HomeWe were a little disappointed by Sony at this year's Game Developers Conference. Last year, they showed gathered journalists "Killzone 2" and rocked the boat a little bit with "Little Big Planet" and the first look at "Home."

Nothing of that magnitude came this time around, but they did hold an hour-long panel yesterday on the still-mostly-mysterious "Home" for interested developers.

The panel itself revealed precious little more about "Home" that hasn't already been leaked from gamers in the beta or announced by Sony. We did, however, get an interesting look at some example trophies that gamers could theoretically collect for participating in some of the mini-games (i.e. bowling) scattered in "Home"'s virtual spaces.

In an upcoming update to the Home Development Kit (HDK), companies will have a chance to start modeling these trophies themselves and playing with them in "Home."

Much of the presentation was spent looking at ways of developing and implementing objects into "Home," from the aforementioned trophies to sillier items like a bubble machine or a camera to take virtual photos with a friend's "Home" avatar. Sony says users will have the opportunity to take one item into a public space at a time, though that could change between now and the final release of "Home" sometime in 2008.

If you were wondering: yes, that release date remains completely vague; Sony made no mention of an updated release schedule for "Home" at GDC. What we did see, however, was an interesting back-and-forth between an Electronic Arts developer in the audience who questioned the motivation for even creating content for "Home."

When asked, "Why should I develop for Home?" James Cox, Senior Producer at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, didn't seem ready for the question, as a long pause dangled in the audience. Eventually, the EA employee clarified his statement, instead wondering what the draw was for third parties without a clear revenue model in place.

Even then, Cox didn't exactly have a clear answer. Earlier in the presentation, Cox mentioned that publishers have the option of making items pay-to-play, but that wasn't a requirement, and he simply told the employee to call Sony if he was interested in a more formal pitch on the revenue possibilities for "Home."

I wonder if he'll actually call.

portal.jpgOne of last year's greatest games was, arguably, the MTV published "Rock Band." The greatest song of last year was, undeniably, "Portal"'s "Still Alive." What happens when two of the biggest things to happen in video games collide? People get happy.

"Rock Band" forum member/developer hmxsean (he's one of the guys that announces the weekly DLC) is reporting that earlier this week, at Valve's GDC party, it was announced that "Still Alive" as performed by GLaDOS, will soon be appearing as "Rock Band" DLC.

As you may remember the song was penned by the genius Jonathan Coulton, who we interviewed about the song last October, and can be heard over the closing credits of "Portal" (as well as on the iPods of most of the Multiplayer staff). Date and pricing have yet to be announced, but rest assured it will show up soon, and then you too can feel like you just survived the Aperture Science Enrichment Center, while hitting the high notes, and not eating cake, because, of course, the cake is a lie. (Has that gotten old yet?)

rancor.jpgSan Francisco -- Even though it was nine in the morning, hundreds of sleepy-eyed GDC-goers stood in line yesterday for a glimpse of the latest "Star Wars" game by LucasArts.

The session was titled "'Star Wars: The Force Unleashed': How LucasArts is Building a Game, a Development Team and a Technology Pipeline... At the Same Time" and was led by project lead Haden Blackman.

Like the name suggests, Blackman went over the challenges of making a brand new "Star Wars" game. Asked to be the lead for the new "Star Wars" project in 2004, he said, "It was more challenging than I could ever have imagined."

Not only did the team have to create an original, George Lucas-approved concept and the next-gen technology to back it up, they also faced recruitment issues as well as having to move their offices in 2005. But four years later, "The Force Unleashed" is now slated for a summer 2008 release, and Blackman shared some stories from his experience. "There were many times that we questioned the sanity of what we were doing and putting all this stuff together, and I'm really proud of the team," he said.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • The team spent six months in 2004 hashing out concepts that included a smuggler game, a Darth Maul-centric game, a "Knights of the Old Republic"-era game, a game far into the future of "Star Wars" and one that had a Wookiee warrior with superhero-like powers.
  • One early combat pre-visualization clip shown had a Jedi battling a Rancor. The Jedi jumped from the monster's hand to its tusk and then inside its mouth. After several seconds, the Rancor's head exploded as the Jedi blew out of it. This caused the audience to applaud, but they were quickly disappointed (yet amused) when Blackman said, "That whole thing with the Rancor blowing up from the inside, we couldn't actually do for ESRB reasons. We are going for a T-rating."
  • One of their biggest challenges was multi-platform development for the Xbox 360 and PS3. "It really turned out to be a long, slow battle to get everything working on the PS3," he said. The biggest issue was that they had a symmetric multi-threading approach on the Xbox 360 that didn't scale well for the PS3, as well as challenges with memory allocation on the PS3.
  • For the first time outside of LucasArts, live gameplay was shown. It was an early level in the game, which had the lightsaber-wielding protagonist in a TIE fighter construction facility, showing off Force push and grip against hapless Stormtroopers.
  • A cinematic was shown, depicting the apprentice giving Darth Vader the lightsaber of Master Kota. "Only together can we defeat him," Vader said of the Emperor, revealing his scheme to the apprentice. Obediently he replied, "I will not fail you, my master."

For the full details, read on...

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simscarnivalWhat kind of video game would a Russian steelworker make? Or a policewoman? Or your mom?

Rod Humble, the head of "The Sims" game development at Electronic Arts wants that question answered and revealed a tool at the Game Developers Conference today that will allow that to happen: "The Sims Carnival."

The endeavor is a free web-based portal for creating, sharing and playing free computer games. That sounds dry, but think of it as a YouTube of video games. And if that sounds quite a bit like the Xbox Live Community Games feature announced by Microsoft just yesterday (the "democratization of game development" is a popular idea at GDC this year). then recognize this key difference: creating games using "The Sims Carnival" requires zero programming skills.

TheSimsCarnival.com is currently in beta, so most Russian steelworkers won't be able to start using it just yet, but any of them reading this post (welcome!) should picture a YouTube-style interface, except with games instead of video clips playing in a rectangle in an upper corner of the screen, games that can be rated, recommended, and swapped. And how these games are made? Humble showed that the process is as simple as navigating a series of menus to pick game-types, to upload graphics, to basically build their video game using plain English.

simscarnivalmenu (sorry for the bad lighting!)Humble had started his talk discussing some of the gaming scene's issues: a struggle for mainstream respect, an immaturity of gaming criticism, a lack of varying backgrounds and life experiences among the people who make video games. And he introduced a less familiar issue: the tendency of creative media to be taken over by regular people. It happened with poetry. It's happening with movies. And it's going to happen with games, Humble said. "Professional game design is an anomaly," Humble warned -- and not necessarily an ever-lasting and dominant one. The power to make games is increasingly coming to the people.

Humble showed several games made on "Sims Carnival" during his talk:

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Too HumanNine times out of 10, developers get along with one another at the Game Developers Conference. That wasn't the case at this morning's "The Future of Story in Game Design" panel.

Though five members of the industry were featured, the fireworks were clearly between two in particular. Denis Dyack, President of Silicon Knights and Director of "Too Human," and Matthew Karch, Co-owner and Game Designer at "TimeShift" developer Saber 3D, were visibly and verbally butting heads over the importance of story in video games in the future.

The two split on basic philosophies of game development. Dyack, always the passionate visionary, said developers need to stop designing games based upon a gameplay mechanic. "Too Human," he said, came from a desire to comment on the continued melding of humans and technology. Karch, however, said gameplay is king and any story elements acts as a support for that gameplay, a motivating factor to keep going.

Karch pointed to some of the best selling games of last year, "Call of Duty 4" and "Halo 3," suggesting that their phenomenal sales had little to do with the narrative. "Yeah, there's stories [in these games], but I don't think people played those games for the stories," said Karch, who believes the visuals and visceral gameplay of both games were the main draw. "We can pretend that we want to elevate games to the level of Shakespeare, but the reality is, the audience that we're dealing with today wants that [gameplay focus]."

You might guess that Dyack vehemently disagreed with Karch's assessment. Read on to find out his reactions (one of many) to Karch during the panel's hour-long debate.

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Gears of War 2San Francisco -- Games became bigger than music last year, Microsoft exec John Schappert proclaimed as part of his keynote address Wednesday to kick off the Game Developers Conference 2008, adding that every monetary measure attests to that fact.

And with that bold statement out of the way, Schappert (the corporate vice president of Xbox Live) and a variety of developers argued that the Xbox 360 could make a good run at YouTube, not just with the likes of "Gears of War 2" — which was not quite properly announced during the keynote — but with a suite of new Xbox 360 functions that are designed to enable the (almost) average person to upload games to the 360 for friends to rate and play.

The YouTube target was made clear throughout the presentation. Shappert claimed that in any given day there are 30 percent more pieces of user-captured content uploaded from "Halo 3" to that game's official site than there are new videos on YouTube. And the flow works the other way too: In an Xbox 360 developer's reel, MTV's Harmonix revealed that consumers had already purchased more than 3 million downloadable songs for "Rock Band."

Microsoft's more interesting — and most YouTube-esque — reveal of the keynote came at the start. Chris Satchell, the company's head of XNA game-development tools, said Microsoft was ready to embrace indie games. XNA is a free toolset for garage developers that has been available for more than a year but hasn't supported an easy way to get playable games to the public. Enter Community Games, a new feature for their Xbox Live online service that makes games produced with the indie-focused toolset available for download to the more than 10 million Xbox 360 owners.

Naturally, one would wonder how Microsoft intends to open the floodgates without the 15-year-old boys of the world immediately taking advantage of the newfound openness.

Read the rest of the story at MTVNews.com

wiifit_281×211.jpgSan Francisco -- With "Wii Fit" already out in Japan but still months away from release in Europe and the U.S., throngs of GDC attendees lined up to attend a talk by one of its developers yesterday afternoon.

Takao Sawano, Deputy GM in Entertainment Analysis and Development at Nintendo, talked about his work developing the Wii Balance Board peripheral for "Wii Fit" in a session titled, "'Wii Fit': Creating a Brand New Interface for the Home Console."

The hundreds of people in the audience listened attentively as Sawano-san spoke in his native tongue (English speakers used headsets connected to a translator). He talked about how "Wii Fit" came to be in the first place, the features of the software and the possible future implementation of the Wii Balance Board as a new controller.

As simple as the design looks, creating "Wii Fit" was not an easy process. When Sawano-san was tasked with creating the hardware for Shigeru Miyamoto's vision, he thought, "We'll sell a few, but there's no way that this will become a hit product." However, after overcoming major design challenges with the Wii Balance Board, over 1.4 million units have been sold in Japan since its December 1 release.

Some highlights from the talk include:

  • Miyamoto had planned "Wii Fit" long before the Wii's launch.
  • Early prototypes of the Wii Balance board included rumble and a connection to the Wii remote.
  • The program includes a Body Test, where you can measure BMI, weight and your "Wii Fit" age quickly and easily without inserting the disc. After the first time the game is inserted it will install the "Wii Fit" channel via the game disc.
  • In the Aerobics section, you can choose running courses that don't require use the Wii Balance Board; instead the player holds the Wii remote in hand or in pocket and runs in place. You can be joined by another person with a second Wii remote. New content will be added "to keep players coming back for more."
  • Also in Aerobics, players can change to the TV and the speaker in the Wii remote still counts for you as you exercise and watch TV.
  • "Wii Fit" is slated for release in Europe on April 25 and in North America on May 19.

Read on for the details...

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everquest2_money.jpgSan Francisco -- If you're an MMO gamer who buys his/her virtual in-game goods on the black market, your days of shady dealings may be numbered.

A panel I attended earlier this week at the Game Developers Conference's "World in Motions" series suggests that player-to-player item selling is going to be increasingly legit -- whether many MMO players like it or not.

The session was called "Learning to Love Virtual Item Sales." The half-hour presentation was led by Andy Schneider, president and co-founder of Live Gamer, "a legitimate market for virtual trading," and Steve Goldstein, co-founder and president of Ping0, a Live Gamer partner and distributor of Flagship Studios' "Hellgate: London."

Legitimate virtual item sales are common, particularly in free-to-play games, and especially in Korea, where micro-transactions -- the buying and selling of in-game assets and content -- are rampant. But for games that don't offer real-money transactions, like "World of Warcraft" for example, websites like IGE and ItemBay have transformed illicit virtual item sales into a billion-dollar business -- over $1.8 billion according to analysts' estimates given in the session -- and game publishers aren't getting a cent.

Schneider and Goldstein want to change that.

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Flash Prototype of Kyle Gray's EA DS Game IdeaWhat is going on here at GDC?

Why do I keep stumbling across signs that American and European developers are finally -- finally -- getting on board (or being brought on board) the DS and Wii development bandwagon?

And they're doing it by making games I'd actually like to play.

Was it not just this summer that I was haranguing Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime about the imbalance between the many Nintendo-supported Japanese-made Wii and DS games to the apparently scant support from Nintendo for DS and Wii games made by Americans and Europeans?

Was I really supposed to believe him that things were going to change?

Four signs at GDC already this week that Reggie was on to something...

  1. Nintendo's new WiiWare download service, launching May 12, will feature "a new episodic game series from Telltale," the American studio behind the "Sam & Max" episodic series, according to a Nintendo press release sent this morning.
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LostWindsSan Francisco -- The first downloadable Wii game I was ever shown was 'LostWinds,' a promising platformer from British game studio Frontier Developments. And I saw it just yesterday.

Patrick Klepek and I checked it out together, settling in with Frontier's top designer David Braben to look at a laptop presentation in the crowded lobby of the W Hotel right near all of the major Game Developers Conference halls. Braben showed us video on a computer, not a Wii, but was kind enough to wave his hands to show us how his game would be controlled.

So... "LostWinds" is a WiiWare game. That means it will be downloadable on the Wii sometime near the date of the launch of the new service, which Nintendo announced this week will occur in the U.S. on May 12. Gamers won't just be downloading classic games through their console anymore. They'll be able to download new games.

"LostWinds" features what Braben considers a "third way" for Wii controls. Read on to find out what that means and why Braben thinks the game presents some interesting ideas about how beautiful and mellow a Wii action game might be.

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