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History > 2008 > Japan, USA > Video games (II)






added 13 December 2008















Video Game Review | Left 4 Dead

Traditions of the Zombie Hunt,

Maintained for a New Generation

of Prey


December 13, 2008
The New York Times


I live alone these days, but my favorite memento of my old roommate is the 2005 headline from The Onion that is still stuck to my refrigerator three years after she put it there: “Study Reveals Pittsburgh Unprepared for Full-Scale Zombie Attack.”

The line makes me smile every day because the concept of zombie apocalypse is so elemental and yet subtly humorous in its repugnance. And where else but a stolid middle-American city like Pittsburgh (or Cleveland or Detroit) would you want to set down your pack of former insurance clerks and housewives turned ravening undead to hunt down a ragged band of survivors?

It’s difficult to imagine that some developer at Turtle Rock Studios (now part of Valve) hasn’t had the same Onion headline pasted by his desk since work began on Left 4 Dead, also in 2005. Left 4 Dead nails just about every part of the classic George A. Romero “Living Dead” zombie genre in what amounts to a glossy and frenetic homage to every shotgun shell that has ever been pumped into the pustulent maw of the ghoul next door.

Naturally, Left 4 Dead appears to be set in Pennsylvania, just like the original “Night of the Living Dead” and the headline in my kitchen. The other requisite pieces are all present and rendered with the clarity of vision and design that is Valve’s trademark.

There is, of course, the mostly unexplained outbreak of disease and mutation that has consumed the population. There is the fractious band of holdouts, a Benetton advertisement of B-movie archetypes: buff leading actor, scrappy girl in a windbreaker, grizzled old white dude and black guy in untucked dress shirt and undone tie. (Who has time to take off his tie when he’s fleeing an undead horde?) There are the shotguns, the submachine guns, the assault rifles and the always popular dual-wielded pistols.

And then of course there are the zombies. Lots of zombies. As in hundreds and thousands of zombies. In fact, over the last few weeks I have killed more than 11,000 zombies in Left 4 Dead, which has to be some kind of personal record.

But these are the right kind of zombies for this setting. These are not the “lurking in a dark corner, I know it’s there, but I’m scared waiting for it to jump out at me” zombies. If you want those, play Dead Space or even one of the games in the Resident Evil series. Instead, Left 4 Dead is infested with leaping, scrambling, climbing-through-windows zombies.

The basic campaign in Left 4 Dead doesn’t take more than a single afternoon to get through on the normal-difficulty setting. You can play alone offline, and the other three members of your party will be controlled by the program. The campaign’s four acts are actually set up as four hourlong mini-movies with the same basic concept: get through the hospital or the airport or the wooded, mist-shrouded town to a safe house or extraction point.

The taglines for each adventure are pitch-perfect cheese: “Curing the Infection ... One Bullet at a Time,” “Hell Came to Earth. These Four Are Gonna Send It Back,” “No Hope. No Cure. No Problem,” and my favorite: “Their Flight Just Got Delayed. Permanently.”

Keep in mind, though, that Left 4 Dead is not really about its single-player mode. “Monotonous” was the word one friend used as she watched me mow down wave after wave of the undead menace in one single-player episode. Instead, Left 4 Dead is by far this year’s best online multiplayer shooter. And that is because the game makes cooperation and teamwork absolutely essential to survive. Just as in the zombie movies, there is always the one person who does something stupid that threatens to kill the whole group. Sometimes you’re even that person (even if you resolutely refuse to admit it).

Online, you can end up playing as either the zombies or as the survivors, and I have to admit I usually prefer being one of the mutants helping wipe out those pesky, juicy humans. It is a good thing that Left 4 Dead, which is available for PCs and the Xbox 360, is rated M for Mature, because the hilarious obscenity of players screaming at one another in your typical public online match is not for the faint of heart.

Then again, online gaming rarely is. But if you can stand the heat, Left 4 Dead is the class of the field among first-person shooters this year and one of the best zombie games yet. Just call The Onion prescient.

Traditions of the Zombie Hunt, Maintained for a New Generation of Prey,






Video Games

Gift-Giving Ideas

for Buying Video Games


November 28, 2008
The NewYork Times


In these challenging economic times, it may come as a surprise that a well-chosen video game can be one of the most cost-effective gifts possible. Sure, the $60 price tag on some top games can be daunting, but when you realize that the right one can wrangle dozens or even hundreds of hours out of the right player, games can start to look like the smart entertainment investments they are.

But nongamers can get it totally wrong when buying for friends and family. Bad gift-giving usually stems from one basic misconception: If it’s a video game, it must be for children.

Every year, parents who would never dream of buying their children a DVD of “Scarface,” “Platoon” or one of the “Saw” torture movies blithely buy them violent gangster games, bloody war games and gross-out horror games. Then they’re horrified when little Johnny or Jenny ends up spending Saturday afternoon trading expletives with drug dealers and discussing the relative merits of shotguns and flamethrowers. So please, if you would not allow your children to watch R-rated films without supervision, do not buy them M-rated games. Federal studies have shown that the game industry is at least as vigilant as Hollywood in labeling products that are inappropriate for children. But the system breaks down when parents ignore it.

That misconception cuts the other way as well. The average gamer is now about 30; the first generation to grow up playing games is now around 40. And your 35-year-old boyfriend is not going to be impressed when you show up with the latest Pokémon or the new “Price Is Right” game. The best work being done in games these days is in interactive narratives for and about adults. Engaging with a current top-end game involves much more cognitive processing (a k a brainpower) than merely watching hour upon hour of prime-time television. So show some respect; your favorite gamer will adore you for it.

Here are some of the best games of the year, each of which could be the perfect gift for the right person. The shrewd will notice no sports or music games on this list. That is because those are easier to shop for: pick the desired sport or tunes and go.

GRAND THEFT AUTO IV Ideal audience: well-adjusted adults who want to explore a rich, intelligent, politically incorrect digital rendition of New York City. As long as you can accept that a great work of modern entertainment can revolve around criminals — something long assumed in television and films — then it is almost impossible to deny that G.T.A. IV is one of the most compelling games in recent years. The driving and shooting is fun, but the real star of the game is the city itself, rendered with a loving sense of decay and populated with perhaps the best cast of dysfunctional characters to grace a pixel. For Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 (PC version coming in December). Rating: M for Mature.

SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION REVOLUTION Ideal audience: families interested in fostering an appreciation of both global history and strategic thinking; also, commuters looking to upgrade from Tetris. Civilization is the top strategy franchise in the history of video games. With Revolution the series moves beyond PCs and arrives on consoles and the hand-held Nintendo DS. The premise remains the same: guide a historical culture from the dawn of history to the space age. Nothing feels better than dominating Genghis Khan and Napoleon at the same time. For Xbox 360, PS3 and DS. Rating: E10+ for Everyone 10 and older.

Warhammer Online Ideal audience: massively multiplayer online gamers who cannot satisfy their bloodlust in World of Warcraft. Don’t get me wrong; like more than 10 million other people, I love World of Warcraft. But great games can stand some competition, and Warhammer Online, the new online version of the decades-old British fantasy universe, provides it. Warhammer employs many conventions from Warcraft but gives them a new twist in a game that focuses largely on player-versus-player combat, rather than on battling computer-controlled foes. For PC. Rating: T for Teen.

Wii Fit Ideal audience: couch produce of all ages. Nintendo’s best game of the year is not really a game. It’s a light exercise system meant to take just a few calories off. The most surprising thing: it works. For Wii. Rating: E for Everyone.

LITTLEBIGPLANET Ideal audience: aspiring game designers and anyone else with excellent eye-hand coordination. The breakout title this year for Sony’s PlayStation 3, LittleBigPlanet is in some ways as close to YouTube as games have come. In its essence it is merely a “platformer”: you navigate your little beanbag character mostly by running and jumping. The secret sauce is that the game allows users to create their own levels and share them easily with other players online. Rating: E.

DEAD SPACE Ideal audience: people who like being scared. Dead Space is a straight-ahead science fiction survival-horror experience. You, the player, are trapped on a spooky spaceship with a horde of space zombies who want to eat you, or turn you into one of them, or something. You wade through them while engaging in what is charmingly referred to as “strategic dismemberment.” For what it is, though, Dead Space is both conceived and executed at a high level. For Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Rating: M.

FALLOUT 3 Ideal audience: old-school role-playing gamers and anyone who wants to see Washington in ashes. The return of the classic Fallout series is a sprawling re-creation of the Capitol area after a nuclear war. The tone is darker and less slyly humorous than previous Fallout games, but the sheer size and ambition of the game impress. For Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Rating: M.

PROFESSOR LAYTON AND THE CURIOUS VILLAGE Ideal audience: puzzle fans. One of the sleepers of 2008, Professor Layton ties together more than 100 beautifully designed brainteasers with an endearing anime-style story. The puzzles themselves are perfectly intelligible to nongamers. For Nintendo DS. Rating: E.

GEARS OF WAR 2 Ideal audience: testosterone-fueled core gamers who like chain saws. When you think about the stereotypical video game, this is what you’re thinking about: big guns, voracious alien bad guys, great graphics, huge explosions, cardboard-cutout characters, silly dialogue and cheap thrills all around. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. For Xbox 360. Rating: M.

FABLE II Ideal audience: emotionally mature children and most fans of delicate entertainment design. This game is rated M not because it is especially violent or profane. It is rated M because in between casting spells and swinging swords you can have children, you can get married (and have affairs if you choose), and you can buy condoms. Shocking, I know. For children who are comfortable with the basic facts of life, there is no reason not to share Fable II. It’s a wonderful game on its own, and it beats handing a child a virtual machine gun. For Xbox 360.

    Gift-Giving Ideas for Buying Video Games, NYT, 28.11.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/28/arts/television/28vide.html






Master of the universe

He turned town planning into an art form with SimCity and housework into a teenage obsession with The Sims.
Now California's most innovative game designer, Will Wright, has turned his attention to evolution and the universe. Ajesh Partalay tries to pin him down


Sunday September 14 2008
The Observer
Ajesh Partalay
This article appeared in the Observer on Sunday September 14 2008 on p52 of the Comment & features section.
It was last updated at 00:05 on September 14 2008.


In Thailand last month an 18-year-old high-school student stabbed a taxi driver to death. When asked why, he replied that it was to see if it was as easy to rob a taxi in real life as it was in his favourite video game, Grand Theft Auto. The Thai government banned the game amid talk of a 'ticking time bomb'. Just the latest in a long-running argument about the damaging effects of violent video games.

To objections from the gaming industry, the UK government has just introduced plans for a strict film-style classification system, which may allay parents' fears about violence but seems unlikely to address their concerns about video games in general: that they stifle creativity, hinder social skills and reduce their children to gawping couch potatoes. Video games are back in the firing line.

Last Friday saw the release of Spore, one of the industry's most eagerly awaited games. But parents can breathe a sigh of relief, because this isn't some ultra-violent gun-toting gore fest. It's the brainchild of designer Will Wright, which means, in all likelihood, that it will totally rewrite the rules on what we can expect from a video game and prove as popular with parents as it is with kids. Through his games Wright has revolutionised the industry and more than once salvaged its reputation. With his latest he may well do so again.

Wright, now 48, is regarded with awe by his peers (even his company Maxis, I'm told, is seen as 'mysterious', squirrelled away in Orinda, California for so long when everyone else was in Silicon Valley), because he has developed an entirely new type of video game. And out of the most unlikely material.

SimCity, his breakthrough, is about nothing more elaborate than building a city and following the principles of good town planning. This in a market dominated by fantasy and sci-fi role-play games, sports simulations and first-person shooters. Released in 1989, SimCity (and its spin-offs) have gone on to sell a staggering 17m copies worldwide. But this is nothing compared with his follow-up, The Sims. Probably best described as an interactive doll's house, in which you look after the inhabitants, The Sims boasts sales of more than 100m copies, making it the bestselling PC game of all time.

His latest game, Spore, is as ambitious in scope as its predecessors ('How do we deconstruct the universe?' Wright asked by way of introduction at a recent conference). Spore is based loosely on the theory of evolution. Each player starts off as a microbial cell which gradually evolves, through feeding on other organisms and picking up 'DNA points', until it wriggles out of water on to dry land. This creature then hunts and reproduces, eventually banding together to make a tribe, which in turn grows in size and then either by conquering or allying with surrounding settlements turns into a civilisation.

Finally you advance far enough to be able to send a rocket up into space for the final stage, in which you jet about the universe in search of planets to colonise and aliens to pester. From single-cell organism to intergalactic empire in one game.

With his slightly nerdy haircut and glasses, Wright certainly looks the part. Sitting in his office overlooking San Francisco Bay, he has one leg draped jauntily over the armrest of his chair. Glancing round, there are pointers to Spore everywhere. Pinned to his walls are images from the Hubble Space Telescope (used to recreate star clusters in the game); over his bookshelf a poster of his favourite film, 2001 (by way of homage, when players reach the final space stage, they can drop a black monolith down to the surface of other planets to freak out aliens); on his desk an entomology microscope. 'I've got one at home, too. They're much more interesting than a telescope.' What does he look at? 'Anything. You could put your hand under there and spend an hour looking at it. Fascinating.' In the corridor outside sits a battered doll's house, presumably a leftover from The Sims.

Wright is telling me at great speed (he talks with considerable velocity) about the inspirations behind Spore. What follows is typically recondite. 'It's actually an idea you see repeated over and over,' he says. 'The idea of Powers of Ten.' This is a short film by Charles and Ray Eames from 1977 that looks at the universe on various scales, gradually zooming in from the galactic (a view of the entire Milky Way) to the microscopic (quark particles in the nucleus of a carbon atom). 'In fact, Powers of Ten wasn't the first one I discovered. The original idea came from a Dutch schoolteacher named Kees Boeke. He wrote a book in 1957 called Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps. Boeke's version was amazingly accurate for the time ...' On which he leaps up and snatches down a copy of Boeke's book from the shelf.

Wright goes on: 'I remember explaining Spore to the execs at Electronic Arts [EA, the software company that finances and publishes the game] before we had anything to show. I was trying to explain the content, Powers of Ten and all this. It was pretty clear they had no idea what I was talking about. But they were like: "Sure, do it."'

Whether they understood or not, Electronic Arts has invested a considerable amount in the game (reportedly $20m). This is not insignificant at a time when the industry, though still thriving, is beginning to question the value of spending millions on one game (a new title, too, not a sequel), particularly given the growing popularity of cheaper, so-called 'casual games'.

Casual games include the lucrative field of internet and mobile-phone games as well as PC and console games typified by Guitar Hero (a karaoke-style game) and Dr Kawashima's Brain Training (in which you solve various puzzles to help sharpen your mind). They are simpler in design, shorter in duration, and aimed at a more mainstream audience. The Nintendo Wii console (with its motion-sensitive remote) has been a particular hit, attracting a broad new fanbase with its range of family-friendly titles. I ask Wright how important it is to court this new type of player. 'It's probably the most important thing happening in the gaming industry. We're seeing that with the Nintendo Wii. That pressure to start serving the whole market rather than this little section.'

Does he mean appealing to more women? 'That's a big part, but also the intergenerational market. Families. With Wii, you see kids, parents and even grandparents playing together.' Wright already has a good record on this. According to EA, 20 per cent of Sims players are over 35 and 50 per cent are female.

For EA, there's a lot riding on Spore (particularly since the company reported losses of $95m earlier this year). At the same time, EA clearly has faith in Wright and has granted him considerable leeway. A great position to be in, I say. 'Yeah. Kind of,' Wright shrugs. 'For The Sims it was very different. I was always having to convince people it would be fun. That was almost more satisfying – as opposed to whatever stupid thing you say, everybody says: "Great idea, go do it."' It has been six years in development; the big question now is whether Spore can meet those expectations.

At this year's Comic-Con in San Diego, a conference for comic-book nerds, video gamers and hardcore Trekkies, Wright gave a speech in which he said he believed video games had a role in helping people understand sciences. Spore, he said, would make science 'accessible and not academic'. It's a recurring theme in the way he talks about his work: games as semi-educational.

How important is it that his games teach as well as entertain? 'I'm not sure teach is the right word,' he says. 'Computer games and simulations are much more powerful [as an aid] to motivate than to teach. I'd rather have a game that got a person interested in the subject than tried to put a lot of facts into their head. It's not a matter of sugarcoating education. Education when done right is inherently fun. There shouldn't be a difference between the two. Our culture has disconnected the ideas of education and fun – and if anything, I'm trying to reconnect those two things.'

It goes back to the way Wright himself was taught. Raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the son of a plastics engineer and an actress, Wright attended a Montessori school up to the age of nine (his 'high point of education'). 'The basis was that you wanted kids to discover principles on their own. Montessori designed toys so kids could discover aspects of maths or geometry just from playing. The kid made the discovery, and it was much more effective than the teacher coming over and saying, "Here's Pythagorean theory," or whatever.' Wright has likened his own games to 'modern Montessori toys'.

As a child, he'd immerse himself in pet subjects for months, reading everything he could. Space exploration was a passion. Another was Harry Houdini (a rub-off from his mother, who was an amateur magician. 'I learned how to pick locks,' he says). The Second World War was an obsession, too. 'I had a friend down the street – we were both into World War Two history and used to play these elaborate historical video games recreating the Battle of Kursk or whatever.' He also built a lot of models: 'ships, cars, planes, mostly from kits'.

When Wright was nine his father died of leukaemia and he moved with his mother and younger sister to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. There he enrolled in the Episcopal High School and duly became an atheist. After graduating he took off to Louisiana State University to study architecture, transferred a few years later to Louisiana Tech for mechanical engineering, dropped out, drove a bulldozer for a summer and in 1980 landed up at New School, New York, studying robotics. Robots then led to computers: 'I got fascinated, totally dived in and learned how to programme.' Video games were taking off at the time. 'I thought: people are actually making money from these games. I'll try it. More as an intellectual challenge; I didn't expect to make money.' Wright's first game, programmed on his Commodore 64, was Raid on Bungeling Bay ('this stupid helicopter shoot 'em up') which Broderbund, a small software company, brought out in 1984. It was a fair success, earning Wright enough to live on for a couple of years. That same year, Wright married Joell Jones, the older sister of one of his friends, and two years later they had a daughter, Cassidy. (The couple have recently separated.)

While developing Bungeling Bay, Wright became fascinated by a tangential aspect to the game. 'Underneath was a fairly elaborate simulation of factories and towns, a whole infrastructure that wasn't apparent to the player. I was having a lot more fun building that world than bombing it.' How about a game based on that, he thought, where you build your own urban environment. He threw himself into background reading. 'I uncovered the work of Jay Forrester, who wrote a book called Urban Dynamics in 1969,' Wright tells me, before citing other sources, including John Conway's 1970 Game of Life and the 'cell automata' work of a little-known scientist named Liman Wang.

The prototype game Wright came up with was a radical departure in gaming terms. In it the player would oversee the development of an entire city, laying roads, building schools and hospitals, installing infrastructure, all the time balancing a long list of interdependent variables (crime rates, population levels, popularity ratings, taxes). Persuading software company Broderbund to back it was no breeze. 'When I first showed them SimCity they were a little confused. I got to this stage where I thought it was done, but they kept expecting it to have this win/lose element. I kept saying: "No. This is the way it is."' Broderbund ended up not publishing, and it sat on Wright's shelf for a few years.

Enter Jeff Braun, Wright's future business partner. They met in 1987 at a friend's pizza party in Alameda, California. When Wright showed him his demo, Braun got very excited. Having previously developed fonts for the computer firm Atari, Braun was keen to get into games. Here was the perfect vehicle. 'He's a very bubbly guy,' Wright says of Braun. 'He said: "I want to play this – this is great" and persuaded me to start this company with him to develop it.' Which they did. Two years later Maxis published SimCity. Though not an instant hit, it went on to earn $230m worldwide.

The idea for Wright's next game came when his house burned down in an Oakland Hills fire in 1991. Forced to replace all his possessions – everything from kitchen utensils to furniture, which he hated doing – Wright got thinking about the value of all this stuff. Which sparked an idea: a game about running a household. But how to make it work? Wright read extensively on human behaviour and systems design: books like A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow and Maps of the Mind by Charles Hampden-Turner, which provided guiding principles for scoring the happiness of players in the game he came up with.

The Sims, based in a suburban home, required that players tend to the various needs – from dietary to social – of its family of inhabitants. That meant everything from taking them to the bathroom and getting them to clean, to cooking them dinner. Arguably Wright's greatest achievement was making housework fun. Launched in 2000, The Sims was an instant hit.
Three years earlier, Maxis had been bought out by Electronic Arts for $125m. Wright walked away from the deal with a reported $17m in EA stock. The Sims and its spin-offs have since gone on to earn EA in the region of $4bn.

A month now before Spore ships, the pressure on the team at Spore HQ is easing up. The main office – airy, wood-beamed and half empty today – is covered with Spore flowcharts, storyboards and brainstorming sessions. For Wright, there's time to pause, too, though not for long – an exhaustive promotional world tour kicks off in a few weeks. 'I prefer to be making the game than talking about it,' he says.

Does it bother him that video games are looked down on by so many? 'There are two ways of looking at that. Yeah, this bias against this form of media causes tension. But at the same time, there's some value in being a renegade. Like rock'n'roll. Something that parents don't like, kids are much more into it.' But if video games are rock'n'roll, I say, his games are more like the Beatles than, say ... 'Metallica?' he chimes in. 'Probably. My games tend to be more cross-generational. More accessible. I think parents would rather see their kids play The Sims than Counter-Strike.' No wonder. The first is about family life, the second a violent terrorist-based first-person shooter.

But Wright is quick to defend games like Counter-Strike. 'It's funny,' he says. 'If [parents] are just observing the game and not playing it themselves, they're just seeing a surface representation: the pixels on the screen, the explosions, the gunshots. But if you look at kids playing Counter-Strike or [another first-person shooter] Quake, it's really more of a sport. They're very social experiences; they're not antisocial at all. It's all about working together as a team, getting their friends together – sometimes it's more like playing a game of basketball. If parents could see what the kids were seeing on the screen in a social sense, they would have a totally different perspective on it.'

Agree or not, it's Wright in a nutshell. The Montessori defence, you might say: nothing beats playing the game yourself – and every game, violent or not, has something to teach us. Providing we have a go.

· Spore is on sale now

Master of the universe, O, 14.9.2008, http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2008/sep/14/games






Video Game Review

Playing God, the Home Game


September 5, 2008
The New York Times


What is the difference between a game and a toy? Does a game that feels more like a toy — even a scintillating, empowering toy — fall short on its own terms? Or is it enough just to be a great toy?

Those questions came to mind again and again as I spent more than 60 hours recently with Spore, the almost impossibly ambitious new brainchild of Will Wright. Best known for his popular evocations of urban sprawl (SimCity) and suburban Americana (The Sims), Mr. Wright has spent the last eight years trying to figure out how to convey the vast sweep of evolution from a single cell to the exploration of the galaxy as an interactive entertainment experience. His answer, Spore, is being released in stores and online for PCs and Macs in Europe on Friday and in North America this weekend.

As an intelligent romp through the sometimes contradictory realms of science, mythology, religion and hope about the universe around us, Spore both provokes and amuses. And as an agent of creativity it is a landmark. Never before have everyday people been given such extensive tools to create their digital alter ego.

Beginning with all manner of outlandish creatures — want to make a seven-legged purple cephalopod that looks like it just crawled out of somewhere between the River Styx and your brother-in-law’s basement? — and proceeding through various buildings and vehicles, Spore gives users unprecedented freedom to bring their imaginations to some semblance of digital life. In that sense Spore is probably the coolest, most interesting toy I have ever experienced.

But it’s not a great game, and that is something quite different.

The quintessential toys, like a ball or toy soldier, captivate with their versatility. Children can see in a toy what they wish, and are content. Adults, however, tend to lose interest in toys after a little while. Instead they can find deep intellectual and sometimes emotional engagement in the games that emerge around those simple toys, like soccer and chess. Those games are eternal not because I can make my rook look like a slavering alien or because David Beckham occasionally sprouts wings, but because their basic dynamics and rules are perfectly tuned to foster an almost infinitely interesting variety of tactics, strategies and results.

Spore does not have that magic, at least not at the world-beating level it so clearly could have. People who are more interested in playing Spore than in playing with Spore — that is, people who are more interested in a game than a toy — are likely to come away feeling a bit let down.

Yes, Spore is undeniably gorgeous; Mr. Wright and his development team at Maxis have accomplished a prodigious technical feat with the programming that allows members of Spore’s interstellar menagerie variously to walk, stalk, flop and fly as they befriend and devour one another. For that matter, Mr. Wright and his publishers at Electronic Arts deserve all the credit they have received from some scientists merely for making a game about evolution (though it will be fascinating to see how the game fares among people who do not believe evolution is real). And yes, millions of people will surely spend countless hours, and dollars, on the fabulous computer toy that is Spore. And they should.

Yet like me, many players will end up crestfallen that the genius bestowed on Spore’s creative facilities was clearly not matched by similar inspiration for deeply engaging gameplay. Beneath all the eye candy, most of the basic core play dynamics in Spore are unfortunately rather thin.

At some level that seems by design. As perhaps befits its subject matter, Spore is not one game but a collection of five discrete mini-games, each reflecting a different stage of biological and social evolution and a different archetypal game style.

Life begins in the cell stage, basically a simple prologue. Think of Pac-Man but more colorful. Drifting in the primordial soup, your cell eats pellets (plants or prey) and avoids ghosts (bigger organisms). After maybe 30 minutes (if you survive), you evolve onto land and into the creature stage.

That stage is where Mr. Wright’s team seems to have spent the most effort, and for me it has been by far the most enjoyable and interesting part of the game. The entire Spore project might have been better handled if the cell and creature levels had been released together a couple years ago at a lower price (Spore now costs $49.95), allowing the more pedestrian later phases to receive a comparable level of time and attention as expansions.

Keep in mind that Spore includes no real-time multiplayer; that bizarre monster on the horizon is not being directly controlled by another player. Yet if you are connected to the Internet, that monster may have been made by another player in his own single-player universe and then used to populate your planet.

And so the creature stage rules Spore, because only there can you fully appreciate the range of expression possible using Spore’s tool set. As you explore the planet and meet other players’ progeny, the DNA you collect allows you to customize your creature with any of dozens of different body parts. Various mouths, hands, feet and wings convey different abilities, perhaps singing or dancing (for making allies of other species) or biting or clawing (for fighting).

But Spore goes a bit off the track as it reaches the tribal phase and beyond. Perhaps the biggest problem is that all that time you spent lovingly fine-tuning your otherworldly avatar in the creature phase basically doesn’t matter anymore. After the creature phase the cosmetic appearance of your species is locked in, but the abilities it developed are largely meaningless. Instead, in the tribal stage, you get just a few choices of different weapons and clothing. In the civilization phase you devise airplanes, land vehicles and ships, and in the space phase you obviously make spacecraft. But as Spore goes along, those choices matter less and less in shaping how you can actually play the game.

Progressing out of the tribe and civilization stages requires either conquering or co-opting all the neighboring tribes or cities. These “conquer the world” stories are classic computer game styles, and Spore borrows heavily from the basic mechanics of some of the best strategy games ever made, like Command & Conquer, StarCraft and Civilization. (For example, send peasants to gather supplies while you deploy forces against your rivals.)

Once you leap to the space stage, Spore’s strategic gameplay becomes a bit of a hash reminiscent of games like Master of Orion and Galactic Civilizations, only with horrendous, almost carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing interface controls and insufficient tools for managing what is meant to be a galaxy-spanning empire. The exploration and planet-shaping functions of this phase are enjoyable, but they are largely obscured by a gratuitous amount of low-level tasks like warding off pirate invasions and manually moving trade goods from one system to another, over and over. In none of its later stages does the depth of Spore’s play come close to matching the best-of-genre games available in each of the categories it derives from. (And then there are the inexplicable lapses in basic functionality, like the absence of an auto-save feature. The first time the program crashes, probably in the space phase, and you realize that hours of effort have been lost, you’ll be mad. The second time, you may quit forever.)

In fairness, one could also note a similar lack of depth in the basic play systems of The Sims, which has proven enduringly popular. But there are some intersecting design reasons why that works better in The Sims than in Spore.

Most important, The Sims is profoundly noncompetitive and open ended. The Sims is structured so you can help your family putter around the house forever. There are other families in the neighborhood to interact with, but they aren’t trying to eat your children or burn your house down.

Spore, like real life, is largely about the survival of the fittest. In each stage your species either becomes dominant and evolves, or it becomes extinct (meaning you try over and over again until you “win”). In The Sims making a family dysfunctional is half the fun. In Spore a dysfunctional species basically loses the game. That competitive nature is one reason why, despite its cutesy looks, Spore is aimed both at adults and children. And that competitive aspect is why a relative dearth of rich and interesting play mechanics hurts Spore more than The Sims.

The real frustration with Spore is that the team behind it was capable of such high achievement in the areas it focused on, while other parts languished. As reflected in its prodigious creation tools, it succeeds on so many of the most important levels for media these days. Like Facebook, YouTube and the Internet itself, Spore is about giving people both the tools to express themselves and a group to share with. The fun of trading creatures with friends and family and exploring new worlds in Spore will probably never get old.

Now if Mr. Wright and the Maxis team just take another few passes through Spore’s later stages and release a big revision patch next year, they may finally end up with a game to match the stellar toy they have already unleashed.

Playing God, the Home Game, NYT, 5.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/arts/television/05spor.html






At ESPN, Play-by-Play Goes Virtual


September 5, 2008
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES — ESPN, the cable powerhouse that calls itself “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” is looking to extend its domain in virtual worlds by merging video game graphics with real-life sports anchors.

The network, which is owned by the Walt Disney Company, has spent the last year working on a new technology with Electronic Arts, the leading game publisher, that would allow ESPN commentators to interact live with realistic-looking, three-dimensional virtual players as they pontificate about coming matches during broadcasts.

“It’s a way for us to remain relevant,” said John Skipper, ESPN’s executive vice president for content. “We want to make sure we remain connected to lots and lots of fans, and using the language that gamers understand is one way.”

Boiled down, the complex technology, which will make its debut this Sunday on ESPN’s popular “NFL Countdown” program, involves using an Electronic Arts’ title — say Madden NFL 09 — with specialized digital camera equipment in the studio. Presto: Both real and virtual people move around the ESPN set to demonstrate plays and possible situations.

And the sports behemoth has more ambitious plans down the road. Instead of using the technology, called EA Sports Virtual Playbook, to tell viewers what to look for before games, ESPN wants to use it in reverse to play the ultimate Monday morning quarterback.

Using real information from a game, ESPN anchors could reprogram an actual sequence to show, for example, what would have happened had Peyton Manning thrown right instead of left.

Much is made about how various forms of media — television, the Internet, radio — are all moving toward one another. And while television content has converged into video games, Virtual Playbook offers an example of convergence moving in the opposite direction. ESPN is bringing the look and feel of a video game to television for the sake of interactivity, flexibility and visual aid.

Television and movie executives have struggled for years to attract young consumers who play video games to more traditional forms of entertainment. At the same time, ESPN is on a mission to tap new areas of growth as it faces challenges in its core operations.

ESPN, three decades old, remains one of the media industry’s biggest gold mines, with successful magazine and Internet operations to complement its suite of cable channels. Analysts estimate that ESPN represents about a quarter of Disney’s annual operating income.

But ESPN must also battle the ever-increasing number of Web sites offering sports video and maintain growth as cable operators resist paying higher subscription fees to carry its programming. ESPN charges cable companies about $3.50 a month for each subscriber; the vast majority of cable channels charge well under $1.

So far this year, ESPN’s household rating is up a modest 10 percent compared with the same period last year, largely because of more interest in basketball and the X Games. But household ratings for “Sunday NFL Countdown” have stagnated over the last two years. Ratings for “Monday Night Football” dropped 13 percent in 2007 over the year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Among ESPN’s programming improvements are an expansion of “SportsCenter,” the network’s flagship program, into daytime and an ambitious push into high-definition programming. But the network is also banking on technological advancements like Virtual Playbook.

“We think this will wow our viewers,” said Stephanie Druley, a senior ESPN producer who oversees N.F.L. studio programming. “No one has seen this before.”

EA Sports, a division of Electronic Arts, had a business goal of its own in developing the technology. The unit is actively moving toward a broader sports and entertainment enterprise to speed up growth. Licensing technology is a main part of the strategy.

There is also the matter of increasing sales for the division’s bread-and-butter products. Its longtime strategy of churning out annual sequels for its Madden football game — the series is in its 20th sequel — is showing strain. With heavy promotion on ESPN via Virtual Playbook, sales might improve.

“We’ve got to keep swimming,” said Peter Moore, president of EA Sports. “Part of that effort is to bring the consumer more into our world. Virtual Playbook is going to give us a lot of opportunity to talk to football fans.”

ESPN will also showcase Virtual Playbook on programs like “Monday Night Countdown,” “NFL Live,” and, occasionally, “SportsCenter.” The network hopes to expand the feature to analysis of other sports like basketball and soccer, said Anthony Bailey, vice president for emerging technology at ESPN.

In 2005, Electronic Arts reached a 15-year deal with ESPN to publish sports games that use the ESPN brand name and content. Analysts value the agreement at $850 million to ESPN over the contract’s duration.

Neither ESPN nor EA Sports would say whether Virtual Playbook was part of the 15-year contract or if the two companies reached a new licensing agreement. An ESPN spokesman said current contracts with the National Football League allow it to use the likenesses of players to enhance its programming.

Integrating human anchors with virtual-reality players might be new, but Virtual Playbook is likely to look familiar to avid ESPN viewers. The network has sometimes shown video game simulations of match-ups that look similar.

Still, new media analysts gave ESPN early praise for the effort.

“If ESPN wants to gain more exposure to the gamer audience, this seems like a smart way to go about it,” said Michael Dowling, the chief executive of Interpret, a new media consultancy based in Santa Monica, Calif. “It adds an element of coolness and realism that gamers really want.”

    At ESPN, Play-by-Play Goes Virtual, NYT, 5.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/05/business/media/05espn.html






Gaming Evolves


September 2, 2008
The New York Times


Correction Appended

NEW HAVEN — By day, Thomas Near studies the evolution of fish, wading through streams in Kentucky and Mississippi in search of new species. By night, Dr. Near, an assistant professor at Yale, is a heavy-duty gamer, steering tanks or playing football on his computer. This afternoon his two lives have come together.

On his laptop swims a strange fishlike creature, with a jaw that snaps sideways and skin the color of green sea glass. As Dr. Near taps the keyboard, it wiggles and twists its way through a busy virtual ocean. It tries to eat other creatures and turns its quills toward predators that would make it a meal.

The chairman of Dr. Near’s department, Richard Prum, watches him play and worries about his reckless lunges.

“You’re just attacking them?” he asks as Dr. Near tries to eat a fat purple worm that looks too dangerous to bother.

“If you kill them, you unlock their parts,” Dr. Near explains. But then the purple worm sticks its syringelike mouth into Dr. Near’s beast and begins to drain its innards. “Uh-oh, I’m about to die,” he says. The screen fades to black.

The next time, Dr. Near’s luck changes. He gains enough points to move to the next level of the game. His creature grows a brain. “Oh man, it’s like I graduated college,” he says. Dr. Near can now alter his creature. He stretches the body to give it a neck. He adds a pair of kangaroolike legs.

His creature — or, rather, a swarm of his creatures — charge out of the ocean and onto land. Dr. Near pushes back the laptop as his creatures find a place to make their nest and lay eggs. “So that’s pretty cool,” he says with a grin not often seen on a professor.

Dr. Near and Dr. Prum have spent a few evenings testing out Spore, one of the most eagerly anticipated video games in the history of the industry. After years of rumors, the game goes on sale Friday. Spore’s designer, Will Wright, is best known for creating a game called the Sims in 2000. That game, which let players run the lives of a virtual family, has sold 100 million copies. It is the best-selling computer game franchise of all time.

Spore, produced by Electronic Arts, promises much more than the day-to-day adventures of simulated people. It starts with single-cell microbes and follows them through their evolution into intelligent multicellular creatures that can build civilizations, colonize the galaxy and populate new planets.

Unlike the typical shoot-them-till-they’re-all-dead video game, Spore was strongly influenced by science, and in particular by evolutionary biology. Mr. Wright will appear in a documentary next Tuesday on the National Geographic Channel, sharing his new game with leading evolutionary biologists and talking with them about the evolution of complex life.

Evolutionary biologists like Dr. Near and Dr. Prum, who have had a chance to try the game, like it a great deal. But they also have some serious reservations. The step-by-step process by which Spore’s creatures change does not have much to do with real evolution. “The mechanism is severely messed up,” Dr. Prum said.

Nevertheless, Dr. Prum admires the way Spore touches on some of the big questions that evolutionary biologists ask. What is the origin of complexity? How contingent is evolution on flukes and quirks? “If it compels people to ask these questions, that would be great,” he said.

Evolution may seem impossible to capture in a computer. It is a hugely complicated process by which millions of individuals change over millions of years, as thousands of genes mutate and are spread by natural selection and other forces. Yet scientists have managed to distill some of the most important features of evolution into the language of mathematics.

In the early 1900s, mathematicians figured out how to represent a population of organisms in simple equations. They used those equations to show how natural selection can spread some genes from one generation to the next. Their work transformed the study of evolution into a modern, rigorous science.

Today, mathematicians use far more sophisticated equations to analyze evolution. And some of their most important insights have come from treating evolution like a giant game. Organisms can evolve different strategies to survive, in the same way game players can choose different strategies to win the most points in a game. Using a branch of mathematics called game theory, scientists can figure out if natural selection will favor a strategy over all others, or if it brings them into a stable balance. Game-theory models have shed light on the evolution of things like human cooperation and the deadly relationship of parasites and their hosts.

Today’s computers make it vastly easier for scientists to build these models. They have also allowed researchers to study evolution by building digital organisms. Scientists at Michigan State University and the California Institute of Technology, for example, have developed software called Avida that allows tiny computer programs to behave like real organisms. They make copies of themselves and mutate (randomly changing lines of programming code).

As the programs process more information in more powerful ways, the mutations are favored by a digital version of natural selection. The Avida team has published a string of papers in leading scientific journals on their experiments, testing ideas about complexity, mass extinctions and even the evolutionary benefits of sex.

Computers have also made it possible for scientists to build simple simulations to help people understand the principles of evolution. This year, for instance, Ralph Haygood, a postdoctoral researcher at Duke University, built a Facebook application called Evarium that lets users watch flowerlike creatures drift around a box, attracting one another with their colors. They mate and shuffle traits in their offspring, which then go through the same cycle. Players can control how quickly traits mutate and how strongly the organisms are attracted to some traits and not others. Or they can just watch the creatures change each time they open their Facebook page.

Mr. Wright came to the challenge of an evolution game with a long track record of simplifying complex systems without losing the feel of reality. He first came to fame in 1989 with SimCity, a game that allowed players to build and oversee a city. He simplified the workings of cities so that the slow personal computer of the late 1980s could simulate them. But he included enough feedback loops between elements of cities — like tax rates, incomes and traffic jams — to give SimCity the unpredictable complexity of real cities.

Mr. Wright followed the success of SimCity with a string of open-ended games, like SimAnt (a simulated ant colony) and SimMars (a simulated Red Planet players could make habitable). Around the time he released the Sims, he began to contemplate an all-encompassing game. At first, he called it SimEverything.

The game, which he eventually renamed Spore, would give players an experience of life and the universe across billions of years, from microscopic creatures to interstellar civilizations. “There were deep motivations in the early phase from the work of a lot of evolutionary biologists, like Richard Dawkins and Edward Wilson,” Mr. Wright said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Wright wanted Spore to communicate some of the grand patterns of evolution. But he did not want players to spend a million years waiting for something interesting to happen. He also did not want the game to look like an abstract cloud of drifting spots.

“I spent a fair amount of time going around to talk to scientists here and there,” Mr. Wright said. “You have to explore a huge amount to figure what 20 percent will be cool and fun for a game.”

One thing Mr. Wright and his colleagues decided Spore should reflect was evolution’s ability to produce life’s staggering diversity. “We wanted to convey the sense that evolution can bring up a surprising diversity of weird, interesting, strange things,” he said.

The game begins with a meteorite crashing into a planet, sowing its oceans with life and organic matter. Players control a simple creature that gobbles up bits of debris. They can choose to eat other creatures or eat vegetation or both. As the creature eats and grows, it gains DNA points, which the player can use to add parts like tails for swimming or spikes for defense. Once the creature has gotten big and complex enough, it is ready for the transition to land.

On land, the creatures can grow legs, wings and other new parts. And it is at this point that some of Spore’s features really shine. Mr. Wright’s team has written software that can rapidly transform creatures in an infinite number of ways, as players add parts and alter their size, shape and position.

This summer, as part of the buildup before the release of Spore, Electronic Arts offered software for building new creatures on its Web site. So far, people have built more than three million creatures. Electronic Arts uses that growing zoo to populate each player’s planets with life.

Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago, was enchanted when Mr. Wright came to show off Spore to him. Dr. Shubin’s own research has helped reveal how real evolution recycles and modifies pre-existing biology to produce different body plans. In 2006 Dr. Shubin and his colleagues reported the discovery of a 370-million-year-old fossil called Tiktaalik that illuminates our ancestors’ transition from sea to land. It offers clues to how our hands and feet evolved from swimming fins.

Dr. Shubin found that Spore gave players a feel for how evolution uses the same basic tool kit to produce different body plans. “Playing the game,” he said, “you can’t help but feel amazed how, from a few simple rules and instructions, you can get a complex functioning world with bodies, behaviors and whole ecosystems.”

Spore also mimicked evolution in another way that pleased Dr. Shubin. “Will asked me, ‘Why did creatures evolve to walk on land?’ ” he recalled. “I mentioned that the freshwater ecosystems of the Late Devonian were pretty predator-intensive. He smirked.”

Mr. Wright built a Tiktaalik with Dr. Shubin’s help. “We let him swim around in a Spore Devonian world. And every time our little silicon Tiktaalik went in the deep water, a huge creature ate him in one bite. Tiktaalik crawled on land and thrived,” Dr. Shubin said.

Spore embodies another major theme of evolutionary biology: evolution is not a simple kill-or-be-killed affair. If a Spore player ends up with a carnivorous creature, it will certainly do its fair share of killing. But it will not make it very far unless it makes alliances. In Spore, creatures bond by dancing, wiggling and singing. Taking the time to bond allows players to move in packs and herds, which do a better job of fighting off predators and attacking prey.

“You always wonder why life tends to become more complex over time,” Mr. Wright said. “If you look at this balance between cooperation and competition, at almost every level it explains it neatly. You have agents competing at some level. The agents might be cells. At some point the cells can group together and work collectively and outcompete the other ones that are not cooperating. Then competition jumps to the next level. At every level you have to have the right balance between co-op and comp. That balance is driving the organizational complexity.”

Even as scientists praise Spore, they voice concerns about how the game does not match evolution. In the real world, new traits evolve as mutations arise and spread gradually through entire populations. Winning Spore’s DNA points does not work even as a remote metaphor.

“I do hope that it doesn’t confuse people as to what evolution is all about,” said Charles Ofria, a computer scientist at Michigan State University and a creator of Avida.

Spore may also mislead players with the way it is set up as a one-dimensional march of progress from single-cell life to intelligence. Evolution is more like a tree than a line, with species branching in millions of directions. Sometimes species become more complex, and sometimes they become less so. And sometimes they do not change at all. “There’s no progressive arrow that dominates nature,” Dr. Prum said.

These caveats notwithstanding, Dr. Near hopes that Spore prompts people to think about the evolutionary process. “This may be totally off about how evolution works, but I’d much rather be dealing with a student who says, ‘O.K., I have no problem with evolution; I think about it the same way I think about gravity.’ If it does that, it’ll be great.”

Mr. Wright said he had been hearing similar reactions from other scientists. “I find that scientists are incredibly open and excited that we can portray this stuff in games, even if it’s not perfectly accurate,” he said. “It’s manure to seed future scientists.”

Dr. Shubin said: “The differences between Spore and nature do not bother me. I see Spore for what it is: a game. And it is a game in the best sense of the word. It is not identical to nature, but it is a world that evolves, that changes and where the players are part of those processes.”




This article has been revised
to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 4, 2008

An article on Tuesday about a new computer game, Spore, referred incorrectly to the popularity of The Sims, an earlier game from the same designer. The Sims is the best-selling computer game franchise ever, not the best-selling video game franchise.

Gaming Evolves, NYT, 2.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/02/science/02spor.html



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