Tuesday, July 16, 2013

An Early History of Shin Megami Tensei in America

Many players were introduced to the world of Shin Megami Tensei thanks to the critical and commercial success of Persona 3 and Persona 4. In these declining years of the JRPG both games were a high water mark of elegant and original game design. However, while they were mainstream breakthroughs, the games were only a small part of long running and strangely esoteric saga.

The Shin Megami Tensei series got its start back in 1987 with a Japanese RPG called Digital Devil Monogatari: Megami Tensei, which could be translated as “Digital Devil Story: Goddess Reincarnation.” Based on a series of novels by Aya Nishitani, the game was first published by NAMCO for the MSX computer and later that year on Nintendo’s Famicom. A sequel followed and then Atlus took over publishing the series.

Subsequent games added the word Shin to the title, which is read in Japanese as “true/genuine” but is also homonymous with “new.” In the years since, Atlus has made Shin Megami Tensei a cornerstone of their business, releasing a bewildering assortment of remakes, sequels, side stories, and spin-offs. However, prior to Persona 3 only a handful of these games received English language releases.

America got its first taste of the Shin Megami Tensei series in 1996 when Atlus brought Persona over. It was one of the PlayStation’s early RPGs and the game was unusual for its contemporary, urban setting that was far removed from the fantasy worlds that most other RPGs inhabited. Its “dungeons” were shopping malls and schools that were explored from a first person perspective and Persona’s “world map” was a middle-class Tokyo neighborhood, complete with crosswalks and subways.

In other respects, Persona stuck close to well-established RPG conventions. It had a party of intrepid adventurers, magic, swords, monsters, and a lot of turn-based combat. Fighting was enlivened by the ability to parley with enemies in order to wheedle items from them or avoid combat altogether and characters had the ability to transform into powerful “Persona” entities. Despite its unique presentation, Persona was a slow and somewhat tedious game that involved a great deal of stat management. Persona was also marginalized by a sloppy translation and awkward changes to its content made by Atlus in an effort to make the game more appealing to a Western audience.

Four years later Atlus gave America a much more successful (at least artistically) sequel to Persona called Persona 2: Eternal Punishment. Although the translation remained dodgy and its graphics were well behind the curve for a game arriving at the end of the PlayStation’s life span, Person 2: Eternal Punishment was a complex and mysterious RPG, filled with interesting characters and a distinctly grown-up story.

Eternal Punishment was actually the second part of a two game series, the first being Persona 2: Innocent Sin, a game that was never released outside of Japan. However, it stood well on its own and was packed with enough content to keep players busy for many, many hours. Once again set in a modern, slightly sci-fi, urban environment, Person 2 took a darker path, with serial killers, demons, and a satanic mega-corporation lurking behind an urban veneer of steel and glass, air-conditioned normality. Persona 2 was also noteworthy for featuring as its main characters adults with jobs and responsibilities. Perhaps the long-running success of the Shin Megami Tensei series can be attributed to a willingness to grow along with its audience.

Longtime Shin Megami Tensei producer Cozy Okada left Atlus in 2003 to form a new studio called GAIA (which went on to create two PSP games before closing up shop in 2010). However, before leaving he oversaw the development of Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne for the PlayStation 2.

At first glance Nocturne was a little underwhelming. The cell-shaded 3D graphics were well crafted but subtle. The story seemed vague with few characters to interact with. The combat was frequent and punishing. After spending a couple of hours wandering through Nocturne’s lonely hallways many asked themselves “Is this all there is?”

Well, yes and no. Nocturne was an esoteric game that discouraged casual players but could be very rewarding for the initiate who was willing to invest the time to understand all of its intricacies. Despite its modern polygon presentation, the game was throwback to an earlier age when RPGs were exacting dungeon crawls rather than elaborate interactive novels. Progress through Nocturne was dependent on one’s ability to navigate convoluted mazes as well as fully understand the game’s combat system and exploit enemy weaknesses. Conversing with demons assumed a new importance as they could be recruited into the party and combined with one another to create exotic, new creatures.

Atlus followed Nocturne in 2005 with an ambitious two-part game called Digital Devil Saga. Digital Devil Saga found the Shin Megami Tensei series moving back to firmer narrative ground with a somber sci-fi tale. Set in a grim, post-apocalyptic landscape laced with imagery from the Vedic Hymns, Digital Devil Saga had a look that was unlike any other RPG. The combat system from Nocturne was recycled although demon recruitment was no longer an aspect of play. Instead, characters could transform into demons themselves and devour enemies.

The world of Shin Megami Tensei is surprisingly flexible and can be stretched to accommodate a variety of play styles and widely disparate settings. For Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army (released in 2006) and its sequel Devil Summoner 2: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. King Abaddon (2009) the setting is Taisho era Tokyo and Atlus put a lot of effort into depicting that uncertain period in Japan’s history when traditional culture was being swept aside in favor of rapidly advancing modernism.

Despite their realistic backdrop, the Devil Summoner games are fairly breezy games with a much more forgiving difficulty level. Combat is played out in real time as a fast paced hack and slash with most engagements over in a manner of seconds. Demons can be captured for use in battle or combined together in a system very similar to the one in Nocturne.

The Shin Megami Tensei franchise is very broad and encompasses many spin-offs that have only a tenuous connection to the main series. Over the years Atlus made a few of these available in America. Beginning in 1995, even before the release of Persona, Atlus brought over Jack Bros., a little known action game for Nintendo’s Virtual Boy and in 1999 they published Revelations: The Demon Slayer for the Game Boy Color. Revelations was part of a fantasy themed Shin Megami Tensei series called Last Bible in Japan. Also, in 2003 Atlus released two games for the Game Boy Advance called Demi Kids: Light version and Demi Kids: Dark version. These were monster-collecting RPGs intended for younger players.

Although Maken X for the Dreamcast was not specifically part of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, it had much of the same look and feel. Published by Sega in 1999, Maken X was an interesting first person melee game that was hampered by a truly dreadful localization and frustrating game play. However, it is worth a look for Shin Megami Tensei illustrator Kazuma Kaneko’s decadent and bizarre character designs that seem to reference the fashions of both haute couture and S&M dungeons.

- Jeffrey Fleming

Monday, May 20, 2013

We See Farther – Trip Hawkins and the Founding of Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts founder Trip Hawkins had a lifelong fascination with games. "I fell in love with complex board games like Strat-O-Matic and Dungeons & Dragons," he told me. "I realized I was making invaluable social connections from playing games and that my brain was more active."

"In the summer of 1975 I learned about the invention of the microprocessor and about the first retail store where a consumer could rent a timesharing terminal to use from home," he remembered. "That very day I committed to found EA in 1982. I figured that it would take seven years for enough computing hardware to get into homes to create an audience for the computer games that I wanted to make."

After graduating from Harvard, Hawkins moved across the country to pursue an MBA at Stanford, a decision that placed him at ground zero of the personal computer revolution. "I might not have discovered Silicon Valley if I had not chosen Stanford for graduate school. Ironically, the major institutions at that time—including Stanford, Berkeley, National Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel—did not grasp the concept of home computing and video games. A close colleague of mine that had gone to Berkeley tried to get the computer science professors interested in Apple, and they thought the Apple II was basically a pointless tinker toy."

"When I finished my education in 1978 I got a job at Apple. When I started there, we had only fifty employees and had sold only 1,000 computers in the history of the company, most of them in the prior year. Four years later we were a Fortune 500 company with 4,000 employees and nearing $1 billion in annual revenue." Machines that had once filled entire rooms at universities could now be had for less than $500 dollars and fit nicely on a corner desk in the family recreation room. Affordable microcomputers like the Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 400/800 brought real number-crunching power to the average person, allowing them to figure their income taxes, write school reports, and of course, play games.

Flush with cash from Apple’s IPO, Hawkins knew that it was time for him to make his move. "Right on schedule, I resigned from Apple and incorporated EA on May 28, 1982. I personally funded it for the next six months, working by myself out of my home, and then in August began using an office at Sequoia Capital, where I also began hiring the early employees." San Mateo, California would become their permanent headquarters for many years until a 1998 move to nearby Redwood City. The only thing left to do was come up with a name. "The original name had been Amazin' Software. But I wanted to recognize software as an art form and wanted to change it to SoftArt. But Dan Bricklin of Software Arts asked us not to use that name. So we brainstormed and decided to change it to Electronic Arts."


The Launch

From the beginning, Hawkins had an ambitious view of what games could be. "We learn by doing," he said, "and computer simulation was the most efficient way to do this. I wanted to help the world transition from brain-deadening media like broadcast television to interactive media that would connect people and help them grow." Hawkins also wanted to properly credit and compensate the talent that produced games, giving them the same respect that artists in other media enjoyed. He envisioned Electronic Arts as a publishing company that would be known for its quality and professionalism, working with the best independent talent to make the computer game industry equivalent with film, books, or music.

Electronic Arts shipped its first titles, Hard Hat Mack, Pinball Construction Set, Archon, M.U.L.E., Worms?, and Murder on the Zinderneuf in the spring of 1983. The games were packaged in unique gatefold sleeves, with the designer’s names on the front and a sophisticated graphic design that gave them the hip appearance of rock albums. "It was a pleasant surprise that the media quickly embraced my vision and lifted the profile of the company," Hawkins remembered. "In hindsight, my choices of the first round of products turned out amazingly well. Of the first six games, three of them ultimately made the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, and a fourth one charted on the bestseller lists."


Building the Business

Another early hit for EA was Doctor J and Larry Bird Go One on One. Released in 1983, the basketball game enjoyed healthy sales, boosted by the involvement of sports stars Julius Erving and Larry Bird. "EA Sports really originated with One on One," Hawkins explained, "which I designed, and where I introduced the business practice of involving celebrities in the design and promotion of video games."

To build its business, Electronic Arts aggressively upset the traditional rules of software publishing. Determined to set his own terms, Hawkins reduced the discount that EA would give software distributors, keeping more of the profits for itself. In the fall of 1984, Larry Probst joined the company as vice president of sales. Probst brought a new level of organization to EA's strategy of bypassing distributors and dealing directly with retailers, causing its already successful market presence to grow even further. With its increased sales potential, EA began to distribute games from other companies, including Lucasfilm Games, SSI, and Interplay.


The Crash

Meanwhile trouble was brewing in the world of console video games that would soon undermine the entire industry. Since its introduction in 1977, the Atari VCS/2600 home console had dominated American living rooms. In the console’s halcyon years, Atari poured millions of cartridges into retailers, feeding a customer base that was hungry for anything new to plug in. Third-party publishers, eager to cash in on Atari’s success, blossomed in a market that seemed limitless.

However, by 1983 the machine was aging. Consumers were losing interest and there was no coherent plan for what would follow. As the market softened, the small, undercapitalized publishers were the first to die off, leaving retailers little choice but to drastically discount unsold cartridges that they had previously been able to return for credit. This brought about an accelerating chain reaction of price cuts across the board and vast warehouses of unsold merchandise soon piled up.

By the end of 1984 the implosion was complete. Retailers were burned out, publishers were decimated, and customers walked away, leading many to believe that video games were just a fad whose time had passed. The stink lingering over the video game industry was so bad that it spread to personal computers as well. "Atari's meltdown created a tsunami that wiped out public interest in games, retail support, media interest, and gave gaming a stigma that lasted a decade," Hawkins remembered.


The Eighties

Electronic Arts was forced to revise their business plan in order to weather the lean years following the crash. "I made a conscious decision to ignore Atari and to focus on the next generation of technology," Hawkins said. "We had to operate like the Fremen of Dune, recycling our own saliva to live in the desert, to survive. We had to rebuild the industry brick by brick over a period of years."

Although EA’s original marketing had focused on promoting individual game designers, the company quickly realized that consumers were more attuned to the games themselves. Designers were still credited, but EA’s marketing focus shifted in favor of game genres and building brand recognition. The success of One on One taught EA the power of tying popular sports figures to game properties and a series of licensed sports games followed, including Jordan vs. Bird: One on One, Ferrari Formula One, Richard Petty’s Talladega, and Earl Weaver Baseball.

As it grew, Electronic Arts built a diverse catalog of games over the 1980’s. Titles were produced across multiple computer platforms, from the Apple II and Macintosh, to the Amiga, Commodore 64, IBM PC, Atari 800, and Atari ST. Some of the highlights included The Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, Starflight, and Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer. EA even branched out into productivity software, publishing Deluxe Paint, one of the key applications for the Amiga computer.

Initially, Hawkins had little regard for the wounded console market, and felt that the personal computer would be the dominant entertainment platform of the future. However, as the Nintendo Entertainment System brought some stability back to the business, EA began its first in-house development with Skate or Die, which was published by Konami in 1988. Electronic Arts itself would not truly begin publishing console games until the era of the Sega Genesis. "Once we were publishing for Genesis, we did go back and publish a few titles for NES, like Skate or Die 2," said Hawkins. "But it was a token effort. We did a lot more titles for SNES later on when it came out, but the Genesis was the real focal point, because I negotiated such a favorable deal."

Hawkins was cautious in dealing with Nintendo, seeing their strict licensing terms as an impediment to EA’s profits. He also felt that Nintendo's 8-bit hardware was underpowered. "Because we had been 100 percent on floppy-disc based computers with more RAM and full keyboards, our technology base was well above the consoles," he explained.


John Madden Football and the Birth of EA Sports

"With my lifelong interest in football simulation, my oldest friends would tell you that I founded EA to give myself an excuse to make another football game," Hawkins said. "I designed the precursor to Madden Football in 1970 as a board game called Accu-Stat Pro Football," a game that would be his very first entrepreneurial effort, funded by a loan from his father. "After that I programmed another precursor to Madden as a school project in 1973, that was written in BASIC and ran on a DEC PDP-11 minicomputer. It simulated the January, 1974 Super Bowl and predicted the Dolphins would beat Minnesota 23-6, which was pretty good considering the real game was 24-7."

EA had published an early football title called Touchdown Football, but it was the success of One on One and its sequel that encouraged Hawkins to make another attempt at an in-depth football simulation. To enhance the game’s authenticity, Hawkins sought out Oakland Raiders coach John Madden to help bring the complexity of pro football to life on the computer screen.

"I picked John because I wanted a design partner that could help us make the game authentic but also have selling-power from his name on the cover," Hawkins said. "After signing him, I flew to Denver with my programmer and producer and went over my game design. We spent two whole days on the train with him going over an incredibly long list of details about football and it helped me finish the design properly. We'd get together periodically after that initial session to review our progress, and John would yell and scream about details we had wrong, and it was a lot of fun!" Their hard work paid off when the game was released in 1988, establishing EA’s longest running franchise.


Leverage

While EA was focusing most of its efforts on personal computer publishing, the flat-lined console business was being systematically revived by the determined efforts of Nintendo. By 1989, Nintendo’s sales had grown to almost $2 billion, and EA could no longer afford to treat consoles as a sideline. Other companies were also eyeing the market and later that year Sega brought the 16-bit Genesis to America.

Like many third party publishers, EA was leery of the console business. "Nobody liked paying high royalties under restrictive licenses, and what made it even worse was having to build ROM cartridges at great cost and inventory risk," Hawkins explained. However, with the arrival of the Genesis, he saw an opportunity to once again rewrite the rules of publishing.

"The Genesis appealed to me for many reasons, but a big one was that it had an MC 68000 processor," he said. This chip was key because EA had years of experience with the processor, which was also used in the Macintosh, Amiga, and Atari ST computers. Electronic Arts was able to quickly reverse engineer the Genesis and develop software that would run on it without Sega’s help.

Using this knowledge as leverage in his negotiations with Sega, Hawkins threatened to release games for the Genesis without a license unless Sega agreed to more favorable terms for EA. It was a very risky move that could have had expensive legal consequences. Fortunately, Sega recognized the benefits of working out a deal with Hawkins. EA had an extensive back catalog of quality games that could be quickly ported to the Genesis, and a strong sports line that would be essential for the console’s success in America. It was going to be a hard fight against Nintendo and Sega needed all the help it could get.


The Genesis

Now that Hawkins had committed to consoles, he had to sell his company on the decision. "It was very contentious because many employees and developers did not like consoles, or did not like action games," he said. "The goal was to stop making esoteric products for an elite customer base, and go make it in the big-time with mainstream gamers. Several employees were outraged and quit, but I convinced the team that if the public chose to buy consoles like the Genesis, then to satisfy our customers we had to make the best games possible on the platforms chosen by the public, not the ones our engineers wished they could afford."

Electronic Arts had its Initial Public Offering in the fall of ‘89 and used the influx of capital to push hard into console publishing. "I was flogging my development organization to put three new games into production every month for a year, plus we added twenty three games through affiliates. Sega was blown away at how fast we built a dominant product line," Hawkins said.

As EA aligned itself with the Genesis, a rush of games commenced in 1990 with a port from the Amiga of Peter Molyneux’s Populous, Budokan: The Martial Spirit, and John Madden Football. Over the six-year life span of the Genesis, EA would establish several long running franchises, including the Strike series, NHL Hockey, NBA Live, FIFA Soccer, and Road Rash. Electronic Arts also brought complex strategy and RPG titles over from personal computers. Titles such as Power Monger, Syndicate, Starflight, The Immortal, Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World, Centurion: Defender of Rome, and King’s Bounty appealed to older players, helping to widen the console game audience beyond its kid orientation.


Transition

Things move quickly in the publishing business, and Hawkins was already looking ahead. "After scoring a massively favorable license with Sega, I knew I had a big bull's-eye drawn on my chest, because the console guys would make sure I could never repeat what I had done with the Genesis. And on the PC side, nothing was going on that would advance the cause of the gamers and the game industry," he recalled.

Hawkins always had a keen awareness of technology cycles. "I knew the Genesis would give EA a great ride at least until 1994, but was afraid for what would happen after that," he said. Even as his company was diving into cartridge-based games, Hawkins sensed that a future of fast processors, low-priced memory, and easy to print CDs was just around the corner. "I thought the industry needed a console to push forward with 3D graphics and optical disc media and networking capability. Nobody was doing anything, so it seemed like the window was open," he said. Wanting to pursue development on the next generation of console hardware, Hawkins appointed Larry Probst as EA's new CEO in 1991, and started a new company called the San Mateo Software Group, which soon evolved into The 3DO Company. Hawkins remained as Electronic Art’s chairman of the board until his resignation in July of 1994.

When the 3DO came to market in 1993, EA’s Need for Speed game was an early demonstration of the machine’s next generation graphics technology. Electronic Arts was also a partner in Trip Hawkins’ new console venture, and they published a variety of titles for the 3DO including John Madden Football, Road Rash, and Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. EA contributed both proven franchises as well as new IPs such as Psychic Detective, Escape from Monster Manor and Immercenary to the 3DO library. “3DO was able to raise some money and recruit some big partners. But by 1993 Sony had made a $2 billion commitment to the PlayStation, and even with all our partners we could not match what Sony was willing to do. But the 3DO ended up being a catalyst for many constructive changes. Even Sony executives admitted to me that they copied many aspects of the 3DO licensing program,” Hawkins said.

After the failure of the 3DO console, Hawkins shifted the business into game development for the PlayStation and PC but a succession of lackluster titles ultimately sank the company. 3DO shut its doors in 2003 and Hawkins quickly started a new venture called Digital Chocolate that focused on publishing and developing games for the newly emerging mobile market.

Art and commerce have always been uneasy bedfellows, and nowhere is that tension more evident than in the world of video games. Perhaps after looking at the history of Electronic Arts under Trip Hawkins we may have some insight into that hot point of ignition where business and inspiration combine to create cutting edge games. As Hawkins explained, "Entrepreneurship is a creative art form. Like other creative people, we do it because we have to do it. We have no choice but to express ourselves in this way. But of course like all artists we are optimists, so we believe good things will come. It is not about making money, it is about making a difference."

- Jeffrey Fleming


When this article was originally published on Gamasutra in February of 2007 it included comments from Frank Gibeau, then Electronic Arts' executive vice president and general manager of North American publishing, discussing the history of post-Hawkins EA. I’ve left it out of this revised version because as nice as he was to talk with me, he was careful to maintain the corporate line and as a result was far less interesting than Hawkins. Still, Gamasutra did a nice job on the layout and there are lots of interesting photos and screen shots accompanying the original article. You can read it at:



Additionally, outtakes from my interview with Hawkins (some of which have been incorporated into this revised version) were published on GameSetWatch. You can read them at:




Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Kenji Eno – Warp’s Indie Iconoclast

Kenji Eno founded Warp, a small, independent game studio in 1994. Coming from a background in music, Eno wanted to bring the same energy and spirit of the electronic music scene to the rapidly expanding world of video games. With long hair and black clothes, Eno would pose for publicity photos with his Roland Jupiter-8 synthesizer (analog of course), cultivating a rock and roll image at a time when game designers were still considered part of the pocket-protector set. He also made it clear that Warp would not be part of some corporate hive. The company’s first games were for the 3DO system which had a straightforward licensing structure that dispensed with the cumbersome and arbitrary approvals process that other hardware manufactures required. The console's CD-ROM format also made it easy to publish for, lowering the barrier to entry for the start-up developer.

Warp’s initial efforts were basic puzzlers and mini-game collections. Although somewhat primitive, they were done with an absurdist graffiti style that made them distinctive. One of these early games, a Tetris clone called Trip’D made it to America in 1995, but it was the horror adventure D that would make Warp famous.

D was a graphic adventure first created for the 3DO but soon ported to the PlayStation, Saturn, and even DOS. In the game a young woman named Laura must explore a spree killer’s tormented psyche in order to solve the mystery of his murderous rampage as well as her own strange relationship with the killer. D played similar to Myst, with abstract puzzles forming its game play and nicely rendered cinematic transitions between static frames. To enhance D’s creepy atmosphere, Eno composed a suitably dark ambient soundtrack. Operating in true garage band style, Warp utilized consumer level Amiga computers to generate D’s visuals rather than the expensive Silicon Graphics workstations that were considered the standard tool for creating computer graphics. Not content with creating another Myst clone, Eno set D apart from other games with a big conceptual trick that required its players to complete the game in one sitting. It had a two-hour time limit with no pausing or saving allowed. This was a bold stance for Eno to take and he refused to allow his game to be evaluated on the basis of length or replay value.

The 3DO struggled against the newer 32-bit machines that were coming on the market in the mid-nineties and plans were made to create a successor called M2 that would be based on PowerPC chips. Warp began work on a sequel to D for the upcoming machine and work-in-progress screenshots were used to demonstrate the advance graphics capabilities of the M2 hardware. For the sequel, Warp seemed to be moving in a fantasy direction and early screens showed a richly detailed, polygon-based gothic castle as its play environment. However, by the end of 1996, the 3DO was discontinued and the M2 project was shelved less than a year later.

Putting the D sequel on hold, Warp turned away from cutting edge graphics and created an unusual game called Real Sound: Wind of Regret that had no graphics at all. Released in 1997 for the Saturn and 2 years later on the Dreamcast, Real Sound was an adventure game played from the perspective of a blind person and relied exclusively on audio cues to create its game world.

Having stripped away everything that makes a game a video game with Real Sound, Eno decided to create a new work called Enemy Zero that would fully engage both sound and vision. Set on a deep space towing rig, Enemy Zero found Warp riffing on Alien as well as its own D. Although not a sequel, Enemy Zero featured D’s Laura as the main character, employing her as a “digital actress.”

Published on the Sega Saturn in 1998, Enemy Zero was a hybrid graphic adventure and first-person shooter that was fast paced and cinematic in presentation. The shooter elements were unique in that players faced invisible enemies, forcing them to depend on audio cues and sonar pings in order to locate targets. As players crawled through Enemy Zero’s maze of ductwork and darkened halls, a clammy, panicked sweat would trickle down their brow as the oscillating sonar warned of approaching enemies. Unfortunately, the shooting part was implemented in a painfully realistic manner. As a monster approached, the game forced players to draw their gun and wait for the weapon to charge up before they could fire and hopefully hit the invisible target. If not, then they had to wait for the charge cycle to complete before they could fire again. Adding to the tension, the gun’s batteries had a limited number of charges. Frightening? Certainly. Frustrating? Absolutely.

Warp’s next project was an ambitious quasi-sequel to D called D2 and it had the distinction of being one of the first games announced for Sega’s new Dreamcast console in 1998. Rather than dust off the work that they had done for the M2 version, Warp went back to the drawing board and came up with completely new game. It would again feature Laura as the main character but moved the action to the snow covered Canadian mountains. The game's apocalyptic story begins with a hijacked airliner being improbably hit by a meteor in mid-flight and crashing in the snowbound mountains. Laura survives the crash but finds her fellow passengers infected with an alien virus that causes them to abruptly burst into drooling bug/plant/cephalopods with an urge to mate. The game only gets weirder from there.

With the power of the Dreamcast, Eno was free to fully indulge his mash-up style, creating in D2 a game that was an elaborate layer cake of genres. When exploring D2’s massive environment, the game was played from a third person perspective and much effort went in to accurately depicting the frozen landscape. Distances were realistic and it could take many minutes just to trudge over an icy mountain pass. Periodically, mutated creatures would pop out of the snow and the game would switch to a fixed, shooting gallery perspective. Guns and ammunition were oddly plentiful and combat was over quick in a rapid-fire hail of lead and green goo. Sifting for clues was handled point-and-click style and the bizarre story was advanced by lengthy cinematics. On top of it all, D2 featured a Deer Hunter-style mini game that allowed players to poach varmints for meat. D2 was ultimately released in America in 2000 but not before Sega made some judicious cuts to the game in order to tone down some of its alien-on-human rape imagery.

Despite the advance hype, D2 came too late in the Dreamcast’s short lifespan to really connect with consumers who were already looking to the PlayStation 2 for their kicks. Warp folded in 2000 and transitioned into Superwarp, a multimedia company whose focus shifted away from games. Eno resurfaced in 2006, announcing the formation of a new game development studio called fyto (From Yellow to Orange). Although there was plenty of excitement at the time from game journalists about the future of fyto, the company would go on to create only a single game, Kimi to Boku to Rittai (“You and Me and the Cubes”) for Wiiware in 2009. Unfortunately, like so many of his game design contemporaries in Japan, Eno has found himself relegated to working on low-profile iPhone games in recent years.

- Jeffrey Fleming

UPDATE: Kenji Eno died of heart failure February 20th, 2013. He was 42 years old.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Silent Hill 3

The two hits of Gold Star dissolved on my tongue like nothing but an hour and a half later someone puts on a Throbbing Gristle record and things begin to take a bad turn. Oscillators bend and scrape against each other as barely understood words drip from the speakers: “Qualified technicians… medical advances… everything is burned off, ears, nose…” I look around and the room is succumbing to a nervous, festering sickness. Ragged sumi-e splashes of red stain the walls. The sticky, humid rot of menstruation fills the air. I lick my lips and taste the salty, metallic tinge of blood. My nose is bleeding again. Then the cramps start…

Do dead gods stink? Imagine if you can “Music From The Death Factory” reincarnated as a video game. Picture that and you begin to step into the unrelentingly grim world of Silent Hill 3.

God is slowly dying in the womb and desperately wants to be born into the world. A debased pagan cult dreams of midwifing this profane birth and has selected Heather Mason to be the sacrificial vessel. Although Heather seems to be a normal teenager, there are hints that her childhood may be darker than she remembers. Playing Silent Hill 3 casts you in the role of Heather as she struggles to uncover the secrets of her past and prevent the apocalyptic “rebirth of Paradise.” On the surface, the narrative of Silent Hill 3 functions as a direct sequel to the events of the first game and sheds some light on Silent Hill’s sometimes mystifying plot.

Although Silent Hill 3 revels in horror show atmospherics and blood-soaked violence, at its heart the game wonders, is it possible to “kill” death? This is a delightfully subversive question to ask in a video game. From the beginning, video games have almost always revolved around conflict. This conflict is rarely expressed in the “win/lose” outcome of traditional board and card games from which video games evolved, but rather specifically in terms of “kill/die.”

While progress through Silent Hill 3 is accompanied by much whacking, stabbing, and shooting it soon becomes clear that there is no favorable outcome to all the bloodshed. No “Good Ending” can ever really be achieved. There is a chilling moment in the game where a character asks of the player, “Monsters? Is that what they look like to you?” and the futility of killing settles uneasily over the game.

The opening lines of the Dhammapada tell us “…if a person speaks or acts with an unwholesome mind, pain pursues him, even as the wheel follows the hoof of the ox that draws the cart.” In these few words we get a brief glimpse of the vast, turning gears of the universe, driven infinitely by the fuel of delusion. Completing Silent Hill 3 brings little sense of accomplishment. A strange feeling of emptiness lingers. You may have finished but you didn’t “win.” Like that other student of half-assed Buddhism put it; “No one gets out of here alive.” Oh, well. I guess you can hit the reset button and once more while away the hours guiding Heather to the dark terminus of her fate.

The Tibetan Buddhists have an interesting concept called the “Bardo.” The idea is that once a person dies their soul enters the Bardo, which is a temporary and indeterminate place where they will wander for up to 49 days. During this time the frightened soul is assailed from every direction by ferocious and hungry demons. The accumulated karma of their life rushes out in a chaotic fury and the “I” trembles and evaporates like a drop of dew before a typhoon. Occasionally the onslaught will diminish and the soul will have an opportunity to escape from the ravaging demons. However, these moments of warmth and safety are really traps that draw the soul back down to earth where it is subjected once more to the suffering of existence and the endless cycle of death and rebirth.

Fortunately the Bardo does in fact have a “Good Ending” but I’m not a proselytizer so you will have to find your own hint book. I’ll only say that we should keep in mind that Silent Hill 3 is the product of a culture that has been under the influence of Buddhism for 1,465 years. Whether overt or subconsciously, Silent Hill 3 is suffused with the Buddhist science of death.

In playing Silent Hill 3 you will wander through a multilayered Bardo where demonic entities press close and the few people that you encounter may be devils with human masks. It is a lonely and menacing landscape that follows the confusing logic of nightmares. Maze-like halls shift and decay. A sepulchral air of terminal illness and charnel house gloom clings to everything. Masahiro Ito’s art direction for Silent Hill 3 is an uneasy pairing of occult symbolism with the Lustmord fantasies of the criminally insane. Dried blood lit by sodium vapor is the dominant color palette. A subtle wash of digital noise gives its visuals the unsettling appearance of 16mm atrocity footage.

The soundtrack by Akira Yamaoka is alternately bracing and lush. Yamaoka uses guitar and synthesizers to create a sound that seems to crossbreed the massed electric tonalities of Glenn Branca with the lush romanticism of Angelo Badalementi. He eschews the usual creaking and groaning of spook houses and instead fills Silent Hill 3 with vast sheets of sound that suggest air raid sirens, background radiation, or the quiet hum of a dialysis machine.

Let’s now talk about video games as if they actually mean something. For us to say that video games are “fun” is no longer enough. Isolation, disease, madness, and dulling aneurysms of violence. The loss of everything we love. Some may find it incongruent to see these anxieties portrayed in video games. Let’s get past “fun.” Technology is now so sophisticated that the vocabulary of games can move well beyond the simple pleasures of visual-neuro-motor stimulation. Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird is not a “fun” book to read but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth reading. For Silent Hill 3 to be so completely suffused with a feeling of loss is a small step forward for the state of the art. Designers are finally able to kick free from the limitations of “game play.” The darkest rivers of our own souls may become the new playground.

…suffocating, I run outside and collapse next to an air conditioning unit. The thing clatters and vibrates with a hideous intensity. Sheets of electricity slough off of its heaving sides, shimmering in the darkness. I try to concentrate but my thoughts are blowing away like leaves in the howling wind. I can’t gather them fast enough and I am overcome by the buzzing, rattling machine. The world recedes into a maze of infinite hallways lit by flickering fluorescent lights. I am lost in a building that is filled with a tremendous, roaring silence. Glinting, obsidian machines are running in the basement. Fueled by karma, they turn and grind endlessly. Finally, they burn out on the last embers of the Kali-yuga.

Many years later my father would lay in a hospital bed, dying of cancer. I wonder if he could hear those same engines? I hope he wasn’t afraid. My grief is tainted by my own selfish fear of death. I try not to think of these things as I hit the reset button once more.

— Jeffrey Fleming

This is an expanded version of a review originally published in Cemetery Dance magazine, issue # 47, 2003.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Siren

The sales clerk looks at my copy of Siren with diffidence.

“What the hell is this?” he asks, holding the box in his hands like he’s about to drop it in a ziplock bag and seal it as evidence.

I just shrug my shoulders and dummy up. No sense in getting an outsider involved. Leaving the store, I hold the package close, hiding it from prying eyes. Philip K. Dick once said that the Roman Empire never ended. Sometimes I worry that he might have been right. Back at home I slide the disc in and a burst of static rips across the screen followed by shrieking air raid sirens. Blurred, flickering shapes rise up between the scan lines as if I was looking at an old film caught in the sprockets of a malfunctioning projector. There is a feeling of dead spirits pressing close.

I open the package and leaf through the instruction booklet. “The man on the roof is watching you,” it says. And indeed, he is looking for me and if he sees me, I’m dead. I run across a bridge and shots ring out in the dark. Crouched next to a decrepit woodshed, I hear the bullets ricochet off to the right. I think I gave him the slip. I call out to Yoriko and more shots crack the night air as she follows my path across the bridge. Did she make it? After an interminable wait I hear footsteps behind me and her face emerges from the darkness. Ahead I can see a flashlight beam weaving drunkenly in the trees. We stumble through the forest, running toward the light. Getting closer we see a man hunched over, mumbling to himself. He hears us and whips around, shining the bright light into our eyes. It’s hard to see clearly but there is something very wrong with him. His hands are black and gnarled, like a burned corpse. Blood runs from his eye sockets. Then we see the scythe in his other hand but it’s too late. Game over.

Spend just a few minutes with Siren and it will become apparent that the game is serious. And like most serious things it is hard, often painfully hard. Everything about it appears designed to alienate the casual player. Most people will be immediately turned off by the paucity of the graphics. Everything has a murky, corroded patina, as if the game had been left out to rust slowly in the rain. Characters in the game are represented by digitized photographs of actors mapped onto polygon models. It is an interesting art direction choice that unfortunately gives them the appearance of weird sock puppets. On top of this, much of the game is spent running around in the dark, limiting the ability to see anything in detail. However, I don’t want to suggest that Siren looks bad, just basic. Plain and workman-like, the visuals are designed to serve the game rather than sell the game.

“First use the light. Then the machine for the peeping person.” What the hell is this? I meet a strange woman. She is dressed like a nun but her god lives in the dark spaces between stars. She says to me; try to ignore the air raid sirens, remain very still and concentrate. The barriers between our minds become more permeable as the town of Hanuda slides deeper into the realm of the dead. Be patient. It’s like tuning in a far away station on the radio. Can you see what the shibito sees as he crawls through the wreckage of the town? Can you see through the dead man’s eyes? If you want, indulge in a little scopophilia. He doesn’t know you’re there yet. But don’t ever let him see you. If you see yourself in his eyes the only thing you can do is run.

I think I am beginning to understand. Siren is not a game that you play. It is a problem that you work on. An alchemical text to decipher or an alien artifact whose function is not clear. It may be a toy or it may be a weapon. The fact is, most people are not going to like Siren. It’s too hard. It’s too opaque. It asks too much. And what does it give in return? Nightmares, and possibly a heart condition. Those things and the glimmerings of a real experience, something that is all too rare in the world of video games. “Go to the bloody crossroad” but step quietly. Watch out for broken glass. No good. He sees you. Run.

- Jeffrey Fleming

This is an expanded version of a review initially published in Cemetery Dance issue # 51, 2005.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Treasure's Shooters

Treasure is a development studio whose name is written on gamer’s hearts. Formed in 1992 by
ex-Konami staff, the company is well known for creating anarchic games that gleefully undermine genre expectations. Often filled with bizarre characters, discordant music, and lots of explosions, Treasure’s games move at a frenetic pace, seemingly fueled by Lucky Charms and DMT.

However, on occasion the studio dials back some of its eccentricities and focuses on creating rigorously formal shooters. Within the narrow confines of the shooter Treasure approaches its craft with a seriousness that elevates their pop trash (I mean that in a good way) into nuanced works that are as beautiful to look at, as they are to play.


No Refuge

Radiant Silvergun was Treasure’s first effort at pure shooter design and probably its most famous despite not being released in America until 2011 when a version for Xbox Live Arcade was produced. Initially created for the arcades in 1998 and then quickly ported to the Sega Saturn, Radiant Silvergun was a vertically scrolling masterwork.

Players were given a generous selection of weaponry with which to clean the field and face down a succession of elaborate boss fights. Not content with simply satisfying twitch and reflex, Radiant Silvergun was also a thinking person’s shooter. Utilizing a combo scoring system and complex pattern memorization, the game rewarded thoughtful play. Radiant Silvergun was further enhanced by Hitoshi Sakamoto’s score and animated cut-scenes from GONZO (Blue Submarine No. 6, Last Exile).


Fireworks

Treasure’s next shooter Bangai-O was published in Japan for the Nintendo 64 in 1999. Later that same year it was ported to the Sega Dreamcast with significant enhancements, making the Dreamcast release the preferred version. The game finally made its way to America in 2001 thanks to Conspiracy Entertainment.

Bangai-O was hard to classify as a strict shooter and had much in common with the studio’s earlier run and gun rave-ups. The Bangai-O itself was a giant super robot in the style of Getter Robo. However, it was rendered as a small figure in the center of the screen while the 2D background scrolled in all directions around it in a manner similar to Time Pilot. The basic point of Bangai-O was to blow everything to bits and firing a 360-degree special attack in the game provided the same visceral thrill as setting off a string of Black Cats.


Fool’s Gold

Silpheed: The Lost Planet found Treasure working with Game Arts to create a sequel to the Sega CD game Silpheed. Brought to America in 2001 by Working Designs, Silpheed: The Lost Planet was somewhat of a misstep by Treasure. As a vertically scrolling shooter, normally a fairly intense experience, Silpheed suffered from an oddly sluggish pace. Much of the game passed in a haze as apocalyptic scenery scrolled by at a measured pace while lugubrious music surged in the background. Boss fights provided some relief from the tedium but they were separated by wave after predictable wave of enemies that rolled down the screen, doing little to challenge the player except get in the way.


In Praise of Shadows

Ikaruga was Treasure’s spiritual sequel to Radiant Silvergun. First published in Japan for arcades in 2001 and then a year later ported to the Dreamcast, Ikaruga made it to America in 2003 as a Game Cube game published by Atari.

From the beginning Ikaruga stood out from other shooters, distinguished by a unique artistic style that was both austere and painstakingly detailed at the same time. Working with a muted color palette, Treasure created a look that seemed informed by the ceremony of Noh theater and the obsessively precise aesthetics of Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows.

Sticking with the visual theme, enemies were either black or white and the player’s ship could change duality to absorb like shaded bullets. In a further development of Radiant Silvergun’s combo system, skillful players could chain attacks on like shaded enemies to achieve higher scores. Of course this became jaw-droppingly difficult as the game progressed and enemies radiated an insane number of bullets across the screen in blatantly psychedelic patterns of death.

In Japan, Treasure released a super-play video called Ikaruga Appreciate DVD that showed expert play throughs of Ikaruga and the game itself also featured amazing and humbling Demo Play demonstrations.


Vic Viper Returns

Treasure’s most recent shooter Gradius V, a horizontally scrolling shooter for the PlayStation 2, was published by Konami in both Japan and America in 2004. Unlike Treasure’s previous effort at working on another company’s property with Silpheed, Gradius V was a great success. While remaining true to the series’ roots, Gradius V exploited the PlayStation 2's graphic power to create a visually lush experience in which frantic action was bathed in a corona of light. Like all shooters, the difficulty level was set quite high but Treasure designed the game to be welcoming to newcomers by providing lots of continues. In a nice touch, Treasure brought Radiant Silvergun composer Hitoshi Sakamoto on board to provide a high-energy electronic soundtrack that is quite different from the Carmina Burana-like scores that he typically writes for RPGs.

In Japan, Konami created a variety of pre-order and limited edition bonuses for Gradius V including a documentary DVD and booklet. For the American release of the game Konami produced a DVD called Gradius Breakdown as a pre-order bonus.

— Jeffrey Fleming

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Steve Meretzky

Steve Meretzky began creating games for Infocom with landmark titles such as Planetfall, Leather Goddesses of Phobos, as well as working with Douglas Adams on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. As the creative director at WorldWinner he was an early innovator in the casual games and is currently VP of game design at Playdom.

Jeffrey Fleming: At the GDC 09 Casual Games summit you said, "Games are for everyone." That’s an interesting declaration that probably the rest of the game industry needs to be hearing, particularly when it comes to women players.

Steve Meretzky: Right, and beyond female players, look at things like people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age. As far as I'm concerned, virtually everyone would play games if they found games that they like. And if they aren't, or at least if they aren't playing electronic games, it's because we've yet to produce the right games for them. I think the example of casual games over the last ten years and those more recent examples with older players just shows that there's this incredible hunger for gaming of every kind. People just love games, and it's been proven for thousands of years.

JF: You used to design pretty lengthy and complex games. What brought you from that to the casual games space that you're in now?

Meretzky: Really, the first kind of experience that I had with what you would know as casual games was in 1994. I did a game called Hodj 'n' Podj. It was sort of a board game, but embedded within that board game were 19 minigames, each of which we would now call a casual game, and any of which you could also play standalone. You didn't have to play the board game to experience them. You could just boot the game and say, "I want to play any game standalone," and then choose any of those 19. Anyway, it was sort of a game before its time. It was definitely a game that was perfect for a family audience at a time when there wasn't really a family market and there wasn't really any way of marketing to anybody other than hardcore gamers. It sold pretty miserably.

But I have to say, I get more mail to this day about that game then all my other games put together. You know, a lot of people saying things like, "We've been playing that game for ten years, and the disc is worn out. Where can I get a new one?" That sort of thing. So, that was sort of my first foray into casual games in ‘94. The real genesis for that was that I had many games that I remembered fondly, like the early, very simple arcade games, the Pac-Man and Space Invaders-type games. And simple card games, Solitaire and Pyramid, things like that.

So, really, these games had sort of disappeared from the face of electronic gaming. They had been like fun things to do with computers in the early days, and now, pretty much everything you can play on your computer was some giant time commitment kind of game, and I kind of really miss those simple games. But the only sort of potential business model for games at that point was to put them in a box and sell them in a store for $40. And you couldn't take a solitaire game, and you couldn't take something like the wonderful, simple little arcade games and put them in a box and sell that for $40. And no one was interested in putting things in a box and selling them for $5 to $10.

So, that's kind of how I came up with the idea for this collection of minigames set as games within a game. I returned to that market again when I joined WorldWinner in 2000. Now, we're in post-internet environment or post-arrival internet environment, and WorldWinner had an online tournament, cash skill games business model. And the company rightly sort of identified casual games as the proper type of games for that business model, whereas other people were thinking about that same business model but for things like first-person shooters. And so, WorldWinner succeeded whereas those other companies tried and didn't.

JF: Was there something that clued them in to go that direction? Thinking back, it seems like the conventional wisdom would have been to do a Quake-style game.

Meretzky: Right. It really took everyone by surprise when we were doing casual games back in 2000 in that business model, we thought that we were going to have a primarily male audience, even though we were creating the sort of games that women like to play, because we thought that women wouldn't be interested in competing for money in that way, and that that sort of high-stress, high-competition environment was an environment that would appeal more to men. I think the primary thing wasn't so much that we were thinking casual games or thinking that we were making games with primarily a soccer mom demographic. We were thinking that we need games that can be played in just two, three, or four minutes. And most of those obvious game ideas were casual games.

And then we began to do some that skewed more male, some skewed more female. All the ones that did well were the ones skewing female. And we began to do more analysis of our demographics and stuff, and saw we were two-thirds more women. Obviously, it got more and more of a conscious decision to make these traditional casual games.

JF: With casual games, because they are so quick and because there's always the need to put more of them out, there’s a sense that maybe the business side is driving everything. Does creativity get of pushed aside?

Meretzky: The business is really characterized by a lot of the same sorts of things that we've seen for many years on the hardcore side, which is that it's a very red ocean. There are a lot of players, the market is very mature and it's well understood. Companies have been differentiating not by innovating creatively, but more by raising the bar in terms of production values in the interest of making bigger games, more fancy opening movies and cutscenes, or featuring more different player modes. As a result, budgets are getting higher and higher without sales increasing at the same rate. Companies get very conservative in their decision-making. They don't want to do anything because more money is on the line, and they want to do something that they know is just like something that sold well in the past. It's sort of like a self-reinforcing cycle that leads to a real lack of innovation. Really, probably the last major innovation we had within the downloadable space was when hidden object games appeared, which would be like four years ago now or so.

JF: Could someone say, "This is a Steve Meretzky casual game," and immediately know your style?

Meretzky: If I have a style that anyone's going to recognize, it would probably be more in terms of story, character, and writing than it is in terms of gameplay and game design. You know particularly in something that's sort of boiled down to the very basics as most casual games are. I think more than any sort of individual style, I think you tend to see studio style. For example, take a look at PopCap. I think even with the studio logo removed or whatever, you could sort of take me away to a desert island for a couple years, and come back, and show me ten new casual games, and I'd be able to say, "Oh, these two are PopCap games." You know, a matter of a certain art style, a certain level of production value, probably a lot of tangibles that I'd have trouble describing or putting a finger on. I think PlayFirst is another good example of a company that I feel has a style. I think to a great extent, that's because their creative director Kenny Shea Dinkin is a very artistically oriented visual person. So, I think he drives a lot of that. But then, there's, you know, like 1200 casual game developers. There's obviously going to be a lot of pretty generic work among a group that's that big.

JF: Do you think that developing a house style pay dividends, that it can help build an audience?

Meretzky: Yeah. I mean, I think what's really going to build loyalty is just the quality of the games and how much fun they are. And if a house continues to deliver high quality, like both of those two examples have, then they'll build both player loyalty and name recognition among those players. Whereas I think having a distinctive look is probably sort of a second order effect, or a second order contributor to building brand loyalty and building recognition and building long-term players.

JF: I also wanted to talk to you about game writing. Is game writing really separate from game design? There's a sense that it is possible to have game writing as a job and that it’s somehow different from game design.

Meretzky: It certainly is. There are dozens of people who made their living as a game writer who don't do game design. I think ideally, it's best for the designer and the writer to be the same person, just as ideally it's best for the artist, programmer, designer, and the writer to be the same person. But clearly, other than an increasingly small number of projects, that's not feasible. As game projects get bigger and bigger and teams get more and more specialized, it becomes not only more common but absolutely necessary to split up the role of writer and designer because it's too much work for one person. In fact, you could have more than just a writer and a designer... three designers and five writers.

So, the question is that given the necessity of splitting these functions, what's the best way to work? Certainly, I'm a big advocate that writers shouldn't just be someone who you bring on two months before the game ships as a "Oh, the game is almost done; add some writing." It's much better for them to come early on so that, for one thing, they can be a lot more familiar with the game and do a lot better job when it is time to do the writing, so that they can do the writing in stages and sort of provide almost a sort of first draft of the writing. And that will make the game much more playable for everyone who is playing early builds of the game. And then polish those drafts, as the game gets closer to release. The writer, by coming early, is then in a position to make a lot more suggestions about the design of the game where they see that will aid the writing or that will avoid hurting the writing.

JF: We did an article on Gamasutra where we singled out game writers that we all agreed were good. But in the debate, it was often difficult to separate the writing from the game. We would find ourselves saying, "This is a fun game, and therefore the writing is good." It was very subjective.

Meretzky: Sure. I mean, look at something like Portal. The writing in Portal, the dialogue particularly, the computer, it was one of those things that made the game for me. But where do you really draw the line? That certainly wasn't something that was added two days before the game shipped. So, the more integral that the writing is into the game, the harder it is to separate it out as a separate task.

JF: It’s also hard to separate when we’re trying to identify what is good game writing versus bad writing. If somebody thought the story was dumb, that was bad writing. But most video game stories seem kind of dumb, really. So, how do you judge that?

Meretzky: Well, it's hard to tell who came up with what and unless you talk to the people you might not necessarily get to the truth. I'd say probably much more often than not, things like the basic storyline of a game, basic theme and setting, and things like that, were probably come up with long before writers come on board.

JF: Can a writer take something and make it better?

Meretzky: You mean, turn lemons into lemonade? Yeah. I mean sure, within reason. If you have a completely generic story, you can spice it up a little around the edges and add some interesting characters and some interesting sub-plots and stuff. But at a thousand-foot view, it's still going to be a pretty generic story. Once again, it sort of gets back to the point of what exactly the writer's role is, how early do they come on, where do you draw the lines of responsibility between the writer and other participants in the creative process.

For the most part, I think for the people who do only writing, who do only game writing, it's a pretty frustrating experience because they don't feel like they have enough of a creative role. They feel like they are just sort of being treated as a compartmentalized craftsman, and they don't feel like they were brought in early enough.

JF: I like Valve’s approach of bringing in an established author like Marc Laidlaw to write. What do you think about that? Someone who's already started a career as an author.

Meretzky: The plus, you know, is then you get a good writer, but the minus is you don't necessarily get someone who understands games and interactivity. If a writer isn't familiar with the ins and outs of interactivity and the way that games work and things like that, it doesn't really matter how good a writer they are. I've certainly worked with a professional writer when I did the Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, and it was relatively difficult at the beginning because in his case, he was even a computer game player and a text adventure player, and yet he still had a lot of trouble thinking non-linearly, so he would write scripts for the game kind of with the prejudice or with the idea that the player would always do what he was intending the player to do. And players almost never do what you intend them to do, and so he wasn't sort of thinking of it that way.

I remember this moment so starkly, we started getting the game implemented so it was still just a little bit of the game that was implement, but he had people over and said, "Oh, let me show you the game version of Hitchhiker's Guide," and they started playing, and people would do something other than what he'd expect him to do, like, "No, that's not what you're supposed to do," and all of a sudden he kind of got it that you have to anticipate everything, not just what you expect, and that the game can go in lots of directions. You have to anticipate that—ideally, you want to take advantage of that. Just over the course of the few months that we worked on writing the game, he really kind of blossomed as an interactive writer, as a non-linear writer, but I was able to see over the course of that evolution the problems that he had in the beginning as some guy who was already familiar with the medium and was a game player and was a text adventure player. So, it takes more to be a game writer than to be a good writer.

JF: Speaking of text adventures, do you think there was something unique about them, or were they just a response to the technological limitations that you had at the time.

Meretzky: Well, I think the reason they were so popular then and don't seem compelling now, is that back then, that was really kind of the coolest and most cutting edge thing you could do on a computer. The only graphics you could do on a computer, up until say when the Mac, Amiga, and regular VGA came along to PCs, the best graphics that you could do were pretty crappy. So, they weren't really all that impressive. And this, on the other hand, was like talking to your computer, and your computer understanding you and answering back. It was just really kind of cool and impressive, sort of fun to do alone, fun to do with a group, and fun to show off to other people. So, in those days, the bragware, so to speak, stuff that really showed off your computer and made you feel good that you bought it, were text adventure games. So, that's one thing.

Another thing is the demographics of the industry back then. I mean, what percentage of people had personal computers in 1983? Five percent or whatever. And so, the people who had them were higher end early adopters, really techie oriented, and much more male. And these were the sorts of people who liked hard games, who liked games that made you think, who liked games that were cerebral. As the computer market became broader, the population of computer owners became more and more like the general population.

I think another thing was they were really cool but didn't particularly evolve. And so, text adventures in 1986 weren't that different from text adventures in 1981. Parsing was a little better, and the total game size was a little bit bigger because you didn't have to worry about the TRS-80 Model 1 anymore, but the medium didn't really change all that much. And again, as far as I'm concerned, the medium of first-person shooters hasn't changed much in fifteen years now, and yet they've retained their population [laughs].

JF: What did you think of Facade?

Meretzky: I mostly like it. I thought it was pretty limited, but within those limits, I think it did a really good job. I know a lot of people who point out the fact that you can break it so easily by sort of refusing to adhere to the role-playing. The game can start to behave really stupidly really quickly. But you can break a movie really easily by skipping scenes. You can break a book really easily by refusing to read the first sentence of every page, or things like that. There's sort of a certain kind of pact we make with any medium to use it the way it was intended, and if we don't use it as intended, then your mileage may vary. As far as I'm concerned, if you use Facade as sort of the way it was intended, and if you don't break that pact between you and the creator, I think it's a pretty decent experience.

- Jeffrey Fleming


This is a revised version of an article written 4.24.09 for Gamasutra. You can read the original at: Game Design Legends: Meretzky On The Evolution Of The Medium.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Zone of the Enders

Giant robots have been a staple of Japanese pop culture for decades and their image in manga and anime has been rich source of inspiration for game designers. So when Konami’s Hideo Kojima decided to bring his post-modern touch to the giant robot genre, expectations were high.


Zone of the Enders

Released in 2001 for the PlayStation 2, Zone of the Enders was a remarkable demonstration of what the new hardware was capable of. Abandoning the lumbering tank movements of other giant robot games, the robots of Zone of the Enders moved with a pole-dancing, acrobatic style that would become the hallmark of modern action games like Devil May Cry or Dynasty Warriors. Called Orbital Frames, the game’s mecha were designed by Yoji Shinkawa as lithe, airborne seraphim. As if to emphasize their aerial nature, they did not even have feet. Instead, their legs terminated in elegant spikes. In close combat the Frames whipped out flashing energy blades and from a distance launched bolts of plasma from their hands like a ten-story Sailor Moon gone berserk.

Despite the slick presentation, Zone of the Enders failed to live up to its lofty promise. Initially the game invoked a wide-eyed thrill. But after a few hours of play, visual and mechanical repetition leached the game of any lasting fun. Zone of the Enders had front-loaded all of its impressive tricks, leaving the remainder of the game feeling only half-formed.


The Fist of Mars

Determined to grow an Enders franchise, Konami followed up in 2002 with Z.O.E –The Fist of Mars for the Gameboy Advance. Developed by Winkysoft, creators of the long-running Super Robot Wars series, Fist of Mars combined light strategy with a melodramatic anime storyline.

Using the same basic design as the Super Robot Wars, Fist of Mars played out on a large grid where terrain was mostly just background for its Go-like turn-by-turn combat. In Super Robot Wars, when units engaged in combat you were treated to a flashy cut-scene of them trading blows. Fist of Mars made these cut-scenes interactive by requiring you to catch the enemy in your crosshairs as they dodged across the screen. The size of the crosshair and the speed of the enemy would vary, as well as length of time allowed to make a hit. Similarly, when defending it was necessary to weave back and forth across the screen, avoiding the enemy’s aim. Unfortunately, there was a seriously game-breaking trick for dodging enemy attacks that once learned, considerably reduced the game’s challenge level. However, Fist of Mars’ interesting story and nicely written characters helped pull you through to the end, even though the game play—much like its predecessor—had become a rote, tiresome endeavor.


The 2nd Runner

While the previous Enders games were interesting but ultimately flawed, Zone of the Enders–The 2nd Runner finally delivered on the series’ promise. With 2nd Runner, Kojima’s team created a tight, responsive game that was lovingly crafted down to the smallest detail. Like an expensive Italian sports car, 2nd Runner was a work of kinetic art.

Unlike the first game, 2nd Runner had a compulsive drive, with one event leading smoothly to the next. Dramatic action suddenly gave way to intriguing narrative, which quickly set up a new round of frenetic combat, constantly drawing you forward. Perhaps the best way to enjoy 2nd Runner was to set aside some time and play it straight through from beginning to end in one sitting like a movie. Some might complain about the game’s short length (a little over four hours) but 2nd Runner was exactly as long as it needed to be.

I try not to be seduced by graphics and I enjoy plenty of games that are far from the cutting-edge of visual presentation. That being said, 2nd Runner was absolutely ravishing. Clouds of enemies would shift and dart across the sky like schools of fish. Explosions sprayed fragments of super-heated metal as radiant beams split the air. Black tendrils of null-space left ghostly tracers as Orbital Frames folded time, warping instantly from one target to the next. In 1964 Leary, Metzner, and Alpert called it the “Retinal Circus.” Play 2nd Runner and begin to understand. As an extra visual treat, sharp-eyed observers can recognize guest design contributions from Shin Megami Tensei’s Kazuma Kaneko, done in his deliriously aberrant style.

Konami is currently working on a high definition re-release of the two Zone of the Enders PlayStation 2 games that should be available by the end of 2012.

— Jeffrey Fleming

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar! and the Birth of Digital Game Culture

Harvard mathematician Howard Aiken expressed the opinion in 1948 that no commercial market for computers would ever develop and that only a handful of the complex and delicate machines would be needed by the United States. However, even as he spoke, researchers were dreaming up new ways to refine the hardware, making it faster, smaller, and more reliable. Across the nation’s universities students were ignoring the pronouncements of prophets on high, eager to get their hands on the devices, to take them apart and reassemble them in new and more interesting ways, to make them personal playgrounds for the imagination.



The Hingham Institute Study Group on Space Warfare

In 1961 a small group of friends gathered regularly at a small apartment on Hingham Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Steve “Slug” Russell, J.M. “Shag” Graetz, and Wayne Wiitanen all shared a common interest in the nascent field of computing, having worked together at Harvard’s Litauer Statistical Laboratory where they ran computations on the IBM 704.

“Wayne and I were roommates and we’d constantly get together at our place. We’d go to see these awful Japanese science fiction movies, the Godzilla movies and American grade-z science fiction,” Graetz remembered. Along with trashy movies, the group had a special fondness for the pulp fiction of E.E. “Doc” Smith. “We wondered why don’t they pick up on Smith’s novels? They’re terribly written but naturals for the movies,” Graetz said. This infatuation with sci-fi would soon find a new creative outlet within the halls of MIT.

Russell and Graetz left Litauer for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they would get a chance to work with the TX-0 computer installed at the university. “I wound up working for an old friend of mine, Jack Dennis,” Graetz said. “He was the faculty advisor for the Science Fiction Club and also the faculty advisor for the Tech Model Railroad Club. And he was in charge of the Research Lab for Electronics.”


Digital

Throughout the fifties MIT was a breeding ground for computer innovation. In 1951, after eight years of development, the university unveiled Whirlwind, a breakthrough machine that was fast enough to execute tasks in real time rather than in batches. Based on Whirlwind’s design, MIT proceeded to create a smaller, faster version called the TX-0 in 1956, which used more reliable transistors rather than vacuum tubes.

Engineers Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson left MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory in 1957 to start their own computer manufacturing business called the Digital Equipment Corporation. “Its original stated purpose was to build computer modules,” Graetz said. “The idea was to build calculating devices and research equipment. It was not formed explicitly to build a computer. That, it was felt, would frighten off investors.” Digital’s first commercial computer was the Programmed Data Processor-1 (PDP-1). Introduced in 1960, the machine was a solid-state, general-purpose computer with the ability to make 100,000 calculations per second. It came with a number of peripheral options including a paper tape punch and reader, typewriter, and a cathode ray tube that could accept input from a light pen. “The PDP-1 grew out of the same research that produced the TX-0 and its architecture was very similar. When Ken Olsen and Harlan Anderson and the others decided to go into business for themselves, that whole approach informed the PDP-1.” Graetz said. Priced at $120,000, only fifty of the computers were produced and in the fall of 1961 the company donated a PDP-1 system to MIT.


“One application being planned for PDP is dynamic simulation of a weapons system…”

As advanced as the TX-0 was, the new PDP-1 pointed the way forward to one-on-one interaction with computers. It was in its own way, one of the first “personal” computers. As Graetz explained, “The TX-0 filled a room with banks of power supplies. The calculating part of it and the memory were solid state, but the power supplies were all tube amplifiers and huge racks of equipment and it took up a lot of space. The PDP-1 on the other hand, was entirely solid state and it took up about as much space as two large refrigerators. The principal difference was you could start it up yourself.”

An informal group of students, faculty, and research staff gathered in the halls of the Research Lab during the off-hours, eager to grab some time on the computers. “The PDP-1 was available pretty much at any time,” Graetz said. “Jack Dennis wrote out a schedule and people booked time on it.” Circulating through the mix were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club. Ostensibly they were a group of gear heads devoted to model trains but they had become increasingly preoccupied with designing “hacks” or clever improvisations that created new configurations out of scavenged technology.

Russell and Graetz, among others, had plans for the machine as well. “One of the things we knew was coming was this CRT that was going to be interactive, something that was not the case with the big mainframe computers,” Graetz remembered. “We thought how could we show off what this thing can do and it didn’t take long to realize the best way to show it off was with a game. It just seemed like a natural tendency. We were still thinking about E.E. Smith in a movie and we thought we could we do something like that. It didn’t take very long for us to figure out that the right kind of game would be a two-person game in which you tried to shoot each other out of space,” Graetz said.

“When we told Jack Dennis that we wanted to do this thing called Spacewar and could we have time on the computer he said, ‘I’ll give you a trade. If you can develop essentially the same assembly and diagnostic software, debugging software, that we had on the TX-0 for the PDP-1 over the weekend then, yeah, you can do this’,” Graetz remembered. Enthusiastic volunteers immediately set to work creating the software tools needed to make the machine dance. “What they did was they took the pieces of what amounted to an assembly and debugging program that we used on the TX-0 and they wrote the MACRO assembler and the DDT debugging program,” Graetz said.

“Having those things in hand, then we were allowed to have time on the machine to develop Spacewar. It started really with Russell programming the control program and then all of us pitching in to write different pieces of it and it went from there. We needed a few sub-routines that Alan Kotok got from Digital, a couple of multiplication and division sub-routines,” Graetz recalled. Initially, Russell was slow to start work on the game and the hackers were getting impatient. After Kotok delivered the sine-cosine routines, Russell was compelled to begin programming in earnest. Spacewar began to take shape in January of 1962 with a simple program that allowed controller switches to change the direction and acceleration of a dot moving on the computer’s CRT.

Within a month Russell had refined the program, creating two primitive spaceship representations moving independently across the screen. Called the “Needle” and the “Wedge”, the ships were piloted by two players who faced off in a deadly arena, firing torpedoes at one another as they dodged and spun, fighting the pull of inertia as well as each other. Because it was difficult to judge the ships’ relative speed on the black screen, Russell created a random star field to fill the background.

Once the basic game was in place, the programmers began a series of hacks to modify and extend its play. Through their ad-hoc efforts, Spacewar moved beyond its origins as a demonstration program and became a fully realized game. Originally controlled from input switches on the PDP-1’s frame, Spacewar was awkward to play, giving the person nearer to the CRT an advantage. Tech Model Railroad members quickly pieced together hand-held controllers out of spare switches, plywood, and Bakelite.

Russell’s random dot background was discarded and replaced by a realistic star field called “Expensive Planetarium.” Programmed by Peter Samson, Expensive Planetarium used star chart data to display a night sky that accurately showed the constellations, including the individual stars’ varying magnitudes.

In order to bring a strategic element to the game, fellow Tech Model Railroad Club member Dan Edwards contributed gravity calculations for the “Heavy Star,” a burning sun in the middle of the screen whose gravity affected the motion of the ships. If ships did not maintain thrust the Heavy Star would slowly draw them down into its fire, forcing players to consider its mass when vectoring their attacks.

Finally, Graetz created the Hyperspace Jump. If things were getting dicey, panicked players could hit a jump button and warp their ship out of danger, leaving a delicate photonic stress signature in their wake. However, resorting to hyperspace was a risky maneuver as players had only three chances to use it and its results were unreliable. Ships emerged from hyperspace at a random location on the screen, possibly out of harm’s way or possibly right into the Heavy Star.

By the spring of 1962, the game dreamed up under the influence of cheap sci-fi was finished.


Computer Bums

Not long after completing Spacewar, the hackers began to drift apart. Wiitanen was the first to go, leaving before the game was completed when he was called up for military duty during the Berlin Wall crisis in the fall of ‘61. Russell left for the West Coast and joined Stanford’s AI Laboratory. Graetz and Kotok went to work for Digital while Samson and Edwards moved on to MIT’s new Project MAC laboratory.

But Spacewar had a life of its own, spreading across the computer world like a benign virus. “It was the program that was run into the PDP-1 before it was shipped. It was the last thing—it was used as actually as a final test,” Graetz said. Because the PDP-1’s memory was composed of magnetic cores, small ferrite rings whose polarity indicated whether a bit was 1 or 0, the game stayed in memory even after the power was turned off. “Core memory is non-volatile and once Spacewar was working they just shut the machine down and shipped it. So when the customer set it up and turned it on the first thing they saw was Spacewar,” he explained.

Students at university computer labs embraced the game, drawn to its perfectly tuned combination of twitch and technique. Over the next decade, they would play Spacewar obsessively, holding impromptu late night tournaments. It was ported to every succeeding machine over the years with new generations of hackers adding variations and refinements to the game’s design.


Computer Space, Galaxy Game, and Space Wars

One of the many students playing Spacewar in the sixties was Nolan Bushnell, future founder of Atari. First experiencing the game while studying at the University of Utah, he became reacquainted with Spacewar after moving to California in 1969. Seeing the enthusiasm of players running the game on Stanford’s computers inspired Bushnell to create a coin-op version. Working out of his home, Bushnell struggled to make the game work on a Data General 1600 minicomputer. Unable to get the economics into the black, Bushnell realized that reproducing Spacewar in hardware, rather than software, was the answer.

Backed by an investment from Nutting Associates, Bushnell produced a coin-operated version called Computer Space in 1971. Housed in a Dali-esque molded fiberglass cabinet, Computer Space was an ambitious failure. While the game did well on college campuses, it flopped in working-class venues where patrons had little patience for the game’s complicated controls.

Working along parallel lines, Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck started a company called Computer Recreations, Inc. in 1971 to create their own coin-op Spacewar. Unlike Bushnell’s, their version called Galaxy Game, ran on an expensive PDP-11 minicomputer. In 1972, they built a multiplayer unit that operated in a Stanford coffee shop for seven years.

Later in the decade when the arcade scene was in full swing, Cinematronics produced another arcade version of Spacewar imaginatively called Space Wars. Developed by Larry Rosenthal in 1977, Space Wars utilized a low-cost processor combined with a black and white vector display. Graetz remembered seeing Cinematronics version of Spacewar in the seventies. “I got really pissed off about it. I was walking by one of those arcades that were really common back then and happened to see a screen that had the Spacewar opening on it,” he said.

When programming the original game back in ’62 the creators gave little thought to its financial potential. “There was a very brief discussion, probably less than a minute, about finding some way to copyright Spacewar, but there were two things; one, nobody knew if it was copyrightable, two, it wouldn’t make any money anyway because the game platform was $120,000,” Graetz recalled.


Death Match

After completing Spacewar, the idea for a networked game was discussed called Console Oriented Spacewar. “It never got off the ground, partly because we had no idea how to do it, and partly because we started drifting to various other places and other parts of the country,” Graetz remembered. “But we thought if we could reprogram it for the TX-0—we had already run a communications link, a serial link between the two computers—if we could somehow reprogram it so when you’re sitting at the PDP-1 in front of the CRT and you’re sitting in front of the CRT at the TX-0 you were looking out into space and seeing the other guy.”

In Stewart Brand’s December 1972 Rolling Stone article “Spacewar - Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums”, Russell said, “One of the important things in Spacewar is the pace. It's relatively fast-paced and that makes it an interesting game. It seems to be a reasonable compromise between action—pushing buttons—and thought. Thought does help you, and there are some tactical considerations, but just plain fast reflexes also help.”

To say that Spacewar was ahead of its time is an understatement. It would be almost thirty years before its multi-player “death match” style play would become commonplace. “Using the computer as the game board, rather than as one of the participants, was brand new,” Graetz said. “This was the first time anyone had developed a game that treated the computer as the game board and you played against someone else.”


Incunabula

“We were just having fun. There was no inkling that computers would develop the way they would,” Graetz said. “Nobody knew what programming was. It was something you did to make a computer do things but it had no existence apart from the computer,” Graetz said. “The word ‘software’ didn’t come into existence until just about the time that we got Spacewar done. In fact, the first use of the word in a DEC catalog spelled it wrong. Even after it had a name, nobody knew what it was.”

- Jeffrey Fleming


This is a revised version of an article first published 06.01.07 on Gamasutra. You can read the original at: Down the Hyper-Spatial Tube: Spacewar and the Birth of Digital Game Culture.