Thank you for playing

Nintendo, along with several dozen other companies, have filed a suit at the Tokyo District Court, according to Kotaku, in their continued effort to halt the sales of the R4, a device which slots into a Nintendo DS cart slot and houses a microSD card onto which users can copy videos, photos, text files, homebrew software and, well, pirated DS games.

Nintendo's motives are entirely obvious and understandable. The R4 makes DS piracy easy and available, which is bad for business, and they control the platform. I presume that they have a strong legal case to make and that they'll probably win. However, I am personally quite sad about these developments.

Mostly it's down to the homebrew. Talented amateurs out there are elevating the DS from a gaming platform to a full-blown PDA with excellent scheduling and diary software, text readers and video players. These are all things Nintendo could have and should have released to further push the DS to the forefront of handheld devices. Nintendo has, quite rightly in some aspects, chosen to be a "simply games" company, focusing on fun and input schemes to bring gaming to a wider audience. Since the Gamecube have they stated that they are not interested in the number of triangles on screen or raw processing power and, considering the wild hotcake in a blaze success of the Wii and DS they certainly weren't wrong about that strategy.

Yet I feel the full potential of the DS remains locked. Very few eBook carts have been released (in Japan) and no good diary software has been made available for purchase. With the touch screen input and WiFi capabilities the DS is screaming to be more than "just a gaming console" and by and large, that is exactly what it has remained. Talking cookbooks and TV tuners aside, it could have been so much more.

So homebrew is not just picking up Nintendo's slack, it is also providing other excellent uses. A lot of amateurs and hobbyists have been creating their own titles, with varying degrees of success, giving them valuable experience in console game development. Others have ported with great love and care those older titles from other platforms for which the market is too small to make publishers care about. For all the crying and begging for DS ports of classic LucasArts adventures, for example, it has been left to the homebrew scene to create an amazing port of the SCUMMVM engine. Homebrew is a truly wonderful thing. But it is, of course, sadly diametrically opposed to Nintendo's licensing business.

But however much annoyed Nintendo might be with the hobbyists it's obviously the pirates that have them fuming. It's undeniable that the R4 facilitates piracy. A simple Google search will result in a long list of sites that offer roms for download and putting them on an R4 to play is extremely easy, even though some clever anti-piracy measures have been experimented with. Nintendo could find ways to force working anti-piracy measures into their games, at some cost no doubt, so inevitably the R4 must die.

This is a shame. I hope sincerely Nintendo will at least consider incorporating the better aspects that homebrew has brought us so far into whatever is next for the DS. While the R4 lasted it brought us some great things. It's a shame that that inevitably brought with it the piracy that will eventually get it suppressed.

Mad dogs and Englishmen

Regular readers may have noticed a dip in output and quality on this blog, and I am acutely aware of this. But this summer is hitting me harder than previous ones. When I first moved to Japan, as a podgy, pasty European, the first summer I experienced here was Hell. It's not just the heat but mostly the humidity. You have a cold shower and by the time you've dried off you're dripping with sweat again. I remember, either my first or second summer here, running for cover from shop to shop, enjoying the cold breeze of the air conditioners in between the hot blasts from the sun outside. I also remember visiting recruiters and going for interviews in my recruit suit with, stupidly, a light blue shirt which would be dark with sweat.

As I lost the inevitable weight so many seem to in Japan, and acclimatised somewhat, the summers became a little more bearable. The key was never to hurry and take things extremely slowly. Plus, of course, as a developer you need not worry about dress codes, so on extremely hot days shorts and sandals would ease the commute.

But for some reason this year I am having a hard time coping. I don't think it's particularly warmer or more humid than previous years, but possibly work related stresses and general malaise contribute to this overwhelming feeling of tiredness, a zombification of the mind and body. Though it is pleasant to sit in the coolness of an air conditioned room, it somehow makes my head heavy and my lungs raspier than usual. Sleeping with the thing on, an absolute necessity, causes restless sleep, for me at least.

It doesn't help that due to some genetic mishap, I think from my mother's side of the family, I have easily excitable sweat glands, though luckily not so much the odour issues that usually come with these. Or rather, the sudden availability of decent deodorants in Japan has helped me combat fishy funk. It all adds up to make the average daytime a dreary, sweaty, heavy headed chore, which makes my evenings lazy and without energy, in front of a fan or underneath the air conditioner. Dog days indeed.

There isn't much going on in Japan, at least not in my monkeysphere. Apparently, in politics, communism seems to enjoy a little resurgence, though I doubt very much your average Japanese cares too much about socialist issues to turn the whole country red, even if the West were to allow it to happen. Personally I am increasingly annoyed by that one bald politician who seems too busy appearing on television shows and generally behaving like a talento than busying himself with whatever it is politicians are supposed to do. I have also been discussing the injustices of Japan's latest scandal, where a professional baseball player had a torrid affair with a mixed race television presenter; the single woman has had all her contracts canceled while the married man with one child is back playing baseball. I wonder if it's because she's a woman or because shes half not-Japanese that the fault seems to have been placed firmly at her feet for some reason. Maybe it's the fact this is the second time she's burnt herself on the same iron. Either way, it's a little silly, not to mention hypocritical of Japan's populace at large; infidelity is next to godliness in the Japanese dictionary, but that may be down to stroke-orders and other obtuse kanji-related issues.

My current choice of summer drink is the Moscow Mule, especially when, as the bartender and customer, I can make them with ever so slightly increasing ratios in favour of the vodka. I do yearn for Pimms though, but this is of course not available in Japan, at least not in the shops I've been searching. I suppose I could make it myself, though, but the ease of the Mule is too much of a draw.

In other news I watched merrily one day as a woman drove her car straight into and up onto the little wall that divides our office building from the parking spaces in front of it. It was quite a wallop and a nasty scrape as she backed up off the wall. She got out, seemingly unharmed and had a perfunctory yet panicky look at the front of the car before doing that half-run jog trot into the building. This further cemented by over-generalised and undeniably racist view that the Japanese aren't very good at driving. I've seen plenty of examples of this before, like the guy who couldn't park his car properly despite the fact he had a good 200 yards of empty sidewalk to play with or the many times I've been almost run over by cars storming out of driveways and side streets.

I literally can't wait for this summer to end, to make way for the much cooler and therefore much more enjoyable autumn, followed by the usual crisp and bright winter, my favourite season. An as usual I am not alone in this. Your average Japanese doesn't seem to fare much better than I, which is some consolation.

Well, this was a long, rambling and self-pitying, not to mention useless post, but that, I'm afraid is what life is like these days. Regular readers can rejoice in the promise I will be posting some things of more substance some time in the near future. I have a few posts in mind, but am as yet unable to bring these to fruition for a variety of reasons, lack of energy being the main culprit, all things considered.

Domestics Spotting

If there is one obvious flaw to the Japanese character it’s their refusal to lose their rags in public situations. Aside from the occasional commute-based freak-out and a fair amount of muttering to oneself, your average Japanese will avoid making a scene in public, so when it does happen, which it does occasionally, it’s worth rubbernecking.

As a “firefly”, a smoker banished by a non-smoking spouse to the balcony where he makes little fiery lights dance around with the tip of a burning stick of slow suicide, I am privy to a lot of gossip-worthy eavesdropping on my neighbours. There is one activity me and the wife like sharing out there, though, which is listening in on domestics. For some reason the apartment building opposite ours is rife with marital difficulties and on more than one occasion have we stood outside, enjoying the cool evening air and the many shouts and threats that drifted on it.

Two instances spring readily to mind. The first was a domestic quarrel, which we pinpointed to an apartment at our height, to the west, in the opposite building. In it, we gathered, a male was paying heavily for some dalliance, presumably, as a woman was screaming at the top of her lungs at him for a good hour orso. In a relentless tirade she screamed and cussed and swore at the guy in a high pitched, piercing shriek. Congreve was almost correct if only his line read “Nor Hell a Fury, like a Japanese woman scorn’d”, though, granted, that wouldn’t have scanned as well. If you want to experience pure, cold, naked terror it lies in the face of a Japanese woman in a rage. Japanese, as a language, has never sounded scarier and hormonal fury never looked as much like bleak obliteration as the time one peers into the eyes of a Japanese woman with a bone to pick. And in this instance too, though we neither of us doubted the guy had it coming to him, whatever it was he had done, we actually felt sorry for the poor sap as he sat there silent in this turbulent whirlwind of abuse. We tried to pick up words in the tirade, but it’s difficult when it’s screamed at such a high pitch. It involved money, uselessness, idiocy and the like. My guess was infidelity, though the wife suggested some theories revolving money and the possibility the man had been profligate in times of need. Once the storm had died down, we listened as we heard windows slide shut from various points between our two apartment buildings. We needed a sit down after that one.

More recently was an instance of mutual domestic squabbling. In an apartment in the opposite building, slightly higher, diagonally opposite of ours, a couple were fighting tooth and nail at extreme volumes. I was, in fact, in a back room when the wife informed me of the spectacle, and we both went to the balcony, drinks in hand, to listen. Again, it was hard to pick up words, but in instances like these “baka”, which is your catch-all word meaning anything from “you rotter” to “die in Hell”, was bandied about liberally. This time, however, the male side was represented in force. The man was equally vocal at his screaming wife indicating that there was probably more at stake here than a little marital slip. “Wakatte iru yo!” too was heard many times, which in polite conversation means something like “yeah, I know”, but in the context of arguments could mean “I’m not a gosh-darn idiot, you know!” This is priceless stuff most Japanese language schools sadly don’t teach. This exchange burnt out quicker due to its intensity. We heard a slam of a window and a continued but muffled shouting match which eventually died down as I had run out of vodka and the wife’s favourite television show was about to start.

As for your average Japanese male marriage is one long primrose path I am surprised we don’t hear these kinds of exchanges more often, but when we do, we always make a point of enjoying them together. Like the grunts of gorillas in the mist we share a nice moment together as these rare pieces of vocal evidence of Japan’s disintegrating peaceful society are borne aloft the barmy summer breezes.

Good Art Director! Have a Creme Egg!

Most visually creative people know this, a lot of consumers probably subconsciously understand this, but for most manager-types it is still a mystery: good art direction will always triumph over raw processing power. Good art direction is what made Mario Galaxy achieve a lot more on less horsepower than most games do on more powerful consoles. A strong visual design is key to most successful, visually speaking, games, and yet it is still in its infancy in our industry. All too often a style guide is a series of grunge textures and some RGB values for different shades of brown and gray and, if there was a pre-production period, a series of photos of real-life locations. But of course there are some games out there that get it right, in my humble opinion, and Japanmanship, I, hereby award the art directors responsible for the following visual feasts with a Creme Egg*!

Mirror's Edge
DICE's latest offering, only available as a gameplay trailer right now, slapped me in the face hard with its stark, simple yet nicely designed visuals. The heroine, a game designer's version of an ideal Asian girlfriend, runs around a clean, white city with nice blue shadows and aims at brightly coloured visual cues to perform her free-running tricks. The effect is beautiful. Any artist who hasn't secretly enjoyed a MentalRay rendering of an untextured scene with the "physical sky" option turned on is no real artist at heart. Blue shadows on a white environment just simply looks nice, and the bright reds and oranges really stand out. DICE must be congratulated for such a bold visual style in a genre that would seemingly have demanded, from the publisher's side, a gritty, real "urban" sprawl, with dirt and graffiti and rusty iron fences. Similarly, EA, so often and unfairly painted as the industry's S.P.E.C.T.R.E. super villain, should be patted on the back by going along with this vision. The game will have a lot to prove in the gameplay department, but I for one am interested simply for it daring to look different.

Diablo 3
Richer than Midas, Blizzard can afford good artists and art directors and the recent footage of the highly anticipated (by me included) Diablo 3 shows, yet again, that they are masters of a simple yet arresting visual style that doesn't rely on a billion polygons. The footage shows a very strong sense of colour and form, yet if you zoom in on the screenshots you'll find there isn't much there. The overall effect is a pleasant, coherent and readable environment that is very pleasing to the eye.
Of course, a vocal minority of idiots decided the art direction is pap, citing anything coloured more brightly than gray is simply unacceptable. I have the utmost confidence that Blizzard will ignore these dolts, as they should, and stick with this wonderful, fantastical and vibrant style that will help make Diablo 3 even more bleedin’ addictive than the time-sink predecessors I have wasted so much of my life on.

Castle Crashers
Real cartoon-style games often look, well, rubbish. They end up a hotchpotch of clunky 3D characters with exaggerated proportions that contrast badly with the webcomic-quality cutscenes; it’s all a bit sad. And then there is Castle Crashers.
I suppose this game shouldn’t be included on the list, as the art was created by a single person, so directing doesn’t come into it, strictly speaking. But the overall visual style of this game, apparently polished beyond Alien Hominid standards, is awesome. There is more life in those creatures than most normalmapped, high-poly characters we see and ignore so often in your average triple-A blockbuster.

And on the complete opposite side of the spectrum I enjoy this little strategy game’s subdued simplicity. It shows that simple visuals can be beautiful, but more importantly, that they are functional. This is something we often forget, where visuals are overcomplicated and obstruct the actual experience of the game. Not so Dyson, which conjures up an entire universe, or asteroid belt at least, with the simplest of graphics. As artists with immense processing power at our behest, we often forget that less is, more often than not, more, much much more. This title proves that beyond any doubt.

I, for one, am growing weary of the supposed photo-realism or the high-contrast shadowing that make so many video games not only unplayable but, if we’re honest, ugly as sin. Good art direction isn’t easy, that is a fact, and it’s not always what the customer seems to want, sadly, but whenever there is real talent laying down a style, backed up by skilled artists to bring that vision to reality the effect is an amazing visual feast. It’s worth investing time and effort into. The titles mentioned above are just a few of the games I, as an artist, am excited about. So far only the last one is available to play, but I am highly anticipating the other titles and have already penciled them in on my “immediate impulse purchase” list.

* Creme Eggs not included!

Hey, teacher!

As our industry grows, which is does relentlessly, and matures, which it does grudgingly, obviously the workforce will grow in terms of needs, numbers and skills, and so it is not surprising that institutions will offer dedicated courses and degrees which, in turn, get to be scrutinised by the press in a recent bit of hooplah over the state of such affairs in Britain. This leads me to pondering the value of game-related degrees and a lot of chin-stroking on what I believe the industry needs. And I've come to the conclusion that the industry does not need game-related degrees.

As can be said for any industry, arguably, the skills you will rely on most in your career will be learned on the job, with a previous education only offering you a solid base to start your training from. The game industry is no different. Looking back at my own career I find that all the skills I possess and use nowadays I have learned while doing the job and my skill set when I joined the industry was laughably inept to deal with the issues I face in my day to day activities. Ask a banker, labourer or teacher and you'll probably find this to be a common thread. Experience is a far better teacher than any humanoid, but that doesn't of course mean education is useless - far from it. I studied in a vaguely related field, though still far removed from video games, and one of my most hated courses I find taught me things I, I reluctantly accept, still use today, in the form of colour theory and composition. What my education did well was to teach me the basics of the visual arts and the disciplines of production, scheduling, pre-production and the like. But with my degree in hand a young JC would in no way be ready to start a job as a games artist from the get-go. No, I was lucky enough to find a company who saw my potential and hired me. From that point on I've relied of colleagues, training, self-study and a bit of real-life working pressure to make me what I am today: a dried up husk of a shell of my former self. All joking aside, I am what I am in terms of competency in my job thanks to the job, with my education serving to add a sense of depth and grounding.

And this is an important issue, I think. Video games are still so immature, as an industry, with so much to learn and improve on that any study that bases its syllabus on the current state of the business is basically teaching "broken knowledge" or immaturity. If you teach a student how things are done now, they might be able to wrangle a job in the short term, but as an employee they'll form part of the problem, not the solution. What we need is versatile, well-grounded graduates who can think fast on their feet and, as much as I detest the phrase, "think outside of the box". With vastly exploding budgets, higher risks, shorter development times, growing impoverishment of the imagination and the difficulties of nurturing new IPs, how can a graduate help solve difficult issues like these if all they know is how to do their jobs in these circumstances? A game degree course as a supplement to a regular degree could be helpful in getting that first job, but as a substitute for a more general degree I'd say it's specialising too soon. There is a very good reason why the better environment artists I've worked with usually have an educational background in architecture.

From an art perspective, these are my thoughts on education:

- Communication
One skill that is often overlooked is the ability to communicate ideas effectively, not only between client and artist but also between artists within a team. Video game development is, by and large, a team-based endeavour and communication is paramount.
- Basic art sensibilities
I am shocked how little people understand about basic colour theory or composition, to the extent where it is applied correctly it jumps out at you as fantastic game art. We must learn from established arts when it comes to the emotive power of colours, the space they need to be read properly, the effect light and shadow have on directing the eye and much much more. These skills can all be learned during your average basic art degree without even thinking about video games.
- Working to tight budgets and deadlines
Having studied a subject that required expensive equipment I learned early on to schedule in time for the use of these often over-burdened devices. We got away with a lot by doing prep work on home computers before sending the data to the larger equipment at college to do the rendering, or we would sneakily hide in cupboards to be locked in overnight, illegally, so we could have an entire digital editing suite to ourselves for 10 glorious but tiring hours. Knowing the time limitations taught us to think things out ahead of time to make the actual process as quick and easy as possible. This seems to be a skill in short supply in our industry.
- How the software works
All you need to know is where the buttons are. Anybody, and I mean anybody, can learn to use Photoshop or Maya. To use them well requires a talent and skill you'll pick up over time, but you need to know what buttons do what, totally outside of the context of video game graphics. Maybe nowadays we are stuck with polygon modeling, but who knows what the future may bring? Teaching only polygonal modeling will short-change the students who will be unprepared for future developments in video game technology.
- Don’t focus on current-gen
As mentioned above, by the time you graduate and get your job video game technology will have advanced - no question. You may be able to model and texture one mean Unreal 3 character model but you'll be at a loss as to the latest developments. It's best to have a general grounding in the software and techniques than anything too specific. On top of that, each company has their own techniques, limitations and toolsets and everyone (everyone!) will have to learn new approaches when changing companies anyway.
- Don’t focus on game art
As a personal opinion, a lot of the video game art out there is ugly. They may be technically accomplished and display excellent craftsmanship, but still, a lot of it lacks visual gusto. Being able to rely on acquired art sensibilities from other media can only help give you and your project that unique visual flavour that will set it apart from the other Space Marines of Hell FPS clones out there.

Video game education is in its infancy. I'm sure it'll evolve into something quite useful but all reports state that that might not be quite the case yet. If my experience seeing game school graduates' work is anything to go by, I'd say it has a long way to go yet. Your more cynical observer may think these schools are merely profiting from the growing trend in youngsters wanting to work in video games, promising increased chances of employment, despite the evidence to the contrary, and offering a very naive syllabus by people with absolutely no actual development experience or clue. At this moment in time I would highly recommend people with an interest to find a general education in the rough field of their future expertise, rather than a specialised education for video game development.

This GameSetWatch article mentions Andrea Rubsenstein's continued adventures at the HAL game academy in Japan. And, of course, how could it not be, Japan is a slightly different beast in these matters. As a commenter pointed out, in most cases in Japan the prestige of the name of your alma mater is much more important than your actual skills. Video game development is slightly different in this, as actual skill is a requirement, or at least the potential for it, and as such, having "Tokyo University" on your resume might pique the interests of the potential employer, it is in no way a guarantee to employment, as it might be in, say, politics or banking.

In Ms. Rubenstein's situation I have actually little doubt it will increase her chances of employment. She is, afterall, a foreigner and a woman, which in Japan will raise many (irritating) concerns over suitability. Having been through a Japanese school not only will show Japanese language ability but also a slightly better understanding of the Japanese working system than we, as foreigners, are usually given credit for, so even though I have my question marks over the transferability of the skills taught, it would count as a proof of aptitude which would make her a more enticing prospect to employers - at least, it would assuage many of the usual concerns.

So in closing, the above is all personal opinion and video game specific degrees could, potentially, augment a regular degree but not, as of yet, replace them. But don’t quote me on that.

License to smoke

As of today us beleaguered smokers face yet another humiliating obstacle in our drives for self-destruction: the Taspo, a photo ID necessary to purchase cigarettes from vending machines, instigated to stop the underaged, which in Japan is anyone under 20 in the case of smoking, from buying their fix from any of the millions of conveniently available, inviting and mostly unguarded machines. The Taspo can be acquired via a laborious process of sending off for forms, to be filled in and sent back with verifiable ID and a photograph. although there are ways around it. It's all slightly barmy, of course.

Despite some half-hearted efforts from various fronts, Japan is still very much a smoker's country. Maybe I don't observe well enough but I wasn't under the impression underage smoking was a huge issue over here, but it might be. The biggest crime still goes unexamined, however, which is, the one thing I, as a smoker, detest, young families taking their children, sometimes even babies, into the smoking areas of coffeeshops and restaurants. Nothing ruins a good cigarette more than feeling self-conscious about the 2 year old at the next table, even though his idiotic mother or father is happily blowing his own smoke towards his progeny. It disgusts me. My solution: to put the same age limit buying cigarettes has on smoking areas, nobody under 20 is allowed in one. My colleagues and other lost souls I happen to preach at occasionally all seem to agree this is a spiffing idea, yet I hold no hopes of it ever being passed into law. More likely is that Japan will blindly follow in the Western whiners' footsteps of banning all public smoking one way or another, though that, thanks to my own smoking habits and the speed at which change occurs in Japan, probably won't happen in my foreshortened lifetime.

I think I'll end up getting one of these Taspos anyway, as it is such a typically Japanese idea, even though I purchase all my cigarettes from the local kiosk from an ancient woman who knows me and my habits so well I need not even ask her, because she dives behind the counter as I approach and gets out my usual with a smile. But it'd be fun to wave a Taspo around when abroad so we can all have a good look and a giggle at my "license to smoke".

Now we wait for the next Card-o. After the Passmo, the chargeable public transport card, and the aforementioned Taspo I predict a Nomimo or Pissflo, an ID to allow salarymen to not only to purchase alcohol, but have it used as a pre-paid taxi fare payment card with the drinker's address encoded. It's a winner, I think you'll agree!