I thought I’d take a break this week and vary things up a bit from our usual programming. After all the fuss over GDC I decided it was time to check out another game designer convention. So last week I went to GDX at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) to get another look at life on the other side of the fence. Ranked as one of the top ten game design schools in the world, SCAD students are impressive because the arts focus means they’re required to take courses in drawing and art history on top of their game work. The conference kicked off with two lectures by graduating students. The first was by Brian Shurtleff on applying the rule systems of improv groups to games. Rule number one is always make your partner look good. Building on that system were a lot of really interesting ideas on how to build co-op experiences while referencing shows like ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ to give examples. Downstairs I caught the tail end of Jim Sidlesky’s thesis work with Machinima. I was already familiar with the history of the genre but have lost track of the latest stuff. He has put together an intense depiction of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘Annabell Lee” using The Sims 2 engine and some music a Goth band in Florida loaned him. The most interesting new Machinima artist he introduced me to was Friedrich Kirschner, whose innovation with texturing and art is astounding. Outside of his excellent music video based on Channel Zero Comic, you can catch this clip of his capturing the animation of a robot submerged in milk using legos, a spoon, and a lot of milk.
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The people at Nintendo never cease to amaze. Do you remember Excitebike? Perhaps you remember playing it, you mastered the timing of flattening out that little bike for perfect landings, you remembered just how long you could keep the turbo jets on before you overheated, maybe you even created a few custom tracks for the game (which, looking back, was a surprisingly forward-looking feature for such an old title). It was absolutely a good game.
What it wasn’t, really, was exciting. Even at its fastest, the scrolling of the racetrack was really pretty slow, and you could almost always see obstacles coming way ahead of time, even if you didn’t necessarily have the reflexes to do anything about it. It was a skill game, not a speed game. And yet, by way of simply giving it the name “Excitebike”, Nintendo told us it was exciting. As long as it’s a good enough game, the mere presence of the name offers it a sense of exhilaration that the game on its own simply doesn’t offer.
As such, I’m surprised it took them until the Wii to resurrect the Excite* name.
Note: This is part 2 of a book review I started over a month ago. Personal life got in the way of good intentions, and I never got around to posting this until now.
“Eight is beautiful”.
This is where The Search for a New Game Machine caught me. Those three little words capture the ridiculousness, the arbitrarity nature of working for a customer driven by the vision of a single person. Because, you see, to that single person, the very idea of something like “eight is beautiful” is not even close to arbitrary; it makes all the difference in the world.
In The Search for a New Game Machine, the processor that would someday run the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox was designed to have six “synergistic cores”—basically, the part of the processor that does math operations—and those would have to be meticulously designed such that they would all fit on a single chip. When narrator David Shippy presents his final design to Ken Kutaragi, however, Kutaragi is pleased but not satisfied. He wants eight cores. His reason? “Eight is beautiful”.
Konami’s recently announced decision to publish Atomic Game’s Six Days In Fallujah has been making the controversy rounds and for good reason: it aims to recreate one of the worst battles in the Iraq War. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal the creators explain, “We’re not trying to make social commentary. We’re not pro-war. We’re not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.” The creators are interviewing marines, civilians, and insurgents who were involved with the battle to recreate it as closely as possible.
One of the more interesting by-products of the internet is that games are continually exploring topics beyond the usual blockbuster action romps. Not needing to make a profit, easy distribution, and low technical requirements are proving to be the perfect recipe for games to start abandoning conventions and pushing the medium forward. Of all the things to get cut first, length is probably the most welcome. Rich Carlson explains in a column about creating Strange Adventures in Infinite Space that cutting the playtime of the game not only made it much more fun to play but also easier to make. They rely on the basic structure of a game like NetHack, numerous random variables with clearly defined goals, and base your score on meeting a certain time limit. The result is a kind of abbreviated Star Control 2 where you explore the galaxy, occasionally uncover a plot (it’s random if it even occurs), and generally finish all of this in ten to twenty minutes. In some games you will save the galaxy, in others you won’t get enough gear and will get blasted apart before winning. You don’t build ships, diplomacy is mostly random, and huge chunks of the story can be missed with no real loss to the game. The sense of loss that we’d normally feel is gone because of the low time commitment and the fact that you can just start playing again. What’s telling about this shortened game is that although they rely on the basic structure of the larger game, in order to cut back on length they also cut back on the game design options.
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