“Best Art Direction” for Alice: Madness Returns

MSNBC Tech has awarded Alice: Madness Returns a “Best Art Direction” award for 2011. Alice had some serious competition for the honor, going up against some of the year’s biggest and most beautiful games, including:
* Rage
* Batman: Arkham Asylum
* El Shaddai
* Skyrim

Landing this prize speaks volumes about the continued rise in high-quality AAA game development being seen here in China – and specifically in Shanghai. For years, Western developers and publishers utilized China as their outsource art asset factory. And over time the artists, animators and modelers here increased their capability and creativity – with a game like A:MR being wonderful testament to the sort of surreal, imaginative and detailed work the Chinese game industry is now capable of.

Large-scale AAA console games often spend 50% or ore of their budgets on art alone. Alice:MR was no different. Of a 65 person internal team, nearly half were working on “art” (animation, 3D, concept, effects). Another 45 artists spread between 4 different outsource studios contributed the bulk of 3D asset production for the game. This “near sourcing” of 3D asset production meant we could outsource 98% of all 3D artwork for the game to local outsource teams.

Not only did this model produce impressive results, it was reliable, cost-effective and creatively engaging for all involved. Geographic proximity meant that the outsource teams felt like a true part of the larger art department. And one of the shining examples of effeciency and creativity was outsource shop “China West Coast“.

Kudos to Spicy Horse’s internal art team must be shared with outsource groups like China West Coast. Without the seamless and effective integration of the internal and external art pipelines – and the beautiful work being produced by all – the game would never have attained placement among the year’s other AAA titles.

Awesome work by all involved. Thank you, Spicy Horse art team and all the outsource groups like CWC who did the creative heavy lifting!

If you’re interested in using CWC on one of your AAA projects, you can learn more about them HERE.

Ebox – A Console for China

Lots of news these days about Lenovo’s announcement of the “Ebox” – a game console built in and for China (as well as the rest of Asia). It’s not the first time a Chinese console has been attempted – Shanda’s own homegrown console (EZ Station) of years past had similar aspirations towards the Chinese console market. Where Shanda stumbled hard on a variety of marketing, hardware and software issues – one hopes Lenovo’s experience in device manufacturing can see them through to a retail product.

But the real challenge isn’t going to be the hardware, games or interface (though those things need to be right) – it’s going to be penetrating a market which is already saturated in terms of digital content portals. China is, by in large, an online country. Games, TV, music, movies, shopping, eating – everything is faster and easier online. How do you supplant (or just supplement) an existing digital pipeline that’s functioning well enough to turn companies like Tencent into “juggernauts“?

Here are couple of things I think they’ll have to get right if they’re going to have a chance:

1. Make it online only.
2. Build an iTunes-like store interface (easy to navigate, uncluttered).
3. Enforce platform-wide interface and quality guidelines.
4. Enable quick, easy payments for purchases (link into existing payment 5. channels used in Internet Cafes).
6. Cross market titles on and off platform (with Tencent, for example).
7. Sell it for a loss and make the profits in software.
8. Don’t make it “too Chinese” (Chinese consumers love foreign brands).
9. Attract license content which already does well in China (Transformers, World of Warcraft, Hello Kitty).
10. Partner with big brands looking to fund advertainment (Coke, Nike, Audi, etc).

Further (and probably most importantly), successfully attracting an initial market will require killer apps. Without developers to create highly creative and attractive game offerings, the platform will go nowhere. And if China’s lacking one thing – it’s a large number of developers experienced in the creation of AAA console content. Never mind the global lack of experience in creating content for motion control enabled systems like Kinect – we’re all trying to find our footing there.

Personally, I wish them all the luck in the world. It’d be great to see the miraculous growth of the Chinese gaming market bolstered by a quality console offering with the requisite offering of great games. If we’re lucky, the entry of a Chinese made contender will eventually serve to open the market to an influx of foreign made consoles and games.

A few notes in the margins… There’s a lot of confusion in Western press about restrictions on gaming and gaming consoles in China. For a primer filled with useful facts, I highly recommend reading through China gaming legal expert Greg Pilarowski’s China Video Game Industry Legal Primer (July 2010)

An excerpt from the primer reads:

In many jurisdictions, including the United States and Europe, the video game market is dominated by console games. In mainland China, however, game consoles are prohibited. In addition, video game software for use with game consoles or PCs are subject to very high piracy rates. As a result, China’s video game market is primarily an online game market, with revenues from this segment not only constituting nearly all of video game revenues, but also representing a leading internet application in the market by revenue. In June 2000, the State Council issued the Notice on Launching a Campaign against Video Arcades, which prohibits the manufacture and sale of both coin operated arcade game machines and television console game machines.

Although the stated purpose of the notice was to strike against video arcades in order to protect the youth and ensure public order, the notice was drafted broadly and is now the primary legal barrier to the importation, manufacture or sale of game consoles such as the Xbox, PlayStation and Wii.

Notwithstanding the prohibition on game consoles, there is a substantial black market for their sale in China.

And finally – many industry articles seem to take pleasure in labeling the Ebox a “copy” of the Kinect while neglecting to mention (as they once did) that Move and Kinect are themselves reactionary moves (copies) of the successful paradigm shift initiated by the Wii.

Used Games = End of Gaming Industry

Used Game Sales

Rising Used Game Sales

Another in a long line of articles on the subject of second-hand or used games over at PC World. This time blog author Matt Peckham opines:

To hear some publishers tell it, used game sales are the devil’s work, and we–meaning us consumers–the devil’s henchmen.

We’re buying too many used games, you see, and in our patient thrift, we’re destroying the very thing we’re supposed to love.

Not the games themselves, mind you–first-class game development is flourishing with or without the World of Warcraft’s and Call of Duty’s–but, if we buy the corporate line, the ability of game publishers to reap increasingly massive revenues.

Read the full article HERE.

Nothing new, really. Industry reports indicate used game sales are cutting into new game sales. Publishers and developers feel the pinch. Consumers and retailers don’t see the problem. The economy gets some punching bag action. And finally, it’s suggested the “model” might be changing – moving towards more DLC and online content.

And what of online content? In China, where piracy is ubiquitous, there is virtually NO piracy or second hand sale of domestic game product. But then, there are no physical game good here – everything is online. What box product does exist comes from outside – Western games pirated and copied ad nauseum. Chinese gamers LOVE Western games – but what little money they pay for them will never reach the publishers or developers who made them. How different is this from second hand sales, BTW?

China’s game operators know how to run their businesses. They’ve built a model which disallows competition from developers, pirates, retailers or consumers. It’s a closed-loop system enforced by government regulation and licensing. And I guarantee you Western publishers would have adopted the model in a heartbeat if they could have.

Ideal models regulated by Communist edict aside, what’s stopping Western publishers from evolving? Simple: They’re too invested in the protected market model competitively evolved over the previous two decades. The one in which their ability to spend ridiculous sums of money on development, marketing and distribution guarantees they’re the only “legitimate” publishing organizations around. It’s only with the advent of “disruptors” like publisher-independent development organizations (see Valve), innovative hardware technologies (see Nintendo), and online distribution platforms (see Facebook, iPhone, Steam) that the old model is challenged.

The old guard, AAA publishers are backed into a corner. If they’ve not yet secured their online strategy then it’s likely too late. Dependency on a retail model that even the retailers admit is broken is, this late in the game, is a ticket to ride the way of the dinosaurs.

But then, that’s what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? Dinosaurs. And the little mammals nipping at their remains. It’s evolution in action. Should we feel bad about nature taking its course? Look at Asia to see the future – where the mice have evolved into men and are taking over the world. Deride the current model, poke at the dying beasts, and imagine what tomorrow will bring. A better world?

In all of this, never forget dear consumer, it’s YOU these beasts are feeding on. Nom nom.

DexIQ for iPad Released

DexIQ Poster #2

DexIQ Split-Screen Multiplayer Action

Spicy Pony is proud to announce the release of DexIQ for iPad. The original DexIQ on iPhone was the Pony’s first game release – and in the months since its release found lots of fans around the world. Its unique split-screen dexterity and IQ tests established a cool new model for touch-driven games. But no point stopping there…

DexIQ on iPad takes split-screen action to a whole new multiplayer level. Four simultaneous games on one screen, for two-player head-to-head action. If you thought playing two games against yourself was fun – wait till you’re in a four-way gaming battle with your friend! Take a head-to-head DexIQ challenge or choose your own combos from dozens of cool games.

Brain not able to imagine four simultaneous games? Check out the trailer:

Don’t just sit there freaking out! Get DexIQ for iPad and iPhone NOW!

iPad version with 2 Player split-screen madness
iPhone version with 1 Player split-screen fun

Wind Power to Blow Strongly

From Shanghai Daily: Wind power to blow strongly

CHINA is expected to increase its total offshore wind-power capacity from 5,000 megawatts in 2015 to 30,000MW by 2020, a senior official at a hydropower institute said.

“Shanghai as well as Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Shandong and Fujian provinces have already submitted their offshore wind-power blueprints. Their combined off-shore wind power capacity could reach 22,800 megawatts by 2020,” said Wang Minghao, vice president of Hydropower Planning Research Institute, who spoke at the Offshore Wind China Conference yesterday.

Read more on Shanghai Daily.

Every time I read a story like this about energy in China it gives me a little bit of hope. While the world reels from oil-related catastrophes (see Gulf of Mexico, Nigeria, Singapore) China continues to push aggressively towards meaningful renewable energy goals:

China is aggressively expanding its renewable energy consumption to reduce reliance on polluting fuels like coal and oil, and plans to increase the proportion of renewable energy to 15 percent of the country’s overall energy mix.

That, combined with Chinese consumer/manufacture awareness of energy efficiency and resource scarcity, means China could become a beacon for sustainability – that is if they aren’t pushed to consume the world first.

An Argument for Ugly Characters

Ugly NPCs

Ugly NPCs

Here’s something I wrote a while back when trying to convince the team that our online racing game should allow for ugly characters. Does it convince you?

Online games dependent on micro-transactions and purchase of items must create and maintain a compelling library of buyable content. Generally this content is geared towards improving player’s abilities in-game, either upgrading performance of a vehicle, allowing access to a bigger weapon, or resupplying ammo/fuel for those weapons and vehicles. Purchases can also be purely cosmetic – improving Player’s outfit, hair style, or physique.

Play imbalance is created when Players with money are able to purchase upgrades that improve their in-game ability. This influences their win/lose ratio, making it possible for inferior Player to defeat superior Players, simply because they spent money. In a system like this it is impossible to maintain a culture of fairness. Every defeat is “unfair” because the opponent likely used a purchased upgrade to attain it. Every win is “hollow” because no real skill was used in attaining it.

It is agreed that in a fair and balanced PvP environment purchased items should not upgrade or influence a Player’s ability to win. This means purchased items are purely cosmetic.

Purely cosmetic upgrades create a problem, specifically “Why would anyone purchase them?”

This question goes to the root of all purchases, virtual or real.
Purchased items fall into two categories: “Necessities for Survival” (needs) or “Items of Desire” (wants).
Necessities for Survival include food, clothing, shelter, medicine.
Items of desire include jewelry, designer clothes, and general “luxury” objects.
Necessities are things every person needs to survive. Items of desire only matter in context of a social group.

Marketing tells us we need objects in order to be better people, feel better about ourselves, and impress our peers. If not for marketing, every person in the world might exist on the same basic set of durable goods. Marketing tells us we aren’t enough, that more is needed to be “complete”. As such, purchasing is ultimately driven by fear.

In-game the ability to visually register the material worth of a character is limited. How can I know the worth of your shoes upon immediate inspection?

Solution: Our brains have evolved to be powerful facial characteristic readers. We are walking face “value scanners”. A game geared towards the creation and maintenance of facial “value” taps into this most basic skill of the human brain.
Facial beauty is a function of ratios and relational harmonies. A character creation system with built-in flaws limits Player to creating only ugly faces.
Real-world marketing tells us their products will make us more beautiful, more handsome – but without radical and expensive surgery these promises are unattainable. In a virtual environment, the promise can be a reality.

Typical facial creation systems assume Player will build a face at the start of the game and then leave it until the end. By linking the facial manipulation mechanic into the store we create a constant driver to spend time/money on making a player character more and more attractive. The promise of all those marketing campaigns becomes a reality.

Races (crashes specifically) will deliver damage to Player Character’s face, clothing and body.

This way we create an instantly recognizable value system within the game which can be monetized through make-up, insurance, surgery and more.

Image reference for ugly characters taken from this Game Informer article.