March 21, 2008

Sayonora: The Last Game Break Column

By Harold Goldberg

This is it, folks: the final Game Break blog item. During the past few years, I've broken exclusive stories and given you exclusive interviews with top Hollywood stars along with top musicians. And VH1 has had unprecedented access to game developers to get the inside scoop on the most innovative console games, along with casual games and independent games.

My favorite interview, though, was with completely cool and down-to-earth Rose McGowan who was starring in both Grindhouse films at the time. Rose told you how her dog became jealous when she was playing the old school game, House of the Dead 2 on the Sega Dreamcast. The dog became so annoyed at the lack of attention that he peed on the system and fried it. It all was a little sad since Rose never finished the game. But mainly, it was one hilarious anecdote.

I’ve given my share of roses to top notch journalists and game developers. And I’ve given my share of brickbats, too, with the Idiot of the Week. No one was immune to idiocy, not game companies, game executives, game analysts, game journalists and game publicists. It was never easy for me to write Idiot. While Idiot always was a popular item at Game Break, I knew that it had its effect, and that it angered and hurt those who received the dubious award. Yet, it had to be done. Very few writers have the temerity to call out the Idiots of our industry. So I popped a Prevacid and wrote away. I still believe in the corny, old adage that the pen, er, the keyboard is mightier then the sword.

If you’ve been a fan of Game Break, what do you do now? For daily news with a bit of snark, there’s nothing like Kotaku. Brian Crecente, Brian Ashcraft and the team there are changing the nature of gaming journalism. They began with tons of fanboy-like news. But they’ve evolved into a site that breaks news and does tough investigative journalism. Beyond Crecente, Noah Robischon is near the top of the food chain at Gawker Media. If something ever slips passed Crecente (which would be rare), Noah will be there to catch it. You’re in good hands at Kotaku.

For longer pieces, gaming exclusives and in-depth interviews, go to N’Gai Croal and the Level Up blog. Croal is a smart, agile, cross-cultural writer who gets the best out of his interview subjects. He’s been in the business as long as I have. With the power of Newsweek at his back, he’s one of the few persons in the industry who refuses to take any crap. He’s the one person in the industry that game companies go to regularly to break news. You’re in good hands with Level Up.

On video and TV, you can’t go wrong with Geoff Keighley at Game Trailers. Keighley has learned to make his interviews entertaining and newsworthy, and that’s hard to do. When you watch Keighley, you’ll always glean some fine nugget, whether it’s an anecdote or good, hard gaming news. In Canada, you can’t go wrong with Electric Playground. Victor Lucas cares dearly about games. You can see how much he cares on the segments that appear on G4’s web site. Also, look for Lucas’ cohost, Donna Mei-Ling Park, as one of the up and comers in TV gaming journalism. She’s got the energy and the smarts to rise to the top fast.

Where else? For MMOs, check out Action Trip, a Serbian site that will never let you down. For casual games, check out Jay Is Games: Jay loves casual games with all his heart. For adventure games done the old school way, try Just Adventure.

For some of the best game writing on the web, check out Crispy Gamer, a no b.s. zone that’s still in its infancy, just a few months old. Former GameSpy editor in chief John Keefer runs the site, and every freelance writer of note is participating in creating a site that is sure to be written about and talked about more and more in the coming months.

As for me, you can see my words on these Web sites: American Movie Classics, Crispy Gamer and Radar. As for magazines, you can read articles in New York magazine, Boys’ Life and Radar. I plan to write some more travel articles for the New York Times, too.

I want to give a shout out to legendary video game writer turned novelist Steve Kent. Steve, whose words have graced this blog, is not only a great writer. He’s a good, kind and giving friend who’s listened to me gripe over the years about what bugs me about gaming writers. And he’s listened to a lot of personal stuff as well. You couldn’t ask for a better pal then Steve. If you haven’t already, check out his “Clone” scifi fiction series along with his seminal history of the video game industry, “The Ultimate History of Video Games.”

I want to thank the team at VH1 Games for letting me say things my way for over two years. They even let me write from my house so I rarely had to go to the big offices at in Times Square. The team let me put on great contests like our Wii and PS3 giveaways. And they didn’t shy away from Idiot of the Week, even when I chastised the top gaming companies, probably top advertisers as well.

Finally, I want to thank you, the readers of Game Break. Especially during contests, your comments were wise, humorous, touching and even deep. I’ll definitely miss you guys. Thanks for stopping by.

So what to say now? I guess I’ll leave you by paraphrasing a quote from the underappreciated actor Peter Lorre from Stephen D. Youngkin’s biography, “The Lost One. ”Video game journalism is a ridiculous profession…unless it is part of your very soul.” Enjoy the Human Tetris video from YouTube that's below. And most of all, Game on.


March 19, 2008

Into The Casual Game Cafe With Trip Hawkins

By Harold Goldberg

During the past few days, you've been privy to the fascinating, decades-ling history of Trip Hawkins from the man himself. During these interview sessions, I found that Hawkins, a pioneer and innovator since the early days of gaming, is someone you just want to believe. Said one major developer, “If I was looking at a red building across the street, and Trip said it was blue, he’d be able to make me believe it was blue.” Now, Hawkins is excited about games and social experiences on mobile phones. He’s trying to innovate once again with Digital Chocolate. But the question remains, Can mobile gaming experiences be accepted by mass audiences around the world? Hawkins thinks it can happen, and he’s putting his heart and soul into making that bet happen each and every day.

HG: We’ve talked about how casual cell phone games can be made more creative and compelling by adding social elements to the experience. That’s fine. But when are mobile games going to take off?

TH: You know, that is a really interesting question. The mobile market has evolved historically at a pace that conforms to what the carriers are willing and able to do. I think that pace is accelerating now, and there are other independent accelerators including things like WiFi, the Federal auction for a broader spectrum band, and the iPhone. Those are catalysts that will open up more opportunities for growth. But that’s the future.

HG: So what are you doing for us right now?

TH: What we’re trying to do with the Café series within the existing mobile infrastructure is to bring those Web 2.0 features over to the phones. We enable the viral spread by allowing the sending of SMS messages and emails and allowing there to be free trials of games. We also allow for cross-promoting of one game to another. We actually are starting to have some very strong evidence that that works. As an illustration, one of the first operators that launched was 3 in Italy. They did an MMS marketing campaign. So the users got, via MMS, to see some screenshots of Café. They were offered a link they could click to get a free trial: 50 percent of them did so, which is a very high trial rate. Then, of those who tried it, more than 50 percent bought it.

HG: That makes sense because one of the problems with mobile phone games is that the games are utterly difficult to find on the phone.

TH: It’s a much better model than just waiting for the public to show up at the carrier deck and deciding to purchase something after reading one line of text. The idea of the carrier deck was, OK, we’re going to put up all these ring tones and games on these listings for the handset. And we’re just going to wait for the public to figure it out. Clearly, the public is still waiting. The Café series is bringing a next generation of thinking to the mobile phone, including that all-important viral spread and community features. We continue to have major carriers feature the Café games and we’ll have sweepstakes promotions as well.

HG: Is the new Nokia N-Gage platform important to that mix?

TH: They’re a little bit of a next generation story themselves. We all know what happened the first time around with the N-Gage. And there were many valuable lessons that were learned.

HG: What did you think of the original N-Gage, the infamous taco-shaped phone?

TH: It had higher performance technology than the typical mobile phone. But the problem was it was an expensive phone. When you look at the price of it and you compare it at the time with other game systems in the same price range, it was not a good enough game system, either. Then, of course, there were usability issues, including the fact that the games were really big. So they couldn’t be downloaded over the air. The typical N-Gage game was 32 megabytes and the networks were all too slow at that time.

But they learned a lot, and put that knowledge to work on the new platform with many mobile phones. If you look at where they are today, they’re selling at a clip of 50 million smart phones a year. And that number keeps going up. Smart phones and smart phone capability as a function of Moore’s Law will continue to shrink into a feature phone form factor which will make them less bulky and cheaper. So you’ll find more of the public willing to carry one around. With the new N-Gage and the iPhone as well, there’s a certain sex appeal that helps to educate the market. So more people start figuring out that it’s there and say, I want to do that, too. Hopefully, that will occur with games on the N-Gage as well.

HG: Are they really thinking about games in the right way this time?

TH: They’re thinking of the phones as a software platform. And they’ll continue to work this into their handset roadmap, so you’ll get to a point where most of the handset will have the capabilities to include great games. More and more customers will be moving up the food chain to get to that level of performance.

HG: Do you think enhanced graphics are important to mobile gamers?

TH: Certain genres need more graphics than others. What we’ve learned about the casual gamer is that simplicity and convenience are more important than the graphics. One example of that is, if you’re running something in your browser, it may not be as powerful as if you downloaded a big, C++ coded file and installed it. But a lot of people don’t want to go through the hassle of an installation. So clearly, if you have this larger and different audience of people that are looking for casual and social entertainment, they’re not as focused on whether they have the immersive graphics of Madden Football, Grand Theft Auto, Second Life or World of Warcraft.

HG: It seems as though there will always be a nasty divide between hardcore and casual gamers.

TH: Without any disrespect to those major brands and the audiences they can attract, they are tiny audiences compared to the mass audiences who want something more casual. So you have all these women playing casual games and chatting, making the experience almost the modern equivalent of a sewing bee. It’s like guys doing fantasy sports on the Web. It’s far bigger than Madden, and it’s simpler, more accessible and more social. That’s been our direction from the beginning. The Café series is sort of the first, full-grown expression of that, and the fact that Nokia is on board is great.

HG: The Café series is happening right now. What are you doing beyond that?

TH: From there, we’re moving to more directly social services like AvaPeeps. You can make your own avatar, go on dates with other avatars and then have others get stories about what happened. So you can build the social life of your avatar. So it’s like a Tomagotchi. We think that could be the next big thing.



March 18, 2008

Trip Hawkins: Casual Games & Mobile Phones

By Harold Goldberg

When 3DO bit the dust, Trip Hawkins took a little time to take stock of where he wanted to go in the area of games. He didn’t wait long at all to create Digital Chocolate, which has a new way of looking at and making cell phone games. While cell phone games haven’t been embraced by users in the mass way that has been predicted, Hawkins is trying to buck the trend and change things by adding a distinct social element to his offerings. As usual, he’s doing things his way.

HG: How did it become clear that the next big step for you was in mobile games?

TH: In the summer of 2003, when it’s clear that 3DO is selling off its assets, I bought the DNA [atents because they had to do with social games. During that summer, I kind of had some time to come up for air and try new things. Mobile caught my eye. As I looked at mobile, I realized the mobile phone was turning into a social computer.

HG: Not to be general or pessimistic, but games on mobile phones haven’t been all that.

TH: It obviously had platform constraints that forced the gameplay design to either be like a retro classic arcade game or something far more casual. Yet I started to see the potential to marry casual games with social applications. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great premise.

HG: How do you mean?

TH: See, everybody used to live in a small village. And they had a perfect social life. You know, you’d see the same intimate friends every day. You’d spend the whole day with your family members. That model of human existence had great social value. That evolved over time and no one’s really all that conscious of that evolution.

HG: Hanging with friends is different now, though, with our fast-paced lives.

TH: Right. Over the last 100 years, we’ve managed to obliterate it somewhat unconsciously, the same way we’re causing global warming somewhat unconsciously. This has been chronicled somewhat recently in books like Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. Before I read his work, I kind of felt it in my bones. You see it in modern life, particularly in urban life: people don’t know their neighbors. When they go out in public, they’re surrounded by strangers. They spend too much time in their cars commuting by themselves or watching television by themselves. You can see that people are not as socially nourished as they need to be.

HG: So what does this have to do with mobile phone games?

TH: First of all, we’re an increasingly mobile society. We’re now moving toward the time when there’ll be three billion people using mobile phones. And every one of those mobile phones is now a computer that’s on a network -- all these people have this amazing technology and people use it as their mission-critical, go-to device. They’re getting more and more powerful all the time just as the networks are.

If people do have these social needs, and if there are ways to help social capital and social value in a casual way, then it’s a perfect fit for the mobile phone. Why? It’s a platform you always have with you. So take instant messaging. It was invented on the PC, but it makes more sense for a mobile device because with your mobile device, you’re always there to get the message. That’s not always the case with your PC.

HG: Everywhere you look these days, someone is coming up with a new casual game. Sometimes I think there are too many clones of games. But what’s clear is that casual is changing the very landscape of games.

TH: Over the last five years or so, we’ve seen this revolution in casual games. This is another case where I’ve been ahead of my time. While I’ve had some product failures, when I look at a game like M.U.L.E., it’s still one of my all time favorites. It was an Atari 800 game initially, a four-player game that we started building back in 1982. I have these multiple cases where I was in market with a game that had social capabilities and casual capabilities before the market for casual gamers was really developed. So clearly it’s a passion of mine and it’s been a passion of mine for quite a long time. So it’s been exciting to see the blossoming of casual games on the Web and even on the iPhd, and we have the more recently example of the Wii outselling the PlayStation 3.

HG: Why do you think the Wii hit so big so quickly?

TH: Take a look at the theory of Disruptive Products in a book by Clayton Christensen called Innovator’s Dilemma. His central thesis is, you have an established market in which there’s a primary performance requirement. Something comes along that proves to be disruptive and the way it’s disruptive is that it reaches an entirely different audience. It doesn’t care about the normal performance requirement, and instead, it’s adopting this new product, even though it’s underpowered. People adopt it for reasons of simplicity and convenience.

This pattern repeats itself again and again, even as it relates to the Wii. It’s less powerful than the PlayStation 3, but it’s a more social machine. It’s equally true, I think, about mobile phones and mobile phone games in particular. This is the first time in history where, if you look at the hardware in the retail stores, where, if you look at the six platforms that are selling at retail, they’re selling in the inverse order of 3D graphics power. It starts with the Nintendo DS, because what’s simpler and more portable than the DS? And the one that’s at the bottom is the PS3.

HG: The change to casual has had its victims. And it’s had traditional companies scrambling to get with the program.

TH: Ken Kutargi (the top executive from Sony) got fired. And there’s been a CEO change at Electronic Arts where EA created a whole new division called Casual Games. Companies like Activision missed the boat, so they said, Oops, we’re going to do more products for the Nintendo Wii. So it’s a big change toward social and casual.

HG: So you created Digital Chocolate to be a social games provider within the mobile phone space.

TH: One of the things we’ve done that’s really big and profound is the Café Series. The big idea there is doing something that fits into the existing infrastructure of mobile. That means you can go to the carrier deck that’s on your handset and find Café Solitaire, purchase it and play. But what’s so special about it is that it has a whole lot of Web 2.0 going on. One aspect of that is the themed community where you can create your own café that brings the look and feel of something like Habbo Hotel to your phone.

It gives you not just a buddy list, but a themed environment for your buddy list. Then, there are gameplay elements that you can share and user generated content that you can share along with personalization and other community features. Plus, there are the benefits of viral spread. On the Web, you don’t alway have to do marketing in order to have the public discover a new product. You have viral discovery and free trial. So you find out about, say, YouTube, because one of your friends sent you a link. That hasn’t happened in mobile. It’s a wide open frontier where new things can and should be tried. You can’t just take existing games and shoehorn them onto a mobile phone. That’s why I believe in this social aspect and the Café Series.

Next: When will mobile games catch on?


March 17, 2008

Exclusive: Electronic Arts Founder Trip Hawkins, Part IV

By Harold Goldberg

It was time. Making games for the Sega Genesis led Trip Hawkins and his team to take Electronic Arts public in September of 1989. The first releases of Sega Genesis games occurred in June of 1990. But how would the burgeoning video game company do in the future?  Would Hawkins’ bet pay off?

Part of the reason Hawkins chose to take the company public was because Sega might sue, despite its licensing deal with EA regarding Genesis console games. So Hawkins wanted to have a healthy war chest in the event the worst case scenario actually occurred. But EA was about set sail for treasure of mammoth proportions. Yet there was danger in the high seas as well, danger would lead to the end for Trip Hawkins as the chairman of the board of Electronic Arts. The sign on the horizon didn’t read “END,” however. It read “3DO.”

HG: When 1990 came along, how much farther forward were you thinking?

TH: When I made the deal with Sega, I pretty much knew I had set the company up to have a spectacular four year run with tons of growth and tons of profit improvement. So I immediately began to think, What’s the next frontier beyond those four years?

HG: You were thinking big, very big.

TH: I’m thinking, The hardware providers are either completely clueless about the entertainment needs of the market and they’re uninterested in it. And I’m thinking, there are guys like Nintendo and Sega which have these very Draconian licenses, and once Sega figures out what a good deal I have, they’re going to want to punish me the next time around (with the next generation console). And Nintendo’s going to catch on. All these guys are going to conspire to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. I’m sitting there thinking the company’s in great shape through the mid-90s. But what’s going to happen after that? After taking a survey of the landscape, I concluded there wasn’t enough going on in hardware, and I’m in a position where I can instigate the transition of the market to the next generation of hardware, and also, maybe promote that as a standard, and also promote a more enlightened model about licensing relationships between software companies and hardware companies. So that was the inspiration for 3DO.

HG: I can see that it made some sense to think in those terms. But ultimately, it was a something of a disaster.

TH: The short story is that it worked brilliantly out that way. But it worked out that way for Sony. Sony came in a couple of years after 3DO with the PlayStation. Some of the Sony executives candidly admitted to me that they had copied much of the 3DO licensing program. What Sony did is they built a great machine. They did their homework and did the details effectively. By coming in later, they were able to take advantage of dramatically lower memory costs and component costs of the disk drive. So the 3DO player was unfortunately a little bit ahead of its time and came out too early for the costs to be as reasonable. Plus, I didn’t have a gigantic corporate partner who was willing to put $2 billion dollars into the business the way Sony did.

HG: Would the influx of money really have made a difference?

TH: Oh, no question. Because we really did have a lead. But we did recognize that when Sony showed up, their machine was going to trump our machine. We were already working on an even better architecture. With the right levels of support, that little arms race that you see going on today between Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony – that would have gone on for a while and we would have been a surviving player. We would have had a share.

HG: So where did you trip up, so to speak?

TH: Where I miscalculated is I was thinking that OK, this could work as a kind of separate company that’s set up like Dolby Labs and, in fact, it’s a much more complicated thing to do that Dolby Labs. Something like Dolby Labs of even Flash – if it’s innocuous enough and cheap enough, then everybody supports it and you can get your platform standard installed on a lot of devices and machines.

HG: But launching a gaming console proved to be much more difficult for you.

TH: You’ve got to convince everyone that you’re going to be able to sell enough of a critical mass of machines for the economics to work out for everybody. You really need that 900-pound gorilla company to take most of the risk out of it so that everybody else can freely jump in. So 3DO was more of a federation of little guys. It didn’t have a lot of strong financial resources of its own. As soon as Sega, Nintendo and Sony said they were going to bring out next generation machines, the developers who were all just thrilled with us and happily supporting us, said they were also going to support all those other guys.

The other guys all charged higher license fees than we did. So the other companies could recharge their financial batteries, but we couldn’t. 3DO ? It was noble. It was bold. And it was obviously too idealistic.

HG: So as things began to fall apart, what was happening inside of Electronic Arts?

TH: There was a lot of tension in the company. Essentially, what I was doing was saying, Should EA move into the platform business? Great companies from Apple to Nintendo have achieved some synergy by developed content but also in platforms. But there was a lot of pressure from the board to push it out as a separate, sister company. At the time, I thought, OK, they’re just two companies. What I didn’t realize it was going to be a little like me being put into a lifeboat the way Captain Bligh was.

HG: But unlike Mutiny on the Bounty, you weren’t able to sail magically for 3,600 mile to reach the Dutch colony of Timor.

TH: When it became clear that EA was not 3DO’s first party software, it became clear that 3DO had to make its own. EA had chosen essentially to abandon the platform. But EA management started to get really mad that 3DO was going to make its own games. So even though 3DO was only going to make software for the 3DO, some of the executives at EA said, you’re going into competition with us; that’s not fair. But I felt, what choice have you given me? That was during the time period where I said, I can’t have one foot in EA and one foot in 3DO.

EA was a little bit like a rebellious teenager but well on its way to adulthood and 3DO was like an infant that was in open heart surgery. I felt an obligation to 3DO and felt I had to go to attend to it. Then, legal counsel said I shouldn’t stay on the EA board because it was a conflict of interest. In July of 1994, I stepped off the EA board as chairman.

HG: Did you divest yourself of stock at that point?

TH: For a long time, I was the only person who never sold any stock in any of these companies. Like with 3DO, I never sold a share. I put a lot into it, and I lost every penny of it. With EA frequently when other executives wanted to sell shares, I would buy them myself to keep them off the market. When 3DO needed money, I started to sell more EA stock to put money into 3DO.

HG: Ultimately, 3DO just cost too much at $700. But as a software maker, you had some success with High Heat Baseball and Army Men, both franchises, and one of the first massively multiplayer role playing games, Meridien 59.

TH: Yes, 3DO decided to sell the hardware business to become a pure software company and did that for seven or eight years before hanging it up.

HG: At the end, you paid about $400,000 for the rights to some of the games and the Internet patent portfolio. All of that must have been a quite a personal blow. But you still weren’t done. You still wanted to make games.

TH: That’s when I started Digital Chocolate.


Hawkins’ venture into mobile gaming will be detailed tomorrow on Game Break

March 14, 2008

Exclusive: The Ultra-Candid Trip Hawkins, Part 3

By Harold Goldberg

Electronic Arts had Madden in the 1980s. And that game was supremely successful. But the company was on a mission to become a worldwide leader. In this portion of our multi-part interview with Trip Hawkins, the EA founder is extremely candid about the oft-stressful goings on inside of the company at the time. Sometimes, what was going on inside wasn’t pretty. Sometimes, fisticuffs flew. And often, Hawkins played hardball, much to the dismay of some of his staff. For example, Hawkins’ deal with Sega about making games for the Genesis could have blown up in his face. Worry was rampant throughout EA at the time. Read on to see what happened during these turbulent moments in video game history.

HG: I’m told there was the occasional wildness inside Electronic Arts during the early days?

TH: We were all a little wild back then. When we were working on Madden, Tony Hillerman was the producer of the game. And we had this conference room where we would discuss the progress of the game. At one point, Rich and Bing Gordon were in there and they got into some kind of argument. I don’t even know what it was about. But Bing ended up throwing Rich into the wall, doing kind of a hockey check. The two of them, by the way, were both hockey players and as far as I know, they’re both still playing in hockey leagues. So Bing checks Rich and it left this big indentation in the wall that was about three feet high and about a foot and a half wide. It just caved the whole wall in. And Bing wrote a note on it, commemorating the occasion. It’s just a hilarious example of what it was like back in those days.

If you want to talk about the concept of a hostile work environment, that’s what you talk about in today’s world. But in those days, none of us was afraid to bang heads and fight for what we believed in. Literally.

Continue reading "Exclusive: The Ultra-Candid Trip Hawkins, Part 3" »

Drill Down With Mr. Driller

Kotaku just found a Japanese site which features screenshots for Namco Bandai’s upcoming Mr. Driller Online for the Xbox Live Arcade. The upshot? Mr. Driller is a thriller. Also released are screenshots of directions, which look very easy to understand. That’s often been a problem with online casual games for consoles: the instructions have sucked big time in everything from Pinball FX for the Xbox 360 to PixelJunk Monsters for the PS3. Here, you not only get basic rules; you’ll get to know all the power ups and treasure you can collect. So nothing will stymie you as you drill to victory and collect air capsules so you won’t die of suffocation. Great instructions, great game. Can’t wait.


Hot Dance Party Almost Ready

Perfect World, the hot Chinese makers of MMOs, has started its final beta test of Hot Dance Party, its casual MMO that might take the world by storm when it’s released in the next month or so. 

Says Perfect World’s press release, “The online dancing game's contemporary background, elaborate design, and fashion & style, along with the introduction of new and innovative features, are expected to provide online game players an experience that they have never had before.

"Hot Dance Party includes a number of new and unique features. One is the Make-up System, which allows players to practice real-life make-up skills to customize their online look. Additionally, the game's creators recruited professional fashion designers to incorporate hip new style to the game.

Me, I don’t care about any stinkin’ makeup. But I know a bunch of folks who do. Perfect World’s been successful in the past with Legend of Martial Arts and Chi Bi, all of which are free to play. But you must buy upgrades to pimp out your character: that’s how they make their money. For those of you who like to dance casually and play dress up online, Hot Dance Party could be a winner. And just look at those round eyes on the characters below. Round eyes make you wanna play.


Two Cents: Bully 4 Bully 4 The Wii!

When Bully was released for the PlayStation 2, it became one of my games of the year at the Village Voice. It was a staggeringly giant game and I loved it not only because of the go-anywhere gameplay, but because of the wit within the story. Yeh, there was fighting. But there were touching moments full of the angst of childhood, private school style.

To make a literary analogy, it was more John Cheever than John Updike. Here’s what I mean. Cheever could write about the upper middle class and a lower middle class shlump like me (raised by a loving single mom who was a waitress) could relate. Updike on the other hand always made me feel aware of the difference in classes – in a bad way. The kids in Bully are well-off kids, but the way they react, the way they’re written to react and communicate, makes me feel part of the story. These developers ain’t no Columbia University snoots (apologies to my pals who went to Columbia who don’t have sticks up their asses). Even though the school in Bully is a private school, this like was me in a public school, too.

Bully:Scolarship Edition for the Wii is a video game time machine that whisks me back to that trying experience of test-taking and girl-yearning and bullyness of cruel cliques of my teenage years. Yes, there are new levels, and that’s important. But what you get here is beyond virtual reality. It’s visceral reality. Like Wii Boxing in Wii Sports, you (as Jimmy Hopkins) can punch at your foes now, where as with the PS2, you simply pressed buttons. You really have to box here: timing is important, and you just can’t flail or you’ll lose. So this panty-stealing, fat girl-kissing, sling-shot-shooting, drunk-teacher-loving misfit is more like you and me that he’s ever been.


Punk-O-Matic Rocks, Oi

One of the top games on Kongregate these days is Punk-o-matic which even includes a Flash animated, R-rated comic with penguins called “Dude!” (Seriously, the words in the game are punky and raw: you’ve been warned). Basically, you can choose drum, bass and guitar sounds to make your own punk rock tune, not just as the spittin’ leader of the band, but as the player of all three instruments. Save your tracks, share them or delete them: it’s up to you. The main thing about Punk-O-Matic is its who-cares-I’ll-do-what-I-want attitude. Yeh, it’s an app more than a game. But I’ll bet you have more fun playing this than with, say, a badly made clone of Diner Dash.


March 13, 2008

Exclusive - Trip Hawkins Interview, Part 2

By Harold Goldberg

As Game Break continues its look at the history of Electronic Arts through the eyes of founder Trip Hawkins, I talked with the thoughtful, loquacious personality about the one game that really made Electronic Arts a huge deal: Madden Football. Some of the story has been told before in a way that’s been more outlined than truly detailed. This time, Hawkins tells everything about the way Madden Football, known inside EA as Trip’s Folly before it was released, was made.  (Note: Read the interview carefully and you’ll really get to know John Madden in a way you haven’t before.)

HG: Can you tell me about your theory about making sports games?

TH: Electronic Arts ended up controlling the value chain of sports games in the video game business. That brand value was built right under the noses of preexisting sports brands like CBS Sports, ESPN, the NFL and the like. I think the only reason that things worked out the way they did is that I thought, we cannot expect these guys to be reasonable partners if I go to them when I’m weak and they’re strong. Instead, I said, I don’t really need them. Let’s just go and make some really good games, unbranded games like World Tour Golf.

HG: Can you explain that more specifically? How did the making of the games begin, for example?

TH: If you take Madden as an example, my first idea there was to take a guy who had been the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings, and he was then the coach of the Cal football team. I approached him and said, I’ll pay you some money to be a consultant to give me some pointers on how to make this an authentic game. We got together and then he decided, I think I want my name on the game, I want a royalty and I want this and I want that. I said, If it’s going to go that way, then I’m going to pick the brand name that I want. I thought, I’ll just go to the front of the parade and I’ll take Madden.


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