Category Archives: Game Development

Xbox 360 Embraces Homebrewers

Yesterday it was announced that Microsoft would make Xbox 360 development tools available to hobbyist programmers. The XNA Game Studio Express development tools will be available as a free download. Those wanting to share their creations with other homebrewers will have to pony up $99 to join what is currently being called, the Creator’s Club.

Even with the distribution restrictions, this is a dream come true! I’ve wanted a chance to write games for consoles for a long time now, but the development kit costs were just too high for this to be practical. So I’ve turned much of my attention to web games, which has meant a very slow road learning Flash. Not that Flash is horrible, but as a traditionally trained programmer, Flash is a bit of a paradigm shift that my brain simply has not embraced as quickly as I would have liked. Being more familiar with Microsoft development tools in general, I think I can get my head around the XNA tools in short order.

This is a good move for Microsoft too which really needs to do everything it can to fill the Xbox 360 games pipeline. There’s little doubt that some of those homebrew creations will make it to the big leagues and could very well become the next big thing that sells systems. So I applaud Microsoft for embracing the homebrew community rather than pushing it away. Even with Sony’s well publicized problems getting the Playstation 3 launched, Microsoft is going to need all of the help it can get.

StarLogo TNG: Free 3D Modeling Tool

Here’s what looks like a cool tool from MIT to get your feet wet in 3D modeling and simulation without a lot of pain. And it’s free! From the StarLogo site:

StarLogo TNG is The Next Generation of StarLogo modeling and simulation software. While this version holds true to the premise of StarLogo as a tool to create and understand simulations of complex systems, it also brings with it several advances. Through TNG we hope to

  1. Lower the barrier to entry for programming by making programming easier.
  2. Entice more young people into programming through tools that facilitate making games.
  3. Create compelling 3D worlds that encompass rich games and simulations.

This looks like something my little artists could really get their teeth into!

Tom Kalinske Speaks on Sega

Anyone interested in or fascinated by the rise and fall of Sega should take a look at the interview with former Sega of America head, Tom Kalinske on Sega-16.com. I found it particularly interesting that first Sega, and then later Nintendo, both passed on the chance to jointly develop a CD-based game console with Sony. These days, most gamers probably discount the role of American developers and engineers in the the video game console industry, but after reading this, I think that opinion will have to change.

Sega Back In The Day

Reading The Rise and Fall of Sega at 2old2play I began to think about my own last decade or so with Sega consoles and games. For the most part I look upon them very fondly, having been swept away in mouth frothing fanboyism back in the day. I mean after all, Sega did have superior technology, riiiiight? Even if that were true, sadly, superior tech does not always win the fight. Just ask IBM about OS/2. Sega also had a stable of arcade hits to draw upon for console conversions. I got a Saturn mainly to play Virtua Cop and Sega Rally.

Looking back, I think one of the things that ultimately led to Sega’s demise as a console maker was their failure to go all the way and build something completely new each generation. I bought a Genesis in part because it used the same CPU that had been used in Macs around that time. My goal in buying a console was to get off of the never ending treadmill of upgrades needed to keep up with PC gaming. So I figured a console that had recognizable computer innards was probably going to be powerful enough to play the sort of games I would find interesting. This did not turn out to be the case, and yes I still game on the PC too. But from that point on I was in love with Sega. So when the CD add on came out, I jumped in. Afterall, CD games were the future, right? Sega was right on this point, but they didn’t go all the way and build a completely new box that could really take advantage of what the CD medium could bring to the table.

Sega may have had a chance of running away with it all, having caught up with Nintendo during the Genesis era, but they weren’t willing to push it all the way and make something completely new. They tended to favor using off the shelf components, which, in retrospect, can only take you so far. And they clearly wanted to keep building on what they had started with the Genesis, which led to missteps which cost them the time they needed to come with something good. Imagine if the Saturn had come out a couple of years earlier than Sony’s Playstation and without the last minute addition of the second CPU. But the time wasted on the CD addon and later the 32X, the CDX, the Nomad, and the Neptune project would prove fatal.

Sony, being new to the game, built a new box full of custom chips and made it easy for developers to work with. And since that time, every new generation of hardware has meant a new set of chips. Even within a generation, components are routinely redesigned to cut costs and take advantage of new techniques. Needless to say, this is very expensive, but that’s what it takes to stay in the game. In the end, Sega lost too much money, time, and goodwill with their mistakes to keep up. I think Sega’s last console, the Dreamcast, was a great console. But by that time, Sega simply didn’t have the resources to support it.

Sega’s days as a console maker may be over, but as a game developer/publisher they seem to be doing pretty well. And if there are more young people like my oldest son, a Sonic the Hedgehog fanatic who dreams of programming games for Sega someday (or having them as a sponsor if he becomes a NASCAR driver), their future may yet be bright. Se-gah!!

PSP Homebrew Flash Player

It looks like the PSP homebrew community has once again taken things into their own hands and come up with something great, a flash player for the PSP! Now this only works on PSPs using firmware version 1.5, but this tells me without a doubt that the PSP can support flash, so why isn’t Sony doing this? I can only speculate that Sony doesn’t want competition from free flash games, for which they would not get a royalty. Game royalties are how console manufacturers make money since they generally sell the console hardware at a loss to build marketshare. I’m no expert, but I think Sony has more to fear from people buying iPods and DS’s than people playing flash games on the PSP. Supporting flash would add more value and, ahem, coolness, to the PSP which should ultimately sell more units. More units of course mean more people likely to buy PSP games. Free flash games could potentially serve as great game demo vehicles as well.

Sony PS3 Blogger Canned

GamesIndustry.biz has a story about a Sony employee who was fired for comments regarding the PS3 versus the Xbox 360 in his company blog. He was fired even after getting all required approvals for the post. Basically he said in his blog, that from what he was hearing in the development community, the Xbox 360 was a more capable box.

This reminds me of a move at one of Ford’s plants to ban non-Ford cars from the employee parking lot. This is just another heavy handed attempt to control people body and soul. Now I can understand the desire to pump up your own products, but moves like these are way too Orwellian for my tastes.

So we have another hard lesson about blogging for or about work. Fired SOE 3D artist Josh Robinson puts it best saying, “I guess the new rule for me is, don’t ever say anything at all about anything. Ever… Ever.”

PSP Flash Games

I finally bought a PSP a couple of weeks ago, shortly before update 2.0 came out for the U.S. models. The new update includes, among other things, a fairly decent web browser. Since that time, I’ve been happily putting the browser through its paces, mostly reading news, sports, and checking web mail on Yahoo!. This is all good, but if the browser supported Flash it would suddenly open the door to playing many of the thousands of browser based Flash games on the internet.

Given that Sony makes its money from the royalties they get from the sale of 3rd party games on the PSP, I tend to doubt that they will be eager to add Flash support to the browser. Flash Lite games formatted specifically for the PSP would be great for gamers (if they don’t suck), but wouldn’t make a dime for Sony.

Even without Flash support, I think there will be some server side web games targetted for the PSP, at least from the homebrew crowd. I have one proof of concept idea I’m working on which may not suffer from the relatively slow PSP browser. I don’t think there’s any money in it, but if it works it should be fun!

Hacking The PSP: Teh C00L

It looks like it only took about 4 months since the U.S. release until hackers worked out how to play pirated games on the Sony’s Playstation Portable (PSP). Should Sony be worried? Not really, pretty much every popular console has been hacked and I would argue that overall it’s a good thing that people seem to be so interested in hacking the PSP. The PSP is not just being hacked to enable piracy, it’s being hacked because hackers think that it is a cool device and they want to be able to do more with it than Sony had in mind. From a marketing perspective this is great! The people hacking the PSP are likely among the bleeding edge early adopters, the people who lead the way for the masses. If they’re interested, then there’s a good chance that the masses will follow, and most of those in the masses will buy software through legitimate channels, and that equals profit! The free publicity in the mainstream and techie press isn’t bad either.

So hack on! Sony will be crying all the way to the bank!

Programming the Next Generation

During the big tech boom, I used to joke that the reason there was a shortage of programmers was because they don’t have girlfriends/wives and thus never reproduce. The boom has gone bust and interestingly enough, the programming jobs have gone to the two most populous countries on Earth. But that’s not what I’m writing about today.

Yesterday I started teaching my 9 y.o. son to program. He thinks he might want to write games for Sega someday. Granted, the odds are against this happening, but that’s okay. I’ve wanted to teach him anyway and I can learn some new things too. So we’re working our way through Java Programming for Kids, Parents, and Grandparents by Yakov Fain. Why Java? Why not? All of the tools needed are free and downloadable, and what he learns writing in Java can be applied when writing in other modern object oriented (OO) languages. I don’t currently use Java for anything (using Python more and more), so this is a great opportunity for me too!

I might actually get two more programmers out of the deal as his little brother and sister have been looking over our shoulders during the lessons! Meanwhile his older sister, who’s away right now at the Concordia Japanese camp, Mori no Ike, has expressed an interest in 3D modelling. So I’ll be firing up Blender pretty soon too!

Games For Girls And Other People

I ran across a couple of articles concerning making games for girls and other people who we don’t usually think of as playing games. On Cnet News there’s an interview with game developer Sheri Graner Ray who is currently the lead on content for Star Wars Galaxies. This is well worth a read because I think that she hits the problem of making games that appeal to women right on the head. Players, both male and female, want to be able to identify with the central character, that avatar has to be something they are comfortable with. By and large that leaves males with appropriately heroic character models, whereas women are stuck with models that look more ready for sex than slaying dragons! This I think explains what I consider to be one of Star Wars Galaxies best features, the ability to finely tune your character model. SWG is the only game I know of that gives such a high level of flexibility in character model creation.

The other article I read today was in the GamesIndustry.biz newsletter. It described the great risk that Nintendo is taking to reach groups of people that don’t normally play games. These are people well outside of the legions of hardcore players and the games they would play may not even appeal to the hardcore. Here’s an excerpt.

"Nintendo president Satoru Iwata makes no bones about what his company
is trying to accomplish. He wants to sell videogames to people who
don’t want to play videogames. He wants people who turn their noses up
at interactive entertainment to stand in line to buy new consoles. He
doesn’t just want to find new ways to entertain existing gamers – he
wants to show the rest of the world how much fun our medium can be as
well."

Iwata-san is taking a big risk when Nintendo is already being squeezed by Sony and Microsoft, but I think he is on to something. With the consolidation of so many smaller developers under a few large publishing companies, many fear that creativity is being squeezed out of the market in favor of safe games that appeal to the same established audience. But at the heart of most game developers lives a passionate artist for whom making yet another sequel to Gran Turismo or Grand Theft Auto just isn’t enough. Maybe Nintendo will become the new home to the dreamers and risk takers who will take the games industry to the next level while Sony and Microsoft duke it out in the past.

Game Developer’s Paradise

At this year’s Game Developer’s Conference a central mantra coming from the major console owners was that the next generation machines will be developer friendly. On Monday, Microsoft released XNA Studio which they claim will make it easier to develop for the Xbox 2 and no more expensive than current Xbox development. A little later Sony promised that Playstation 3 developers would have an easier time developing games for the new console. The Playstation 2, though a powerful box on its release, was notoriously difficult to develop for, which is a bit ironic since Sega’s dual CPU Saturn was doomed in part by the difficulty of development compared to the very developer friendly original Playstation. While Nintendo did not make any developer tool announcements at GDC, prior to the conference, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata turned heads by saying that Nintendo Revolution may alienate some 3rd party developers. That doesn’t sound very developer friendly on the surface, but the gist of what Iwata-san was saying is that the Revolution console is not going to be focused on making the prettiest graphics at the expense of the gameplay experience. In other words, developers won’t have to sweat the graphics (which is a pain and drives up costs), instead they can focus on innovative and fun gameplay which is often less toil and more fun for the developer. Game publishers more interested in glitz than substance may be turned off by that.

Despite Sony’s current dominance, could such overt efforts to make life easy for developers mean that some kind of parity has been reached? Sony isn’t likely to lose it’s big lead anytime soon, but the next generation race so far looks like anybody’s to win. Microsoft is even showing a threat in the Japan market by signing on Final Fantasy creator Hironubo Sakaguchi and other Japanese heayweights, and giving them a free creative hand on Xbox 2. In the end, this dogfight can only mean good things for the hearts of gamers, and bad things for their wallets!

Video Game News Search

Yesterday Yahoo! announced its new Yahoo! Developer Network and web services API. As I’m always looking for new toys to play with, especially if they might be useful, I’ve quickly whipped up a Video Game News Search. This should be useful to anyone who follows the video games industry. This is based on the Yahoo Search Example code bundled with the SDK, but with lots of tweaks and more to come!

Click Here to Use the Video Game News Search Powered by Yahoo!

Resistance Is Futile…

Probst of Borg

Resistance is futile, your technological distinctiveness will be added to the EA… It certainly does appear that Larry Probst and Electronic Arts is assimilating everything in sight lately. They’ve already locked up major video game sports with NFL and Arena football and NASCAR exclusive licensing deals. Now they seem intent on gaining control of Ubisoft having already bought a 20 percent stake in the company. So I decided to give Larry the Borg treatment like Bill Gates,just for fun and to see how fast I could do it. This was done in Fireworks.

Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo, and Online Games

I just read an article on GamesIndustry.biz in which the Nintendo’s president, Satoru Iwata basically says that most gamers don’t want online games. He provides what he considers to be proof of this and so on. He may be right, the majority of gamers may not think online is important, but I don’t know. I can’t help but be reminded of what happened as Nintendo steadfastly stuck to the expensive cartridge format as the rest of the games industry moved to the much cheaper CDs. If the relative success of various Playstation 2 titles and Xbox Live are any indication, Nintendo is again in danger of leaving money on the table.

I think the key for Nintendo is Game Design God, Shigeru Miyamoto (you know Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda, most of the good stuff…) and whether or not he is ready for online games. In an interview a couple of years back, he did not have much use for online games. He made valid points about the ease of use for the gamer and the added expense. But with two years behind us and a vibrant console based online gaming community on not one but two consoles, has he rethought online games yet? My guess is yes, but he doesn’t have a game design ready yet. And that is what is holding Nintendo back. When Miyamoto-san is ready, so will Nintendo.

And gamers can rest assured that an online game from Shigeru Miyamoto will be something different. So don’t expect anything like Mario meets Halo, meets Final Fantasy XI. This can only be a good thing for gamers everywhere and of course Nintendo, which is in many ways the house that Miyamoto built.

Game Art for Teens

During my lunchtime outing I found an interesting book at Borders. It’s called Game Art for Teens and it is what looks like a pretty good intro to producing game art using tools like Maya and Corel Paint or Photoshop.

I may pick this up eventually, just waiting for the usual 10-20% sale or coupon to come my way. So even if you aren’t a teen anymore, this looks like a good book to cut your teeth on.

If you want to take a look click this link.