Eski Steenberg and his game (The following is part of my GameFile column, filed at MTVNews.com.)

What ["Love" MMO designer Eskil] Steenberg envisions — and, of course, is making — is a game that is smart enough to react to anything a player does.

..."I believe that games need directors," he said, "digital directors that can figure out in real-time what's going on in the game, analyze what the players are feeling and doing and adjust to that and make the game do what it should do ... to make a dramatic balance."

How about a "Star Wars" reference to explain? "A digital director could do very small things. Like, it could say, 'Well, at this point [the player is] 2 feet away from destroying the Death Star. Maybe we should not fire the big gun at him right now. Just keep up with the player. Let him do that, because he's got a tiny bit of health. Let him be the hero."

Steenberg gets the irony that he wanted to be a designer, got hired to be a programmer, and is now figuring out how to program a designer into virtual existence. His digital director could be responsible for, in his words, "the most awesome game ever." The Death Star example is really just a small thing. A game like "Love" powered by a digital director "has to be able to generate stuff and add stuff and remove stuff and shift not just on the small level — the health and things like that, which is kind of easy — but you want that engine to be able to say: 'We need a powerful nemesis right now. That's a missing character. We need to generate that character. Give him a castle. Give him weapons.'"

(Steenberg is young, smart, and you will hear from him again. Read the rest of this story is at MTVNews.com)

Mirror's Edge Flying LeapI've been excited about "Mirror's Edge," the upcoming console and PC first-person parkour game from EA's DICE studio, since I read a cover feature about it in the magazine Edge. Just look at the screenshots!

Last month at GDC, EA hosted an event showcasing DICE's work, which included a live demonstration of "Mirror's Edge." The sight of the game's heroine running through a stark, gleaming city, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, taking enemies out with her hands, was impressive. Seeing it all in first-person was exciting. But, watching what it looks like when she tumbles forward into a roll and the game stays in first person was... disconcerting.

I wondered if presenting parkour in first-person might be asking for trouble. My head was spinning:

  • Is this game going to make us all sick?
  • In the era of "Assassin's Creed," what's the point of having a parkour game played from a "Halo" perspective?
  • Where did the color green go?

I had to talk to the developers. EA PR obliged, setting me up with two quick, on-the-spot chats. We talked about several key issues and I got some intriguing answers...

(Warning to EA marketing team -- there's a possible surprise in here for you...)

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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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Spore - Cell ModeThey were showing "Spore" in Manhattan this week, in the back of a club called Branch.

And the rumor I heard was that they'd let you play it.

I did play it -- for maybe 20 seconds -- and also sat for an informative presentation by the game's lead designer, Alex Hutchinson.

I had seen "Spore" before. I had read the saturation coverage on N'Gai Croal's blog, my mind blown by Will Wright's explanation of the Flickr and Facebook touches incorporated into this already-ambitious game.

I thought I knew it all about "Spore."

I was wrong.

Hutchinson was already showing the game to other reporters when I wandered over last night. He was sitting on a semi-circle couch, driving the game's creature editor on a Windows PC. I had used the creature editor before -- two E3s ago -- and made some creatures, poking and prodding bulbous aliens to life. Hutchinson was doing that too, every few seconds shaping them with the ease of plopping pieces of Play-Doh together.

"I expect a portion of our audience to never play the game," he said as he clicked an icon to make one of his creatures walk. "They will make stuff, share stuff, and send it around."

I realized I had walked into a demo by a designer who was eager to show that his game wasn't really just a game. In fact, from what he kept on saying, hardcore gamers should really think clearly about what they want to get out of '"Spore." They won't be getting hardcore gaming thrills.

The developers at Maxis have thrived making games that have broad and casual appeal. This -- to an extent -- is one of them.

So to find out who this game is for, whether Maxis expects the graphics to turn off middle-aged "Sims" fans, to learn a lot of small details, and to find out what you can do if you see a giant phallus walking through a world in your copy of "Spore," read on.

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ealogo.jpgThe head of Electronic Arts flashed his gamer credentials to kick off the final day of the DICE gaming summit in Las Vegas on Friday, but quickly turned his attention to what he said is a business model in the industry that is leading to "creative failure."

Yes, EA CEO John Riccitiello finished "BioShock," used YouTube to finish "Portal" and can't wait for "Grand Theft Auto IV." But he was focused on business -- and on the negatives he wanted the couple of hundred developers and executives in attendance could learn from.

The way the big business of games operates now is leading to "creative failure," he said repeating the phrase several times throughout is talk. "All of you has every reason to expect what you create is going to be truly great," Riccitiello said. He cited the rising cost of game development,, saying that EA now produces games on at least 12 platforms (not counting multiple mobile phone platforms), require 200 people to create a top-level "AAA" game and that these games often need to be stuffed with an immense amount of content.

John Riccitiello Presentation At DICEMaking things worse, he said, was the consolidation of the gaming industry, something he acknowledged EA has been a major player in. "There are going to be fewer major publishers in 2010 than they are today. And I think the second tier publishers are going to thin out considerably." He showed slides that listed dozens of developers that have been absorbed by publishers and developers over the last few years, and he admitted that many of those purchases bore bad fruit. "We at EA blew it," he said, referring to EA's problems keeping former top-tier studios Origin, Bullfrog and Westwood vital or even simply in existence, once they were purchased. There was too much consolidation, too much group think. The problem, he said, was "the fundamental belief that we could be one big happy family."

Riccitiello proposed a solution.

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Straight Outta Compton"God of War" and "Twisted Metal" creator David Jaffe didn't grow up a rap guy. But now he's listening to a lot of it, especially the more aggressive stuff of the 90s.

Why?

Consider it emotional research for Jaffe's next game at his studio Eat Sleep Play. Late last week he told me that "Come Sail Away" from Styx was his unlikely soundtrack of inspiration for "God of War." Now he's on an N.W.A and Public Enemy bender.

I joked that that must mean he was asked to help out on the new "Saint's Row."

Completely wrong, he said.

Instead, he caught me by surprise by delivering an unusual theory about how video games should relate to music (hint: he says "NBA Street" gets it very, very wrong). In the process, he talked about why "Shadow of the Colossus" didn't make him cry, what game developers could learn from Martin Scorsese, and --because it's what must happen at least once a day in any true gamer's life in 2008 -- we chatted some "Endless Ocean."

How do you give gamers the feeling of a rap song without putting a rap song in a game? Read on for one of my favorite chats with a game developer so far this year.

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What kind of DS games were we all promised?

Think back a few years. Think back to the moment you first heard about the Nintendo DS and gathered that it had two screens - one of them touch-sensitive -- and a plastic stylus.

kirbycanvascursebox.jpgDid you expect to do a lot of drawing on your DS?

Did you picture yourself playing a lot of games that involved illustrating things? Remember how we were at least expecting a DS version of "Mario Paint"?

I did. But that was a long time ago.

Where did all those ideas for drawing games go? I've been asking around…

In the Nintendo DS' first year Namco produced "Pac-Pix," a "Pac-Man" game that required players to draw their own Pac-Man character. Nintendo produced "Yoshi Touch & Go," which let us draw clouds that would funnel Yoshi safely to the ground as he plummeted from the sky. And "Kirby Canvas Curse," perhaps the most ambitious of these kinds of games, re-invented the side-scrolling platformer as an inky draw-your-own-chutes-and-ladders game.

Go back and play it, like I did this past December, and you too may be saying, "Oh yeah, this is what DS games were all going to be like."

Remember those days of the early DS games? They were before "Nintendogs" hit it big, using that touch screen primarily for petting, not drawing; before "Brain Age" used that touch screen more for mathematics than for drawing; before "Mario Kart DS used that touch screen for just about nothing, instead of drawing. And all of these games -- not the ones I mentioned earlier -- became the hits.

What went wrong? Or did it all actually go right? Were we robbed? I've been asking DS developers about this.

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IGF Finalist

(Below is the beginning of my latest GameFile column. For the full thing, check out MTVNews.com)

The last time I was a video game judge, I carried a gavel, gave it to a chimp to nibble on and wound up on national TV doing the hula atop a special exercise step machine called the Wii Balance Board.

So when I was asked to be a video game judge again, I said, "Sure." The last time I was judging games, I was doing it as a so-called Game Critic at the big E3 games show. This new opportunity would allow me to help select the best up-and-coming computer games for this year's Independent Games Festival in March. It was a good offer. The IGF contest is the top American competition for independent computer games and has honored many games I've enjoyed, including "Braid," "Narbacular Drop" and "Everyday Shooter." Plus, with no hula games apparently on the nomination list, I could play everything I was judging while sitting.

Or so I thought.

It turns out that you can't play a mash-up of "Super Mario Bros." and "Guitar Hero" without standing up.

Check out the rest of this column at MTVNews.com

ffp.jpgNostalgia frequently clouds my judgment whenever I'm talking about old games. I love them, I collect them, I generally hold them in higher regard than most new games that are released. But, even I'll admit, sometimes I'm wrong. Some games just don’t hold up against the test of time, and going back and playing them is just a test of my patience.

One of the most consistent game publishers back in the day was Taito. Just hearing the name should bring back memories of dragons, legends, renegades and elevators for some older gamers. They brought to life some of the greatest games and characters ever to be seen. While their name may still appear on new games, they may never reach the height of popularity that they enjoyed in the 1980s. And since Taito was acquired by Square Enix in 2005 they are no longer their own company.

One of the titles that their name has appeared on recently was a mini-game collection, released in the States by Majesco, called "Furu Furu Park." This particular collection of mini-games cultivates some of the most well known Taito properties and repurposes them into a mini-game collection for the Wii. I was curious to see how the re-imagined versions of some of my favorite games of all time worked as "party games." So I played both the "Furu Furu Park" versions of these games, as well as the originals and put them to the test to see if nostalgia would win out against "innovation."

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We said: "What the hell, we don't want exploding barrels, but we have to have them. How are we going to make them not suck?"

-- Clint Hocking To MTV Multiplayer, January 15, 2008

Far Cry 2 Barrels Blown

Behold, Multiplayer readers, "Far Cry 2"! It's coming later this year and has many notable features.

It's a PC first-person shooter from Ubisoft Montreal, a major game for the fall of 2008. It takes place across more than 50 square kilometers of African savanna and jungle. It's designed to be so open, you're only forced to accomplish one goal: kill the game's main bad guy, however you can possibly manage it. Much of the story is generated on the fly. Much of the game world is destructible and flammable. It's coming to consoles too.

And, as I learned when Ubisoft creative director and generally innovative game designer Clint Hocking showed me the game, it has… explosive barrels.

All that innovation and they still do the barrel thing?

As Hocking gave me a demo of the game last Tuesday hewalked the game's main character through a town full of wary rival soldiers, many of them resting next to piles of ammo or close to big red drums. I stopped Hocking in his tracks and said…

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