Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Slow News Day  

There hasn't been a lot going on over the last few days, so just a few short tidbits tonight.

Misc: My friend Mike Bracken has launched a new blog, and I suggest that you all go and check it out HERE. He's been a staff writer at GameCritics for several years, but he's probably better-known for his work with horror films—the man probably knows more about the genre than anybody I have ever met, and was even on television for a while on the now-defunct show “Beat the Geeks” thanks to his boundless knowledge of blood, gore, zombies, and Italian directors. Without a doubt, it'll be some good reading.

Games: I was looking over my list of notes in preparation for my upcoming Top 10 of ’08, and I've got to say that I really hope that some of the things I'm looking forward to in Q4 deliver the goods. At the moment, I've only got about six games that I'm considering, and of that list, I'm probably going to knock off at least two. Will there be six more best-ofs between now and December 31st? we’ll see.

Misc: Just one last thing… I snapped a picture of this urinal when we were in Hawaii, and I've got to say that I found it sort of horrific. The person who designed it obviously had some issues.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Hat Trick, Kitchen Gaming, and Heroes  

Games: I scored a nice hat trick this morning, something that I don't do very often.

Monkey King: the Legend Begins - Wii

Going through the stack of stuff that I have from GameFly, I popped in Monkey King: the Legend Begins and got through the entire game in about 45 minutes. It was funny because I had no idea what sort of title it was when I put it in my queue, so it was a nice surprise to find out that it was a side-scrolling shooter. I knocked out the review in about 20 minutes, and put it through the review submission process in another five, and from start to finish I got everything done in the well under two hours. I love it when that happens.

Mega Man 9 - PS3/Wii/360 (download only)

Hargrada: In response to the question in the comment you left, I downloaded Mega Man 9 on the PS3. I was literally moments away from getting it for the Wii, but then I remembered that my unit’s memory is getting a little full, and since there's been no word from Nintendo on what they're going to do about it, I figured I should probably stick it on the PS3 since I’ve still got tons and tons of storage left there. Graphically, it looks just fine to my eye, nice and crisp. Truth be told though, I only played it for about half an hour… it completely kicked my ass, and I wasn't in the right frame of mind to put in as much effort as is necessary with something as old-school is this. I'll definitely come back to it later, but in all honesty, I don't really miss the days when titles were as lethal to the player as this one is. It's been a long time since I had to polish of my skills to this level. It makes me tired.

Order Up! - Wii

Also, I just started Order Up! For the Wii. I'm liking it a lot and I find it to be quite clever in the way that it differentiates itself from the other cooking games on the market. Having assistance in the kitchen to take over some of the menial tasks helps a great deal, and I like the way the game wants you to juggle multiple things at once, just like you would in a real kitchen. I don't mean to brag, but I'm no slouch when it comes to whipping up a meal in real life, so I can appreciate some of the finer points here. I'm a little concerned that it might become too repetitive, but it's still a thumbs up at this point.

Don't be so excited... You haven't won me back over yet.

TV: I know I'm probably a little late in bringing this up, but I just watched the Heroes season premiere last night (yay DVR) and I don't think that the writers are back on track.

I loved season one, and thought that taken as a whole, it was a pretty amazing piece of television. I loved how they took "normal" characters and sort of walked them through the experience of suddenly gaining superpowers. Great, great stuff.

The unexpectedly truncated season two was pretty lame, as the common consensus agrees. I didn't like the new characters, I didn't like the things that were happening, and overall it definitely felt like things were going astray.

Season three was supposedly the result of the writers hearing the feedback from disappointed fans and getting everything back to where it needed to be, but after watching the new two hour kickoff, I'm just not feeling it. More than anything, the sense of wonder and amazement seems to be completely gone… Hiro is sort of caught up in searching for a quest like he was last season, Claire is all of a sudden filled with angst and despair over the fact that she may likely live forever (and that’s a bad thing?!?) and the plot with Peter, Nathan, and their mom is now becoming so dark and overcomplicated that I feel like I need a playbook and some antidepressants to keep up with it.

Honestly, I don't think the series needs to be one giant twisted knot of complex plot threads… I’d be perfectly content watching a season of the Heroes going after the villains that escaped from the underground complex without another predictable “save the world/future” theme running through. Besides, it's fun just to see characters with powers doing things that I'm sure most of us that have dreamed of at one time or another. The occasional conflict or bad guy is just icing on the cake.

Writing: Although I had "finished” Speaking in Forked Tongues a while ago, there were still a few things about it that I felt needed some tweaking. The funny thing is that the issues that were bugging me were not things that my test readers had brought up or objected to-- it was more like I didn't feel things were tied up as tightly as I wanted them to be. I guess the biggest problem in my mind was that needed to establish a certain set of rules that were going to be immutable for the span of the trilogy, and if I didn't nail them right the first time, it was going to completely screw up everything that would come afterwards.

I don't want to put my foot in my mouth, but I now think that I've got it nailed.

A little more tweaking here in there, maybe a slightly different spin on the end, and the book is going out for the second major round of submissions. Whee!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Games and TV... It was a good day  

So, after a good night’s sleep and most of the day to do as I wished, I have to say that my outlook on life was a hell of a lot more positive today than it was yesterday. It’s not like all my problems magically disappeared and there are certainly still some issues to be resolved here and there, but it was nice to be able to put everything aside for a little while and just have a really nice day. Cliché perhaps, but still true.

It's a long, hard road to get to this scene.

Games: I just finished Raw Danger! on PS2 a few minutes ago… as I said earlier, it started out being a real struggle mostly for technical reasons, and that remained true all the way to the end. In terms of production, it was extremely rough and the budget for the game must have been practically zero. I’m still totally in love with the concept of surviving a natural disaster as the basis for gameplay, but the execution here was just too severely hampered to ever be totally enjoyable.

Besides the fact that it played like ten kinds of rough, the overall story needed work. Unlike its predecessor Disaster Report, Raw Danger’s story had a series of different characters and the game rotated between them. It’s not a bad idea really, but some were less compelling than others, and the game’s overall plot line about a man-made city flooding didn’t really mesh well with some of the dramatic aspects. It was a damned good try and I would really, really, really, really love to see the same sort of thing done with better tech and a bigger budget-- I’m absolutely convinced that the core concept here is pure gold. As it stands, Disaster Report was the better game and I’d still recommend it to gamers who are looking to try something pretty far off the beaten path.

Raw Danger! is Not Recommended.

On DS, I’m trudging my way through Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir. From Big Fish Games, a new attempt to capture some of the “casual” market that hasn’t been tapped on handhelds yet. I wasn’t at all familiar with the game, although evidently it’s something of a hit on PC. Not exactly sure why, though… the game is basically a “find the hidden object” sort of thing like you might see in a doctor’s office copy of Highlights magazine, or on the comics page of a newspaper.

I know I saw those damned dentures somewhere...

It’s not a bad title really, it just lacks creativity. To be frank, it’s kind of fun to search a scene full of visual noise and try to find objects like a baseball bat, a compass, a shark, and so on that are hidden in plain sight. The problem is that it drags on for way too long, and there’s not nearly enough variety. Some of the same scenes are repeated several times, and towards the end of the game the developers have you doing the same sort of tasks over and over and over again. The concept is good, it just lacks polish and energy… when I was at PAX, I saw a rival title that was almost exactly like this called Cate West: the Vanishing Files from Destineer. I didn’t spend a ton of time with it, but it did look a little more interesting than MillionHeir, though that could be because the rep was doing a great job of selling it.

Mystery Case Files: MillionHeir is Not Recommended.

Not sure what I’m moving on to next, but it’ll probably be either Ratchet & Clank: Quest for Booty or the new Mega Man 9. Anyone with impressions on either, drop me a line or leave a comment.

TV: With everything on my plate I find it really hard to sit down and just watch TV sometimes. It just feels like a waste of time when I could be working on a new book or story, finishing a game, or writing a review, and I rarely ever watch TV for more than an hour, unless it’s a feature film. That said, I have been putting in a little more catch time with the wife and catching up with a few of the shows that I do enjoy.

>Dexter: I’m really a big fan of this show, and I think the writers have done a great job with it. In fact, I think it’s one of those extremely rare examples where the TV show/feature film is actually better than the source material (a novel) that spawned it. Jeff Lindsay’s book was good, but I felt that the first installment didn’t really do enough with the character. The second book didn’t do it for me either, so I’m glad that Showtime has taken the concept and run with it in a direction that I feel really capitalizes on its potential. I’m only on the fourth episode of season two, but I’m loving it so far.

>The Office: I hardly think I even need to bring this up, as it seems like anybody who’s even go the faintest sense of humor has already been watching the show for years. The recent season opener was pretty hilarious, and just reminds me that they’ve got what are probably the best comedy writers in combination with the best comedy cast on TV right now. (And Jim’s proposal to Pam… totally romantic! What can I say, I’m a softie.)

>My Name is Earl: I’m totally amazed at some of the things the writers on this show get away with, and I’m always impressed at how snarky and clever it is while seeming to be so chipper and dumbly aw-shucks positive all the time. Earl’s ex-wife Joy and the maid/stripper Catalina are both starting to grate on me a bit, but the rest of the cast is aces. Randy’s series of impressions in the season opener was hilarious.

Besides all that stuff, I got some pretty good final revisions work done on SIFT too, so I really can't feel too guilty. Like I said, it was a good day.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Back in action... sort of.  

So some readers may have noticed that I haven't been sticking to my usual every-other-day posting over the last week... The wife and I actually just got back from a short visit with my son in Hawaii, and taking a trip just about anywhere does a good job of throwing me off the routine which I find so conducive to being productive.

Anyway, we had exactly no downtime between when the plane landed and when we had to be at work, so we're both a little burned-out right now. But, I figured I should get something up in the meantime so that my Sitemeter report next week doesn't read zero.

Just a couple quick things before I succumb to my bed's irresistible call:

Games: GameCritics.com's Dale Weir scored a twofer with some good news bits this week.

The first, a nicely done short video taken from Gaygamer.net about hate during online play... it's worth a watch here.

Yes you can, Jack. Yes, you can.

The second is a short piece about Jack Thompson being disbarred. To this, all I can say is -- Amen. It couldn't have happened to a more deserving scumbag.

Misc: Finally, I just had to say a little something about the ridiculous requirements airlines put on their passengers during takeoff and landing:

Has there EVER been a documented case that's shown an iPod or a DS has any effect whatsoever on a commercial jetliner's safety? Is there any reason AT ALL that the windowshades have to be up in order for the plane to function properly? It's not like the pilot actually needs to see out those windows, or that someone's game of Pokemon is going to disrupt the air traffic control systems. Stupid, pointless rules like these are just total annoyances in an experience that's already annoying enough.


See? Games and planes CAN get along.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Sleepless Night  

For whatever reason, I was tossing and turning endlessly last night. 

I don't know if it was my subconscious trying to tell me something, but every time I'd doze off, I'd go into a bizarre dream that bordered on being a nightmare. After a while, I'd snap awake and be glad that I had left the dream state, but the really unusual thing was that when I'd fall back asleep, the same dream continued in exactly the same place where it left off. 

Maybe that's common for some, but it almost never happens to me.  

I took notes.

You might be reading it someday.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Fracture, Web of Shadows, and Chinese Broccoli  

Games: While taking a break from Raw Danger, I hopped online with all three consoles to see what was up and came up with a couple of bits.

Fracture: I've seen tons of screens and read lots of articles, but PSN had a brand-new demo up so I gave that a whirl... The gist of the game is that you're a soldier from the Unreal school of how-do-you-move-in-that-armor? character design and you've got a gun that can affect change in the landscape tectonically. With a shot from your high-tech gee-whiz machine, you can raise small hills or create sinkholes, among other things.

It looked pretty, but it played just like I expected; gimmicky and sort of generic. I realize this was just a demo, but every aspect of it screamed "$20 weekender" to me. Some running, some gunning, and some use of the dirt-powers to get to pre-arranged pathways that are inaccessible without a mound of soil to jump off from.

The dirt powers only affect areas of exposed soil, so I'm expecting lots of concrete and metal floors to limit where the gun can hit the earth, and in the first area alone there was a hyper-gimmicky platform that conveniently needed a rising pillar of molten rock to lever it into position in order to create a ramp to walk on.


There could be more to it later on, but like I said... my money says it's a $20 weekender.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows: Let's all just face it... the last few Spidey games from Treyarch have basically sucked a fat one. Great character, great ideas, but none of the titles have nailed all the elements needed to make a satisfying gameplay experience. They just got too caught up in making empty, boring-to-cross cities to swing through while tacking on insipid combat schemes that made beating up bands of thugs boring, spazzy and uninteresting.

After watching the videos available on the Nintendo Channel tonight, I think someone at Shaba Games might have been having the same thoughts, because what was shown looked pretty damned interesting.

Although I couldn't find a good picture of it, what was getting me excited was the new combat. The devs speaking on the clip said that they had ideas for combining movement and combat into one cohesive experience, and the sequences with Spidey punching a bad guy into the air, using the same mid-air goon as a web anchor point, and then launching a follow-up acrobatic smackdown looked amazingly fluid and dynamic. I'm not entirely sold yet since it seems like there's a "curse of suck" on any Spider-Man game, but the videos looked infinitely more promising than the last few phoned-ins we've gotten. Besides, the guys at Shaba know a thing or two about airtime... their Wakeboarding Unleashed from '03 was fantastic.

Food: The wife was hungry and I was tired, so we ordered some Chinese from a local place that we both like. I usually get something with a lot of veggies and I was feeling like trying something new, so I went for the Chinese broccoli. Instead of broccoli cooked in a Chinese sauce as I had envisioned, what I actually got was Kai-lan (also called Gai-lan) -- literally, a Chinese relative of what we know as broccoli here in the States.

After a brief 'WTF is this?!?' moment, I figured I might as well try it since the delivery guy was long gone and I wasn't gonna pony up for anything else. Know what? It was crazy delicious.

Sauteed with garlic, soy sauce and a few other spices, the stems were crisp and the leaves held much of the sauce's flavor. The way it looks, I'm sure it must be loaded with some sort of healthy vitamins or minerals, too. It sure as hell wasn't what I expected, but I'm going to order it again next time. Recommended!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Ear Drops and Raw Danger  

Misc: I love modern medicine.

A few days ago, my ear started itching. No particular reason, it just started itching out of the blue. The wife took a look but didn't see anything in there that could be causing it, so I called up my doctor and they had an afternoon slot for me to come in.

Doc takes a look, says I have a tiny loose hair stuck up against my eardrum. She couldn't get it out, so she refers me to a nearby specialist. Specialist takes a look, says there’s no hair there, but writes me a prescription for some ear drops to help with the itching.

Whatever, fine.

Now this is Raw Danger!

So I'm using the ear drops today, and after I put them in according to the directions, the liquid in my right ear won't come out. I shake my head up and down, try to dab it out with a tissue, and even grab a few Q-tips to try and absorb it.

Nothing works, and that was this morning.

It's now about nine o'clock in the evening as I'm writing this, and I still have not regained the hearing in the right ear. I'm hoping that these damned ear drops will leak out soon, otherwise I'm going to have to go and buy a hearing aid.

Like I said… I love modern medicine.

Seriously, who approved this cover art?

Games: There’s a little bit of a lull in game releases right now before the total insanity of fourth-quarter holiday sales get started, so I'm taking the time to catch up on a few older titles. I played Colosseum: Road to Freedom on PS2 last week and had a good time with that (check the review HERE) and this week, it's Raw Danger! also on PS2.

Unfortunately, this one isn’t going quite so smooth.

The production values and general craftsmanship of the title are pretty atrocious. The graphics are nothing to write home about and there are often camera issues, but my main gripe is that the game seems to be held together with spit and bailing wire. It's just sloppy programming, really-- there are dozens of games that push the envelope of what the PS2 can do while humming a lot smoother than this, so there's really just no excuse for how slow, chunky, and unresponsive things are. It’s been a while since I had to sort of force myself to sit through a game, but I’m doing it here. Why? Because the concept is pure gold.

Raw Danger! is the sequel to one of my favorite PS2 games, Disaster Report. That game also had several technical issues, but I don't remember it being as tediously trying as Raw Danger!... though I do admit it may just be my memory glossing over things.

In any case, I would love to see this series land on one of the current-gen consoles. The gist of each is that a huge natural disaster occurs, and characters who are trapped in the city have to survive and find their way to safety. No crazy weapons, no spacecraft, just real-world stuff like dodging debris, finding food, and staying dry. It's a great premise and one that has RARELY been employed in the history of videogames outside of this series, as far as I know. Shooting aliens or performing magical martial arts always entertains, but there's something very immediate and gripping about playing through a scenario that actually could happen.

IS happening, even…

Making my way through torrential water rushing through a parking lot or scavenging usable goods from a wrecked shopping mall capitalizes on knowledge and relationships with the real world as a way of supporting and guiding gameplay choices. If you’ve ever imagined trying to survive a natural disaster (or if you’ve already lived through one) then you know what I’m talking about.

The only other series I know of that implements the same sort of “real-world” mechanic is Io's sublime Hitman and its relatively well-replicated environments—and whether you're dressing up like a pizza delivery man to sneak past security or making a raincoat out of a garbage bag and duct tape, it's extremely gratifying to find things that could work in real life also work in a game. If more games did this, I'd be an extremely happy camper.

Now, with all that said… Raw Danger! is still pretty painful to play with the first two hours being somewhat torturous, though the game does loosen up a bit once things get rolling. If this game got an extra million dollars for development and a bump up to run on the 360 or PS3, it would absolutely be a blockbuster.

Comics: Haven’t done a comics rundown in a while, but I’ve got a pretty big stack of stuff to go through on my desk… look for an update soon.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Interview with: Casey Muratori on Sushi Bar Samurai  

Games: The post-PAX love continues… Thanks to the new PAX-10 event highlighting indie games development, Casey Muratori’s intriguing Sushi Bar Samurai was brought to my attention, and it’s definitely one to watch for in the coming months. Below is a brief discussion on Casey himself, his game, and of course… games as art. What else?

If you don't mind, could you please tell the readers a little bit about yourself, and your background in games?

I've been in the game industry for 13 years. I started working straight out of high school as a game programmer. Just prior to starting Molly Rocket and working on Sushi Bar Samurai, I worked on character animation technology at RAD Game Tools for about five years.

For the readers who may not be familiar with Sushi Bar Samurai, can you give us a brief overview of what the game is about?

In Sushi Bar Samurai, you play a samurai who is called to the spirit world to investigate a tragic baking accident. When you arrive, you find that the spirits are not getting the nourishing sushi meals that they need in order to transcend. It is up to you to help feed them, to find out what has happened, and set things right.

How large was the team that worked on the game, and how long did it take to put together?

I developed the game by myself over about three years. It'll probably be closer to four years by the time it is complete.

At the recent PAX, I was intrigued by the fresh take on the puzzle-slash-food genre that SBS has. Where did the inspiration for the game come from?

It was very much an evolutionary process. The core idea was that sushi, in real life, is about a small number of ingredients that form a large number of interesting combinations. I felt like that would be a good foundation for a game. But I didn't like the first versions of the game I did with this concept, so I kept trying more and more variations until I found one that I thought was right. Even now I am still refining the idea! It has been a very long process of experimentation.

When I spoke with you at PAX, you mentioned that the game still has a few months left in development. What is the expected launch date of the game, and where will the game be available?

I would like to have the game out in the spring. I haven't talked with distributors yet, so I don't know exactly where the game will be sold. But you can always go to Mollyrocket.com! There's an RSS-able news feed on the front page that has announcements about that sort of thing, and you can bet I'll being posting the ship date and distributor information just as soon as everything is finalized :)

What are some of your favorite games and/or game creators? Any influences or
inspirations you'd like to give a shout-out to?

This game was very much an experimental process, so there is not much in the way of influences that I can cite. My favorite games are probably Dance Dance Revolution and M.U.L.E.

If you had to pick just one thing you absolutely want people to know about Sushi Bar Samurai, what would it be?

I've tried to make Sushi a unique experience that pulls a lot of ideas together into something special. I don't know that there is any single thing that is most important. Hopefully everything is working together such that no one thing stands out above the rest!

Finally, this next question is something of a tradition at GameCritics as well as at Drinking Coffeecola… Games as art? Are they now? Will they ever be?

I've never understood exactly what people are asking when they ask that question. I can't believe anyone would argue that games aren't art, in general, because anything that involves ambiguous communication of some form between two or more people is art. There have been art pieces that consisted entirely of small Tonka trucks placed in various locations around a garden. There have been art pieces that were essentially nothing but human feces. So I fail to see how anyone can look at something like, say, Ico, and not
immediately recognize that it is art.

Now, maybe people are arguing that games aren't _good_ art. That's another argument altogether, and is a lot more complex an issue to be sure. But as for the question of whether or not games are art _at all_, I just don't see how anyone can reasonably take up a position that they are not.

Amen, brother.

Many thanks to Casey Muratori for taking the time to speak with me, and if anyone from XBLA or PSN is reading, get in touch with him ASAP and give him some money... This game needs to be made available on consoles.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Served Piping Hot  

Misc: If you are a person who does not have much power at work and you happen to come across someone who you think has even less power than you, exercise some restraint and don't vent all your frustrations on them.


As I was going about my business today, I happened to bump into a person who clearly thought they had more status on the job than I do. Things went fine until this particular person made an error in judgment about something they have absolutely no knowledge about, and decided to seize the opportunity to “teach me something”.

I am a person who can admit when I'm wrong and there have been more than a few times when I've had to man up and take responsibility for something that I would have preferred to run away from, but this was not one of the situations.

No, the person who called me aside to have a brief "educational moment" with me didn't have the faintest clue as to what the hell was going on. Completely ignorant, all this person had to go on was their incorrect assumption. After trying to explain the situation accurately, this person decided that I was wrong and told me that I was being defensive for trying to explain that what I was doing was actually correct.

It turned into one of those polite pissing matches where neither person is saying anything overtly offensive, but the subtext is quite clear: each one of us thought the other was an idiot. After a brief phone call to the person in charge, my case was solidified and it was pretty clear that I was not in need of a fork and napkin -- humble pie was not on my plate.

The entire distasteful situation could have been averted if this person had simply heard me out and exercised some judgment about a subject they clearly, painfully had no expertise in, but no… This was one of those moments when someone who's got a crappy personal life, a bad hairstyle, and no clout at work decides to dump all over someone when they think they can get away with it.

I hope that pie tasted good… they sure as hell earned every bite of it.

Choke on it.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Interview: Devon Detbrenner on Monster Lab  

Games: The post-PAX love continues… Next up is a few words with Devon Detbrenner, Assistant Producer at Backbone Vancouver (at the time the interview occurred), and one of the hip cats behind the upcoming Wii and DS title, Monster Lab.

Thanks so much for taking the time, Devon.

If you don't mind, could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, and your background in games?

Back Row, Left to right: Nigel Morgan, Vincent Chan, Devon Detbrenner. Front Row: George Phillips, Peter Phillips.

I’ve only recently joined this fine industry. I graduated from the Art Institute in 2005 and Monster Lab is actually my first published title.

My first real game project was a done by a fabulous group of students, and it was called Introspect, a FPPA (First Person Painting Adventure). I was the team lead for the project and we surprisingly got quite a bit of recognition over it. We’ve been mentioned in Games for Windows Magazine, on 1up.com, won an EA Reveal award, and were nominated for an Elan.

I’ve always adored playing video games (especially growing up with mostly boys) , and I had a joy-gasm when I grew up and realized this was actually a real job that I could do full time!

As an Assistant Producer, can you tell us a little bit about what you do in general, and what your role was with Monster Lab?

Actually I’ve recently been promoted to Associate Producer. Yes, high fives to you too.

When I started my work on Monster Lab, my job duties were primarily that of a Project Manager; I was creating, scheduling and maintaining task lists for the whole DS team.
May not be very exciting to some, but for me that’s my bread and butter.

I’ve now recently adopted the Wii and PS2 platforms, and do pretty much anything that needs to be done. I was very involved in the experiment creation process and had the great opportunity to be involved in the design and implementation of them. I also provided some inspiration to the team with my motivational quote of the day (please re-read with a hint of sarcasm) and had been dubbed the “Bringer of Beverages”.

How large was the team that worked on the game, and how long did it take to put together?

At the high point, I believe we had around 60 people working on it full time. A full team equipped with Artists, Animators, Designers, Programmers, Scripters, and of course the Producers. The full production of it has taken approximately two and a half years.

For the readers who may not be familiar with it, can you give us a brief overview of what the game is about? Where did the inspiration for the game come from, and can you tell us a little bit about possible influences?

Monster Lab is all about EXPERIMENTING! The player takes on the role of an apprentice in the Mad Science Alliance: a group of four Scientists, three of which are experts in Mechanical, Biological and Alchemical. The fourth, Baron Mharti, is a master of all three sciences and has built an undefeatable monster.

The initial goal of the player is to create their own monster which they can send out into the world and do various quests to help out the people of the Uncanny Valley. By doing this, they collect ingredients which they then take back to the castle and use them in experiments to create better parts.

Ultimately, the player must work their way through 6 different regions battling harder and more impressive monsters as they go on the path to taking down the evil Baron Mharti.

The slightly obvious inspiration behind Monster Lab is, of course, mad science! The creators really wanted a unique and elaborate ingredient and crafting system, and large environments that the player would have a chance to explore.

The art style was developed on the principle that nothing was supposed to be perfectly circular or square. This created a really skewed world. Couple that with the saturated, cartoony look of the world and characters, and the style definitely turned out to be very unique.

At the recent PAX, I was intrigued by the turn-based one-on-one combat, which is not something you see much of on the Wii, or anywhere else, for that matter. How big a role does this combat play in the game, and what other activities are there for players to do?

I would say combat has a colourful role, but that’s not what Monster Lab is all about.

The core of the game is the experimentation, which includes going out into the Uncanny Valley to find a possible 105 different ingredients by performing ten different environmental challenges, battling enemy monsters, and helping people out in the world. Then these ingredients are used in any of twelve different experiments to create new kick-butt parts.

There’s a full storyline to follow as well, which will have the player saving characters within the world who have been afflicted by the Baron’s mad plans of taking down the Mad Science Alliance.

The art style of the game is colorful and cute from what I saw. Do the parts become tougher-looking or meaner as they increase in strength? What parts would you recommend for making a real bruiser, and which parts are your favorite 'just because'?

There are definitely some killer looking parts!! I wouldn’t say that the parts necessarily become meaner looking as you go through the game, but they definitely provide a little somethin’-somethin’ for everyone!

If you check out our website, you can get a taste of the variety you will experience by building your own monster online. If you really want to mess up your enemies (or even your friends’ Monsters) I would suggest such parts as the Stinger Arm. This part has a wicked attack directly to the torso of your enemy providing upwards of 150 attack damage.

One of the best torsos in the game is the Vengeful Oni. Not only does the part look awesome, it has one of the highest energy charges, plus a decent amount of hit points that will carry “Enter Your Monster’s Name Here” to victory!

It’s much too hard to pick any of my favourite parts-- there are simply too many, but I will say the best thing in the game is to see all these unique looking parts put together on one monster. Imagine a TV head, hot rod torso, a chainsaw for one arm, a bat wing for the other, and of course the mechanical clown legs!

Given Nintendo's adherence to using friend codes in their attempt to enact very strict levels of privacy and most players' dislike of it, does Monster Lab use the friend code system? What are your plans to enable multiplayer online?

Due to the target audience, we felt it was important to protect the privacy of the younger Mad Scientists and have adopted the Friend Code system on the Wii. You simply head into the Command Room inside the Castle and select the Inter-Lab Link to initiate multiplayer, select which friend you want to battle with and choose what Monster from your inventory (holds up to 10) and start kicking butt! The DS also has Wi-Fi Multiplayer which will allow people to play with anyone in the vicinity.

If you had to pick just one thing you absolutely want people to know about Monster Lab, what would it be?

That’s like trying to pick a favourite child! Although, thinking back to when I first got my hands on the game and started playing it, the thing that excited me the most was the drastic impact the player makes on their own experience by going through the stages of building a monster-- from finding the ingredients, choosing the ingredients you want to use in any of the 12 different experiments, performing the experiment (which affects the quality of the part) and then being able to create YOUR OWN monster out of the parts you created!

Not only that, but there are 156 possible base parts the player can create, and along with that there are also 4 power levels per part, 12 different enhancements and 4 different defects giving the player literally hundreds of millions of combinations of Monsters they can tinker with. I loved the feeling of ownership I had in my monster, and the feeling of excitement when I knew I had created something awesome!

Tremendous thanks to Devon Detbrenner for the interview.

For more information on Monster Lab, click here. For those of you who are already sold, the game should be out near Halloween, so keep your eyes peeled!

The Day Got Away  

I had planned on running some more post-PAX coverage...

...But today was one of those days where you look at your watch, you see it's one in the morning, and you wonder where the hell the day went.

Stay tuned, I should be able to have some more substantial stuff up tomorrow.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Interview with: Twisted Pixel Games  

Games: The post-PAX love continues as I'll be featuring a series of interviews with the developers of games from the show that caught my eye. First up is my chat with Frank Wilson, CTO and Engineer at Twisted Pixel Games, and one of the people behind the upcoming XBLA title, The Maw.

Thanks very much for taking the time for this interview, Frank.

To start, what can you tell us about Twisted Pixel? The background given for the twelve members listed are quite rich and diverse. How did Twisted Pixel come to be?

Around the time when the Xbox 360 was released, Michael Wilford, Josh Bear, and I saw an opportunity that we were looking for....the chance for a small group of developers to make games for consoles via Xbox Live Arcade. So, we started Twisted Pixel with the goal of making really high quality titles for download.

In the back row from the left of the photo are Sean Riley, Sean Conway, and me (Frank Wilson). In the front row from the left of the photo are Allen Danklefson, Michael Wilford, Mike Henry, John Bodek, and Josh Bear

We all come from a retail game development background so we are very familiar with the time and effort it takes to make quality retail games. A majority of the downloadable games that you see on consoles these days are things like puzzle games or retro titles or other small scale development efforts. While there is certainly a place for those types of games, we feel like one of the areas that is greatly lacking is larger scale more polished games that are like retail games. This is something that we aimed to create with The Maw.

So, once we got The Maw approved for development on Xbox Live Arcade, we were able to hire several of our friends who were behind our cause and also had significant retail game development experience.

Your site states that you're about creative gameplay and impressive presentation. What sort of niche are you aiming to fill with regard to what's already out there? What does Twisted Pixel bring to the table?

Well we don't necessarily want to be "the company that does platformers" or "the company that does puzzle games" or "the company that does sports games". We have ideas for games of all genres, so one of the most important things to us is ensuring that our games have a high production value. We want people to be able to have fun watching others play our game as well as playing it themselves.

What we really want to be is "the company that does quality character-driven games". Aside from making a game look pretty and have fun gameplay, we feel that having expressive characters really adds to the fun of playing and watching any game. We have lots of ideas for characters as well as the ability to give them great personality through animation and technology.

For as small as Twisted Pixel is, we have a lot of experience under our belts. Six of the team members on The Maw have over 5 years of experience in the games industry, so we certainly have the knowledge, ability, and experience to make quality products.

You say that you do contract work, and you've listed NBA Ballers: Chosen One and Blitz: The League 2 as projects. What role did Twisted Pixel play in helping to develop those games?

Primarily this has been engineering tasks, though we are open to design and art contract work as well. Obviously we don't have much control over the design of games that we do contract work for, but we put as much effort into the quality of the areas that we implement as we do with our own projects. On Ballers, we implemented the new story mode, some new gameplay features, as well as the save game and certification code modules for both the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions. On Blitz, we implemented several features in training mode and campaign mode including their challenge and reward systems.

Since The Maw is your first original game as a studio, what was the process like getting your own IP off the ground?

Coming up with the idea itself wasn't that hard. We have some really creative people here like Josh Bear (CCO), Sean Riley (design lead on The Maw), and Dave Leung (art director) so we have no shortage of great ideas. The challenge comes in selecting which of our ideas we want to pitch. So, when we decided to pitch The Maw, we actually had three different games that we were pitching around. Some contacts of ours at Microsoft showed more interest in The Maw than the other two, so we decided to take about a month to build a quick demo of what the game would be. We then submitted it to the XBLA approval committee and they approved it.

From my time with it at the recent PAX, The Maw sports an unusually high level of graphic polish and clearly stands out as being more than the "typical" small-scale game available for download. Really, it seems almost like a full-scale action-platformer of sorts. How large is the Maw team proper, how long did it take to put it together, and how does it compare in terms of size to other XBLA games?

I'm glad you noticed the level of polish and the scale of the game compared with other downloadable games. While we were at PAX, there were many people who didn't realize it was a downloadable game until we told them. That tells me that we're achieving our goals. Making the game stand out and have a really high level of quality is something that we strive for as a company.

We have a larger team than most XBLA development teams, but I'm sure you'll agree that it is pretty small based on what we have accomplished with The Maw. The Maw team members include Dave Leung (lead artist), Sean Riley (lead designer/gameplay programming), Mike Henry (gameplay programming), John Bodek (IT/programming), Sean Conway (level designer), Josh Bear (creative director/designer), Michael Wilford (production/programming), and me (engine programming). So, that's 8 people total, many of which bounced between roles and some who were also doing work on other projects too during development of The Maw not to mention that Josh Bear, Michael Wilford, and I were also trying to manage the company and get more work at the same time.

The team worked for roughly 8 to 9 months on the project rolling people on and off as appropriate.

The Maw has as many features and the polish level of a full-scale action-puzzle-platformer. It takes roughly 5 hours to complete the game on your first time through or even longer if you are a completionist. There are over 800 animations in the game, 25 music tracks, over 1000 sound effects, over 150 character and object models, as well as countless other stats that I could throw at you. These numbers rival many retail games on the market today and certainly surpass most if not all of the current games available for download on game consoles.

The download size of The Maw is about 128MB which is super small considering the amount of content in the game. From the very beginning, we put an emphasis on getting as much content as possible into as little space as possible.

The Maw's aesthetic is bright and colorful, almost Disney-esque in some ways. What were the influences or inspirations behind it, and how did the game itself come about?

Although we all contributed to the design of The Maw, the game itself is mostly a brainchild of Josh Bear, Dave Leung, and Sean Riley. The Maw has many inspirations such as all of Pixar's movies, A Boy and His Blob, Mario, Katamari Damacy, Wild 9, and countless others.

Virtually every game we've ever played contributes to what we decided to put or not put in the game. The bright and vibrant world lends itself to the feel of the game. It works together with the animations and personality of all of the characters to make the world seem like a happy place even in not so happy circumstances. Not making the world bright and colorful would have given the game a whole different feel which wouldn't be right for The Maw.

The original idea for the game came about when Josh and Dave were thinking about how cool it would be to have to lead another character around on a leash, but without having direct control over the character being led. The eating naturally followed from that as a purpose for leading the character around. Growing naturally follows from eating, and the rate at which Maw grows just makes the game more fun and adds some style and variability to the puzzles.

Acquiring powers to help solve puzzles is a staple in platformers and happened to fit in well with the design of the game. Though some of The Maw's powers are familiar, we came up with several new powers which aren't typical. We strived to add variety to every level of the game so you get new experiences throughout the game instead of feeling like you're always doing the same thing. Because we wanted the game to be fun and not cause a lot of frustration, we also decided that there would be no death. If you make a mistake in the game, you at most have a small temporary set back and you never have to replay areas over and over to try to get through them.

Do you plan on keeping your IPs with the download format for the time being, or do you have plans to go standard retail?

We feel like the future of games is in digital distribution. The idea of getting the games we want to make to consumers with as few middlemen as possible is very appealing to us. It's like buying produce from a small produce stand instead of buying it from a giant grocery store that has shipped it halfway across the country. It's just cheaper and usually better quality because it hasn't had to go through as much to get to you.

We would like for all of our future titles to be available for download, however we understand that this just doesn't work for some people so we'd be willing to put our games out in a standard retail format too if the opportunity arises so that as many people as possible can enjoy our games.

Is the maw currently slated only for XBLA, or are there any plans for any of the other downoad services?

During PAX we got a lot of requests for other versions from fans, and the PAX 10 competition has generated some interest amongst publishers. So we are certainly interested, but Xbox LIVE Arcade is currently the only announced platform.

The silhouettes shown on the Twisted Pixel site for your new IP appear to be an angel and a devil, rendered in a cartoonish style. Any chance you can tell us something about it?

This is one of the original ideas that we made a demo for prior to developing The Maw. It's a much smaller scale game than The Maw, but it's something that has a lot of personality and production value. We're currently reworking it a bit for a different platform than we originally made the demo while we're working on getting some other new ideas up and running, so it will be some time before anything is revealed about this game.

Finally, this question is something of a tradition at GameCritics, as well as at my own blog: Games as art? Are they now? Will they ever be?

Of course games are art. Anything that takes as much time, effort, and creativity as making a game has to be considered art. I don't even know how to defend that because it's so obvious to me.

Now that's the kind of answer that makes sense to me.

Infinite thanks to Frank Wilson of Twisted Pixel Games for the interview, congratulations to the whole team on a game that looks absolutely fantastic, and keep your eyes peeled for The Maw, coming to Xbox Live Arcade soon.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Substance Over Style  

Games: There was a short news piece in GameDaily today quoting one of the senior producers working on Gears of War 2 as suggesting that developers may be reaching the “upper end” of the 360’s graphical capabilities. The producer goes on to say (in essence) that the ceiling hasn't been hit, but the very fact that this comment was actually seen as a kind of news got me thinking-- even if (and that’s definitely an IF) the 360 is closing in on the best that it can do…. so what?


Frankly speaking, the latest round of titles looks pretty goddamned fantastic. The graphics that we get on average these days is so far beyond what we ever thought we'd see back when we were rocking 8-bit boxes that it's absolutely amazing we've made so much progress. However, I'm not saying this with the intent of sticking up for the 360. My real point is that although graphics may have made giant leaps, it's pretty clear to anyone who's paying attention that similar leaps have yet to be made in terms of raw gameplay.


Although it's true some developers are exploring new territory, I think it's probably more accurate to say that the bulk of games being developed these days are putting most of their resources into graphics, while we’re still playing the same formulas and designs that started feeling a bit stale last generation.

In my opinion, we’re only just starting to scratch the surface of what's possible with regard to new ideas and innovations in actual game design; things like integrating physics to take the place of arbitrary puzzles. Things like having improved artificial intelligence instead of predictable, canned behaviors. Things like giving players true options for customization not only of their avatar, but of their entire experience. In fact, developers have only just started designing things that have never been possible before, and the fact that a certain piece of hardware may or may not be closing in on its graphical limitations is irrelevant.

If anyone needs a more concrete example, look no further than the Wii. The graphics produced by Nintendo's little white box are slightly below average at best, and embarrassingly crude at worst-- yet it hasn't stopped the system from outperforming everything else on the market. Although it's true that the Wii is something of a special case, I think the core idea that gameplay innovations do not rely on graphical innovations still holds true, regardless.

Not really needed right now.

On a more personal level, I'm still finding overlooked DS and PS2 games whose creativity and energy win me over and keep me occupied despite not having eighteen different kinds of lighting effects and hyper-realistic texture-maps, not to mention how many hours I've poured into the games found on Xbox Live, WiiWare and the PlayStation Network. There are some truly great things to be found on a smaller scale, and very few of them have the ability to melt the eyes of passersby.

Also not needed.

I know there are people out there who are more concerned with continually increasing the insane amount of detail that can be crammed into a game’s visual display, but I think the fact is that graphics don't make a game, and anyone who's honest with themselves and knows even the first thing about playing them will agree. There’s no need to get into a console arms race of diminishing returns with hardware iterations occurring every two years… let's make the most of what we've got now, and talk about new bells and whistles once we've established a few more milestones in terms of what we play-- not how it looks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

XNA, Darkness, and Restaurants  

Covering PAX for three days kind of wore me out, so I'm just going to ramble a little bit and phone this one in. Random stuff tonight.

Games: Just finished Operation Darkness from Atlus last night. Like I said earlier, the demo available on Xbox Live doesn't do this game justice at all. I'll be posting a second opinion up on GameCritics pretty soon, but for now I will say that this is most likely going to be on my Top Ten of ’08. For SRPG fans, it was good, good stuff.

One other quick thing… well, I guess two, actually.

The first: if any readers have played Baroque (the Atlus-released roguelike on PS2/Wii) I'd love to hear your impressions of it. I only had the chance to play it for about 20 minutes, but I found it to be fairly intriguing. If you tried it, drop me a line and let me know what you thought of it.

The second: this may not be news to anyone, but I recently signed up for the XNA Creator’s Club on Live. For those who may not be familiar with it, this is the program that enables players to make their own game on a PC and then upload it to Xbox Live.

Personally, I don't have any interest in creating my own game at the moment, but a side benefit of joining this program is that members get to evaluate games that other people have made. The process of accessing the existing user-created library is not very clear, but after watching a tutorial video on the Xbox website, I finally figured it out and was quite pleased to discover around seventy different games available for download.

I'll blog more about this later, but I tried five games at random. I thought three were pretty terrible, one was a mediocre clone of Geometry Wars, and one was an impressive arena-style fighting game. With the advent of downloadable content, I've become more and more excited about indie projects, so the thought of having 65 more games to check out has got me pretty stoked.

Food: So if any of you have ever clicked on the link to the left and discovered the food review blog my wife and I write, you might have noticed that it hasn’t been updated in... a while. We were going pretty good and averaging one restaurant a week, but we got derailed when my son came to visit for the summer and we haven't recovered quite yet.

To be honest, I didn't think anybody really read it, but now that we haven't updated it, I’ve gotten a ton of comments asking why there haven't been any more reviews.

Message received.

We've got one new review in the pipe, and we are both getting ramped up to start doing it weekly again. Look for some new content there soon.