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Friday, July 29, 2005Game Development/Australia
In addition to Free Play, while in Melbourne I attended a meeting of the local IGDA chapter, and also visited the offices of That Game.
A general concern of Australian developers seems to be that they're viewed by the game industry mainly as a relatively cheap place to do ports; not that much original development gets funded there. And as more experienced developers emerge in Asia and Eastern Europe, the fear is that this work ultimately goes to even lower-cost development centers, with the future of the Australian development community at risk unless they can produce their own strong, independent developers who control their own IP. (In North America, sustainable development communities have traditionally emerged in two ways: either through the success of one strong developer that trains people and spawns new startups [id in Dallas, Origin in Austin, Microprose in the Baltimore-DC-NVa corridor], or by one of the major publishers deciding to build a large studio in the area [EA/Tiburon in Orlando, Ubisoft in Montreal, EA again in Vancouver].)
That Game was co-founded by Ben Palmer, an old school developer who, back in the day, worked with the the Gollop brothers, but has been in Austrlia for 10 years. With modest friends-and-family funding, and free PS2 dev kits provided by a government group in Victoria state, his group got their game Heroes of the Pacific to a demoable stage, and landed a publication contract--with Acclaim. Ho ho. However, they kept the project going as Acclaim went down in flames, and now have a European publishing deal with Codemasters, and a North American one with Encore. It's a flight sim, but not the kind of hardcore simulation-oriented aviation-geek type of product the phrase usually conjures up--more of a fast-paced aviation shooter with (at times) literally hundreds of aircraft in the skies in large-scale air battles. Getting good preview attention.
The company has two other products, neither of which are likely to see the light of day hereabouts--one based on Australian football, and the other on Gaelic football.
The company has taken a project-finance approach, meaning they get investors to put up money to develop a title in exchange for a share of revenues, rather than relying on publisher funding (something I've seen before only in the casual games space). The great advantage of this, of course, is that you're in a far stronger negotiating position when dealing with publishers, resulting in a higher revenue share--and continued ownership of the underlying IP.
Thursday, July 28, 2005Death to the Games Industry (Long Live Games)
I just uploaded the presentation I gave as a keynote speech at Free Play, an indepent games conference in Melbourne, Australia, a couple of weeks ago.
The first half is roughly the same as the speech I have last Austin Games Conference on the threat that rising development costs pose to the games industry, both in terms of publisher conservatism and lower margins for all but best-sellers. And the second half will be familiar to those who followed the Doing Something About It discussion here.
Tuesday, July 26, 2005Somebody Bitchslaps Rockstar
Oh, fuck me. This is exactly the kind of thing we don't need; government intervention in and regulation of the games industry. And then there's Illinois; prior to the Hot Coffee bullshit, this kind of thing would have been a whole lot easier to fight, n'est-ce pas?
And of course, it's largely nonsense. BBC quotes Rep. Fred Upton (R-Lunacy) as saying "It appears that the publisher has blatantly circumvented the rules in order to peddle sexually explicit material to our youth." No, they never "peddled sexually explicit material to our youth;" they never sold the game on the basis of inclusion of sexually explicit material but, inadvertently or not, allowed some sexually explicit material to be included on the disc, in a way not accessible to players, and have now acted to withdraw it from the market. Moreover, they never "peddled" the game to "our youth;" it's M-rated, ferchristsake... It was never marketted as a game for "our youth."
Let's focus on the main point, shall we, folks? Text, audio, and images, in other media, are protected by the Bill of Rights as forms of speech. A game consists of text, audio, and images. Games are capable of expressing ideas--including political ideas--and even though most are pretty brainless, they're still a form of expression. And brainless books and movies are still subject to constitutional protection; a work doesn't have to have -merit- to be worthy of protection. Freedom of speech means we can say what we like, even if we say really dumb things. See Fred Upton above. The nitwit has a constitutional right to say what he says, even if he is a moron.
Rockstar's sin wasn't to do a game with sexually explicit material; publishing porn, say, is legal. Rockstar's sin was to mislead the ESRB, intentionally or not, about the material included on its gold master, thereby obtaining a rating that would not have been assigned if they'd been honest (or more careful). And even here, it's not clear-cut; the Hot Coffee mod is at worst soft-core, and God of War has scenes as raunchy. And it sports an M rating, not AO.
What the hell are the twits in Washington thinking? What legal statute gives the FTC the right to regulate video games? And isn't freedom of speech a core American value?
It is enough to make you puke. Preferably onto Ryan Brant's lapels. After all, it was Rockstar's idiocy that brought this shitstorm down on the rest of us.
Thursday, July 21, 2005Nullpointer
Nullpointer is a digital artist whose art projects all depend on original coding, and many of which are related to games in some way. For example, his project QQQ takes the Quake III Arena engine and rewrites the renderer so that instead of generating the familiar hallways and levels of Quake III, it generates rapidly moving abstract images (screenshots here), but without changing the actual level data. Nullpointer has shown the piece as an installation in galleries in both the US and Europe; he set up a Quake server on the net, people played the game not knowing that the date generated by play was being transmitted to Nullpointer's hacked Quake III code, thus generating imagery in the gallery....
Another project of interest is Endless Fire (a free download at www.codespace.co.uk), a shoot-em-up in the classic arcade game style with two notable aspects; first, enemy ships 'learn' over time to respond more effectively to you; second, enemy ships fire in a fractal/spirograph pattern that creates some amazing visuals at higher levels. According to Nullpointer, the creation of these visuals through code is really what he wished to achieve by coding the game--but unlike most 'digital artists,' he feels that non-interactive or minimally interactive projects are dull, and feels that providing a point to interacting with this visual engine by making it a game makes it a much more interesting work.
Saturday, July 09, 2005Somebody Bitchslap Rockstar
Doubtless you've read the news about the sex games in GTA: San Andreas, unlockable via the "Hot Coffee" mod.
Supposedly, these mini-games are indeed on the Xbox and PS2 discs, and the mod simply unlocks them. (Rockstar, per Gamespot, "denies that the Hot Cofee mod is on the disc," but this doesn't answer the question: Are the minigames there or not?)
I'm going to assume for the moment that they are.
It is often true that content sometimes remains in a build even if it is not used in the final version of the game. However, given the nature of these minigames, if they are indeed on the disc, there are only two possible explanations: either they were included by some of the developers without the knowledge of their superiors, or they were purposefully and quite intentionally left on the disc.
The idea that they are their by accident--that is, the intent was not to include them in the final game, but it was either too hard to remove them or they forgot--is completely implausible. It's implausible because of the nature of the content; if Rockstar had decided to remove them, they would have done so completely, precisely to avoid the current fracas. And it would not have been hard to do so. Any decent version control system--and there's no doubt that as large and complicated a project as GTA: SA used a decent version control system--would make it feasible to delete these things utterly with minor effort.
So it's possible that some rogue developer stuck the things in--in which case, Rockstar should dig him out, crucify him, and make a public apology.
However, I think it likelier that this is entirely and wholly intentional. It is, in fact, standard industry practice to include game features that are not "public," and release knowledge of them later semi-surreptitiously, to spur a little more gamer interest and public exposure. That's why we have cheats.
And Rockstar knows very well the publicity advantages of edgy product--GTA is the icon it is not only because it's a good line of games, but also because of the press it's generated through its edgy nature. I can easily imagine myself in a meeting in which it is proposed, and agreed, to include the sex minigames as easter eggs to be uncovered later--and I can even imagine Rockstar management letting the word out, and trusting that someone would build the necessary mod.
Precisely with the intention of generating the publicity they're getting now.
But--there are two problems with this. First, it lends aid and comfort to The Enemy, by which I mean censorious blue-nosed faux-Democrats like Lee, Schumer, and Clinton. Second, it's a violation of Rockstar's contractual relationship with the ESRB. There is no question that, had the ESRB known that this material existed on the disc--even without an in-game way to unlock it--they would have insisted on an AO rating. Which would have meant no Wal-Mart exposure.
Mind you, Rockstar can probably do without Wal-Mart; a product with the name recognition of GTA will carry its own weight, and if you have to buy it at Gamespot, what's the big fucking deal? But I can also imagine being in a meeting in which it's decided not to risk the Wal-Mart sale, despite other plans.
So if I'm right--that is, if the material is indeed on the disc, and Rockstar not only knew but approved its inclusion--Rockstar seriously deserves a bitch-slapping.
Here's what I proposed: The ESRB should refuse to give any Take Two product a rating for the next two years. They can release their games as unrated if they want--and good luck getting them into Wal-Mart.