By Columnist
msnbc.com
updated 3/19/2004 7:10:39 PM ET 2004-03-20T00:10:39

The giant E3 game expo is still two months away, but the marketing industrial complex is already starting to flood the channels with chirpy press releases on upcoming shooters, movie-based thrillers and assorted knock-offs.  Excuse my rudeness, but…. “Zzzzz.”

Here's the problem from the viewpoint of one game critic. No matter the expense for graphics or Hollywood voice acting, the game play of one A-list title blockbuster often blurs into another. There are the sports simulations, the shooters, the driving games, the driving games with shooting. … Where’s the variety? The weirdness? The fun?  More importantly, where’s the innovation?

Innovation is about introducing new types of ideas and play. It’s about making the idea of playing simulated cities and people fun as William Wright did with "Sim City" and "The Sims."  It’s switching the perspective from third to first person and introducing a real-time, three-dimensional-like perspective like "Doom."

Yesterday’s innovation inevitably leads to today’s same old. The market is flooded with copycats. The flip-side to this cynicism is that for all of the homogeneity, there exist a smattering of titles and experiments -- from zero budget independents to Japanese imports to the odd multi-million seller -- that manage to reinvigorate our conception of innovative gaming. Here are some of my favorite examples of ingneuity in game development

Not so lost in translation
As a hip-hop soundtrack stutters in the background, players use the Playstation 2’s analog stick to "paint" calligraphy across the screen. Movements need to be precise and, just as important, in time to the rhythms of the soundtrack. The better the writing, the more smooth the track. With practice, writing and the resulting music appear to flow as one.

Developed for the Japanese market, “Mojibribbon” won’t be coming to U.S. stores anytime soon. The calligraphy in question is actually Japanese kanji and katakana, characters that are as complicated as they are beautiful.

Despite the language barrier, "Mojibribbon" has become a cult favorite among Western developers and gamers since its late 2003 release, thanks in part to the reputation of "Mojibribbon's" game designer, Masaya Matsuura.


By any measure, Matsuura is a unique cat. In an industry where imitation seems to be the only economically viable route, he has forged his own path. He admits to not playing many of today's best-sellers. And while some game designers continue to thumb through worn copies of Tolkein or Asimov for ideas, Matsuura's are, by his own admission, "trifling and ordinary."

In 1997, Matsuura practically introduced the world to music-based video gaming with the odd and wonderful "PaRappa the Rapper." Combining two-dimensional Colorform-like animation with some of the oddest raps this side of Biz Markie, the object was to help a B-boy puppy rap his way to the heart of a flower named Sunny. "Flow" was measured by pushing the correct button in time to the beat.

"Parappa" was followed by "Um Jammer Lammey," a rock n' roll version of Parappa, and a string of other titles that were as addictive as they were esoteric. 

Next up, to be released this summer in Japan, is "Vip Ripple", which takes a player's downloaded digital photos and populates them with creatures corresponding to the colors found on the downloaded image. Play revolves around rescuing these creatures. That's the gist of the game, but like many of Matsuura's creations, words don't doesn't do it justice.  It needs to be played.

The incubator
Matsuura will be honored for his accomplishments in combining music with video games next week at the annual Game Developers Conference.

If Matsuura represents one of the industry's most eclectic minds, then the Game Developer's Conference, or GDC, represents the industry's "island of lost toys" where such individuals annually gather. (Full disclosure: I once worked for the GDC and its Web site, Gamasutra.com.)

Besides honoring Matsuura, the conference will host, among other things, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, an informal pitch session where designers introduce prototypes featuring off-the-wall game play.

The point of the workshop, according to workshop proctor, Jonathan Blow, a columnist for "Game Developer Magazine," is not so much to produce next year's best-selling hit, but really to expand the idea of game play in video games.

"We’re not necessarily aiming for applicability," said Blow. 

Matsuura's hip-hop calligraphy game "Mojibribbon" was an entry at the 2003 Experimental Game Workshop as was "M.A.D Countdown," a game where players used wireless-enabled PDAs to defuse a "bomb" hidden somewhere in an actual building. 

This year’s entries include "Puzzle Pirates," a massive multiplayer online game set on a pirate ship where your character’s strength is determined by how well you solve puzzles and a Japanese title involving a bug rolling an ever growing, ever misshapen ball. 

No way will I spend $50 on "Dung Beetle: The Game," you might say. But the workshop is not about knocking the current blockbusters in celebration of the weird. "We are trying to develop a pool of stuff that developers can draw upon,"  said Blow.

Because the workshop is only in its third year, it's too early to determine whether it has had an effect on commercial games. Games often take longer than three years to develop. But the workshop represents a good effort by those in the industry to reconsider what makes a great game. 

"The thing about game play is that it's difficult to study," said Blow. "It is most subtle as it is most invisible.”

Off the couch, into history
In February 2003, at a similar type guerilla game development workshop called the Indie Game Jam, developers were asked to create games using their shadows. The results, which harnessed a projector, screen and software designed specifically for the event, ranged from shadow-based Pong to the cryptically-named "Let's Get German" where players were required to strike various poses to the beat of a soundtrack. 

The games were experimental, meaning they weren't going to be on Best Buy shelves anytime soon. But by coincidence nearly nine months later, a new piece of hardware touting similar ideas did make it to the shelves. 

It was the EyeToy, a tiny camera and suite of games built for the Playstation 2. Reviewers lauded its novelty. Any gizmo capable of raising super-sized junior off the family couch and into a flailing dervish deserved commendation. 

As simple as it is, the EyeToy, verges on the revolutionary. It removes the need for a keyboard  -- the ball and chain that's kept our bodies hunched into a preying mantis position for the last 30 years. More important, the EyeToy is actually selling -- 3 million worldwide  -- providing publishers all the reason they need to explore motion-based gaming.

Next month comes "Groove," the first title built exclusively for the EyeToy. "Groove" represents a natural first step, a dancing game where the player's movements, captured by the camera, are rated by the software.

And next? Some developers are already talking of EyeToy games where the camera can be used to measure a player's facial movements -- creating some interesting ideas for game play.

The future
Whether innovations in game play come from Japan or a huddle of independents at some conference or even a robotics lab in California -- where the EyeToy's creator labored -- the point is that today's quirk could become tomorrow's hit. Just because a studio has access to the biggest star or rights to the latest Tom Clancy thriller doesn't mean its product will be innovative. 

Matsuura says it best: "Each one of my ideas and inspirations are trifling and ordinary. What's important is not to miss the moment when they link to each other and start developing into a big and unknown energy."

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