>

Interestingly, the words "Parker Brothers" never appears in the book--and long before 1960, they must have been Milton Bradley's most fearsome competitors. To which I say "asshole"--pretending your competition doesn't exist sure doesn't make them go away.

I'm not all that interested in the hagiographic bits about James Shea; he may well have saved MB, but we're into business history, not the history of games, now, and whatever the fellow's merits as a salesman and manager (which I'm willing to believe were considerable), he's clearly not a gamoid. For instance, after taking over MB, he (reasonanbly) decided its line of several hundred games, many of which hadn't sold a damn in years, needed to be pruned--and so "arranged for psychologists at Columbia, Kenyon College, and Mount Holyoke College to 'play-test' the company's line of games."

Iesu Christe. If I am ever tempted to ask academic psychologists to advice me as to the inherent merits (let alone commercial merits) of any game, please shoot me. At once.

I do find one little bit of the last chapters charming, however; Shea (as told to Mercer--presumably the actual writer here) discusses how open Milton Bradley is to outside game submissions, providing as illustrations the names of a number of designers who "continue to receive substantial royalties today." I'm delighted to know that Candy Land was designed by Eleanor Abbot, for instance. And it is, of course, a mortal shame, and a dereliction of duty, that none of the US mass market game publishers today will review submissions over the transom. Reading the slush is, in my opinion, a grave duty of publishers. Few publishers, in gaming or legitimate publishing, agree with me of course.

So on the whole--basically a hack company history, but some nice detail on Milton Bradley's life, and a useful source on one important contributor to early American gaming.


Friday, March 04, 2005
NY IGDA Demo Night
So along with Eric the Z, I coordinate the NYC IGDA chapter which, along with the Northern New Jersey chapter, ran a demo night at Large Animal Games last week.

A very nice writeup of the event, with detailed game descriptions, can be found here. For my (somewhat more dyspeptic) take, read on.

We had three downloadable games, one mobile, and two console titles. The console titles were the contributions from New Jersey--there's damnall conventional-market development in NYC, alas.

Moleculous is a downloadable game in which you try to get a bouncing drop of somethingorother from a dispensing flask at screen top to a target flask at screen bottom. You don't control the location of either flask; instead, you place "pegs" on a pegboard that covers the intermediate screen, and try to bounce the drops off and into the target flask. There's a bit more to it than this, but that's the basis of gameplay--and hey, at least this isn't another pick-three game. I kind of think that the theme is not the best marketing approach--supposedly, you're helping a 19th century scientists explore molecular behavior (because if you use some peg holes, arranged in the fashion of a molecule, you get extra points). Somehow I think middle aged women, the main players of downloadables, are not going to find this theme a strong draw. Still, interesting and innovative.

I loved Zam Bee Zee, another downloadable title. The basic insight here seems to be "hex grid Scrabble"--forming words in more than two directions. But there's a lot more to the game than that, and the sound and animation is nicely done. I suspect that this will do extremely well in its market--and (publishers in that market take note), Black Burst does not yet have a publication deal.

The last downloadable was Diner Dash from GameLab (Eric Zimmerman's company, but this title designed by Nick Fortugno). It's an IGF finalist, and it has kind of the look and feel of a SNES title. You're a waitress, people show up at the restaurant, you have to seat them, take their order, deliver their order, bring them the check, etc. Again, more to it than this, but the title is accurate; it's a fast-paced game of waitressing, again with powerups and the like. Cute, not what the downloadable market usually sees, and maybe good for the target audience. If you've spent time waiting on table, though, you may want to avoid it, as it may bring back unplesant memories.

Gameloft showed off the mobile version of Might & Magic, which looks sorta kinda okay--Diablo very lite. It was actually developed in China, though, with the NY office just doing ports to handsets offered by US operators.

Hypnotix's Outlaw Golf II reminded me of, well, just about all the things I hate about the games industry. Version I was developed for Simon & Schuster Interactive, now out of business, and had the sort of lame-ass, Mad Magazine humor that Jeff Siegal used to favor; the sequel was picked up by Take Two. The actual gameplay is the conventional "choose power and direction" interface used by all such games (golf, billiards, bowling, etc.). The only real differences from all other golf games are a) the courses are set in places like Area 51, with goofy obstacles and onlookers; b) the golfers are suposed to be funny (rednecks, ganstas) or cheesecake (stacked babe in skimpy nurse uniform); and c) there's a system whereby if you miss shots, you lose confidence, which you can regain by beating the shit out of your caddy. Hurr hurr. Developers proudly told us they had one art guy who spent an entire year on tit animation. Hurr hurr. Yes, it's great to be living in the emerging years of this exciting, vital new art form.

Psychonauts, from Majesco, was--visually impressive. 3D animated, but with an art style that I've never seen in another game--the look might be described as macabre children's book art. Presenters made a big mistake, though, by declining to discuss the game and plunging us into what, I swear, was 15 minutes of introductory cut-scene. This alone makes me skeptical--I kept on muttering "show me the gameplay, goddamn it." Gameplay looks very Zelda-like, with the twist that most levels are "inside the brains" of people/critters you encounter in the "real world," whichmight be clever and might just be muddy--I'd need to play it more to be sure. But on the whole, its a game I might well buy, at least if the reviews are half-decent--I mean, I like Zelda style games just fine (even though I suck--one of the advantages of having teenagers is the ability to hand them the controller and say "five bucks if you get me through this boss"), and the art style is certainly striking.


Thursday, March 03, 2005
Fifty Cents Don't Buy Me No Token
Yeah, right, so the clowns at Vivendi are announcing a game that they describe as a "Max Payne-esque adventure," apparently to be titled 50 Cent: Bulletproof and apparently "starring" the "artist" "50 Cent". The industry press reports this, but fails to report that, the next day, the entourage of "50 Cent" apparently engages in a shoot-out in Midtown Manhattan with the entourage of "Game" (another "artist," nothing to do with actual games).

Now lets look at the logic of this. Industry legends like Noah Falstein, Lee Sheldon, Hal Barwood, and Chris Crawford can't get a game funded. EA tosses Richard Garriott aside like a used condom when they decide they've squeezed whatever juice they can get out of him, and take Will Wright's staff away from him, lest he come up with something disturbing and unmarketable like, say, THE SIMS. The only person in the field who gets cover credit is Sid Meier (and okay, American McGee, and what a joke that is), and the only person Joe Gamer knows is Miyamoto. Thus, lacking any stars ourselves--precisely because the publishers have done their level best to prevent anyone from becoming one--they're forced to turn to Hollywood and the music business to find headliners for their titles.

And, since they're morons and don't realize that the success of GTA is due to its non-instantial, open-ended, well-realized world and the gameplay it foster, they assume that "havoc" is what sells, and therefore a game featuring the edge, dangerous liftestyle of gangsta rappers will find a big market. In other words, they think we're all baggy-pants-wearing suburban hip-hop wannabes--still aiming for that 12-16 white male demographic.

This is, of course, nonsense. But worse than that, it's morally repulsive. That is to say, I have no qualms about publishing highly violent games, or for that matter highly sexual games, so long as they do what they do well and effectively; both violence and sex have been part of art since the cave paintings at Lascaux. But for darn right I have moral qualms about lining the pocket of violent assholes who let off firearms in the most densely populated area in the nation--because they have a reputation as violent assholes to uphold.

Shame on Vivendi.



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