25 March 2009

Zelda's ill and i don't know if she'll make it.....

You know what the worst part of Nintendo's continued lack of hardcore focus is? For me, it's seeing the games you grew up with getting trodden on.

Take The Legend of Zelda series for example. I was happy with the direction they took up until Twilight Princess.... now i feel that Zelda has become a gimmicky horse, trotted out at every opportunity when Nintendo are trying to 'prove' that they still care about the hardcore gaming crowd. I played Phantom Hourglass but i didn't like it. I felt the game was heartless with no joy or irreverence that was present in the more cartoony entries in the series but it also lacked the grandeur of the more serious entries as well. The difficulty was also severely removed and i hated the touchscreen game mechanic which i had a really hard time being able to utilize effectively.... plus i hated travelling around in the boat.

I'll ignore Link's Crossbow Training as, well, I consider that to be a Zelda game in the same vein as the CDi games. Moving on to today's announcement The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, the sinking feeling that i had with Phatom Hourglass has returned. They've essentially kept the same game engine and mechanics, replacing the 'freedom' of the boat travel with trains..... on a track - as if the metaphor really needed to be underlined so acutely.

Where is the Zelda i like? Where is the grand adventure, the great story or the decent action? It's almost on par with the move from Star Wars eps 1-3 from 4-6 or Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull from the original three.... They take an established franchise and essentially throw out what it was that made it so great.

Initially when Aonuma took over from Miyamoto in the main development of the Zelda series i was quite excited as he stated he wanted to bring the stories together - to make sense of the timeline thus set out and integrate new stories into that..... well, i'm just not seeing this at all. Instead we're getting The Legend of Zelda: Wild, Wild, West.

At least i still have my beloved Prince of Persia... though, the DLC for that was so linear i fear that the open world might be removed in the second game which would be a travesty and reduce the game to exactly what its detractors said it was: a lengthy Quick Time Event (QTE).

21 March 2009

The problem with Star Wars...

Well, one problem at least. There is no change... actually that's incorrect: in fact there is negative change in the Star Wars universe. The original movies provided the fiction that had a certain style which reflected then-current thoughts on futuristic technology and cuture and the games that these movies inspired, from X-Wing to Jedi Knight, incorporated these design elements and continued them forward.
Then the new movies came along and royally fucked up the franchise - not just by being pretty poor in every respect (turns out Zebedee played the part of Yoda) but also because they re-wrote the styles and technologies of a universe that was set 20 or so years before the original films. Unfortunately this creep of what i want to call 'futurising' (though Futurition is the only word that comes close) has spread to the games as well... Kotor (1&2) and now the Old Republic MMO all feature pretty high-tech stuff.

I suppose that it's more a facet of having a franchise that spans almost 4 four decades than any particularly narrow-sighted vision of the Star Wars universe but i hate it so much. Now, i'm not greatly entrenched in the Star Wars universe but i'm pretty sure there was no galactic equivalent of the Dark Ages so there was no major loss of technology and culture, so why the hell are robots as good 4000 years before as they are in the 'present' of the movies? Unless there's some sort of technological limit that's been reached it makes no sense that there's all this cool stuff even one thousand years before the present let alone 4,000...

What this results in, for me, is an uninteresting universe where little is different at any point in time that the owners are likely to exploit in game, comic or movie form. They are too afraid to try something new in the franchise because then people might not recognise the fact that it's Tatooine or the bounty hunter class etc. I mean, mandalorian armour? Yeah, for the mandalorians that's fine but apparently Boba Fett was wearing pretty ancient armour because the Mandalorians were almost wiped out as a race in the Old Republic.

Just for once i'd like to see some innovation in the setting. For example, off the top of my head
  • Tatooine isn't colonised yet - no Settlements, it's just a desert planet... OR it's actually a lush, jungle planet and its sun is pretty weak but is showing signs that its intensity is increased OR there's an evil plot to throw a huge asteroid around the solar system which makes Tatooine's orbit adjust so that it's closer to the sun(s) and thus results in its desertification.
  • Light Sabres are unreliable (vibroblades are better) and usually only work for a limited time before they overheat or overload or something.... which adds a tactical element to their use by jedi to offset their powerfulness.
  • Ships are more awkward and slower.... they do not have hyperspace yet, or at least not the version of the drives we are familiar with in the 'modern' setting (maybe no streaks of light)
  • Blasters do not exist - there are only projectile weapons.... similarly with energy forcefields (or they have a similar feature to light sabres in that they're unreliable)
  • Droids do not exist in the sense that we know them - they are boxes with tracks or wheels and their appendages are stiff. Their personalities are undeveloped and unhuman-like. Protocol/translator droids are used but there are no complex combat droids and only very simple, possibly mostly remote controlled combat/repair droids.... which could be a character class (i.e. like being a pokemon trainer or whatever anime floats your boat)
That's just me and in the space of 1o minutes... what could a dev house full of dreamers, writers and creators come up with? Oh, that's right... i forgot that the 'house that Lucas built' is committed to running the franchise into an unimaginative grave.

12 March 2009

Wading through the crap...

I wrote a while ago about my belief that fewer, (and preferably higher quality) games on the Wii would result in better sales and performance for the third parties involved. Now, i'm beginning to take what i wrote even more seriously following a post from an iPhone game developer about how he'd made $535 on an investment (including his time) of $32,000 for his game, Dapple.

The iPhone has only been out since the end of June in 2007 and already there are 6000 games available on the App Store. That's essentially an 'infinite' number of games to trawl through (though only 17% are in the same genre as Dapple) unless you specifically know what you're looking for. Now, it's not like this is new to the gaming industry and in fact this problem is well known in the hotel/B&B industry (books, film etc), but there are three ways to get around this aspect of proliferation:

1) Produce fewer games (or only allow a limited amount each week).
2) Learn to effectively market your product.
3) Learn to 'monetise' your games effectively.

Number 1 just isn't going to happen. Apple are as greedy as any other company and won't want to halt the headline generating number of games available on their store.

Number 2 is difficult. You need to create a critical mass of reviews and public advertising for your product just before it is released and then capitalise on that pent up interest and curiosity. Further along you need to remind the populace that your game exists and this can be accomplished through re-advertising campaigns, sequels (and thus the link to the original game) and word of mouth which can only really help if your game is a runaway success - such as is the case with the DS and Wii. Keeping the game on lists (as the developer mentions) can be key to remaining in the public eye. It sounds like the guy at Streaming Colour Studios has learned this lesson and will be improving his marketing accordingly.

Number 3 is an interesting exercise and can pretty much come in any form. The best i've heard was on the recent podcast from GamersWithJobs where it was suggested to the resident iPhile that a subscription service which offered a random (not repeating) game per week for a fee (like a recurring rental service) would be an excellent way to sift the wheat from the chaff. This would not necessarily bring in the megabucks to the developer on its own but when that game is featured i'd bet there would be a related surge in sales numbers.... though i would not like to bet on by how much.

Ultimately the game companies (Apple, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony) need to sort this thing out otherwise they're going to end up with an indeciferable mess on each of their respective platforms. The only thing that currently saves the market is the console refresh every 5 or so years, meaning a blank slate can be slapped on top of the mess. Also, for previous generations there wasn't this proliferation of DLC or downloadable games which meant that there was no need or cost associated with keeping that content available for all users, even after the console has been discontinued (which i think will be a big disincentive to transfer to the next console generation aside from the monetary loss incurred from the horsepower battle that ensued between MS and Sony).

We've seen Microsoft come forward and say that they'd start removing games from Live! Arcade but so far i don't think this has happened in any meaningful way and this is probably down to an outcry from publishers/developers and users when it was first touted as a way to clean up the lists for sale. Since then there have been no other suggestions as to a solution to this problem and it's fast becoming the white elephant in the room. At least with physical copies there is a shelf life and limited number of copies in existance... for a digital copy there are unlimited 'items' available and, because of DRM, the 'original' needs to be kept for the customers to be able to redownload or reference if their copy is lost or corrupted.

DRM discussions aside, this is one of the reasons why i try not to support downloading games. At some point there is going to be a planned critical loss of information as we move from one platform to another and i do not want to be a part of that.

11 March 2009

Would you like some lube with that purchase...?

Nintendo, in all their wondrous and omnipotent glory, have decided to INCREASE the price of the Wii and upcoming games for both the Wii and DS/DSi in the UK. This is due to the weakened state of the pound in the international market and blub, blub blub.....

Wait, what the hell was that? Oh, right, that was the sound of Nintendo's UK sales figures sinking after this takes effect. Well, maybe not entirely but either way it's not a good idea. Basically, we here in the UK can't afford to be spending lots of money on games and game consoles and the prices of these items in relation to general income is usually higher than in the US but lower than some EU countries and significantly lower than Australia/New Zealand. So, in a time of economic 'crisis' where there are loads of people tightening their belts and/or being laid off.... how do you drum up more business? Oh, that's right! Increase the price of your items which were already making a profit on a per-unit basis anyway. Great strategy!

Of course, Nintendo don't actually set the retail price of their products in the UK and retailers are welcome to eat the ~£20 increase in order to keep sales going strong. Of course, this means that retailers, which are already doing badly in the current economic climate would struggle even more for a smaller cut of the item sold.... it's unlikely to happen. What i do see happening is retailers claiming that they're 'not receiving stock' or whatever excuse might apply so they can effectively stop selling the Wii in such quantities.

On the game side of the equation, a price hike is a ridiculous suggestion. DS games are so overpriced when taking into account gameplay hours and general quality (more complex games [i.e. not scrabble] usually sell between £20-30 though retailers tend to cut them down to sub £20 after a period on the shelves) and also, most importantly, cost to make vs install base of the platform. Wii games, again, are generally a sorry affair with respect to the quality of their build and i believe they are already at their sweet spot for selling to the mass market audience that Nintendo now calls their customer base.

Now, if the Wii had been targeted more towards a traditional or hardcore consumer base of game enthusiasts perhaps this would be a 'good' move for the company... while we complain about price hikes, game quality/whatever and can be pretty vocal about it all we still buy games. The lesson that Nintendo might be about to learn (just as other entertainment industries have in the past) the general consumer and mass market can be a fickle mistress... there's always something else.

4 March 2009

Following reading a reply to a post by the author (Iroquois Pliskin):

As I said, have this same problem with moral-choice games, I just always find them pretty uninteresting ethically. I think one of the things you're pointing to also is that moral choices in games would be a lot more impactful if the moral aspects were handled much more subtly.

It reminded me of a piece i wrote a while ago that was rejected from 'publication'. Enjoy:

Morality in games is generally your black and white, your good and evil – polar opposites. Role playing games and games with role playing elements strive to paint the game world in the shades of grey that reality has as a base coat. The problem with this is that any expressionistic medium is limited both by the person expressing it and the person experiencing it.

Inevitably one of the reasons why so many games fall into the trap of being polarised in their moral choices is because it’s easy - it’s much easier to write and script a game that is obvious in its intent than being ambiguous. Ambiguity could be said to be the nature of genius and many literary and artistic greats show this trait; allowing the user to discuss and imbibe the content, all the while applying their own world logic to it without the hindrance of being shown ‘how it should be interpreted’. Another reason is that the authors are conditioned to behave like this.

Look around in society and you will see the broad strokes of them and us, hero and villain, enemy and friend. It’s a trait that’s hard-coded into our survival instincts and it shows in our actions, our beliefs and the structure of society in general. It takes a lot to break away from this conditioning.

Essentially, I don’t believe that a person can truly express something that they’ve never experienced. They can guess but, at best, it’s still just guesswork. How many authors or actors will go out of their way to experience a way of life, either first hand or through extensively researching that way of life, to be able to excel at their work?
I think that the evidence is in front of us – in all the games we’ve played – the people who make games don’t know how to be bad people. Sure, they can call names and pretend to be violent but those are extremes. Where are the people who take a piss in a housemate’s shampoo because they’ve annoyed them one too many times? The people who are happy burning a business or home to the ground to claim on the insurance when their chips are down? These are the people who we need to be helping to develop games – or at least the people developers imagine themselves to be, to get into their mindsets and alter their perceptions of the world around them.

Going back to instinct and the social programming associated with that; we are designed to work together to produce favourable results - this is how the human race has survived for so long. Good deeds are rewarded on several levels: the burst of good feelings we get, the social reward of people respecting us and liking us and the related feelings we experience (along with the benefits we receive) from those interactions. There are also the negative effects of doing something ‘bad’ in society on whatever level: chemical punishments that our own bodies administer all the way up to social deprivation because of our bad traits or actions.
In many cases, this conditioning helps repress our darker sides, curtails our desires to fight for stupid reasons and try to dominate those around us for selfish reasons. There are those for whom the rewards don’t appeal: those people who get away with ‘bad’ deeds and feel a chemical reward from their bodies for doing those deeds. To back this up, there are studies that have shown that psychological disorders are associated with chemical imbalances: studies that show how some people don’t associate negative feelings of certain events and situations in the way that most ‘normal’ people do. These people do not have the same understanding of the world that the majority do and thus their ways are ‘bad’.

The problem with role playing games is that their authors have this applied to their world view. It’s the reason why good choices in games tend to be disproportionately rewarded and why the bad or evil choices are so simplistic in their implementation: be rude and kill.

If we want to start having more morally questionable choices in games, if games themselves want to start challenging our intellects in the same way that art, film and literature do, then those who make them need to start practicing whatever the equivalent of method acting is for game development. There needs to be a move away from the safe mindset of society and instead look inwards towards the absolute selfishness and cruelty that simmers just beneath the surface of any person. This would hopefully breed a broader moral spectrum in which a game can be played and also allow for more ambiguous characterisation and events to take place.

The best gaming intellectual and emotional experiences that I’ve had have come from games that make me question the intent of the designer and writer – to try to understand what is happening or what happened while I was playing. Games like Portal, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are the first step in the right direction. They don’t force the answers down our throats but instead allow a person to dissect the dangled hidden meanings if their own wish is to do so, or if not, just play the game.
This lenience in game understanding cannot happen when the choices or experiences allowed are polar in their presentation. You are allowed the designer’s intended emotions but not challenged to really think about how those emotions come about. Ultimately the player becomes passive in an intrinsically active medium.

However, if developers continue to push the boundaries of their and our social leanings, to help us question and understand that which makes us what we are... we may yet have our Citizen Kane.

2 March 2009

RE5..... again!

The BBFC have stated that Resident Evil 5 isn't racist. It's only due to people's biased view that the game might be inherently racist that it's even being questioned on it. I mean, Far Cry 2 has lots of black people (it's set in Africa) that you kill as a white person (there are multiple characters but only one of them has any significant colour to their skin) but i don't remember any controversy over that game and its themes of war and violence in war-torn Africa, let alone racism.

The other issue is with the BBFC and how people view the BBFC as not a ratings body but a censorship body (despite the fact that they've only banned two games in 20-odd years).... the phrase is actually used in the article above which i find quite funny. Intertwined with this view are the current shenannigans surrounding the new rating regulations about to be introduced in the UK and the fight between the BBFC and ELSPA/PEGI for the right to regulate and rate games here. I'm almost certain that if this was not ongoing the BBFC might never have been approached for a comment...