17 December 2008

A favour...

I'm not sure how many people read this blog with any regularity but i have a favour to ask. I co-host a gaming podcast on a site called Eggmen.co.uk - however i get the feeling that no one listens to it. Normally i wouldn't be too bothered about lack of listenership because i'm doing it because i enjoy doing it and not because i'm looking for internet fame.

However, after doing three or four podcasts i think we need some constructive criticism and feedback on what we're doing right and wrong.... i'd like to be able to do the best we can do. If anyone could take the time to do something like this i'd really appreciate it.

12 December 2008

Lara pollarva (or pallarva - can't find the exact spelling!)

I've just gotten around to playing Tomb Raider: Underworld and boy.... I'm a bit let down. Not by the graphics - they're fantastic and in comparison with what i thought was next-generation in Legend this game really is a completely next-gen graphical parade - no, i feel that I'm let down by the controls.

I remember not long ago i read an article where one of the developers was saying how much they had changed under the hood of their engine and i agree with all of their graphical changes.... they've also upped the animation and Lara's interaction with the environment - that is to say that the environment isn't interactive but that Lara interacts with it more realistically; she will push away branches that get in her face, trip when she falls a small distance or stumble over rocks etc. They've really tried to get a more realistic feel to Lara's adventures... unfortunately they've almost completely wrecked the one thing that is really important in a game - the controls.

At first, when i played the demo, i thought maybe it was me and i was mis-remembering. I asked in forums if other people noticed the same things as i did and they said, "no" but i held off the purchase anyway. Then i saw the game for 60% off and one impulse buy later i owned it. Now, however i realise that i wasn't wrong and that i may just be more observant than other people. To make things worse, I've just gotten through playing a game with one of the most well-made control systems I've ever encountered (Prince of Persia) though some people argue that it takes a lot of control away from the player.

Let me explain what's happening. Underworld has twitchy controls or more accurately, it has twitchy controls for the analogue sticks. When i first played the game i became dizzy and felt really sick.... it only occurred to me as i was getting to the point that i had to put the game down that i actually was suffering from motion sickness - something I've never been susceptible to in gaming or real life. I put the game down, went to bed and have played some more tonight. It wasn't as bad but i still ended up watching flash-frame close-ups of Lara's behind/back/legs and random walls/floors.... you name it, as i moved around the levels.
Lara now turns on the proverbial dime, her movement is so fast and quick that my mind has trouble comprehending her almost jerky super-movements. Even the simple action of running is exaggerated to some degree and in a really annoying nerdy moment i realised that her hyper-fast legs run in an inward V-shape as if she was a model posing rather than actually running properly.... (okay, it's mainly annoying to me because i did cross country running for 7 years of my school life along with many other sporting pursuits.... i know what people look like when they run).... all of this means that Lara ends up looking like her animations were modelled after a toddler (watch any movie of a toddler or young child running and their body parts seem to be moving faster than they should be for how fast they are actually moving).

Then there's the typical Tomb Raider environment vs. movement affair we've come to know and love. I can't count the number of obstacles that i've tried to climb onto but have instead gone for a jump off. Try again, this time standing next to the face of the object or ledge, without the direction button and the same thing happens. Run Lara in a circle and retry and this time she deigns to grip the top and allow you to indicate that you want her to pull herself up. I've "tripped" when trying to drop down or jump off ledges/objects and met invisible walls that were really obtrusive and countless little niggles that all add up. Most of these things wouldn't even be a problem if her movement and camera controls were okay.

But hey, it's a 3rd person adventure game - why am I so hard on it when there have been so many games that had these same issues? The answer is because they didn't exist in either Legend or Anniversary or at least they were less of an issue then.

In Crystal Dynamics' move to make the newest Lara truly next-gen they seem to have abandoned everything that worked in the much-loved games and improved on some of those areas but made others more finicky and harder to get to grips with. I actually went back to play Legend and see if i was suffering from some sort of short-term nostalgia (i only played it a couple of months ago) and was happy to learn that i was correct... it wasn't all just in my imagination - just amplified by the ease and frustration-free controls of Prince of Persia.

In Legend, the camera is further behind Lara so, while you may not be able to get as good a shot of her arse in the game, when she rolls underneath an overhanging obstacle you don't get a front and centre view of her left ass cheek. Nor do you end up viewing some sort of Blair Witch-esque cinematography when platforming in general. You also had a first person view by clicking one of the analogue sticks.... which is really useful because even in Legend there are plenty of ledges and overhangs that will not allow the camera to be positioned such that you can see what's across from your position - they removed this feature in Underworld and replaced it with an over-the-shoulder-with-a-slightly-more-zoomed-in-position camera..... which can't be utilised when on said ledges... thus making it that much more difficult (and frustrating) to see whether you're about to jump to safety or a plunging crevasse.
I mentioned before that Lara turns really quickly, as does the camera, and there is less of a 'dead' zone and gradient applied to both analogue sticks - though there may be some way to reduce the sensitivity on them that i haven't found. To top it all off.... in Legend and Anniversary Lara's running was almost perfect - straight legs and everything!

Overall, i've been a bit frustrated with the first 'level' of the game (i've played through two levels but they both took place in the Medditeranean Sea and am up to the end of the demo in Bohisvarta) though hopefully i'll grow acclimatised to the controls and camera..... but it really is a shame that they ditched the control mechanisms from the last two games. I made the comparison between The Angel of Darkness Lara and Underworld Lara in my last post.... I just hope that the similarities don't get much more deeper.


I played through more of the game this morning... turns out that first person view has been replaced by a camera thing that Lara lifts to her face. The problem is that in confined spaces it's still useless as it's slightly zoomed in and has a depth of field effect applied to it's view.

Still not liking the camera and movement controls though i think i've pinpointed the problem with what they did for the camera. It appears that the developers have used a universal 'turning rate' for the camera - what this means is that the further away from Lara you are, the better control you have over the camera while the closer you are the more quickly the camera will move making it harder to control. Let me show you schematically:

Say Lara is at the centre point of a circle and we take the above slice as an example of wanting to move the camera through its arc. Having the camera always move at the same speed is annoying because when moving from point 1 to 2 it takes longer while the closer you get to Lara it becomes much quicker, e.g. from A to B. This is an example of a universal movement/turning rate where the distance covered by an object in a given time is not related to its position in the system. It's mostly annoying in Underworld because, as i mentioned further up somewhere, the camera is much closer to Lara this time than in the previous two incarnations. What you really want is for the camera to be on some sort of inversely proportional movement rate from its distance to the character so that you have fine control when zoomed out and when zoomed in.

One other factor that makes the game more frustrating is the fact that when the camera moves so does the direction that you are moving Lara. Say you're holding forward, running down an L-shaped corridor.... you can quite smoothly run Lara around that corner by gently moving the camera - which is good! But if that camera gets stuck on a piece of the environment or if it suddenly decides to jump to a different position you are left smacking Lara's head into a wall or something because your movement reference just did a 130 degree spas-out for very little reason.

While i haven't quite figured out the problem with the analogue controls for movement of Lara herself i spent about 20 minutes doing a 5 minute segment due to the finicky controls this morning. I was trying to jump from a beam to a pillar which you stand on. Because as soon as i went to the position to jump the camera would get up close and personal with Lara, making it difficult to aim my jump. The first two times it was really the camera that made me miss the pillar.... the second three times i aligned myself perfectly but for some reason Lara decided to jump over or right next to the pillar but not on it. Finally i managed to do it but it's very frustrating.

11 December 2008

The evolution of Miss Croft...

Many thousands of words have been dedicated to this icon of gaming and at least a good portion of them were in relation to her appearance. This is going to be one of those times...

Today I received Underworld and while sitting there looking at the cover and not playing the game it struck me that something was different this time:

First off.... someone dislocated their hip! It's almost half a foot lower than the other one and she's not doing that slanty hip thing that models do. Secondly, she has a tummy! A realistic tummy too and i found myself strangely hypnotised with this bared midriff. Then it struck me - is this the first time i've seen a realistic female character? Fortunately not, Half Life 2 had Alyx and Dr. Mossman, Mirror's Edge has Faith - though i can't think of any others off the top of my head. What it was that had me though was that i was seeing 'realistic' body proportions on Lara.

Some of these are art rather than in game models though the general appearance is accurate

Look at the evolution of Lara's appearance over time. What's strange is that Lara pretty much stayed the same over the first 5 games up until Revelations/Chronicles, gold belt buckle and all then there was a sudden transformation as Eidos tried to invigorate their franchise in the Angel of Darkness (a game i enjoyed) and which unfortunatey fell foul of critical and general gamers' ire due to Eidos forgetting to update the movement controls along with the rest of it. Lara's look for AoD was that of a more serious and strong character. It was as if she had suddenly listened to the Spice Girls for the first time and realised that she wasn't quite 'girl power' enough so toned down the large eyes, thick lips and made herself have a more realistic figure - which included a reduction in the size of her breasts though she also lost quite a lot of her waist and hips too. Generally I liked the look - thought it was good.

Ever since Crystal Dynamics (of the fantastic Legacy of Kain series) took the reigns of the franchise, Lara has been more dynamic, slick and increasingly realistic... along with the graphical and gameplay reboots they also re-worked the story of the original game into the middle of a trilogy. Legend was pretty much the best 3rd person game i'd played since Prince of Persia and her khaki-style getup was pretty modern and individual. However, she still suffered from a few of the old traits of 'idealistic' character design, namely her waist which was pretty thin and her stomach was unrealistically shaped/toned. Anniversary, the remake of the original, left her basically unchanged with the exception of (i think) her face which was altered slightly. Strangely, despite Underworld taking place in the same story arc with basically the same engine they have completely revamped her physique.

Gone are the impossibly thin hips, she has good proportion between chest-waist-hips and her breasts seem more natural - these are all good things - and to my point above her stomach seems real, like as if it were actually based off a real woman who wasn't super muscled or anorexic. Most alarmingly though they've completely redone her face which was really off-putting when i tried out the demo and it seems to be in relation to her new official real life model who is a gymnast. Now though, Lara is about as close as we can get to being based on a real woman there's not much more that can be done except alter between different shapes and sizes - for which there is no need. However, looking at the pictures of Underworld's Lara i couldn't help but notice the striking similarities between her and the Lara from Angel of Darkness; similar sort of composition to the character from her clothing to her hair including the bangs in her 'fringe'. There's also the tone of the game - what with the intro of her house exploding and her walking away from it.... It's like history is repeating itself.

Are Crystal Dynamics doing a mini-homage to the worst received Tomb Raider game? If so, i'm cool with it. I'm also cool with attractive, realistic female protagonists/antagonists/any roles in games. I can't imagine what my 15 year-old hormonal self would have made of the current Lara considering what he actually thought of the original (yeah, i'm a sad, sad nerd/geek who needs to get out more) but let me tell you one thing.... kids these days don't know how lucky they are to have better graphics, and better female role models in games. Now we just need to work on the male role models in games. I think the Prince of Persia is the best character i can think of to be an inspiration to young men.... otherwise what else do we have? Duke Nukem/Gears of War?

Yeah.... and people wonder why i tend to prefer playing female characters in games.

And this is why PEGI shouldn't be the rating standard in the UK...

Turns out that a mother was horrified to discover that a version of Scrabble on the DS uses swear words pretty readily. Now the interesting thing here is that the game was rated 3+...... 'by PEGI'.

The story goes that the woman bought the game for her son and played it first to discover words like tits and fuckers (wrongly defined btw). As the article notes:

The worst thing is that there's an age rating of 3+ on the box and no advisory warning about adult language on the packaging at all.

So she wrote off to Nintendo who told her to contact Ubisoft.... who told her to contact PEGI.... who just ignored her and has been doing so for the last three months:

It in turn blamed the game's publisher, Ubisoft, and told her to contact video-games rating system Pan European Game Information.

She emailed them three months ago but has yet to hear whether any action will be taken.

I've mentioned before why PEGI is not a good rating body for rating games for 12+, 15 and 18 in the UK as the industry seems to want but it seems that unless they change the way that they allow games to be rated that these incidents will happen more frequently.

Primarily it's because PEGI allow publishers to do a 'self assessment' from which a rating can be derived. The games are usually not played so any rating ends up less of a function of actual game content and more of a function of some check boxes (i know it's not quite that simple - but who thinks of using swear words in scrabble when you're thinking about how the game works?) on what is considered the gameplay.

Secondly, shame on Nintendo for not dealing with this. It's their console and they have the power to actually get a response from Ubisoft and PEGI. They should be protecting not only their brand but enforcing standards on their consoles. Shame on Ubisoft for not sorting this out themselves - it's their game for god's sake! Shame on the faceless and organisation of PEGI for not rating games thoroughly.

Again, i want to decry PEGI and champion the BBFC who actually play through every game before rating it. ELSPA and publishers can try and get PEGI as the rating standard in the UK all they want but they also need to learn to take responsibility rather than just passing the blame onto the next company who, in the end, don't care.... well.... none of them care as long as the game is out there, being sold.

I contacted PEGI for their comments on this incident and how it will affect the ratings process of future games... so i'll keep you updated on how that goes - if it 'goes' at all. Three months!


8 December 2008

Hearing things....

Every now and then i begin to hear a dissonant wail in the distance causing a brief stir of alarm within my chest and a tightening of my nerves. Am i crazy?

Luckily not! It seems there's a WW2 enthusiast or something nearby because occasionally (and randomly) during the day an air raid siren will sound. It's a testament to the unsettling nature of this dissonant wail that it cuts through whatever else i'm doing and makes me sit up and pay attention. I'm also constantly surprise that, despite not having ever lived through World War 2 or any other major conflict on home shores, i immediately respond emotionally to the siren's call.

It has such a powerful emotional meaning in history that even I am trained to heed its call and it's no surprise that they chose it for the trapping of the Eloi by the Morlocks in the 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells' The Time Machine.

This feeling links in rather nicely with an article over on The Brainy Gamer. Though the article focuses mainly on dissonance in relation to game interaction and feedback i think there needs to be more purposefully dissonant feedback in games: sounds and graphics.
How many of the most memorable games you've played have had one particular sound or creature that freaked you out or had you on edge every time you knew it was coming? Or perhaps just provided a fond memory of encountering them in the game? Doom 1&2 did this for me. The spiders and the Arch Vile put me on edge every time i heard their sound effects. Morrowind had the followers of Dagoth Ur where there would be whispering chants in the background of their sanctums. Killzone had the red eyes of the Helgast. Ico had the contrast between the Queen and her minions and Yorda. Stalker had the psychic enemy and the blood tentacled guys (sorry, my memory fails me).

These little details add to the game world and environment and they also help reinforce certain aspects of the games the designers are trying to put across.... whether it be danger or the alien nature of a world or place.

4 December 2008

GTA 4 Clusterf*ck...

Looks like GTA 4 is a crappy, buggy mess for a lot of people. Rockstar issued a brief statement saying:

Hey guys,

We are aware that a small number of fans are having problems running GTA IV on their PC’s and we would like to assure them we are working to help solve these as quickly as possible.

We would ask anyone that is encountering difficulties to contact their local technical support helpline for advice and recommendations. These telephone numbers can be found in the game’s manual.

There is also a regularly updated technical support page available on the Rockstar Games website http://www.rockstargames.com/support/ where there are many useful faqs and information on how to resolve some common problems being encountered.



Of course, none of those support lines are free of charge....

The main problem i see here is that there are two separate issues. The first is the most stupid and that is having to rely on three separate programmes to be able to play the game:

  • Securom activation
  • Games for Windows Live!
  • Rockstar Social Club
Each and every one of these three things has to have zero conflicts to be able to play the full game. Now, i've said elsewhere on the internet that it seems likely (i.e. a high probability) that one or more of these services can fail or be taken offline or whatever.... I guess the fact that i was always bad at statistics means that i have some real-world grasp of how things are likely to happen as opposed to the multiples of failure probabilities (i'd add those three up there rather than multiply their probability factors).

The second issue is that they released the game half a year later than the console versions and it's incredibly buggy. Who's going to buy a game that came out on consoles half a year ago? The people who primarily play on PC or big Rockstar fans. So, to curb piracy and to show that it's worth waiting and playing on PC you release a super DRM-laden, bloatware-laden (and i never usually use that term but when you have to install two extra programmes it's ridiculous) and buggy game what do you expect to happen?

It's possible that multiple patches will be released.... however their track record is not good on PC. Bully received no patches (at least not that i could find), San Andreas got one patch, Vice City also got one patch and the original GTA 3 got no patches.

People of course want refunds. However, as i've pointed out before - games consumers have no voice - they have no power to vote with their wallet because of some unspoken conspiracy to be unable to return games no matter how defective or bad.

Of course, for people who bought it through Valve there is some chance of getting a refund... just not very likely:

"It's a hit or miss depending on who recieves your ticket, and how you present your case. Some people have been getting their refunds, some people haven't."

"I've been denied a refund for games that do not work on my computer two times now.

From what I understand, and have been told is "We do not give refunds for digital purchases.""

It also turns out that Valve operate on a "one-time courtesy" policy for third party products - meaning that if you do manage to get a refund for this game there's pretty much zero chance of managing to get that other crappy and buggy game refunded.

No other industry is like this.... only the service industry and even then they are fully accountable because you hold a service account with them and can switch to other, similar services if they are treating you badly.... it's a shambles and each time it happens i'm coming that much closer to shutting down my PC for good. I bet a lot of other people are too.

2 December 2008


Is that the future of buying games? I'm not talking about getting a game and then having to pay more to get features and content. No, i'm talking about buying the 'same' game from different retailers.

Due to recent increased competition in the UK games retailer market and also due to the financial dip we're in, retailers are having to work at getting people's custom, which they seem to be doing by offering exclusives. Now, i don't know if they're paying the developers or publishers for these exclusives but it's beginning to get a little confusing when knowing what you're going to get and if you'll be able to access all this offered content in the game.

For example: Prince of Persia (the new one)
  • You can buy the standard game - no bells or whistles
  • You can buy a standard game with a nice case from HMV or GAME
  • You can also buy a nice case with some unlockable codes for character skins from Play
The bog standard game is £5 cheaper but all the other three versions are indentical in price (which is fair enough, it's up to the retailer to set the eventual price) but my question is if i want the game the only shop i'm going to get it from is Play..... but if i didn't hear about the game when it was released or had to pick it up later on due to financial restrictions do i still have access to those character skins in the game through natural progression and unlocking ability? Do these games have the same content?

It's a similar situation to Shaun White's snowboarding over in America. Target teamed up with Ubisoft to make extra content for the game that's only available in Target stores. Now, it's $5 more expensive than the normal version.... but that's extra content that you can't buy through DLC or anything....

I'm trying to think of a similar business situation but the only one that comes to mind is in the music industry, where 'artists' (because i'm sure it's more to do with the labels) have recently begun selling their albums and then a few weeks later (or simultaneously) selling a new version that has exclusive content such as 4-6 new songs for an extra price. This means that fans either have to buy two versions of the album or do without - though some of these songs are available through downloadable stores.

The practice seems to be a good way to hoodwink the consumer into paying more for the product they wanted and it also seems a good way to alienate your consumer base by splitting up the products into haves and have-nots. I was lucky in seeing the Play offer because i don't normally shop there and because i'm a big fan of the PoP series i immediately switched my pre-order and paid £5 more just to ensure that i still had access to that cool content..... but really, it comes down to lack of information. The same way that DRM is peddled and practiced on the PC the process is not transparent and so we, the consumer, have to make uneducated guesses when deciding how or where to buy our products.

It's a confusing world out there, developers, please don't make it worse.

28 November 2008

Steam or not to Steam...... that is the question. (And L4D annoyances)

I've been partially enjoyed Left 4 Dead since its release on the (non-zombie) unsuspecting public. The problem i have (and possibly with other Valve games like Team Fortress) is that, despite coding into Steam specific Groups that you can belong to, you can only join games with the general public or with your friends.

This means that if you have a rather large group you would have to friend-up every single one of them to be able to play with them. This is stupid - to say the least. Why have the group functionality of Steam if you're not going to be able to use it in Steam games? Why do i have to add 700+ people to my Steam friend list if i want to play with them in Left 4 Dead rather than just being able to join a game with people from the group(s) i'm in..... it would be so much easier and i think it's a big oversight from Valve. I really hope they add this functionality in otherwise i'm going to end up hardly playing L4D.

Why? Mainly because i want to play with my 'friends and acquaintances' but also because the co-op AI really sucks on any level that's higher than normal. They have no sense. Valve hasn't programmed them with 'thinking of the player' in any sense.

For example: In the many set-pieces within the game where you must hold a position they do not act accordingly - they do not position themselves in useful locations allowing the player to effectively hold said position against the zombie hordes - they will frequently run off together while you're manning the minigun, leaving you open to attack from behind and they will frequently remain out in the open rather than being near the player and being able to cover and be covered by the player. They also frequently drop down off of a high point you may be holding - letting themselves get overwhelmed by the zombie hordes.

Secondly, they are really stupid when it comes to general gameplay. I was jumped on by a hunter in a recent game and, while the AI stood there, right next to me it decided that instead of meleeing the hunter off of me that they would instead reload and proceed to shoot it off.... so i lost a lot of health right there and then. Then there's the whole gift-giving aspect. If i give a pack of pills to an AI i want them to keep them.... not give them back to me instantly or to another AI!!! I gave them to that character for a reason!! I really want a simple, 'come here' 'go there' command like was in Half Life 2 for the squad AI so i can easily direct them to picking up bonuses like Health packs and pills or ammo etc. when other times they'll wander off because the AI all-of-a-sudden has a psychic premonition as to where in the level these bonuses are... though they often neglect to play the sound bite file to let me know that they found some stuff.

A few tweaks and the game would be almost perfect..... To be honest, if i didn't care about the game these issues would be non-existant.

27 November 2008

The problem with people...

There was an article by Leigh Alexander over on Kotaku recently about how she came into contact with the uninformed public - the great unwashed masses so to speak. It's true that themes run through society and this one has been coming along rather nicely. The basic fact is, as i've acknowledged time and time again, that the majority of consumers who buy games don't know about the artform.

They don't read gaming blogs or review sites and they don't read gaming magazines. In fact, i'd go as far to speculate that the majority of game purchases are purely 'impulse buys' rather than informed decisions and i think that this is reflected in the way that the games that get the most general advertising do the best - regardless of the quality offered. It's why gaming companies can get away with DRM - as the CEO of EA pointed out - the majority of the consumers who buy games don't know or care about DRM though that second point is entirely dependent on the first. Once i've explained DRM to a few of my friends they all agreed that it was a bad idea for the consumer: it is a generally agreed principle that once paid for, the consumer owns said product to do with it as they wish.

It is purely because of the above reasons that we, as a community are a minority voice in how games are made, targeted and controlled. We have little power to effect change in the industry, even though we are the loudest, because the largest corporations such as EA and Activision don't get the majority of their revenue from us. I don't mean to say that we shouldn't complain - we do have some voice after all and staying quiet represents our complicity in the actions that these companies take.

To be honest i still don't get why people are surprised by these revelations. I mean, how many of the hundreds of literature consumers would be considered experts (or borderline experts) on the medium? How many people who have bought paintings fully comprehended the socio-economic factors that went into the development of a certain artistic movement during the late 19th century in France? (I'm not a great art lover so i'm just putting this together for effect not because i know of any art movements that were spawned in France in the late 1800s)

The world is ruled by the misinformed and run by the misinformed while those who are informed rant, rave, push and press against the bindings of ignorance. Of course, everyone is ignorant and everyone is an expert.... it's how the human race can achieve the levels of information that it has done... but we've yet to find a way to get that information and knowledge usefully applied.

11 November 2008

Idiotic reports and the need for scietific methodology...

People say you can make stats say anything you want. I personally don't subscribe to this line of thinking. I believe that it's more accurate to say that if your suppositions are wrong (on purpose or by accident) then you can go looking for the answer you want and support it through biased research. It's a constant danger in the scientific profession and one that you're supposedly trained to learn how to avoid - though i'd say we're all guilty of it to some degree.

The danger isn't so much in scientific circles though as bad research will get a name for itself that can be hard to shake off the authors' backs. No, the danger is in trusting figures from 'closed' environments that conceal how they do their research and have no peer (or otherwise) review process or even worse, from people who think they know how unbiased and fair research is conducted but have no training in the field, leading themselves and others into false assumptions.

While this isn't what this particular post is about, i thought i'd make the observation due to a recent experience elsewhere on the internet...... and it's also tangentially related to the content in this post :)

Ars has an article up about game sales in the US, UK and Japan and comes to the conclusion that if you want a blockbuster title you must do well in the 'all important' US market. Frankly the assumptions that seem to have gone into this conclusion seem idiotic.

First off there's the relative market size difference between the three territories. The population of the US is approximately 300 million, the UK is approximately 60 million and Japan is approximately 127 million. This ties in with the fact that if you want to take a trend or sales figure and compare it with how well a game does in each market then you have to account for the differences in population. Saying that a game sold more in a country with more consumers in that particular market is... well, it's kinda dumb and obvious. If you want to compare the UK to the US, compare it to a state with similar population.

Then there's the games they've compared. Madden '09, Wii Fit, The Force Unleashed, Mario Kart Wii and the latest Pokemon game. Ars makes the astute observation that Madden sold best in the US and conversely Pokemon sold best in Japan while Wii Fit and Mario Kart sold in each territory but TFU only sold in US and the UK:

The number one seller, for instance, was Madden 2009, with 2,958,000 units sold in the US, out of 2,994,000 worldwide. In other words, the US propelled that game to the top of the charts alone; nothing else came close. Number two was Wii Fit, where 61.4 percent of sales were in the US, and number three is Star Wars: Force Unleashed, where 81.5 percent of sales came from the US. That sends a powerful message: games that hit big in the US hit bigger than in any other market. The sole counterexample is the 1,482,000 units of Pokemon Platinum sold in Japan; that particular entry in the long-running series has yet to be released anywhere else.

This is a classic case of not understanding how things work and then coming to false conclusions. Sure, like i said above, a larger market will have more sales of a product.... not to mention that a game that has appeal in only one market of those surveyed will undoubtedly perform best there - I'm looking at you, Madden. No one else cares about American Football so it's a wonder it sold in the UK at all. Then there are the other games on the list: Pokemon is only available in Japan. It hasn't been released in any other territory yet - similarly, TFU had a staggered release date with the US receiving it before the EU (which would be the comparable territory to the 'US') and it hasn't even been released in Japan yet.

The other discrepancy in numbers is easily explainable with the difference in market size between the three countries and would paint a more accurate picture. Take for instance Wii Fit.

Out of a population of 300 million, Wii Fit sold 1, 283, 000 copies in the US. That's a 4.28 x10(-3) copies per person. The UK had 460, 000 sales which is 7.67 x10(-3) sales per person while Japan had 346 000 sales leading to 2.72 x10(-3) copies per person. Now looking at the relative sizes of the market has shown that in fact the UK has a stronger games market for Wii Fit than either the US or Japan. There may be less sales in the UK but because of the relative strength of the pound and the higher percentage likelihood that a person will buy a game in the UK it could be argued that a blockbuster game is more likely to be made if you target what the UK tastes are because they are broader than just the US tastes in games.

I'd love for this article to actually compare all sales in the EU and then see how the numbers come out... and of course compare Fifa '09 or Pro Evolution Soccer (it's football you idiots!) worldwide sales numbers in each territory and then see how that changes their conclusion.

It's this kind of unscientific, biased reporting that gets the industry into a mess. Undoubtedly this report will be debunked by a portion of its audience.... but how much more damage will be done by people who follow along thinking that they should target all their games (or from a consumer point of view, all games should be targeted) to the US audience? This mentality then filters out and provides harmful repercussions. A similar example to this is the argument that the 360 and PS3 developers shouldn't have to support SDTVs with their games.... an argument that is similarly unfounded and based on lack of thought and understanding of the situation.

I'd like to finish the article with the same paragraph that Ars does and i want you to see if you can stop yourself laughing or crying at the state of reporting in the world today:

Take a look at how many of the biggest games either come from, or are propelled by, sales in the United States. It used to be that a system had to conquer Japan for it to be a success. That time has passed.

31 October 2008

Be careful what you wish for...

It seems that the Belgium Entertainment Association, which represents game publishers, has managed to get a ban on game rentals from December 1st. Why is the industry set on shooting itself in the foot? Not only are they against the used game market but now this. Do they expect people to pay full price for the majority of the dross that they just crap out? There's no consumer protection because we can't return the games for a refund and now we (or more accurately the people in Belgium) can't even try out a game to see if it's worth buying and since demos are pretty much *extinct, what are we to do?

The game industry wants special status, above and beyond every other industry. You don't own the games you buy, you can't rent, you can have demos if you pay for the service and you're effectively only renting 'limited install' games when you do pay full price. They'd like to ban the sale of used games as well effectively making playing and using games into a service but without any of the benefits of paying for a service (because it costs them too much to provide them as a service).

The 'contracts' that we enter into as gamers are also unreasonably skewed towards the publisher and developer. These EULAs are unreadable before opening the product, must be agreed to (though you can't return the game if you don't agree with them so it's a forced agreement and should be deemed illegal) before using the product and can be updated any time the publisher/developer likes. The EULAs also provide get-out clauses for the publisher/developer, excusing them of any liability including damage caused by their programme and continued use of that programme or online service.

More and more i'm becoming disappointed and disillusioned with the gaming industry. Their continued selfishness and blinkered acts are alienating me. I've already sworn off 4 or 5 PC games this year. EA's continued shenanigans regarding their forums and their products means that i doubt i'll be buying any of their games in the near future (even though i want to!) on PC or on console. At the moment i'm renting the majority of my games because that's the only avenue of protest outside of writing to the game publishers that i can take. If it continues this way this blog may cease to exist because i'll no longer be a gamer.

*There aren't many demos released for games anymore as developers cite added costs and development time to get them out. Also, many new demos are coming out for Xbox live gold subscribers only.

30 October 2008

Nintendo and that 'focus' on the core audience...

Once again, Nintendo have come out saying that they haven't been neglecting their core audience (well, core gamers). I'm against this opinion with all my being. If anything, Nintendo have shown time and time again that their focus this generation has been on the casual market.

We have never neglected core gamers. We still have developers working on popular core gaming franchises but we need longer to complete these games, approximately two to three years.

The thing that gets me about Nintendo's comments (continually - because they said something similar last year before Christmas and i said the same thing then*) is that they knew they were developing the Wii and they knew that they'd all but abandoned development on the Gamecube in it's last year. The Wii has been available since 2006.... if we add on an extra year or for development of games that's since 2005 that developers have had the ability to make games for the Wii.

Let me add that up for you, Nintendo: 4 years. Now, i believe that most (hard)core games' development time comes in at around 3-4 years and not 2-3 years so using that logic we should have had a glut of hardcore games last year and this year. We haven't. If we're taking your figures then it's possible that we should have seen two waves of core-focused games available at market.

Now, i know for certain that some developers will have been developing for the Wii before 2005 and others, porting PS2 or GC games should have been able to do it in much shorter time.

There is only one conclusion. The Wii, because of all the marketing from Nintendo, is focused on the non-core gamers and along side the fact that most third party developers didn't count on the Wii being a success decided that the captive market was also overwhelmingly casual rather than core due mostly to Nintendo's game and marketing focus. Thinking about the recent ports of GC games, they could have done that nearer the Wii's original release.... even in 2007. Why now? Possibly it's due to the looming recession though some analysts think that gaming is more recession-proof that other industries.

If the recession does hurt gaming in the casual markets more than the (hard)core then we're going to see Nintendo suddenly back-pedalling on their focus because it's the core audience that supports them during this period. While i don't think that's a concern in the near future, Nintendo are readying for just that instance when next Christmas comes around. It may just be too little too late though.

* Turns out that i wrote on a related problem last march on my old blog.

29 October 2008

False information and societal learning...

I was just watching The Simpsons (one of the Halloween specials) where Lisa's reading an Edgar Allan Poe and Bart comments that it's not scary.... Lisa points out that people were easier to scare back then and Bart retorts with a comment about Nightmare on Elm Street.
You know, we've all had this thought before (i'm sure) and we know that films that were banned or hated because of their controversy 20 or 30 years ago might even get a 15 age rating if released today! Now, the reason this happens is that society gets used to things; people adjust - but only if that something is experienced on a large enough scale.

People, on the whole, are less scared by specific things than they were 100 years ago because they have been experienced and/or understood. The people in England, thanks to the bombs dropped in WW2 and the terrorist bombs used by the IRA, are less scared of attack by foreign and terrorist means. All the 'anti-terrorist' government propaganda in the recent years in the US has lead from outright fear to cynicism and the response is becoming more level-headed as time goes on (not just in the US).

Thinking along these lines, if real events and false events (films, literature, propaganda etc) can positively affect a population, can games also positively affect our response to certain situations?

At the moment though i'm having a hard time thinking of a game that actually can increase our tolerance or general wisdom. Maybe it's just one more step on the road to getting gaming's 'Citizen Kane': we have the good, immersive stories, the interesting interative/gameplay mechanics.... but where are the allegories, the thought provoking and personally challenging experiences?

I know that some people might argue that Call of Duty 4 (and other recent games) provides this.... though i don't think the game really does. I think it provides an insightful look at the effects of war in some instances but it was so hand-holding and directed that it comes closer to what a movie can provide rather than the individual experience that a game could provide.

26 October 2008

Local multiplayer and its ramifications...

While reading that gamasutra article i was doing a little research to see about the ratio of games with a *local multiplayer component to single player/online multiplayer only. Unfortunately there isn't much hard data out there for people who can't afford to pay ridiculous amounts of money to access it.... so i turned to wikipedia. Then i compared the top selling games on most of the home consoles (ignoring games that i didn't know - especially japanese only ones) and checked the ratio of the above conditions on each. Some of the consoles don't have a lot of data such as the Dreamcast or Gamecube but this is all just anecdotal research anyway so i'll count them anyway.

*This includes 'take it in turns' games like Super Mario Bros. 1-4

Single/online only: 26
Local multiplayer : 11
SNES MegaDrive
Single/online only: 27 5
Local multiplayer : 14 4
N64 Playstation Dreamcast
Single/online only: 15 53 3
Local multiplayer : 19 15 4
Gamecube PS2 Xbox
Single/online only: 16 77 12
Local multiplayer : 9 73 5
Xbox 360 Wii PS3
Single/online only: 17 9 6
Local multiplayer : 12 15 2

Looking at those numbers the ratios of non-local to local multiplayer for each generation are as follows:

NES 1 : 0.42
SNES 1 : 0.52 (MegaDrive 1: 0.8)
N64 1 : 1.27 PS1 1 : 0.28 (DC 1 : 1.33)
GC 1 : 0.56 PS2 1 : 0.95 Xbox 1 : 0.42
360 1 : 0.71 Wii 1 : 1.67 (PS3 1 : 0.33)

It's interesting to look at the popular consoles of each generation and indeed the most successful (these two terms aren't necessarily the same) and how they correspond with the audiences we typically expect to game and how those audiences have expanded and evolved over time (hindsight is brilliant, ain't it?).

Generation 1:
Not sure about the Master System but i don't think it was very popular by comparison to the NES. Anyway, this generation came in the middle of the first great death of gaming when everyone, their dog, cat and grandma gave up on gaming after the successes of Atari and Commodore. It's unsurprising that the number of local multiplayer games for the NES is fairly low. Back in those days, although there were a loads of popular MP games, most were single player affairs due to the generally solitary nature of the gamer culture.

Generation 2:
The number of MP games has increased (and is my recollection of my SNES and MegaDrive) and this reflects the increased numbers of gamers and their want to play together and enjoy experiences. Single player-only games are still prevalent.

Generation 3: (The aborted Saturn probably should be included here but i think of that as a .5 of the last generation)
The established console giants have an increased number MP games on offer - in fact they outstrip the SP games. Both consoles are much-loved by their owners even if sometimes a lack of games is cited as their downfall, and in nintendo's case, needing more memory for some games later on in the console's lifecycle. On the flip side is the Playstation. It was the most successful console of that generation but had the least number of local MP games in its top selling list, lower even than previous generations. Why?

I think that it all comes down to market. The PS1 was primarily marketed at 'older' gamers. No, not the silver surfers or 30+ yr olds we think of these days. No, i'm talking about the late teens and 20-30 yr olds. Yeah, those guys will all of their disposable income and lack of family commitments. I'd argue that it's purely the reason why the PS1 was so successful - they tapped a market that had grown up with the successful NES, SNES and MegaDrive but perhaps weren't being served so well by the slightly more kiddy N64 and Dreamcast offerings. Another aspect of this time period and market is that most of the players are single men who play alone. Sure there are some MP sports and fighting games that these guys play together but otherwise there wasn't much need to have co-op or MP in most games.

Generation 4:
This is the most interesting generation by far and shows the problem with the fickle gaming market. The PS2 was the most successful console this generation (though the Xbox could hardly be called a competitor considering how late it was introduced) partly due to the PS1's success and partly due to the ever increasing gaming populace. The PS2, under the guidance of people like Phil Harrison, invested in more casual or mainstream games whilst also catering to the hardcore market - a difficult line to walk - and while it suffered under the weight of many mediocre titles, it had more than it's fair share of classics. It was the everyman console, seemingly as dedicated to children's titles and mainstream family multiplayer titles as it was to the hardcore FPS and third person action titles and it's almost 1:1 ratio in sales shows this well.
By comparison the Gamecube and Xbox really struggled due to their much narrower and less flexible approaches: targeting primarily families/young people and the hardcore audience respectively.
While i enjoyed both my PS2 and Gamecube, it was only games on the PS2 that i felt i could play with my friends.... in fact i didn't have any multiplayer games on the gamecube to play with my friends... which may have contributed to that feeling :)

Generation 5:
This latest generation is quite easy to explain but it also provides disapointment and possibly a direction for future console generations. The Wii is currently the most popular/successful console because it's sold for a profit and targets previously untouched audiences whilst making gaming socially acceptable. The Wii is the first 'board game' console - one that can be pulled out at parties and almost universally accepted. They also stuck it right in the mainstream media's eye: on talk shows and in the news, which gave it unprecedented coverage and therefore 'buyability' from the public. This also requires a large portion of local multiplayer titles to enable the social positives that the Wii is championing.
Contrary to this the 360 and PS3 have focused on the online experience which has resulted in a reduced local multiplayer environment. Both consoles have a narrow focus on the hardcore segment of the market (no matter how envious their glances at the Wii's marketshare is) and this online environment targets this audience of primarily 15-30 year olds who will game with friends that are far away rather than together in the same room. This choice (along with their expensive consoles) is coming to bite both companies in the ass as we head deeper into the console generation. The 360 can be considered a success from Microsoft's point of view but it's been purely an exercise in brute force rather than any sort of delicacy and i think that shows in both the hardware troubles, the abandonment of the original Xbox and the new software end for the online experience. The fact that the concept of the '360' is constantly evolving rather than staying true to its original premise is a sign of its weaknesses. The PS3 is in a similar situation though because they waited until the hardware was set and the general focus of the Playstation brand (and the successes of the PS1 & 2) should mean that it would do as well, if not better than the 360. Unfortunately their pricing scheme is completely divorced from the reality of what consumers will pay and their hardware (and lack of documentation/software libraries for that hardware) means that they're left playing catch up in a market that has all the bases covered.

The reason why there will be no clear hardcore winner this generation comes down to both Microsoft and Sony missing steps in the development processes of their consoles... while the Wii, excellently targeted at the (and i hate to put it this way) faddish mainstream, will win because of the crystal clear focus of Nintendo on their market - even if they are leaving their previous hardcore audiences out in the cold.
Conversely, they're also the the console that's providing the successful local multiplayer component that is, in my opinion, required to be successful in the mainstream. If both Microsoft and Sony started to emphasise the 'local fun' rather than the solitary online fun for their consoles and ecosystems they might manage to steal some of that more mainstream market from Nintendo - instead of doing what they're currently trying to do, which is trying to ape Nintendo.... everyone is good at something and you can't suddenly decide to change that halfway through a product's lifecycle. It just harms development of the original premise and pushes away the customers you already brought into your sphere of influence.

The lost generation of gamers?

There has been a good series of articles over on Gamasutra recently looking at the 'lost' gaming market segments from the older generation, the family group and now the 25-35 yr olds. These articles are actually really cool considering the actual basic level research that went into them as opposed to my style 'articles' whereby i just shoot out my opinion :) I felt the need to comment on some of the points raised by this latest article due to the fact that i'm the only person in my group of friends who is a gamer when we all played many games when we were very young.

Most games do not have a long enough life span - cannot attract or engender the interest that these people require. I have a friend who is specifically like this but he is a gamer (though sporadically). He pretty much exclusively plays strategy games like Gal Civ 2 or Civilisation 4 and has completely gone off the twitch-based first person shooters. He also loves to play chess, Settlers of Catan and poker - games that you can keep learning over a long period of time.

4. Split screen co-op. Gee... that's funny. Split screen or local co-op was really popular in the days of the NES, SNES, Megadrive, N64, PS1, PS2 and to a limited extent the Gamecube (never played the Xbox). What happened to the games on the 360 and PS3? Well, it turns out that developers and publishers have one of two excuses they trot out when they announce a lack of local co-op or versus:

1. The game is taxing the system so much that it simply can't render things twice.
2. The online systems take care of all that and as such we focus all of our efforts on that area.

Now that may be all well and good but when the adoption rate of live (for actually playing games you need a Gold/paying account) is 56% you're missing out on pretty much half of your audience.

6. I understand the mentality of 'aren't games just for children?'. It's something that's peddled by parents and seeps down through generations until it hits a person who grows up loving and continues to love games despite the contrary expectations of those around them.

It's also true about game packaging - most of it is childlike though there are certainly exceptions on the three consoles targeted towards an older audience (PS2, 360 and PS3). It wouldn't take much to actually do this and considering a lot of these games are supposed to be 15+ and 18+ then it shouldn't really be a problem but obviously that 'aren't games just for children?' mentality is still prevalent in marketing departments. One example of where having an older-oriented cover works has been the later Harry Potter Novels. In a canny marketing move whereby they recognised that their audience has grown up with the series (as well as the long-time older readers) they provided both a children's cover and a grown-up cover... broadening the appeal of the purchase while leaving the content untouched.

25 October 2008

Surprise upgrade? Probably not

Basically i'm sitting watching TV when my dad turns to me and says, "How'd you like a new mobo and cpu?". I was a little confused so I answered, 'I guess i would'. So he tells me to price them up and he'll give me the money as a christmas present.

Now, looking at prices online i'm having second thoughts. Getting a decent CPU and mobo is going to ring in around £250 and then there's the problem that i don't have a PCI express graphics card or spare sound card, HDD, case or PSU. I can't afford those extras and i can't ask for more money from my dad.

In all honesty, my system is quite old now but it's only just becoming 'minimum' as a specification for the newer games coming out - many of which i'm no longer even getting for the PC due to their included DRM. So there's no desperate need to upgrade. Not only this but i want a completely new box i.e. i want to start from scratch so i can play old games on my old (current) box and be able to play new games on my new box.

Then there's the simple fact that i wasn't planning on actually upgrading until later on next year. Sure there are loads of good processors and especially graphics cards around at the moment but i feel like i'll get a better deal in spring or summer for these components and possibly a fantastic deal around early autumn when the next generation of processors are out to force down the prices.

So looks like i'm holding off an upgrade in a move that might be considered spitting in a gift horse's mouth....

What do people think?

15 October 2008

Riccitiello sticks his nose out, wishes he hadn't...

John Riccitiello (that's a hard name to spell!) has been talking in a number of places about EA's stance on DRM and about its impact on games and gamers. I'll pick out a few choice quotes:

We implemented a form of DRM and it's something that 99.8 per cent of users wouldn't notice. But for the other 0.2 per cent it became an issue, and a number of them launched a cabal online to protest against it.

I'm guessing that half of them were pirates, and the other half were people caught up in something that they didn’t understand,” he says. “If I’d had a chance to have a conversation with them, they’d have gotten it.

I don’t like the whole concept; it can be a little bit cumbersome. But I don’t like locks on my door, and I don’t like to use keys in my car… I’d like to live in a world where there are no passports.

There are different ways to do DRM; the most successful is what WoW does. They just charge you by the month,” Riccitiello says, noting that the subscription model means that even those who pirate the software itself can’t play without paying.

We’re going to see an evolution of these things. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we had to do these types of things. I want it to be seamless and easy – but I also don’t want to have a bonfire of money.

Ho BOY! I mean, you see people saying that Peter Molyneux's or Denis Dyack's minders have bad days but this sole interview conjures up images of PR people slitting their wrists.

Okay, i'm going to address this in a calm way because, frankly, this is too easy to react to. His comments are the equivalent of flame bait on any internet message board. First off is the assertion that most of the customers won't notice it. Well, yeah, of course they're not going to notice it until they have a problem.... but they should be allowed to know that it's there! Really, as well, i do not think there was a cabal of prospective customers rallying together. There was no organisation in the normal sense of this. People started doing it and others followed. It's called a consumer rally. What does John (being hyperbolic now) think of anti-war protesters or animal rights protesters. We may not always agree with everyone who decries or supports something but that doesn't make them a cabal:

a small group of secret plotters, as against a government or person in authority.

It's a far cry from that and it's actually a fairly insulting term to use.

Secondly, treating your customers as if they're simpletons or pretending they're pirates really doesn't endear you to them. I'm pretty sure that there were some pirates complaining about the DRM (even though it doesn't affect pirates) but saying that half of the complainers were pirates and half were stupid makes you look out of touch with reality. The interesting take away point from this comment is that people who are pirates aren't stupid - they're just against the system.

Thirdly, what?! You don't like locks on your door to your house or your car? Either this is a really bad analogy or John is actually more than a little out of touch with reality. Locks on your property help keep it safe. Now if you've read a few posts below this one on how i believe that games sales are commodities and not services then you'll see that the customer owns the game.... however if you're CEO of EA it's obvious that they believe that they own your game. In that respect it makes sense that they want to protect the game from robbers. However, why doesn't the customer have a key? Why do they have to call EA up to get them to unlock the door? DRM doesn't help the customer and yet he mixes that up with his locks and passport analogy.

Fourthly, MMOGs do it best since they require the game to run through their servers all the time. They also provide constant help and support (24 hrs a day) and in-game updates and patches. They provide a service. Most games fall into the other category whereby they do not provide a service. So what John's saying here is that there's going to be an escalation. Games will be tied to a server and the user will log in to play them. Console games will be tied to a console or user and there will be no rental or used-game markets. Nor will you be able to return a game. This is a great step forward in consumerism. People vote with their wallets and companies walk in the opposite way thinking that what they're doing can't be wrong.... their whole attitude is backwards.

Finally: You want DRM to be seamless and easy.... but you don't want a bonfire of money? I thought bonfires of money only happened when you had lots of money to burn (hence the saying). A money pit on the other hand means something else entirely. So what this sentence means is really beyond my comprehension because you don't have to burn/waste money to release games. I think Valve and Stardock have proven that time and time again. It just takes a bigger man than John to admit that.

9 October 2008

Halo Recon.

Well, Bungie have announced their Halo 3 expansion campaign. It's about a drop-pod recon soldier in what looks like the city of New Mombassa on Earth when the covenant invade which i think is during Halo 2 (honestly can't remember the plot of Halo 2 very well as it was a pretty terrible singleplayer game).

I'm probably not going to buy this expansion since, though i don't tend to sell my games after i purchase them, i do not like having my content or games tied to an unreliable piece of hardware... nor to my user account. However, saying that, i actually like the look of the game. Not the fact that it looks like a 'sneaky' type of FPS but the Super Intendant and his help really appeals to me. Something that hits my psychological nerve about persevering through hardships and continuing to fight anyway.... i like the fact that his systems are damaged but the AI continues to try and help people (and specifically your recon unit) through those tough times.

I guess i'm just a sap for that old story: Droid meets droid, droid becomes chameleon, droid loses chameleon, chameleon turns into blob, droid gets blob back again, blob meets blob, blob goes off with blob and droid loses blob, chameleon and droid.

Oh, wait...

8 October 2008

Uh, oh! Console DRM and limited installs not far away...

And once they are i'm fairly certain that the general public will revolt and overthrow the DRM overlords that currently have a stranglehold over the games industry.

What am i talking about and why did i start a sentence with 'and'?

Well, i was unaware of this but the latest CheapAssGamer podcast outlined the latest attempt of the games industry to stop second hand sales. Basically the publishers/developers are placing codes in the new copies of games (mainly sports games) which tie a part of the content to a machine or a user profile. This then means that while the game can be sold into the second hand market, that component would have to be bought afresh.

The main example they gave was for American football and basketball games where the ability to be able to update rosters was limited by the use of this code. If the game was bought second hand it is possible to get these updates but it costs $20 - which is a sizeable chunk of that $60 for a game. (I've not seen this aspect of a console game before since i don't play sports games.... plus i live in the land of football)

On the one hand i'm okay with this. Updating a roster doesn't break the game. It doesn't stop the player from playing the base game and in previous generations of offline consoles (and i am primarily an offline 360 player) we were happy with having outdated rosters.

On the other hand it's a worrying trend. The whole point of consoles to date is that they are different from PCs. They are easier to use and reliable and the games are supposed to just work. Implementing this feature means that for people who buy the game second hand one of the advertised features on the box will not work. Secondly, the license that was sold to the user (since that is how the publishers/developers slant their sales of games) is then partially tied to that user.... which means that the user will be left with a part of a game that they are unable to use if they sell the game off. This also means that there will be no extra load on their system and there will never be more players on their network receiving updates than their actual sales of new games - however they will continue to earn more money from their license than players playing the game.
Finally, this also means that returning console games could soon become like returning PC games - i.e. impossible. The consumer could be stuck with an unwanted or broken game that is useless to them.... and still the exorbitant prices for a rented license.

There was also an opinion piece on Joystiq that mentions something that has been looming on the horizon for a long time:

But just in case it doesn't, Sony did register a handy, little patent that, in a nutshell, prevents games from being played on more than one console.

I can see this being tried in the future though i doubt it will work - people just don't want to be forced to rent something when the prices are not at a rental level. The price/gain ratio just doesn't fit and consumers do not have enough rights or protections to avoid being abused by the system put in place by the publishers and developers.

There needs to be more transparency when you buy a game - you need to know what restrictions are placed on the game before you open it up - and there needs to be set standards for purchasing digital content whether it be on a physical medium or not. I thought there were already consumer standards in place... but apparently the games industry does not seem to think that those standards apply to themselves.

3 October 2008

Wii gamecube remakes

This is an interesting turn of events by Nintendo considering that all the gamecube games work on the Wii from out of the box. However, i can see that this decision makes sense. For one, most people who bought a Wii would not buy a gamecube game for the console and i'm not necessarily saying that they don't know it works but the limiting fact that you have to buy another controller for the thing works against it if you're only going to get one game.

Plus, the branding of 'Wii' on the box and the fact that the announced games make a lot of sense for wiimote control should help bolster the Wii's catalog. Having Pikmin alone (one of my top 20 games of all time) makes this worthwhile!

On another note, the DSi was announced and there is much commentary surrounding this update of the DS. The one side suggests that it is a bad move by Nintendo by fracturing their userbase while not updating the handheld to the next level but still hobbling it with the same pitfalls that the current DS has (low resolution, etc). The other side seems to be optimistic on the inclusion of the cameras and SD card slot with downloadable games and the potential this has for the games to be developed.
I'm not sure where i sit on this scale. I only have an original DS (DS Phat) and couldn't justify the move to a DS lite.... however the DSi is sufficiently different enough that i could justify the purchase once the price comes down a bit. However i have doubts about the actual software released specifically for this handheld. How many games will take advantage of the camera when the multimillions of DSes do not have this function? How many games will be released via the downloadable store in regions outside the favoured Japan and US? (i.e. I'm a dirty european and have very few Nintendo games available)
If the install base doesn't increase at an exponential rate then there just won't be any support for the new feature(s).

30 September 2008

The consumer’s perspective

This is in response to Dan Shoe’s articles over on his (and Crispin’s) blog.

While the dance between the publisher/developer and the press is a complex beast at the best of times, the way that the intended audience fits into the puzzle magnifies that complexity and the disparity between what each of those two(three) parties want. On the one hand the consumer is blasted with information from TV advertisements, billboards and buses, in the middle we are courted by magazine covers, gossip websites and enthusiast/developer blogs and on the other hand we have the consumer-consumer channels of feedback. It’s a three tier system.

The first level of assault on the consumer is simple enough to understand. Big marketing has been using and refining their techniques for well over fifty years now and the consumer, for the most part, has placidly let this encroach into virtually every aspect of our lives – in fact it’s pretty safe to say that we couldn’t live without advertising in the same way that we couldn’t live without the internet... we could but we are children of our time and don’t know how to. I’m actually going to say that this level of marketing is effectively screened out enough that it has minimal impact on our purchasing decisions: most of what we buy is based on tiers 2 and 3.

The second level is the most important because, if we’re honest, most of the information from tier 1 and 3 is derived in some form from those outlets were more information can be found. The second level is also where the PR companies and their clients interface directly with the system. Of course, different outlets pursue different functions/ideals and each are as important as the next; a gossip website such as Kotaku or Joystiq maintains overall consumer excitement and interest in upcoming products, analytical outlets like Gamasutra provide deeper insight into the industry for those interested and then there are the straight-up review sites (EDGE, 1UP etc. and magazines) which provide, subjective, but necessary reviews and scores.

I’m going to skip level 3 here because we’re all well acquainted with that and instead take a deeper look at the consumer’s rocky relationship with that second tier. First off: magazines and review sites. These are important interfaces with the general public – people who do not know developer names nor do they even care that a studio/publisher may have made one game or another before making the current game... and they maybe even more occluded than that. I have plenty of friends who are like this and having conversations with them about games or gaming is impossible simply because they do not know. They enjoy the games they have but will generally buy a game on hype from major marketing pushes and magazine covers and I’m sad to say that they probably make the majority of the market and sales for games. (Full disclosure: I have a friend who is a lawyer who did not see the problem with Microsoft having a monopoly on operating systems... he still thinks it’s okay despite me giving him the reasons against)

The problem with addressing Dan’s article is that anyone who read his blog or this blog or participated in the other outlets linking to his blog article cannot know what these people are thinking when they buy a game; what influenced them or drove them to that specific game. I can’t – I can guess, but it could just be that. These people aren’t wrong in their actions: they just don’t care about games or the industry in the way that I don’t care about the soap/deodorant industries. As long as I don’t smell that’s fine! Everyone disregards the man behind the curtain until something goes wrong... and then that’s where the second tier really makes their mark.

Information is power, many people have said, and giving information to people, whether it’s in a concealed or direct form makes a difference. One of the reasons that I believe that EDGE has been around so long is that it holds true to this tenet. Whether it’s covering the new games in previews, current games in reviews, looking at what makes the industry tick or opinions from around the world of developers, journalists and publishers let alone trying to deconstruct a game years after its release happens to make it valuable to consumers. It’s pretty much proven that these virtues make a publication (online and print) successful in the long term and you only have to look to gossip or TV listing mags to see the effects of being too shallow in your approach to a subject: it turns into a never-ending spiral of looking for the biggest and newest scoop you can find – which will be reported exactly the same way in every similar publication. Eventually a news story is published that isn’t entirely true or they trade their reputation on rumours and hearsay rather than actual facts and the next thing you know their readership has jumped ship to the newest and shiniest similar mag because of some gimmick (there was one recently that took the bold step of reducing the size of the pages so that it fit inside a medium-sized handbag. Genius!).

Now, all of this is preamble to the actual topic at hand (I’m a bad writer :/ ) but how does it all relate to the consumer’s experience? It does and it doesn’t. Simply put, whatever is done will be relegated to a successful or unsuccessful footnote in the industry’s history. Consumers don’t care (in the negative way) if one developer says something nasty about another or their (ex-)publisher or that there was a spat between two websites/a journalist and a PR representative etc. These events actually improve the relationship between the consumer and a company – people like knowing what’s going on and they're not stupid. Consumers like having access to scores and reviews and even sometimes both! They don’t hold any ethical questions above the articles in question and they don’t care what history the writer has with the genre or company... they take it at face value.

However, this is where the industry has to be careful. Take that step too far, abuse the intelligence or the faith of the consumer and you will be punished. It’s all to scale. Making bad on one (Gamestop) review will probably drive up your traffic overall and heighten your consumer awareness. Being known for firing the whole bunch of writers because of PR backlash might increase your traffic but also decrease the respect and faith the consumer has in your site. It’s the same with the games themselves. Ultimately, bad and buggy games sell – it’s why publishers/developers will just shove a game out the door – in the long run it does nothing to harm their business because they have a nice, high, protective wall around sales to the consumer. Repeatedly abuse those consumers or abuse them in such a way (the SONY rootkit scenario) though and you will feel their wrath.

I guess that my point is that the consumer enjoys the shenanigans of the industry. They revel in the lives lived and the games played. At the end of the day the opinion of a single consumer counts for little but add them up and suddenly they direct the industry as a whole – (ir ;))regardless of their knowledge of what should be done. The industry might think that they play the consumer but in reality the big game is always won by those who are thought to be controlled.

27 September 2008

A note for developers/publishers on selling things:

Okay, first off i'll get used games sales out of the way: You do not have the right to expect monies from second hand sales. No other business on the planet does this or has ever done this for products sold to a consumer.

Right, now that the definitive statement is out of the way we can move onto the more nebulous discussion at hand: selling a game. Developers and publishers would have you believe that you are buying a licence to run the game - i do not believe that this is the case. Simply put, games are a commodity. They are bought and sold under this simple premise - they are not a service:

"an article of trade or commerce, esp. a product as distinguished from a service."

A licence is something that is provided to determine whether you have permission to do something, or not:

"permission to do or not to do something.

exceptional freedom allowed in a special situation.

the legal right to use a patent owned by another."

Now this strikes me as kind of obvious but apparently the aforementioned parties seem to have trouble grasping this simple concept and they use this mis-use of the term licence to try and do a couple of things:

  • Limit the number of users of a game to one - requiring more purchases for people to use the content.
  • Deny the user ownership of the product - removing established rights for purchase of commodities.
  • Limit the ability of the user to actually use the game whenever they want - i.e. a timed obsolescence.
Before i get to these three points i'll spell out why this approach to 'believing' how you sell the game to the public is flawed. A publisher or developer would have you believe that they own the content on the disc because they coded it and assembled it and therefore have the rights as the 'artist' and the reason why this has lasted as long as it has is because it's partially true.... but here's an example of why they're wrong:

You buy a car (or anything else). You own the car - everyone know this - therefore you can use it as you wish; damage, repair or sell it on. However, (and this is where the publishers/developers are correct) you do not own the patents that went into producing the car - you have no permission to reproduce the car or reverse engineer its operation.

This is exactly how game sales should be perceived. If a game is sold it becomes the property of the purchaser: they have the right to use it as and when they wish but do not have the right to use the content (i.e. game code or art assets) to produce other items for sale - they do not own the base of the game but the implementation of the game.

Let me give you an art example: You can buy a painting from an artist and you own the painting to do with as you wish. You don't have the right to the ideas behind the painting or the right to reproduce it and sell it off as your own work (or even the artist's work) when it isn't.

So actually saying you're selling a licence is not correct but that doesn't mean that you aren't still protected from all the crap that goes on in counterfeiting and piracy etc. Games are sold under the term 'licence' only that it really isn't a licence in any normal sense of the word that could differentiate it from the meaning of commodity.

Back to those three points i made above.

Point 1. : Imagine if the movie industry tried to limit the use of a DVD to the person who bought it through a 'licence' (or even the music industry)..... i think there would be a general uproar from the public. It just doesn't make sense. I have a driving licence but that doesn't restrict people without a driving licence from being able to be in a car with me when i drive.... this reasoning could be extrapolated to any number of products.

Point 2. : You can't resell the game if you don't like it. In fact for PC games you can't even return the game if you don't like it or it is buggy. You have no recourse (only because consumer protection laws have been slow in catching up to the new digital era) but to eat the loss of money on your purchase. Developers/publishers would prefer to make it so that you buy your product and then have no rights or expectations - even if it's the most buggy unfinished game ever made. Their point of view seems to be that 'well, we made our money.... so suck it!' and this is becoming more prevalent with the increasing restrictions of DRM (Digital Rights Management) or as us consumers like to call it: removing the 'rights' of the legitimate customers. [I place rights in apostrophes because there are no laws governing the right to sell your purchase in my country and there are no laws allowing people to share the use of a commodity but they are accepted practice by the whole population and so are taken to be law - in the same way that copying music from one device to another is now becoming legal due to the politicians changing the law to reflect a user's rights]

Point 3. : This overlaps with point 2 by a large margin but is important to list separately because of the emerging types of DRM on the market. No longer do you even get a licence to play the game as you see fit but now you get a licence (at the same price as the originally, 'owned' unlimited game) to possibly use your game.... if the company lets you. Online activation means that your game is tied to the company - you're running it on a sanctioned terminal linked to the mainframe whose connection could be revoked by the company any time they wish whether it be through conscious decision such as banning or through accidental mishap as when authentication servers break or go offline. All the users have to hug themselves to sleep at night with is the promise (for whatever little that is worth) of a patch being made available at some later unspecified point for your games to be freed from this limitation.
These measures inherently devalue the product... however the product is still sold at the same price.

All these measures and efforts aren't particular to gaming though, oh no, they come from the ill-defined world of 'services'. Services are a different matter entirely though because you enter the contract knowing that you have a limited service and a fixed term - much like a movie rental or your phone contract - you are provided with a worthy service for which you pay a (usually) constant fee for continued use of said service and the worth of the service increases or stays static with the use of the service - it does not diminish.

Let me give you an example of what i mean here - i know it can be a bit confusing. Imagine if you were tied to a phone service like Orange. You are happy on the normal form of connection (GSM) and all is going well. When 3G is launched the company do not drop the use of GSM, when a new version of a phone is released your old platform doesn't suddenly become unusable. Those points i made above make sense when combined with the benefits provided by a service. There is no need for the service operator to try and force you to change because they are paid regardless of the situation and quite often it is actually in the interests of the consumer to upgrade. The worth of the service does not diminish.

Take those points and put them into your commodity system instead and all of a sudden you have a problem. A game is not normally supported by a developer or publisher past a year (and frequently less) and certainly you will not receive a free upgrade to a port onto a new console. Nor is it in the publisher/developer's best interests to keep your access to the original game because they want you to buy their latest version due to the fact that they don't get any money in the intermediate period between games from a person who has purchased a game. A consumer could play their game for years and not need or want to buy another in that time frame therefore the publishers/developers have to create a way to force people to 'upgrade' by implementing DRM with planned obsolescence.... they release games that are buggy because they do not see the worth in waiting a little bit longer and spending a little more money to release a more playable game. The whole way that the games industry is set up happens to be antagonistic to the consumer and the way that the consumer/producer relationship has worked for hundreds of years by trying to apply service logic to a stand alone product. By buying a game with DRM in it your purchase diminishes with value upon use and with time and it's planned rather than natural.

There are a few options open to the industry to actually make things work:

  1. Return to simple non-reliant copy protection schemes such as CD/DVD-ROM protection. This stops casual piracy/copying from friend to friend but does not stop people exchanging their paid-for commodity. It has exactly the same effect on proper piracy (i.e. torrent downloads and illegal sales of mass copied content) as DRM schemes do but does not require the continued maintenance of an authentication server, the costs of purchasing and applying DRM to a game and also (if the publisher is being honest) the cost of removing that DRM scheme.
  2. Move to a proper service model where games are released in an unbuggy state, all problems are supported and games are brought forward onto the latest system. This, of course, requires a subscription to the service but means that you have an ever increasing library of games to choose from on the service and thus increases the value to the consumer. It does have its downsides though: it will not stop proper piracy and the service will actually increase in cost to deploy as time goes on.
  3. Change the system so that you only rent games. You pay a LOT less than we currently do but the consumers know that they only have access to the product for a limited time.
Take your choice developers and publishers..... but don't keep things the way they are because sooner or later these business practices are going to end up in court and be found at worst illegal and at best shady and immoral. But know this: I and many other legitimate consumers will not keep buying games if the current model is extended with ever more restrictive DRM.... nor will i follow over to option 3 if it is the only method of acquiring games. I won't resort to piracy to get my gaming fix - i'll just play my bought property from the last few years until i am unable to do so - however, i can't guarantee that other consumers won't turn to piracy though it would be very ironic. Don't you think?