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WiiHorse? WiiBike? We Like.

Ah, the first swing of Wii tennis - hard to forget that giddy  feeling, eh?  The Wii motion sensing remote ushered in a new era for gaming, opening up the market for wannabe players who long considered themselves all thumbs. Now with word of Microsoft's motion-sensing Project Natal camera grabbing headlines, Nintendo seems to be on a new kick - wacky peripherals.

Lots of rumors this week about patents and slides that show both an inflatable beanbag style Wii controller (for horseback riding games) and a cycling/pedaling controller too.  These would join the Wii balance board (already powering hits like Wii Fit), the Wii wheel (for racing), and the Wii Light Gun (Resident Evil) – and of course all that Rock Band gear too.

So this begs the question – how much plastic can we have cluttering our living rooms?   To me, there’s a limit, and this is a boon for Project Natal, which does away with peripherals entirely.  Then again, there’s something nice and solid about a lifelike controller, something you can put your hands – or feet – on.   Nintendo should focus less on the gimmicky add-ons and more on the cool games that can exploit the existing hardware. 
 

Videogame Hacker Faces Federal Charges

A 27-year-old California State Fullerton student could go to prison for 10 years - for modifying his videogame consoles.  Last week, Matthew Lloyd Crippen was indicted on two counts of violating the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, after getting caught tweaking a number of game machines.  Console hacking is nothing new, and is often done for recreation by obsessive fans who want to play foreign or homebrewed games.  Some even modify old Nintendo GameBoy devices to create their own music.  Of course, hackers are also modifying consoles in order to play bootlegged games, which is where the DMCA comes in.  Apparently, Crippen was modding for profit, though I have yet to read how or why.

To me, the game industry should respect and protect a consumer’s right – wish – to void the copyright on a machine by futzing around under the hood.  Not every console modder is making money on this stuff.   I can’t imagine that console modders have much to do with the estimated $200 billion lost to piracy and counterfeiting each year.

Apple Gets in the (Tablet) Game

Word is spreading that Apple will be debuting a tablet computer - ideal for gaming - this fall.  The Telegraph quotes an anonymous analyst who says that the so-called "MacBook Touch" will be like a really big iPod.

"The touch-screen tablet...is expected to have a 10in touch-screen and be similar in look and feel to a large iPod touch," the Telegraph reports, "Experts expect it to cost around $800 (£500), and to be positioned as a home media hub, capable of streaming content and services in much the same way as Apple TV does, and doubling as a games console."

So what about that last bit - touch-screen gaming.  We've seen a lot of hit-and-miss exploitation of this feature on the iPhone.  The best games - such as Rolando or Dr. Awesome - make the touch-screen an integral, but not gratuitous element of gameplay.  This works for the quickplay experience of mobile games, but what about more robust, long-play computer games?   Do we really want to spend a lot of time sliding our fingers around World of Warcraft?   Won't that get annoying?   I don't think existing titles will be able to simply add touch-screen movement to the action without it feeling lame.  The best titles will be created from the ground up with the touch-screen in mind. 

Race and Videogames

This week, we heard a lot about the "beer summit" surrounding the controversial arrest of an African-American Harvard professor in Cambridge.  Now the issue of race is also coming up in video games.

This week, a social psychologist at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California released a report called "The Virtual Census:  Representation of Gender, Race, and Age in Video Games."  The study examined characters from the top 150 games released in the past year, from Madden NFL to 50 Cent:  Blood in the Sand.

The findings - not good.  "Latino children play more video games than white children. And they're really not able to play themselves," said Dmitri Williams, who conducted the study, "For identity formation, that's a problem. And for generating interest in technology, it may place underrepresented groups behind the curve. Ironically, they may even be less likely to become game makers themselves, helping to perpetuate the cycle. Many have suggested that games function as crucial gatekeepers for interest in science, technology, engineering and math."

Games: The Other Piracy Problem

We hear a lot about the impact of online piracy on music and movies, but what about games?  Over the years, I've heard that the industry loses as much to $3 billion annually to bootlegged games.   PC games are more vulnerable than console titles, especially now with more and more software being delivered over the Net.  Companies such as Valve, which has its popular Steam distribution system, have managed to build a formidable business despite the threats.  This week, Ubisoft's chief, Yves Guillemot, tells Kotaku that his company is developing its own plan.  "Altogether on console, the piracy is low," he said. "On the PC the piracy is quite a lot. We are working on a tool that would allow us to decrease that on the PC starting next year and probably one game this year."

It'd be interesting to finally hear a bit more about what these companies are doing to protect themselves - and how effective they're being.  Game companies often lead the way for technical innovation, so it follows that they'd have some compelling answers for the piracy problem too.  Maybe one day we'll learn what they are.

Video Game Hall of Fame

Rock and roll has a hall of fame in Cleveland, baseball has Cooperstown.  And videogames may have...Ottumwa, Iowa.

Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies, a group that tracks videogame contests and scores, is working with local civic and commercial groups to launch The International Video Game Hall of Fame & Museum.  Day writes that "there will be an inaugural event on Thursday, August 13, 2009, in Ottumwa, where the initial plans will be laid out for the public to see. There will politicians speaking and film clips screened that deal with Ottumwa's well-known legacy as the 'Video Game Capital of the World.'"

This isn’t the only attempt to create a vidgame museum.  I'm surprised there aren't more already.  It poses an interesting challenge - how to preserve/display code from the past?  Yes, there are emulators that let you play old software on new computers - but it's still not the same as playing on the original hardware.  How about a museum outfitted with Apple IIs, C64s, Atari 2600s?   It's only a matter of time.

Casual Games, Casual No More

"Casual" games is industry shorthand for puzzle and parlor games, from Bejeweled to chess.   For years, these were considered fringe fare, secondary to blockbuster console titles - shooters, sports, and role playing games.  

But then a funny thing happened - the Web.  Sites like Yahoo Games, Pogo, and MSN Games became the default homepage for middle-aged and graying gamers. Casual game are accessible, addictive, and often free.  So much fo the steretype of the pimply teenage boy in the basement.  Grandpa could frag him anytime. 

This week in Seattle, casual game makers are gathering at the annual Casual Connect conference. The big talk - the iPhone, which is quickly becoming a fave gaming device.  Developers are said to be gushing over the iPhone's performance and delivery.   Edge quotes one coder boasting, "we set out ot get a million users in a year, and we got a million users in ten days."

A Microsoft Handheld?

Remember when it seemed like Nintendo owned the mobile gaming space?   Not anymore.  Though the Nintendo DS is still a top-seller, competition is heating up from Apple (via the increasingly popular iPhone apps) and Sony (which will introduce its follow-up to the PSP, the PSPgo, this October).  

Now add Microsoft to the mix.  In a story on Kikizo, Shane Kim of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment and Devices says, "for us, it's a matter of focusing on 'when'" a mobile unit will come out. At the moment, the company is focusing on its Live service, which is building a system through which gamers can seamlessly compete and socialize over a variety of platforms.  Kim also suggest a possible iPhone killer on the horizon. "How do we enter into that market?" he said, "Do we do our own device, do we create our own phone--that's a question for the company itself--do we continue to go down the Windows Mobile path, which is the path that we're on today."

The Curious Case of John Titor - Time Traveller

Early one morning, a man who identified himself as John Titor posted a message on the forums of the Time Travel Institute, a website "dedicated to research and exploration of the temporal sciences." Titor said he had returned from the year 2036, and that he was a survivor of a civil war and nuclear attack. He had been sent back in time to retrieve an IBM 5100. That computer, a primordial desktop PC released in 1975, supposedly had some key to solving a future crisis.

Titor methodically listed the parts required for what he called "gravity distortion system." His grandfather, he claimed, had worked on such a machine, and he was on his way back to 1975 to find him. Titor’s messages from continued for a few months, then he claimed he had to return to 2036 for good. That was weird. But then something even weirder happened. The followers online couldn't let Titor go.  Now this is the Sasquatch of Generation Net.  It's a real-life version of a new kind of game - the alternate reality game, which sends surfers down reality-blurring rabbit holes.

Geeks began unearthing strange facts about the IBM 5100s. Obsessives launched Titor sites, stitching together his postings. They created timelines, charts...they even held conventions. It was cited many times by Art Bell, the host of the paranormal radio show Coast to Coast.  Ultimately, an Italian TV show hired a private eye to go on Titor's trail. The gumshoe ended up at the doorstep of a flashy entertainment lawyer living in the Disney utopia of Celebration, Florida. The lawyer claims to be merely "representing" Titor, but some online think that he or his teenage hacker son made up the whole thing. No matter. Titor has legs. There are now Titor books, websites, fan clubs, merchandise... even a stage play. The most compelling question of all isn't whether Titor exists. It's why a story so ludicrous would seize the imaginations of so many people online.

Developing Games for the New PSPgo

The game site, Develop, has a long piece on Sony's new handheld game system, the PSPgo,  The Go is Sony's attempt at a sort of iPhone killer, though the company reportedly doesn't like the comparison.  The Go isn't a phone, but it's taking aim at fast, downloadable app-like games.  And it's making a big play for indie developers, by trying to make it easy to create and distribute titles for the platform.

So here’s the thing:   between the iPhone and Go, we’re witnessing the rise of a new golden age for homebrew game development.  The last time this happened was with computer games in the 1980s.  That revolution spawned some of the biggest developers and franchises today – from Will Wright and his various Sims to id Software and the first person shooters.   It’s not a matter of if there will be a Doom for the handheld generation, it’s when.  With the October release of the PSPgo, the race is going to get a lot more interesting. 
 

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

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