Doomsday is Coming: Q3 Diablo beta = holiday release!

Well we made it. The Saturday May 21st Doomsday didn’t happen but don’t worry, the pits of hell still may open up this year. Diablo 3’s [D3] beta will go live in Q3 and perhaps some Activision-Blizzard boardroom bullying will push the actual game out the door just in time for some holiday game bingeing.

With the D3 beta confirmed to be out as early as July will Activision-Blizzard make a push to release D3 before years end? Most who are familiar with Blizzard’s molasses like development  would say no but there is more going on behind the scenes, and in the boardroom, then usual.

Blizzard reported a first for its other mega franchise (World of Warcraft [WOW]), a drop in its monthly player subscriptions of 5%. Around the release of this news Activision-Blizzard stock took a dip. If the subscription drop in WOW accounts becomes a trend expect the stock reaction to follow suit. The same week the news regarding WOW subscriptions went public so did the news about the D3 beta and Activision-Blizzard stocks made a rebound. This wasn’t mere coincidence. This was a cause and effect occurrence. Cause, drop in WOW subscriptions, drop in stock price – Effect, announcement of D3 beta, rise in stock price.

Will drops in WOW subscriptions hasten D3's release?

With a more competitive massive multiplayer online market [MMO], more free-to-play [F2P] options of high quality and MMOs with developing loyal fan basis (SEE EVE Online) will the drop in WOW subscriptions and stock prices continue? I can assure you that those individuals on the Activision-Blizzard board are asking themselves the same question. It is the answer to that question that may influence the final release date of D3. It may be one the first times were we see Blizzards total control of when their games are released be heavily influenced. Blizzards attention to detail and ability to polish their games before release will be challenged by this development but what better publisher to face that confrontation and succeed than Blizzard.

The End Is Nigh! Prepare your hero!

We might just see the master of all betas cycle into a much desired holiday release. Hells gates and Doomsday could be upon us this winter. Deckard Cain and the heroes of Sanctuary are required again!

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Words From A Wing Nut: Interview with Lee Montgomery

Last post we explored the Full Motion Video [FMV] game bubble and the flops, and few gems, that made up this moment in gaming/development history. This week, I bring the nerd herd insight from an individual who was intimately involved in development during that age and had hands on with Rocket Science Games’ Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky and Cadillacs and Dinosaurs. Lee Montgomery is the focus of this weeks post and GamingNerdHerder’s first interviewee (below).

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Lee Montgomery

Lee Montgomery is an Asst. Professor of Art at the University of New Mexico (Electronic Arts Area) with a B.A. in Film from Bard College and a MFA (New Genres) from the San Francisco Art Institute. In his own words: “I am an artist who works in as many areas of the ‘electronic arts’ as I am able.  My interests range from circuit building and bending, radio and TV transmission, computer programmed interactivity, and social engineering.”

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GamingNerdHerder [GNH]: What was your title and roll with Rocket Science Games?

I started as a production assistant, started working as a video editor, and eventually wound up as Asst. Game Designer for the Reactor levels of Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, and Game Designer for Wing Nuts.

GNH: There were a lot of subpar FMV games released in the 90s but Wing Nuts was solid. What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games did wrong? What did Wing Nuts do right that other FMV games didn’t do at all?

Funny thing is.. Wing Nuts was originally envisioned as a plug and play purchase from the studio that shot the material for Tomcat Alley on Sega CD.  That’s where all the video came from.  RSG, I think, originally saw itself as bringing Holywood to the Sega CD and so the idea was that we would build an updated “Dragon’s Lair” style engine like the Tomcat Alley engine, but with better compression (because we had engineers from the Quicktime team at Apple writing the video compression).  By the time the games were developed SegaCD had proven to be a short lived phenomenon, and the great sales of Tomcat Alley were revealed to have more to do with Tomcat Alley being one of the only things going for SegaCD.

So we had these assets for what was starting to look like a real dog of a game. So we had to figure out two things:

a) what was it about Tomcat (and thus Wing Nuts) that made it a dog?

b) how do we address those issues.

The Hollywood side of the equation determined that the amateurish acting and cheese-ball plot needed to be very clearly turned into comedy.  So a laugh track and sound effects were added…as well as a series of easter eggs with comedic value.

The game play side of the equation determined that as games like Doom and Virtua Fighter and Mortal Combat were our approximate competition, we needed to ramp up the interactivity… a lot!

Working with the engineer for the game (at the time I could barely get “hello world” compiled) we developed a full HUD and a points based system for taking down enemies.  We basically wrote a game which you played over the movie that coincidentally interacted with the footage.

There was definitely a misguided assumption that getting FMV to play on your machine at home would somehow be the essence of VR.  What many failed to pay attention to was the fact that the layers of compression that distorted the original video did much to remove the viewer from the experience.  Without a sufficient level of interactivity to keep viewers invested you didn’t really have a game.  I am sure there are a bunch of FMV developers from those days that are wondering how on earth the crudely rendered figures of DOOM registered as more appealing than their flat chunky blobs of video.

GNH: From your time spent directly involved in FMV game development there have been many changes. What do you see as the most relevant/significant change in video games from the days of FMV games compared to games being released now and why?

It’s interesting to look at a game like Fallout: New Vegas or Red Dead Redemption [RDR] now (or Grand Theft Auto, where some of the narrative techniques from failed FMV games are being used in a more fluid and engaging manner) within a fully realized 3D world where scenes can be somewhat rendered on the fly, instead of having to load video at 2MB per frame just for the visual appeal.

We no longer have laggy pauses for cut scenes, data loading happens more strategically, but really video always is limited to a linear constructed perspective, you always feel like you are riding a train and you can only tell the train where you want to change trains.  Greater processing power dedicated to rendering 3D worlds allows more of a sense of a world being constructed with nuanced rules you can follow.  A much more rewarding experience.   With Wing Nuts I think we succeeded (to the degree that we did) because the game play over the video had enough rules that one felt like they had some control over the results.  That complexity has just grown over time resulting in interactive narratives that are engaging and truly interactive.

GNH: How did your time spent in game development influence your current and past career choices and your current and past projects/shows?

I certainly would not be doing the kind of art work I do now had I not been exposed to the process of developing interactive content on a professional level.  It was interesting to quickly evolve from someone trained as an editor to someone considering interactivity as part of narrative content.  The work expanded my notions of what a game is and encouraged me to incorporate the game into how I thought about art.

GNH: What games are you currently playing?

I went through a long period of very occasional game playing over the past decade or so, this involved a little Warcraft, Tony Hawk, and Halo…

But recently I got a PS3 and was pretty impressed with RDR, I just finished one time through Fallout: New Vegas, and really enjoyed the depth of the experience, even if the game play sometimes felt a bit random….

GNH: What shows/projects are on the horizon for Lee Montgomery and were can we find more information about them?

I do a project called Neighborhood Public Radio which is currently engaged in a 3 part interactive program at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.  You can see more about it at http://www.moca.org/party/npr/.

I also do some video work and generative art using a program called Processing.  I’m very into open source at the moment and am moving to a Linux based system that uses Processing and pd to develop interactive installations.

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I again want to give my sincere thanks to Lee for his time and efforts, the nerd herd appreciates it. Join the conversation in the comments and thanks for the visit.

Left! Right! Brake!: the Full Motion Video Game Bubble

There was the home mortgage bubble, the coming gold bubble but before those, there was the Full Motion Video [FMV] game bubble. The days of FMV games comes from a time when consoles and home computers were starting to develop beyond their 16-bit or processor constraints but the technologies to take advantage of their advancements were still early stages. FMV games were the short term answer to what to do with new found gaming power that could make use of  Laserdiscs and CDs.

The marketing ploy was in the title of the technology. “FULL MOTION VIDEO! It’s a movie, it’s a game and you are the star!” The reality was, most of the time, it was a B-movie and you were the unhappy audience. Just let the Rob Schneider (Yes, Deuce Bigalow himself) voiced game A Fork in the Tale tempt you.

 

The FMV explosion came with some actual gems like Dragon’s Lair (thanks to ex-Disney animator Don Bluth) and Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky, whose quality existed in the game play and the game play video – but perhaps not the acting.  The majority of the herd, however, involved experiences where the player was more or less a viewer rather than an interactive gamer. A fine example of this quasi-interactive based gaming experience can be seen in Road Avenger (originally released by Data East as Road Blaster in 1985), which received broad exposure thanks to FMV game “leader” Sega CD.

Also, from a pop-culture perspective, the FMV game bubble provides us with hours of YouTube hilarity. As was the case in the aforementioned Schneider shit-storm, poor acting seemed to be a staple in the majority of FMV games. One of the best/worst examples of this “acting” is American Laser Games’ 1990 arcade shooter Mad Dog McCree (subsequently released on Sega CD, PC, CD-i, Mac and 3DO).

Everyone wanted in on the boom but not everyone survived it. Any River Entertainment, publisher of A Fork in a Tale, closed its doors before the game was released. Data East of Road Blaster fame survived much longer than its competition and, after restructuring in 1999, finally died out in 2003. Data East’s demise was tied in more to the demise of arcades and had less to do with the FMV craze. American Laser Games survived into the late 90s and made attempts to stay commercially successful by tapping into the short lived 3DO market. Cinematronics Incorporated (no relation to Cinematronics, LLC), publisher of the Dragon’s Lair series, was purchased, renamed and purchased again and contains no original aspects of the company that started in 1975. Rocket Science Games, developer of Wing Nuts: Battle in the Sky, initially received backing from Sega Enterprises and broad critic approval but ultimately closed its doors in 1997.

With the boom of FMV games came little success but the impact on gaming is still felt today. Join me next week nerd herd as we speak with friend and fellow wing nut, Lee Montgomery, about his time spent in the FMV game bubble.