Thursday, February 28, 2008

Have podcast, will travel


On a wall in the Vancouver offices of CBC Radio 3 hangs a map of the world with pushpins sticking out of it. Each pin represents a person who has written to Grant Lawrence (pictured here), host of The CBC Radio 3 Podcast. When I interviewed Lawrence earlier this month, he proudly pointed out pins marking faraway places such as Iceland, Germany, India, and Easter Island.

One listener, Lawrence reflected while sitting on a couch in the Radio 3 lounge area, had downloaded the podcast to her iPod in an Internet café in Mongolia, and then listened to the show hundreds of feet underground while working in a uranium mine. When she’s on hiatus, she lives a few blocks from Lawrence in the West End. Canadians can be found everywhere in the world, and for many of them The CBC Radio 3 Podcast is a lifeline to their home country and its unique musical culture.

What's a podcast?

The term podcast comes from combining iPod (the Apple computer term that itself comes from “portable on demand”) and broadcast, and refers to the content and distribution. A podcast is a program—usually audio, but increasingly video—that can be automatically syndicated to an audience. The first podcasts appeared in 2004, but the format’s surge in popularity in 2005 led the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary to declare "podcast" the word of the year that year.

The CBC Radio 3 Podcast was a first for the public broadcaster. Steve Pratt, director of radio digital programming and CBC Radio 3, thought there was a good fit between the New Music Canada Web site, which is produced by Radio 3, and the newfangled distribution method. “We wanted more people to hear the music,” Pratt told me in a downtown coffee shop. The artists who were streaming music on New Music Canada owned the rights to their material, so Pratt and his team developed a waiver that asked for permission to podcast that same music.

“Steve Pratt is always thinking way ahead of the game,” Lawrence said. When Pratt suggested that he host a podcast, Lawrence’s response was, “What the hell is that?”

“When I first got here,” Lawrence reminisced, “you edited interviews on reel-to-reel tape and cut it with a razor blade and taped the tape together.” Despite his reluctance, Lawrence started hosting the new program. After a couple of weeks of shows had been produced and made available through a few podcast directories, iTunes came calling. Lawrence’s show was one of the only music podcasts that had legal rights to the music being played, Pratt explained, and the Apple initiative was doing everything it could to promote sales of the now-ubiquitous iPod. iTunes promoted the CBC Radio 3 Podcast by putting it on iTunes Stores’ front pages in territories around the world, and the downloads went from 400 to 20,000 overnight.

CBC Radio 3 Podcast appeals around the world

“The thing that blew us away,” Pratt admitted, “is that it’s all over the world. We realized half our downloads were coming from outside Canada. There are fans of indie music around the world who just like that music, and we’ve got a great reputation around the world for a killer music scene.”

“For whatever reason, it’s clicked with people,” Lawrence said. “Radio is a fairly intimate genre, and the podcast is even more intimate because generally people listen on their headphones, so it’s straight into their head.”

His podcast was the only CBC offering for about 18 months, but as the show’s popularity continued to grow, more Radio 3 podcasts were introduced: Sessions is an in-studio series with Canadian bands hosted by Tariq Hussain; New Music Canada Track of the Day is, well, a track of the day; and The R3-30, a weekly chart show hosted by Craig Norris and producer Pedro Mendes, has picked up steam in the past year. Each week, Pratt said, between 100,000 and 120,000 Radio 3 podcasts are downloaded.

CBC builds on podcast success

In the past year, there has been an explosion of CBC podcasts, from both radio and television. Most, like Definitely Not the Opera, Quirks and Quarks, the Hour, and the National, simply strip out elements that the CBC doesn’t have permission to podcast, and repurpose their broadcasts in podcast form. The CBC Radio 3 podcasts are different because they are produced specifically for that purpose.

“We are a world leader in podcasting,” said Pratt, who in addition to being the head of Radio 3 is also responsible for all CBC Radio podcasts. “There are about 50 podcasts that you can get from CBC, and they are all doing really well. There’s a growing audience every week that chooses to get their CBC programming that way. We feel like we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Although CBC programming decisions don’t rest on how “podcastable” a potential show is, Pratt said that from day one of program development, “We talk about the different platforms that a show can live on, and we talk about music rights, we talk about the way the show can be produced so that we can put it out as a podcast as well as a regular program.”

New CBC Radio shows like Search Engine and Spark typify this kind of thinking. These shows, Pratt said, were created with multiple platforms in mind: Web site, podcast, and radio show. “We’re trying to take advantage of the fact that they are shows, but they live in a lot of different places,” he said. Other shows, such as Between the Covers, only exist as podcasts.

The catch-22

The problem, Pratt said, is that government funding for CBC Radio doesn’t cover new-media initiatives. Ironically, the dramatic success of the podcasts has threatened their very existence, because the CBC found that it couldn’t afford to continue making them. This Catch-22 wasn’t about to stop Pratt, though. “For us, we feel like this is the future,” he explained. “This is how a whole new group of people are connecting and having their primary connection to the CBC. We need to be here.”

Surveys indicated that not only did audiences value the podcasts, they wanted more of them. However, they didn’t want to pay for the podcasts. They were fine, though, with the idea of sponsorship, so Pratt came up with a plan to fund the podcasts in this way. Listeners, he explained, have given feedback that they appreciate that the sponsor is helping the CBC to produce podcasts.

But you won’t hear sponsorship messages on the Radio 3 podcasts because there’s no system of paying royalties to artists. Pratt said that until the CBC can find a way to compensate artists, Radio 3 won’t be making money off the music podcasts. But his team is working at devising a way for the artists to benefit even more from exposure on the Radio 3 podcasts. “One of the things we’ve heard from the audience is that they want to buy the music easily,” said Pratt, “because there’s not a lot of places to buy this music, especially when you get outside Canada.”

Why podcasts matter to musicians

Despite not being compensated for their songs being podcasted, the Radio 3 shows have become an essential channel of exposure for Canadian musicians. “Every artist,” said Lawrence, “from Feist on down to AIDS Wolf, has seen the benefit of what the podcast can do for them.” The waiver, though, gave some artists pause. Lawrence admitted that it probably seemed like Radio 3 was asking for a lot, wanting to play the songs for free. “What helped,” Lawrence said, “was when the Arcade Fire said, ‘Yeah, you can. We see the benefit of that.’ As soon as we started playing bands like the Arcade Fire and the Weakerthans and the New Pornographers, it opened the floodgates.”

As a founding member of Vancouver band the Smugglers, Lawrence is no stranger to the Canadian independent music scene. He believes that because more people can hear Canadian-made music, the size of the audience for that music has grown.

“There are a lot of very successful independent Canadian bands,” he said, and the difference between now and when he was playing with the Smugglers is access to the music: “MySpace, podcasts, YouTube. Campus radio was limited, because if you drove as far as North Van you’d lose the signal. In this new age, a podcast you can take anywhere in the world. The Arcade Fire had tracks on MySpace about three months before their album came out. There’s just more accessibility, and people share it.”

Canadian albums going gold

The numbers support Lawrence’s claim. Certification of gold records in Canada is performed by the Canadian Recording Industry Association. Selling 50,000 units of a CD in Canada nets a gold award; a platinum comes with 100,000 units sold. In the last seven years, there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of gold or platinum albums by Canadian artists, but what has changed is the range of artists achieving gold status. In 2001, for example, Nickelback, Diana Krall, Our Lady Peace, and Sum 41 went gold. In 2007, gold albums went to the likes of Patrick Watson, Bedouin Soundclash, Feist, and the Arcade Fire.

The difference between CDs and digital albums is also interesting. According to Nielsen SoundScan figures for Canada, the top-selling CD in 2007 was Josh Groban’s Noël, while the top-selling digital album was Feist’s The Reminder. The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible was number four on the digital-album list. There is an obvious difference between what people are buying in bricks-and-mortar stores and what they’re purchasing on-line.

Lawrence said the biggest impact his podcast has had is that he no longer has to explain what Radio 3 is. “The podcast was our first real bona fide success that crossed over into mainstream,” he said. “We’d been waiting a long time for something to click.” According to Pratt, what helped was thinking of Radio 3 as a content group, rather than a division defined by any particular platform. “We’ve really focused on being experts in new Canadian music, and we want to be where it matters to our audience.” On the Web, on satellite radio, or on podcast, Radio 3 is there.

Despite his early reticence, Lawrence has become a believer in podcasts: “I really treasure the show. We have a fantastic audience.” He talks about the audience’s passion for the music and the show, their patriotism for Canada, the fact that podcast listeners are people who seek out new things and are on the go. He thinks the podcasts tap into a collective consciousness. That his podcast has clicked with people, to the point where there have been close to 10 million downloads, continues to surprise him.

“We had one girl walk across Spain while listening to the podcast,” Lawrence said. “They all send us pictures too, so we have all these pictures of all these people doing these amazing things all over the world, and we’re the soundtrack to their life.”

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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How TiVo will set you free

TiVo is the first truly great addition to modern home-entertainment centres since the development of DVD players. High-definition televisions are fine, computers that stream media content to your living room are great, but only TiVo makes life fun, simple, and better.

Simply, TiVo is a digital-video recorder. It records television programs for you, storing them on a hard drive that lets you watch shows when you want. But there’s more to TiVo than simply hardware. When you hear people talking about TiVo, they are talking about the experience of TiVo.

TiVo was built with the user in mind. It doesn’t provide television channels, and is neither a cable or satellite provider, nor a broadcaster or network. So TiVo won’t get rid of your existing TV provider, but it will work with whatever you’ve got: cable, satellite, or DSL.

The TiVo service comes with a monthly subscription fee of about US$12.95, but that small price is worth it. You’ll more than make that up in the time you’ll save by using it.

Because you will watch less television with TiVo. When the TV is on, you will watch something you want to watch. No more channel surfing, and you can easily skip commercials—just like VCRs, remember—so the one-hour programs are only about 44 minutes of viewing time.

If you decide to watch a recording of the latest episode of House, you can fast forward, rewind, and pause, just like you would with your archaic video machine. But if you watch it “live” and you’ve missed the opening sequence that sets up the disease of the week, you can simply go back to the beginning without waiting for the machine to finish recording.

The DVR options available from the various Canadian television providers—Bell ExpressVu, Rogers, and Shaw—can all do this. But none has the range of other features you get from TiVo.

The TiVo model currently available in Canada (the 80-hour Series2 DT is $200 at major electronics retailers) is equipped with two tuners, which means that you can record two programs at the same time, while watching a third that’s archived on the hard drive. Or you can watch one show live while the machine records what’s on the other tuner.

The Season Pass feature means you no longer have to record by day, time, and channel (although you can still do this). Instead, search your TiVo for the show title you are looking for, and it automatically records the show, no matter when it airs or on what channel, as well as skipping reruns to avoid 89 episodes of The Simpsons every week. You can also search by actor, or director, or even category.

TiVo can also help you decide what to add to your schedule. By analyzing what you are already recording, and what you tell TiVo you enjoy watching using the simple “Thumbs up!” and “Thumbs down!” buttons, it will suggest what you might enjoy. If you’ve been watching Sex and the City and Brothers & Sisters, TiVo might suggest you try Cashmere Mafia.

And if you’re on the road when you find out about a Planet of the Apes marathon, you can access your TiVo over the Internet, and set the recording remotely. Or copy programs from your TiVo to your computer for archiving on DVD.

However, TiVo is not for everyone. The Series2 model cannot record in high definition, so if you currently get an HD signal from your TV provider, you’ll have to use the provider’s box, or wait until TiVo releases its high-def model in Canada, which could happen later this year.

For those with a typical satellite setup, the dual-tuner feature does not work because you can’t duplicate the signal. You can still use the TiVo to automatically record programs, but you sacrifice the ability to record one show while watching another.

The only problem I’ve had with TiVo is that I keep convincing people to get on the bandwagon, but the rewards program TiVo offers to its community—to encourage conversions—is not available to Canadians. But in the event the company resolves that mistake, make sure to tell them I sent you. I want a pair of those TiVo slippers.

[originally published in Georgia Straight Living]

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Eco-gadgets

Hybrid cars are all the rage, architects and planners are greening the urban landscape, and carbon credits are the new indulgences. Gadgets, too, have gone green. There’s even been a conference on the topic. The Greener Gadgets Conference, held in New York City earlier this month, addressed such topics as design for sustainability, energy efficiency, and greener materials. Here are some gadgets to keep your conscience clear.

Tuning in to turning off

Track how much electricity you’re saving—or identify the electronic toys that are using the most energy—with the PowerCost Monitor. By tapping into your electricity meter, the monitor will show you how much energy—and money—you could save by turning off unneeded appliances and flipping a few light switches. The manufacturer, Blue Line Innovations, claims that users can save between five and 20 percent on their monthly electricity bills, which has to be good. Therefore, it’s a investment at $149.99.

The other vampire slayer

The euphemism for the power used by your gadgets in standby mode is vampire power. Belkin has come up with a new, slim surge protector that works better than garlic in the fight against these vampires. The Conserve has eight outlets, two of which are always on for devices such as modems, while the remaining six turn off at the touch of a remote control, so you won’t have to crawl in the dust behind the entertainment centre to reach the surge protector. The same remote can control multiple Conserves, too. Expect them this summer at major electronics retailers for $55.

Sustainable listening

Fashionation’s Eco-Speakers look like they’ve been fashioned from leftover cardboard boxes. That’s because they are. The three-inch bookshelf speakers, which fold flat for shipping and storage, are made from 100-percent recycled materials, and come in purple, pink, aqua, green, red, or blue, or in eye-catching combinations of red/yellow, purple/blue, and blue/green. The same company also manufactures a colourful range of iPod holders made from organic hemp. The speakers are US$14.95 each.

The answer, my friend, is chargin’ in the wind

Solar power might be great for people who live in more sunny climes, but what is a Wet Coaster to do during those stretches of cloudy, rainy days? The HYmini is a handheld universal charger that turns wind power into electricity. Strap it to your arm while you’re riding your bike through the Endowment Lands, and your cellphone will be charged up by the time you’re done. Wear it while shredding the North Shore slopes and power your iPod the entire time. If the sun does come out, you can accessorize your HYmini with a solar panel to charge devices even faster. A kit including the HYmini, miniSOLAR Panel, and armband is US$69.99.

[originally published in Georgia Straight Living]

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Video game review: Turok


Turok is the first title from Vancouver’s Propaganda Games. A rambunctious re-creation of a character that first appeared more than 50 years ago, the new game is a science-fiction-themed first-person shooter for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360.

You play as Joseph Turok, a Native American former black-ops commando who is part of a mission to apprehend Roland Kane, the leader of Wolf Pack, a rogue commando unit that disappeared three years ago. As a former member of Wolf Pack, Turok doesn’t have many friends in Whiskey Company, his new squad. You don’t know much about his past at the start of the game; you pick up details from flashbacks as you progress.

En route to your destination, your ship is shot down and crash-lands on a planet that happens to be inhabited by dinosaurs. That’s right, dinosaurs, and as one of the loading-screen tips reads: “Dinosaurs eat meat. You are meat. Run away!” As if dinosaurs weren’t enough, you’ll also have to deal with the heavily armed and armoured Wolf Pack troops, who control the planet. And the artificial intelligence controlling your enemies will have them flanking you at every opportunity.

You’ll engage in both melee and firefight combat. While you’ll have access to a variety of automatic weapons, including a few futuristic varieties, you’ll find that you’re plenty dangerous armed with only a knife and a bow. At times, you’ll find yourself in close combat, and pushing the correct button sequence will execute a special knife attack to get you out of trouble.

In addition to the single-player game, there are multiplayer modes, and you can play with up to three friends in cooperative play, in a variation on the single-player story mode.

Turok sports a cinematic look, with dizzying swoop and zoom effects used to smoothly transition between movie and interactive sequences. Not to mention the vertigo that comes from the sense of scale—what seems to be a rock wall at first may turn out to be a giant skull, foreshadowing the types of creatures you’ll confront later in the game. Don’t forget that not only are dinosaurs smart predators, they have the benefit of camouflage in this lush environment. Watch your back. Rated mature.

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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The return of Turok

Propaganda Games was formed three years ago by a group of former Electronic Arts staffers. Within months, it was acquired by Buena Vista Games, now Disney Interactive Studios. In an interview at Propaganda’s Vancouver offices, general manager and vice president Josh Holmes said the company had been working on an original concept for a third-person action game, but scrapped it when it won the right to develop the new Turok video game for Touchstone, a Disney brand.

The first Turok game—1997’s Turok: Dinosaur Hunter for the Nintendo 64—was one of the earliest first-person shooters produced for console gaming systems. Turok first appeared in a 1954 comic book in a story by Gaylord DuBois, who was known for writing outdoor-adventure comics about such characters as Tarzan, Roy Rogers, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. Turok changed over the years, depending on who was using him and for what purpose, but one thing has remained constant: Turok is a Native American.

“Reimagining is in vogue in entertainment today,” game director Joel Manners said. He cited Batman Begins and Battlestar Galactica as good examples of how characters have been reinvented. “There are really good stories that need to be retold in a way that is relevant to today,” Manners said. “There’s nothing irrelevant about dinosaurs,” which feature prominently in the new Turok game.

The development team was acutely aware that its protagonist was aboriginal. “It means a lot,” admitted Manners, “and it doesn’t mean anything.” The game, he explained, doesn’t make a point about heritage; it makes a point about heroism. In an effort to avoid clichés and stereotypes, Manners said, they simply treated the characters and the story with respect. “When you justify a character because of their heritage,” he said, “you have to be cautious.

“The fact that Turok is of one heritage or another is not important,” Manners continued. “He’s a hero. The heroism that he is displaying comes from his heritage, but it’s something anyone is capable of.”

Manners said the development group talked about other game genres in early meetings, but never seriously considered them. “The first-person perspective lends an intimacy. Having dinosaurs coming at you is central to the feeling of terror. It’s not as scary when you see creatures jumping on someone else.”

Propaganda, which increased its staff as it developed Turok, now employs about 150 people. Holmes said that in recent months, they’ve been organizing the company into two teams, and they’re already in preproduction on their next two titles, one of which is an action role-playing game. “We’d like to get to a point where we’ve got two games in production and one in concept,” he said. Propaganda won’t get much bigger than 200 employees, though, an optimal size for the studio, according to Holmes.

[originally published in the Georgia Straight]

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Puzzle Quest takes to space


I’ve lost more hours to Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords than I’m willing to admit. While my wife was in labour for twelve hours, though, the game was a godsend.

It’s a curious blend of puzzle gaming - like Bejeweled - and RPG gaming - like old-skool Final Fantasy - that has really made the most of genre-blending.

I’ve been playing PQ on my PSP - it was also created for the DS - but when the game’s publisher, D3Publisher, realized they had a sleeper hit on their hands, they wisely ported it to PS2 and on Xbox LIVE Arcade, too.

Well, D3 has just announced that the popular game is becoming a franchise with the release of Puzzle Quest: Galactrix.

This new game takes puts the hexagonal puzzle pieces and places them in a science fiction, space-aged context. The board, the publishers said in a release, “heeds to gravity according to a player’s location in the game universe.” Sounds like a new and interesting mechanic to me.

The new game is scheduled for release this fall, and will be available on Xbox LIVE Arcade, PC, and the Nintendo DS.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

“Deep Red” PSP announced


Releasing this June is a new red PlayStation Portable. It’s a beauty, actually. Nice red enamel and on the back a silkscreen of Kratos, the protagonist of the God of War franchise.

It’s part of a package that includes the PSP, a copy of the game Chains of Olympus, Kratos' first appearance on PSP, the movie Superbad on UMD, and a voucher to download the PSP game Syphon Filter: Combat Ops onto a Memory Stick. The God of War package deal has a MSRP of Cdn$199.99.

God of War: Chains of Olympus, the new PSP game starring Kratos, will be available on March 4 for those of you already in possession of a PSP system.

In related PlayStation news, Sony has come up with a PS3 bundle for late Q2 that includes an 80GB PS3, a new Dualshock 3 wireless controller, and a copy of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for only Cdn$499 (suggested).

The Dualshock 3 game pad combines the rumble feature of the old PS2 controllers with the motion-sensing Sixaxis technology. They will be available in April for Cdn$54.95.

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Friday, February 22, 2008

GDC 2008: That's a wrap

Well, the 2008 edition of the Game Developers Conference has come to an end, and I'm signing off from San Francisco. I'll be hanging about for a couple of days to enjoy this beautiful city before heading back to Vancouver to start getting up to speed on what's coming out from the local video game developers this year.

I hope you appreciated, if not enjoyed, my coverage of this year's conference. Feel free to loiter around the comments to provide me with feedback or to discuss anything that came out of the seminars.

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GDC 2008: Portal post-mortem

One of the interesting things to do with video-game development is to look back at those games that succeeded, deconstructing them in an attempt to figure out what the designers threw into the crucible that made the project a success.

We can do the same with failures, but that’s too depressing. Much more fun to focus on the positive.

It’s somehow fitting that my final GDC 2008 session was an opportunity to hear the creators of Portal, the best game of 2007, talk about what went into its creation.

As with so many of the seminars this year, the room was packed full, with interested attendees swirled around the outside of the room.

Portal was a sleeper hit. It leveraged the fact that it was packaged with the Xbox 360 Orange Box edition of Valve’s Half-Life 2: Episode 2 games to became a veritable pop culture phenomenon.

From the popularity of the companion cube to the mainstream airplay of the game’s closing theme song, “Still Alive” (written by musician Jonathan Coulton), by the end of 2007, Portal was everywhere you looked.

In the GDC session, level designer and team lead Kim Swift and writer Erik Wolpaw talked about how they were able to create a narrative in a game with only two characters and one-sided dialogue.

Portal was developed by a team of anywhere between five and ten people, and Swift and Wolpaw both agreed that the story from the game wouldn’t go very far on its own, nor would the gameplay be much when separated from the story. “It would be a race to see which would fail first on their own,” said Swift.

The thing that really seemed to drive Portal to be what it became, they both said, were the constraints. Restricted time, people, and resources forced them to come up with creative solutions to problems.

Wolpaw outlined the philosophy upon which Portal’s narrative was based. “Games tell two stories,” he said. The first is the story story that is told with cutscenes and dialogue, and the second is the gameplay story, which is the story told by what the player does.

Swift and Wolpaw also stressed the importance of playtesting to Portal’s final cut. Bringing in gamers to try the game and provide feedback was something they did early on, and Swift said it was invaluable to refining the game as it was developed..

When asked how they planned to overcome the challenge of not having the same constraints in developing Portal 2, assuming that a greater budget will be afforded to them, Wolpaw joked, “I’m content to bask in the moment without people bugging me about the next one.”

We do know, however, that there will be more Portal coming. Valve has promised. I can hardly wait.

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GDC 2008: Featuring Fable 2

Lionhead Studios’ Peter Molyneux has a storied life in video game development. His video game, Fable, was a next-gen game before next-gen consoles existed, and made inroads into the idea that the decisions and choices players made could have an impact on the story that was being told to them.

While Molyneux wasn’t able to get Fable to do everything he had hoped, he’s been talking up the sequel for a while, and claiming that it would be able to do some of the things - and more - that he wasn’t able to do with the first game. In part because he is well aware that gamers were disappointed that Fable wasn’t able to do all it claimed to.

Today, as GDC was winding down, Molyneux packed a ballroom with about 750 people who wanted to hear him explain the main features of Fable II.

The talk was originally titled as “The big three features revealed” but Molyneux’s title card for his presentation was amended to read “Three big features revealed / Actually its [sic] four now.”

Quite simply, the big features that will be in Fable II are:

  • drama: consequences to player action and behaviour
  • combat: simple, one-button combat that anyone can play and enjoy
  • co-op: participate in other people’s games as a henchman to gain experience, gold, and renown that you can then apply to your game

The one interesting tidbit that Molyneux left us with is that about six hours into Fable II, “you will walk into the room and someone will ask you to do something, and you’ll have to sacrifice something so precious to you as a gamer that you’ll put down the controller and think about it.”

He did not, however, reveal the fourth feature before his time ran out.

Fable II is scheduled for release this year, and will be available exclusively on Xbox 360.

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GDC 2008: Game designers rant

Perhaps the most interesting and thought-provoking session at the Game Developers Conference is the annual rant. Each year, a group of people who work in game development get together and spout off about a particular them.

This year’s theme was the state of game design, and it was a solid hour of passion as the panelists took their eight minutes of time to bear their soul about the topic.

Clint Hocking - who it may seem like I am stalking this year, but I’m not. Not really - went on about how the problem in the video game industry is not creative stagnation, but a lack of courage to create games that challenge people.

Jane McGonigal implored designers to start making the real world as wonderful as they make virtual worlds.

Jenova Chen thinks that mature games need to be made for the crop of aging gamers, and he’s not talking about sex and violence.

Daniel James believes that the virtual can shape the real.

The best rant - or at least the most intriguing - came from Jonathan Mak. He had everybody in the room, some 600 people, standing up and batting balloons around the room to a pop guitar soundtrack playing over the PA. I’m not sure what his point was, but it was a dramatic - and fun - expression for everyone.

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Future Shop’s Winter Escape Sale


Future Shop decided to have an impromptu sale. Among the things that will be cheaper for at least the next week are iPods, laptops, cameras and camcorders, televisions, and some sweet home theatre packages.

Oh, yeah, all Xbox 360 packages are $50 cheaper. That’s not just a sale price, either, but are new price points for the game consoles. And for a limited time, each Xbox 360 console sold comes with a copy of Turok.

Get out there and fight some dinosaurs.

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GDC 2008: New ways of telling a story

The first Far Cry, developed by Crytek, was a breathtaking display of technical ability and photorealistic graphics. It was published by Ubisoft, which then snapped up the franchise.

I expect Far Cry 2 to be far superior to the first game because of the people involved. Clint Hocking is the creative director on the project, and Patrick Redding is the narrative designer. These two guys think about the creation of video games four levels above what I’m capable of.

In a presentation this morning, Redding explained that their objective, with Far Cry 2, is to create an open world game in which players have the freedom to explore all spaces in the game, whether they are virtual spaces, systems, or the realm of humanity. It sounds like big-brain stuff and it is, but what it amounts to is that these guys are going to make meaning for a player come through in the mechanics of the game.

The idea here is that as human beings we impart story onto events and we imbue character into animated objects such as people and even animals. The Far Cry 2 team intends to let those characteristics work to their benefit.

So rather than tell a linear story, Redding said, they’ve taken a story and broken it into smaller chunks that can then be presented to the player in any order. In the literary world this is called a “shuffle text,” and what it gives an audience is the opportunity to get the same information in any order, and still be able to get meaning out of the experience.

It also means that every experience will be different, depending on the order in which you are presented with the chunks of story, and the meaning you impart onto the events and the characters.

And you’ll still get to shoot guns and blow stuff up.

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GDC 2008: Will Wright in person

Will Wright has been conspicuously absent from the media spotlight in the past couple of years. A media comrade and I were speculating as to exactly why this might be happening while we waited for Wright to come on stage last night. We decided we didn't know why he's been so hermit-like.

Electronic Arts, the publisher of Wright’s games, staged this exclusive party at a San Francisco nightclub as a chance to get everyone together for a party, duh, but also to give Wright a chance to do a public event. He did not disappoint.

In his 40-minute talk, Wright ranged from Star Wars to James Bond to Gilligan’s Island to Godzilla to Walt Disney. His central theme was talking about “worlds,” his word for franchise or brand or entertainment property.

In the middle of it all was a “Russian Space Minute” in which Wright told us the incredible story of a failed Soviet rocket launch.

What Wright did not talk about, though, was Spore, except to mention it as an example of something he had worked on.

At the end of his entertaining ramble, what Wright left us with is that “the value of worlds and play experiences is they help us refine our world view.”

For Wright, the best worlds (and therefore the best stories) can be deconstructed. In this way, they lead to play. The example Wright gave was the thought experiment in which you wonder which would win a battle between the Death Star, a Cylon Battlestar, and a Borg cube.

The other side of this is that the best play is generative, and therefore leads to a myriad of stories that can be told.

Bringing this all together means that worlds/story leads to play, which leads to worlds and story, in this precious and neverending cycle.

Spore, by the way, will be available for PC, Mac, and Nintendo DS on September 7.

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GDC 2008: Partaking of Prototype


Vancouver’s Radical Entertainment is working on a new video game that promises to reinvent open-world or sandbox games.

Producer Tim Bennison and lead designer Eric Holmes (pictured here at the promotional party for Prototype on Thursday night) took an hour to show off not only the key features of their new game, but also give attendees a glimpse at how they’ve gone about creating a completely new intellectual property.

Prototype is set in New York, and Holmes has made the city a character of sorts. This is a New York that we will all recognize, and Holmes said it was important for this story to be grounded and real. “There’s something disturbing about setting it in a real setting,” he explained. “It’s real but fantastic at the same time.”

Bennison talked about how so many games these days are doing a good job of making the same games better or by giving us more of what we’ve already seen. He’s trying to get his Prototype team to give gamers more and better.

You’ll be playing as Alex Mercer, a man with no memories but the incredible ability to be able to shape-shift and to absorb biomass, including people. As Alex absorbs people he gains all their memories and skills, as well as the ability to mimic the appearance of that person.

Did I mention that New York has been infected with a virus? Bad news.

Alex - and you - learn the story by absorbing the memories of people who have knowledge of your past. At the same time, you’ll be roaming through a New York that is familiar and horrific at the same time.

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GDC 2008: All about immersion

Clint Hocking is one of the best speakers to present at GDC. For (I think) every year in the past seven he’s had something interesting to talk about. And his style of speaking is dynamic, funny, and fascinating.

In the past year, it seems, Hocking’s been thinking about what is required for a game player to feel immersed in the experience. Referencing the seminal book Hamlet on the Holodeck, the games Trespasser and Guitar Hero, and lots of original Star Trek references, Hocking zipped through a look at how to classify immersion, and how to think about enhancing it for gamers.

Hocking differentiates between “sensual immersion,” which he likens to the emotional and affective sensation of being surrounded by an environment. This kind of immersion is typified by films, in which we can all get lost, and it was attempted by the developers of Trespasser, a video game that claimed it was going to be the most immersive game ever, and was based on the Jurassic Park films.

The other type of immersion, for Hocking, is “rational immersion,” which refers to the fugue state we enter when we are trying to learn a new task, or are making our brain work hard. This kind of immersion is exemplified by chess, for example, or by learning to be a Guitar Hero.

Hocking believes that getting both forms of immersion to work together is critical, because that will be the moment at which “games will be to film what film today is to radio.”

If you ever have the privilege of attending GDC, make sure you keep a spot open for a Hocking presentation. He’s one of the best shows in town.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

GDC 2008: Why you should learn mathematics

Because Ray Kurzweil says that we’ve been drawing linear graphs when all along we should have been drawing logarithmic graphs and he’s right.

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GDC 2008: Constructing the environments for Halo 3

Mike Zak has a BFA from UVic, and has been working on Halo environments since he joined Bungie halfway through the production of Halo 2. He was the environmental art lead for Halo 3, and in a session this morning, described how he and the team of artists with which he works came up with the breathtaking worlds.

Zak used one specific mission as a case study for his talk: The Storm. This mission happens fairly early in the game, and starts with Master Chief being told he needs to prevent the Covenant from activating the Ark. The mission ends when the Ark is activated, the portal opens, the Covenant escapes, and the Flood-infested ship crashes to Earth.

Besides showing off incredible concept art and preproduction sketches, Zak walked through an interesting breakdown of the level and articulated a few things he and his team were looking at when creating the environments.

“The Hook” refers to having a strong layout concept that makes the space unique, but is also easy for a player to see and navigate, while suggesting to them a tactic they might use.

“Scale” refers to getting an early sense of the size of things, which helps determine how large the space for the level needs to be. The sense of capacity, then, will help determine budget and AI requirements for building the level.

“Combat elements,” or “encounter design for laymen,” refers to the need to build a space with fronts (including safe territories for retreat), layers (in terms of basements and balconies), and blinds (for both AI and players to exploit, and includes cover).

Finally, “movement elements,” refers to how the player can traverse the space, including shortcuts, one-way paths, and ninja paths (in which the player has a distinct advantage).

I interviewed Zak for a Georgia Straight cover feature on Halo 3 last fall. This morning he told me that he’s sketching for a new project, but could not reveal a hint of what it was. Sorry.

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GDC 2008: How to write and design epic games

Ken Rolston’s career as a game designer started with pencil and paper role-playing games such as Advanced Dungeons and Dragons and RuneQuest. He transitioned into video games and was the lead designer on Morrowind and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.

After retiring (for “About a week,” joked Mark Nelson), Rolston returned to the video game industry to work with Big Huge Games. Appropriate, then, that his presentation at GDC 2008 was about how to write and design “vast narratives.”

Rolston was joined by Mark Nelson, who’s been working with Rolston since Morrowind, and who is now the lead narrative designer on an as-yet-unnamed role-playing game for Big Huge Games.

They talked about the tension between them as each believes that different aspects of story are most important. Rolston believes in setting, tone, and theme, while Nelson stakes his philosophy on story and character.

In the end, the two of them admitted that all components of story are important, but what differs is when those elements are most important to the development of a game.

Setting and theme, which - once established - are static, should be put in place early on in the process, and character and story, which are dynamic and can change more quickly, become important later in development.

What they both agree on, though, is that vast narratives, like Morrowind and Oblivion, are interesting despite the challenges they create.

I’m curious to know what their next big huge game is going to be.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

GDC 2008: A note on the game of the year award

Last week, in my “Trigger Happy” column in the Georgia Straight, I wrote about how I believed that Super Mario Galaxy, while a very playable game, did not deserve a nomination for game of the year, and that Mass Effect was spurned by being left off the list of game of the year noms.

Tonight during the Game Developers Choice Awards, the five game of the year nominees - BioShock, Portal, Call of Duty 4, Super Mario Galaxy, and Rock Band - were announced throughout the evening. Then, at the end of the show, just before the winner was about to be announced, short clips of each of the nominees were played.

But here’s the thing. A clip of Mass Effect was played in place of Call of Duty 4.

Make of it what you will.

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GDC 2008: GDC award night


Award night at the Game Developers Conference is a slick and quick affair (thankfully, given that most of us have been on our feet for 12 hours by the time the awards happen). A whole whack of prizes get handed out in a scant two hours. You know what really stands out when you watch a video game award show? Short acceptance speeches. No big egos here, just big talent.

Game Developers Choice Awards

The video game industry relishes these awards, because the winners are decided by those who work in the business. Winning a GDC Award is getting a pat on the back from the entire industry. It amounts to having all the other game designers say, “I loved playing your game.”

You can get the complete list of nominees here, but here are the games and developers that took home Choice Awards this year:

Best Game Design
Portal
developed and published by Valve

Best Debut Game
Crackdown
developed by Realtime Worlds, published by Microsoft Game Studios

Best Audio
BioShock
developed by 2K Boston and 2K Australia, published by 2K Games

Best Downloadable Game
flOw
developed by thatgamecompany, published by Sony Computer Entertainment

Best Technology
Crysis
developed by Crytek, published by Electronic Arts

Innovation Award
Portal
developed and published by Valve

Best Visual Arts
BioShock
developed by 2K Boston and 2K Australia, published by 2K Games

Best Handheld Game
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass
developed and published by Nintendo

Best Writing
BioShock
developed by 2K Boston and 2K Australia, published by 2K Games

Game of the Year
Portal
developed and published by Valve
(pictured above are the developers and publisher, from left to right: Realm Lovejoy, Kim Swift, Gabe Newell, and Eric Wolpaw)

Lifetime Achievement Award
Sid Meier

Pioneer Award
Ralph Baer
This guy is the father of video gaming. He got a deserved standing ovation.

Ambassador Award
Jason Della Rocca

Independent genius

The GDC Awards are always prefaced by the Independent Games Festival Awards, which recognize independent game development. One of last year’s big winners was Toronto’s Jon Mak, creator of Everyday Shooter, now available as a PlayStation Network game for the PS3.

This year, the awards went to:

Seumas McNally Grand Prize
Crayon Physics Deluxe
developed by Kloonigames

Best Web Browser Game
Iron Dukes
developed by One Ton Ghost

Technical Excellence
World of Goo
developed by 2D Boy

Design Innovation Award
World of Goo
developed by 2D Boy

Excellence in Visual Art
Fez
developed by Kokoromi

Excellence in Audio
Audiosurf
developed by Invisible Handlebar

Audience Award
Audiosurf
developed by Invisible Handlebar

Best Student Game
Synaesthete
developed by Rolling Without Slipping, DigiPen Institute

Note, too, that you can still play most of the indie games for free over here.

The new Gleemax Awards for Strategic Gameplay were handed out by Gleemax, the new online gamer community started by Wizards of the Coast. Cash prizes went to:
bronze: Quadradius
silver: Skyrites
grand prize: Desktop Tower Defense

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GDC 2008: Stories best played

Richard Rouse is tired of people saying that video games are not a good medium for telling stories. He believes that “best game storytelling can stand up to storytelling in any other medium.”

Rouse, of Paranoid Productions, invited Valve’s Marc Laidlaw, Blue Fang’s Steve Meretzky, and Big Huge Games’ Ken Rolston to talk about what is the best storytelling in video games.

Each panelist chose two games that they felt demonstrated how video game storytelling is worthy of attention.

Their list includes:

  • Loom (1990)
  • Thief (1998)
  • Torment (1999)
  • BioShock (2006)
  • Fool’s Errand (1987)
  • Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
  • Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney (2001 in Japan, 2005 in North America)
  • Ico (2001)

In deliberating what games should be on the list, the panelists talked about a bunch of other titles they recommend looking at. Rouse said he planned on putting that list online sometime this weekend.

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GDC 2008: Help wanted

The annual Game Developer Conference is really about the business of making video games, as opposed to being about the games themselves.

For example, during my walk through the North Hall at San Francisco’s Moscone Conference Center, where the event is held, there are displays for technology firms promoting their middleware software and hardware developers showing off the technology that can make playing games a better experience.

There are also numerous country pavilions encouraging coverage of the developers in their area as well as trying to drum up business to be sent their way. “Come develop games in Germany! Look at the great games coming from Norway!”

More important to the video game industry, though, are the number of post-secondary education institutions that are present here. DeVry and the Art Institutes are here, as is Vancouver Film School.

In speaking with the game developers, the one thing they all have in common - aside from wanting to have a hit game - is they all are in dire need of staff. If you have any inclination to work in the industry, to get a job making video games, get that application in now.

They need you.

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GDC 2008: Deconstructing BioShock

Ken Levine, from 2K Games Irrational studio in Boston, has a reputation for being a bit brusque. He’s a man of clearly formed opinions, and he isn’t timid about sharing those ideas. Nor does he have any patience for those who may not share his viewpoint, it seems.

In demoing BioShock at E3 last year, Levine was quick, short, and blunt. He seemed like he needed to be somewhere else. It turns out, he did, because, he admitted during his presentation, they were making changes to BioShock right up until the last minute.

His talk, bright and early at 9 a.m. on the first day of the conference, was entitled, “Storytelling in Bioshock: How to empower gamers to care about your stupid story.” He was scheduled in one of the larger conference rooms, and despite the early hour, a nearly 1,000 people had crammed in the room to hear what he had to say.

“I pissed off some people on this project,” Levine admitted, “because my story came very late.” Levine likens the writing of a video game to any other process that goes into development, and he thinks that the development cycle needs to accommodate last-minute changes to the story in the same way a decision may be made at the last-minute to change a spawn point.

Levine also talked about how the thing that made BioShock such a great storytelling game was the fact that he had stripped out all the storytelling from the game, and instead used the gameplay to develop a narrative. “As time went on,” he explained, “we made our story simpler.”

It’s counterintuitive, because you’d expect the story in a game to get bigger over time, but Levine said that BioShock didn’t find itself until he had initiated the “Great Character Massacre of 2006” and gotten rid of any extraneous characters.

What’s important, said Levine, is to remember “Storytelling 101”: “Who are your main characters and what do they want?”

It’s a subtle, but important distinction, differentiating between story and narrative, and for Levine, the best narrator in a video game is the world. “The thing we render best in video games is the world,” he said. “The benefits of graphics have enabled us to create detailed worlds,” that can then take the responsibility for telling the story.

Maybe Levine isn’t the horror we’ve heard about, and is simply misunderstood. Maybe not.

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GDC 2008: At the beginning

Well, after a six-hour delay, I finally rolled into San Francisco late last night. It's raining with apocalyptic fervor here, which reminds me fondly of Vancouver in February. Not that I was coming to San Francisco to be reminded of home, but ...

I've now settled in at the Press Room provided here at GDC, and in about two minutes will be heading off to attend a talk given by Ken Levine, the brains behind Bioshock.

I'll be back a little later to let you know what interesting things he has to say. Tonight, the GDC Awards get handed out. I'll be there, and I'll let you know how that goes, too.

Let me know if there's anything you want me to try and get the inside scoop on.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

HD DVD calls it quits

In a press release, Toshiba, the driving force behind the HD DVD high-def optical disk format, has announced it will stop promoting and marketing HD DVD products, including players and movies, for which it had been performing mastering tasks.

The format war is over, people. Blu-ray Disc wins this one.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Opening title sequences


Great piece on CBC.ca today by Martin Morrow, looking at what he calls a revivial of title sequences in feature films.

Even better is the link to a website I've not seen before: Forget the Film, Watch the Titles, where you can watch the opening credits for such films as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Thank You For Smoking, and Existenz.

Not there, yet, is Se7en, which is one of the best opening sequences ever. Any others that you'd like to be able to watch over and over again?

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GDC 2008

I'm heading to San Francisco tomorrow for the annual Game Developers Conference. While some channels of the conference - mobile and serious games - are already underway, I focus my energies on the last part of the week, when commercial video game developers get together and talk about just what goes into making the games we love to play.

I'll be blogging from the show over the next few days, so stay tuned and check back regularly for exclusive news and reports from GDC 2008.

I'll be attending the GDC Awards on Wednesday night, and the Ray Kurzweil keynote speech on Thursday (the title of his talk? "The Next 20 Years of Gaming"), and I've got invites to a private party with Will Wright and the big Prototype bash.

Should be fun.

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Depp, Farrell, and Law taking over for Ledger


Heath Ledger's untimely death sent the bizarre and wonderful Terry Gilliam into a bit of a tailspin.

Ledger, who was at his home in New York when he accidentally overdosed on prescription medication, was on a short break from the filming of Gilliam's new film, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. The film had been shooting in London, England, and was moving to Vancouver to complete principle photography.

Gilliam, though, has quickly reimagined his script, in which "Tony," the character played by Ledger, uses a mirror to transport into different dimensions.

As reported by CinemaSpy.ca and Ain't It Cool News, instead of his original plan, to have Ledger portray "Tony" in the other dimensions, Gilliam has cast Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law as the incarnations of "Tony" that appear in the other dimensions.

It's a brilliant idea that salvages something - hopefully - wonderful out of a true tragedy. The trio who have, essentially, agreed to portray incarnations of Ledger, are the best choices that could have been made. Good for them for taking on what is likely a difficult task, and in so doing honouring Ledger at the same time.

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Saturday, February 16, 2008

News Flash: Family Guy's MacFarlane funny in person

I was at the 2008 Canadian Awards for the Electronic and Animated Arts - the Elans - last night. Last year's affair was hosted by William Shatner. This year we were treated to Seth MacFarlane, creator and writer of Family Guy (he also performs many of the voices for the show, including Peter, Stewie, and Brian).

MacFarlane launched into a 30-minute monologue to open the show, and he proved to be as funny a stand-up as he is as an animated satirical television show writer.

Riffing on how Canada is different from the United States - "everything that we do wrong, Canada does right" - MacFarlane also demonstrated that he is not afraid to push a few buttons. Not that that is a surprise to anyone who's a fan of his show. He joked about Heath Ledger, AIDS, and Jesus Christ ("it's time for America to invent a new imaginary friend").

He's clearly taken with our country, though, saying that he's from Hollywood, the land of movie making, but it was nice to be in Vancouver where they actually make the movies. He also said that his asking price for hosting the show was $100,000, which was only about 400 Canadian dollars.

What I didn't know about MacFarlane was how talented an impersonator he is. Given his ability as a voice actor, it doesn't come as a complete surprise, but his Michael J. Fox, circa Back to the Future, was uncanny. He's a passable Bryan Adams, Bill Cosby, and Bob Hope, too.

How about that exclusive?

I had the chance to interview MacFarlane before the show began. I asked him why he used his own voice for the character of Brian, the dog in Family Guy. He said that originally, it was because it was the most opposite to the voice he had come up with for Peter. "There's always a character, from a writing standpoint," he continued, "that you kind of model after yourself in a lot of ways, and Brian is probably the closest."

So Brian, then, is Seth. As an animated dog.

As for the pointing monkey in Chris' closet? "It's an easy way out of a scene," he said.

I finished my three-minute interview by asking him how his broadway musical was coming along. "It's still on the drawing board," he said. And the novel? "The novel is non-existent, I don't know who you've been talking to."

I'm not sure it was in the script, but MacFarlane ended his opening monologue with the bit where Stewie is making fun of Brian's attempt to be a novelist.

The awards went to . . .

In terms of the awards handed out to Canadian-made video games, BioWare's Mass Effect was the big winner, snaking best character, best writing, best art direction, best game design, and game of the year.

Relic Entertainment's Company of Heroes took the prizes for outstanding innovation in gaming and best PC game, Slant Six's SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs: Tactical Strike took best handheld game of the year, and Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed was awarded best console game and best original music score.

The end of it all

MacFarlane ended the show with a song and dance number. In the 100th episode of Family Guy, "Stewie Kills Lois," the writers and producers planned a musical number in which
Stewie, when he's President of the United States, sings about everyone who is on his "list," and who, therefore, had better watch out. The bit was cut at the last minute to get the episode down to time, and will end up as a special feature on an upcoming DVD release, but last night MacFarlane performed it live.

The video screen projected the fully-animated scene, and the soundtrack was missing Stewie's voice track, so MacFarlane - as Stewie - sang along with the video.

A priceless end to an amazing performance by MacFarlane and all the award nominees and winners.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

So much for Super Mario Galaxy

It's a very playable game, but I just don't think that Super Mario Galaxy was a groundbreaking enough game to warrant a game of the year nomination for the Game Developers Choice Awards.

At the same time, I think not giving Mass Effect a game of the year nod is a travesty.

I covered this in much greater detail in my "Trigger Happy" column in last week's Georgia Straight, and it seems that some Straight readers are taking issue with my opinion. They are actually leaving comments taking me to task about it.

Of course, the people speaking up so far are clearly fans of the game, which is par for the course when it comes to anyone being critical of Nintendo or their Italian plumber.

But there has to be someone out there who agrees with me, right?

Anyone?

Monday, February 11, 2008

When your TV show will return

It looks like the film and television writers in the U.S. - who account for a great deal of entertainment north of the 49th - will be heading back to work on Wednesday. Yup, looks like the strike is over.

And while the writers haven't ratified the contract, I'm with the members of the WGA who feel that while it's not a perfect deal, it's a pretty good deal.

Assuming that everything gets back underway - it will never be back to normal; television is changed forever - I came up with a rundown of when the various network shows are going to be back on air.

You can get the complete list over at CinemaSpy.ca. The networks listed are the American networks, but most of the shows are available in Canada on either the American feeds from Canadian cable providers, or from the Canadian broadcasters who have the rights to particular shows. Lost, for example, airs on CTV in Canada. House airs on Global.

So check your local listings.

I'm disappointed that Chuck isn't likely to be back until fall. What are you going to miss most? What won't you miss at all (Bionic Woman!)?

Related note: Battlestar Galactica returns on April 4.

Lost returns from the brink

I nearly gave up on Lost last season, but, like most people, the switch to flash forwards in the season three finale hooked me again.

Now that season four is underway, it seems that we'll be seeing more flash forwards. For those who have studied directing legend Alfred Hitchcock, this is a smart move. Certainly I'm interested again.

My look at Lost, season four, is the topic of this week's "Remote View" column over at CinemaSpy.ca.

Anyone else have thoughts about the first couple of episodes of season four? In particular, were the flashes in episode two flashbacks, or flash forwards?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Writers rewarded for work on video game

Dead Head Fred writers Dave Ellis and Adam Cogan have been presented with the first ever Writers Guild Award for video game writing.

Dead Head Fred is a PSP game about Fred, a private investigator, who is looking into the affairs of businessman Ulysses S. Pitt. Pitt claims to be the saviour of the people, but is actually rotten to the core. He cottons to Fred, though, and Fred ends up dead.

And beheaded.

A scientist in Pitt’s employ preserves Fred’s eyes and brain and reanimates his corpse in the hope that Fred can turn the tables on the bad apple.

Fred’s new head is nothing more than his brain and eyes floating in a jar, but he collects other heads - including a corpse head that can spew fluids that it’s sucked up and a stone head that can break through walls - and Fred is able to swap one head for another depending on the situation he finds himself in.

Rated mature, Dead Head Fred is hindered by long loading times, uninspired level design, and terrible gameplay mechanics, but there are two elements of the game that are great: writing and voice work.

The main character, Fred, is voiced by John C. McGinley and the main antagonist, Ulysses S. Pitt, is performed by Jon Polito. They make the game.

Therefore, the writers of the game deserve recognition, because without their witty dialogue, there would have been nothing clever for McGinley and Polito to say.

Congrats to Ellis and Cogan. And to all the other writers who were nominated, who also deserve the recognition for their hard work.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Firefly novel released

Steven Brust is a favourite author of mine.

Firefly, the television show created by Joss Whedon is a favourite of mine.

What to do when two favourites comes together? Rejoice, silly.

My Own Kind of Freedom is a fanfic novel written by Brust and set in the Firefly universe. Brust has released the novel under a Creative Commons license, which makes it free to download and share, as long as it's done so free from commercial purposes.

So I'm sharing. Download My Own Kind of Freedom.

I haven't read it, yet. Wanted to make sure I was spreading the word, first. But I've read many Brust books, and have no qualms in recommending Freedom before having read it myself.

For those of you not familiar with Brust, he's the author of a bunch of books, but notably the series of fantasy novels about Vlad Taltos, assassin and gourmet cook. Brust has a delightful sense of humour and a flare for witty dialogue, but is able to convey these things even while being deep and serious.

He's actually the perfect writer to novelize Firefly because the tone that Whedon created for that television show - funny and melancholy at the same time - is something Brust has been doing in his books all along.

Off you go, then. Download, read, and come back and let me know what you think. I'll post my own thoughts after I've had time to read it myself, which will probably be in July. Something to look forward to.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Handheld Xbox still a possibility?

There've always been rumours floating around that Microsoft had a portable, handheld Xbox in the works, something to compete with the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP.

For a while, it was thought that the Zune might be this device, but now that we've seen the Zune - most have been unimpressed - we know it is not in the same market segment as the DS or PSP. And, it should be noted, Microsoft has always denied it had a portable game system in the works.

Well, in an on-stage interview with New York Times video game reporter Seth Schiesel, Shane Kim, corporate VP of Microsoft Game Studios added some fuel to the perpetual motion machine that is Xbox Portable.

When Shiesel asked about Microsoft's plans for a portable gaming device, Kim said:
Never say never ... launching a portable device is like launching another Xbox 360 ... you have to really step back and ask, devoting whatever bandwidth and resources you would have to to make the Zune a multifunction device, is that really the best way to go?

So maybe the Zune is going to be a gaming gadget after all. The Zune seems to be having troubles getting traction against the iPod, so maybe this is how Microsoft tries to keep the device relevant.

Anyone out there used a Zune? Let us know what it's like in the comments.