Friday, March 31, 2006

US Senate Game Hearings

[News] [Computer Gaming] [Politics]

Raph Koster's website has helpfully directed me towards this page, which contains statements given to the US Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution. As you may be aware, this body is currently holding hearings into state regulation of violent video games and the first amendment.

Recently a number of US states have enacted legislation which restricts or prohibits the sale of certain categories of video games (most notably "violent" ones) to minors or to the public at large. Make no mistake, this amounts to censorship (I don't believe that's in dispute). The alleged reasoning is to regulate the "harmful effects" of violent videogames. To clarify, we're not talking here about a classification system to help consumers make informed choices about video game content - we're talking about government making a pre-emptive decision that certain media content is inherently so dangerous that certain classes of citizen should not be given the opportunity to see it to make up their own minds.

The argument put in the US is that this censorship violates the First Amendment, being the one relating to freedom of speech. However, the US does have certain "exceptions" to the First Amendment, being that the First Amendment can be contravened for certain purposes relating to the protection of the public. In the early forays of this legislation, courts have struck down the laws because the states were unable to show a clear link between video games and any particular harm to any class of person. That is to say, they found that insufficient data exists to justify this legislation.

It's worth noting that the CDC (US Centre for Disease Control) are conducting such research right now; given their recent advertising campaigns it can be concluded that they're not exactly a neutral unbiased party in this matter.

Resulting from all this, the US government is inquiring into this issue at a Federal level, and you can see some of the *cough* "evidence" that they're receiving here. (You can quite happily conclude that I, also, am not a neutral and unbiased party.)

My thoughts are as follows:

Computer games currently face an extremely high level of censorship. Commercial games are classified on a rating system in the US and Australia. The purpose of this is theoretically to allow consumers to make informed choices about what media content they purchase. Rating systems also apply to film and television. No such system exists for for books or most print media, with the exception of certain laws relating to the sale of magazines containing pornographic images(there is no corresponding law relating to the pornographic use of the written word).

The specific concern most often cited to justify video game classification is to allow parents to control what content their children are exposed to. It's worth noting that the vast majority of the gaming market is actually now over the age of 18 - although minors are not yet by any means a gaming niche market, they're on their way there.

The system is further complicated in Australia, as the Australian games system has no classification level above "M" - games that may receive an "R" rating are refused classification (read "banned from sale and purchase"). In addition to a lower maximum limit, video games classification enjoys a lower content threshold, as in both Australia and the US content which is "interactive" is considered to be inherently more mature than content which is not - a violent scene that may receive an M rating in film can get an R rating in games simply because you are able to take part to create it - or attempt to prevent it.

I'm reminded of the classification given to the original TIE Fighter game from Lucasarts, one of the first games to be sold in Australia with classification information on the packaging. Many people still have the box in the cupboards, which sports the classification information, "This game is rated PG", with the accompanying reason, "Realistic objects damaged."

Let's compare the video game classification system to film. Australia's film classification system includes both an "R" rating and an "X" rating. ("X" rated films are illegal to sell except within the Australian Capital Territory.) Why should an film which does not achieve an M rating still be appropriate for an audience of 18+, whereas a game that misses out on the M stamp be too dangerous to be exposed to the Australian public?

I'll draw to your attention to the most recent game ban, which was Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure. Mark Ecko, for those who don't know, is a fashion designer. His game has been reviewed by those in other countries who've had the pleasure of seeing is as surprisingly rather good - nothing worldshaking, but not exactly a waste of your dollar. The game features the adventures of a hip-hop themed street kid in a fictional city of the future governed by an oppressive fascist state. Much of the gameplay revolves around outwitting rival street gangs, the minions of the government, and lots and lots of graffiti.

It's significantly less violent than the (revised) Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, it fails to have the explicit sex scenes present in Fahrenheit and God of War, and yet it was refused classification because it "encourages you to break the law". Not an Australian law, mind you (as the game's not set in Australia). Not even an indictable law (the penalties for graffiti can in some jurisdictions be less than the penalties for breaking the speed limit). Reading between the lines you can see the decision in relation to this game being based largely on some significant political pressure coming out of Queensland. And if there's anything more repugnant than censorship, it's censorship due to a political agenda.

I'm not saying this game was a work of art, because I can't. I wasn't given the opportunity to find out. And you won't have that opportunity either. It could be a pile of interactive vomit (like the game Postal 2, also banned in Australia), or it could be a work of thought provoking fiction in a highly violent and gratuitous setting (like the novel American Psycho, at one stage also banned in Australia). You'll just never know.

Let's put it another way; do YOU trust John Howard and Phillip Ruddock to make justifiable and well-reasoned decisions about what you're allowed to see? That's the Australian situation - now go read those submissions to the US Senate subcommittee and you'll see how comparitively fortunate we are. This is material that makes the current Australian government look like a paragon of individual freedoms and well-reasoned debate, and it's genuinely scary stuff.

Links of interest:

Kingdom Hearts II out in US

[Computer Gaming]

NOTE: Very mild spoilers for Kingdom Hearts II follow, relating only to what worlds are or aren't in the game.

Well, Kingdom Hearts II is out in America. The review consensus seems to be that if what you liked about the first one was the fantastic plot, characters, atmosphere, and seeing lots and lots of your favourite Disney and Square characters, then this is the game for you. But if you like challenge and/or deep strategic gameplay then don't hold your breath. I'm happy with that - bring on my PAL localisation!

For those not computer-attuned, Kingdom Hearts is a platforming game franchise for the Playstation 2 which involves journeying through a series of worlds and characters based on properties owned by the Square-Enix game development company and by Disney Studios. The characters sometimes appear in the context of their story of origin, but also sometimes appear in strange and new ways. The plot as a whole is a little darker than you might expect from Disney.

If you've been following the gaming news, you'll know that a bunch of worlds from the original game return for the new sequel, including levels based on Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Hercules, Winnie the Pooh, and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

This time around, the levels based on Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Pinocchio and Tarzan appear to be missing. But to replace them, the sequel has added levels based on Beauty and the Beast, Mulan, The Lion King, Steamboat Willie, Pirates of the Carribean, Tron, and "the Kingdom" (the Disney Castle from the first game). That's an impressive list. Plus, of course, there's a couple of unique areas including the new Twilight Town and some special end-game areas. AND there's a list of summons which includes Chicken Little, Stitch, and Peter Pan.

It leaves me thinking, though, of some notable missed opportunities. This is two games now, and no sign of Duckburg! Kingdom Hearts stars Donald Duck and everything, and yet I'm given no opportunity whatsoever to protect Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin from the evil forces of Flintheart Glomgold, Magika DeSpell and the Beagle Boys. What's up with that?

It's also worth noticing that Disney owns both the Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock these days. Who else is with me in hoping for a Fraggle themed level for Kingdom Hearts III? What with a new Fraggle movie on the way, it seems like a sure bet.

And of course, sadly overlooked since the beginning of Kingdom Hearts, we're still without even a mention of the Gummi Bears. Even if they don't get their own level, they'd make a great summon. Come on, Square-Enix - get your act together!

And lastly - do Disney still own Pixar? Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Cars... come on, guys, these make for natural gaming environments!

Sigh. Guess I'll just have to make do with beating the tar of Geoffrey Rush. Again, and again. From different angles.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

World of Warcraft Burnout

[News] [Personal] [Computer Gaming]

World of Warcraft Burnout. No, I'm not talking about some sort of game where you race your mount at extreme speeds around Azeroth and crash it into other as many other mounts as possible to create gnarly devastation (although that would be awesome). I'm talking about feeling like, for me, World of Warcraft may be done.

I've been heavily into WoW for a few months now, and don't get me wrong, it's been a great game. But Blizzard made several design decisions in creating the game, which I can summarise as follows:
1) Obtaining the most significant in-game rewards will require regularly repeating the same significant challenges in the hopes of the rewards being randomly chosen from a table of possible outcomes (normally in the form of loot drops).
2) In all cases, investment of time and effort into play will be rewarded much more heavily than skill or talent.
3) The amount of time and effort necessary to obtain the highest level of rewards is an amount which is not compatible with holding a full-time job.
4) The most significant challenges in the game will require the coordination of groups ranging in size from 5 to 40 people and cannot be undertaken in whole or in part alone.
5) It is desirable that the player remain at the keyboard without significant break for periods ranging from 90 minutes to six hours in order to finish the most significant challenges. While in theory these lengths can be done over several nights, or can be broken up into "mini-tasks" to be attempted individually, there are significant organisational and efficiency disincentives to approaching the game in this manner.

There are more such design elements hard-coded into the game design, but these in particular are the ones which have been making their presence felt on me. There may be good business reasons for some of these decisions (such as the random rewards), they don't have much to argue for them in terms of fun.

In playing the game the way it was intended to be played, I have been staying up very late at night, I have been giving my girlfriend less attention than she deserved, I have been neglecting a variety of other leisure activities including playing several other games I've been wanting to try out. All this has resulted in me regularly being significantly more tired and grumpy than I'd like.

I've been holding out largely because of the excellent guild I've had the pleasure to be a member of, and also because of Blizzard's continued promises that "it'll get better soon, honest". Well, I've yet to see any sign that things will get better, despite two major patches while I've been playing, and in point of fact the changes to the raid game in the latest patch have made things much worse.

So I'm going to be leaving World of Warcraft for a while. Sure, I still need to pop in and check out some of the patch changes, and I'll probably be back for the expansion, but I can definitely feel that feeling that tells me that I've achieved all the goals currently available in this game that I can be bothered striving for.

Before I go, let me repeat once again my quick-and-easy solution for fixing all the endgame ills in WoW. I've posted this before in a variety of forums, and I've yet to have anyone disagree with a single point.

1) All new dungeons should be multi-winged along the lines of Dire Maul or Scarlet Monastery. No single task in a dungeon should take more than an hour of non-stop play from the dungeon entrance to achieve, and nor should there be significant efficiency bonuses for doing multiple tasks in a row.

2) Existing dungeons should have about 85% of trash mobs removed; the only remaining trash mob encounters should each have a unique tactical flavour. Clearing the same unchallenging enemies repeatedly for no reward is not considered by anyone to be fun. (Hint and evidence: the fact they're almost universally referred to as "trash" mobs.) The fun in dungeons comes from the bosses - the rest is just padding that there's really no need for.

3) Epic scale and atmosphere should be achieved through the use of music, art, and scripted sequences, rather than merely epic numbers of mobs. A minute of well-written sound effects can be more effective than an hour of mob-clearing.

4) Drop rates should be changed so that, although particularly good items remain rare, the amount of trips through any given dungeon needed to gear up enough to advance to the next level of challenge never exceeds (to take an arbitrary number) six - or maybe even one! There is no inherent fun in repeating challenges that have already been overcome.

5) The longer existing dungeons should immediately have a halfway "save point" implemented. I refer in particular to (as far as the endgame goes) Blackrock Depths and Blackrock Spire. (Particularly BRD.) An example of this already in the game occurs in Maraudon, where a player can use the Sceptre of Celebras to instantly move past the "quest" portion of the dungeon straight to the "boss" portion.

6) Every dungeon should have the option to take more people into it than the dungeon is tuned for. A dungeon tuned for 5 people should allow the option of a raid of 10. Incentives should be applied to make dungeons more rewarding the less people you take into them. This preserves the freedom of players to play in the style they enjoy while still encouraging players to challenge themselves as much as possible.

I don't expect to see any of this happen; but you never know.

Thanks again, Blizzard - despite some bizarre fundamental design objectives, you still made a hell of a game. I guess the question now is whether you solve the riddle of an inclusive and enjoyable endgame yourself, or whether you let a competitor do it for you.

(This post has been cross-posted to my Guild Forum, and also to the WoW General Forums.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Word To My Homies

[News] [Friends]

Time to spread da love, monkey-style. Or... uh... blatantly expose the sad fact that I can't talk like a gangsta.

Everyone will join me in commiserating Wuffie on a string of horrible burglary-related misfortune. Clearly the curse of Amon-Ra continues to strike from the unearthly nether-realm; this will not end for her until she returns the stolen sceptre to its ancestral tomb. Or possibly people suck and it's time to organise a sack-full-of-doorknobs-swinging-posse. Actually, I'd be happy to organise any sort of posse at all, and just hang out - how does Saturday sound?

The young miss who intermittently authors Go Camel is lying abed like some sort of drunken roustabout after having things surgically extracted from the vicinity of her gall bladder. Luckily her mutant healing factor appears to have kicked in and she'll be up and about in a few days, ready to fight Magneto.

Angelfacebabigurl, who has the distinct honour of having the longest internet handle of everyone featured on my blog, gets older this Friday, and by "gets older" what I really mean is "continues being ridiculously young". People who know her should beat her about the head with a stick until she reveals the secret location of her celebration festivities.

Speaking of birthdays, the man who has been known to type occasionally at Internal Collapse, often under the influence of alcohol, became suddenly ancient last Monday, and is now officially old enough to be taken out the back of the house and put to sleep with a quick dose of the old two barrels. It'll be a mercy, really.

I received an email from a certain "Geoff" of my acquaintance who advises everyone that he is alive and well in Bangkok, and has not yet been kidnapped and sold to some sort of fetish brothel. I have to say it - this is a man who refuses to stop defying expectations. Will his awesomeness never stop?

Sorry to everyone who reads this through the LJ feed for the wierd double-spacing. This appears to be an artefact of the way the feed converts line breaks in my posts. I can fix it, but then my main page no longer has separate paragraphs, so you may just have to make do. As a quick-fix if they bother you, you're welcome to just come and read the main site.

Microsoft vs Linux: It's On!

[News] [Information Technology]

A little while back, Sony announced that the PS3 will have Linux as its native OS. This means that in about four years' time a great many millions of homes worldwide will have an exceptionally powerful internet capable Linux-operating media centre-slash-content server in their home.

Almost immediately thereafter, Microsoft openly speculates on potential legal action against Linux for intellectual property infringement. Coincidence? I think not. Finally, the event has occurred which forces Microsoft to notice its younger penguin-themed cousin.

Not that I've ever realled cared about Linux, installed it on anything I own, or really know anything about it. But still, yay!

See the article here.

(In the interests of not fuelling rampant rumour mongering, I should say that interviewee Ballmer only goes so far as to say "I think there are experts who claim that Linux violates our intellectual property" and that "we owe it to our shareholders to have a strategy". That's not exactly the same as filing a lawsuit, and is in fact a long way from it.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Counter-Strike for Japan - GDC 2006

[Game Design]

I almost missed this article at Gamasutra, and if I had, I would have deeply regretted it, because it is absolutely fascinating. It relates to the localisation of wildly popular first-person shooter Counter-Strike for the Japanese market. If you're like me, that may not sound at first like oratory gold, but trust me, you'll want to read this.

It starts off talking about that Counter-Strike is an inherently western game, featuring "sweaty gringos" and "hairy guys in fatigues". For the Japanese version, these characters have been replaced with anime-esque "primary coloured spandex" and "anti-gravity busted women". Well, that's a whole evolution of improvement right there. 8-)

Also, they're not terrorists and counter-terrorists anymore. Now they're factions represented by obscure acronyms and pursuing vague ideological agendas. So... not really a change. Also, apparently there's now minigames in case you get bored of shooting, plus seasonal events like falling sakura blossoms in spring, et cetera. Really, that's something every game should have.

Where it gets really interesting, though, is when it starts talking about matching services, and creating a viable online matching infrastructure where previously in Japan there has really been none. Japan apparently had analog matching services using real-life people as matchers for games like Go long before there were online ones. Here, people are paying per-game, and there are clear paralells between how many games people pay for and how much they lose. Put shortly, if they're being beaten by more than two games to one, they're not enjoying themselves, and they won't come back. This is particularly important in their first experiences with the game.

Key to this experience is identifying "good players" - and this is "good" not so much in terms of their skill at winning the game, but "good" in terms of their positive contribution to the game as a whole through mentoring new players, promoting good sportsmanship, and providing constructive feedback on the state of the game. New players, wherever possible, should be exposed to "good" players, and protected from "bad" players (the ones who join a server, and everyone on that server who knows them immediately quits). The Japanese Counter-Strike features multiple systems for players to give feedback on other players, such as a "Good Job!" button, plus also a bunch of game balance measures designed to discourage "non-fun" behaviour like camping and shooting people in the back. (I'm not too sure on these last; I have a fairly good idea what Sirlin might have to say about them, but I'd have to play them to make up my own mind.)

Then it goes into what makes communities good on the whole (which seems to be a kind of balancing line - not so disparate as to not form social connections, but not so close as to be insular).... and, well, this is just fascinating stuff that has massive implications not just in matching services but in MMOG design, website design, forum design, workplace design...

I love a good article which really gets me thinking, and this feels like the sort of thing I'll be referencing a lot for a while.

Playing to Win

[Now Experiencing] [Non-Fiction] [Game Design]

I just received David Sirlin's book Playing To Win in the mail. Which came as something of a surprise to me. I ordered it about four months ago, and had kind of assumed something went wrong and it wasn't being sent. In the abstract, I remembered I'd ordered a book about game theory - it's just that my memory had forgotten Sirlin and helpfully assumed that it must have been Raph Koster's book that I'd asked for.

Well, I have it now, which I'm very pleased about as Sirlin is an insightful and very readable writer. I'm looking forward to getting stuck into it, horrible eye-searing cover design and all. Also, this leaves me free to place my order for Raph's book.

For the confused, this is NOT in fact the motivational or sports-themed book that it appears to be, but is rather an expounding of Sirlin's excellent articles on gameplaying philosophy and game theory from his self-titled website. In particular, it develops what may be, among hardcore gamers, the most widely-referenced single blog post of all time. I'm going to wave this in Matt's face and make him understand why he should stop complaining that my Soulcalibur III tactics are cheap and just learn to beat them, dammit.

Hello, LiveJournal!

[Site News]

Greetings to the several people who've already signed up to the syndicated feed at LiveJournal! I need you to do me a couple of things:

a) Pop on over to my main site and leave a comment letting me know that the feed is reaching you in good condition. (If you're reading this anywhere except the original blog page then it's working fine.)

b) Repeatedly punch your friends in the face until they agree to join my crazy little cult over here at The Dust Forms Words. Trust me, they'll thank you when they're able to speak without spitting blood.

Thanks again to Shrydar for enabling all this face-punching goodness.

Gremlins [1984]

[Now Experiencing] [Film]

Lily and I dug this film out of my DVD collection the other day, as she'd never seen it and had no idea why I kept shouting "Bright light! Bright light!" in a high-pitched voice whenever she turned the lights on.

I missed this when it first debuted in cinemas in 1984 (which is unsurprising, as I was four years old) but I caught it a considerable time later on video, I think probably in the early 90s. I remembered it as being a lot of fun, and was worried that a repeat viewing nearly a decade later would ruin my fuzzy glow about it. Never fear - it was just as fun this time around!

Oh, sure, the characters are ridiculous caricatures. It's badly acted, the plot's full of insultingly obvious holes and dodgy logic, and it's openly derivative of a bevy of vastly better movies, including but not limited to It's A Wonderful Life, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Alien. But look on the plus side - it's got a Mogwai!

Let's not be vague about this. Gremlins is a movie which is justified solely by the existence within it of a wonderful piece of fluffy animatronics known as Gizmo. Forget Gollum, forget Johnny 5, forget (gasp) Kermit the Frog - no other movie has ever been dragged from such abysmal depths to such entertaining heights by a single virtual character as Gremlins is. That's right, you're paying the entire price of admission to see this cuddly ball of fur be repeatedly and adorably cute, and you're not regretting a cent of it.

It's written by Chris Columbus, the largely unobjectionable but uninspiring writer of The Goonies and director of films such as Home Alone and the first two Harry Potter flicks. Zach Galligan muddles his way through as protagonist Billy, while Phoebe Cates does her best to look like a young Jennifer Connolly as the romantic interest. Stephen Spielberg produces and Joe Dante (The Howling) directs. It's rated PG, but don't be fooled - it's home to a remarkably high body-count of barely-offscreen deaths, plus some very graphic and gory fatalities among the Gremlins themselves (including incidents with a blender and a microwave). Scary it ain't, but it will make you repeatedly go "Ewww!".

Put your brain aside and have some fun with this film if you haven't seen it already. If you can avoid asking questions about the plot, you'll have a ball.

Here's something I didn't know until today. The word "mogwai" is actually a transliteration of the Cantonese word meaning "ghost", "evil spirit" or "demon". So cute!

PS: I've been trying to find a picture of Gizmo as he appeared in the film; while I've turned up any number of cross-eyed patch-furred plush versions, I haven't managed to get a decent one from the actual movie. Anyone able to help me out here? (UPDATE: Never mind, found one, but Blogger is being uncooperative about accepting the upload. I'll try again later.)

Troubled Ghost Laid To Rest

[News] [Computer Gaming]

In what is blazingly unsurprising news to anyone who's been following things in this area, Blizzard has finally announced that development of Starcraft: Ghost will be delayed indefinitely. The shock isn't the announcement, it's that it's taken them this long to come clean. I still have trailers on my computer for this game which end with tantalising promises like "Coming in 2003!" The project was in danger of becoming the next Duke Nukem Forever.

This isn't the first time Blizzard have done this, either. Way back before Warcraft 3 was around, Blizzard were developing a traditional point-and-click adventure game in the Warcraft universe called Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans which they cancelled when it was around 90% complete (including voice work) because it wasn't living up to their high standards. (The game eventually surfaced as a stand-alone novel and the plot was incorporated into the WC3 backstory.) More detail on the demise of Lord of the Clans can be found at Gamespot.

Blizzard says they'll be focusing their console efforts now on the next generation of consoles, and they still plan to deliver a Starcraft console experience. I'll believe it when I see it.

Check out Gamasutra's coverage here or the even more detailed coverage by Gamespot over here.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Why Square-Enix Staff Own Houses Made of Gold

[News] [Computer Gaming]

Sweet zombie Jesus. Final Fantasy XII, recently released in Japan, has sold 1.764 million copies in four days. That's around 5.1 copies every second, and a million copies more than its closest competitor over the same period, Animal Crossing: Wild World. (That's 142% more copies.) Excuse the use of bold text, I accidentally clicked it while choking to death in a fit of combined outrage and desire for an English language localisation to instantly appear in my hands.

To put it yet another way, Final Fantasy XII has sold significantly more units in four days in one country than the Xbox 360 console has sold units in more than a month worldwide.

Square-Enix staff were unavailable for comment as they were busy rolling around in gigantic swimming pools full of yen.

See Gamespot's coverage here.

A Scanner Darkly

[Now Experiencing] [Literature] [Film]

I just finished reading A Scanner Darkly, which is in my opinion the best book ever written by Philip K Dick. Or more accurately, re-reading; having originally read it about three years ago (and loved it), I returned to it this month in the light of becoming suddenly and unexpectedly excited about the upcoming movie directed by Richard Linklater and starring Keanu Reeves. (Click the link, check out the gorgeous trailers.)

It's just as good the second time around, if not better. The story follows one Bob Arctor, an undercover narcotics agent of the near future. Arctor has taken on the life of a drug addict in a group house as part of a government initiative to find the source of distribution of a deadly new drug known as Substance D, or Death. He dates Donna Hawthorne, his girlfriend and dealer, simultaneously trying to win her heart and uncover the next dealer up the chain.

Unfortunately the police system is totally corrupt; for his own safety Arctor reports to his superiors under the codename "Fred", and wears a blur suit, a device which totally obscures his identity, presenting him as a moving composite of unidentifiable images. Not even the police know his true identity.

As the story starts, one of Arctor's friends, Jerry Fabin, a long-time user, has crossed the line from "eccentric" to "crazy". His brain badly damaged by drug use, Fabin is convinced that his body, his house, and all his visitors are infested with a species of intelligent parasite; in an attempt to foil their plans he seals his house and releases bug spray throughout it, with himself and his friends inside. His suicidal actions are thwarted and he is hauled off to rehabilitation, but it is clear to his friends that the "good days" of their circle are over, and the downward spiral of addiction towards death has begun.

Meanwhile, "Fred" is informed by his superiors that they have a lead on the source of Substance D - one Bob Arctor. Fred is instructed to install surveillance cameras throughout his own house and monitor them to provide evidence of his own guilt.

Suffering an increasing level of dissociation from the bizarre nature of his own job, badly stressed by girlfriend Donna's course towards self-destruction, and targeted by a sequence of dangerous mechanical sabotages that might be the act of off-kilter housemate Barris or the result of his own subconcious urges, Arctor is no longer able to trust the perceptions of his own drug-damaged brain, and must instead rely on the evidence of the scanners throughout his house. But does a scanner see clearly - or darkly?

The novel is an intensely personal one for Dick, and is the second-last one written before his own suicide. It unites the long-running themes of his work; reality, empathy, and social disconnnection, but (almost uniquely) melds them into a significantly more realistic setting than any of his other works, with a cast of characters populated from his own life.

From the author's note at the epilogue of the book: "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. They wanted to have a good time, but they were like children playing in the street; they could see one after another of them being killed - run over, maimed, destroyed - but they continued to play anyhow. We really all were very happy for a while, sitting around not toiling but just bullshitting and playing, but it was for such a terribly brief time, and then the punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it."

The book reads as a combination of a science-fiction work and a drug culture odyssey; in its final scenes it becomes transcendent as a raft of surprise twists interact with powerful, moving, and desperately tragic characterisation. I recommend it to anyone; it's one of my favourite books of all time and it's worth a look no matter what your opinion of Philip K Dick.

For all those who've already read this book, can I recommend you go out and re-read it - and then read Dick's last novel, Valis, immediately afterwards? Dick's phenomenally strange last novel, in which he casts himself as the protagonist in search of a meeting with an unknowable extraplanetary sentience, is an absolutely masterful read and adds a new level of relevance to A Scanner Darkly; do yourself a favour and get a copy at the first opportunity.

I'm now going back to re-encounter A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords as preparatory reading for A Feast of Crows by George R R Martin, which I see is up for a Hugo award. AJ will be happy; he can finally discuss it with me without worrying about spoilers.

Finally, on a completely unrelated note, I need to thank Shrydar for helping to set up a Livejournal syndicated feed for The Dust Forms Words, which will apparently start actually showing meaningful information any day now (bookmark it now, avoid the rush). This apparently makes me easier to read for you LJ individuals, or something. Let me know how it works out.

Raph Koster Leaves SOE

[News] [Game Design]

Raph Koster, known for his work on Ultima Online, the original Star Wars: Galaxies, and his groundbreaking book on game design, A Theory of Fun, has left Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) after six years, following the expiry of his contract. He says he is looking forward to "doing some stuff that is a bit off the beaten path". Read more at Raph's blog post.

I predict seeing something from Raph in a year or two which is highly original, paradigm-changing, and talked about for years; keep your eyes out for it, as it'll be something you'll want to have played.

Best of luck wherever you end up, Raph.

Animal Crossing Post-Mortem - GDC 2006

[News] [Game Design]

Chris Bateman offers an excellent rundown on Katsuya Eguchi's talk on designing Animal Crossing: Wild World for the Nintendo DS. The talk, presented at GDC 2006, offers a lot of insight into cutting the game's size from the larger GameCube version, and on making use of the DS Wi-Fi capability. It may also be of interest to my girlfriend, who's right into this wonderful little DS oddity, and is in fact worlds ahead of me in the virtual house-design stakes.

While I'm on the subject, since she was asking me for some reliable FAQs for Animal Crossing: WW, she can find them here.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

We Really Do Love Katamari

[Computer Gaming]

I've just sunk my gaming thumbs into Namco's We Love Katamari for the Playstation 2, the sequel to the surprisingly successfull Katamari Damacy (unreleased in Europe and Australia). And it's absolutely brilliant.

I cannot recommend this game highly enough. First, it sells (new) at the budget price point of between $40 and $60, depending on where you get it from. So second-hand you're looking at probably not more than $25.

Secondly, don't be fooled by the kiddie packaging and the G rating. There's something in this for everyone. The game places you in the role of the Prince of Cosmos, the son of the flamboyant King Of All Cosmos (a giant with handlebar moustaches, a love for frills, and a head shaped like a horizontal rolling pin). During the last game, the King destroyed all the stars in Cosmos, and challenged the Prince to use a magical ball called a katamari to roll up conglomerations of matter on earth into giant spheres which the King could use to replace the stars.

Don't worry. I don't understand either.

But the plot's really not important. In fact, even the game itself pokes fun at its completely off the wall characters and stylings. The important thing is, you get to push a ball around and roll stuff up. And by "stuff", I mean paperclips, cookies, milk bottles, ducks, flowers, books, dogs, people, the Eiffel Tower, and, eventually, the Sun. Your ball grows in size with every item you roll up, but you can only roll things up once your ball is big enough to accept them. Luckily, there's no shortage of items lying around... you're averaging multiple items per second most of the time. Everything you touch sticks to the outside of your katamari, and you can see each item actually on the ball, at least until it gets covered up. It's a blast rolling up a little dancing gnome and then seeing him get repeatedly crushed as you roll the katamari at the next target.

It would be a really simple, amusing game, were it not for the control scheme, which challenges you to push the katamari with "both hands". In practice, this works out to having to use both of the PS2 controller's analogue sticks simultaneously. Up on both moves the ball forward, while up on one and down on the other lets you move the Prince around the outside of the ball to push it in a different direction. A quick push-in of both sticks does a 180 degree turn, and so forth. It's highly non-intuitive, but it could be argued that this constant battle with the controls is part of both the charm and the challenge of the game.

It's multiplayer, too, but I haven't had a chance to try that yet, and I suspect I may have a little trouble. The control scheme makes it probably not casual enough to tempt my girlfriend into a session, but the essential wierdness and lack of the ability to shoot things in the head may make it difficult to talk my gaming friends into giving it a serious try.

It's a horribly addictive game, and I might have to go have another session of it right now. In fact, I think I will.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

You'll Have To Speak Up, I'm Wearing A Towel


If you're speaking to me on the phone, I'm probably nude.... er, if I lived in the UK.

Also, it's very important that you don't confuse this blog with a similarly titled one at Livejournal. That's not me, people! Actually, I hope it would be fairly clear from the text that it's not me, but, well, you never know.

I'm RPG-ing today; maybe more updates tonight, with (gasp) actual content. Keep your fingers crossed.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Reticulating Splines

A short one. It's at least three months too late to be relevant (should have caught it at the time) but you might still get a kick out of this picture (which is worksafe and hosted on a trusted site). For those less schooled in PC gaming, it's a screen shot from the classic game Sim City, outlining a situation very familiar to anyone who was really, really bad at the fundamentals of budgeting in that game, as, apparently, a certain US President seems to have been.

Thanks to Water Cooler Games.

Currently Interacting With...

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

I'm currently spending some quality time with the following electronic media.

Burnout Legends (PSP): A frankly amazing port of the Burnout franchise to a handheld format. Were it not for the PSP's hideous hand-deforming ergonomics, you'd almost forget you weren't playing a console. It's a like a remix of the four console titles, including old gameplay favourites like Pursuit Mode, while missing out on the more recent Burnout Revenge's ability to check same-way traffic. Probably the only less-than-perfect note of the game is Crash Mode, where the limitations of the hardware conspire to cause a relatively low number of on-screen vehicles, and a bevy of camera issues which make it really hard to make effective use of the series' trademark Crashbreaker mechanic. But the short-burst playing style inherent in a handheld release makes Crash Mode still an ideal playing choice, so all round you don't worry too much. Did I mention this game supports pretty much every multiplayer under the sun, including a gamesharing mode that's only limited by how much time you're prepared to spend uploading levels and cars to friends? Warning: Do not confuse this game with the identically titled DS version! The DS version is rubbish and should be avoided by all sensible people!

Soulcalibur III (PS2): I've had this one awhile. After an initial burst of activity to unlock the key characters, I put it aside, and have been pretty much only playing it when the opportunity for some serious multiplayer arises. For those who haven't seen it yet, it's an incremental, rather than evolutionary, improvement over the last title in the series. Heihachi, Link and Spawn are gone, and newcomers Zasalamel, Tira, and Setsuka join the pack. Also returning are original-style Siegfried, Rock, Li Long, Arthur, Hwang, and pretty much every other character who's ever appeared in a Soulcalibur or Soul Edge game. You can't fault the roster. There's also a create-a-fighter mode, which basically amounts to playing dress-up-dolls with a fairly generic base model and then assigning it one of a bunch of specially designed and not particularly well balanced unique fighting styles/movesets. What prompted my return to the game was a multiplayer session against soon-to-be-married Chris Nairn, wherein I finally got a handle on using the scythe-wielding Zasalamel. It's amazing how suddenly grokking a character can reinvigorate the whole title. I plan to continue making Matt and AJ cry with vicious scythe combos over coming weeks.

Facade (PC): Not a commercial release; don't feel bad if you haven't heard of it. This odd little game is part experiment, part proof of concept, and part challenge to game designers. You play a guest at the house of two married friends on the verge of a messy breakup. Their breakup forms the story; you're challenged to interact so as to affect the outcome. My first attempt, though interesting, was largely unsuccessful. The game seems to be a fairly excellent demonstration of AI driven characterisation and combining plot elements or "beats" to produce a unique story while still retaining narrative cohesion. Unfortunately, the underlying situation is inherently stressful and non-fun, making it less something you want to experiment with and more something to toy with once or twice and then escape from. It's a free and legal download via Bittorrent, though, so if you have the bandwidth I strongly recommend you to check it out.

Animal Crossing: Wild World (DS): This is just another aspect of Nintendo's genious. It's a handheld port-slash-extension of the very successful Gamecube title. I personally don't get a lot out of this for my own part: you play what's essentially a human child living in a town populated by anthropomorphic animals. You wander around chatting to the townsfolk, collecting fruit and shells off the ground, and selling them to a raccoon of dubious moral character in order to pay off your mortgage and buy a bigger house. It feels a lot like World of Warcraft without the monsters, the levelling, the equipment, and the huge number of other players. One neat thing is you can visit the towns of other players who have the game and are within wireless range, so naturally I bought my girlfriend a copy a while back and she's been enthusiastically working her way through it. What it lacks in shooting people in the head is neatly compensated by my ability to play it socially with girls. The Gamecube version featured the ability to unlock full playable versions of classic NES games; that is sadly missing from the DS version and sorely missed.

And of course I'm still sinking time into World of Warcraft. It's a busy life.

Ron Moore on Battlestar Galactica

[News] [Television] [Science Fiction]

No commentary here; just an excellent reporting by Chris Bateman on Ron Moore's talk at the GDC 2006. As creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, Ron goes into a lot of detail on the design process and the elements that were changed from the original series. Why is there a talk on developing popular sci-fi television at GDC? I don't know; I can only assume that it's part of an ongoing conspiracy to see that game developers get all the fun.

Check out Chris' article here, courtesy of his blog Only A Game.

Nintendo Keynote Speech - GDC 2006

[News] [Game design] [Computer gaming]

Yes, it's less than an hour since my last post, but I just found Gamasutra's coverage of the Nintendo keynote speech at the 2006 Game Developers' Conference (GDC).

Unless you've been blind and deaf over the the last six months you've probably already seen something of Nintendo's plans for its next-generation console, the "Revolution", and its crazy DVD-remote-meets-nunchuks controller system. It's aimed to capture the latent casual gaming audience that the DS has already made inroads into, and in my opinion it's probably the most exciting thing happening in the next generation of console gaming.

Nintendo's keynote speech has delivered two main surprises:

1) Nintendo's previously announced online distribution service, which was tipped to make old games from the NES, SNES and N64 available on the Revolution, will ALSO feature first-party Sega and Hudson games from the Genesis/Megadrive and the Turbografx.

2) Gamers can look foward to a new Legend of Zelda title for the DS called Phantom Hourglass.

But no real news on the Revolution. Well, I suppose we're back to waiting for E3 to find out the details.

I have to say though, the PS3 may be my home console in the next-generation, what with its beefy processing power, backwards compatibility all the way back to the original Playstation, native Linux OS, and XBox Live-style online network platform - but I'm getting more and more excited to see what Nintendo have to offer. They seem to be the only ones who are looking further ahead than the current round of consoles, and I really, really hope it pays off for them.

Infinitely Dodgy


I spotted this review of Batman Annual #25 over at The Angriest last night. (WARNING: Contains spoilers!)

This one hasn't arrived in my local comic shop yet (either that or it sold out) so I haven't had a chance to check it out for myself. But the review pretty much confirms my worst fears. DC's latest huge cross-over event, Infinite Crisis has been used to:
a) Launch several new titles of dubious merit (Ion, Blue Beetle, Shadowpact)
b) Revamp some ailing older titles with a new focus (Aquaman, Legion of Super Heroes)
c) Bring some well deserved attention to some excellent but underexposed titles (Outsiders, Teen Titans), and, relevantly,
d) Ruin what is arguably DC's most continually excellent flagship title, Batman.

Infinite Crisis should NEVER have been allowed to mess with Batman continuity. Bah. Shame on you, DC.

Meanwhile, I highly recommend the runs of both Outsiders and Teen Titans from the Graduation Day event through to the present (about two years worth of issues). These are some of the best superhero comics I've read this year (and I've read a lot this year). Your local comic shop can help you identify the relevant trade paperbacks - do yourself a favour and pick a couple up!

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ugly, Ugly Puppies

[Oddities] [Pets]

My ever-resourceful girlfriend has directed me to, in which the pictures of unfortunate puppies are forced to engage in horrible Darwinian combat. The concept makes me fuzzy in my happy places. Upon entry to the site you are confronted with the pictures of two puppies, and visitors are asked to choose which one is "cutest". The winner advances to greater glory; the loser is voted off the island, and presumably put down by well trained vets. (I have no evidence to back this theory, but it stands to reason.) Meanwhile, you, the visitor, get to continue picking favourites among pairs of puppies until, I can only assume, eventually you suffer a repetitive stress injury and fall down.

A quick visit to the "top dogs" (the ones who've been euthanased least often) will reveal a selection of ugly, ugly canines. Further proof that evolution doesn't work and we should begin culling everyone who possesses more natural advantages than we do immediately. These dogs make baby Jeebers cry. Correspondingly, a look at the "underdogs" (whose flesh is even now being fed to cattle as a cheap grain-alternative) will prove another theory of mine - that everyone hates poodles.

And if this nauseating selection of puppies from the "remedial" class at the gene school isn't doing it for you, then bring your eyeballs round to the Kitten Alternative, where you can do it all over again to the Animals That Nobody Likes (TM).

Stop it! Don't give them your sympathy! They'd kill us all in our sleep, given half the chance. (Contrary to what Snopes would have you believe.)

Margaret Atwood Must Destroy All Humans

[News] [Literature]

I've been pretty dismissive of blogs as a social medium; largely because they encourage people to use their idealised inside-on-the-outside persona to interact with the idealised icons of others in a substitute for real social interaction or actually developing social skills. (Not that I engage in much of that "real developing social skills" - it's just that I'm making a conscious choice.)

So naturally my girlfriend, a long-time blogger, had some mocking to do when I started The Dust Forms Words. "But there'll be actual content!" I pleaded; it was all as nought in the face of her tofu-fuelled powers of mockery.

As an incentive for my girlfriend to read my blog (and also because the idea is just cool) I offer the following evidence that Margaret Atwood Must Destroy All Humans (courtesy of Collision Detection, which I found through the wonderful Grand Text Auto).

Margaret Atwood, in what is either:
a) an act of inspired genious,
b) a clever marketing scam, or
c) a blatant act of contempt towards humanity
has taken to signing books via a telepresence robot. She sits in, say, Florida, wiggling a robo-pen, and the miracle of modern technology recreates her movements in, say, Sydney into the book of some unsuspecting plebian. A touch impersonal, you say? Never fear, there's a webcam. You can see her smiling face in all its two-dimensional glory and talk to her while she wiggles the robo-pen.

This elevates the already surreal book-signing phenomenon to a whole new meta-level of absurdity, and I love it. If the search for meaning in getting geniouses with poor social skills to deface your clean expensive product with their bizarre scrawls was a game, then this is (to me) like a whole expansion pack jammed with robot-orientated content goodness.

I plan on making use of this telepresence signing thing. I can happily exhibit a copy of the Blind Assassin, and say, "Look, it was signed by a robot driven by the insane disembodied presence of Margaret Atwood! This proves that I bought the book, attended an Atwood-themed event, and was sufficiently insignificant to her that she saw no need to direct her paper-signing killbot to extinguish my life!" I'll be the talk of town, and small children will envy me.

Now we need to get some of our more youth-challenged bestsellers like William Gibson and Ray Bradbury into these things as soon as possible and record the results; with a little foresight, we can get Stephen King scribbling "To My Constant Reader" to devoted fans long after his rotting corpse has been safely disposed of. Celebrations are in order.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Quality versus Quantity

"Fahrenheit? Yeah, I hear that's an incredible game but I'm not going to pay full price for something I can finish in two days."

One of the things that I keep running into in talking about games with people is the concept of quality verusus quantity. At one end of the market, you've got a game like Fahrenheit or Psychonauts, generally agreed by critics to be among the best games of the last couple of years, but easy to finish within a couple of days. And at the other end, you've got something like Dynasty Warriors, which uses unlockables and level grinding to keep you playing the same twelve or so stages for potentially over a year.

Dynasty Warriors is great, don't get me wrong. (Says the man who has 7 separate DW titles sitting in his PS2 game collection.) But it's unimaginative, it's repetitive, and each successive sequel is pretty much identical to the one before it.

There's this theory in the game-playing world that buying games is some sort of investment/return equation - the more hours of gameplay you get per dollar, the better a bargain you've got. A Final Fantasy game, clocking in at over 100 hours of gameplay (mostly grinding) is inherently better than a short, scripted cinematic game like Fahrenheit with around 8 hours of play.

This probably seems natural to any regular gamebuyer. Heck, it even kind of looks natural to me. But it's garbage.

Take movies. When was the last time you looked at the offerings at the cinema and went, "I could see film X, but it's only 100 minutes, whereas the latest Spielberg/Hanks monstrosity is about 190 - clearly a better bargain!" I mean, they cost the same admission, right? Why wouldn't you factor in how long they're going to keep you entertained?

This is about the way the world sees gaming. It's seen as a timefiller; it's a way to occupy yourself. It's not in any way seen as an experience, or as a medium capable of delivering a message, or a medium capable of art. But is this perception causative of the way we choose what game to buy - or symptomatic of it?

Imagine if games were cheaper; let's say half the price. If a new game cost you $40 Australian, and a second-hand one cost you $20, would you be more willing to buy your games based on the experience and the art, rather than the length? Even if you were still only buying, say, one game every three months (as many of my friends do)?

Post Zero

Hi there. If you're here, chances are you know me.

I live in Canberra, Australia. My name's Greg.

I've also gone by the handle Firefly. I used to write an e-newsletter called the Flypaper.

On World of Warcraft I'm known as Ukulkos.

Here's what I need from you. I need subjects to write about, I need commentary, I need big lists of links, and I need feedback on how to turn this blogspot into something remotely interesting (plus a whole heap on operating its interface to make it... not suck).