March 23, 2015 | 5:30 a.m.

SXSW 2015: The gaming world tries to get inside our heads

"1979" (ink stories)
THE PLAYER AUSTIN, Texas — Discovery at South by Southwest isn’t what it used to be. More than 2,000 bands make it hard to cut through the din here, and it doesn’t help when cellphone providers and beer companies are making some of the loudest noise. Having attended SXSW now for 12 years, I can safely say that excitement happens on the fringes, far from whatever brand is hoping for a slight edge in attracting the attention of more than 30,000 attendees. The gaming portion of SXSW is entirely on the fringes. Though the industry is a powerhouse that’s estimated to bring in more worldwide revenue than the film business, a brief Miley Cyrus appearance at SXSW showcase sponsored by Converse shoes appeared to generate more attention than anything the gaming portion of the fest offered. FULL COVERAGE: South by […]
March 18, 2015 | 6:00 a.m.

SXSW: ‘Flame in the Flood,’ ‘Jotun’ draw inspiration from history

Early renderings for Scout from river-set game "The Flame in the Flood." (The Molasses Flood)
THE PLAYER Quotes from T.S Eliot and Theodore Roosevelt aren’t the texts one expects to see in the middle of a video game, but “The Flame in the Flood” has literary ambitions. Set in the American South, “The Flame in the Flood” is a journey of survival on a river. It takes place in the future – probably. The look is a bit timeless, with an art style that appears crafted from construction paper. The colors are muted, the world is rural and boney wolves are lurking in the darkness, their red eyes flashing in the shadows. The game, the first from six-person indie studio the Molasses Flood, was shown at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas. It wasn’t the only game at the conference to boast a backdrop of cultural exploration. Whereas “The Flame in the […]
March 17, 2015 | 10:26 a.m.

SXSW: Game Oven has a touching swan song in ‘Jelly Reef’

"Jelly Reef" is a mobile game in which players must guide jellyfish to safety. (Game Oven)
THE PLAYER “Jelly Reef” looks adorable. At the start, players will have a school of jellyfish — all of them wide-eyed and smiling. Then, in a matter of moments, they will all be dead. This wouldn’t be so harrowing if they didn’t start to frown first, a simple touch that turns this accessible mobile game into one of pure dread. Ultimately, it’s as much about nurturing tiny gelatinous reddish and orangeish critters as it is about reaching a goal. “Jelly Reef” is also the swan song from the three-person Netherlands-based studio Game Oven, a company that in its brief existence specialized in pushing the boundaries of the mobile experience. The studio’s previous game, “Bounden,” sought to teach two players how to dance as they were connected via one phone. Following on-screen prompts, participants would twirl around each other, and those averse […]
March 17, 2015 | 6:00 a.m.

SXSW: Meet ‘Smooth Operator,’ a kissing simulator

Get cozy with another person in "Smooth Operator," coming soon for mobile devices. (Beardo Games)
THE PLAYER Even at a progressive game conference such as South by Southwest, there’s a lot of death. “Everything is killing, dismemberment and sniping and blowing things up,” said Kate Thomas of Portland’s Beardo Games. It was a bit of an exaggeration, as at SXSW there were also games about avoiding zombies, but it’s no secret the game industry loves to digitize disaster. Beardo, however, has a game about making out. It was easy to spot “Smooth Operator” on the show floor, as brightly animated tongues twisted and turned and slid around the screen like reptiles protruding from human mouths. It’s a slightly silly, somewhat tricky game of hand-eye coordination, but don’t worry if things go bad. There’s no messy saliva to stress over. The game, in development for about a year, is pegged for a spring release on iOS […]
March 16, 2015 | 4:46 p.m.

SXSW: Is the game industry scaring away new players?

Activision's investment in "King's Quest" is a sign that big publishers are playing attention to the indie market. (The Odd Gentlemen/Sierra)
THE PLAYER Women and minorities are ignored. Prices are too high. Games are too long and too difficult.  These aren’t the complaints of disgruntled consumers but observations from top gaming executives at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas. On Sunday in front of an audience at the Hyatt Regency, the panel of experts explored why the industry has been failing at converting non-players into players. The main culprits: An over-reliance on $100 million-plus blockbusters, a difficult learning curve and a lack of diverse narratives. FULL COVERAGE: South by Southwest While Wall Street analysts and industry boosters like to cite financial figures that show the game business as one that’s bigger than the film industry, such numbers mask an uncomfortable reality: the number of dedicated gamers is not growing. “The actual universe of gamers isn’t expanding that much,” […]
March 15, 2015 | 9:37 a.m.

SXSW 2015: ‘Dragon Age’ tops casual, freewheeling award show

'Dragon Age: Inquisition" took top honors at SXSW's Game Awards. (BioWare/Electronic Arts)
THE PLAYER Character-driven fantasy title “Dragon Age: Inquisition” won top prize at the 2015 South by Southwest Gaming Awards, a freewheeling ceremony that showcased independent titles but ultimately gave the big awards to those in the major leagues. “Dragon Age,” the role-playing game from BioWare and Electronic Arts, was named game of the year. The awards, held as part of the South by Southwest gaming festival in Austin, Texas, at the city’s ACL Live at the Moody Theater, boasted an extended segment in which footage was shown from 30 risk-taking independent games. FULL COVERAGE: South by Southwest Among the indies shown were “Apotheon,” a side-scrolling action game set among Greek mythology; “That Dragon, Cancer,” a narrative game centered on the hardships of dealing with a terminal illness; “Hyper Light Drifter,” a vintage-looking and chaotic action game; and “Nova-111,” a sci-fi strategy […]
March 14, 2015 | 2:15 p.m.

SXSW: Robert Kirkman says ‘Walking Dead’ shooter to be ‘Payday’-esque

THE PLAYER AUSTIN, Texas — The fifth season of “The Walking Dead” is entering its home stretch, and franchise creator Robert Kirkman came to the South by Southwest games festival as the series is about to undergo a major expansion. A spin-off show is in the works, one set in Los Angeles, and more games from Telltale are being planned. What’s more, a first-person “Walking Dead” shooter is in development from Starbreeze Studios, creators of the “Payday” franchise. Speaking to Polygon news editor Brian Crecente at a Saturday morning panel, the moderator asked Kirkman to talk more about the upcoming game from Starbreeze, saying that, thus far, it sounds like a traditional shooter. “I can say it will be ‘Payday’-esque, but I’m told it will be a bigger world than ‘Payday’ currently encompasses,” Kirkman said. “They’re going to be learning a […]
March 14, 2015 | 12:17 p.m.

SXSW: Warren Spector on the dangers of thinking of games as fun

Warren Spector speaks at SXSW 2015. (Todd Martens)
THE PLAYER AUSTIN, Texas — Games are growing up fast. According to some estimates, the global expansion of the business has outpaced the film and television industries. Impressive, considering that this is a medium that’s only about 40 years old. “Anything with that kind of economic impact has to be studied,” said noted game designer and professor Warren Spector at a Saturday morning talk at the South by Southwest games festival in Austin, Texas. So why is it so hard for us to intelligently talk about games? And why has game criticism failed to elevate discussions about the medium so they’re on par with, say, cinema? Also, isn’t time we stopped thinking of games as toys? “People thought movies were trivial at one point, and now you can get a [film studies] PhD,” Spector said. “People thought that popular music […]
March 13, 2015 | 5:06 p.m.

SXSW: Harassment is ‘a thing that happens’ in the game business

A panel at SXSW spoke to issues concerning women in games. From left, Susan Bollinger, Lorraine Zawada, Alison Carrier and Maitland Lederer. (Todd Martens)
THE PLAYER AUSTIN, Texas — At the South by Southwest games festival on Friday, three renowned industry artists and designers spoke about the challenges of working in games, specifically relating to the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated field. There were universal stresses. One spoke of the horror of bombing an interview. Another compared getting artists to work together as herding cats. Then Alison Carrier, a designer for Electronic Arts-owned mobile studio Red Crow Austin, brought up some less embarrassing and less humorous stories. She wanted to discuss two challenges. “The first one is how volatile the industry is,” she said on the afternoon panel. “I’ve had two studios shut down within three years. I’ve had to relocate to different states to stay in gaming.… Knowing that’s around the corner at any time is a hard thing to […]
March 13, 2015 | 4:55 p.m.

SXSW: Female gamers tell their stories in ‘GTFO,’ which tackles industry sexism

THE PLAYER AUSTIN, Texas — Today’s game-playing audience is split nearly 50/50 along gender lines, according to recent studies, and nearly 70% of those dedicated players are over 18. These findings by the Entertainment Software Assn. hardly jibe with the stereotype of the antisocial, video-game addicted teen. If anything, they point to a newfound diversity for a medium that was always thought to be strictly for adolescent males. But “GTFO,” a documentary premiering Monday at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, paints another picture, and it isn’t half as pretty. Women quoted in the film talk about receiving rape and death threats as if it’s a common, everyday occurrence. Former BioWare game writer Jennifer Brandes Hepler says she was once receiving up to 500 harassing emails per day, noting that she even found someone on a message board […]
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