Monthly Archives: February 2008

Music break

Time for a musical interlude!

  • My pal Jared recently shared the 1977 David Bowie song "What in the World" with me. Everyone (or at least everyone of a certain age) listening to it today can't not think of Pac-Man and its arcade contemporaries, even though these games wouldn't debut for several more years. That Bowie; such a visionary!
  • I fixed the link to the Black Knight 2000 soundtrack that was featured way back in episode 1. That's the circa-1989 pinball game we're playing beneath the closing credits. Are you able to listen to this and not be overcome with the desire to go into multiball mode right now? No, you are not.
  • If you've ever wanted to listen to the whole thing without my yapping all over it, here's the full version of the Gameshelf theme song that my co-host Joe Johnston composed. It's over at Joe's music page.

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Gameplay casting call: March 11

There'll be a Gameshelf gameplay shoot (the first of 2008!) on the evening of Tuesday, March 11, at the SCAT studio in Union Square, Somerville. Guest call is 7pm, and the shoot will last until 10pm. I am looking to have between five and eight guests lined up, so if you're already in my talent pool (that is, if I know who you are), and you're willing and able to attend, please let me know ASAP.

We'll be playing a bunch of games produced by Boston-area designers this time, including The Battle for Hill 218, Rochambeau Twist, and either Warp 6 or a surprise game. All are fast and lightweight and we should have no trouble fitting them all in. Still, I'd like to arrange some rehearsal beforehand so that everyone knows how to play, so please do contact me soon if you're interested in playing on the air.

If you're not in my talent pool, but would like to attend anyway just to see how the show works, you're welcome to visit! Just drop me a line first, so I'll know to expect you.

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Mushroom Men: The Spore Wars

Thumbnail image for mushroommen.pngI remembered Mushroom Men since its first teaser trailer released in February 2007. They never really released any information other than the fact that it's a third-person action/adventure, it will be for the Wii and DS and it involves mushrooms.

The basic plot is that a green comet flew above Earth, raining green radioactive dust. While the radiation was rendered harmless to humans, nobody noticed the mushrooms and other plants gaining sentience and starting an all-out war! What caught my attention to this game was the first trailer. It didn't show any type of gameplay or cinematics. It was a high-resolution video with a kickass heavy metal riff in the background, showing very high-quality colorful artwork of backgrounds, houses, and the toughest mutant mushrooms I have ever seen in my life. The trailer proved that this game is in fact, an IP game: Intellectual Property. Red Fly Studio came up with this concept by themselves, it is original and not a rip-off of a franchise on TV or movies.

After a few months, they released another trailer, explaining the storyline a bit more, and showed some in-development gameplay videos. A nice feature is the ability to collect objects such as toothpicks, bolts, dental floss, razor blades and even corncob holders which can be combined together to create weapons to fight against enemies. For the DS version, they revealed that it would be a 2.5D sidescroller that will be a prequel to the Wii version.

What made me think about this game was the talk about Super Smash Bros. Melee being released next month. I thought about other good Wii games that are worth buying and I realized that I completely forgot about Mushroom Men. It's been so long since I've heard about anything else, because their website didn't reveal anything new. No videos, articles, or any information about the different types of mushrooms. I thought about Battalion Wars 2 for a moment, yet I like the idea of Mushroom Men better because it doesn't seem to have those thick over-exaggerated voices that Battalion Wars 2 has. Unfortunately, Mushroom Men doesn't seem like a game that will have any online play of any kind. I really wish that more games would make more use of Nintendo WiFi Connection, I still play Picross online and its always fun. There hasn't been any new puzzles released yet for Professor Layton either. I also suck at Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass online, so it's just an offline adventure for me.

I like Intellectual Property games. It's hard to describe what makes a game an IP title. When a developer creates a game, the publishers own the rights to the name, characters and plot; there are game publishers out there who will allow the developers to keep the rights to the game that they have made, meaning that they have full control over what they can do with their game, and if they work with another publisher, they still keep the rights to that game, and can basically do whatever they want with their title. The people who will publish Mushroom Men, Gamecock Media Group, have also published Dementium: The Ward for the DS, a scary game with lots of dark shadows and annoying regenerating monsters. It was described as "Doom meets Silent Hill".

Mushroom Men is scheduled to be released some time in 2008. The Wii really needs some good games that are original, and not based on any movie licenses or mini-games. The idea of combining small household items to build weapons, the deep storyline behind the botanical war, colorful visuals and different characters will make this game stand out, and looks like a war worth taking part in. There's a lot of stuff behind this game that haven't been revealed yet, with a lot of potential of becoming a fast-paced and extremely fun game. With the freedom that Gamecock Media Group has been known for, what Mushroom Men becomes is completely up to the developers, Red Fly Studio.

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Costikyan on the need for game criticism

Indie-game publisher/agitator Greg Costikyan returns from the recent Game Developers Conference all fired up from a session about game journalism he attended, where he feels he witnessed panelists repeatedly conflating art critiques with product reviews. He ends up writing a lengthy impassioned plea for the game-media community to learn the difference.

Have I made it clear now? Reviews are the inevitable epiphenomenon of our consumer society, writing to help consumers navigate the innumerable options available to them. They can be well or poorly done, but they are nothing more than ephemera. I'm sure the newspapers of early 19th century America ran reviews of the novels of James Fenimore Cooper; they are utterly forgotten, and should be, because by nature they were of interest only to the readers of the newspapers of the time. Contrariwise, Mark Twain's Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses is still considered an examplar of literary criticism.


Similarly, there would be no point today in writing a review of Ultima IV, since it is long out of print. A useful work of criticism, however, is entirely conceivable: discussing, perhaps, its role as one of the first games to consider the moral implications of a player's acts, and to use tactical combat as a minigame within the context of a larger, more strategic title. Such an article, well-written, ideally with an understanding of the influence of tabletop roleplaying on the development of the early western CRPG, and of the place of this title in the overall shape of Richard Garriot's ouevre would be of interest to readers today, even if they'd be hard put to find a way to buy the damn game. And it might find a place in anthologies and studies of the 20th century origins of the popular medium of the game, going forward into the indefinite future.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't have anything like game criticism, and we need it -- to inform gamers, to hold developers to task, and to inform our broader cultural understanding of games and their importance and impact on our culture.

We need our own Pauline Kaels and John Simons -- and we need to ensure that when they appear, no one insists that they attach a damn numerical score to their writing, because that is wholly irrelevant to the undertaking of writing seriously about games.

And even in a more proximate matter, we need those drudges called reviewers, despite the meager pay they receive, to think more seriously about critical issues, too. Why should a review of an RTS which doesn't understand the historical evolution of that genre and the place a particular work holds in the spectrum of previously published RTS be considered of the slightest interest?

Yes. Inspiration to start producing The Gameshelf was born over similar frustrations over the game media I had a few years ago (and, for the most part, continue to have). I can only hope that the show and its blog can at least make reaching motions in the direction that Greg is pointing, here.

By the way, Greg's Play This Thing! is a very smart small-group blog about interesting games and related topics. By which I mean, if you enjoy the Gameshelf Blog, you should probably drop this other one into your RSS reader too.

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More quick links

Kit O'Connell writes about playing Morrowind:

I want to suggest that there is also an 'Uncanny Valley' of sorts in world-building, that when creating imaginary worlds which feel real to us there is a point where something is uncomfortably almost-but-not-quite real.

(from The uncanny valley of world building, Kit O'Connell)

Much debate follows in the comments, including whether Kit was even understanding his exemplar Morrowind anecdote correctly. Nonethless, a useful idea to apply.

I know, it's on BoingBoing, which means you've already seen it. Nonetheless:

The distributed fiction of I Love Bees was designed as a kind of investigative playground, in which players could collect, assemble and interpret thousands of different story pieces related to the Halo universe. By reconstructing and making sense of the fragmented fiction, the fans would collaboratively author a narrative bridge between the first Halo videogame and its sequel. As the project’s lead writer Sean Stewart explains: "Instead of telling a story, we would present the evidence of that story, and let the players tell it to themselves."

(from Why I Love Bees, Jane McGonigal)

The kind of game design that the creators were exploring will be instantly familiar to fans of the MIT Mystery Hunt:

I would argue that the primary puzzle of I Love Bees embodied a meaningful ambiguity. That is, the data set lacked the clarity of formal interactive instructions, yet maintained a distinctively sensical nature. That is, the choice and ordering of the coordinates did not seem nonsensical. Instead, its arrangement was structured and seemingly intentional enough that it promised to mean something, if only approached in the right way. This meaning was implied through the specificity, volume and overtly designed presentation of the data.

But a Mystery Hunt is largely fixed in form at launch time; it has to be, to allow many teams to compete on a fair basis. The designers may have to fix puzzles on the fly, and perhaps delete some, but they won't usually invent new ones. Certainly not based on a particular team's theory.

I Love Bees, in contrast, was gleefully extended as the (single, universal) team of players made progress. The article goes on to describe how the collective intelligence went way beyond what the creators expected. By the end, the creators were flinging together puzzles that required tremendous feats of player cooperation and networking. The players wound up making dictionaries of game information that were more complete and consistent than what the creators had built. And then the creators started relying on these dictionaries to design later puzzles, and mining ideas from incorrect solving theories...

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Martian 12s wins the winter IGDC

Congratulations to Avri Klemer for Martian 12s, the winner of the Winter 2008 Icehouse Game Design Competition. It is a gambling game for two to five players, and like all the entries in this materials-restricted competition, it requires two (and only two) Treehouse sets to play.

A round of applause from The Gameshelf for all twelve eight games entered into the contest! All are listed on the competition page, with links to each game's rules.

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Legos, Cliques, and the Invisible Hand

Legos are not a game, but you can play games with Legos. Two teachers at a child-care center in Seattle talk about Why We Banned Legos, and how they brought them back in. (Link via coffeeandink.)

A group of about eight children conceived and launched Legotown. Other children were eager to join the project, but as the city grew -- and space and raw materials became more precious -- the builders began excluding other children.

Occasionally, Legotown leaders explicitly rebuffed children, telling them that they couldn't play. Typically the exclusion was more subtle, growing from a climate in which Legotown was seen as the turf of particular kids. [...] As they closed doors to other children, the Legotown builders turned their attention to complex negotiations among themselves about what sorts of structures to build, whether these ought to be primarily privately owned or collectively used, and how "cool pieces" would be distributed and protected.

(from Why We Banned Legos, Ann Pelo and Kendra Pelojoaquin)

This is a microcosm of the player-created content economy, to which so many modern MMO games and social web sites aspire. The MMO games rely directly on "cool pieces" -- resources of limited availability. Content-sharing sites like Youtube don't have explicit limitations, but the experience crystallizes out around scarcity anyway; eyeballs, attention, popularity. Social capital, in short.

I am a devotee of the gift economy. I have been ever since I got to college and fell into the decadent stews of free software and free (Usenet) conversation. (Before that, there was pirated software. Which was shared by us junior-high-school reprobates in the same way, once we'd pried it loose from the DRM-encrusted, clearly-unworthy hands of the software industry. I'm not making excuses, I'm just explaining my roots.)

I use the gift economy as a model wherever I can. It's built into Volity, our nascent board-game site; it's my plan for Boodler, my half-finished sound-effects project; it underlay my suggestions for player-created Ages in the now-cancelled Myst Online. But equal opportunity does not mean "fairness". Do we have an explicit notion of how to offer equal fun, in the face of social power laws? (That is, the inevitability that a few people will wind up famous/important/influential.)

Legotown was not, please note, the result of simplistic selfishness. These kids had strong attachments to fair play, concensus decision-making, and generosity:

Carl: "We didn't 'give' the pieces, we found and shared them."

Lukas: "It's like giving to charity."

Carl: "I don't agree with using words like 'gave.' Because when someone wants to move in, we find them a platform and bricks and we build them a house and find them windows and a door."

These children seemed to squirm at the implications of privilege, wealth, and power that "giving" holds. The children denied their power, framing it as benign and neutral, not something actively sought out and maintained.

(names of children have been changed by the authors)

The kids negotiated rules; they planned to spread the fun around. Their response to resource shortages was to propose community standards, such as building-plot size limits. Nonetheless, they wound up in a situation where a few children -- including Carl and Lukas above -- effectively excluded the rest.

Being eight and nine years old, they didn't have a clear grasp of the differences between intent, self-image, and outcome:

During the boom days of Legotown, we'd suggested to the key Lego players that there was an unequal distribution of power giving rise to conflict and tension. Our suggestions were met with deep resistance. Children denied any explicit or unfair power, making comments like "Somebody's got to be in charge or there would be chaos," and "The little kids ask me because I'm good at Legos." They viewed their power as passive leadership, benignly granted, arising from mastery and long experience with Legos, as well as from their social status in the group.

Oh ye with social capital on the Internet, raise your hand if that's never been you. Mm-hmm. It sure sounds like me, in many contexts.

The Legotown story continues through discussions between the teachers and the children; a demonstrative trading game as a microcosm of the microcosm (yay!); a supervised Lego building project; discussion of the kids' principles (shared power, collectivity, creative expression); and finally the rebuilding of Legotown, under a new set of rules -- developed by the children -- which dealt directly with access rights, community standards, and resource management.

And I'm using polysyllabic words, but all of these things are right in the forefront of kids' minds. All of them are linchpins of every Internet community and game world, from the first design document to launch day to popular peak. Go finish the article, and you will recognize them on sight.

So what do we do with this perspective? I have no answer beyond "Remember it, and be mindful of what you do." So I will tack.

I have a theory -- not tested at all -- that whenever you build a social structure, you should plan for schism. What happens when this falls apart? What happens when you have a screaming argument with your partner and he walks out? What happens when someone starts a competing group? What happens when someone wants to join, but he doesn't like you so he never bothers? (That's the hidden "schism", more damaging than the overt screaming argument, because you never see it -- that person's potential contribution just evaporates.)

In a command model, the answers are simple and merciless: somebody wins, somebody is cut out. You try to make sure you stay on top.

The gift economy wants to avoid this struggle. It doesn't always succeed. I propose that one major cause of failure is the fear of schism. A group (or person) gets the notion that they are necessary. That means that any rival, whether from within the group or outside, is an enemy -- they're not bad people, of course, but they'll bring down the whole community with their challenge. And then begin the rules, the definitions of who's a member, and all the other cruft of command.

More subtly: the group's goals change from "empower people" to "empower our people". I mean, it's not subtle when I say it like that. But when the Uru Guild of Writers was setting itself up, there was tension between two notions: "Our goal is to help people create Ages" vs "Our goal is to create Ages". And it's not a semantic triviality. In the former case, if a rival Guild arises, that's great -- they're helping more players create more Ages. Our goal is being accomplished. In the latter case, a rival Guild is creating Ages... hey, that's our job! We're failing at our goal! What gives?

Even if there's no notion of controlling Age creation -- and that notion certainly arose in the Uru community -- the Guild still has to worry about being made obsolete. New creators might create Ages for them, thus leaving our Guild to wither and stagnate. Which is a legitimate fear, but it drives people to defend their turf.

I'm sorry; I burble on about the nonexistent future of Uru. The generalization: love your schisms. Cheer your rivals. Define your membership as everyone who hangs out with you, not as everyone you accept. Make sure your social structure is not threatened by outsiders; provide paths by which they can organize without you; choose aims which are strengthened by their work "against" you.

That way, when something goes nasty in the state of Denmark -- or Legotown -- you won't have any motivation to either block or co-opt them. Which will do wonders for keeping the drama-gnomes away.

One more quote, which is somewhat about power, but entirely about why we're here. In the toy game I mentioned, the winners in the first round got to change the rules for the second round.

Kyla added this rule to the game: "If you have more than one green [high-value piece], you have to trade one of them." [...]

Kyla: "I wasn't trying to make other people feel bad. I felt bad when people felt bad, so I tried to make a rule that would make them feel better. It was fun to make up the rule -- like a treat, to be one of only three people out of the whole group."

Yeah, kid, that's it -- not the "only three" -- but the "make up a rule". Work with that.

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Quick link:

Just discovered, a blog specifically about digital games that have co-op modes. This is the relatively rare (and even more rarely done well) feature that allows two or more people to play a game on the same "side", helping each other tackle the game's obstacles together. A clever idea for a narrow-focused game blog! (Via Wonderland.)

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Mutants, Magic and Isometric Bitmaps


Howdy kids! It's Sideshow Joe Johnston, co-host of The Gameshelf. I wanted to add on to what Kevin Jackson-Mead said about one of my favorite genres of video games: Computer Role-Playing Games (CRPG).

As a little dude growing up in the late seventies, I was introduced to the pen and paper game by TSR (now Wizards of the Coast) called Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you've heard of it? Now the real drag about D&D for me was all the manual bookkeeping that was required. Mapping, character sheets, marching order -- too much like Real Work for me.

It would be years later when I got my hands on a real computer to play Might and Magic II by the tragically defunct New World Computing. Mapping was automatic and even battle could be automated via QuickFight. I love games that play themselves so that I can grab a beverage. Of the M&M series, I enjoyed 4&5 (Clouds of Xeen) the most.

I love isometric 3D tile games, mostly because First Person Shooters make me physically ill. I enjoy turn-based combat games because I not very nibble anymore. As many others have noted, perhaps the finest CRPG yet made is Fallout, the Post-Nuclear adventure series. While I only once played Gamma World, it's clear that the folks at Black Isle Studios really got the flavor and the mechanics right. Heck, the narrator of opening montage for the first three Fallout titles is Ron Perlman, Hellboy himself! I jumped into the series with Fallout 2, which included a much-improved UI and expanded game. However, I think the original Fallout had a more coherent story line. Both should be played by any RPG fan.

When I have more time, I will talk at length about Fallout's SPECIAL system, which is just a ducky model for RPGs in general (even though it's based on GURPS, which isn't quite my cup of tea).

Today, I ran across a fantasy RPG called Undercroft by Rack in the Grass. When I have finished the game, I'll post a review here.

I'm a big fan of independent game designers (like Rake in the Grass) and will try to feature in this blog those games that might have escaped your notice, as well as going on like a fan boy about games you already know a lot about. I'll also dive into the world of TSR's minigames like Vampire and Revolt on Antares. Finally, I love a good casual Flash game, like Funeral Quest.

If you don't like the content, you can get double your money back!

More content later.

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Comments feed

Quick note: I just set up a comments feed, which you'll also find linked from the sidebar. Lemme know if it doesn't seem to work for you.

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Computer Role-Playing Games

Since this is my first post, a bit of an introduction. My name is Kevin Jackson-Mead, and you can see my lovely face in Gameshelf Episode 1 (playing Shadows over Camelot) and Gameshelf Episode 3 (playing Gnostica). My current favorite game is usually one that I have recently learned, but right now it's Strange Synergy, an old favorite (anyone want to play?). By day, I am an editor at a book publisher where I am responsible for, among other things, books on computer game development.

Some of the books may be interesting to this audience, but I don't want want to come on here and plug my books all the time. However, a book that just came out is, I think, particularly relevant, so I'll get the plugging out of the way with my first post.

I would imagine that the genre of computer role-playing games (CRPGs) is known to most people reading this, but the basic idea is tabletop role playing (like Dungeons & Dragons) brought to the computer desktop (or console). My introduction to this genre was via my uncle, who played the Ultima games. I only watched him play a little bit, and I never ended up playing the Ultima games, but I do remember that one of the games came with a cloth map and a metal ankh. I now know that this was Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, which is widely considered to be the best in the series and even one of the best computer games ever.

The first CRPG that I played on my own computer (Commodore 64) was Phantasie. I was completely thrilled with all of the stats, figuring out what spells my wizards and priests could get at what level, the Tolkienesque theme, the little noises during combat—pretty much everything about the game. I ended up playing all three games in the series. I later played Pool of Radiance, the first of SSI's "Gold Box" games. I made lots of maps on graph paper for that game, and it was also a magical experience for me. Perhaps my favorite part of the game was the combat, which was a turn-based combat that had the feel of combat played out on a tabletop with miniatures. I played at least six of these "Gold Box" games, perhaps the favorite of which was the second one, Curse of the Azure Bonds (yes, I realize now that starting a story with the main charcater(s) having amnesia is hackneyed, but it enthralled my thirteen-year-old self).

Over the years, I dabbled with a few other CRPGs, but I never got into any as much as I did these first ones. Fast forward to Dungeons and Desktops: The History of Computer Role-Playing Games (I'll spare you the story of how this book came to be, but I will point out that the cover art is by Clyde Caldwell, renowned fantasy artists whose art graced some of the "Gold Box" games). In working on this book, I was introduced to my old friends Phantasie and Pool of Radiance, and I was introduced to many new friends. The book tells the history of the genre, starting with the earliest games and going right through to the present day. It talks about what was good and not so good about these games, what design decisions were made and how these affected gameplay, and how these games influenced later games.

It got me excited about the genre again. And so when I saw a mini review of a shareware computer role-playing game recently, I decided to give it a whirl. The game is Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia, originally published in 1993. You play a fixer, a member of a group whose aim is to keep time in order, or something. You're sent to this land where there has been some kind of problem detected. That frame story doesn't matter much once the game gets started, however; you're basically in a standard swords-and-sorcery game.

It is very much in the style of the Ultima games, and it is an homage to them. I found it challenging while still being doable, although I admit to checking out the walkthrough for a few things here or there—although only once for something other than as an alternative to taking notes. Because you're going to have to take a lot of notes in this game. There are many different quests, and you get little bits of information from talking to people scattered throughout the land. A piece of information, however, doesn't make sense until you have gotten to a certain point in a particular quest, so you either need to have a good memory or take many notes (or cheat). The nice thing about all of these quests is that they are not linear, so that if you get stuck on one quest, you can switch to working on another quest. There's lots of running around the map for some of the quests, but I found that, after a while, the monsters you encounter are no longer a problem, so it's simply a matter of the time it takes.

I made a tank of a character (a giant warrior), and after suffering through a few levels of barely scraping together enough money to get healed and eat, I became powerful enough to survive for a while, and then I discovered a few key spells (mostly the healing spells) that a warrior can cast. After that, it became pretty easy to survive just about anything (I did occasionally get killed when I would get hit by a sleep spell and then get pounded to death while I blissfully snoozed).

I've never really reviewed a computer game before like this, so I'm sure I'm botching this somewhat. Let me just say that this is an extremely enjoyable game, and I highly recommend it if you're at all a fan of old-school CRPGs, especially the Ultima series. There's a sequel, too, called Excelsior Phase Two: Errondor, although I haven't played that one yet.

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Review: Audiosurf (PC)

Do you want to play a game like Rez without holding on to your PlayStation 2, Dreamcast or saving up for an Xbox 360 for Rez HD? On February 15 2008, Steam released a game called Audiosurf, a game that is very hard for me to explain, so I will try my best; it's just one of games where you have to watch some YouTube videos to understand what is happening...

Before you start any level, the player will be asked to choose a ship with different abilities, and then choose a song from the computer; this can be any file format from an MP3, OGG, FLAC, M4A, WMA, and of course, CD format. It even reads the DRM protected files as well, so it can run those online purchased songs without any issues. After the song is selected, it will take a moment to analyze the track, which results in the design of the level.

After loading, the player will have his ship at the beginning off a strange looking wavy road that was shaped by the sound waves of the chosen song. The speed of the song and the beats in the song (e.g. snares, hand claps, bass, guitar, etc.) will affect the speed that the ship travels on the road and where and how many colored blocks are placed on different parts of this musical road. The player will see an aerial view of the road for a few seconds before the song starts playing.

Below the player's ship is a grid where colors go when they are collected. The objectives vary depending on the difficulty chosen; the easiest will only require the player to simply collect any block that is not gray; the medium difficulty requires the player to collect 3 or more of the same color and have them be adjacent to each other, and collecting gray blocks will make the player lose a significant amount of points; the highest difficulty will have a barrage of gray blocks, and the player will be required to collect the few blocks that are actually colored. The song doesn't get distorted when the ship miss blocks or hit the gray blocks by accident; the player simply lose points and can continue playing normally. At the end of the song, the ship enters a very geometric space tunnel, and you score will be compared with others in the world who have also played that exact same song; through this online scoreboard, I have learned that I am not exactly the best Audiosurf player out there and all that matters is that I had lots of fun! There were a few songs where I was the first person to play, and I popped up at the #1 spot by default; this is only because the game came out yesterday.

With this concept, every song in this world is basically waiting to be turned into a level; I found myself searching my hard drive for MP3s and my room for CDs for the simple reason to have it played in Audiosurf and collect points; it's not just a really cool visualizer; it's the perfect game for both hardcore and casual gamers; I played many songs from techno, dance, rock, pop, classical and even hip-hop; Audiosurf was able to scan each one and turn it into a unique level. The only one I couldn't use was this 176 MB MP3 file of a DJ Tiesto performance, because it was too long and Audiosurf just gave up because of the nature of its algorithm; I'm just mentioning this because I think it's funny and that most people in their lives may never have an MP3 file of that size. It had me listening to songs differently, wondering how it would look if I was playing it in Audiosurf. It is obvious that this will get people plugging in their Walkmans (i.e. the ones that actually play MP3s), iPods and Zunes to their computer to play more songs in hopes of making it on the online scoreboard.

When people describe this game, they describe that it has elements in other games, but there hasn't been any solid comparisons; for example, I'm the only one so far who has stated that it reminded me of Rez because of how it gets you hooked and you forget about everything else around you. The compared games are:

- Rez; I experienced the same synesthesia.
- Tetris; lining up those blocks
- Guitar Hero; the road scrolls vertically like the guitar's neck
- F-Zero; the futuristic vehicles

I actually came across this game by chance; I opened up my Steam client to play Team Fortress 2 online, then I saw a popup for a free demo for Audiosurf; the tagline read "ride your music"; it caught my attention with the futuristic ship it displayed in the ad, so I downloaded the demo quickly, and I played some songs I happened to have on my computer; it was awesome! However, I realized that the demo only allowed me to play 4 songs and after that, it kept telling me to buy the game if I wanted more; and I did want more! I paid the low price of $9.95 for the full version and I have no regrets! It's one of those games that I'll always play whenever I'm extremely bored and I want something to do for 20 minutes, or if there's a bunch of songs I've never heard and I want to listen to them differently. Also, this is a music rhythm game that is not a Dance Dance Revolution rip-off or a Guitar Hero wannabe; it's completely different and it's all about the concept of turning a song into a playable level and being amazed every time.

I can't think of anything I hate about this game; it's simple, addictive and it will never get boring with the limitless songs that can be obtained; the multiple file compatibilities and DRM support make Audiosurf even easier to use since I never reached a point where I had to convert something. The only problem I had was installing the game itself; when I bought the full version, the game would still tell me to buy the new version; at first, I thought I did something wrong, then I deleted my content for Audiosurf, and reinstalled Audiosurf then the game worked without any problems; at this point, I played as many songs as possible before I stood up to get some coffee. I am not the best player, and even though I make mistakes that make me lose a lot of points, it's all part of the experience; there's just something about collecting colorful blocks while driving a ship on a road that's been shaped by a song that makes this one of the most innovative and unique games out there. Whenever I played a song directly from a CD with the standard CD format, the game would freeze for a few seconds making it seem like it has crashed; it still works nonetheless and will be resolved with future updates. There was a short moment where I had problems logging my account in Audiosurf and that was only because of the heavy server load on the first day of this game's release. Other than those miniscule bugs, everything about this game is just good, clean and simple musical fun.

I looked at the credits, and there's only 5 people listed and a group called "Pedro Macedo Camacho" for composing an original musical score and "Paladin Studios" for the 3D models; they certainly did an amazingly good job at this game; this is definitely NOT the cliché "college game programming project" that they only did for the sake of getting a grade; this is an experiment that bloomed into a huge success! All I hope is that they continuing working on this, and I know that it will turn into something that is bigger than it already is; Valve did a very good job promoting it as well; with the purchase of the full version, they included their entire soundtrack of "The Orange Box", which includes Portal's end credit song, "Still Alive"; yet another good deal. In addition, there are even free songs available online from the Audiosurf servers that can be played if the player wants to play something that is not on their computer. All of these tracks have played well in the game, and perfectly in sync, and these people did an excellent job in mathematical calculations, sound wave analysis, and creating a nice futuristic feel that reminds you that nothing is real, and it's all about having fun.

With its musical versatility, fast pace, low system requirements, online scoreboards and incredibly cheap price of $9.95, this is definitely worth buying for anyone who wants to play a rhythm game that doesn't force the player to "be in sync or else" and wants an arcade-style experience. If you don't want to spend a cent, just play the demo to understand what it's all about, and you will love it; just make sure you choose your four songs carefully, because after that, it won't give you another chance to play.


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Casting call!

The Gameshelf is looking to expand the pool of people it invites on the show to play games. Prior to this casting effort, this has been limited to game fans whom we already knew. I'd like to cast the net a little wider in an effort to get a broader variety of gamers on the show.

Guest gamers help the show by simply playing games on-camera, usually in SCAT's Somerville TV studio and occasionally on-location somewhere. We then mix clips of this gameplay footage with the hosts discussing the game. To get an idea how this works, watch any of our recent episodes, or one of our YouTube excerpts, such as Werewolf or Acquire. We sometimes also invite guests to participate in the little skits that punctuate each episode.

Because The Gameshelf is a low-to-no-budget effort, guests are paid only with the glory of appearing on a community access TV show and video podcast, and having their names forever in that episode's credit roll.

Guest gamers should either live in the Boston area or be able to visit without much hardship. They are punctual, showing up on-time for any shoot they agree to help with, and once arrived they are cool and good-humored under camera. Most importantly, though, Gameshelf guests love games, and want to be part of a group effort to bring the message of joy through game-playing to a global audience.

If this sounds like you, fill out the application below! You don't have to answer every question, but the more complete your form is the better your chances are. All replies will be confidential; I won't go copying your email address onto another webpage or sell it to spammers or anything like that.

Callbacks will be as spotty as The Gameshelf's own production schedule. Perhaps you'll hear from me immediately; perhaps it'll take months. Perhaps you'll bump into me on the street one day and ask me about the time you submitted the application and never heard back, I'll look all confused. At any rate, all applications will be read, filed, and ruminated upon. We may invite you to appear for an on-camera audition, which will probably involve playing a short game or two with us or with your fellow applicants.

All that out of the way, here is the actual application. Please email your answers. Make the subject line of your email Gameshelf casting.






What city do you live in?

What is your favorite tabletop (board or card) game? Why?

What is your favorite digital (video or computer) game? Why?

Any other games you love? (Sports? Role-playing? Puzzles? Etc?) Why?

Why do you want to be on this show?

On that note, why would I want you to be on it?

What would you change about The Gameshelf?

Anything else you'd like to say, or ask?

Finally, please attach a photograph of yourself to your email. Nothing glamorous, but enough to show me what you look like. If possible, have your photographed self wearing the sort of clothing that you'd expect to wear on camera. Use your own best judgment about that!

Feel free to toss a link to this blog entry to anyone else who might be interested in helping, and of course you can ask me any questions about the show or the casting process by commenting here or emailing me. Thanks!

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Review: Orcs & Elves (NDS)

Imagine the classic games Eye of the Beholder and Wolfenstein 3D; mix them both together and now you have a very fascinating action RPG game with amazing old-school flavor. This game was developed by id Software, who also coincidentally made Doom and Wolfenstein which clearly inspired the 2D sprites in this game.

This game was not originally for the Nintendo DS. It was first released for cellular phones somewhere in 2006, and was remade for the DS and released on November 15 2007; the DS version included enhanced graphics and exclusive use of the DS touch screen and both screens; one could simply tap a few portions of the screen to cast spells or drink potions, and the bottom screen could be used to show a map while navigating in the top screen; the microphone is never used, and it's not a feature that I would care about anyways. That map is a lifesaver for navigating those long mazes; without it, I would have given up easily playing without even reaching the middle of the game. Also, to cast spells, the player needs to tap 4 different circles in the north, east, south, west directions in a pre-defined pattern; don't worry, it tells you which ones to tap, so you don't need to write anything down on a sheet of paper. To open certain types of doors, you need to remember the code, and it will be automatically recorded in a quest log for later use, leaving the player with more time to explore and level up.

The player controls an elf named Elli who wields a talking magical wand named Ellon; Ellon can give the player hints about certain dungeons, and be used as a weapon that inflicts magical damage to opponents from a distance; it can only be used so many times until it has to be recharged. As the player progresses through the game, upgrades such as stronger swords, crossbows, better potions, magical rings and armor upgrades will become available. The story behind the game is almost a 500 page essay and the player isn't forced to remember the storyline, which is awesome! All the player really needs to know is that the main character finds a magical wand, wants to get the legendary dragonscale armor and crawl through many dungeons, kill some monsters and level up!

The player can only turn in 90 degree angles, so you always face north, south, east or west. To attack, all that needs to be done is to either press the A button, or press tap the "use" button on the touch screen with a stylus; this doesn't necessarily mean that fighting is simple; at times, it can be crude, and force you to jump back a few spaces to launch that magic attack and drink some strength/defense potions to survive. Like turn-based table top games, each movement the player makes such as walking and attacking counts as a turn; in other words, the seconds that pass by during gameplay do not affect fighting and how monsters behave; so if you see a monster a few steps in front of you, it will not move until you move; this can be affected by certain player or enemy stats where the player can have more moves than the enemy or vice versa; a very interesting way to simulate way to simulate turn-based strategy, dating back to Eye of the Beholder and earlier. It lessened my panic times whenever I was low on health, and I can always take a few seconds to choose potions, and switch weapons.

Don't expect this to be Neverwinter Nights for the DS; it's completely different. The characters are 2D, very colorful, and obviously gave me a sense of nostalgia while playing this; you can even see the pixels (aka "jaggies"), which didn't bother me at all; it's not the best looking DS game and it's not the ugliest either; their use of a pseudo-3D look ensured that there would be no slowdowns whatsoever, and John Carmack's classic still holds strong to this day.

If there's one thing that I didn't like very much it would be some of the tedious monster/boss fights and the linearity; there are times where I'm being surrounded by more monsters than I can handle, and I die after I waste all of my potions to live a bit longer; there was a level where I could choose to free a prisoner from a dragon, and I thought if I freed it, the dragon would try to hurt me; I was under the impression that there was some non-linear elements here, but I was wrong, and I was forced to free him anyways, only to have him try to kill me later. After this, I realized that I have to keep going forward without stepping back to make sure that I didn't miss anything; the upgrades for weapons are fairly expensive, and I used potions more than weapons, so it took a while for me to get any upgrades. Eventually, I started to backtrack anyways, and just kill the rats and spider creatures to level up and gain extra health to be stronger; just like good old times.

A funny thing worth noting is that this game contains alcohol use in it; the player can collect kegs of ale, and when it is consumed, your strength is increased; however, you become dizzy and your accuracy lowers, so there is a drawback for using this method of fighting stronger; the camera even tilts and pans in small degrees randomly to add to that drunk sensation. Some Dwarves have important information about exits and will not say a word about it until you have a drink with them.

This is a great game for anyone who loved the Eye of the Beholder games, classic Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. It is obviously better than the cellular phone version; the "take your time" combat style, classic old-school feel, colorful imagery, automatic quest info logging and simple controls make this a game worth buying.

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The fool and his brain village

There's a planetary alignment of interesting puzzle games coming out this year.

Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the DS is already out, and looks interesting. Apparently, while it does have a lightweight mystery-solving theme, it's mainly a collection of puzzles, in the classic meaning of the word. The game packaging wisely calls them "brain teasers" so that you won't be expecting to play Bejewled. Penny Arcade made fun of it the other day, but that strip's writer makes clear in his blog that it was done out of love.

What really caught my eye was the promise of downloadble content, which as far as I know would be a first for any Nintendo-system game, even though they've been running an online service since 2005. I've heard tell of some server-side hiccups with it, but I'm confident enough they'll sort it out that I went ahead and tossed a copy on top of an Amazon order yesterday. (I recall how the very first game to use the online service, Mario Kart DS, managed to pound Nintendo's servers far more than they had originally prepared for.) I'll let you know how it is.

Speaking of the DS, Eidos has announced Brain Voyage, a digital game with puzzles designed by Reiner Knizia, of all people. It's slated to come out sometime this year.

Knizia's surely the most rockstar tabletop game designer alive today, by which I mean if he created a board game about, I dunno, pancakes, the game would be titled "Reiner Knizia's Pancakes" and that's all you'd need. It's not clear from the press release whether his name'll be on this box, or even what the nature of his relationship with the game content is. If the game doesn't stink, it'll be an interesting crossover between the digital and analog gaming worlds.

Finally, Cliff Johnson appears to be maybe actually we-hope poised to release his long-delayed puzzle epic The Fool and his Money this year. Originally slated for release in - gosh, I can't remember anymore, late 2003 maybe? - he kept bumping forward the release date until finally doing the right thing and promising no release date at all. He's been spending the last year or more laboriously repairing the game's content so that it runs consistently well in all implementations of Flash, and according to the counter on his site's front page he's accounted for 187 of 197 puzzles.

Money is the story-sequel to The Fool's Errand, a Tarot-themed puzzle extravaganza Johnson designed and had commercially published in 1989. That game, as well as its first (and differently themed) successor 3 in Three, are available as free downloads from Johnson's website. Because they're for ancient computers, you'll need emulator software to play them on your modern machine, but the author goes into careful detail on the download page about what works best on different computers and operating systems. Both games have my highest recommendation to those who enjoy a good puzzle!

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I Lose

Writer Peg Kerr, who does not know me, has lost the game. But she dragged me down with her, as her daughter dragged her down:

"See, the point of the Game is to get as many people playing it as possible."

"How do you win it?"

"You don't. There is no way to win the Game. You can only lose the Game. Whenever you think of it, you say aloud, 'I've lost the Game.' And that reminds everyone around you of the Game, and then they've lost the Game, too. And then everyone has a half hour in which they try to forget all about. And that's it -- until the next time you remember it." She smiled at me.

Now I'm writing this post, so I lose the Game again.

I'll never win, but I can console myself by getting more people to lose. Many losing players react that way, it seems. One vengeful soul sets up a wiki; some are running it as a social networking site.

The Game is of course a meme, a tidy and efficient one. It contains nothing but its own imperative to reproduce. But how does that work? Religions, the archetypical examples of memes, have all sorts of baggage surrounding the notion of "Teach me to others." Ethics, stories, rituals, art... You can't just walk up to someone and say "Repeat this sentence to everyone you meet!" and expect that to spread around the world. (I mean, are you as tempted to blog about that sentence as you are about the Game? Be honest. This is for posterity.)

The Game is a minimal meme, but it spreads. (The sites I link to above show tens of thousands of players.) Why? Well, it's a game, and games are fun. But it's a minimal game, too. It contains nothing but losing! What's going on here?

The Game clearly plays off two elements of human psychology: "don't think of a pink hippopotamus", and "ha ha gotcha". But I'll argue for a third, less obvious factor: "I am not powerless."

The Pink Hippo factor is what makes the Game fun. It's hard; it's a challenge, of a slippery sort. You can't not think about a pink hippo now (unless you're the mutant offspring of Kimball Kinnison and Granny Weatherwax), but you might be able to not think about a pink hippo tomorrow. (Good luck with that. Hey, maybe the pink hippo will distract you from losing the Game again.) Perhaps we should classify the Game as a sport instead? Like hopscotch, the point is not to fall...

In the winter, after the snowballs and the snow forts, after the sleds and the toboggans, there was the crusty snow, and there was the (what to call it? Not a game, not a sport, not even a contest) -- there was the thing of seeing if you could walk on the crust without breaking through. There was ice-skating, and a kind of primitive hockey, and we made slides on the sidewalk and damn near broke our necks, and then some grownup came out and spread ashes on it, and we grumbled. But there was also just the thing of standing on a frozen place on land and breaking the ice delicately by teetering, or even better than that, just rocking there and watching the air bubble slide back and forth under the ice.

(from "Where did you go?" "Out" "What did you do?" "Nothing" by Robert Paul Smith)

A thing is a self-generated rationale in your head: you do it in order to do it. A game is a competitive thing. Two people walking on the ice are not playing a game, until one of them says -- or thinks -- "First one to break through is the loser!"

The first person to invent the Game was not playing a game until he told someone else, who then lost.

(I've just failed to account for solitaire, D&D, and Zork. Sorry! The Grand Unified Theory of Gaming is not yet completely unified. I guess I see those games as you competing with yourself, or -- for D&D and Knizia's "Lord of the Rings" -- the group competing with the limitations of setting, story, and resource. There is still an element of challenge and a notion of failure. Walking on thin ice can be a solo sport -- if you care whether you succeed.)

You can't succeed at the Game, but you can do better than the next guy. And teaching someone the Game forces them to lose. Gotcha! It's a joke, because it subverts the notion of learning to be a weakness instead of an advantage. And it's a prank, which is fun for the trickster. (Trust me -- I just did it to you!)

And that brings us to the third factor, which is that it's still fun if you lose. The fun of losing is a slithery but essential notion in games. If you get into a bad situation, is there something enjoyable you can do next?

Note that I don't say "something you can do to get out of it." In some games, you can invent a brilliant strategy to recover your loss. In others, you can learn from your mistakes and invent a brilliant strategy for next time. In some games, you can mess with the winners. Some games let you go out for a sandwich while the survivors fight over the throne. And in some games, you can enjoy the sublime cleverness -- or gonzo absurdity -- of your downfall.

(Different players rate these pleasures differently, which is why Fluxx provokes such wild disbelief at how Those Idiots can love/hate such an idiotic/charming little game.)

In the Game, when you lose, you say "I just lost the Game" -- out loud. Which leads directly to the fun parts. It doesn't leave you wallowing in failure; you've immediately got a positive action to take, namely, making other people lose. That's sharp design.

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Iranian propaganda rips Star Control?

Maybe. (As seen on Gridskipper.)

(We reviewed Star Control 2 back in Episode 2.)

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Myst Online: Beyond the Cancellation

Speaking as Uru's premier blogger...

(...he said, lying blatantly...)

The truth is, I've been writing notes about Uru Live for more than four years. So I have a notion I oughtta say something about its end. But it's a silly notion.

I haven't even been here for the whole run. I only logged into Untìl Uru a few times. The community was playing UU; history piled up; things happened. But new worlds were what I was interested in, so I didn't hang out.

You want to hear something funny? Untìl Uru -- the fan-run, fan-hacked servers -- lasted longer than any other phase of Uru. Nearly two years. Some players had more attachment to UU than to the "real" run of the game. It was buggy, inconsistent, devoid of plot, prone to half-assed extensions and updates... it wasn't a game, by any definition. But players felt they had a stake in UU, in a way that never gelled for Uru Live.

And I say this without having been there. I'm reading the tone of the community. In the days since the cancellation post, people have been all over the idea of bringing back UU. It's Cyan's decision, mind you, and Cyan hasn't said anything about it. (They haven't said anything at all about their plans, except that they will continue making games.) But people remember what it was like to be the ones who kept the City open.

People liked that. I will return to this point.

You know what, I'm not even going to talk about the final cancellation of Uru Live. I'll give the thirty-second summary: Gametap funded Cyan for a couple of years. Whatever deal they made, it didn't work out. Cyan spent some time updating their 2003 code, some time fixing bugs, some time updating old material from Path of the Shell, and some time creating new material. None of these really happened fast enough to build a stable, enticing game experience. Maybe if Gametap had pumped the money faster, or for another year, or if Cyan had built something else, or run their game differently, it would have worked. It didn't, so it's done.

(I must address one point specifically: I am not blaming the POTS material for killing Uru Live. It was old hat to a lot of old players, including me. But Uru failed because the growth rate was insufficient. Growth is defined as new players, meaning people who (mostly) haven't played the 2004 expansion packs. 2007 was all new to them. And it still didn't bring them in fast enough. So now you know.)

The real question is: Do I see Uru coming back?

Not in its original form. The plan for Uru was a commercial, online, massively-multiplayer adventure game, with new adventure material constantly being produced by Cyan and consumed by players.

This plan now has several fatal holes. Cyan is smaller than it was in 2003. It has not managed to produce a stream of great adventure material in the online mode. The Uru codebase has scaling issues on multiple axes. (I'm not just talking about frame rate. The player-to-player message system is nearly useless for a large community; the world state model has synch problems in crowded Ages; the physics system is a millstone in several ways; the avatar and clothing system can't make a crowd of people look distinct.)

None of those are unbreakable obstacles -- but breaking any of them would take a pile of time and money. Another pile, I should say. Cyan spent all of 2006 working on these problems, using Gametap's money. The 2007 Uru was vastly better than the 2003 model, but not enough better.

Which brings up the real fatal hole in Uru's plan, which is that it's failed twice now. Only a crazy person would fund it again. By "crazy person", I mean someone who would be willing to throw tens of millions of dollars into a hole and never see it again. And even if you found such a person, would Cyan want to exhume the project? I cannot remotely imagine the burnout, the pain that those coders and admins and artists must associate with Uru right now.

So that's a dumb question: Uru is not coming back as a commercial Cyan enterprise, not anytime soon. The real question is, will Uru return as a player-supported project?

It could, as I've said. If Cyan opens up exactly the same server system that they did in 2004-2006, people will run servers and hang out. It would not be a blip in the gaming universe, mind you. It would be some people sharing a virtual space. Maybe several hundred, maybe as few as fifty, on a regular basis.

Or maybe more than that. If new areas begin opening up, it's more than a chat room. And players have been working on new Uru areas, using homegrown tools, for years. Those efforts went into high gear in mid-2007, when Cyan announced that Uru's social model would grow to include Guilds, modelled after the Guilds of D'ni history -- including the Guild of Writers, the creators of Ages. (In December, Cyan slipped a hint that their intended arc for 2008 was "Rise of the Guilds".)

The player-organized Guild of Writers is using the Uru software of the 2004-6 era. Several showcase Ages are already shaping up. So there's an obvious route: fan-run servers, connected through Cyan but not under Cyan's direct management, with fan-created content posted as it appears. Anarchic and vital, as I've been pushing for all along.

I am glossing over an entire sub-argument: how much oversight Cyan should have over player Ages and storylines. Do they review designs before implementation? Do they accept some as "official" after release? Will there be such a thing as an official constellation of Ages, an official storyline?

I've discussed all these arguments before, in the pre-cancellation era. There wasn't any community concensus then either, but of course all the goalposts are shifted now. (And will continue to shift, since Cyan's plans are still unannounced.) The past week has seen dozens of posts about the "obvious" plan of bringing back Untìl Uru with fan-created Ages. Each of them has an "obvious" notion of Cyan's role in this plan. No two such notions quite agree.

If you dig even a few inches down, I suspect, you'll uncover the real relic of contention: was Cyan's plan for Uru a work of genius, murdered by insufficient funding? Or was it clueless blundering devoid of story, immersion, and interest? (Both sides add a twist of the shallowness of our corrupt society, chill and serve with bitter aperitif.)

I am condensing these points of view, not exaggerating them. Forum threads are going on right now on both themes, and both have been stated in about so many words. (And, I admit, many more judicious and less extreme.) The valuable question is not which is right. (Both are self-evidently true, to an extent. You already knew that.)

The real question is, can you criticize Cyan's handling of story, interactivity, and game design -- all of which I've done, intelligently, I hope -- without also criticizing Cyan's role as the ultimate arbiter of Uru fan work? That is: who says they're so smart? Look at all the mistakes they've made.

Cue wild disagreement on just what mistakes those are. Which is precisely my point.

One might argue someone has to be in charge, if the universe is to have any consistency, and it might as well be Cyan. To which I say: Cyan hasn't been that big on consistency either. Look at any discussion of linking-book logic, or Age instances. Or, don't. Every such discussion descends into pages of detailed minutiae, precisely because Cyan has fudged their rules again and again in their quest for better gameplay. I don't hold this against them -- gameplay should come first.

Since Uru invites us to design gameplay on an Age-by-Age basis, the argument for a Grand Master of Consistency vanishes. This is massively-collaborative art, not a single game. We've had the era of rigid central control. Look how well it worked. Next!

The whole debate assumes that Cyan wants to be overseer of Uru; it assumes they'll have that power. In the UU era, Cyan ran a central authentication server. So they had no real power except the power to shut all the servers down (which they did, when Uru Live launched). But nothing says Cyan even has to go that far. If they release server binaries without that authentication hook, Uru moves entirely into the hands of the players.

Or, for all I know, we could do that hack ourselves.

To some degree, the Uru code -- venerable and scary as it must be -- is not the heart of Uru. I mentioned scaling issues. Who says Uru should continue on Cyan's client and server architecture? Certainly, if I had fifty million dollars to refloat the project, the first thing I'd want is rewrite a whole lot of code.

Yes, we have reasons to lean towards continuity. Dozens of Age models using the current codebase. The Guild of Writers tools are geared for... well, a three-year-old version of that codebase. If Cyan restarts UU, just as it was three years ago, everyone will go there by default.

But virtual world platforms are becoming a commodity. From a quick web search:

  • Second Life. Okay, everyone knows it. And I can't mention it without using the phrase "rain of genitalia". But it's big, well-tested, and you can fence off areas for your own community. Or, heck, run your own Second Life server -- the code is open-source, and I hear it's not expensive to run if you turn off all the server-side physics.

  • Metaplace. Not open yet; don't know much about it. It doesn't seem to be open-source, but the goal seems to be to let people create and script 3D environments.

  • Project Darkstar. Sun offers MMO-specialized server hosting. Open-source, but you have to like Java.

  • Croquet. Open-source software system. Looks low-level, but therefore powerful.

  • Multiverse. Software system for MMO creation. Not open-source, but free for non-commercial use.

This is not intended to be a complete list. (See this post for a much better one.) I'm pointing out that a lot of people are working on this. Multiplayer world hosting is going to be an off-the-shelf solution soon, if it isn't already. Uru is not a perfect system today; it's tempting to ditch its bugs, and equally tempting to ditch the effort of writing our own Age creation tool.

So the real question is: what do we want? And what's stopping us?

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Puzzles & Answers Magazine

After enjoying several issues over the past year, I finally paid for a year's subscription to Puzzles and Answers, a bimonthly puzzle magazine by master constructor Foggy Brume.

Each issue takes the form of what puzzle-people call an "extravaganza": a collection of thematically linked puzzles, the answers to which plug into a "metapuzzle" that, when solved, reveals the single answer to the entire collection. The puzzles range in style from crossword variations to logic puzzles, unusual cryptograms, and plenty oforiginal word puzzles.

I love these sorts of puzzles, though I don't know how much exposure they have the general public. Games magazine has been publishing extravaganzas of its own lately, and the classic Mac game The Fool's Errand also takes this structure. My familiarity with them lately is largely from my involvement in the MIT Mystery Hunt, which I've participated in since 2004.

The puzzles in P&A are tough, but not super-hard, and especially good to solve with friends. It helps to be handy with crosswords, and to know some NPL-style puzzle lingo. (Yesterday, for example, I was briefly hung up on the difference between a letter change and a letter shift). There are some sample puzzles linked from the magazine's front page, with individual complete issues costing US$5. (Buying an issue lets you access it in PDF format, which you may then download and print.) Foggy is also the author of The Puzzle Boat, a large and free-to-play extravaganza intended to challenge a whole team of solvers.

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Review of EXIT DS (NDS)

EXIT was first released as a game exclusively for the PSP. While trailers appeared online and had some coverage on game review shows on television, like most puzzle games, never became “critically acclaimed”; regardless, it was still a unique and fun game which mixes both puzzle and platform aspects beautifully.

In 2007, it was ported to Xbox Live Arcade, and Nintendo DS which was released only in Japan. With the technical differences between the DS and PSP, EXIT moved from a 2.5D perspective to a pure 2D sidescroller with additional touch screen controls; the player can revert to the traditional +Control Pad if the stylus controls weren’t responsive enough. In addition to DS-exclusive controls, EXIT DS made some use of the Nintendo WiFi Connection; the only thing that can be done online is compare your stage completion times with others who have also connected to Nintendo’s WFC; for example, for Stage 2, the fastest time recorded was 10’40”93 and my completion time was 34’23”54 ranked at #943, so I’m not necessarily the slowest person in this game.

With the Japanese language in the tutorial, I wasn’t boggled by the instructions; through trail and error, I learned that I need to tap a character first, then an object or empty space to make it move; the +Control Pad was used to move the camera to see other parts of the level. The only problem I had with the stylus controls was guiding people upstairs since I have to tap the top of the stairs while the character was standing directly in front of the stairs. There are some English captions such as the main menu and top screen during gameplay which displays a map of the level, and explains what each symbol in the map mean.

The stages in EXIT are referred to as “situations” which represent different types of buildings that are on fire, covered with ice and even earthquakes. There are 10 situations, each containing 10 levels, with a total of 100 levels, and gradually increases in difficulty with every level. The objective of each level remains the same: Remove obstacles such as fire or ice that blocks the path to the exit at the end of the level, and guide the trapped individuals to the exit under the pre-determined time limit.

Each individual has different perks: Children can’t jump high or climb high and can easily crawl under obstacles too small for Mr. ESC; obese people are stronger and can push heavy objects; average fit people are similar to Mr. ESC but without the enhancements such as jumping, and can help Mr. ESC push certain blocks when an obese person isn’t around; dogs can crawl under obstacles and can jump incredibly far; injured people are unable to move and must be carried to the exit. With these perks, it creates the idea of teamwork with these individuals to finish the level, and can sometimes force the player to save people in a specific order.

Mr. ESC will do many things from extinguishing fires, to breaking ice barriers, riding elevators, and moving blocks to jump over pits to the exit. With the combination of jumping, climbing, pushing blocks, and guiding individuals to safety, this is one puzzle platform game on the DS that is worth buying if it should ever be released in North America. Unlike the PSP and Xbox Live Arcade versions, there are no downloadable levels, so there will only be 100 playable levels and it will take a while to finish all of them before you consider downloading more.
EXIT DS Gameplay

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