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  • StarCraft: “Ghost” (get it?!!)

    Posted on April 29th, 2010 keving 3 comments

    It must’ve been the 2002 Tokyo Game Show where they first introduced StarCraft: Ghost to the general public. I remember covering it for GamePro. There was a press conference in a suite inside the hotel that Makuhari Messe is right next to, and Blizzard said they were announcing their next big release there the day before TGS began. Which makes sense, right? Asian people were crazy about Blizzard games even before WOW, after all.

    That’s why it was a little head-scratching when Bill Roper came out and introduced a console-exclusive action game set in the StarCraft universe. People looked at each other oddly. Fennec Fox (argh) was apparently aghast. You could even see the confusion among the Korean game-media outlets in the room with us. Nobody owns any consoles in Korea! And if they do, they’re piratin’ anyway! (That’s an exaggeration, of course, but not by much and especially not at the time.)

    A few months later I got a chance to visit the developers at Nihilistic for GamePro, either for a preview or a cover story; I forget at this point. They were in Novato, at the far end of San Francisco’s northern bay area, in a large warehouse-type facility. I don’t remember much about Jacob Stephens, head designer and the guy who gave me a full playthrough of Ghost’s first demo level — the one where it’s night and raining and you’re trying to dodge around a bunch of Terran guards. I do remember that he was very enthusiastic, and that the whole studio seemed really relaxed and confident about what they were doing. I also remember that you could bring your dog into work pretty much whenever you wanted, which I thought was a pretty incredible perk. Maybe that’s why everyone was so chill.

    That 2003 Ghost press run that I participated in was about the last anyone heard from Nihilistic for a very long while. They were silent for a year until they “completed their contribution” to the project in 2004, as Blizzard so diplomatically put it on their now-defunct Ghost FAQ page. The publisher handed it over to Swingin’ Ape Studios (makers of the completely forgotten but still very good Metal Arms), nothing further was heard for another year, and finally Blizzard just up and bought Swingin’ Ape and did the game-publisher equivalent of whistling innocently and pretending that they never mentioned anything.

    I’m not sure anyone gave Nihilistic much of a chance after they and Blizzard parted ways, but they’re still around, most recently doing Zombie Apocalypse on PSN/XBLA. They’ve moved to different office space, but it’s just down the street from the old one on this business card and (apparently) off the same exit from US-101. Stephens himself moved on to Crackpot Entertainment, one of the Gamecock Media Group-funded outfits; they made Insecticide and that appears to be it. Come to think of it, I may’ve talked to him during the media event Gamecock held in Austin back in ’08 without realizing that I’d met him before. That’d be a bit embarrassing.

    I think most agree at this point that Ghost was a pretty great action game but a poor fit for Blizzard and the image in game-dom they are trying to keep. It’s sort of like Warcraft Adventures in that respect, except that Ghost had a lot more promise.

  • A Twisty Maze of Konami Computer Entertainment Studios

    Posted on August 11th, 2009 keving 5 comments

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    On April 3, 1995, Konami’s satellite studio in the city of Kobe was spun off into its own separate company, Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka (KCEO). A year later, KCE Production Studio 5 went similarly independent, resulting in Konami Computer Entertainment Japan (KCEJ). Seeing a trend, Konami jumped on it and established three more satellite development studios on March 28, 1997: Konami Computer Entertainment Sapporo (KCES), Konami Computer Entertainment Yokohama (KCEY), and Konami Computer Entertainment Nagoya (KCEN). In 1998, KCE Osaka’s first production studio decided to shed its yoke of opporession and go independent from the independent studio, forming Konami Computer Entertainment Kobe (KCEK).

    So, at its peak, we had KCEO, KCEJ, KCES, KCEY, KCEN and KCEK all developing games at once. That’s not a list of Rush Limbaugh’s affiliates in Humboldt County, I promise.

    KCE Yokohama and KCE Sapporo merged in August 2000 to form the (old) Konami Computer Entertainment Studios. The development staff that remained in Sapporo wound up getting turned over to Hudson in December 2001, part of the deal that made Hudson a member of the Konami group of companies. A year later, in late 2002, KCE Kobe merged with KCE Osaka, with KCE Nagoya folding a little while later.

    In March 2003, KCE Osaka bought all of KCE Studios’ public stock, essentially making it a child company of KCEO. The resulting company changed its name a month later to the (new) Konami Computer Entertainment Studios and moved its offices from Osaka to Tokyo.

    This studio, the new KCE Studios all set up in arguably the fanciest office space in downtown Tokyo, is the outfit that deveoped Enthusia Professional Racing, a game I remember nothing about but must’ve seen at E3 2004. The project was headed up by Manabu Akita, who (judging by his Mobygames entry) mainly worked on arcade games and their home ports before shootin’ the works on this purported Gran Turismo beater. The game was all right — it reviewed pretty well, had a bit of a fanbase, and in any case was nowhere near as bad as Konami’s non-soccer sports games from around this era — but was bulldozed in the marketplace, chiefly thanks to coming out on the same day as Microsoft’s Forza Motorsport in America.

    Akita seems to have disappeared from both the game industry and Planet Earth after Enthusia. There’s a Manabu Akita with a few recent small-time anime credits, but I’m pretty sure that’s a different guy with the same name.

    Almost immediately after Enthusia’s release, on April 1, 2005, Konami reabsorbed all of its external game studios and ended all this Konami Computer Entertainment tongue-twister malarkey for good. In case you’re wondering, the chief projects each studio worked on:

    KCE Osaka: SNES Goemon, Hybrid Heaven, assorted other SNES games
    KCE Kobe: N64 Goemon, the first N64 Castlevania, Rakugakids
    KCE Sapporo: Bishi Bashi Special, cell phone stuff
    KCE Yokohama: Air Force Delta, Pop’n Music, Beatmania II DX
    KCE Nagoya: GI Stable, Castlevania Legends

  • Me

    Posted on July 14th, 2009 keving 4 comments

    I have not thrown out a business card in nearly nine years on this loony express train. I thought I’d show some of ’em off, exploring some of the detours of game-industry history from 2000 on in the process. Starting with me, because I’m that way. Plus, I worked for Gamers.com and I gotta brag about it to somebody.

    gifford1My first paying job that wasn’t Wendy’s or the college bookstore was when I worked a summer at Gamers.com writing news and filling up their database with retro games. This was the 1999-era Gamers.com, when they hired 110 people to make a video-game website and had many of them devoting 40 hours a week to the most ridiculous things, such as educational games.

    Gamers.com was founded and run by world-famous cybergamer Dennis “Thresh” Fong, and therefore everybody on the staff also needed nicknames to put on their business cards. I used my IRC nick, which I took from the name of a character in Bonobono. The company was set up in warehouse space in a not-at-all-good part of Richmond, CA, and I was in fancy-schmancy company housing the whole summer. I remember calling my mother and excitedly telling her about the flock of Canada geese on the premises. There was free Snapple and a pristine example of Bally’s Xenon, which I wrote a strategy guide for in Gamers.com’s internal newsletter. Very good times. I’m very happy that I got a job at a dot-com back when it was still a social phenomenon.

    I left at the end of summer to finish up my last year of school. Before I could return, the site was sold licensed out to Ziff Davis Media in 2001 after Fong’s outfit exhausted their $14 million in VC — maybe they shouldn’t have paid full-time dot-com salaries to people like me for writing blurbs about NES games, huh?

    The name bounced around, and around, and around, and now Gamers.com is some sort of mainland-Chinese game news site.

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    After graduating from college I got a job at GamePro, which hasn’t existed at this location since 2005 or so. They were in San Francisco when I joined on, at a lovely location right by the Bay Bridge, but they moved soon after to this office in Oakland, right by the main BART station. Downtown Oakland gave you a real life view of “the wrong side of the tracks” — fancy outdoor mall and atrium on one side of the BART station, littered streets and gray buildings on the other.

    I was the International News Editor for GamePro.com, a title I earned because IDG had a deal going with Enterbrain at the time and so I got to translate articles from Famitsu.com for our website. (Does anyone remember this? I don’t think your average game-forum slug ever admitted to reading GamePro.com back then, but I am reasonably confident the Japan coverage on there was just as good as anything on IGN, etc. today.)

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    In 2004 IDG bought Star Wars Insider and regrouped it, GamePro and GamePro.com into a separate division, IDG Entertainment. This didn’t change day-to-day work much, but did result in some revised business cards. IDG Entertainment is officially called GamePro Media today, overseeing a flock of websites and their two print mags.

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    Late in 2004 I moved over to Ziff Davis Media in order to help create 1UP.com. I actually got two sets of cards for this job — one in English, one in Japanese. None of this “flip the card to get the other language” stuff. I was in the big time.

    101 Second Street is in the heart of SF, the sort of office any parent would be proud to see his son work at. GameSpot (ie. CBS Interactive) is a couple of blocks down the street, GamePro a bit further down, and Ubisoft’s SF office just around the corner.

    Most of the things that made 1UP a first-rate website didn’t happen until after I left, so I can’t take credit for any of it. If I was arrogant enough to try defending myself, I’d say that Ziff didn’t get super super serious about online until just after I left, when GMR and XBN were suddenly closed. That’s about when the podcast/video stuff really exploded.

    Do you have a business card from the game industry that’s historically interesting or has a neat story attached to it? Tell me about it!