EGM Magazine is Dead

egm-magazineEGM Magazine Closed by Buyer

Well, EGM Magazine lovers… I feel guilty, although I probably shouldn’t.

On Jan. 7th, Ziff Davis announced that they’ve closed down the entire EGM magazine publishing operation, only days after my post criticizing the clipping problem they had on their Gears of War 2 cover.

Okay, I admit that there’s definitely zero correlation between my tiny knock (mostly aimed at the GoW 2 game artist, anyhow) and the shuttering of this game writing and analysis institution. Still, I feel a little bad for having thrown some flack in their direction at such a lousy stage of their lifespan.

Technically, Ziff* didn’t kick EGM and its many game writers to the curb. It was UGO Entertainment, a branch of Hearst, which bought EGM and promptly snuffed the mag and its antiquated print operation. Paper! Hmph! Who reads paper, anyhow?

Well, suckers, I do. I get sick of staring at a monitor for hours a day.

EGM and Vinyl

A decade ago, people couldn’t wait to unload their old records. Now collectors are pursuing lost vinyl treasures, USB turntables are in stock at every Best Buy, and DJs sweat buckets transporting milk crates of records from gig to gig.

We may be readying for a new era of e-ink where everything we read is digital and looks like paper. But that “paperless society” meme has clearly revealed itself to be the worst kind of marketing horseshit.

EGM Had Real Value

Also, Ziff and UGO are fools for trashing one of the game industry’s finest brands. We’re talking about EGM. Magazine, schmagazine, this is the last grand game review stalwart. We’re supposed to read Game Informer now? And after the dustup at Gamespot, how can we trust game websites?

Ask any marketing student or business professor. A brand is worth hard currency; it’s a name that carries weight and has been built into a reputable entity over decades of effort. I know newspapers and magazines are struggling to monetize their brands, but if you owned The New York Times, would you shut it down cold because you can’t figure out how to make a buck off it?

* Ziff does own the singular distinction of having deep-sixed the legendary CGW, which they first slapped with the moniker Games for Windows as a final insult.

Game artist: caught clipping

game artistA game artist goofup

A game artist has a hard life.

You spend years – nay, a lifetime – honing your skills and craft. You sketch incessantly, driven by your passion for visual expression. You paint, you sculpt, you design, you draft.

After your traditional art training, you pick up the digital tools of creation. Your fingers are constantly molded to a mouse or a Wacom stylus. Your eyes grow bleary from texturing armies of space soldiers and modeling armories worth of fantasy broadswords. Day after day, night after night, you trudge into the office to tweak pixels to satisfy the lead game artist or please the whims of some publicity flack.

Or you’re rendering a cover shot for the art director of a major videogame industry magazine.

And then, dear game artist from the mega-AAA title Gears of War 2, you <ahem> goof it up royally and send the art director this shot of Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix ingesting a Locust drone…

through the side of his face.

This is a phenomenon known as clipping, if you’re new to the game design world. Two gameworld objects, one personal space. Happens a lot in even the best videogames. It’s tough to get complex interactions between animated objects without a few polys getting intersected here and there.

On the other hand, it’s not every day that you see the faces of two characters mashed through each other on the cover of a big gaming mag.

In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen it.

So… happy holidays, Mr. Gears Game Artist. I probably should’ve kept my mouth shut, and made your life a little easier. But I couldn’t believe what I saw, and I had to share at your expense.

Game design innovation… in today’s market?

game-design

I guess a few game designers were paying attention

The game design plaint that I most routinely dispense is doubtlessly one you’re familiar with. Game design is a dying craft. Publishers have forgotten what makes great games. Sequels are the spawn of Satan.

But maybe I was wrong.

A few fresh game design ideas are out and thriving

That’s right – I surveyed the market today using regression analysis and a four-variable study of the current holiday offerings, based on SKUs shipped, sales totals, sales velocity, and foreign distribution per capita. (Just kidding. Totally unscientific, but based on media coverage, advertising, and the ol’ sales chart.)

I have to commend publishers and developers for actually taking a few real game design risks. The primary success I see, of course, is the Nintendo Wii, which demonstrates that fresh game design starts with risky hardware and a canny knowledge of the gaming audience, its potential for growth, and most of all, that elusive forgotten factor called “fun.” Nintendo game designers understand that “fun” and “gigaflops per CPU clock cycle” are not necessarily tied at the hip.

Some games that are changing the ‘scape

I’m also encouraged by these titles. Maybe there’s hope.

Mirror’s Edge. Brilliant visual design and gameplay that might actually make something out of the rooftop-hopping game dynamic that went nowhere in Assassin’s Creed.

Little Big Planet. A fresh world, a world-building approach, and not a bullet in sight. Is it possible? Don’t get me wrong. I love shooters as much as the next game designer. I just want a balanced game concept diet, y’know?

Spore. Will Wright still marches to his own drummer. Certainly appeals to me more than the Sims.

Rock Band and Guitar Hero. Sure, once you saw the game design for DDR, you probably could’ve come up with the concept for these two. But did you? And c’mon, you have to admit that rockin’ the living room with your pals kicks the pants off Jenga.

The game sales chart still says “FAIL”

At the same time, the game designs that are dominating the sales chart are indeed largely sequels. Madden. (I know, it’s football season.) Mario Kart. GT. Other Mario games. Soulcalibur IV. Tiger Woods.

Still, I’m encouraged to see some fresh blood slowly being injected into the game design bloodstream. Without new ideas, the industry will die, or become trivialized and marginalized like comic books and (shudder) the sports card collectibles industry.

Maybe someday game design will be less of a craft and more of an art.

Ah, what the heck am I saying. Set your sights low. We might get some eye candy that engages a few different brain cells than last year’s game design crop. And that in itself is a revolution.

Do good.

do-good

Do Good Now

Do good while doing nothing? How about working on a cure for cancer while picking your nose? How many of you can do that? That’s what I’m doing today. I’m gonna do good while doing absolutely nothing.

Okay, to tell the truth, I’m going to do good by installing the World Community Grid applet. And yes, it will do its good work – solving a small share of giant computing problems like a cure for cancer – using my PC whenever I’m not using the CPU.

Other do-good-er tasks that the World Community Grid is tackling include mapping human proteomes, researching rice proteins to help farmers raise better crops, and finding ways to cure dengue fever and AIDS. Sponsored by IBM and a number of major unis, the World Community Grid is a fantastic, safe, free way for you to do good while sitting on your butt.

If you’re familiar with the SETI screensaver, you know the concept. Do good while doing nothing. Except, frankly, I think a cure for cancer is a helluva lot more likely, and will do more good, than discovering bug-eyed monsters from the Sci-Fi Channel.

Do Good at Work

If you’re an IT professional, at a game design contractor or elsewhere, you should see if you can get some of your execs or your CTO on board with this particular do-good opportunity. A large corporation or even a corporate department can have hundreds of idle computers at any given moment.

Those clock cycles could be doing good things instead of running around empty-headed. Idle hands are the devil’s playground! Get that silicon to do some good work!

How to Do Some Good with Your Idleness

Ok, here’s the link to the World Community Grid. Get out there and do some good.

Videogame controversy: Seanbaby is Killzone hero

I have a “Separated at Birth” videogame controversy that rocks the foundations of the videogame reporting world.

So… in August’s issue of EGM magazine, they published a letter likening GTA4’s Niko Bellic to some Serbian baddie from Behind Enemy Lines. C’mon, seriously. Behind Enemy Lines? Let’s talk about a real eerie likeness.

I’m talking about a cover story videogame and one of EGM’s own game writers. That’s right. The party’s over. I know.

I know that Killzone 2’s main man is a thinly-veiled digital tribute to EGM’s own Seanbaby.

There it is. I’ve said it, and damn the consequences. I can hear the helicopters circling already. I’ll be hunted, but at least my comrades in videogamer-y will know the truth!

Sgt. Tomas Sevchenko is Seanbaby. Just pull out your August issue of this great videogame mag and flip back and forth between pages 61 and 90.

I knew Seanbaby was powerful. The Olsen twins tremble at the mention of his name. But now I truly grok how the system works. Developer Guerilla Games wants a cover story. EGM says, “What’s in it for us, bustaz?!?” And then Guerilla Games… cravenly caves to EGM’s vainglorious demands! Seanbaby’s distinctive leer, pasty complexion, Dumbo ears, brooding eyebrows, and signature two-tone mohawk/coxcomb/headcrest. It’s all right there on page 61. As Tomas Sevchenko.

And then Guerilla gets their cover story. It’s fan service, targeted at one special, super-powerful, uber-sarcastic videogame writer fan.

God help us all.

– mr. videogame writer guy, fugitive

[editor’s note: EGM is a fantastic mag, and after some of the tiffs they’ve had with advertisers who want to control their content, I’d be the last guy to cast doubts on their journalistic integrity. But let’s face it: the sardonic and often hilarious Seanbaby does look a lot like Sevchenko.]

The videogame writing smackdown of the month

videogame-writerThe videogame writing quandry

Videogame writing often gets overlooked in the modern videogame development process. There’s no hiding from the raw facts.

From EGM’s review of Alone in the Dark for Xbox 360:

AITD wants to emulate the presentation of serial television, but neither the writing nor the “performances” compare to even TV’s least-essential shows. Certain events benefit from a dramatic camera view, but the unlikable cast of needlessly angry antiheroes punctuates dialogue with romantic cliches and superfluous cursing in such a way that you’re not hearing unique characters – you’re hearing one writer who ran out of ideas.

Sigh.

A highly-qualified team of dozens of engineers, artists, animators, modelers, scripters, level builders, producers, marketeers, and managers spent years working on this product. Man-decades of work went into making it. The franchise has benefited from even more time and expense; the original PC game was the progenitor of survival horror videogames.

And this reviewer reserved 75% of his comments about the game for the videogame writing.

Why videogame writing usually sucks

1) Dev priorities. Making a game is a ridiculously huge undertaking. Most of the software has to be written from scratch; even if the developer uses middleware, tons of customization and game-specific functions must be created and tested. While the dev team struggles to maintain a stable environment, the designers, engineers, and artists must ride that buggy, half-built, half-realized swaybacked mule and perform their delicate and deadline-pressured work. It’s like trying to paint the Mona Lisa on a moving city bus while psychos constantly steal your brushes and replace them with crayons.

Because the technical challenges are so great, game writing becomes a bit of an afterthought. Videogame writing is malleable and stable. As long as the game writing doesn’t alter the flow of the game, it can be changed up until the 11th hour. It’s generally not a huge challenge to replace one dialog line with another, or move some narration from one level to another.

2) Everyone thinks they’re a videogame writer. How may of your friends want to write a novel someday? How many of those novels do you think will be really worth reading? The same is true of videogame developers, except more so, because they’re generally creative folks.

However, for every videogame designer, engineer, or producer who has a writing background and serious literary chops, there are five to ten others who lack that background. Unfortunately, all of them would love to get a crack at doing the videogame writing for their current game.

The videogame team leaders, who are budget-constrained and harried, usually give them that opportunity or take it for themselves.

3) Bringing in a videogame writer can seem like an insult to the game staff. When not handled well, the introduction of a videogame writer can chafe at egos and cause team dissension. Management has to work with the videogame dev team to emphasize how the writer will actually reduce workloads, develop the plot and thematic points that they’ve so carefully crafted, and carry the responsibility of polishing dialog and storyline in crunch times when the team will have little time or patience for inspecting niceties like development of ancillary characters.

Why videogame writing shouldn’t suck

1) Game writing doesn’t crash. I know this is a shock, but videogame writing doesn’t cause A-class bugs or videogame crashes. Never has a game been recalled because there was a critical flaw in the writing.

2) Videogame writing has no dependencies. A game’s plot and character development can be created in a vacuum. Game writing doesn’t need special tools, art assets, or a stable “build” of the game development software.

Of course, good videogame writing generally is the product of constant feedback from the entire game dev team, adapting to changes in character design, art style, and level design. And those changes can easily precipitate changes to code, design, and even art. Still, the fact is that videogame writing is remarkably independent of other game development efforts, and as a result, it can be very polished regardless of the state of the overall game.

3) Game writing is vital to your game’s success. Let’s face it: videogame writing can sink an otherwise legitimate game. Players rely on game writing to give them motivation and excitement. Cheesy or cliched videogame writing sucks all the joy out of a player’s experience. There’s nothing sadder than a good game that doesn’t motivate players to enjoy the whole experience.

4) Hiring a videogame writer is cheap and efficient. Just compare the hourly rates of contract programmers and contract videogame writers. Good videogame writers take some effort to find, but they won’t bust your budget. And hiring a videogame writer takes an extremely visible part of your game out of overworked dev team members’ hands and puts it in the experienced hands of someone who can devote their full attention to it.

In fact, we’d argue that game writing shouldn’t suck. Ever.

If you’d like to chat with us about how game writing can fit into your production flow, please contact us for a free game writing consultation.

“The Fall” is a movie you’ll regret not seeing

Screenwriting: See “The Fall” while you can

the_fall_7.jpgI caught this gem recently on the strength of its trailer, and I definitely don’t regret it. Visually stunning and filled with subtle heart, it’s worth your time.

Here’s the summary: a little girl and a young man are both in a hospital, recovering from injuries; his are grievous, caused by a stunt he attempted for the love of a woman. They become friends, and he begins to tell her a fantastic story of epic heroes and villainy, filled with adventure in improbable places, like the Arabian Nights or any folk tale you can name. The director, Tarsem (The Cell with Jennifer Lopez), shows off both his music video chops and his love of incredible international locations with the settings.

The screenwriting genius here is that the young man is in a lot of pain, physically and emotionally, and he’s telling the story to entice the girl to steal morphine for him, perhaps to reduce his pain, perhaps to hide from reality, and perhaps to kill himself. It’s based on an obscure little foreign film with a much smaller budget called Yo Ho Ho, which you can find at IMDB.

Tarsem made this as a labor of love over the course of five years. It stars virtual unknowns, and that’s my best guess as to why you haven’t heard of it. This movie deserves to be seen on the big screen. Trust me.

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts on Creativity

JJ Abrams’ Lost Thoughts, get it? Ha ha… sorry. Anyhow, a friend recently turned me on to TED.com, a site where you can view talks from the cognoscenti from all sorts of incredible fields and backgrounds.

On TED, I recently found this entertaining and thoughtful lecture by JJ Abrams, the creative guy behind Lost, Cloverfield, Alias, and more.

Game designers should take note of his praise of the democratization of creativity. JJ Abrams works in an industry where a couple of dudes with standard desktop PCs can build all the effects necessary to make Lost or any other JJ Abrams production.

Someday, perhaps ordinary gamers will be able to do the same with a few game consoles. Now that would be a game design revolution, and it’s one that we’re already seeing hints of with some of the downloadable content for the 360 and PS3. It’s certainly in the best interests of console manufacturers, who would be happy to see game designers kicked to the curb in favor of a “reality TV” kind of vox populi revolution in game content.

A moment of Amy Winehouse levity from Photoshop Disasters

amy-winehouse-gets-new-handPhotoshop Disasters is often good for a howl. And it fits nicely into my “geek skills” category on this blog.

With great power comes great responsibility, yadda yadda yadda. As if Amy Winehouse doesn’t have enough problems… she now has Thing growing out of her left shoulder.

(Click to visit Photoshop Disasters. They’ve got some doozies.)

Gears of War 2 gets a new smoke grenade

Gears of War fans, rejoice. The gameplay for those previously useless smoke grenades is getting a facelift.

In the first Gears of War, the smoke grenades were as useful as they would be in a Quake 3 deathmatch. There’s really nothing tactical about GoW; it’s a pure twitch game with zero stealth. And I’m not knocking it. It does what it does, and does it pretty dang well.

Fortunately, that gameplay is getting an upgrade. The GoW 2 smoke grenades will deliver a shock blast that stuns players within the grenades’ explosive radius. Even better: the grenades will have a unique tactical function, knocking shields out of the hands of any targets in the blast area.

(Shields are another new feature, allowing players and NPCs to roam around with a fair-sized bit of portable cover, like the jackals from Halo.)

That’s the news from here. Keep those thumbs happy.