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  Xbox Live Marketplace Expands Offerings  
Posted 2006-04-06 by Tony Walsh
Microsoft Game Studios and Rare have announced the availability of one free and two pay-per-download content packages for the Rare-developed Xbox 360 game Kameo: Elements of Power. The free package (exclusively for Xbox Live Gold subscribers) adds cooperative game play to Kameo for two players over Xbox Live and System Link--why this feature wasn't available at launch is a mystery. Two themed content packs are also available for 200 Marketplace Points ($2.50 USD), offering gamers a chance to play dress-up. The "Kameo Masquerade Pack" introduces 10 new costumes for Kameo, including recognizable outfits from classic Rare titles, while the "Fright Warrior Pack" offers a full set of fantastic and fright-themed costumes for Kameo and all of her warriors.

Earlier this week, gamers were stimulated to debate the merits of paid content (horse armour) available for the Xbox 360 RPG Oblivion. Is Microsoft selling meals by the bite, or offering valuable post-release expansion opportunities? Some paid content packages, such as Obvlivion's horse armour upgrade offer an in-game benefit while others are merely cosmetic changes. The real debate will begin when items conveying in-game advantages are sold for ranked and competitive games--in this case, gamers could simply buy their way to success, a model that already enjoys gray-market success in the case of MMOGs.
  Microsoft Gets Some Lionhead  
Posted 2006-04-06 by Tony Walsh
Microsoft Game Studios has announced its purchase of Lionhead Studios, developer of innovative titles such as The Movies (discussed here), Fable (reviewed here), and Black & White. While The Movies seems to have fallen short of a smash hit, the Xbox version of Fable has exceeded 2M sales worldwide. In a prepared statement, Lionhead leader Peter Molyneux said "This acquisition gives Lionhead the stability and opportunity to focus on creating world-class next-generation titles. We are joining some of the most incredible game creators in the industry, the combined talent of which will truly take next-generation gaming to a new level." Lionhead joins other trophies in the Microsoft Game Studios collection, including Bungie, Ensemble, FASA and Rare. Doubtless Lionhead will produce some fabulous Xbox 360 exclusives henceforth.
  Healing the Brain With Games  
Posted 2006-03-18 by Tony Walsh
Reuters (via brings us the story of Ethan Myers, a teenager who was once pronounced brain dead following a car accident, but is now able to function at near-normal levels. His recovery is attributed to CyberLearning's SMART BrainGames system, which involves controlling PlayStation or Xbox games wearing a helmet that monitors brain waves. According to Reuters, "Car racing games work best with the system, which rewards users by telling the controller to allow them to go fast and steer with control, doctors said. When patients' brain waves aren't in 'the zone' the controller makes it harder to accelerate and steer." The system costs $584 USD, and a 6-month supervised recovery program costs between $2,000 and $2,500.

Using games for therapeutic purposes isn't a new idea, nor is using games specifically for beefing up the brain. Casual-game maker PopCap, in conjunction with Games For Health, is currently looking into the cognitive benefits of its games and is expected to present its findings this spring.
  Xbox Live To Market Music  
Posted 2006-03-17 by Tony Walsh
Epic Records has teamed up with Microsoft to offer free, exclusive "artistic content" and hi-def music video downloads through Xbox Live, Microsoft's network service for the Xbox 360. One Epic artist will be featured each month over the next year in conjunction with "Game With Fame" sessions--where gamers get a chance to play against celebrities over Xbox Live--and promotional sweepstakes. Obviously a big push here towards making the Xbox 360 an all-purpose entertainment console and marketing vehicle. Ironically, Epic is a subsidiary of Sony BMG, so I suppose if Microsoft wins with this strategy, Sony (which makes the PS3 console) wins a teensy weensy bit too. Furthermore, Sony plans its own network service for the PS3, so it could just be testing the waters with Xbox Live before launching music in the Sony BMG family through its own game network.
  ‘Viva Pinata’ Converges TV, Games  
Posted 2006-03-16 by Tony Walsh
A strange new world comes to both television sets and Xbox 360 consoles in the form of Viva Piñata, a planet populated entirely by living piñata animals. Presumably such a world could be easily destroyed by any stick-weilding child. Created by UK developer Rare--known for properties such as Banjo, Conker and Perfect Dark Zero--the new series will air as a 3D animated cartoon and will be available as an exclusive Xbox 360 game. If you enjoy being assaulted by eye-raking colours, you'll love Viva Piñata!
  Microsoft Patents Game Spectatorship Tech  
Posted 2006-03-07 by Tony Walsh
Microsoft has just scored its 5,000th patent in the U.S., covering "technologies that allow people to not just play video games against each other online, but to join the game as a spectator from anywhere in the world," according to an official announcement yesterday. The patented technologies will be featured in Xbox 360 games and is currently included in some aspects of Xbox Live.

According to the announcement, the technology's capabilities include:
  • "A system for generating a spectator experience in real time from a game or event, such as highlights, instant replays, and unique views of the action within a game to enhance the experience for spectators rather than players. Using viewing controls, a spectator can control one or more virtual cameras to select desired viewpoints or an automated camera control to frame the action and perform specific cuts to best convey the story and action. The game and in turn the spectator experience may vary as a function of participant interactions and other contributions to the game based on real-time spectator activity."
  • "A portal such as a Web site to access spectator-related services such as schedules and information on multiple games and events as well as the number of spectators and participants in each. The portal allows the spectator to find the most popular games to watch, preview the action, and then connect to the desired game or event."

Continue reading: Microsoft Patents Game Spectatorship Tech
  Rockstar’s Table Tennis Title Confirmed  
Posted 2006-03-06 by Tony Walsh
It seemed like a joke. Rockstar Games, maker of the highly-controversial Grand Theft Auto series, was said to have produced a game about table tennis. Hard to believe that the company responsible for one of contemporary culture's most villainous video games could tackle such a lame subject. But it's true. Today the company announced that Table Tennis for Xbox 360 will be shipped to North American retailers by the end of May.

"Our goal was to create a game that is perfectly addictive in its focused simplicity, a game that showcases the true possibilities of a next gen experience, not just in looks but in feel and pace," says Rockstar's founder Sam Houser. Nothing like falling back on that old classic Pong when all else fails. Except that Pong didn't need next-gen graphics to entertain players.
  Doubting Xbox 360 Graphics  
Posted 2006-02-26 by Tony Walsh
Wired gamesblog author Chris Kohler, whose book Power Up is proving to be somewhat enjoyable, has posted his impressions of upcoming Xbox 360 RPG Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Of most interest to me was his account of the apparently sub-par graphics used in the pre-release version of the game: "As you walk around, the ground teems with individually rendered blades of grass, bushes, mushrooms, all sorts of stuff. But only a small radius around your character is fully realized -- the rest of it is drawn in, quite visibly, as you move around...At one point I was heading towards what I thought was an empty forest clearing, when big-ass chunks of building started magically appearing...At some points, I keep seeing the 'Loading Area...' message pop up every couple of seconds, which brings with it another framerate stutter. It's herky-jerky-all-over-the-place as I climb up the hill to the gate of Oblivion."

While it would seem the Xbox 360 is either underpowered or the game is too demanding for the system, many gamers who commented on Kohler's writeup defended the quality of the graphics on the basis that the game is not finished yet. With Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion due out this spring, I doubt the game's graphics will be sufficiently improved in time for its release. I was generally unimpressed with the graphics of the Xbox 360's first-day launch titles, and it seems that this highly-anticipated RPG isn't--at this point--looking much better. Perhaps if my expectations hadn't been inflated by Microsoft's PR efforts, I'd be less disappointed.
  ‘Art Of Xbox 360’ Disappoints  
Posted 2006-02-24 by Tony Walsh
Last night I attended the gallery opening of "Play: The Art Of Xbox 360," an art show in Toronto's historic Distillery District promising an insider look at the pre- and post-production visuals of three of the Xbox 360's first-day launch titles. In a word: Underwhelming. If you removed the Xbox 360 kiosks used to display the games themselves, and poster-sized promo-style artwork, you'd be left with a scant selection of pre-production visuals. Only half of the gallery was in use for the show, meaning the space was about 4 yards by about 8 yards in size. It's a cozy space that I've visited before, but it seemed underused for this showing.

If you happen to be at the Distillery this weekend, it couldn't hurt to drop by the Blue Dot Gallery to have a look, but I wouldn't recommend making a special trip just for the show. I think what we have here is a classic "post-release attention-span" grabber, geared towards retaining a semblance of public interest in the Xbox 360--in other words, this event isn't so much about art as it is about commerce.
  ‘Art Of Xbox 360’ Comes To Toronto  
Posted 2006-02-09 by Tony Walsh
Xbox Canada is bringing a gallery showing to Toronto featuring the pre- and post-production artwork behind three of the Xbox 360's launch titles: platform game Kameo: Elements of Power, action shooter Perfect Dark Zero, and driving game Project Gotham Racing 3. The private gala opening on February 23 will be attended by UK-based artists Wil Overton of Rare and Chris Davie of Bizarre Creations. Concept sketches, background paintings, and hi-def environments are on free, public display February 24 - 26 (roughly between 12pm - 5pm) at The Blue Dot Gallery in Toronto's yuppie Distillery District [map].

This will be a unique opportunity for the public to get a "behind the scenes" look at video game art and a glimpse of the creative process. I'm pleased admission is free. Game design and animation students take note.
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