Electron Dance

Electron Dance Highlights


Who Is Sheldon Pacotti?

Sheldon Pacotti

Sheldon Pacotti

Let me tell you a story.

After I purchased Cell: Emergence from Desura, it didn't work. After reverifying the files and relaunching the game a few times, I fell back on that old chestnut: asking the developer for help.

It was Deus Ex writer Sheldon Pacotti that came back to me, looking for more details. However, I'd already used my programmer skills to diagnose the problem: it looked like the Desura package hadn't installed some key libraries which I was able to rectify myself. From this, Sheldon was able to patch up the build and my support request morphed into a conversation about the game itself.

And, well, because I am cheeky, I just couldn't resist... I asked if he would be interested in doing an interview.

So here it is, a new Electron Dance podcast! In this 50-minute interview, Sheldon discusses a range of topics. How did he come to be in the games business? Is he a writer or a developer? How did the cellular automata engine evolve? Where are we headed with our increasingly electronic lifestyle? Who does he look up to in the games business?

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The Don of Cutscenes

Sam, Tommy, The Don, Paulie

I'm just going to come out and say it: Mafia is not a great game.

If I'd run through it in 2002, I probably would've had fun. But this is 2012. Mafia is another title that shows how fast games are ageing - or rather, how fast game design and audience expectations are surging ahead, throwing a harsh spotlight on the crude, medieval designs of our gaming past. In 2022, will the next generation of kids claim Minecraft is a bit rubbish?

But It’s The Truth

I cited Mafia in last year’s essay Those Honeymoon Hours, describing how an early mission in Mafia was exciting because I was oblivious of the game's constraints and hadn’t yet learnt how to master – or perhaps game – its mechanics.

Pretty soon, though, the frustrations break through and its wonderful façade crumples like a mobster taking a baseball bat to the head. I'm not going to whine about the Mafia "sandbox" not being interesting enough as I recognise it is neither a sandbox nor an open world - it is merely an enormous set upon which a gangster-themed third-person shooter plays out.

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Ahead… The Stars

Last week I made the bold move of announcing a “game of the year” which was Richard Hofmeier’s Cart Life. It probably surprised everyone because I'd never mentioned it before although an observant follower might have seen this tweet on 3 Dec 2011:

Man, I think I love this game.

Yes, well, that was Cart Life.

Cart Life was teeming with showstopping bugs on release last May which is likely the reason it barely registered across the indie game-o-sphere. But what has been said of Cart Life following its mention on Electron Dance last week?

David Kanaga, the musical maestro of Proteus and Dyad, said the game "had me tingling for its first 15 minutes." I dare not ask about what happened the minute after that.

Pippin Barr, author of The Artist Is Present amongst other games, said it was craaaaazy and wished he'd made it as it was so interesting.

Nicolau Chaud, the mind behind Marvel Brothel and Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer, wrote the following on his blog:

I have to say, one of the things that motivated me and inspired me the most to work on Polymorphous Perversity again was playing an awesome indie game. And the game I'm talking about is Richard Hofmeier's Cart Life. This game is just so unique and brilliant that I have to be careful not to be overhumbled and give up on whatever I'm working at.

Yes, too many replays will eventually ruin its magic. Yes, too many bugs will keep this game off an IGF list. Yes, some of the broken design is accidental and not intentional. So it's time I explained why a game which made me panic about a cat's well-being is deserving of so much attention.

Read no further if you still intend to play, because I am about to discuss the lives of Melanie Emberley and Andrus Poder in some depth.

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The Xmaspiration: Survivorship Bias

"I’m also exhausted, really exhausted. It’s so stressful, I think because of the amount of time Neptune plays out over it feels like a total investment into the game. I remember I was out all day at a meeting and I was fretting because I just entered my war with Poseidon. I was on a motorway and worrying about Neptune's Pride."

Craig Lager, Neptune's Pride - The GD War - Part 4 (Gaming Daily)

Man staring at stock market

Last year, Neptune’s Pride developer Jay Kyburz asked me: “Do you think because the game has basically no story, no flavor and no graphics it allows players to pour themselves into it more?”

Although the minimalism of Neptune’s Pride plays a large part in bringing the crowds through the door, I doubt that’s why players get so invested in the game. It’s probably more to do with the action of cultivating an empire of coloured dots over days or weeks and having to defend that digital sandcastle on a beach full of bullies.

The long-term investment of time and energy engenders a strong emotional attachment to the player's empire and losing an equivalent short-form game wouldn’t sting as much.

But there’s another implicit assumption in the question that bothers me. And this is the point where I should talk about mutual funds.

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IGDA Writers Panel: Players Versus Characters, 2

This is the second half of an article on the IGDA Writers Panel held at BAFTA, London, on October 26. The first half was published last week.

Last year’s panel was held in a lecture theatre at South Bank University which was spacious and desk-enabled. At BAFTA, the audience were not as lucky. Dinky chairs jammed us into snuggling distances with our neighbours and I had to be careful not to poke out someone's eye with the careless flick of a pen. The panellists got to wave their arms about and express themselves with gusto, but I didn’t have enough room to swing a gnat.

But every crowd has a silver lining – at least I got a free drink.

Just The Player?

The third act of the discussion addressed whether it was just the player alone that defined character. Could genre come into it? Or even the controllers?

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IGDA Writers Panel: Players Versus Characters, 1

October 26, 2011. It was time to attend another IGDA writers panel. Last year's panel write-up on Environmental Narrative had been well-received, so I was encouraged to do a repeat performance this year.

The panel's theme this time around was “Players Vs Characters” - the games writer's pocket incarnation of “What happens when the irresistible force meets the immovable object?” The four writers, convening at BAFTA, were almost the same as last year's line-up:

The panel was run differently too. Last year, each of the big names delivered a short presentation, followed by questions. This time it was a freeform discussion with Walsh chairing.

In another departure from last year's panel, I'm going to pepper the write-up with my own commentary.

What Is Character?

With a picture of David Caruso looking down on us, because that is what Caruso does, Walsh opened with the first question: what is character? This shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer, Walsh said, because character has been around for a long time in other media.

Stern got first dibs and tackled Walsh's implication that there should be much in common with other media, saying he saw games “as more dissimilar than similar”. Things which look like character aren’t because of the issue of interactivity. The cinema-goer is expected to be passive when watching a film, he said, but the gamer gets to play with perspective and pacing all the time.

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The Last Dream

This is the final article in the Where We Came From series.

[Blurred picture of a small boy]

"When you finally go back to your old hometown, you find it wasn't the old home you missed but your childhood." (Sam Ewing, 1992)

*                     *                     *

I was obsessed with video games during the first decade of my life. I remember having many dreams that ended up at a video game arcade; it was a particular place that my dream-self knew well, although it did not exist in the waking world. I never really played much there, as I usually woke up pretty quickly after I grabbed the controls of one of the machines. It was more about the signature of the arcade than its function, a perfect amalgamation of every arcade I'd ever visited.

But, in time, this place eventually slipped out of my dreams and I forgot all about it.

Years later, I dreamt of a beaten-up old building, all peeling paint and boarded-up windows, holding court on a strange disconnected island in a sea of wild grass. I explored inside with a friend and found some dilapidated, broken arcade cabinets. I realised that this was that old dream arcade.

I had been given one last chance to say goodbye.

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Nothing To Lose

This is the fourteenth article in the Where We Came From series.

During a trip to the coast, the Harbour Master clan spent a couple of days roaming Camber Sands beach near Rye. While we were down there, I spotted an amusement arcade perched on the edge of one of the beach car parks.

[picture of amusement arcade, doors are padlocked]

The last arcade I'd wandered through was probably on Brighton Pier about five years ago but whilst the arcade roar kindled feelings of nostalgia, the coin-ops of old had largely been replaced with gambling machines and dancing games. I still hoped to come across some arcade which retained working 80s favourites like Phoenix, Defender or Battlezone.

The beach arcade was closed but I kept an eye on it, waiting for the chance to nose around whatever machines were on offer. I have such strong arcade memories from my single digit years: blazing batteries of screens in dark, enclosed places where ten pence pieces went to die.

Then I saw the sign.

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Tomorrow’s Promise

This is the eleventh article in the Where We Came From series.

Alien approaching ship on surface of Fractalus

At first there is nothing except the hot, orange glow of the toxic Fractalus atmosphere. A second later, ragged mountains and valleys fill the cockpit window and the player gasps.

Tomorrow, it appears, is already possible.

It Starts With George Lucas

While producing the original Star Wars trilogy, George Lucas felt physical model-based special effects were limiting and established the Lucasfilm Computer Division in 1979 to explore the application of computers to special effects work. State of the art hardware was not good enough for the challenges of the big screen so the division’s goal was to prepare for when technology had caught up with the ambition.

Then in 1982, Atari suggested Lucasfilm should diversify its business into video games. A partnership was forged in which Atari paid Lucasfilm $1M to fund the Computer Division's Games Group. In return, Lucasfilm would develop games for Atari’s platforms.

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The Retired Gambler

Sinan Kubba talks about saving Mirror's Edge and delivering a sequel. I'd love a sequel to that game, but then again I wanted a sequel to Portal and came away wondering if the original was diminished by its descendent. Portal 2 is not to Portal what Half-Life 2 was to Half-Life. But Sinan is right about the title; I never liked "Mirror's Edge" and there's a weak attempt to justify the name in Faith's dialogue. I don't know if it's down to Rhianna Pratchett or down to the marketeers. Either way, I'll find out your address, hunt you down... and offer you a cup of Earl Grey, hot.

I was pants at the time trial though. Getting three stars for any run was diamond hard; I think I got the gold for the first trial and then gave up. There's a lot of puzzle in there, in the sense that you have to find the most optimum route connecting the checkpoints. To pull off these outrageous solutions, you need a veteran understanding of the Mirror's Edge playground. Which means repetition, lots of.

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