Saturday, April 22, 2006

Number time.

Really quickly there is a poll up at Joystiq that asks who are you most excited for at E3. As of earlier today this is the result.

Also here are the latest hardware numbers in Japan...

DS Lite: 140,969 (827,737)

DS : 37,204 (767,773)

PS2: 27,549 (504,215)

PSP: 26,340 (609,399)

GBASP: 6,372 (100,814)

GBM: 3676 (62,678)

360: 1,926 (37,287)

GCN: 1,080 (43,649)

GBA: 46 (2,397)

XBX: 30 (1,355)

You can see that Nintendo is still pwning the competition in Japan, by alot. Out.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Interesting Rumor

There is an interesting rumor floating around the net today, made even more interesting because it is something that never crossed my mind before whereas usually the rumors are things I already thought of or rehashes of older rumors. Here it is: the nunchuck attachment might have its own motion sensors inside so you would be effectively holding two 3D analog sticks, one in each hand.

This has certainly excited many minds on the internet, mine included. Many people think it would be very confusing to, for example, play a game where you hold a sheild with your left hand, a sword with your right, left thumb controls characters real movement, right hand has other buttons to fiddle with. I can assure you that it only sounds complicated, in practice it would be much easier. The reason? You have spent many years working on the coordination of your arms and hands in relation to your body. It would be very simple to control a sword/shield combo in this way. Or boxing, or dual wielding of guns where you can target two different objects. Honestly it sounds very cool to me and any learning curve involved will certainly be smaller than the LEAP from one analog stick to two. In practice this would give a player control of three separate analog controls, two of which would be 3-axis intead of 2, and because you are controling it with your arms instead of your thumbs it will be much easier to learn, I would think it would be very natural, with the analog on the attachment (controlled by your thumb) being the most difficult thing to get the hang of, but then we have been using our thumbs to control video games for years...

There have been quite a few statements that there was another secret about the controller, above and beyond the secret about the console. If this is it then it is no wonder why Nintendo decided to keep this under wraps judging by all the negative feedback out there because people think it will be more complicated than wat we have now. I agree to a degree that games contolled this way may not appeal to the casual gamer so much ( I mean the 3 analog input, the two separate 3D analogs would be way cool for casual gamers because like I said we all know how to move our arms around) but hardcore gamers would eat this up.

I think people are associating these two freestyle analogs with the dual analog that is popular today (or should I say yesterday?) I feel maybe they are associating 'move your left hand to move your character, move your right hand to move the camera' as that is the standard in place today. I think though in an FPS game it would be easy for the game to know where you want to look based on how you are moving your hands, totally eliminating the camera thumbstick because you will be doing it automatically.

I think it would rock! Anyway, you guys tell me what you think. As for me and my house, we will play the Revolution.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

How videogames connect to us.

There have recently been disputes all over the net concerning violence in videogames. Do these videogames affect children negatively? The answer from independant studies and people with more psychology than me say no. They say that children who are more predisposed to violence choose to play more violent games but there is no evidence of a game actually raising the inherent aggression of any person.

This argument has bled over into many smaller contests of opinion regarding not just violence but blood, gore, swearing, nudity/innuendo and rewarding the player character for breaking the law or being amoral. I guess the blanket response here would be "look at the ESRB rating and buy or avoid games based on individual content". More specific analysis follows.

The world of video games is very similar to the world of movies in terms of how a person connects to the media format. The feedback is similar, ie. audio/visual, and the suspension of disbelief is at similar levels for both. A marked difference is the amount of time spent immersed in the media. Two hours versus perhaps twenty hours or more. Games and movies both try and provide storylines to immerse an individual and create a more rewarding experience. Movies learned long ago the shock value of swearing, nudity and gore. These things used to be in movies as a sort of mental gimmick. Shock a customer and they will advertise your movie for you. The world of videogames is a bit behind in exploring some of these areas of visceral feedback. Even though you know you are sitting on your couch, deep in the back of your mind you want to run for your life when you see or hear something scary. An adrenaline rush is a cheap and easy way to bring a person closer to your media, but visceral scares are quickly fading and require at least a hint of danger. Hence playing Doom 3 in the dark is scary until you turn the infinite health cheat on and you don't really care what is lurking beyond the feeble reach of your flashlight.

I recently had a conversation with a good friend about swearing in videogames. I think, in a lot of ways, people don't expect swearing to be in videogames. Therefore, when swearing is present is has a shock value attached to it. In many ways it is the same cheap gimmick of any other visceral feedback. You see or hear something that you weren't expecting and it elicits a response. Even people who swear do not always expect swearing in videogames. The excuse of the developer is that "people swear in real life. I am trying to mimic real life". This is of course completely false. The truth is that they are basing their game on real life, not that it is mimicing real life any more than a movie mimics real life. They want to make videogames more realistic but to do that they need photorealistic graphics and flawless AI routines. Instead of providing these things they go for the cheap trick of 'people swear in real life', instead of 'trees sway in the wind in real life', something that would actually require some programming.

Nudity is not really much different either. Instead of tapping into a natural fight or flight response it has shock value designed to play to other base needs. It sells the beauty and decency of the human body for this shock value and has quickly fading responses until a subject is desensitized. No different from any of the subjects we have been discussing.

The one major difference here is violence. A term so much broader than any of these other cheap parlor tricks. Violence can be anything from Mario jumping and squishing a mushroom guy to a realistic interpretation of shooting and killing human beings or aliens in a great many games. I said there was a big difference and it is this: violence is crucial to the telling of a story whereas gore, nudity, swearing and the like are most definately not. Most every story in movies, games, or books revolves around conflict. The underdog struggling to wrest power from an evil empire. The story has been told a million times in human history. Another popular theme is romance, but a romance story can easily be told without nudity where usurping the evil empire could never be told without violence. Not to mention that romantic stories do not translate well into videogames as it is difficult to give the player character enough options of interaction with other characters. You can't say what you want to say, go where you want to go, or do what you want to do. In an action story the things you do are very simple, you dont need to talk to the bad guy, just blow his kneecaps off. You dont need any other level of interaction other than aiming. And levels can be (and usually are) straightforward and closed-ended. Go from point A to point B, don't let your character die, and take out the enemy.

In short, I fully support violence in videogames, and any other type of media. I do not, however, support the use of gore, nudity or swearing as I do not believe them to be critical to story telling, but rather the cheap tricks that storytellers use to connect to a person when they are too lazy to find a better way. In other words look at the ESRB rating and buy or avoid games based on individual content.


I wanted to very quickly counterpoint my last entry with a list of things that I assume will be announced by Microsoft and Sony at E3 2006. Keep in mind that videogame announcements are small potatoes when compared to hardware because a game that is announced at E3 will usually come out more than a year later. Also games that are playable at E3 are never a final build, a rule that Nintendo may break if they are going for an early launch. Undoubtedly they had many games in a playable form last E3 but they were unwilling to show them because they didn't want to let the cat out of the bag so early.

I list Microsoft first because it comes first in the alphabet. :)
Microsoft will have several big announcements including (I assume) a playable version of Halo 3 which will not be ready until this holiday season when it has the greatest chance to undermine the release of the PS3. I would guess that Microsoft's big showing at E3 this year will be the titles they announced last E3 only in a playable form. Gears of War, a SquareEnix game and I'm sure a few others. Second will be a few titles that will be announced during the press release, games thet will really start to tap into the power of the 360 graphically. They will also announce a price drop of $50 or so on both of their console bundles. Last but not least is the possible announcement of the Xboy or whatever they will call it. Such a device will have to come into direct competition with the PSP with the ability to play movies and music as well as games. I seriously doubt that the press will go ape of this device as it does not fulfill a consumer need anywhere. My opinion of such a device is something I will get into if such an announcement actually takes place.

Last in the alphabet.
Sont has a few announcements about their PS3. Namely, what the crap will be in it? When they told us about it last E3 it could play games, every movie ever made, run your whole house full of consumer electronics, cook your dinner, change the baby, and launch a shuttle all at once. This thing was supposed to be packed full of options that such a scant percentage of the population would even be able to take advantage of that it was quite rediculous. They have since retracted and scrapped a few things out of the hardware and one wonders whether it is finalized yet. My guess would be no. The obscene dollar price for the manufacture of the PS3 with many of these options will make it impossible for a lot of people to pay the retail, regardless of how much they want it. Sony need to give us a finalized product and a price tag at E3, esspecially if they want to launch later this year. I expect Sony to wow us with more tech demos but this time maybe these demos will actually run off real hardware. A few of the games announced last E3 will be in a near final playable form but most of the big-ticket games like Killzone and Warhawk will still be in an early stage because of problems programming on Cell and the inability of Sony to finalize their hardware. Sony is entering some dark days my friends. The exclusive agreements they enjoyed 5 years ago have all expired. They are creating a system well outside of a normal consumer price-point. They have made a system that is difficult to program for, and has virtually no development tools. The PSP is still not profitable, not by a stretch. On top of all this they are still getting more and more competition in the consumer electronics department which drops the bottom line of the entire corporation. If you haven't heard, Sony has stopped developing and manufacturing the Aibo and Qrio, basically meaning R+D has taken a major budget cut.

The middle finger of the gaming alphabet.
We already talked about Nintendo in depth in my last article. I only put this here to contrast the fact that Nintendo will own the show at E3 2006. Undisputed. They calmly took a backseat last E3 while Microsoft and Sony stole each other's thunder and now they have full control of the microphone and the full attention of every media person, unrivaled. Get ready for an insane showing from Nintendo.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Shadow of Things to Come...

If you are interested in the Revolution and you are trying to find out exactly what we will find out on May 8th you would have a very difficult time. Reason being that this information is not on the internet, or if it is, not in places that are easy to find. I don't actually have any kind of "real" information here either but I will endeavour to make a list anyway. A list of things that we will learn about the Revolution at E3, extrapolated from announcements from the past year or so, and more than my fair share of common sense.

Lets get the boring stuff out of the way first. We will find out exactly how much it costs at E3. Price is something that consumers should be able to prepare for, emotionally. When you drop a few hundred dollars on a game system you want to know what kind of bang you will get for all those bucks. We all need some time to evaluate the system, its benefits, and its compatability with our personal lifestyles, and weigh these things against the price tag. We are only getting ballpark figures at the moment, which I would say is because there may be expensive elements to this system that we do not yet know about. A high price without revealing the last secret could turn a lot of people off. With what I believe the final secret to be I would guess a price range of near $250, but would gladly pay $300.

We will also find out exactly what colors the console will launch in. Five colors were initially shown at E3 2005, but it is unlikely that all five will be launch colors, or even if those are the only color options at the moment. They were black, white, gray, red, and green. The most popular colors by far were black and white, pulling in about 85% of the poll at IGN months ago. The least popular color was green, but then, black and white go with anything. On the other had, if the recent launch colors of the DS Lite are any kind of precursor then I may be dissappointed myself. The DS Lite launch in white (classy), light blue, and dark blue. Kinda lame as I was really hoping for a black one and considering the glossy exterior of the redesign black should have been a shoe-in. Of course, we have no idea what colors the Lite will launch with in the USA so who knows. My vote for Revolution colors would be black, white, and gray. They are trying to get their image away from "purple box with a handle" and into a classier look. These colors emphasize that. Let the more outgoing people buy skins.

We need to know the official name of the Revolution. Personally I really like the name just how it is but I will still buy it if it is called the "Gen5" or something.

Further we need to know when it will launch. Maybe not a specific date, but we will need to know a launch window. There are two possibilities here. The first is more likely, and it is that the Revolution will launch in November 2006 to take advantage of the holiday season. The second option is less likely but it mixes things up rather well, which seems to be the latest fad at Nintendo. It would be a launch in June-July. The early launch would give Nintendo a big time advantage against Sony, and would be too early for Microsoft to drop their price (something they are waiting to do during the PS3 launch). Also, there would be more time to generate hype bofore the holidays, and get alot of word of mouth advertising going on. The one problem I had with this theory was that they would have less time to get games ready. Last week we heard the announcement of a game called Red Steel, a fps being developed by Ubisoft. Ubisoft has had their hands on a Revolution controller since shortly after last E3. A year is not quite enough time to create a game from scratch, but it is certainly enough time to tweak it to run on the new controller, and now that we know that Ubisoft was in on the secret it makes you wonder who else was. Plus we know that Nintendo will obviously have several launch title which could be ready by June. I would'nt bet the farm on an early launch, but it is possible.

Speaking of launch, we need to know launch titles. George Harrison (Senior VP of marketing NOA) stated that there would be 20 launch titles. Maybe if I have some time I will sit down and try to list them, though it will probably be impossible owing to the fact that some of these titles remain unannounced like Red Steel which nobody knew existed until a week ago. A few likely titles are a new Mario, Metroid Prime 3, Twilight Princess which is technically made for the Gamecube but with the Revolution functionality it will act like a launch title, Red Steel and maybe a new Pilotwings. We also need to know the lauch titles for the virtual console. Don't forget that each of these games needs to be reliscensed in order to appear on the console. I thought a neat idea would be to have a cord that hooks up to your USB in the back and has on the other end, a slot that will fit any actual cartridges that you are still hanging onto seeing as how many titles will never make it back on to the console because of a lack of popularity or legal issues (no Rare games.... Grr.).

A big announcement will be the new intellectual property being created by Miyamoto which is promised to be brand new. I was originally hoping for an fps but with at least two fps games already announced as launch titles a third might be pushing it. I suppose I will just have faith in Shiggy.

There have been several comments on a further secret about the Revolution controller, but I don't believe it is the same as the 'final' secret of the console. I don't really have much of a guess here other than perhaps a built in microphone and headset jack maybe, or plutonium batteries that never die. We will also find out exactly what we get in the package controller wise. There are rumblings that there may be two standard controllers plus a nunchuck attachment in the box. We need to find out also, what the controller shells look like and if they are universal or if there is a seperate one for each retro system.

There is a possibility that the Revolution will ba able to hook up to external USB HDDs. Which would be awesome.

Lastly we need to find out the final secret of the Revolution. You can call me a wacko but I really think it will be stereoscopic vision. Let me rephrase. If Nintendo does not choose this console to bring stereoscopic gaming back to life, it will be a huge missed opportunity. There are only benefits for this move. One, it futher sets Nintendo apart from the competition while making the "you don't work on HDTV" argument completely moot. Second, it provides a more realistic atmosphere for the hardcore gamer, a new and intriguing technology that could bring in many non-gamers and could still output to a standard TV for people who aren't interested in full 3D. I did some checking online and found some VR headset glasses for $90. It says it is like watching a 36" TV from 6 feet away. If Nintendo was mass producing headsets they could bring the price point down to about $50, well worth the experience to most hardcore gamers. Also ATI is making the graphics chip for the Revolution and it is an extension of the Gamecube chip. THe point is it renders in OpenGL which means it understands the 3D world in 3D instead of rendering 2D screenshots and framing them together. It would be easy to output the games rendered by this chip in stereo. The fact is that the technology is there and gaming is inevitably going to move into stereo anyway. Nintendo was already first, they just need to be first again, and do it without complaints this time. Also there have been many comments to the effect of "the Revolution can play virtually any title from over 20 years of great hits" silently glomming the Virtual Boy titles in with them without bringing any attention to it. I could be wrong, but if I am I think Nintendo would be making a bigger mistake than me.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

And now you know... the rest of the story!

I ran across a quote on another website and had to put it here as it is supposedly from a person who was in a company that was aquired by Microsoft. You can see some of the concerns that I brought up in the comments section of my last blog. I got the quote from Lost Garden, but was unable to confirm his source myself. Here is the quote.

"Having lived through the Microsoft buyout of a game studio, perhaps I provide some insight into why acquired studios seem to lose their mojo. Disclaimer: This are my opinions only, and come from the individual contributior perspective, not that of the studio management.

First off, Microsoft corporate culture does not map well to a typical successful game studio, and no matter what assurances are given that the studio's culture and operations are going to be left intact, within a couple years the studio becomes fully integrated into the 'Microsoft Way'.

Probably most destructive are the Microsoft one-size fits all HR policies such as stack ranking. Game development is truly a team effort, and successful studios have managed to create teams where most of the performers are above average. Instead of being able to reward people fairly, a pre-determined number of people each year have to be given a "poor" review which includes no compensation increases of any sort, and the warning that if they fail to improve by next year, they will be on the list of people to be 'managed out'. On the other end, a smaller pre-determined number of people will be rewarded handsomly no matter if they have not produced anything to merit such. So a culture of teamwork, focus on the product,and pride in the company will quickly morph into a culture of individual self-promotion, politics and backstabbing, and a disdain for the company.

Additionally, as part of Microsoft, the studio no longer has the urgency to make the next game great and complete it in a timely manner. With Microsoft's billions insuring financial stability if a game is cancelled, and no direct financial upside to producing a hit game, the pressure of living close to the edge that was present in the old culture that helped the team focus is supplanted by a devil may careattitude that creeps into the 'rank and file'. As a result, many of the developers transform from passionate, competitive people who strive for excellence into someone who just 'does their job' and goes home at 6pm sharp. Others just leave for greener pastures. Management gets their large bonuses in any event.There are other issues of course, such as loss of control over future projects, headcount restrictions that prevent a studio from hiring desperately needed people, and so on."-Anonymous Coward

Take it or leave it. Look, I take my hat off to Peter Molyneux. He is, in my opinion, in the top 5 of the most creative and innovative developers in the world. Some day I may write you guys a list, but not today. The point is, I hope that Molyneux and his team can use the financial backing of Microsoft to produce fresh new titles and take the time to polish them properly, instead of heading down the dark road that Rare has gone down. From excellent to ordinary. From perfectionist to lackadaisical. I just hope Lionhead and Molyneux (esspecially) are strong enough to keep their individuality within such a large and protective environment.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

So p!$$#d off...

This is is a dark day my friends. Microsoft has just purchased Lionhead Studios, residence of one of the most creative minds in game development, Peter Molyneux. Some of his titles include Populous, Fable, and the Black and White series. Development was well underway for a Black and White title for the DS, it is unclear at this point whether this game will be released for the DS at this point but my guess would be no.

What makes me so angry is the way Microsoft operates. Instead of coming up with their own ideas they find good ideas and buy them, which unfortunately, is a sound business practice. Well they suck at any rate. Out.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

"Happy tree over here..."

Bob Ross has passed beyond but still he lives on in our hearts, and in our dreams. One of these dreams it turns out will be an upcoming Revolution title where Bob Ross himself will teach anyone with the time how to scrape out mountains and highlight trees. Surprisingly, the response from the gaming community has been overwhelmingly positive since the announcement of the title a few days ago (April 1st as it turns out).
You may wonder why this would warrant an article from me when not a word was written about GDC. Partly because of my busy schedule, partly because I was fairly certain that nothing of import would come forth at GDC, partly because I am excited for this game. Mostly though, this game embodies Nintendo's call to arms. A new and unexplored genre is being created. In fact, this is a title that many would be hesitant to call a 'game' and yet there are many people across a broad range of ages, educations, and vocations of both sexes who are interested in getting their hands on it.
If you look at the history of video games it is readily apparent that there are cycles within cycles. Nintendo's adopted "blue ocean" strategy has an ebb and flow all its own. New genres have always been a part of the industry. A new game will be created that defies standard categorization, if it manages to be successful it will be emulated by other development houses until a genre is defined, a target market is selected, and the game evolves to cater to this certain slice of the gaming community. In this way the game steadily climbs up the ladder from exploratory, to a peak of popularity, and then beyond, becoming more hardcore at each stage. It is a tragic lifecycle of sorts where new gameplay elements are first introduced to refine the genre, and later these forays are implemented out of a neccessity to add spice to the otherwise bland copycats of an outdated original. Unfortunately these changes usually bring an increase in complexity to the point where only the most dedicated players will support the genre at this level. Looking at this problem from intelligent objectivity we can see one problem the industry faces as a whole; steadily losing customers of any specific genre after a peak of only a few years. Feast to famine.
The only solution that works is to create new genres to supplant the venerable ones. There are incredible risks involved in innovation though as one in ten new genres attracts enough attention to be worthwhile of emulation, an essential step in the cycle as only emulation will filter a genre through enough unique minds to produce the key concepts and core gameplay rhetoric needed to create our foundation for a peak. On top of this the costs of creating a new genre are substantially higher when compared to emulation. Thus we see most new videogame related innovation has nothing to do with gameplay but rather improvement on graphics, an easy and low-risk way to set a title apart from it's respective genre. In turn, console manufacturers see this trend of developers and create more powerful machines, capable of an ever increasing quality of graphical output.
Nintendo, however, has found a different solution to this same problem of a market always plunging toward stagnation. Instead of just creating new genres themselves (which they have been incredibly successful at) they are providing the tools to developers which make innovation easier and cheaper, lowering the risks and encouraging new market growth. With an army of creative genius spread across the breadth of the development market new genres will spring up, and because of the unique hardware of systems like the DS and the Revolution, these genres will be exclusive to Nintendo as they are explored, refined and perhaps peak five years from now while the genres of today have lost much of their following.
Who knows, maybe Bob Ross: Third Edition will be raking it in by then. I know I will do my part when the title hits shelves. Maybe we all will. For Bob.