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“Halo” creators looking to help launch indie games into orbit

“Halo” creators looking to help launch indie games into orbit  (photo)

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No matter how big you wind up getting, everybody starts off small. Bungie–the powerhouse development studio behind the mega-hit “Halo” franchise–started off as a partnership between friends in Chicago, where they boxed copies of their self-published games by hand. Even though the Mac platform had a smaller base of potential customers, the nascent Bungie focused on making games for Apple’s computers. One moderate success was an RPG called “Minotaur: The Labyrinths of Crete,” which moved a whopping 2,500 copies. Not a lot by any means, but enough to keep them making games. And it’s a good thing, too, because after “Minotaur” came “Marathon,” the first title that wan Bungie a significant following and one that hinted at the design philosophy that would inform the “Halo” games. After years of a slow and steady build, “Halo” was the game that got Bungie acquired by Microsoft, as well as lionized by millions of fans the world over. 2010’s “Halo: Reach” marked the end of an era for Bungie, though. In a surprise move last year, Bungie left Microsoft (who still retain the rights to “Halo”) to chart their own destiny, and entered into partnership with Activision to create a new intellectual property meant to sprawl out over a ten-year span.

So, yeah, there aren’t many companies bigger than the Seattle-based dev collective nowadays. But, the recent announcement of a new initiative by Bungie makes it clear they remember their humbler beginnings. Dubbed Bungie Aerospace, it’s a project that aims to help incubate and disseminate smaller games in the mobile and social markets. While most of Bungie works on their new mystery IP–which they’ll own outright–a small team’s dedicated to all things Aerospace. Part of that involves helping fund a project code-named “Crimson” by indie studio Harebrained Schemes. Not much is being said about “Crimson,” but it’s due out for Android and iOS this summer. When it does come out, Bungie will use Bungie.net, the website that’s home to their most loyal fans to get word-of-mouth started. Aside from their experience and track record of success, Bungie.net is another part of the company’s formidable ecosystem, one they didn’t have to let go when “Halo” stayed with Microsoft. The combo of resources and marketing make Bungie Aerospace a rare bird. It’s a developer associated with a hardcore game franchise actime almost like a publisher for smaller dev teams. Over at Kotaku, Bungie’s community manager Eric Osborne describes it this way:

We want to give them some of our proprietary rocket fuel, whether that be resources, audience, funding or what have you and let them showcase their great games.

There isn’t a checklist I could give you about: ‘These are the three things we’re looking for. It really is about finding teams that we believe are passionate about making games. That may sound like a naive, optimistic approach, but, when it comes down to it, that’s what makes a game great: the people who are building it. If we believe in them and see the experience they are building is something that would resonate with us, that’s a pretty good metric to think that maybe we should be working with these guys.

When you think about it, it’s heartening that Bungie Aerospace is being started as a launchpad for other smaller games to fly off of. Having become masters of their own destiny again in this, their 20th anniversary year, no one would blame Bungie for focusing squarely on their own future success. Yet, the pay-it-forward ethos of Aerospace revolves around the idea that shared success benefits the entire video game medium and that not every game has to be a “Halo.” And with the prestige of a studio like Bungie behind it, it probably won’t be long before an Aerospace game goes into hyperdrive.

Do you think Bungie’s efforts in the indie game space will be fruitful? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Sample Foghat Wine

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Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert Had a Rockin’ Wine Tasting

Catch Fred on the new season of Portlandia Thursdays at 10P on IFC.

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As per The Late Show’s themed gift recommendation this past December, we all spent the holidays delightfully unwrapping various Foghat albums and compilations. And while those cassettes remain in our tape decks, there’s still more ’70s boogie rock to enjoy in the form of fermented grapes. Yes, Foghat has its very own wine, straight from the cellars of drummer and Late Show fan Roger Earl, and Portlandia’s Fred Armisen joined host Stephen Colbert to sample the goods. And thanks to Earl’s watchful eye and drumstick swirl during fermentation, the pinot noir unfolds nicely on the tongue and has the perfect notes to swig directly from the bottle while shrieking, “HELLO, CLEVELAND!”

Watch Fred Armisen and Stephen Colbert don literal “fog hats” and take a slow ride through some tasty spirits below.

Activision to Hold “Call of Duty” Event in September

Activision to Hold “Call of Duty” Event in September (photo)

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What do you do when your military shooter franchise spawns the best-selling game of all time? If you’re Activision and the franchise is “Call of Duty, ” you throw a party. The California-based publisher just announced that they’ll be holding an event called “Call of Duty XP 2011” over Labor Day weekend in Los Angeles.

Going by what CEO of Activision Publishing Eric Hirshberg had to say in an interview I did with him, XP 2011 sounds like a glorious exercise in “‘Call Of Duty,’ f*** yeah!” flag-waving:

We’re constructing an accurate, full-scale version of the legendary Pit multiplayer map from Modern Warfare 2 and we’re using it as a paint-ball stadium. Fans will be able to run the Pit for real this time.

We’re going to be hosting a tournament with real fans and real players that we’re cosponsoring with Xbox 360 that is worth a million dollars in cash prizes.

Triple A talent will be doing live performances, too. We’re not ready to unveil who they are yet, but those performances alone will probably be worth the price of admission.

That price will $150 a head, with an estimated 6000 fans in attendance. 100% of the proceeds will be going to the Call of Duty Endowment, an Activision-founded charity that helps veterans with job placement assistance. Gamers who show up will be the first to try out the hotly-anticipated multiplayer modes in “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3,” the sequel to last year’s record-breaking “COD: Black Ops.” You’ll also be getting the lowdown on the Call of Duty Elite social network platform, which will be like a FPS Facebook for COD players. If you do well in the Elite beta launching over the summer, you could qualify for the $1 million dollar multiplayer tournament that Activision’s also holding at the event.

Tickets go on sale on July 19th. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly a fan fest just for “Call of Duty” players will sell out, and just how much it will penetrate the mainstream, non-gamer consciousness.

Are you going to wrangle up a posse to head out to Call of Duty XP 2011? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook or Twitter.

“World of Warcraft” offers first chunk of game for free

“World of Warcraft” offers first chunk of game for free  (photo)

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Up until recently, there was a stigma attached to free-to-play games. Most examples of the category live on the web, in browser-based games or on Facebook, where an entertainment experience gets doled out in a slow dripfeed. Those experiences get specially formulated to be just addictive to get you to come back–and they’re free after all—but also dangle purchasable items or features to either speed things along or give you a competitive edge. Microtransactions like buying a new kart in “Free Realms” or calling in the Mighty Eagle to smash through a pesky level in “Angry Birds” get players paying for perks, long after they start playing. You’ve probably got a “Farmville” or “Cityville” addict in your News Feed. What you don’t know is how much real-world cash they’re dumping to keep their little patch of virtual world just the way they want it.

Free-to-play’s a model that mushroomed abroad in countries like South Korea, where the gaming culture’s different. People tend to log into game profile accounts at internet cafes where they spend time going through games like Nexon’s “MapleStory.” Technologically, free-to-play games have to support almost any PC so they’ve tended not to be the most graphically impressive or experientially deep titles. But, even as Nexon’s raised the bar with titles like its visually impressive action RPG “Invictus,” and Supercell’s shoot-em-up RPG “Gunshine” wins over doubters, the mass of gamers have ignored F2P titles.

That ignorance will be very difficult to maintain with recent events. Last week saw two of the biggest online multiplayer juggernauts revise their business models, as Valve’s “Team Fortress 2″ and Blizzard’s “World of Warcraft” both announced free-to-play reconfiguration. Both titles enjoy robust communities and recurring content refreshes, the latter of which was generally free anyway. But their financial models were wildly different, making the fact that they’ve both gone F2P fairly significant.

Most players got “TF2″ by paying a one-time price, getting it either at $60 alongside the first Portal as part of The Orange Box compilation release in 2007 or at $20 as a standalone title. But, as is their wont, Valve’s been delivering free content updates for nearly the entire lifespan of the game. So, really not much is changing other than the price of entry’s being voided. In the new TF2 ecosystem, there’s a line of demarcation between free and premium users but all you need to do to become a premium user is to buy something from the “TF2″ in-game store. And, if you bought the game before it went F2P, then you’re automatically a premium user. “TF2″ enjoys a loyal user base thanks to its balance, art style and humor but many are unhappy about the free-to-play change, saying that it’s going to sully their community with hackers, cheaters and n00bs. Personal skill level’s a big deal in an online shooter like “Team Fortress 2,” so there’s some basis to these concerns. But the draw of an award-winning game that’s completely free will do more than just expose vulnerabilities.

Valve CEO Gabe Newell talks about the idea of entertainment-as-service, where consumers don’t view entertainment as a one-off but as a place they can regularly return to and interact with others who share their passion. By going free, “TF2″ adds to that population. It also helps that Valve’s Steam digital distribution service serves developers both big and small who want to reach PC gaming audiences, so if players come for free “TF2″ they stay some other game that catches their fancy. Most significantly, Valve says that they’re not modulating the experience and that all of the game content can be accessed for free. All the stuff that you can pay for–those iconic hats and similarly coveted in-game items–can be gotten through achievements, crafting or drops, meaning that you can make, earn or find them. So, you don’t have to pay to enjoy the game. But, if you’re impatient or lusting after some in-game fashion, you can shell out cash if you want.

The scenario with “World of Warcraft” is slightly different. Blizzard’s powerhouse runs on a subscription model, where its millions of users pay around $15 a month to romp through mythical Azeroth as members of either the heroic Alliance or marauding Horde. Curious first-timers would get the first 14 days free after installing the game onto a PC but, now, Blizzard’s changing structure of that first free taste. New players will be able to play for free until they reach level 20. The level cap–the highest plateau of achievement in an MMO like “WoW–rises with every expansion pack. As of last year’s Cataclysm expansion, the level cap for “WoW” is 85. So, if you’re playing up until level 20 for free, then you’re getting about a quarter of the game for free. It’s excellent bait to hook players onto an experience that’s been already proven addictive by a population of 12 million people. Hell, if you’re going to invest your time to play all the way to level 20, you’re not going to stop, are you?

Now, even as the benefits of growing their player populations are apparent, both “Team Fortress2″ and “World of Warcraft” were doing well enough that they didn’t need to go F2P. But, it’s the kind of move that will start other publishers and developers thinking and that might result in a seismic shift in how online gaming looks.

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