Obscure Gamer – Sacred cows to the slaughter

Not everything in the gaming garden is coming up roses. There are some “classic” games that many players do not get on with. Maybe it’s time to stop applauding gaming as a medium when it still has so many flaws?

Take Wipeout. Many saw this as a key to the Playstation’s phenomenal success, the mixing of club/dance music and 3D graphics that previous machines would have struggled with. But is it really that good? I personally find the handling model difficult and rarely last more than a couple of races, before either becoming bored of the constant brake/shoot/collide gameplay, or get stuck at the back of the pack with little hope of catching up. Time to put another game into the slow-loading CD drive on the PS1 or Saturn. Even a high-definition remake for a newer console would not attract me, although gaming legend Jeff Minter did cite that as the one thing that could have made him dash out to buy a PS3 at launch.

The Capcom classic 1942 spawned a series of games and was highly popular in arcades. But have you sat down and played it recently? There are some fundamental flaws that make it less than perfect, and certainly call into question its classic status. Even on the first level, you will notice it. The random positioning of the attack waves means that planes can fly off-screen before you are able to shoot them, negating any chance of getting a 100% shot down rating and the commensurate bonus. The biggest flaw though has to be the decision to bring attack waves up from the bottom of the screen with no warning. A real gamebreaker if ever there was one.

The Gamescom 2010 event saw Sony finally pin down a launch date for the long-awaited Gran Turismo 5 – nearly 3 years after the PS3 was launched with a demo. But now that planned November launch date has been cancelled, with a vague promise of the “holiday season”. Is it worth the wait, and will it bring anything new to the table after so many years in development? The series as a whole deserves praise for its good-looking car models. But the opponent AI and the lack of car damage have always reduced its credibility as a racing game. Just adding layer after layer of detail does not make it play better, nor does obsessively sampling engine sounds. Forza has built its reputation and its gameplay over recent years to be a serious rival to GT’s crown as the best “realistic” racer, but sometimes I’d rather kick back and cause some carnage with Burnout.

Perhaps most controversial will be my view on Sonic. Sonic is bad from the start. The combination of high-speed movement and precise platforming is actually a bad idea. When I do play the original Megadrive games, I find myself getting to the same point time after time – where it switches from being all about speed to being about sequences of moves and slowing down to avoid gaps. Yes, it’s fun to see things move by at a blur. But not at the expense of feeling in control, and certainly not when it comes with the frustration of hitting the same obstacle repeatedly. Those hoping for a return to form with the episodic Sonic 4 will, I imagine, be ultimately disappointed with just more of the same and yet shy of trying something different – such as the Wii game Sonic Colours, which to my mind has more chance of being innovative.

(Real)time has run out

So Scottish developer Realtime Worlds has gone into administration, following the poor response to its online game APB, leaving ambitious future project MyWorld hanging in the balance. What has gone wrong for founder David Jones, and what impact will it have on the British software industry?

In the wake of Crackdown – its appeal no doubt helped by the Halo 3 beta that Microsoft “attached” to the game – there were plans for a sequel, and for work to commence on Jones’ ambitious “crime MMO”. Somewhere along the line new developer Ruffian – also based in Dundee – got the Crackdown 2 contract and Realtime were concentrating on APB.

There was hype certainly, much of it centring on Realtime’s pedigree and David Jones himself as one of the creators of the GTA franchise. But were expectations raised too high? Fans were expecting a persistent game world populated with many people. What they got was small groups on isolated servers. Players were expecting more sandbox style gameplay, the ability to go anywhere and do anything. The result was disappointing, with only certain vehicles able to be hijacked and gunfights limited to current rivals.

The final strike had to be the pricing model. The talk before the launch was of a new way of doing things, but what it amounted to was either a monthly subscription (nothing new for MMO players) or a pay-as-you-go scheme. This seemed to be a sticking point for many reviewers. With poor feedback, poor sales and poor prospects – even with hints of a patch/upgrade promising more action in “chaos zones” – it was almost inevitable that it would affect Realtime Worlds and its future. But the sudden announcement of layoffs on the MyWorld team was followed by the administrators being called in, even after extra funding for MyWorld had been secured.

Where does this leave the people who worked there? There are several other Scottish developers, and a good chance that many will find jobs there. The Scottish Parliament is also looking into tax breaks for games firms, going against the policy south of the border. But there is a real risk that many of the team will move overseas, hitting the development prospects here. Events have moved quickly, with three major developers (including the UK’s own Blitz) setting up recruitment events in Dundee to attract former Realtime staff. Project MyWorld has apparently seen many of its staff re-hired – at last count 23 – with every intention of that project being finished. Eutechnyx is looking to establish a new studio in Dundee, and there are still other companies there hoping to continue. The views of staff at the company have emerged, often critical of how the projects were managed and whether the lack of firm deadlines meant that time and investment were badly handled.

For me, the name APB will always mean the 1980s Atari coin-op (and its subsequent home conversion). That took a comedy cops & robbers style chase game and earned a lot of money. Realtime’s APB was always going to be a difficult sell, and it fell a long way short of expectations.

Obscure Gamer – Into the third dimension

 

Avatar has been hyped from here to outer space, but it does represent an important trend. Both the movie and the tie-in game are best viewed in 3D, and Hollywood’s appetite for the third dimension is apparent. Can the same be said for viewers at home and in the world of games?

Attempts at 3D have been around for a long while. Early games relied on the old-fashioned red and green specs, including a game called Wanderer. Badly received by the press, programmer Mike Singleton said that he could almost see in 3D without the specs by the end of the development period.

As graphic power increased, so 3D engines became more impressive but not necessarily at generating an image that stood out of the screen. The Virtual Boy was a failure for Nintendo with its odd shape, the headaches induced by the twin red LCD displays and a lack of decent games.

With the first 3D-capable monitors and TVs arriving, so games started to take advantage of them. Many relied on the shuttered principle, with special glasses synchronising as two separate images are displayed to each eye.

Nintendo themselves are trying again with the 3DS. Interestingly, this includes a control button to turn down the depth of the 3D “field”, presumably in an attempt to make things comfortable for the player. Shaped like a conventional DS with two screens, only the top screen displays the 3D image – the bottom screen is still touch-sensitive. Familiar Nintendo franchises will make the leap to 3DS, including the long-forgotten Kid Icarus, Zelda and Starfox.

Sony has updated the PS3 firmware to include the ability to display games in 3D on a suitable display. Killzone 3 has the double honour of being both in 3D and motion controlled, aiming to appeal to the hardcore gamer. These displays of course rely on the special glasses, a fact that Nintendo did not hesitate to point out.

Where does that leave Microsoft and PC users? There are monitors and graphics cards capable of displaying 3D, and of rendering existing graphics with added depth. But as ever it is money and development time that will prove costly to increase the number of 3D games. It could take years for fully 3D gaming to become the standard, much as there is still a large audience that does not game in high definition.

Obscure Gamer – Tax Break

uncle-sam-stimulus-package

In April 2010 the Labour Chancellor Alistair Darling announced a review of tax rules for companies producing computer games, with the promise of tax breaks for games with a British cultural flavour – in line with a similar French system. After the General Election, June’s Emergency Budget by Conservative Chancellor George Osbourne announced that there would be no tax breaks. Why the sudden change? And why is it such an important issue?

The British games industry has been at the top for many years, with parallels to the film and music industries. British projects are lauded for their creativity and gain critical acclaim, but cannot match the big budget of American rivals. And just like the film industry, there is a brain drain – talent moves overseas. Canada has tax breaks, and now North Carolina has announced incentives for firms moving their computer game business to the state. Is that fair?

There are real issues to address. Developers and publishers need steady income to back new projects. Universities have to turn out graduates with the skills the industry needs. Above all, the industry as a whole deserves recognition for its creativity and contribution to the economy. Even in tough times, spending on games has held up and it sustains a retail chain.

The Scottish Parliament has announced a review looking at what the industry contributes to Scotland’s economy, and that is a positive step. There are several developers, including the recently formed Ruffian Games responsible for Crackdown 2, who are pushing ahead with investment in Scotland and a tax break would make things more attractive for them.

But at the end of the day there is one real bugbear for the industry that even the determined lobbying of TIGA will prove difficult to overcome. Opposition to violent games and the public impression that all games are bad or childish is undoubtedly at the heart of the Government’s refusal to give tax breaks. After all, can the Government afford a newspaper headline such as “Government funds video game nasty”?

When push comes to shove, the benefits of giving tax breaks to games companies will outweigh the negatives. Keeping employment in such a high-tech sector, stopping companies from moving production overseas and maintaining the creativity and originality of British games is a price worth paying.

False Start

ps3 slim
The race to the next generation of consoles may have already started, but how certain are the predictions? First it was David Reeves of Capcom with his suggestion of two to three years. Now Murray Pannel, head of marketing for Ubisoft has predicted a similar time scale.

To a large extent this would make sense. Previous hardware generations have been about five years, and there has often been an advantage for the machine to launch first. However, once the design of a new machine has been started, technology can overtake what has been put together.

There is a very large counter-argument that the next generation is further away, and that is the strategy of both Sony and Microsoft to produce new add-ons for their current consoles. The “slim” SKU’s for both were a stop-gap, a way of improving the quality of the base machine, although for Sony fans the removal of backwards compatibility is a sharp pain that can only be eased by the rumoured “HD Classics” range. But Kinect and Move are both aimed at expanding the potential audience and creating a new wave of software that will last for years.

Sony confidently predicted a ten-year lifespan for the PS2, and that has come to pass. They are now suggesting a similar tenure for the PS3, and it could be to their advantage. This year has been a strong one for Sony with exclusives and good sales on the back of the PS3 Slim, and another good Christmas with interest in Move could push it further. Meanwhile, Kinect is going after the Wii’s audience to a large extent. Microsoft still has the edge in online gaming for many with Live, but the gap has narrowed. Moving on from the 360 may not suit Microsoft either, now that is making good profit and building its user base.

So where does Nintendo fit into this? The 3DS is clearly one important part of its strategy, but rumours of an HD Wii or Wii 2 refuse to go away. Could the big N once again pull a surprise out of its sleeve, continuing its “disruptive” policy? And will the familiar franchises keep the hardcore gamers satisfied alongside the new and expanded audience?

There is another joker in the form of the cloud gaming systems, OnLive and Gaikai. While OnLive has now launched in the USA to a mixed response, the news that games from Electronic Arts will be available on Gaikai is a major coup. These devices will, however almost certainly be fixed technology with frequent updates of the firmware, relying on a fast broadband connection to provide both the data and much of the processing power. It remains to be seen how they cope under the huge stresses of multiplayer gaming.

Whatever, the outcome will be good for gamers. Competition promotes development and innovation, whether it’s the mobile games on the touchscreen of an iPhone or the complexities of a PC strategy game. Next year, or maybe the year after, the real race will start.

Exploring Expo Expectations

The E3 Expo is a lot like a roller-coaster. There’s the anticipation of that first hill (the build-up to the show with hints of what’s coming), the sudden drop into the exciting parts (the actual announcements and reveals) and the slowing down as the ride comes into the station (wading through discarded goodie bags and leaflets to the exit).

But the worrying thing is that the industry as a whole seems to be on rails, heading in one direction and with very little opportunity for change or an unexpected twist in the layout. You know what you are going to get, because you can look ahead and see what’s coming. There’s another first-person shooter, another open-world driving game with online challenges, and another action game with button-bashing combos and QTE’s. Is that what we really want?

There were three major trends at the show – motion control, 3D and artistic style.

Nintendo had arguably the best showing, thanks in no small part to the new 3DS with its display that does not require special glasses and long list of familiar franchises for launch day. There are many fans that argue that Nintendo is not doing anything innovative by relying on Zelda, Starfox and Mario, but dig deeper and there are some interesting ideas in there. Skyward Sword on Wii relies on MotionPlus, Pilotwings is making a welcome return after a long absence and the same with Starfox. Of course, the Wii already has motion gaming, but the much-vaunted Vitality Sensor seemed to make little or no impression. But Kirby’s Epic Yarn did on me – a clever combination of how the game looks (everything is made of fabric) and taking that a step further to change how the game plays (with areas hidden by zips that can be opened, or gaps that can be crossed by pulling a thread to “gather” the background up).

Microsoft concentrated on Kinect and its take on motion gaming, the previous name of Natal falling by the wayside. As commentators continue to dissect whether the interface works with a seated player, the actual line-up seems a little underwhelming. A virtual pet game, sports, dancing… nothing grabs the attention as much as the Milo demo from last year. Gears of War 3 and Halo Reach will be big sellers, but do they really add much that is new?

Sony tried to set up a smokescreen around its Move controllers, quoting prices from a low level to make it sound cheaper than Kinect… which it will be if you already own a Playstation Eye camera. If you don’t then that will be an extra expense, along with the Sony nunchuck equivalent. Killzone 3 had one major gimmick to offer, one of the first console games to be playable in 3D – but as Nintendo pointed out, it does require the player to wear special glasses and possess a 3D ready TV. How many people will be in the same boat as early HD adopters, unaware that they cannot get 3D pictures without an appropriate 3D source? This is something the PS3 can do thanks to a firmware update, but it’s down to how it is used. One disappointment for Sony was the lack of further detail on The Last Guardian, from the team behind Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

But for me, there were some interesting games that intrigued me with their art. As well as the aforementioned Kirby, thegamecompany’s Journey and the XBLA game Limbo (with its silhouettes) looked very different. Gruesome scrolling beat ‘em up Shank has a good pedigree, but the one I really took to was Rock of Ages. A strange combination of art history, Katamari Damacy and real time strategy, this is one I will be following in the coming months.

Christmas sales will be all about Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, Rock Band 3 and familiar names, plus people in the UK scrambling to beat the VAT hike. Like last year there will be titles slipping into the first quarter of 2011 – for example, id Software’s Rage – to avoid the heavy hitters, and they could be overshadowed even then. And of course the countdown to another E3 will begin.

Obscure Gamer – Anyone For Tennis?

Four player action from SNES classic Super Tennis

It’s that time of year again, when strawberries increase in price, barley water is consumed in vast quantities and yellow balls are bouncing on usually empty courts. It’s Wimbledon fortnight, and a nation’s thoughts turn to how soon the British hopefuls will lose. Of course, tennis in video game form has a long and impressive history.

Some of the earliest games and games machines were built around the ability to play a game based on tennis. Two bats (or racquets) knocked a square ball back and forth over the net trying to beat an opponent, whether human or sadistically controlled by the intelligent computer. Table tennis analogies soon gave way to tennis courts, either through an on-screen overlay (such as with the Philips Videopac) or the console itself (such as the bright orange Grandstand’s TV Games machine with six exciting variations on Pong).

When home computers and consoles came along, the background became green grass, the lines stayed white and the ball began to get rounder. One of the earliest successes in the field was Psion’s Match Point, popularising what would become the standard view for many tennis games. Viewed from the baseline behind one player and with the lines closing in via perspective, many players had trouble playing at the far end. Match Point tried to introduce forehand and backhand, but with only one button it was tricky to get good control. Accolade’s Serve & Volley had a unique “strobe-o-scope” view of a shot, requiring the player to press fire at the right moment to sweetly time a shot.

A surprise contender for most unusual tennis game came from Sensible Software, more famous for their shoot ‘em ups and football simulations. International 3D Tennis appeared through Palace Software, and included a brilliant rendition of the BBC’s tennis theme music created by the late, great musician Richard Joseph. Its most innovative idea was the polygonal players, drawn in wire-frame outlines on the C64 and semi-filled polygons on the Amiga. This also allowed more versatile camera angles, from a zoomed-out overhead shot presumably provided by a blimp to a side-on angle that favoured neither side. The players themselves had real character, from walking out to bobbing back and forth on the baseline waiting for a serve to the match-concluding handshake. With four difficulty levels and a world of tournaments to enter, there was an impressive level of depth there too.

Another step forward was Codemasters, licensing the dominant Pete Sampras for their Megadrive game. This came on a J-cart, adding two extra ports on the front and allowing a great game of doubles between four humans. Another Megadrive license was Davis Cup Tennis, most notable for allowing players to dispute calls and swear (in censored speech bubbles) at the umpire.

It was Sega who put the fun back into tennis, with the arcade and Dreamcast incarnations of Virtua Tennis. Graphical power gave great likenesses of leading professionals (despite the yawning chasms of their square-toothed mouths) and the control method was designed to make things easy and yet still be strategic. An inspired add-on for the Dreamcast conversion was the World Tour mode, where tennis-themed minigames help the player improve their stats. Although Sumo Digital tried hard with Sega All-Stars Tennis, the combination of Sega mascots and power-ups did not gel as well as the Nintendo 64’s excellent Mario Tennis game from a few years previously.

As the players become more lifelike and the graphics more detailed, it’s important not to lose sight of one thing – the playability. After all, it’s what got so many people into playing video games in the first place, hitting those pixels back and forth…

Obscure Gamer – a Prince among men

Sitting near my computer is a pile of unwatched films on DVD, each of them based on a computer game. They all have a bad reputation, both as films and as adaptations. But the other day I did pay my money and take a chance on visiting the cinema to check out Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the movie adaptation of the successful series.  I was pleasantly surprised to find a summer blockbuster worth my time.

Of course, story has always played a strong part in the Prince of Persia games. The original had a fairly straightforward “save the princess” scenario, but the hour time limit and the fiendish traps made it a difficult task to complete. The sequel took more than four years to arrive, but was as stylish as the first game – the Prince is exiled, shipwrecked and then fights his way home, told through cutscenes between the improved platforming puzzles and increased swordfighting element.

Things stepped up a notch with The Sands of Time – Ubi Soft approached creator Jordan Mechner to revive the series after the disappointing Prince of Persia 3D, and Mechner agreed on the proviso that every effort was made to produce a high-quality game. The end result was exceptional, a clever mix of platforming antics and time manipulation thanks to the Dagger of Time. Ubi Soft continued with two sequels (and a Wii remake) but Mechner headed in a different direction.

First came a pitch to movie producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and the wheels were set in motion to produce the movie that has finally arrived this summer. Then Mechner created a graphic novel based on the game. Mechner had always wanted to be a film-maker, his time at Yale University being dominated by his increasing interest in programming for the Apple II. (His interest in animation prompted the use of rotoscoping – tracing live action footage – for Karateka and the first Prince of Persia). He is credited as being the “screen writer” on the film version, since much of his original storyline remains after tweaking by more experienced writers.

The games took an unusual direction, with the 2008 “reboot”, simply called Prince of Persia and featuring a character who isn’t even explicitly named as being a prince. Many gamers and critics disliked this entry in the series for the inclusion of Elika, a female character who could save the hero from dying. It was a controversial addition.

And that brings things up to date, with the 2010 film. Director Mike Newell, most famous for Four Weddings And A Funeral, may have seemed an odd choice but he kept the characters interesting and cast some fine English actors. In the movie the Prince is known as Dastan, a street urchin adopted by the king – at odds with the game, where the Prince was never given a name.

Through a series of locations, spectacular stunts and CGI, an unfolding story about the Dagger of Time and what the villain aims to do with it is brought to a dramatic conclusion and a final twist (which I will not reveal here). Suffice to say, Jake Gyllenhaal puts in an excellent performance as the Prince with able support from the Princess in the shape of Gemma Arterton. If the film is to follow the game and become a franchise, then these two will help ensure its success. There are even Lego playsets and characters based on the film, and a fresh new Ubi Soft game. Although not directly based on the film, The Forgotten Sands fills in the gap between The Sands of Time and Warrior Within.

And so, there is no need to rewind time and convince Disney to stop making the film… it’s turned out well.

Obscure Gamer – the E is for Evil

Electronic Arts is in the headlines again, for its new Online Pass system. Many of its new sports titles will require a registration code for online play. This code will be included with new retail copies of the game, or can be purchased for a fee (set at $10 initially, under their Project Ten Dollar initiative). So, is this really as evil as some gamers and commentators are portraying it?

The first sin that many see the Online Pass committing is reducing the value of used games. The publishers and developers argue that this takes revenue away from them, the consumer complains that new games are too expensive. There are also those that see the shops that stock secondhand games as being evil in and of themselves. We are lucky to be able to find such bargains on the shelf, and it is important for the industry to have a presence on the high street and in the malls. Plus the majority of that money then comes back into the industry – people trade in old games towards the purchase of a new game or console, after all. And even if you do pick up a secondhand game that requires an Online Pass, you can still buy one. This sin is absolved.

The second sin is that this is a restriction, and that paying extra for online play in this way is wrong. How many times have you heard people complain about server problems, or servers for a game being taken down? Just going back to 2009, the launch of Battlefield 1943 was hampered by the huge numbers of people downloading and playing – so much that EA and Dice had to add extra servers. With more revenue direct to them, EA can afford to have larger server capacity and keep the servers for games online for longer. To use an analogy, we’ve been lucky to get access to the playing fields for so long without paying for their upkeep. And so this is one sin they can atone for with their future behaviour.

The final sin is that this is a punishment for players. The Online Pass will give you extra features, just like DLC. As long as it does not unbalance the game then there is no harm done here. After all, other publishers are running similar schemes; pre-ordering Red Dead Redemption from various online sources will give varying bonuses. EA should say six Hail Marys and ensure any content is a genuine extra, not just unlocking something on the disc.

Perhaps there is something inherent in the gamer that wants there to be a villain. EA has been a part of the industry for many years, and was founded with the intention of celebrating the creative people behind its games. Early games came with designers’ notes and fancy gatefold packaging, the programmers and designers explaining the theory behind their productions. And while not everything the company has done has been perfect – Dante’s Inferno, I’m looking at you and your portrayal of Hell – there has been innovation and many highlights along the way. The games industry needs to find a way to keep revenue coming in to fund the high cost of developing for the current (and future) generations of console. This may not be a perfect solution, but to call it evil is a gross overstatement.

Obscure Gamer: The Next Generation Game

wii-ps3-xbox360

With the annual E3 show less than a month away, it seems certain that there will be no announcements on the next generation of hardware. Indeed, the focus will be on upgrades and add-ons for the current generation of hardware, expanding its lifespan. But who will play the next generation game successfully?

Nintendo have traditionally only moved on to the next generation when they are ready. The NES had a long lifespan, while the Super Nintendo gradually tapered off but enjoyed some stellar late releases. Anyone who has played Yoshi’s Island will agree it is a stylish and playable sequel to one of the best games ever. The N64 struggled to arrive and then struggled against the Playstation. The Gamecube suffered most of all, considered to be in third place behind its rivals while it steadily put out a list of great games – from Resident Evil 4 to killer7 to the much maligned Super Mario Sunshine. Many pundits are predicting an HD version of the Wii before we see a new console from Nintendo, but I find it an unlikely strategy for the company. More likely is a new machine that retains some form of backward compatibility with the Wii and its motion sensing.

Sony worked out that backward compatibility was a good thing, meaning the PS1 remained relevant long after the hardware was considered obsolete. The PS2 continues to live on and has reached its 10th anniversary with third party developers continuing to support it and the slimline console continuing to sell – a lesson that games are still good to play even if they are “older”. Bold predictions of a 10-year lifespan for the PS3 seem less outlandish now. But the focus is on its version of motion control (Playstation Move, with the coloured balls and an integrated camera) and support for 3D television hoping to keep the console in living rooms for years to come.

The first generation of Microsoft’s Xbox has now officially come to an end, with support for original Xbox games on Live finally dropped. Nearing five years from the launch of the 360, the tremendous growth of online gaming over Live has been a good selling point. Where developers continue to strive to get the best out of the PS3, the 360 has hit after hit – but the physical limits of the DVD format are starting to tell (witness the video compression of Final Fantasy XIII, or the apparent content cuts facing Lost Planet 2.) Natal and its vision of motion control will certainly act as a boost for the console.

In many ways these add-ons and improvements could dramatically extend the life of the consoles behind the typical 4-5 year generation. The ability to update the firmware via Internet access has provided new features and ideas to keep things fresh, but there will inevitably be a point when improvements in technology (from faster processors to new display possibilities to new ideas on interaction) will herald the need for change. The outsider, OnLive, could shake up the whole system with its different angle on delivering games. But the race for the next generation has not started yet, and the runners will be jockeying for position at the starting tape…

Obscure Gamer – Ebert and Art

Film critic Roger Ebert has once again caused controversy by stating that videogames can never be art and the gaming community has responded. From a Penny Arcade comic to long forum debates, there are many different views. Here’s mine.

The first problem I have with the article is his assertion that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” As a medium, gaming is developing rapidly – in 30 years we have gone from Frogger to GTA IV – and given the speed at which cinema changed from silent slapstick to Citizen Kane, it is hard not to see gaming doing the same. The other point is that there are artistic and expressive games available now, although Ebert dismisses one of them – the beautiful and haunting Flower on PS3 – in his original piece. To a list of artistic games I would add Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and as a moving, expressive piece then it is hard to ignore Heavy Rain.

The second is the distinction between a game and a piece of art. There is artistry in games, from every pixel and texture to the creation of entire worlds. But above all else games can create an atmosphere and provoke a response. I am currently playing Dead Space and there are moments of genuine suspense, followed by the terror of the enemy attacks. It has a greater effect on me than the passive experience of watching a horror movie, something that Ebert himself would no doubt try to find merit in.

And in passing, I would say that gaming is a lot like cinema in some ways. There are summer blockbusters, there are big budget action titles (the recent Uncharted 2 springs to mind, cinematic clichés and all), charming indie nuggets that get lost in the mainstream, titles aimed at the family launched in time for Christmas, remakes and reboots and so on. But above all else, gaming is a form of escapism, just as movies are for many people.

The article by Ebert was in part written as a response to a lecture by game designer Kellee Santiago, which used footage of Flower, Braid and Waco Resurrection. And so Ebert did not actually PLAY the games, but felt “The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” Santiago has now posted her response, and understandably points out his misconceptions. http://kotaku.com/5520437/my-response-to-roger-ebert-video-game-skeptic

So we have two sweeping statements from Ebert – videogames can never be art, and can never be worthy of comparison to great art. This is what prompts my anger, that he has not actually experienced the games before giving his summary judgement. Waco Resurrection is, at the end of the day, less about being a game and more about provoking a response in the player – to the events surrounding David Koresh, and how they affected our culture. (Another attempt to provoke debate and thought, the game based on the Columbine massacre, was similarly misunderstood by the wider world.) And in many ways, art is about provoking a response in the viewer.

Roger Ebert is not going to change his view on gaming without playing games, and it seems unlikely he will pick up a pad any time soon. But then, I am not going to sit down and watch Citizen Kane or any of the worthy films that Ebert would convince me represent cinema at its best. At least he acknowledges that not all cinema is art. For most of the current generation of gamers, Star Wars will always rank as a better film than a black & white epic about a tycoon. They spent school playtime running around as Luke Skywalker with his lightsabre, then went home to shoot AT-ATs on their Atari VCS. They wanted to be in the film, to be part of the story – and the game let them do that.

Obscure Gamer – Maverick or villain?

Bobby Kotick of Activision has become a figure of hate. There is a great deal of Internet anger about the departure of the founders of Infinity Ward, the developers of Modern Warfare 2. They should have been celebrating their chart-topping success worldwide, instead there are recriminations, rumours of unpaid bonuses and a cloud hanging over the future of the Call of Duty franchise. But are the geeks right to be angry with the man?

There is a long history of mavericks in the computer industry, not all of them successful. Take Trip Hawkins. Hawkins made a bold move in founding Electronic Arts, a company where the artists who produced the games were celebrated. The distinctive gatefold covers for their early games were full of notes and tips from the designers and programmers. As the company grew, talent moved from elsewhere to be at EA and it became more than just a publisher. Hawkins’ pet project was an American Football game and he found the ideal collaborator in TV commentator (and former head coach) John Madden. With a Madden playbook, Hawkins set about creating one of the biggest franchises that continues to this day. But not all Hawkins touched turned to gold. The 3DO was ahead of its time in many ways – CD-based, but when the technology was still being perfected. High prices and the rival Sony Playstation saw the dream of a single gaming format disappear. EA continued without him, thriving on the annual updates of the sports franchises. For many that made them the target of hatred and campaigns.

The Stamper brothers also did things their own way. As Ultimate Play The Game, the Stampers played a dangerous game of holding the press at arms’ length, but the critical acclaim flowed in for their Spectrum classics. Many did not understand the decision to sell the name and the remaining games in development to U.S. Gold, but the Stampers had a reason. With the help of programmer Dave Thomas, the Stampers reverse engineered the NES, created a game and earned a lucrative developer’s license from Nintendo. The new company’s name was Rare – Designs on the Future, as seen in adverts for new talent in computer magazines during 1987. With steady income the company grew, became a big success for Nintendo and was then sold on to Microsoft. And then the Stampers left – another bold decision, or setting up something new?

Activision itself was started by a group of designers who split away from Atari, tired of not getting credit for the games they created. It became one of the first big third-party developers, buoyed by the profits from its Atari 2600 classics including Pitfall. It really hit its stride with Ghostbusters, the game of the film. But by 1988, a disastrous re-branding as Mediagenic, the troubled takeover of adventure game developer Infocom and attempts to move into other forms of software left the company in a disastrous state. Enter Robert Kotick. He invested heavily in the company, filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to allow the company to continue trading. Over the next few years it restructured as a publisher and began to build. The lucrative Tony Hawk series created by Neversoft became an important part of that success, the company growing until it became once more one of the largest software publishers around.

So is Kotick’s strategy wrong? Or is it simply because the company is so big that it becomes a target? Gaming news site Kotaku hit the nail on the head with its 2010 April Fool – a re-branding as “Koticku”. Whether that is seen as satire or respect is up to the reader.

Not So Jolly Roger

anti-drm

Piracy is once again back in the headlines, for several reasons. The latest DRM for PC games from Ubi Soft has been heavily satirised by the web cartoonists. The industry has also released figures showing losses accumulated due to game piracy. Then there was the million-dollar fine for the Australian accused of illegally uploading a Wii game.

Let’s deal with Ubi Soft’s DRM first. Producers have a right to protect their content. After all, they have invested a lot of money in getting it to market. However, as soon as that starts to make things inconvenient for a legitimate user, then the balance is wrong. While the new system does allow unlimited installs – handy for the PC fanatic who constantly upgrades their hardware – and “Cloud” save data online, the reliance on a permanent Internet connection is less welcome. You have to be online to play, and any interruption in your connection will cause the game to stop abruptly. Progress since your last save will be lost, forcing you to go back to the last checkpoint or whatever the game has. One cartoon characterised the software as being like a stalker or jealous partner, calling and harassing you, particularly if you “move on” to another game.

We can all probably tell stories of difficult to install software, or long and boring anti-piracy messages that cannot be skipped. Surely there must be some way to detect a legitimate copy and jump past those messages, and force the pirates to watch them? Codemasters’ Operation Flashpoint from a few years ago was clever enough to work out that it was an illegal copy and gave the illusion of continuing to run properly but gradually disabling features.

The sad truth is, the current generation of consumers has got used to the idea that virtually all the entertainment they want can be found for free. The one thing they haven’t grown up with is the moral judgement on whether they SHOULD get the music, TV or games they want in an illegal manner. But on the other side of the argument, software companies touting figures of a “$300 million loss” have missed the point. How many of those people illegally downloading would not have bought the game anyway? From my experience of people who pirate, the increased consumption rate that illegal activity gives them also means a shorter attention span. And while many of those who download music are also big legal consumers as well, using downloads to find potential new purchases, the higher price tag of games would seem to mitigate that effect.

The car boot sales and market stalls may be heaving with pirate games and DVDs, but the vast majority of console owners still buy their games (albeit many of them second-hand). The target of the authorities should be those dealing in thousands of illegal copies and not the individual caught with a few. In the long term, piracy hurts us as consumers more than the companies.

Reprinted

Metroid-Prime-Trilogy-Pal-Cd-Cover

Gamers recently heard rumours that Nintendo’s Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii was being discontinued, in that no new copies would be printed. The rumour was soon strongly denied, but it did highlight a good issue – what happens to rare games that go out of print?

The Wii has, perhaps unfairly, gained a reputation for having a lot of low quality titles, so a high-profile and high quality release such as Metroid Prime Trilogy should get shelf space. The third game, Corruption, had already been a big seller, but united with the two earlier Gamecube games (with added Wii controls, similar to the Play Control range) in a single package was a clever move. Even in the short space of time between rumour and denial, prices on eBay started to rise and no doubt collectors/hoarders scanned the shelves of their local software seller.

By contrast, is anyone upset that Ratatouille and Deadly Creatures by THQ have gone out of print?  The former was a fairly standard film tie-in, done in typical platform style, but the latter at least had some original ideas that saw poisonous creatures battling in 3D environments (even if many found the Wii controls to be uncomfortable).

Just a couple of years ago, GameQuest Direct changed the game. Originally a retail chain, the business reorganised to concentrate on Internet/mail order and rarer games. As part of that strategy the company negotiated the rights to re-print old games – including the PS2 version of Rez. Many were concerned that this would dilute the market and reduce the value of some very rare titles. GameQuest Direct went on to buy up the inventory of Working Designs, giving it many copies of some rare localised Japanese games.

But it was not the only company to do so. In late 2009, readers of the gamesTM forum discovered that Konami in Europe had issued reprints of some of its rarer titles including Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner. The titles first showed up on Amazon and soon found their way into the hands of collectors.

So is it a good thing that more people get to play a good game, or a bad thing because it reduces the value of certain titles to a dedicated collector/importer? I can see both sides of the argument, and also an added benefit of digital distribution – all you need is somewhere to host the files and you can go on selling a game, without the cost of producing a retail product. I would prefer honesty from the reprinter/retailer to let me know that this is not the original issue of a game, but I can live with buying something I wanted to buy but missed out on. A good example would be the Platinum range for Playstation. As a collector I place little extra value on getting hold of an original over a Platinum copy… with a few exceptions. The really rare items in my collection are older and in no danger of being reprinted…

Refinement

Video-Game-Remakes

Hollywood does it all the time – take an old movie from one or two generations ago, cast young actors, hype the remake and put out something that is vaguely satisfying. Unfortunately the video game industry appears to be heading down this track too.

There is a balance to be struck between revisiting old ideas and producing something fresh. Pac-Man Championship Edition was a success because it did not stray too far from the original but did have one or two new ideas thoughtfully put into it.

Another good way to gain a new audience or prepare them for a forthcoming game is to remake the last one. The God of War Collection on PS3 makes some sense, at least commercially. Here is the chance for gamers to try out the first two before the final part of the trilogy lands, and all in blood-curdling High Definition.

But all too often the ideas we see revisited and refined are not groundbreaking. For the last couple of years the “cover” system has been added to so many games it is just not funny. And the FPS genre has been particularly stale, degenerating into repetitive takes on the same basic premise. World War II and now modern conflicts have been picked over and reinvented countless times.

2010 seems to be promising more of the same. Medal of Honour is going all out for Modern Warfare’s audience. The Dubai setting and moving sand at least give The Line from Germany company Yager an interesting selling point. And I won’t even mention the stream of God of War-style games that are threatening to swamp players in the first quarter – Darksiders, Dante’s Inferno and more.

Let’s hope the audience is not blinkered to new ideas. Team Ico are on the way with PS3 exclusive The Last Guardian, David Cage’s Heavy Rain (also on PS3) has a lot of promise and Armanita Design’s beautifully put together point & click puzzler Machinarium will be getting a boxed retail release in the UK. Suda51 returns with the sequel to No More Heroes on the Wii and a HD remake for the bonkers original.

So in 2013 when you are all playing Gears of Uncharted Warfare 5, I hope there will still be an alternative for people who don’t want to stare down the barrel of a gun and bad-mouth their opponents while hiding behind realistically textured rubble.

Review of 2009

2009

It’s traditional to round up what has been happening at the end of the year, and to take a look forward at what is coming next. So here are some of my highlights of the gaming year.

I finally joined the Xbox 360 brigade this year, primarily for one game – Rock Band. While it was an evolution rather than a revolution from Guitar Hero, the full band set-up makes for fantastic party gaming and online it is a lot of fun too. A thousand tracks are now available to buy, ranging from Simon & Garfunkel to the latest rock acts. The Beatles: Rock Band did take things to a new level, with its superb presentation and vocal harmonies, while Lego Rock Band had a few tricks of its own. The announcement of a Green Day edition has produced mixed reactions from fans and gamers – is it a band too far, or a good addition to the line-up?

The Lego franchise is in danger of spreading itself thin, but I put a lot of hours into Lego Indy 2. What shone through once again was the sense of humour, particularly in the cutscenes. For the obsessive gamer there was a juicy 1000 Gamerpoints on offer including some very obscure challenges. The addition of the Creator section was very welcome, allowing you to build your own levels and mini-adventures. With more than one Lego Harry Potter game on the way, it doesn’t look like Travellers’ Tales will be putting away the bricks for a while yet.

The mainstream media has once again had a very indifferent attitude to gaming. The midnight launch of Modern Warfare 2 bought the usual sneering coverage (along the lines of “Why are they queuing up for a new game?”, pointing out dedicated fans who had arrived in costume as being odd) tinged with the controversy over the airport siege level. By contrast Episodes from Liberty City and its “Ballad of Gay Tony” did not seem to draw the usual toxic coverage despite the provocative name. The TIGA campaign for tax breaks allowing the British games sector to remain at the top of the industry was ultimately unsuccessful, which could have repercussions long-term.

In the last couple of months there has been more advertising for games, and Sony’s PS3 Slim campaigns have done well to increase the profile of the console and its top titles. Microsoft still spends more and gets more notice for the multi-format titles. Nintendo’s use of Ant & Dec is aimed squarely at a broader demographic and has helped many Wii and DS titles continue selling long after release. However, the supermarket tactics of drastically reducing high-profile titles in price could also be dangerous long-term.

As I have mentioned before, early 2010 has become a sanctuary for titles hiding from the massive launch of Modern Warfare 2, so it could be a big quarter for the industry. Time will tell.

Three Horse Race

wii-ps3-xbox360

Every year there is a major race on for the consumers’ money. And this winter is no different. So what is the form guide for the runners going into the race, and what are the odds on a new leader?

Sony has trailed in third place for much of the year. A lack of big name exclusives and the relative failure of Home to attract users was a severe penalty. The redesigned PS3 Slim and PSPGo gained a lot of momentum for Sony after E3, and the sales surge came on the back of a much improved advertising campaign. Titles such as LittleBigPlanet and Uncharted 2 have been put across to the viewer in a much better way, along with other useful features including the BBC iPlayer.

Microsoft has maintained a good grip on second place. Reliability is still an issue, with the Red Ring of Death and other failures affecting many users. The exclusive Episodes from Liberty City and a continued strong showing from Live Arcade (with titles such as Shadow Complex) have meant that for much of the year the sales curve has been steady – good work in a difficult time for the industry as a whole.

Nintendo had galloped ahead of the pack with the DS and Wii, but both have struggled in hardware terms. Wii sales have slowed dramatically, and the uptake of the DSi has not been as widespread. The newly revamped LL with its larger screens has not helped matters. The key for Nintendo is the long “tail” on many of its games – Wii Fit continues to sell strongly, and no doubt the same will be true for the enhanced version. Motion Plus has added a new dimension to the titles that use it, and both WiiWare and DSiWare have been attracting some strong releases.

The music genre continues to be the strongest, with so many good releases – new Lips, new Singstar, Band Hero, Lego Rock Band, Rock Band Unplugged on PSP, and of course the new expensive peripheral-based DJ Hero. The standout has to be The Beatles Rock Band, with its exquisite presentation, vocal harmonies and attitude to DLC (with money from the release of All You Need Is Love going to charity).

But undoubtedly the biggest thing to hit the industry is Modern Warfare 2. Not only is it set to dominate sales in the run up to Christmas, but many big name titles shifted back into 2010 to avoid it. The bad news is that the supermarkets are prepared to use it as a loss leader in their battle for sales – devaluing the game and affecting dedicated games retailers.

So can Sony and Microsoft make ground on Nintendo? And when will the fanfare sound for the next generation, bred from what has been successful this time around?

Recipe for success

Recipe for success

Infinity Ward are the chefs, and they have been toiling away in Activision’s kitchen to send out a perfect dish for Christmas 2009 – Modern Warfare 2. But what is the recipe for success?

– Take a large cut of familiarity

The Call of Duty games have steadily and slowly built into a major franchise, and there is no doubt that Modern Warfare was a brilliantly conceived jump into a more modern combat arena. Gamertags reveal hours spent chasing the perks and Achievements. The returning characters and continuing storyline will also be very attractive.

– Use only the choicest ingredients

Limited editions attract more sales. The package including night goggles may seem extravagant, but it got more people talking about the game. However, the price remains an issue. The RRP (Recommended Retail Price) was a much higher £54.95 here in the UK, only to be dented by massive discounting at various supermarkets.

– Stir in some controversy

Not that the recipe needed added spice, but it got some anyway. The airport level, with players cast as a CIA operative working undercover as the bad guys attack civilians, has rightly attracted criticism. The last-minute addition of an option to skip that section of the game is almost cowardice on Infinity Ward’s part. Either they believe in what they have created, or it should not have been in there. But the critics are misguided – this is an 18 rated game, so it is up to parents and retailers to ensure children do not play it.

– Place under a source of heat

The media spotlight has been intense. Midnight shop openings and the launch event in Leicester Square got the cameras out.

– Set the timer

Timing is very important. Other games have jumped out of the way, giving Modern Warfare 2 a clear run-up to Christmas. Also, Microsoft has been banning machines capable of playing pirated copies from Xbox Live in an attempt to ensure that people buy it.

So, millions will be enjoying the feast of first-person action and multiplayer combat. But they should be careful not to bolt their food – the single player mode is brief, lasting just a few hours. And in a few months time there will be other dishes competing for attention online…

Not Buying It

call of duty

As the year turns towards autumn and gamers minds’ turn to the big new releases, there are several things I am not buying. The most obvious is Modern Warfare 2: Call Of Duty. It will probably turn out to be one of the biggest selling releases of all time, but it’s not for me.

There are two main reasons for that. The first is I’ve not played the previous game in the series, and that would seem to put me at an immediate disadvantage, tutorials and manuals not withstanding. The other is the ludicrous “special edition” pack with its night vision goggles. If ever there was an over-marketed idea it’s that one. At some level the Halo 3 pack with its Master Chief helmet still seems appealing (despite many claims of discs being scratched), yet this seems to be one step too far for Modern Warfare 2. I’m not buying Halo 3: ODST either, with or without the Halo: Reach beta – I’ll probably look at that in a few months’ time.

I’m also not buying a PS3 Slim. Sony’s strategy is bizarre – losing even more money per console, not including an HDMI cable as standard and again refusing to include decent backwards compatibility. I’m not buying the argument that the new wave of people buying the machine will only be hooking it up to an older TV in the bedroom and hence don’t need HD input. (Microsoft’s decision to drop the HDMI cable is baffling too, and while the changes are being widely reported as a price cut for the Elite model, it actually represents a drastic increase for the Arcade). Uncharted 2, Katamari Forever and Heavy Rain are starting to look like reasons for joining the PS3 brigade though…

I’m not buying Beatles: Rock Band. Not straight away – I still have a lot of mileage to get out of the original Rock Band, and am thinking of picking up at least one of the recent Guitar Hero packages (World Tour or Greatest Hits) before I get the Beatles game. After a brief playing session with the game at the Retro Reunited event, it is definitely a progression and improvement on earlier titles and it looks amazing. It can survive on its wave of hype without my purchase in the first few weeks. The same applies to Guitar Hero 5, which managed to beat the Beatles to number one in the UK software charts in its first week.

I’m not buying Wii Sports Resort. It will be a long-term purchase, but I still have several Wii games (purchased in a cheap buying spree at Easter) to play through. I’m not knocking the game itself, or the MotionPlus add-on – my hands-on experience with Tiger Woods 10 proves it works really well – but to get the best out of it I need to buy TWO MotionPlus units and that is quite an outlay.

I’m not buying Sega’s announcement about Project Needlemouse either. This is apparently the “critical first step” in returning Sonic the Hedgehog to his 2D roots. Sonic’s 2D games gradually progressed away from the core idea of a fast-moving character, and the poor blue hedgehog never really had a 3D epiphany as great as Mario 64. But if this is only a first step, then there is going to be a lot of pitfalls (if you’ll pardon the pun) until the “new old Sonic” gets to his goal. Why not follow Mega Man’s example and go the whole hog (if you’ll pardon another pun) by commissioning a truly 2D game with retro-style visuals? I personally enjoyed the Sonic RPG on the DS with its blend of polygonal characters and cartoon backgrounds. More experimentation on the lines of that title and the excellent Sonic Rush would be better appreciated by Sonic fans.

Since I have got some money in my PayPal account at the moment, I probably will buy some retro stuff on Ebay instead, such as controllers for older machines, a memory cartridge for my Saturn and so on. With several key titles dropping back to 2010 to avoid Modern Warfare 2, it looks like I might be on a buying spree early in the New Year…

Get Together

Next weekend I’m off to Manchester, for two reasons. I’m going to spend most of the weekend in a pub, although I will take some time out on the Sunday to go around an exhibition at the Urbis centre. You are probably wondering what this has to do with gaming. The answer is that the pub is hosting gaming event “Console Combat” – http://www.consolecombat.co.uk – and the exhibition is called “Videogame Nation” – http://www.videogamenation.co.uk

I’ve been to quite a few gaming events over the last couple of years, most of them connected with retro gaming. And yes, holding an event in a pub/hotel is a lot more fun than a dingy village hall or cavernous exhibition centre. (Although it did give me great pleasure at the Micro Mart Computer Fair at the NEC back in 2003 to see vintage machines still running and an Xbox demonstration pod regularly failing). This social sort of gaming is a real blast, leading to surreal moments such as sitting opposite programming legend Archer Maclean for a curry.

The Lass O’ Gowrie has been holding regular retro nights, letting players get hands on with a great collection of old games. And I’ve been a regular at the Retrovision events in Oxford, getting the chance to meet Jeff Minter and play on a huge range of machines from the Atari 2600 to the latest PS3 games. Best of all, several of these events have done their bit for charity – 2005’s Retro Ball raised money for the Everyman cancer charity, and this year’s Byte Back gave over £2000 to the RSPCA and a local hospice. There are still tickets available for Console Combat, so if you can get to Manchester for the 25th and 26th of July I will see you there.

As for the exhibition, it’s a look at how Britain has been at the forefront of videogame development. Organised by David Crookes and sponsored by Retro Gamer / Imagine Publishing, there are games to play, displays of game artwork and behind the scenes information, a look at the history and culture of videogames and a series of live events where famous members of the industry talk about the past.

And that is important. Videogames are now an important medium, and its history needs to be preserved. It does still seem odd to me that the toys and games I played with as a child are now sitting in museums, but we need to tell the story of how the industry went from simple white bats on a black screen to photo-realistic 3D first-person shooters. The exhibition will also be a social experience – watching others play is fun, and challenging a stranger to a game is a lot better in the flesh than online.

The Videogame Nation exhibition is running until the 20th of September, with special events being held on Sundays. For more details, check out:

http://www.urbis.org.uk/page.asp?id=3296

Redesign Rejection

There were rumours about Sony redesigning its hardware in the run-up to E3, and they proved to be true. The PSP without a UMD drive emerged, but the slimline PS3 (not PSThree, that would be too hideous for words) did not. Will it make a real difference?

There’s no doubt that upgrading and improving a product is a good idea. The question is how quickly you do it. Apple got the consumers hook, line and sinker with the iPod range. The original was a fantastic piece of design and genuinely a step forward for music players. But the Shuffle has little or no appeal for me, and as much as I would like a touch-screen music player that also plays games, the price tag remains high. Not to mention the lingering concerns about battery life, reliability, repair and my general apathy towards paying for downloaded music.

But what about gaming machines? Nintendo’s DS is now on its third iteration, attempting to catch the consumer’s eye with its new “DSi”. I for improved, or just I for “I think that white shiny thing is rather nice, what does it do?” The cameras are low-powered and limited so far in what they can do, the software line-up has not been overwhelming (particularly one game I would consider getting, the latest Wario Ware) and there have been complaints about the download store. The Lite was a step forward from the original, but the DSi still has a lot to prove.

Sony had its own trials and tribulations with upgrading. The original Playstation went through several hardware revisions before becoming the PSOne. This was a nice idea, making it portable with the option of a small LCD screen. But the revision of the PS2 to become a slimline model seemed almost pointless – until you realise that it has given the machine an extended shelf life. It almost looks like a new machine, and consumers (especially in America, it seems) are still buying it. Why not, with cheap games abundant?

But it’s going to make more than a redesign of the hardware (or rumours of another price cut) to perk up the PS3. It’s the games we want to play on it that need improving. The PSP’s struggles – the UMD format, the analogue sticks – will not be fixed by this makeover, and baffling decisions (such as the lack of online play for the recent Monster Hunter release) continue to drag the format down. Even the prospect of Rock Band and Little Big Planet may not be enough.

Oh, and Microsoft, don’t worry about redesigning the Zune. I still won’t buy one.

Are games too cheap?

I’ve been shopping this week – both online and in my local town – and something is troubling me. There are too many cheap games on the shelves, and some of the deals just seem too good to be true. I realise this may sound like an odd argument, but does the cheap price mean we value the game less?

My personal yardstick is pounds per hour of entertainment. A trip to the cinema works out at £3-4 per hour, a new paperback about £2. Pre-owned and second-hand games obviously are a boon, bringing down the average. I’ve played Burnout Revenge on Xbox for about seven hours in total now, meaning that I got very good value out of my £5 purchase in CEX.

But do the games live up to it? Reports are that the new Ghostbusters game lasts about six hours. Going into a shop and buying that at full price (or importing the region-free Xbox 360 version to get round the Sony “timed exclusive”) makes less sense to me than investing in a pre-owned DS title such as Professor Layton that is a) cheaper, and b) going to last a lot longer. I also have to decide which format to get – the Wii with its motion controls, or the 360 version with shinier graphics and Achievements.

Online, the competition is even fiercer than on the high street. HMV’s seemingly endless sales have put many temptations in my way – I succumbed to Manhunt 2 and Bully for Wii, both games I have barely scraped the surface of but promise many hours of gameplay. The combined price was £12 including postage. Similarly, Play.com’s offer of just £2.99 for Tony Hawk’s Motion WITH the Motion Pak was too good to turn down. Yes, as a collector and Tony Hawk fan I wanted to get the game anyway, but surely that is an indication of a problem somewhere? Either an over-confident buyer getting in too much stock, or a lack of funds heading back to the developer?

And that is a key point. To help sustain the industry, perhaps we as consumers should spend more. I’m not talking about ending pre-owned sales (I’ve argued before that in the long run that is GOOD for the industry), but with developers running into trouble – Midway’s divisions scrambling to find buyers before the end of the month, for example – and the spiralling costs of next-gen development, more of our money needs to find its way back to them.

I don’t need to point out how things were different back in the day – Atari fans can probably regale you with stories of £40 cartridges and the hype of the official club magazine – but massive price cuts in 1983 did not help the industry through a tough period. The Government announcement (as part of the Digital Britain strategy) of a review of tax breaks for developers making “culturally British games” is a step in the right direction, an acknowledgement of the talent here in this country. So put your hand in your pocket and support them.

The Retail Experience

So, I did my bit to boost the economy by buying an Xbox 360. I’ve never been an early adopter of a new console (a subject I will return to in a future column, I imagine) but I judged this was the right time to take the plunge. With pre-owned games cheap and some great new games on the way, it was logical.

First of all, I researched the prices of the items that I would need. I wanted to go for a top of the line set-up, so that included an Elite console. The games I was after were ones I could play online with my brother, and I wanted to be online (with Live membership and a wireless adapter) and be able to buy/download extras (with Live Points) from the start.

So, when I went into the shop my first port of call was to find a couple of games I wanted to go with it. Since there was no Rock Band 2 on the shelf, earning the shop a black mark. I actually picked up Rock Band Song Pack 2 – so I could play it anyway, then import the songs and save download time. My brother had also been unable to find the sequel, but picked up two copies of the original Rock Band in a rival store’s “2 for £30” offer and posted one to me.

Reaching the 360 shelves – now pushed to the back of the store, with the Wii and DS taking prominence – I started to pick up what I needed. But they did not have the bundled game (FIFA09) I really wanted. Another black mark. Instead I picked up a sale copy (not quite enough to remove the black mark) and the GTA IV bundle (a game I would have purchased anyway, having played most of the series extensively).

No official Plug & Play kit. Another black mark.

Wireless adapter still at £59.99, compared to the online price of £39.99. Another black mark.

When the assistant spotted me, he offered to help, but I told him I knew what I was looking for. I don’t like over-aggressive sales techniques, but this guy was fine. I picked up the Points and the 3 month Live membership, then went to the till with my bundle. That was when I spotted the offer shelf at the front of the shop. Here was the wireless adapter at the quoted online. One black mark off. And the assistant was pretty quick gathering what I needed – including the Rock Band in a Box instrument package. The last one in the shop, so I heaved a sigh of relief and felt generous enough to wipe off one black mark (the one for not having Rock Band).

Then he asked me about Game Care. Hmmm. I responded that I wondered if they could do a deal on the price, since I would get a year’s manufacturer warranty anyway. In the end I gave in and decided to take it anyway (so I can’t really call that a black mark). As we were about to finish the transaction, he asked if I wanted a Plug & Play kit – ah, good, and by asking if I wanted it to black to match the Elite, I wiped off the black mark. He was also impressed that I knew what I wanted and had taken the decision to go Elite. Which is nearly enough to make me wipe off the last remaining black mark… particularly when he told me that the Elite came with a month’s free trial of Xbox Live Gold membership and I did not need to use my 3 month card straight away.

The only black left was the cloudy sky as my dad and I carried the bundles back to the car, and the Elite console is now sitting in my computer room

Sealed with Hatred

Packaging. There are times when you appreciate it, and there are times when you hate it. The games industry has a long history of unusual packaging, but that’s not what this column is about. No, this is about frustration and annoyance.

First of all, there’s cellophane. I can’t get the stuff off, even with tear strips and corners to help me. It’s always been that way. Now, I don’t want my games to go “stale”. OK, maybe that’s a good metaphor for a late-comer that just apes other games that have gone before, and in theory it could be stale by the time it hits the shelf. But why do we have these heavy plastic cases and THEN seal them, if they don’t do the job? Surely there’s more to it than authenticity seals and the like?

(While we’re on the subject, I find myself ambivalent to the collectors of sealed games – particularly those who do it just to have a sealed original. I want to play a game, when I can eventually get into it, not leave it on a shelf. True, if I came across a real rarity that was still sealed I might be tempted to keep it that way for value’s sake. I like my games to be in good condition when I buy them, but in the end I want to PLAY them.)

Then you have the pre-formed plastic packaging found on many add-ons. What do you do? Attack it with a melee weapon? Try to extract it surgically? The number of times I’ve ended up with massive damage to my weak spot (my hands) because of this sort of packaging ought to earn me an achievement. And they put wires and cables inside this.

Now, let’s back up a minute and praise some good ideas. I like the way both the Wii and the Xbox 360 are packaged. The drawers in the Wii box are nice and everything goes back in tidily. The words on the plastic packets of the 360 components are helpful, although more than one is called “See”, which caused me a few moments’ confusion as to the cable I needed.

But then we get the cable problem. Every cable is covered in one or more plastic bags, with combinations of sealing, tape and plastic ties. Is it all really necessary? I must have about half a dozen plastic plug covers kicking around my computer room. What do I do with them?

And then there’s the mother of all boxes, Rock Band in a Box. Wow. I’m glad the game wasn’t included, else it would have taken me even longer to get in and play it…

Finally, we have a certain retail store that runs a return policy, whereby your purchase that is already covered in stickers and price labels has an additional seal placed over the edge. Sigh. Are they actually trying to convince you not to play it?

Sailing

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The recent Piratebay trial has highlighted the issue of software piracy once more. The eagerly anticipated Spore from Will Wright was available to download very soon after its release, and thousands took that opportunity. Will piracy sink the industry one day?

Back in the 1980s I was a landlubber and not a pirate. I borrowed a few tapes from a friend, and one of the first games I played on my Commodore 64 was the film tie-in Ghostbusters, taken home at lunchtime and hastily loaded. (Which leaves me a little nostalgic, when 25 years later there is a new game coming out based on it – but I somehow doubt it will have the same impact on me as the bouncing ball accompanying the lyrics and the sampled speech did back then). Then I upgraded to a disk drive and the chances were there to get more games than I could afford to buy.

And yet… there was still something special about saving up my pieces of eight, going into the shop and splashing out on a new game. You got something physical to keep as well as the gaming experience. Of course, there was as high a ratio of bad to good back then as there is now. Fortunately my map and compass was the reliable reviewers of ZZAP! 64 magazine, who rarely steered me wrong. For those without a large treasure chest, budget companies such as Codemasters provided cheap thrills. (And they still remain in business, albeit without the original crew of David and Richard Darling).

With Internet access came the chance to sample more games than I could ever realistically play. The Gamebase64 collection alone has 20,000 titles in it now with more being discovered (and created – the C64 is far from a dead format). And that same Internet access can provide a perfect digital copy of any game for any format, spreading it across the waters of the world like an oil slick.

Is it a bad thing to have free access to anything you want? In many ways I would say yes, because it detracts from savouring the moment. Discovering a new game to play should be like finding a deserted island. You can see the shape of it from afar, maybe even discern a few features. As you get nearer, you can make out the trees but there is still a lot hidden from view. Plunge into the undergrowth, play the game and make your way to the top of the mountain (if you can) – you achieve something, even if it is only a little green box that pops up and awards you a hollow-sounding number of points.

Nowadays I buy second-hand games a lot, regardless of what David Braben thinks it does to the market. I am still putting money into the industry, and helping it keep a retail presence on the High Street will ensure all the software company rafts afloat.

Just Push Play

I’ve just completed Guitar Hero Aerosmith on the PS2, and it got me thinking about the whole Guitar Hero (and Rock Band) series. What started out as a novelty arcade game with Konami’s Guitar Freaks has become a phenomenon, and now the music industry sees gaming as a legitimate source of extra revenue.

My first encounter with the series was playing Guitar Hero II at the Game On exhibition held at the Science Museum, and a brief session made me want to get it myself. The physical interaction with the guitar was fun, but there was a lot of enjoyment to be had just watching others play. And that is a big part of the game’s attraction, the social aspect. I bought the Guitar Hero II pack with the red Gibson SG for PS2 and started to play at home. At first even the Medium difficulty seemed daunting but I quickly improved. A chance to show off my skills at the Retrovision gaming weekend in Oxford soon followed.

Over the next couple of years I picked up the original Guitar Hero game and Rocks the 80s. The original features a great range of tracks, not diminished by the fact they are cover versions. And while in theory the 80s game could have been produced as an add-on or expansion, it is tracks like Play With Me by Extreme that make it worthwhile. The tweaks to the presentation – costumes for the characters and animations/menu colours – give it a little something extra too.

Looking back, Konami made a mistake by not importing their PS2 version of Guitar Freaks to Europe. Red Octane, who had made the guitar accessory, then made a great decision in approaching Harmonix (developers of Amplitude and Frequency) to make a new guitar-based game. And Harmonix themselves timed it right to move on after Guitar Hero II, pushing forward to start work on Rock Band. That left Neversoft with the tricky task of producing the third main instalment.

Guitar Hero III really built the momentum. With the bands providing original masters and recording tracks expressly for the game, the audio side of the game improved dramatically. The next-generation consoles gave sharper visuals but most importantly the chance to download new songs. From quirky ideas like the finale song from Portal to bands launching a new single, the record labels have really embraced the idea. There are a few flaws, with the third game having a slightly uneven difficulty curve and the note charts not flowing quite as smoothly as Harmonix’s. But Activision made a good decision of their own, continuing to support the PS2 and the Wii. Oh, and the first time I played Devil Goes Down To Georgia (on medium) I hit 99%…

It was at another Retrovision event that I first played Rock Band, which had been imported. We’ll ignore the blisters I got on my hands from drumming and the irritation of people pushing the wrong buttons in the menus to concentrate on the action. It was superb, so much fun playing in a group and belting out the songs. Again, part of the fun was watching others play. If I was being picky, the bass arrangements were fairly simplistic and the vocal track at the top of the screen slightly distracting, but it worked.

Back came Neversoft with Guitar Hero World Tour. It seems like a pretty straightforward enhancement of what has gone before, even given the open bass notes and generally trickier arrangements. But next to launch is Guitar Hero: Metallica, with its Expert+ setting and second bass drum pedal. It should prove to be a better game than the lacklustre Rock Band AC/DC Live pack, which made the mistake of charging full price for very little extra content.

So, I thoroughly enjoyed the Aerosmith game thanks to its balance of tracks and the motion-captured antics of the band. In fact, Activision claim the band have made more money from the game than from some of their studio albums. But where does the band game go from here? A DJ Hero game is in development, the Beatles version of Rock Band is promising harmonies and keyboards are often mentioned as a future expansion. But in a way, that would not work. It is the argument often made against the games – why not learn the real thing? Because we are playing to have fun and pretend to be the rock star that we always wanted to be.

Additional: Activision has formally announced DJ Hero with its turntable peripheral, Guitar Hero 5 with more rock and the family-orientated Band Hero based around pop songs.

What Gamers Want

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What Gamers Want

Everyone loves a good metaphor in a column. You get to say “I get it” and the columnist gets to say “That’s a clever bit of writing”. So, what strained, pureed and mashed line of thought am I going to use to describe the difference between what gamers say they want and what they actually buy? It’s food, of course.

There is no doubt there is a lot of junk food out there, and a lot of chains (in this metaphor, our publishers) who serve up familiar fare on their menus year in and year out. They come back with a new and improved recipe and persuade the consumer to wolf it down. And by and large they do – a good case in point would be the Need for Speed series, often critically panned and yet freshly packaged for your Christmas feast every year.

The comparison between EA and a major fast food chain may be a little unfair though. In this last year we have at least seen something in the way of new recipes. The healthier, leaner option was the Mirror’s Edge salad, a first-person shooter with a new kind of dressing. Food snobs turned their nose up, but it has gained a following and stays on the menu. The fruit salad was Dead Space, but everyone went for the very sweet ice cream treat of Gears of War 2 instead.

The Nintendo Wii in recent months has seen a lot of finger food, small snacks designed for parties. There is a market for them, but it has disappointed those who were expecting big things from one of the most respected restaurants in town. They may not make as many meals as their competitors, but they are always laden with flavour.

One high spot was due to be Mad World from Sega and Platinum, a smorgasbord of meat (the stylised graphics) and spicy sauce (the violence). And yet within a couple of weeks the meal is on sale at a bargain price, despite a high-profile TV ad campaign and generally positive reviews. So do gamers really want a taste of something new, or do they just say that and go with the old familiar and comforting diet of racing and FPS? I remember a similar fate befalling Outrun 2006 Coast to Coast, a refreshing summer ice lolly in the midst of a sea of dull brown shooting soups.

We have to support and respect the great chefs (programmers) and the establishments that train them. The aforementioned Platinum contains people who worked at Clover, creators of Okami. At the end of the PS2 generation this was cruelly overlooked by many, yet it represented exactly the sort of experience many gamers express a wish for online. Clover closed down, and now Platinum’s future could hang on future releases like Bayonetta (a new take on the Devil May Cry style game, with a female protagonist).

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve made myself hungry.