The Sandbox iconThe Sandbox

Rating systems don't matter very much

The political news lately surrounding games has been about the California video game law being declared unconstitutional, and the Rhode Island AG working with the ESRB on an ad campaign in support of the rating system. As a developer and a parent, I am all in favor of the rating system for games: it solves some perception issues and satisfies most folks. But as a developer, I also know it's only secondarily important.

The ESRB's judgment about games is dwarfed by Walmart's judgment.

Walmart is influenced by the ESRB ratings, in that they won't carry "AO" (Adult Only) games, fullstop. Much like the fact that they won't carry "X" movies, Walmart rightly puts a lot of value in the perception that they're a family-friendly retailer, concerned about children and the influence games may have on them.

Walmart is the biggest game retailer in the US, and they have a huge influence on what goes into games. Like the rest of mainstream America, they give all but the goriest violence a pass, but anything remotely suggestive of the existence of sex is forbidden. Which is fine: who am I to argue with the company responsible for 8% of all US retail non-auto sales? The point is that, for all practical purposes, pleasing Bentonville is a lot more important than pleasing the ESRB. Walmart does its own assessments, and makes its own demands of game publishers, and these carry huge weight with all game makers.

Infocom's Hitchhiker Game Reborn

Old school text-gamers take note.

BoingBoing hips us to a hacker who has update Infocom's classic game based on the Douglas Adams' novel, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Now it runs as an instant message game that you can play on your cellphone. How cool is that?

Want more? The other day, I was checking out an emulator of the first Multi-User Dungeon - another early text-based game.

The Dawn of eToys

Maybe Webkinz, the virtual pet craze, haven't completely taken over your life. But if you've got young kids, or know friends with them, then you're probably hip to this craze. As I've blogged before, Webkinz are stuffed animals that have a virtual life online. You get a serial number on the tag, punch in the code, then "care" for the critter in a game-like world.

With the product selling 2 million copies, the imitators are falling quickly in line. Funkeys is one of the more intriguing candidates. As Kotaku tells us, these are little collectible dolls that contain games. Plug in the big-headed character into your PC, and it unlocks a new chunk of a branded virtual world called Terrapinia. The more Funkeys you buy, the more parts of the world you can explore.

So what are these new kinds of toys that live both online and off? How about calling them eToys? I'd expect to hear a lot more about these things in the years ahead. eToy Barbies? eToy Wiggles? eToy baseball cards?

The possibilities are endless.

PS3 sells its millionth console

Ten months after release, Sony has sold its millionth Playstation 3, something that I don't think anyone â'' anyone not a PS3 developer, that is â'' would have predicted twelve months ago. But the release of Hot Shots Golf 5 spiked sales, and the PS3 has only taken one month longer to one million sales than the Zune took.

I am one of the few people I know to have bought a PS3, and I have to admit that I'm enough of a geek that one of the turning points was that it's mega-fast at processing Folding@home data. Having a game machine able to devote spare cycles to helping find cures for Alzheimer's and Huntington's disease, that's something real. That, and Virtua Fighter 5.

Author's Note: yes, I know the 360 version of VF5 will have full online play. But that's a value of "better" that doesn't include "playable right now".

Busting the Game Pirates

We've heard plenty about how piracy is affecting the music and film industries, but what about videogames?

Last week, the Feds went after the hacked hardware that lets gamers play illegal/bootlegged console games. This is a huge problem - I've heard figures upwards of $3 billion of losses per year - that's only going to grow more complicated as digital distribution becomes more commonplace.

PS3 Stalls GTA?

So the next Grand Theft Auto game, GTA IV, has been delayed from its original release date of this fall. That's a major blow to the industry that was hoping for a "perfect storm" of blockbuster releases including this game as well as Madden 08 and Halo 3.

Why the hiccup? Analyst Michael Pachter suggests that PS3 hardware may be to blame. GTAIV was planned for a simultaneous release on the Xbox 360 and Sony's system. Microsoft had recently paid $50 million to release exclusive episodic GTAIV content. Pachter intimates that Rockstar, developers of the game, hit a snag with the PS3 version - and, as a result, had to put the entire plan on hold.

GTA is already in danger of losing its cultural relevance; quirky, out-of-the-box titles from LittleBigPlanet to Spore to Wii Fit now generate much of the ink. The delays won't help.

Games are supposed to be fun...

...and I say that knowing full-well that one has to first define what "fun" means.

Why am I saying this? Because Destructoid linked to an article by Yehuda about the fact that games are not supposed to be "fun". Yehuda is a smart guy, I've read his stuff in all sorts of places, and he has a fairly-obviously working brain. But this is just sloppy.

The basic contention of his argument is that since games are a medium, they carry no internal obligation to be any particular thing. So I disagree with him right off the bat, which leads to the disagreement over whether or not games should be "fun".

Games are not a medium, they are a conversation. Games exist in many forms that defy categorization as a medium: they may or may not have rules, they may or may not have paraphernalia associated with them (dice, cards, chits, balls, goals, whatever), they may or may not be winnable...there is nothing you can say about games that positively identifies them as a medium.

Conversations can happen in many media: email, instant messaging, phones, inter-office memos, walls of graffiti, etc. Games exist in this space, a medium-independent place where information passes back and forth. So what does this mean, philosophically?

Take a football: look at it. Is that a game? No, it's a ball. A game is the using of it, the interaction that takes place around it. When it isn't being played, it stops being a game. So Yehuda's contention pretty much falls apart for me at that point. A painting exists as itself, and it can be judged as itself. A game is rightly judged by the experience of the interaction within it, and games that don't get people to play are, pretty much by definition, lousy games. They do not successfully do what games need to do to be games, and to be judged as games.

It is here that I insert my definition of "fun". By "fun", I mean, "interesting and engaging". I infer that Yehuda has a fuzzy concept of "fun" that he somewhat sloppily relates to "popular", "successful", maybe "happy". If a game does not interest you and engage you into the playing of it, then it's not a game, it's nothing. Most demonstratively of this, Roshambo is nothing if you're not playing it: it ceases to exist. For it to exist, it must be interesting enough to make people play it. (And play it they do.)

Games Get Casual

So you think Halo 3 fans are the most hard-core gamers around? Think again. Casual titles such as online puzzle, word, card, and board games are a big - and booming - culture and industry. According to a new report, the market is expected to nearly double next year - rising from $375 million this year to $725 million in 2008.

Of course the public's love of these sorts of games is nothing new. Solitaire is probably the most played computer game ever. It's just that the people who play these kinds of titles don't self-identify as gamers. And, despite the occasional crossover hits like Tetris, casual games have rarely been taken seriously by the core gamers and developers.

That's changing with the proliferation of mobile gaming platforms, and, particularly, the expansion of digital distribution on consoles. Smaller titles now have a means of reaching core players via services like the Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft's online delivery system. This means more opportunities for start-up developers, and a greater mix of entertainment options for persnickety geeks.

People we need, people we don't

I've been making games for a long time, and it has been gratifying to watch the industry go from "I barely even knew that a game industry existed" status to "games are everywhere, gamers are everywhere". It's good to be part of a growth industry, rather than a shrinkth industry.

With this growth, there are a lot of people who have entered the field of video game development, or who pay attention to it. Some of this is good, some not so much. I'm here to point my thumb up for someone, and down for someone, folks who have an effect on either the gaming industry as a whole, or my mood. Read on for the two lucky individuals:

We Need: Jack Thompson

No one sells games like Jack. If Jack can be so incoherent while also being the face of the anti-game movement, games will be around for a long time. Someone so manifestly unhinged, who sides with the opposition, that's the gift that keeps on giving.

Jack is often on cable news, calling our little phosphorescent indulgences "murder simulators" and likening gamers to Hitler Youth (fun quotes here). The more his voice of wild fantasy can be heard, the more rational the public becomes about games. Millions (billions?) of gamers around the world are manifestly not murderous savages, millions of Pokemon-playing kids are still nice little kids, so Jack's message really does start to come through as the raving of a media-obsessed grandstander.

But it helps sales, so go Jack!

We Don't: Uwe Boll

Speaking as someone who owns a comprehensive Ed Wood collection (on DVD, no less), I can honestly say that there has never been a worse filmmaker than Uwe Boll. His obsession with turning forgettable video games into truly awful, "The goggles, they do nothing!" terrible films is really a black eye for the industry.

If games are going to entwine themselves with our other entertainment products, you don't want someone as singularly ungifted as Uwe Boll leading your charge in Hollywood. If Alone in the Dark wasn't enough to make you doubt games as a reasonable possible contributor to our cultural canon, the existence of House of the Dead, BloodRayne, and (implausibly enough) the upcoming Alone in the Dark II should kill your optimism instantly.

That people give him money to make movies is surely a sign that we live, not in a neutral universe governed purely by physical laws, but in a malevolent, chthonic abyss of pain, where unspeakable monstrosities move in the shadows and feed on our collective despair.

iPhone gets Bejeweled

According to GameDaily Biz, one of the biggest game hits of the 21st Century is coming to the iPhone. That's right, bored secretaries everywhere can now bring their favorite time-killer with them on their lunch break, into the bathroom, into the movie-theater, etc.... Bejeweled is coming to the iPhone.

I pause a moment so you can catch your breath.

And it's free.

These "casual hits" are really the unsung heroes of the gaming world -- what with wider circulation and immense fan bases. Now circulating on the iPhone with its extraordinary interface, their populism might just form a new avante garde in the lives of the gameless on the go.

Advertisement

Sandbox

IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

Load More