Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What lies beneath

Edge Online published a rather interesting interview with Yasuhiro Wada, the former Natsume prodigy who created HARVEST MOON, now chief officer in Marvelous Entertainment. Some days ago, Wada has posted a highly controversial message in the company blog stating how the Japanese gaming market is shrinking and has lost touch with the demand for quality and originality. In spite of the negative responses to this statement, the fact remains that for the first time in years, an agent of the industry has recognized that the current lack of innovation in games has driven away many of the passionate players from older generations.

Marvelous Entertainment has been responsible, among others, for some of the best Wii and DS releases of recent memory, from NO MORE HEROES to OBORO MURAMASA YŌTŌDEN, including LITTLE KING'S STORY and LOL (ARCHIME DS): additionally it has developed intimate relationships with some of Japan's most notable studios like Grasshopper Manufacture, skip, Cing, Town Factory or Arte Piazza.

However the company still struggles with financial drawbacks which often come as a surprise in light of the positive reception from critics. As an expert in his field and a person who seems to be aware of the subtleties leading to the actual state of gaming in Japan, Wada presents a rather challenging series of opinions: furthermore, judging by his company’s clean record and increasing relevance in the actual market, this is a rare case where the theory about exploring new fields of game design is effectively backed up by practice.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The White Company

Established in 1974, the Shibuya-based group Shirogumi was formed by ex-Toei Animation studio members and worked for the better part of its existence in the field of animated pictures. For the last fifteen years, the company presided by Tatsuo Shimamura turned to the area of special visual effects and computer graphics, actively participating in the creation of celebrated Japanese TV series and mo such as Returner, Always Sanchōme no Yūhi or the award-winning anime Piano No Mori.

Their liaison with the industry of videogames has also been essential to their development, counting with dozens of participations not only in the production of pre-rendered movie sequences but also in the creation of character models, props, lighting and even animation. With clients ranging from large enterprises (such as NAMCO, CAPCOM, Square-Enix) to smaller and independent ensembles (Grasshopper, Punchline, etc), Shirogumi has earned a unyielding reputation as one of the most reliable and professional studios in their branch, accounting for their ever increasing demand. Apart from the projects where Shirogumi plays a central role in the development course, the employment of specialists from this provenance as a part of the support and consulting staff is also very frequent. In this advantageous environment, suscpetible to exponential growth, names like Akira Iwamoto and Takashi Yamazaki from the Shirogumi workforce soon became a reference of CGI directing.

Due to significant advancements in real-time rendering, provided by recent console and personal computer technologies, the use of full motion video is slowly being supplanted by in-game full motion animation. As it has been often stated, the use of CGI has been a valuable resource for developers in achieving a greater level of visual detail that has been, so far, impossible to attain with real-time imagery. To a certain extent, some companies, mainly Japanese, continue using pre-rendered graphic sequences as an enhancement to the visual spectacle - a feature closely associated to the so-called JRPG genre – since the proprietary game engines are still very distant from what a FMV can present. In addition, the recurrent use of this technique as an embellishment has mutated into the form of a traditional resource, now deeply rooted in Japanese game design mannerisms.

This conundrum of pre-rendered versus real-time finds a similar parallel in the motion picture industry, namely with the converse process of replacing mechanical special effects with computer generated imagery, now the dominant and economic option for filmmakers. In the field of videogames, CGI has played the ungrateful role of a two-edged sword for long: providing exciting cinematics with otherwise unfeasible detail but, simultaneously, a new visual layer that spawns acute contrasts among different strata of minutiae. With time, this implicit transition between the disproportioned parts becomes an impulse instantly assimilated by players as a shift between interactivity and non-interactivity, not unlike the paradigm of classic conditioning. Such clearly identifiable unevenness, notwithstanding, might be perceived as the result of the asynchronicity between the contending schemes. In essence, both evolve towards the realization of a common objective as demonstrated by the visible similtudes shared by today's real-time 3D and the pre-rendered images of older console generations.

Given the exception of several relevant titles where Shirogumi’s participation was less noticeable, the following list comprises the studio’s finest works in the field of traditional animation and CGI, adorning some of the most important titles of recent memory. Surprisingly, the range of the group's work is pervasive to the point of seeming ubiquity. As questionable as the (abusive) use of this technique might be in the creation of videogames, and despite the improved transitions between modes as seen in Mistwalker’s THE LOST ODYSSEY, there should be no plausible argument to refute the intrinsic optical spectacle casted in these memorable segments of digital graphics whose individual merit is far beyond apprehension.

Squaresoft 1997

Wolfteam / NAMCO 1997

Squaresoft 1998

CAPCOM 2001, 2002, 2004


Human 2003

NAMCO 2003

Game Republic 2005, 2006

NAMCO 2005

Square-Enix 2006

RULE OF ROSE (see intro video)
Punchline 2006

Atlus 2006

Tri-Ace 2006

Mistwalker 2006

Game Republic 2007

Japan Studio 2007

Mistwalker 2007

Grasshopper Manufacture 2007

Tri-Ace 2008

From Software 2008

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Into the Night with Jason Rohrer and Chris Crawford

What an unlikely pair: Franco-German TV arts and culture channel Arte selected two of the most important videogame personalities of different generations and brought them together for their latest edition of the feature Durch die Nacht mit (Into the Night with). Jason Rohrer, the young game designer who is best known for his work in games such as PASSAGE and BETWEEN meets Chris Crawford, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject of video game design.

The documentary was shot in San Francisco, the city that hosted this year’s edition of the Game Developer’s Conference – the starting point for this spontaneous conversation. As the night slowly replaces the day, Rohrer and Crawford wander about the city, engaging in a rather deep albeit contagious dialogue about the root of video games and the process of their creation. While I do not endorse these creator’s visions in full, Rohrer and Crawford do raise some pertinent questions. Based on my first impression, this is by far the best television documentary on the subject of videogames ever made: profound and thought-provoking in its casual and unassuming way.

Apart from the small except embedded in this post, I also took the liberty to upload the full documentary in two parts that can be obtained here and here.

Friday, July 3, 2009

2010: the year of the Phoenix?

The Phoenix won't be rising this year: the fourth edition of Leonard Herman's legendary book, possibly the first written History of videogames, was postponed to 2010. The original edition was released in 1994 by Rolenta Press, the dedicated publisher founded by Herman specifically because of this book, at a time when editors discredited this variety of work - little did they know that videogame-related books would become a whole genre years after. In spite of the continued editions, Phoenix The Fall & Rise of Home Videogames is a rare book that is sold for high prices in a few bookstores and websites all around the world. I sent Mr. Herman an e-mail this week asking for news concerning this printing and got a rather disappointing, yet enlightening answer from his part:

Although I was working on the book earlier this year, events beyond my control stepped in and forced me to work on a new project. Happily, that project is near completion and it will allow me to resume work on Phoenix 4, but I still have no idea yet as when it will be available. It definitely will not be available this year.

Last year I had the pleasure to be shown the prototype cover for this new edition (shown above) that will include not only the original text, but also new chapters and other surprising features that the videogame historian has been preparing for the last years. If you can't afford to wait,
here is a link to a well-known online store where you can purchase some brand new copies of the second edition. It is indeed worthy of every penny if you're looking for a serious and reliable account of the genesis of the videogame business.