Feature – Seasons Don’t Fear…In-Game Advertising

May 28, 2010 § Leave a comment

The amount of people playing games is rising. This is good. The price of an average console game is rising. This is not so good. The cost of producing a standard retail release is also rising – due to the increased graphical capabilities of current generation consoles. This is bad. In an ideal world the expanding marketplace and increased retail price would make up for the increased costs developers are facing on their end, but if current evidence is anything to go by, this is not the case.

Many have blamed the recent influx of ‘unfair’ DLC – such as paying extra to unlock content on the disk, leaving a game story unfinished to get people to pay for it later or paying to unlock cheats – on greedy publishers looking to fatten their already overflowing wallets. This view is a little hard to believe. Such a practice sullies a publisher’s reputation in the eyes of many gamers, and as such appears to be an act of desperation rather than a calculated business strategy.

An alternative to forcing consumers to pay more is to get this extra revenue from advertising, by offering companies space in your game to promote their goods. Reactions thus far to this tactic have been negative, and understandably so. Attempts to sell goods to gamers have been unsubtle and patronising at best, and in worse case scenarios have actually negatively impacted a game’s quality.

Longer load times as a result of advertising are understandably a very bad thing, but it would be ridiculous to dismiss the idea altogether. Load times during games are without question their worst feature, and at best simply provide banal ‘Hints’ or show off the game’s art (Bayonetta’s sublime loading screens notwithstanding). Why not monetise these moments when the gamer isn’t playing, and thus place your advertising in a place which in no way affects gameplay?

In-game billboards are another route that can be done well if enough care and attention is taken. No one wants to see a Pepsi billboard whilst traversing the ruins of Washington DC in Fallout 3, but gamers are usually okay with seeing the same advert on the side of a Gran Turismo track, or on a football stadium. If the care is taken to fit ads in similarly well with non-sports titles, then could they not add yet another layer of realism to an experience?

Similarly, real products could be used as items in a characters inventory, in the place of something generic made up by the developer. Alan Wake’s use of ‘Energizer’ batteries is a good example of this. The idea of having to pick up batteries to extend the life of your torch was always going to require batteries to be present in the game. The fact that they happen to be ‘Energizer’ doesn’t change the gameplay experience in any way, and likely provided Remedy Entertainment with a little extra cash with which to keep the game’s development going for as long as they did. Alternatively would anyone really care if caps in Fallout 3 were from Coca-Cola bottles rather then Nuka-Cola?

No matter how good a game is, nine times out of ten it’s only going to provide money in one form: sales. If gamers look at an ad whilst they wait for their online matches to load, then this can provide developers with an additional incentive to keep their servers online for as long as possible, as well as providing them with income with which to put out free patches, and potentially even free DLC.

Gamers are right to get angry at in-game advertising as it stands. It can ruin a game for many people, and often leads to a feeling of exploitation when you’ve paid for a full-price retail release, only to be forced to look at obtrusive ads whilst you play. If adverts are unobtrusive and cleverly done however, they might just provide a valuable way of making riskier games more profitable, which will, at the end of the day benefit consumers like us.

Where Should Rockstar Visit Next?

May 27, 2010 § Leave a comment

There’s no denying that there’s something about Rockstar’s game worlds that make them special. Is it the NPC’s that go about their day, with their seemingly endless amounts of character and explicit dialogue? Or is it the setting itself, which always manages to be as expansive and yet contain a level of detail unmatched by any of their competitors.


Regardless of what exactly their magic ingredient is, Rockstar it seems has done it again with Red Dead Redemption. As always both the critics, and consumers have found a special place in their hearts for the game, which has once and for all put to an end the belief that the Wild West will ever truly die.

Considering the game’s success, it would be foolish of Rockstar not to continue what has turned into a successful partner franchise with Grand Theft Auto, but why should they stop there? Given that they’ve now proven that worlds other than the New York/Miami/California combination are ripe for open-world mayhem, where should they visit next?

In short: potentially everywhere.

England, 18th Century
England during the 18th Century was changing. The Industrial Revolution was just getting underway, sending the previously rural working class headlong into newly emerging towns and cities to work in factories which made use of the wealth of technological innovation going on at the time.

This period also encapsulated the heyday of the highwaymen, robbers on horseback often romanticised in folklore and legend. These men would pray on the stagecoaches carrying the wealthy from place to place, allegedly giving rise to phrases such as “Stand and deliver!” and “Your money or your life!” when they emerged from their hiding places to ambush them.

This rich history of folklore would make any game with this setting an incredibly interesting place for Rockstar to explore. The GTA and Red Dead series have played homage very successfully to cinema history, and with 18th Century England they could do the same thing for the written word. This could even potentially be more interesting, as there exists no de facto standard for the aesthetic of the era, allowing Rockstar to develop its own rich look of the time, without relying on a pre-existing template such as with the GTA3 trilogy.

Though from a historical perspective it doesn’t quite work, there’s also potential for overlap here with a cockney London, complete with a contrived appearance by Jack the Ripper of all people. Given the developer’s refusal to shy away from the nitty-gritty, a date with the Ripper could be a truly terrifying experience.

What ultimately would make 18th Century England an interesting setting would be Rockstar’s approach to it, seeing as there’s very little precedent of how to do so. That said, the Wild West but greener might be a good start.

Tokyo, Modern Day
Asian culture has always had a significant role to play in the GTA games of the past, most notably in the handheld ‘Chinatown Wars’ but it’s taken a back seat to American mob life for the most part, or been forced to operate in an American city.

The opportunities offered by such a setting are numerous. The GTA games have always at their core been about American pop culture, the films, television and music that make up the nation. Sometimes the games take satirical swipes here and there, but for the most part their games are lacquered with the infinite hopes of the American Dream. A foreign setting could be used to do exactly that, but for a completely different country, with its unique culture, stereotypes and ideals.

Vice City was fantastic for me personally because of how it managed to take a place I’d never been, from an era I’d never experienced, and put it together in such a way so that by the end of it I’d felt as if I’d been there, even if what ‘there’ was was a surreal pastiche of the real place. For those who’ve never been to Tokyo (myself included), a GTA game could do a similar thing, and transport us to a world we’ve never come close to seeing in the flesh.

The Caribbean, Early 18th Century

Much like the Wild West, the age of pirates is another criminally under-explored setting in the world of video games, especially in the action genre. Notable exceptions include the RTS Tropico, and of course Tim Schafer’s Monkey Island series. Rockstar could take the setting grittier than it’s ever gone before, as far removed from the child-friendly seven seas of the recent Disney movies as it’s possible to get.

Without a doubt the biggest challenge to face any developer of a pirate-themed open world game would be sea travel. Almost without fail, sea travel within games manages to be slow and monotonous, lacking any of the excitement of pelting down streets filled with countless living and metallic obstacles. Worst of all is falling into the water, and being forced to swim for any length of time.

If Rockstar were to fix – or at least find their way around – these niggles then players could have a really unique experience, working their way up from the rank of lowly cabin-boy to captaining their own ship, getting into bar fights, and pouncing on enemy crews to steal their treasure maps and of course: rum.

Anywhere, The Future
Perhaps the most unlikely suggestion on this list (though probably not any less likely than the others) is the possibility of Rockstar going all science ficion on us for the first time in their history. My initial justification for heading to the future for some open-world mayhem is a little thin on the ground – think hover cars – but there are some interesting angles of such a setting that a developer with Rockstar’s pedigree could explore.

Futuristic cities always tend to have more than their fair share of unpleasantness about them, and who else to better explore what directions our twisted human desires will take in a few centuries from now? Rockstar could really go wild with future crimes such as organ production, or alien smuggling, and in doing so shock people for the first time in years simply because these’ll be crimes we’re not used to seeing in popular culture.

So where would you like Rockstar to set their next franchise? Do you want something historical like Red Dead Redemption, or simply somewhere different, yet still set in the modern time frame of Grand Theft Auto? Do you even want a change of setting at all, or are the characters the real stars of Rockstar’s franchises for you?

What’s Stopping Good Video Game Movies?

May 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

If recent news is anything to go by, it seems the critical panning received by almost every single video game movie adaptation isn’t enough to deter people. Logically there must be some fans out there devout enough to sit through 90 minutes of cinema garbage or else these movies wouldn’t continue to get made with what appears to be larger and larger budgets.

The latest video game movie reportedly entering production is Mass Effect, Bioware’s expansive science-fiction epic. The game joins an ever expanding list of adaptations which includes Naughty Dog’s Uncharted, Quantum Dream’s Heavy Rain and a sequel to 2007’s Hitman movie based upon the long running assassination series from IO Interactive.

Almost without exception video game movies are bad, regardless of budget, acting cast, or source material. Whose fault is this though? Is it the movie studios who’ll save their A-list talent for projects lacking in a built in audience, or is there an inherent problem with trying to convert interactivity into a wild roller-coaster ride of a film experience.

To my mind a producer is faced with an incredibly tough decision whenever he starts work on a film of this nature. They can either make a movie that gets as close to the source material as is possible, and refuse to change characters, locations and plot lines, or they can go in the opposite direction entirely, putting together something that takes a few key elements from the game, whilst reworking or abandoning other features that don’t work in a non-interactive medium.

The success or failure of a project depends on this decision, and ultimately both choices contain drawbacks that have so far not been surmounted by efforts made.

Option number one, to make a movie that acts more as an homage to the source material is risky because of the role original franchise fans play in any adaptation’s success. Mess with the source material too much and you’ll have fans hungry for blood, demanding to know why feature X, Y or Z from the game didn’t make an appearance in the movie, and why the plot has been changed the way it has. This original fanbase is crucial to the success of these types of film, and the loss of them can be potentially devastating to the success of the release.

Taking this option also tends to make your reasons for embarking on the project look a little morally dubious. As soon as you’ve changed the source material as much as many films chose to, it really begs the question why this film needed to be based on an existing IP in the first place. This route has a distinctive stench of the cash-in about it. More often than not this approach leads to a bland piece of cinema with no real identity to call its own aside from a few elements cribbed from its namesake in the gaming world.

The second option is for all involved to stick as close to the source material as possible, taking wholesale the characters, events, and art style that made the original game great. On the face of it this approach seems ideal, as it justifies wholly its existence as a tie in, and could potentially give fans of the franchise exactly what they want.

This path is pitted with potholes even greater than the other however, when you consider the insurmountable difference between what makes games and movies great. A film is an enjoyable experience when the characters in it are strong, charismatic, and just appealing to passively observe. Gaming protagonists meanwhile are – aside from in a select few instances – blank slates, who are for the most part defined by your interaction with them.

Jack Carver of Far Cry fame, taken purely how he appears in cutscenes, is a boring boring man, who only seems to exist to deliver a few lines of expository dialogue before lapsing into silence for hours at a time. When playing him however, he’s a far more interesting character, capable of taking out dozens of men at a time before jumping off a cliff and paragliding to safety.

The problem as I see it is that what makes a character like Jack Carver interesting is going to be completely different when seen through the eyes of different gamers, because everyone plays Far Cry at least a little differently from one another. My Carver, the sneaky assassin, is going to be the opposite of your gung-ho ‘Rambo’-esque hero. Trying to translate these differing characters into a single cinematic entity, has thus far resulted in bland, boring, atrocities of characters.

That for me is why film adaptations of games unilaterally end up being awful, regardless of the talent attached to them. Mark Protosevich may have written the script for ‘I Am Legend’ – a movie which I couldn’t help but enjoy – but unless he just so happens to be the visionary that makes this whole trend work, the Mass Effect film will likely make about as much noise critically as John Frusciante without the Chili Peppers.

Five Utopian Features of the PSP2

May 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The run up to this year’s E3 seems to be proving once more that (in their own words) Sony is still an industry leader in leaks. It seems like every week that goes by sees more details emerge about a possible PSP2, such as rumours of an announcement at Sony’s Press Conference as well as speculation that the console will finish what the PSP Go started with download-only releases.

The jury’s still out on whether Sony has learnt what it needs to do to make the PSP2 a success, and the boring answer is most likely the accurate one. The PSP2 needs to be cheap it needs to have good games both at release and on the horizon to convince consumers its a worthwhile investment.

Let’s get a little more idealistic for a second here though, and think to ourselves what the PSP2 could do to not just get sales, but to set the world on fire. What could a small handheld console provide to get itself a space in the pocket of every commuter the world over? With that in mind I present to you my five utopian features of the PSP2.

Don’t just step on Apple’s toes, trample them

I should make one thing clear right off the bat. If I get called on my PSP and am forced to look like I’m gaming whilst actually answering a phonecall you can count me out. I want a device that can play all the great games my PSP can, but can still do all my smartphone stuff without getting bogged down. Make it a PSP Go with a touchscreen if you have to, but don’t force me to navigate a phonebook with an analogue stick.

I want it all, I want a phonebook, mobile internet, calander, Facebook apps, camera, music player and I want a movie player. Don’t just make me consider leaving my phone at home, make me feel like an idiot for carrying around a second device that does everything my PSP does minus the games. If you can make sure people have their PSPs on them at all times, then that’s half the battle won.

Download-only

Sony, if your listening, I didn’t by a PSP Go. I’m not sorry for that I’ll admit, but don’t take that a sign I disagree with its digital-only releases. I love the idea of not having to wait a couple of days for my games to arrive through the mail, but I didn’t like the prospect of having to give up my UMD collection for the privilege.

Retailers are understandably a little reluctant to devote shelf space to games that didn’t do so well last generation, and you can easily circumvent this problem by making the storefront yourself. Just make sure you get that whole piracy thing sorted out or else you’re going to end up with egg on your face for the second time running.

Embrace Your Past

Playing Metal Gear Solid on my PSP was an absolute blast. Not those PSP ones you put out mind, by the original PSX epic, with Psycho Mantis and more stupid Genome soldiers than you could shake a stick at. It’s hard to get myself playing old classics when I’m at home with my trio of next-gen consoles, but out on the go it’s perfect when I’m looking for a handheld shot of nostalgia.

Without wishing to sound ungrateful, I want more. I want more PSX games, released more frequently and…well admittedly the prices you charged for them were about right. Don’t stop there though, as I see it every old console is ripe for the picking. I could go for Genesis games on the go, and hell, even a couple of Neo Geo games might be nice.

Yes I know licensing deals are tricky things to negotiate, but Sony you’re a big boy now, and you’ve been in this game a long time. It’s time to start pulling your weight and convincing third parties that their old games are more than welcome on your digital store.

Reward me

I’ve got a pretty nice gamerscore going on with my PS3. I spent a significant amount of time earlier this year chasing after a platinum trophy for Assassin’s Creed 2, and when I finally got it the feeling was impressive to say the least. If I could get that same feeling with smaller handheld games then I’d certainly spend a lot more time with the PS3’s portable little sibling, rather than wasting my time reading books on the train (which I might add don’t even have the common courtesy to play a satisfying little chime whenever I finish a chapter).

On a more serious note, trophies would give people a very alluring incentive to connect their PSP to their PSN account. As soon as you’ve got PSPs talking with your central servers you’ve got an avenue for pulling all sorts of checks to make sure people are using legitimate copies of games in their search for trophy glory. If you make trophies appealing enough, then you can let human competitiveness take over, at which point losing a gamerscore would become quite a serious punishment for a potential pirate.

Make the PSP2 do Everything you Lead us to Believe the Original Would

I may have been the only one that thought this, but there was a time before the PS3 joined the PSP on store shelves when I really thought there was a possibility of using my PSP to control PS3 games. Developers tantalised us with demonstrations of the PSP acting as a rear-view mirror on racing games such a F1 Championship Edition but when both systems were on store shelves everyone went strangely quiet on the issue.

Personally I’d never want to use the PSP’s tiny little analogue stick to play as precise a game as F1, but the feature could be invaluable in many other instances. Imagine if you will, a two player RPG experience. You’ve been sucked into a random encounter, and both you and one friend are controlling a party member each. The HDTV in front of you however, is completely free of any HUD, instead all the required menus for controlling the tide of battle are located on your individual PSP screens. You scroll through your characters’ data individually, without needing to see your partner’s information, and when your turn comes to attack, the animation plays out in beautiful high definition in front of you. That my friends, would be living.

Token Inclusion: A Second Analogue Stick

I didn’t want to include this feature, because honestly I think anything that encourages developers to put a console experience on a handheld is a bad thing, especially when your going to be forced to control them with sticks not designed for ease of use, but to take up as little room as possible.

Ignoring that quite large hurdle however, there do seem to be a significant amount of people that are really pining after that second stick, which should generate enough sales to offset the cost of its inclusion. A small number of handheld games may work quite well with it as well, such as Super Stardust, so it’s influence wouldn’t be all bad.

If you do all of these things Sony, you’ll be guaranteed to generate at least one extra sale, which should make it all worthwhile right?

What about you? What does Sony need to do to get that bad PSP Go taste out of your mouth and get you back on the bandwagon for its handheld successor?

The Monogamous Relationship between the PC and Mods

May 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

For many the decline in the emphasis placed on the PC as a platform isn’t much of an issue. The party moved on to consoles a while ago, leaving PC developers to face some very difficult decisions about the platforms their future titles would grace with their presence.

In many cases there’s not been much lost in the transition. Games are designed now in such a way so as to feel as natural played with a gamepad as they ever did with a mouse and keyboard, and thanks to the mind boggling resourcefulness of console developers, there remains today the smallest graphics gap between PC and console that there’s ever been. There’s one part of PC gaming however, that will likely never be able to make it over to consoles, and that’s the Mod.

Mods (short for modifications) are programs or files which will change either a small part of a game, or create an entirely new one based upon the initial groundwork done by the game’s developers. A small mod might be an additional multiplayer map, or a new gun, whilst an example of an entirely new game created as a mod would be Counter-Strike, which started out as a mod of the original Half Life.

Mods are an incredibly important part of the industry. Not only are they a blast to play around with for the end gamer, adding literally months of fun to a title in the form of what would today be called ‘free DLC’, but they also provide a very important means for amateurs to release games, by simplifying the process of making something in your spare time.

Whenever any industry veteran is asked how to get into the industry, the answer given 9 out of 10 times is to get involved with a mod team. That experience of putting together levels, and creating art assets for a community project is invaluable when a person comes to working in the industry as a professional, and it’s experience you can’t really get anywhere else.

I’m not saying the mod scene is ever going to die out, but the shunning of the PC platform by publishers is driving people towards consoles, and reducing the potential market for amateur releases. This is unquestionably a bad thing to my mind when consumer feedback is really the only thing you have going for you when you’re not getting paid to put something out.

The solution I’d advocate is to make Mods far more accessible to consoles, and hence console owners.

Epic Games had this same idea with Unreal Tournament 3. Their method however, was less than ideal. Soon after the game’s release, they put out a tool which allowed you to ‘cook’ your PC mod and turn it into something that could be played on your console.

The problem was that getting mods onto your console was simply far to convoluted for your average console gamer, who had no means of browsing mods on their PS3, and had to either get seriously invested in the PC mod community, or else wait for knowledgeable journalists to point them in the direction of something worth trying. Without any form of marketplace for the mods, there was no way for the average consumer to find something to suit his tastes.

Titles like LittleBigPlanet have proved that if you make downloading other people’s creations easy enough, then not only will gamers download the creations of others, but that creators will be incentivised to produce the best possible content.

Give console gamers the engine, and some substantial tools, and they’ll produce more than you ever thought possible. They’ll fill consumers machines with hours of the most creative entertainment ever made, and they’ll become the great designers of the future with the experience they’ll gain.

But of course, there’s always going to be that piracy issue bogging progress down…

So what about you. Would you be more tempted to try out a mod if you could play it from your couch, or are you already getting your fix on the PC side? Do you think we’ll ever see mod tools make it into console games, or is there just not enough incentive there for developers?

Why Games are Never Going to get Shorter and Cheaper

May 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

VP of Namco Bandai Partners Olivier Comte was quoted as saying last week that video games are “too expensive for the audience”. Her words resonated with me in a way lots of industry buzz has been doing recently.

To my mind there’s no question about it, video games are far too expensive for anyone other than the hardcore enthusiast, and even those individuals are paying a premium price for content which many could happily go without.

I realise much of this is personal opinion (though a couple of industry veterans such as Randy Smith and John Davidson seem to share my views), but personally it’s a struggle for me to play a lengthy game to completion. Unless a game holds a massive amount of variety in its gameplay, holding my attention for longer than five hours is a rarity, and after that it feels like time wasted just to see the story wrap up.

Aside from this writer’s own opinion though, is there really any reason for the industry to change?

Economically lower price points make sense. Games would be considered by many (though I’ll go out on a limb here and guess this doesn’t include many of Bitmob’s readership) to be a luxury good. Usually consumers of luxury goods are going to be very responsive to a change in price, and as such a drop in price is likely to result in an increase in total revenue. Put simply, the increase in game sales would theoretically make up for the reduction of the price of every unit sold.

The second hand games market would also suffer a serious blow. How many people will trade in a £10 DVD to buy the latest releases? The temptation is understandably there with a £40 game, but reduce the cost and people are less likely to need to pawn off their collections to keep up with this week’s must-haves.

Piracy may also be affected. A major excuse cited by pirates is that they’d buy games if they could afford them, but since they can’t, their only option is to steal them. Morally ambiguous this argument may be, but if games are cheaper, then it would certainly act in favour of getting them into the hands of gamers by more legitimate means. That said, if a ‘Pay What You Want’ model for a DRM free charity release isn’t enough for 25% of people that played the ‘Humble Indie Bundle’ then piracy may well persist no matter how cheap games get.

Despite all these very utopian ideas, games – or at least the big budget releases that make up the majority of sales – aren’t going to get any cheaper any time soon. The reason for this lies in a little Economic theory called ‘Economies of Scale’.

The theory of economies of scale states that as your total output increases, your long run average costs will decrease (until diseconomies of scale set it, but that doesn’t really apply here). For example, a large supermarket can sell vegetables at a much cheaper price than a small corner shop because they can bulk buy and pull all those other neat tricks to pass the savings on to you, the consumer (at least in theory).

What this means in terms of games is that as a game’s hour count increases (in other words, its output) the cost of producing each successive hour of content decreases. Getting a five minute demo up and running is a hugely costly endeavour for a developer, but once they’ve got a graphics engine chugging away, a character modelled, and enemy AI all implemented, its comparatively much cheaper to craft another hour’s worth of content for the third quarter.

Why should this mean games are naturally longer? Well it means you can double the length of your game, double the price from that of a downloadable to a retail release, all without doubling your budget.

Downloadable games have exploded this generation to scratch the itch of time-strapped gamers everywhere, but for those such as myself hoping to see games such as Uncharted make their way to us in more bitesize chunks, it might be a long wait.

So over to you. Is it ridiculous complaining that games are too long at a time when games are shorter on average than they’ve ever been before? Do you find yourself lusting after more when you finish a game, or has your enthusiasm peaked well before the credits roll? Would you be willing to pay half the price for a game that’s half as long? Do you have enough time to play games to completion in the first place?

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