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Joystiq presents

Bury the Shovelware: Ping Pals

While the response to last week's inaugural column was universally appreciated, the very first comment was particularly intriguing. The reader brought up an excellent point: definitively labeling a developer as poor because of one bad game is very narrow-minded. After all, good developers and bad games are not always mutually exclusive. In order to prove this idea, one should start with an incredible game. Fortunately, the DS has plenty of those. Then, the developer's catalog should be searched for any traces of shovelware.

And when talking about good games on the DS, one need not look further than the only title to receive a perfect 10 from DS Fanboy: Contra 4. It is awesome. For any other game, that wouldn't be enough for a "review," but with Contra 4, nothing else is necessary. WayForward Technologies' 2007 masterpiece was about as close to perfect as a game can be. Thus, the California-based developer was a perfect candidate for closet searching. And was there ever a skeleton to be found inside! Ping Pals, which is well known as being one of the DS's earliest atrocities, was the first game WayForward developed for the DS. At face value, the tween-focused chat utility appears to be nothing more than a glitter-coated PictoChat used to discuss iCarly and Webkinz. Released mere weeks after the launch of the DS, it was universally censured by both critics and love-to-hate gamers. Electronic Gaming Monthly called it "An abysmal failure," and IGN -- who employs Mark Bozon, brother of WayForward's creative director Matt Bozon -- pulled no punches when stating that "Ping Pals is easily the most unnecessary product for the system." Ouch. Clearly, somewhere between Ping Pals and Contra 4 lies the purest definition of shovelware.

00:00:10 - The game is running. Nothing exceptionally terrible ... yet.

00:00:30 - ACK! I'm given the standard avatar, and, well, it appears to be female. This is confirmed later when I go to edit my character's appearance. Being of the dude persuasion, I wish that the game had asked me my sex first. However, I can accept that this product is targeted mainly towards younger females. Additionally, I imagine many female gamers have had to suffer this (in reverse) many times before, so I'll turn the other cheek. Regardless, my female avatar is ... different. Granted, everyone in this game seems to have a vague and weird pigmy-esque characteristic about them, but my on-screen representation is particularly strange.

00:00:51 - As the chat begins, I'm met by "Chit.Cat." Adorable. She kind of explains the happenings, but in such strange and vague terms that it's hard to know what I'm supposed to be doing. Chit.Cat tells me to "have some Ping Pal point coins!" Wouldn't points or coins have worked just fine? Do we really need both? "You can use these coins at the REAL TIME shop!" As opposed to the PRE-RENDERED shop.

00:01:02 - Suddenly, things take a serious tone.

Chit.Cat: "I'm sure you're dying to log in... but before I go... a quick word of warning... be absolutely... positively sure to --"

Use Ping Pals responsibly? Not talk to strangers? Never give out personal information? Avoid sexual predators?

Chit.Cat: "-- save the game by logging out after each chat session!"

Oh. Thanks.

00:01:40 - My goals and options aren't quite clear, so I spend a few moments poking around. This is what I gather: it's PictoChat with avatars. You can change the appearance of your avatar by purchasing stuff from the store. You earn coins to spend at the store by playing text-based games and having pointless chats with random in-game characters. Artificial intelligence conversation has always interested me, so I decide to give it a shot. The keyboard used to input text is kind of clumsy. The standard keyboard used in PictoChat is much better. Perhaps it's for the better, because interacting with Ping Pal's A.I. leaves something to be desired. Below are three actual conversations between the Ping Pals and me.

JON: Have you talked to that new girl yet?
JON: Put in a good word for me.
JON: Hoo hoo...this will be perfect. Thanks.

DEVON: I'm working as a caddy at the country club.
DEVON: Cool huh?
DEVON: You have chosen wisely my friend. (!?)
DEVON: See you tomorrow.

DONNA: Do you have a Hawaiian shirt I can borrow?
DONNA: Hey thanks. Not to be picky or anything but I hope it's not yellow. Is it yellow?
DONNA: Oh good, because yellow clashes with my hair.
DONNA: I hope it's not red. Is it red?
DONNA: Oh good, because red washes me out. I look cute in all colors but red.
DONNA: See you!

As you can see, the responses are really off. It's not as if I was expecting obscenely thorough sentence analyzation, but reacting correctly to "YES" or "NO" shouldn't be above Ping Pals. Additionally, the poor punctuation is enough to make an English major's head explode.

00:07:20 - Having had my fun with the A.I., I turned my attention to the games. There are two multi-player games: "Doodle" and "Hot Potato," but since I'm a reclusive hermit, I didn't get to experience these particular activities. Instead, I tried the first single-player game called "Top 10," in which I'm given a category and asked to come up with as many of the 10 items that the A.I. is thinking about in a limited amount of time. The first category is "Geometric Shapes." GO! Uhh, circle? CORRECT! Triangle? CORRECT! Rectangle? CORRECT! Err, square? CORRECT! Really? Isn't that considered a ... nevermind, ummmm, diamond? WRONG! Rhombus? WRONG! Parallelogram? WRONG! Wow, uhhh, umm ... TIME'S UP! Geez, do I ever feel stupid for leaving out the hexadecagon. The A.I. informs me of my poor results with all the social grace of Wii Fit enlightening you to your fat and gross body.

00:10:12 - After my bad experience with "Top 10," I move onto "Hi-lo." A questionable character named "Snakey" asks me to "pick a number between 1 and 10 and type it in!" Ahh, the thinking man's game. I pick 3, but the number was 9. "You are way off! Give me 10 coins!" Geez, it makes it sound as if he's pulling a knife on me. Interesting note: I go to close the DS to write this down, and the awful music is still playing in the background. Ping Pals apparently does not obey the laws of the DS's sleep mode. I couldn't find much about this on the Internet, so perhaps I have a buggy copy.

00:11:13 - There can't be much more to see. Done!

The connection between Contra 4 and Ping Pals is similar to the connection between Alec and Stephen Baldwin: it's hard to believe that they came from the same creators. In experiencing both of these games, it's obvious that a developer cannot be strictly defined as a shovelware maker from a single specimen. There are plenty of possible factors to be considered when attempting to describe this phenomenon. Development teams can range from hundreds of people dispersed across the entire planet to a single Dorito-snarfing loner stuffed inside a studio apartment. Various subsets of the same development team can be used for different types of projects, thus creating the potential for enormous fluctuation in quality. Strict deadlines, unreasonable demands from a publisher, and grueling hours can all potentially contribute negatively to a product. And let us not forget that like all living things, developers have to eat. Not every studio has the privileges of the elite Nintendo EAD team. Sometimes, they have to take a project to pay the bills. And if developing Hamsterz X: Star Force Underground means that people get to keep their jobs, can we really hold that against them? Comprehending and analyzing these elements will most definitely help us on our quest to better understand shovelware.

After playing Ping Pals, Contra 4 comes out looking like the Marilyn Munster of the WayForward catalog. However, as Matt Bozon told MTV in an interview, Ping Pals was the title that familiarized the team with the DS development kit and eventually led to Contra 4.

Now it is apparent that we will have to keep track of a newly discovered trait: shovelware as a stepping-stone. In order to create something beautiful, sometimes you have to leave a mess behind.

In gaming, the term shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit. Bury the Shovelware takes a closer look at these titles, typically those that inhabit the lower end of metascores. It attempts to: 1) find out where and how the developer went wrong 2) identify common traits present in most shovelware 3) measure how long the game can be suffered.

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