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).