Wednesday, November 01, 2006

High Dynamic Range Lying has moved! It can now be found at its new home, at, hosted by those wonderful folks at wordpress.

From here on in, HDR Lying on Blogspot will not be receiving any updates, so please update your bookmarks accordingly!

Thanks again,

Nayan Ramachandran

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Artbook Bonanza Power Hour

One of the biggest benefits of being a gamer in Japan, is the ready access to high quality art books. Unlike in America, where one has to hope that the preorder bonus for an anticipated game has an artbook included, Japanese book stores sell video game artbooks in the same section as video game strategy guides, and for a pretty reasonable price.

For those who wanted better quality photos of the Okami art book I posted some time ago, I have included extra photos.

Here are a few sample photos of the ones I've picked up recently:

Sengoku Basara 2

Baten Kaitos

Biohazard Ad Arts Collection

Capcom Design Works


Kazuma Kaneko Collection: Shin Megami Tensei 2

For those curious, the entire collection of photos was taken with my Casio W41CA cell phone, at 1600x1200, and then resized to fit the blog.

Not pictured are a few artbooks I left in the US, including: Xenosaga Episode 1, Biohazard Archives, and Soul Calibur 2. I intend to pick up the Tales of the Abyss artbook some time this weekend, but whether or not that actually happens remains to be seen.
Same Game Time, Same Game Channel

Growing up as a young lad in the wilds of suburban Toronto, Sam and Max Hit the Road was one of my most treasured games. I remember the first time I walked into my local EBgames and saw the game sitting nonchalantly upon the new releases shelf. I knew nothing of the game, but was immediately drawn to its absurd but incredibly well detailed cover art. I knew nothing of Steve Purcell, or Lucasart's SCUM adventure system, having grown up on Space Quest and King's Quest, but the box itself was beyond enticing.

Being a young lad with no real currency to my name, I had to resort to purchasing by proxy. Selling a game's worth to my parents, as any seasoned gamer knows, is a job in and of itself. Not only do you have to explain why they should spend their money on you, but you have to deflty avoid the pitfalls that will break the deal almost immediately (violence, gratuitous sex, and inane imagery, just to name a few).

As one could imagine, I failed several times to sell my parents on Sam and Max's worth, usually drawing out the mother response: "Maybe it would make a good Christmas gift." I was met with that response no less than a dozen times, but my young spirit prevailed. I knew they would crack long before I would. Repeated visits to the store during sunday shopping finally wore on my parents, and Sam and Max was soon mine.

I remember finishing the game in what seemed like a week. Despite finishing it so quickly, I returned several times, for the gameplay, for the witty but ridiculous banter, and for the world that seemed so wacky and outside the norm, that believing in its existence became more than just a passing fancy.

Years passed by, and for more than ten years, fans like myself had not been satiated by the continuing adventures of a dog detective and his psychotic rabbit sidekick. Telltale Games finally announced some months ago that they would be handling the continuation of the psycho duo's adventures, on the PC no less. The twist, as there always is one, is that the game would be presented through episodic content.

Episodic content is a strange beast, that, except for a few small and largely unpublicized experiments, is an untested concept in the realm of gaming. Some years ago, in university, I thought about developing a first person adventure game in the vein of Hideo Kojima's Snatcher, delivered in episodic content. The game would make heavy use of the official forums, creating story elements based on the ideas presented by posters, as well as trying to address questions about the story that fans wanted to explore more.

Exploring the advent of episodic content in the current climate of gaming, there are successes, and failures. One of those failures would have to be Half Life 2's expansion episodes. While the games themselves are incredible, and offer a great gameplay experience, they don't follow the cohesive set up that episodic content requires to keep the attention of its fanbase.

One of the marginal successes, was Capcom's Eldorado Gate for Dreamcast, which was a 7 part episodic RPG, that got little recognition outside of Japan, and similar distribution.

It soon occurred to me, that given the failures and successes in the concept, there are a couple things that can make or break the entire pitch of episodic content:

1) A modular front end. Quite simply, what a frequently released episodic game requires is a front end that provides content creators (artists, writers and the like) with a base foundation that makes inserting content easy and painless. If creating content for one given episode remains easy to pull off, then you are less likely to be met with delays.

2) A master plan. Every game needs a plan about where it's headed, before it even gets there. To beat an old cliche to death: "Start with the end in mind."

3) Technology that's not necessarily cutting edge. The sad truth about cutting edge technology is that creating assets and environments requires a lot of time and energy; possibly more than what is available when your team is creating game content on a fixed schedule. This is one of the biggest problem with Valve attempting to release Half Life 2 expansions as episodic content. The assets and technology required to create each episode is wholly time consuming, which creates delays, and defeats the very purpose of episodic content in the first place.

4) Community involvement in the process. One of the common complaints I hear about episodic content is that it's merely a new way to make microtransactions more palatable to the consumer. Episodic content has definite advantages, but how does one capitalize on those advantages? The easiest way is to allow fans to have a hand in the direction the game takes. The game is episodic, so the story is living, breathing, and constantly changing. A constantly evolving and living world is one of the bigger advantages that episodic gameplay has over a single boxed version.

5) Introduce new gameplay mechanics in each new installment. This isn't to say that each game should be a complete overhaul fromthe last installment. In fact, this is quite the opposite. Slowly build on what the player knows, and offer a small new addition to the gameplay each installment, so the player doesn't feel as if the episodic content is not just a hacked up version of an otherwise full game.

6) Make it small. Provide 3 to 4 hours of content for a low price (offering segments for $20 is way too much considering the recurring payments involved in evolving content). This not only provides enough gameplay for new players to get a taste of the game before plunging into what can only be described as an investment, but it doesn't feel like a serious hit to the wallet in the event that the player decides to continue with the series. One great way to alleviate buyer's remorse over something like this would be to provide the first episode free after a few installments of the series have been released, and the series has begun to develop some noteriety. A free first episode would only serve to increase your audience. 

Much of this needs to be addressed, but these aren't the only keys to success. One of the biggest parts of appealing content is finding the correct audience. One thing that developers need to realize, is that episodic content might not actually apply to the same audience that buys boxed copies of final games. There is bound to be overlap, but it may be time to carefully consider who episodic content really applies to, before heading into this new foray head first.


R.I.P. Clover. We hardly knew ye. :(

Okami will forever be remembered as one of my favorite games of all time. May each team member find a team has incredible as the one they were blessed with during their time in this incredible studio. We hope that you continue to push the envelope, creating incredible games that don't quite fit the mould, and look to change the way we look at interactive media.


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Totaka Kazumi, a composer on a number of Nintendo developed and published games, has a long running secret that most gamers have no idea even exist.

Here is the secret behind Totaka's song.

The P is for Pandemonium

Playstation 3 preorders in America have been surprisingly orderly, mostly facilitated by the conservative unit forecast provided by retail giant Gamestop, which swallowed up its competitor, EB Games, back in March.

Gamestop publicly announced to american consumers that preorders for the playstation 3 console would be available come Tuesday 10th, but in extremely limited quantities. Most stores were allotted a measly 6 units, two of which could be preordered by store employees, while certain larger (or merely more fortunate) stores were blessed with a paltry 16 units.

Gamers arrived at store fronts at 5am, hoping to get their hands on the few preorders available at the local store. From all reports, preorders went rather routinely and smoothly. As quickly as it began, it was over. That is, in America.

Here in Japan, circumstance has put many gamers on edge. Despite the console launching in the land of the rising sun nine days before America, we are not only cursed with a quarter of the units, but most stores have no idea if preorders will even take place. Rakuten, Amazon, and even Tsutaya seemed completely in the dark about how they would go about holding preorders for the Playstation 3 system.

Going into a local store and inquiring about a yoyaku (the japanese word for reservation) usually garners the usual japanese response: "I'm sorry, but we have no begun reservations yet. Please be sure to check back often."

Websites have begun to spring up, with a huge chart of online stores, and when they are likely to begin preorders for units. Some site have even announced when they will start preorders online; something that is completely alien to those accustomed to american websites, that quietly open preorders for new hardware.

This alone isn't enough. Most stores are adhering to the age old "first come, first serve" mentality, which, given the product in question, is likely to cause pandemonium. Uncertainty has become the name of the game, and it feels as if even Sony themselves doesn't know what's going on.

As I write this, I'm camping a certain popular online store, waiting for preorders to open later today. I've become a slave to consumerism, but it's a sad truth that I will be able to easily justify when I have a machine in my hands that will take care of my gaming needs for the next six years.

This is going to happen all over again, once Wii hits in December.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The one chip wonder

I've been looking to buy an MSX computer for some time now. Back last August, when I had visited Tokyo on vacation, I had the choice of either an MSX, or a Neo Geo AES system, and I bowed to the power of Metal Slug and King of Fighters. The AES was finally mine. One of my life gaming goals had finally been fulfilled. But the quest continues.

It looks like my job has been made even easier, though. The good people at D4 Enterprises will ship the 1chip MSX on October 12th.

The feature list for the new 1chip MSX is pretty outstanding as well:

・MSX2 with 256kB RAM
・Kanji support
・MSX-DOS2 support
・PS/2 connection
・2 MSX joystick ports
・2 MSX cartridge slots
・SD/MMC flashcard slot with native FAT16 support in MSX-DOS2
・Composite and SVHS TV output
・VGA monitor output
・2 cinch audio outputs
・FPGA I/O pin (40 pins and 10 pins)
・2 USB ports
・Externals size About 135mm×156mm×32mm

< accessories >
・AC adaptor
・Instructional Manual
・Attachment CD-ROM
(Source code and development environment software.)

In addition to its small compact size, I'm happy to see that it includes USB ports, keyboard support, joypad functionality, and even flash memory functionality. It even contains proprietary VGA adaptor support; something most major console manufacturers today seem to have either implemented half heartedly, or completely forgotten about it.

The 20,000 yen price tag might be a bit steep for those looking to dabble in the MSX library casually, though. The sleek design and copious hardware support, though, make it a must have for me, and probably many other obscure gaming computer fans.

The official website states that only 5000 will be made and sold, so it's a good idea that I try to get my hands on one as soon as possible.

The official 1 chip MSX site can be found here.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is Halo 3 an allusion to the Battle of Thermopylae?

With the release of Ghost of Onyx, Eric Nylund's 3rd book in the Halo universe, my brain has once again been looking back to the story of Halo. Granted, the games themselves don't seem to shed any light on the literary or historical significance of naming conventions in the series, but rather it is the peripheral material that targereally shines in this regard.

I thought about the similarities between the story of Halo and the famous Greek and Persian battle that was forever used as a teaching tool to describe superior training, equipment, and strategy.

I`ll quote Wikipedia, as there`s no point typing it again:

In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in the mountain pass, Thermopylae. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. A small force led by king Leonidas of Sparta blocked the only road through which the massive army of Xerxes I could pass.

After several days of confrontation the Persians attacked but were defeated by heavy losses, disproportionate to those of the Greeks. This continued on the second day but on the third day of the battle a local resident named Ephialtes betrayed the Greeks, revealing a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines. With the rest of the army dismissed, King Leonidas stayed behind with his bodyguard of 300 Spartans and the 700 man Thespian army even though they knew it meant their deaths, to allow the rest of the army to escape.
Many may theorize that Reach was the allusion to the ancient greek battle, but this has flawed reasoning. For one, Thermopylae was the first step in the Persian empire`s absolute failure to take Sparta from the Greeks. Despite surviving heavy losses, the Persian empire was forced to retreat, and was later defeated on a different front.

At Reach, while the spartans stayed to fight the covenant, the alien forces bulldozed through Reach, and continued on to destroy more and more of the human fleet.

There are a couple reasons Halo 3, the last stand on Earth, could be an allusion to the Battle of Thermopylae:

1) While in the game, Master Chief is mentioned to be the last remaining spartan, there are at least 4 others that were rescued in the books. I know that Bungie wants to seperate the two to avoid confusion for those who don`t read the book, but a short conversation inserted in the game to explain their appearance would be enough.

2) The very obvious: The superior training, tactics, equipment (somewhat) and courage are possessed by none other than the Spartan units in the Halo Universe. This is exactly the same in Thermopylae. 300 spartans held off an entire persian force through a narrow passageway.

3) On Volume 2 of the Halo 2 OST, Marty named one of the songs "Finale: Thermopylae Soon." Hmmm.

If this is indeed an allusion, we could take it one step farther. We could make more connections and predictions:

1) In Thermopylae, the greeks were betrayed by Ephialtes, who gave the persian army another path into greek land. Could this be the same thing with earth? Could someone betray the human fleet (Cortana?) during the final battle on earth, which could lead to a Thermopylae style conflict?

2) The thespians, citizen soldiers (opposed to the professional Spartans who were trained from birth to fight to the death), refused to leave when dismissed by Leonidas. Could we see this dedication in Sarge`s troops? Perhaps even the Helljumpers, despite them being career soldiers as well.

3) The Spartans delayed the invasion of greek land, but at a great price: Leonidas was killed, as were all 300 spartans. When Xerxes of Persia recovered his body, he ordered that he be beheaded and crucified. He regretted the event afterwards, and the body was returned to Greece 40 years later, where it was buried with full honors. Could we see the death of Master Chief by the end of Halo 3? Something else to consider...

Just some things to think about as we near the release of Ghosts of Onyx on October 31th. Anyone interested in checking out more information about this incredible historical battle can check out the wikipedia link here.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

I won't lie. I love the aggravation of scratching at shrink wrap over a new game. I love popping a disc or a cart into a system for the first time, and anticipating the game as everything begins to hum and come to life. I love letting the introduction cutscene of a game roll infinitely while I pour over the full color glossy pages of a manual. I love all of these things so much, I'm afraid to see it disappear. I might not be happy with the future of gaming.

A cadre of big names in the industry, namely SCEA's Phil Harrison, have said many times that the future of gaming lies in digital distribution. Discs, boxes, manuals, brick and mortar stores; all of these things may be a thing of the past sooner than we think. Many of us imagined that it would at least be another 10 years before we had to say good bye to a physical collection.

We've had PC distribution services like Steam on our doorsteps since the Source engine was announced by Valve, and Half Life 2 was revealed to be in development. Since then, we've been seeing countless PC games available for download from Steam, including Ragdoll Kung Fu, Sin Episodes, Darwinia, and the recently released Defcon.

Digital distribution had already become a reality, but it was more an exception, rather than the rule. That is, until now. With Sony revealing their plans for Gran Turismo HD, we are moving closer and closer towards the future that many collectors fear. Gran Turismo HD will offer a barebones "classic" package that will include no tracks or cars. Players will be able to purchase the cars and tracks that they want for small nominal fees, and possibly trade those cars with other players.

How does that connect to digital distribution? Other than the tenuous link to microtransactions, common sense would dictate that selling a boxed version of GT HD without tracks or cars included would not only be fairly discouraging to consumers who didn't know about its features before buying it, but it would be completely useless to those without an internet connection. On the other hand, if you offered the classic package only to those with an internet connection, you would already be serving purely to those with the means to purchase more content for the game.

As we all see Sony changing their tune on movie distribution on PSP after the failed UMD movie format, many journalists are theorizing that the PS3's distribution tie to bluray discs may not be as certain as once expected. Harrison himself was quoted as saying that he wouldn't be surprised if the PS4 didn't have a drive for physical media. It's entirely possible to assume that the PS3 may be the bridge between physical media and an entirely digital distribution method. Closer to the end of the system's life cycle, we might find less and less disc releases, and more digital releases, heralding the beginning of an entirely digitally distributed gaming future.

I have my concerns about digital distribution, past the simple and irrational need to collect. Many of my fellow gamers seem to share the same worries:

1) What happens when a game developer or publisher goes under? If my storage medium for the downloaded product corrupts, how will I download the game again? Will I have to repurchase the title?

2) What happens if I get a new unit that the game is released for? (this worry was alleviated when I purchased a Japanese 360, and moved all my downloads and achievements over to it by simply retrieving my gamertag from Microsoft's databases)

3) What happens if I want to purchase an old title? Without physical distribution, there's no way for me to scour small game shops for hard to find games. (then again, with digital distribution, no game would be rare or hard to find, I suppose)

4) Doesn't digital distribution open the flood gates for the use and abuse of microtransactions, seen in the likes of Lumines 2 for Xbox Live, and Gran Turismo HD?

These are just a few legitimate concerns lifted from a much longer list. It's not to say that the future is nothing but bleak. What's more important is that companies take a long hard look at the new pitfalls and issues that are created by entirely changing the way games and media are distributed to consumers.

I just hope the option to acquire a physical copy remains.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

October is a quiet month in Japan. It's just the quiet before the storm, though. With the Wii, Gears of War, Blue Dragon, Gyakuten Saiban 2 DS, the Playstation 3, and a host of other titles looking to find their way onto my shelf, I can appreciate a month where my wallet isn't screaming uncle. I decided to pick up Front Mission 5, a title I had held off on picking up for some time, and I'm really glad I finally picked it up. Here are the initial impressions on the game I posted on GAF this morning:

So I picked up Front Mission 5 yesterday, despite the fact that it's been out for ages. Front Mission 3 was one of my favorite games on the PSone, and I really enjoyed the Front mission 1st remake for Psone as well. FM4, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster to me.

I am happy to report that so far, FM5 is positively badass. FM5 seems like a sort of epic conclusion to the series, for a number of reasons:

1) The game takes place over several years, intersecting with several of the FM games at points.

2) For the first time, you play completely from the perspective of the USN (where in all previous games, you played from the perspective of the OCU, the war rivals of the USN, or only partially from the USN perspective).

3) The title "Scars of War" really explains the somber mood of the game. The game details the life of Walter Feng and how through the years, even as a child, war continues to change and alter his life.

They've changed a couple things in the game that I was actually pretty surprised about. For one, there is now friendly fire, so if you have a unit between you and an enemy, you will hit the unit if your weapon is a shotgun or a machine gun. Also, spray from shotguns and machine guns sometimes miss enemies and hit allied units residing behind the target. Missiles seem to be smart enough to go over allied units, though.

Also, one of the coolest parts of the game is the way attack turns use a FAR more cinematic camera than past games, making it look like a CNN news report than a movie (a slightly shaky cam to illustrate a hand held camera). Some camera shots circle overhead, much like a news helicopter feed would.

Customization for the mech seems to be much improved, too. As you tune and modify parts, your mechs will slowly change in appearance as well. There is also the ability to rename and recolor the mechs, which was present in FM3 (though I'm not sure about FM4, as I played very little of it).

I have a long day of work ahead of me today, but I really look forward to coming home and playing a few hours of the game tonight. I'm really loving it so far.

I'm going to plunge head first into the game over the coming week, and post some more detailed impressions on the game. I really hope this hits US, but the chances are looking rather dismal.
More detailed impressions to come in the near future.
The Okami art book hit stores on the 28th, and I managed to pick up the last copy at my local store. Unfortunately, my camera was, again, out of batteries, so i had to take some interim photos with my ke tai. I'll try to take some actual camera photos this weekend.

The cover of the book. Really beautiful stuff.

Some sample art from the game itself.

A real surprise. A Dragon Quest style 8 bit representation of Okami's world map.

Some sample pictures of the game's sheet music. If you look closely, you can see 8-bit versions of all the game's major characters lining the pages.

As far as I know, the book is backordered at every import store, and many book stores here in Japan haven't gotten any copies at all. Hopefully it becomes a little more widely distributed in the coming weeks. Everyone needs to pick up this gem.
Joystiq posted a pretty awesome flash sample of the Mii character creation system that will ship with the Wii come launch. I decided to try my hand at it, and managed to make a character that looked somewhat like myself. I added a goatee, despite not having one anymore. It was more to add another common point of definition.

For those interested in trying out the flash, you can find it here.