Mod My PS3: Does Anyone have a Right to Tinker?

August 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

On August 27th, Sony won a court case in Australia to block the sale of a USB dongle which gives users the ability to ‘backup’ PS3 games to their hard drive. Importantly this wasn’t the end of the battle, as it only prevented sales up until the 1st of September; in order to make this injunction permanent Sony must win another court battle. 

Below the news article on this story posted on Edge Online were numerous comments, most of them in defence of Sony, but a couple supporting the rights of consumers to do whatever they will with the hardware they’ve purchased. Against all the odds, in between the mess of bad grammar, spelling an ad hominem arguments here we have an interesting point worth discussing. 
Though the PS Jailbreak modchip is marketed as allowing users to backup their own games it would be naïve to think that this is all consumers want to use this device to do. In a completely innocent world it might be the case that PS3 users would buy this dongle to transfer their own games to their hard drives thus saving themselves the hassle of switching disks, but then it’s also legal to buy bongs and crack pipes in the UK so long as you want them for purely decorative reasons.
Here in the real world it’s easy to see the potential such a device has. At it’s most basic the hack could be used to transfer rented games to the hard disk and thus keep a game for the price of a rental. More industrious users could take the process a step further and transfer games to an external hard drive, and then use that to get the games onto filesharing websites. If others were to then download these games, Sony would be denied even the meagre revenue from a rental. 

Piracy harms the little guy. Whilst it’s very easy to think to yourself that you’re messing with the profit margins of huge corporations when you get around paying for a game, at the end of the day it’s not going to be those at the top that take a pay cut but the humble programmers and artists whose games just aren’t pulling in the revenue they need to. 
The effects of piracy aside, there is a genuine argument here to allow consumers to do what they will with the products that they buy. If you purchase a PS3 then why shouldn’t you have the ability to install Linux on it, or modify it to play ‘Everybody Loves Doghnuts‘ whenever you start it up? Unfortunately the freedom street is two-way, and you also want to have the freedom to make money should you choose to start up a company. Sony want to make money on their (admittedly very well manufactured) products and if something prevents them from doing that as effectively then they’re going to fight tooth and nail to stop it.

The OtherOS scandal was an interesting one because on closer inspection it wasn’t really Sony’s fault. PS3 owners initially had the ability to install Linux on their system, someone spent their time using this to pirate games, which resulted in the feature being removed. Don’t blame the Japanese consumer electronics giant, blame ‘Hotz’ for the fact you now can’t use a feature you were never going to touch anyway (Linux on PS3 was as slow as a decade old PC, and you had to view it at the resolution of your television – trust me, you were never going to take the plunge). 
Perhaps the one morally sound argument for being able to mod a console is allowing DIY developers to make their own ‘homebrew’ games. It’s interesting to see what people will make in their own time given a piece of hardware which is usually only available on a commercial scale. Being able to run home made games on a PSP is without a doubt a very cool thing to be able to do, because there wasn’t really any other way to do that on a handheld before Android came along. The problem is that if you want to play homebrew on your TV, there’s literally no reason you have to be using a console. It’s much easier just to plug a computer into the back of your television and do it that way, and then use a bluetooth dongle if you just absolutely have to use a Sixaxis. 

That’s really what’s at the root of my issue with the defence of this PS3 hack. People either defend it on the grounds that it lets you do things you can already do much easier on a PC, or on philosophical grounds which for 90% of consumers don’t actually matter. Sure, it’s not great that we can’t do whatever we will with our own hardware, but the roadblocks that presents to your average consumer are slim to none. 
When Sony announce that they’re removing the ability for PS3’s to play games with a firmware update I’ll get worried, but until then there’s very little practical reason to get self-righteous. 

Fixing the Terms ‘Casual’ and ‘Hardcore’

August 23, 2010 § Leave a comment

Classical Game 

  1. See also, ‘Hardcore Game’
  2. (n) A game requiring a large time investment to complete once, usually made up of a detailed world which will be played by either a single or a group of players. 
  3. (n) A game played primarily by ‘Classical Gamers’ (See also: Hardcore Gamers)

Pop Game

  1. See also, ‘Casual Game’
  2. (n) A more basic game requiring less time to complete once. Will usually feature more simplistic graphics and mechanics leading to it being player by a far wider group of people. 
  3. (n) A game played primarily by ‘Pop Gamers’ (See also: Casual Gamers)

As a relatively unestablished medium, critics have struggled with finding the correct terminology to describe games. Some terms such as ‘gameplay’ have definitions that are so broad so as to be almost indescribable, and others such as ‘pacing’ and ‘arc’ have been taken wholesale from the dictionary’s of other mediums altogether. Most of these phrases work well in games journalism, but without a doubt there are two others that need to go: ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’. 

There may have been a time when these terms fit what they were describing. The hardcore players may have fell into the gaming stereotype, spending hours upon hours playing enormously complex games which made up their only hobby. Casual gamers meanwhile, may have spent a dollar or two playing Pac-Man but would otherwise not consider themselves a ‘gamer’ in any sense of the word. 
Though it may be easy to claim that it’s only recently these categories have fallen apart, the fact is that the line between them has never been very distinct. Consider for example the game Tetris. Tetris has found a home on every platform ever conceived, from the first Gameboy right up until EA’s version released on PSP next year. Everyone has played at least one game of Tetris in their life, and as such initially it seems to be clearly a casual game. At the same time though there are many people who’ve spent hours with this simplistic puzzle game, to the extent that dreaming about Tetris is a recognised phenomenon. Farmville players may be technically classed as ‘casual’, but that won’t stop them from playing the game for far longer than the time it’ll take you to finish Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days. 
The argument here is not that there isn’t a difference between Farmville and Modern Warfare – clearly these two games are in entirely separate leagues when it comes to the experiences they provide – but that calling one ‘casual’ and one ‘hardcore’ is incredibly misleading, not to mention patronising on both fronts.
As I’ve blogged previously, games are actually far closer to music as a medium than anything else. Could we thus take phrases from a vocabulary that suits our medium far better?
Could we say for example that ‘casual’ games are our medium’s version of pop music? 

Could we then go on to claim ‘hardcore’ games take the place of classical?
Before starting an argument as to whether these specific descriptions fit, let us first examine why exactly it is that games are like music. To this end we’ll look at two highly regarded works; Super Mario 64 and Bethoven’s 5th Symphony
Both works are based around a single motif or idea. Super Mario 64’s is Mario’s ability to run and jump, Bethoven’s 5th is it’s first four iconic notes. Both works start by introducing this core idea, the music plays the tune in its most basic form, and the game puts you in control of Mario, with no obstacles to overcome, and just his core abilities to play with.
As both works continue they take their respective core ideas and mix them up in new and exciting ways. The symphony plays the four notes at different tempos and at different points on the scale, Mario enters different worlds and is forced to use his abilities in different ways to progress. The works may at points deviate completely from their initial ideas – putting Mario on a slide for example – but both return to it regularly to give a sense of completeness.

So a good piece of music won’t just be based around a (for want of a better term) ‘catchy riff’, but will over the course of its run-time explore it in different exciting ways. A good game meanwhile needs to be both fun to control, as well as introducing new levels and abilities to you to keep it interesting throughout. No one wants to play the same Mario level over and over again, no matter how well he controls. 
The popularity of games and music are also both heavily influenced by outside factors. As an example fighting games could be considered to be the jazz music of gaming.
The success of fighting games was made in the arcades. Though they’re still enormously popular now, many believe their best memories of the genre to be outside of their own home, shared with other gamers in an arcade. The social aspect of these games is enormously important, best enjoyed with your opponent by your side and with nowhere to hide when you inevitably lose. 

Similarly jazz is best enjoyed live. Recorded music may technically provide you with the songs, but so much of the experience is tied up in improvisation that its hard to appreciate it as much when you’re hearing it after the fact. Jazz music is best enjoyed by listening to musicians play it, and as such it’s never been as popular as it was before the days of recorded music, though that’s not to say it doesn’t still have a huge amount of fans today. 
So what of the distinction between pop and classical music?
Pop music may be very different from classical music, but it’s still based (in general terms) upon the same theory. Pop music still uses scales, and keys, and even takes tunes directly from classical music in many cases. It is however simplified, it’s toned down, it’s taken by a smaller group of composers and made more accessible. As a result of this simplification it’s now far more popular than classical music, and to a certain extent is looked down upon by fans of classical music as being too simple. 

Pop games may be very different from classical games, but they’re still based (in general terms) upon the same theory. Pop games still use scoring, and levels, and even take gameplay ideas directly from classical games in many cases. They are however simplified, toned down, taken by a smaller group of developers and made more accessible. As a result of this simplification they’re now far more popular than classical games, and to a certain extent are looked down upon by fans of classical games as being too simple. 
The similarities here are hard to ignore. 
From doing this we can see that it would be very easy to replace these two archaic terms with something much more suitable, but can this revelation do more for us than simply provide terminology?
Could we look at the history of music for possible hints about the future of gaming?
We could for example look at the meteoric rise of pop music. We could examine how at first it was shunned by the generations that had grown up with ‘proper’ music, but is now the most listened to type of music on the planet. We could look at how classical music is still popular today, but remains far too inaccessible for many people to grasp. We could even call into question whether the population at large could ever enjoy classical games…
…but we won’t of course, because I fancy going to the pub for some crisps.
So, do you agree? If you do I suggest thinking about other similarities that exist, such as the shunning of bands who aren’t ‘Indie’ enough, or the choices composers make between telling a story through music (gameplay), or through lyrics (cutscenes). If you’re feeling super generous you could perhaps start referring to pop and classical games in your writing so we can get this revolution on the road. 
If you don’t agree I’d love to hear your responses as well, the more eloquent the better. Any uses of the word ‘Fail’ will of course be ignored.

It’s Not Easy Being a Colonial Marine

August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

We Alien fans are a patient lot. It’s been eleven long years since our last truly great game. Twenty-four years since our last good film. Sure, Duke Nukem leads the pack in cautionary tales from Development Hell; Sonic’s death has been drawn out more excruciatingly than any other; Star Wars has been milked to the point of emaciation, but Aliens has punished its fans more than any other franchise in history.

It isn’t the waiting. You get used to the waiting. It’s the hope. Despite the countless – countless – abhorrences that the license has birthed, we have never lost faith that one day someone might come. Someone who knows why James Cameron’s career is on the wrong side of its peak, why Rebellion Developments still exists, what it is that keeps Giger’s creature lurching onwards, beaten down again and again, but still clawing its way towards the back of the unsuspecting entertainment industry.

1999. The Alien film franchise is on its merry way down the shitter and you’ve jumped ship already. You find yourself creeping down a pitch-black steel corridor. You’re armed to the teeth, but you can’t shoot what you can’t see. Flares burst into the corner of your vision on a button press, blinding you and creating a tiny island of harsh purple light in which you can cower. You only have so many, and you still can’t see more than three feet ahead of you. No good against terrible, spindly shadows that flit around ahead of you at a speed you’ve never seen in a game. A small radar gives off high-pitched ‘blips’ beside you.

Blip. Blip. Blip.

You see a single dot moving across the little readout. Numbers scroll at speed next to it. You don’t know what they mean. But they’re getting smaller.

30m. Blip.
25m. Blip.
20m. Blip.

You saw the film. You guess what’s coming. Suddenly, your flare fizzes out, leaving you in darkness.

15m. Blip.

You fumble in the dark and find the image intensifier. One flick and suddenly the screen lights up in an eerie green shade. You wait for the blip and try to still your shaking hands.

Silence, save for a soft buzz. Night-vision comes at a cost. You glance down to check your ammo. Less than full. Suddenly, a blood-curdling noise blares through your headphones, rattling around inside your skull. A mixture of hiss, screech and bestial growl, you only hear it once before a black shape skitters into sight, ricocheting off the walls as it screams along the floor towards you. Years of playing Doom have conditioned you to backpedal as fast as humanly possible, spraying pulse-rifle rounds down the corridor. The muzzle flash whites out your vision and the weapon drones even louder than the creature as you rain lead everywhere. You can just about hear a wet impact as one of your bullets hits home.

You cease fire. Vision returns. There is smoke rising from the floor, where a small black claw lies, dripping acid blood. The creature is nowhere to be seen. Dropping your image intensifier, you watch the motion tracker for a retreating dot.

100m. Blip.

Looks like you scared it off. Wait, was that a decimal point?

1.00m. Blip.

There is just time for you to drop a flare before a loud snap announces your failure. What remains of your skull hangs from the jaws of your first alien encounter as it clings to the ceiling above you. Game: Over. Pants: Browned.

I mean it when I say Aliens versus Predator didn’t redefine horror games. It fucking defined them. Scores of inadequate pretenders from the last decade crouch, shivering, in the dark shadow it casts over them. Cheap shocks fire off between them, complemented by overbearing musical scores and safe-haven cutscenes. Meanwhile, AvP takes place in oppressive silence as you try to hide from opponents that are infinitely faster, stronger and more numerous than you are. You will come across long corridors of absolute darkness, which pressure you to light your path either with wild gunfire, blinding flares or the night-vision which cripples your ability to sense danger. Maybe you’ll sprint along it spraying your flamethrower everywhere like a real USMC marine? Enjoy standing in the dark – back against a wall – when the opposite door fails to open and a horde closes around you until your ammo runs dry.

Back in the days FEAR meant something other than slow-motion gun battles in office buildings and little girls with psychic powers.

We’ve waited a long time for another Aliens game. The frustrating thing is, there’s loads of them. They get released all the time. Mobile phones see the largest catalogue, while the PSP follows up with tie-ins to the beyond-horrible AvP movies (I’d describe them as looking fan-made, but that does the fans a disservice). The most recent – and disappointing – was the 2010 ‘successor’ to AvP 1999. My inverted commas are dripping warm sarcasm all over the floor, so let me qualify my point whilst the gimp mops it up for me. The main reason Aliens were such a terrifying prospect back in the day was not because they’re so well-designed. It wasn’t high-res textures of chitinous exoskeletons or procedurally-animated tail whip physics. It was their blistering movement speed. The films were terrifying because we couldn’t see what was after the crew of the Nostromo and our imagination filled in the blanks. While that doesn’t work in a first-person perspective, you can’t see something that leaps from floor to ceiling and runs circles around you faster than you can turn your head. In 2010, the Aliens move like old people fuck. I had no trouble picking each one out with my motion tracker and flashlight – and disassembling them with my pistol. Not to mention how boring the Alien campaign becomes once you realise the only reliable way to kill something is by getting behind it and pressing the ‘kill’ button. In 1999 we could dismember an entire roomful of marines in seconds, or be embarrassed by a single civilian with a pistol, depending on whether we were fast enough with our claws and walljumps. It was simple: a game of hide-and-seek. Marines were tested by their nerves and caution. Aliens were tested by their cunning and speed. A brilliant layout for incredibly tense gameplay, where victory goes to whoever is least afraid. No game since then has understood this. Not AvP 2, not AvP 2010, not even the glorious AvP: Extinction (which, for the record, had real potential). But there is a painful twist in this tail as it buries itself in my chest cavity. Its name is Gearbox.

I don’t trust them. They stole my heart in Opposing Force, only to crush it underfoot with the piss-poor PC port of Borderlands. They announced and canned a promising Aliens RPG. Now they have fallen silent, with only a few screenshots of their latest project – Aliens: Colonial Marines – floating around the internet.

They are spectacular.

We’ve been promised a character-driven storyline, marines with personality. A story set immediately following Aliens. A mission to recover Ellen Ripley and the squad that followed her into hell. Four-player local co-op where Aliens are fast, merciless and burst suddenly from the world geometry to drag you under. Sitting in a darkened room with your friends, watching the ammo counters on your sentries tick down to zero as the screams of pissed-off aliens echo from the other side of a sealed bulkhead. Acid blood that cripples players who touch it and burns through steel doors. AI that will outflank, outsmart and terrify us. Meanwhile, with news of an Alien prequel in the works, directed by the Ridley Scott, there is plenty to keep us on edge. We will wait for a return to former greatness, no matter how long it takes. If Colonial Marines ever does come out, it will have warped and decayed to the point where its genius is no longer recognisable. Alien 5 will be a Hollywood action flick with no depth and unlikeable characters, which milks the franchise for cheap thrills and commits unforgivable acts of fanservice, just as Predators did to its own series. There will never again be anything of worth that sports the Alien license, be it game, film or terrible cross between the two.

Sometimes I wish I could get out of this chicken-shit outfit, but I know that it’s worth sticking around, just in case. Because if anyone ever does make a game that does this incredible franchise justice, it will be the best-game-ever.

"Headshots are ruining games" – Jeff Gerstmann

August 16, 2010 § 2 Comments

Headshots are ruining games. Think about the arsenal they give you in Splinter Cell. Think about the remote camera, the sticky mines, the grenades and EMPs and all this other stuff and shotguns and assault rifles and you went through the entire game using the default pistol and then the upgraded version of the default pistol cause it’s silenced and you can shoot guys in the head with it really well…all of the spots where you are not being seen by anyone the right answer every single time is shoot that guy in the head…it is ruining games.” – Jeff Gerstmann

There’s nothing quite like the a game’s first perfectly executed headshot. That well timed squeeze of the trigger catching the crosshairs just as they light up an enemies dome creates an unmistakable feeling of mastery, bringing an end to your introductory hours, and relaxing you into the rest of the game. You may not have noticed it consciously, but that shot certainly mattered. “You’re a big boy now,” the game’s saying, “time to enjoy yourself.”

Headshots have been a part of shooters ever since Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64, (according to Wikipedia that is, so take that with a grain of salt) giving the player the ability to instantly kill an enemy with a single shot, or – in the case of multiplayer – score extra damage. Headshots add another layer of strategy to a shooter, punishing inaccurate sprays of gunfire in lieu of precise bursts. On the face of it, the removal of a feature no modern shooter goes without would immeasurably dumb down many games.
So what’s the problem then? The way a headshot will instantly kill a target is certainly realistic even if real marksmen avoid them due to the relative size of the targets. It’s also, as previously discussed, a very satisfying way of getting an enemy out of your way. It even keeps the bloodthirsty happy with the incredible amount of work that’s gone into the animation of a guys head getting blown off over the years. 

Like many things, it’s only once the feature’s gone that you begin to realise just how it was affecting your play style. Resident Evil 4 would not have been as good a game if you had the ability to dispatch foes with one shot to the head from your handgun. Some of the best moments in the game come as you’re being advanced upon by hoards of infected villagers. You have to think fast, take out the legs from under one of them to buy you enough time to slug a couple into the head of another. With the ability to kill with headshots added to the equation you’d shoot the first villager in the head, then shoot the second, then the third. It doesn’t have the same thrill to it does it?
Though Fallout 3 would be a bit of an easy target since the gunplay clearly isn’t its focus, it’s still a very good example of the headshot detracting from intricate systems put in place by the developer. Fallout 3’s VATS system allows the player to pause the game and select an enemy’s bodypart to shoot. Aside from a cursory glance you’ll never choose to shoot an enemy in the arm or leg. You’ll shoot them in the torso when the head presents too small a target, but other than that you’ll target the head every time and ignore the wealth of other options. 
We have here a design decision with no clear winner. Making the headshot less effective eliminates much of the satisfaction of shooting, whilst leaving it as it is removes much of the need to experiment with a game’s more obscure features. The familiarity of knowing a headshot is you’re most effective means of attack is certainly comforting when you’re starting a completely new game, but is it a good thing that so many titles are so similar in this regard?
Unusually I’m not even sure where I stand on this issue, so it’ll be very interesting to hear your responses to the topic. Do you like it when an enemy crumples under the weight of a single bullet to the skull, or do you find yourself ignoring a game’s expansive list of features because this one tactic   is too effective. 

Five Game Design Features You’ve Always Hated

August 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

There are a lot of design features you’ll end up cursing in a standard run through a game. We’d love to be able to claim that with development duties in our hands many games would end up being far better, but the truth is that the vast majority of these design ideas are there (or absent) for very good reasons.

Take as an example your inability to run and shoot simultaneously in Resident Evil 4. Sure, it’s infinitely annoying not to be able to back away from the hordes of infected villages scampering towards you, but the upshot is that the game ends up being far more tactical as a result. You can’t just jog into an area and expect to be able to get out unscathed, instead you have to think a little more, planning your escape route when the time comes for you to inevitably have to reload at the worst possible moment.

Likewise whilst it’s nice to have the option to play the entirety of a game co-operatively, the sheer cost involved from a development perspective, as well as the design headaches, involved with having two players running around the game world far outweigh the benefits of an option many wouldn’t even touch.

Some design choices though, defy any explanation. They exist as part of a tradition, included ‘just because’, and completely fail to justify their presence. Take as an example:

Having to sign player 2 into a profile:

I understand of course that this is a lovely feature intended to allow you to collect achievements whilst playing with a friend – at least that’s the idea. Out of interest though, how many of you actually keep your Xbox Live profile on a portable memory stick? In addition to that, how many of you will then keep this profile on your person should you come into a position to play some multiplayer? If you answered yes to both question then congratulations; it’s your obscure habit that’s been eating into the rest of our playtime for years now.

That way a game will give you the name of your profile? I hate that. Just ask me to quickly enter in my name when I want to play split-screen Halo, and stop me wasting scarce conversation by reminding people who I am when I kill them. Then of course if I want to collect achievements with friends give me the option to sign in to a profile. Until that point comes though, assume I’m not bothered and don’t make me waste my time creating profiles on friends’ systems just so I can use my real name.

Quitting to the main menu when you die

There are some features of JRPGs that I love. There are others I hate, but others love and thus warrant inclusion. The way many games will kick you out to the main menu when you die however, is both an annoying and immersion killing feature that has no place in modern games.

Perhaps the practise is designed to be a noble attempt to force you to give up. “Look,” the game’s saying, “You kinda suck at this. Why not go outside, get some fresh air, and then come back later?”

I don’t want to of course. I want to jump right back into the game and beat that challenge that had me stumped the first time round. In addition, I don’t want to have to rely on my saves as checkpoints, it means I spend more time worry about the next save point than actually enjoying the game, and can also result in entire half hours of game time lost when it could’ve been saved with a little automatic checkpointing.

The practise also wastes the player’s time. Just load up where I was five minutes ago because I could really do without first loading your company logos, the game’s introduction,  the main menu, my list of saves, and finally the level. It’s lengthy, it’s boring, and above all it makes me seriously think about walking away from the console, and that’s never a good thing.

Choosing whether to pick up mission critical items

A feature which seems in my experience to be exclusive to Capcom games is politely asking the player whether he wants to pick up that item necessary to finishing a level with. The issue here is not so much one of wasted time, but of the paranoid doubts it causes to enter my mind.

I may be alone in this, but whenever a game asks me if I want to pull a level I’ve just come across rather than just doing it for me, I immediately think I have some sort of a choice. Obviously this lever has to be here for a reason, but if the game’s asking me whether I want to pull it or not than maybe there’s a reason I shouldn’t be pulling it. Maybe the lever’s booby trapped, maybe it’s going to open a secret passageway filled with puppets intent on turning Dante’s body into mincemeat…and maybe I’ll be kicked out to the main menu as a result.

I think I’ll go search around a little bit more before I commit to a decision…

Agreeing not to turn off the console during saving

Us gamers are an impatient lot. We get that games have to load and everything, but whilst that’s going on we’re probably going to leave the room and do one of the other hundred of important things in our lives.

We might leave the room and make a sandwich for example, or possibly just a cup of tea. We might unload the dishwasher, or do some other menial task we’ve been putting off because let’s face it, if it takes so little time then why bother? We might take a moment to punch a goat in the face, or maybe write a blog post about how much we hate waiting for games to load.

When we re-enter the room after a lengthy initial load we expect at the very least for the main menu to be sitting there with the ‘Continue?’ option happily flashing away. If you’re Rockstar then you’ll take this even further, and actually chuck us directly into the game, ready to unleash chaos upon the world.

So please, developers, the next time you’re examining your game’s interface, never make the entire booting up process come to a halt as the game waits for a button press confirming the fact that we understand not to turn off the console when the game’s saving.

Letting everyone edit game settings in multiplayer

“Ok fellas, thanks very much for coming, and let’s get into some Halo split-screen. Ok game mode? Alright we’ll start with some Slayer…no…stop it…will whoever’s pressing up please stop? Ok, Slayer it is. No, stop messing around with character customisation player three, let’s worry about that later. Who’s editing respawn times? What’s the point? Let’s just get into a game and change anything we need to later. Someone’s pressing the up button again, kindly desist. Everyone ready? It’s game time.

No! Alright, who quit us out to the main menu?”

Please, just give all the control to player one, because nine times out of ten that’ll be the person in control, and you know what? If we need someone else to pick out options we can use this amazing feature called ‘passing the controller.’

The point of this article is not to say that these minor niggles are the bane of gaming’s existence, or even that they waste much time at all. The fact remains that they’re still annoying though aren’t they?

So what game features really hack you off? Can you work out the reason for their inclusion, and even then do you think this reasoning justifies them?

Who’s to Blame for Nintendo’s Loss?

August 2, 2010 § Leave a comment

Digging through Nintendo’s first quarter profit report released last Friday reveals few software surprises. Super Mario Galaxy 2 was, surprise surprise, Nindendo’s biggest new release on the Wii, and its DS contemporary was Pokemon Heartgold/Soulsilver. So far, so Nintendo; extremely well crafted games from established franchises leaving much of the third-party competition in the dust.

More surprising was the revelation that from January to June 2010 Nintendo made its first loss – of $288.4 million to be exact – since the release of the Wii in November 2006. There were a couple of reasons for this according to the earnings report; first, a drop in DS hardware sales of 7.7 million units, and second, a drop in the value of the Yen against both the Euro and the Dollar, two currencies in use by a large majority of Nintendo’s market.

At first sight this loss could simply be put down to seasonal change. After all, the first quarter of the year is traditionally the quietest in the world of video gaming, devoid of any major holidays to provide excuses for millions to shell out for that console they’ve had their eye on all year. Considering this, it’s not hard to imagine this as the cause of Nintendo’s setback, especially considering their stereotypically younger audience, who are much more reliant on Christmas to get their game on.

Whilst certainly it may be the case that the changing seasons are partly to blame for this drop in sales, it doesn’t explain why Nintendo have suffered more than the other two console manufacturers. Indeed, Sony returned to profit this year thanks in part to strong sales from its gaming division. Their success thus begs the question – what has Nintendo done wrong?

Perhaps the answer lies with software. Sony’s platform saw numerous exclusive releases over this period from both established brands such as God of War, as well as all new franchises like Heavy Rain. Likewise from Nintendo, there’s been no break in the flow of big titles such as the aforementioned Pokemon Gold/Silver remake, and Super Mario Galaxy 2, one of the best received games Metacritic has ever seen.

As anyone who’s been watching the video games industry for long enough will know, this is a business tied inexorably to the console cycle. A console’s meteoric rise to sales prominence in its first month on sale will almost always be mirrored when its successor is released, sending it into a sales spiral few care much about. Sony’s products seem strangely immune to this law of nature, but due to the enormous focus Sony places on supporting its past products, their success is the exception rather than the rule.

It could be then that Nintendo’s revenue fall is because of something out of there control, a natural progression that only the best marketing teams in the world have any hope of solving. The impending release of the 3DS may thus be to blame, scaring away potential customers eager to wait a year to purchase a new handheld (or indeed the soon-to-be outdated DS) rather than pay full price now.

This may be true for the DS, but the Wii should in theory be immune. The end of the undisputed king of motion controls’ life is nowhere near, at least not in the minds of Nintendo’s executives.

Third-party publishers have long been blamed for failing to set the Wii’s software sales charts on fire. When they initially tried to appeal to the mass market consumers who were responsible for the Wii’s unprecedented success they were criticised for producing shallow titles, with little in the way of innovation or, well, fun. When they then turned to the hardcore for help, and put out games like House of the Dead: Overkill, Little King’s Story and Dead Space: Extraction, they were praised by critics and yet still ignored by consumers, in favour of two consoles that already service the enthusiast gamers much better.

Big-budget Wii games then, are few and far between, especially from third-party publishers, and especially in the quietest quarter in the year, but whether this is the fault of publishers is another matter entirely.

There is just one party left who has a direct impact on the sales successes or failures of the video game industry, and by some Sherlock-esque deductive reasoning, through the elimination of all impossible explanations, what we’re left with, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.

Nintendo are in an utterly impossible situation as I see it. No publisher, not even the manufacturer of two of the biggest consoles of all time, can produce enough titles to sustain demand in a piece of hardware indefinitely. The task is then left to third-party publishers who can either a) make games to appeal to established gamers, who can already get these games on the PS3 and Xbox or b) make games for an audience it’s incredibly difficult to consistently market games to, an audience who only seem to get behind products with the brand recognition of the Mario factory behind them.

As utterly insane as it sounds, Nintendo has gotten too good at marketing games, and as such have left little room in the market for the very people they need to sustain their console with releases all year round.

But enough about me, who do you think is to blame for Nintendo’s loss of momentum? Is this a short-term blip, or is it something much more serious? How do you believe publishers can find success on these elusive consoles?

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for August, 2010 at The Clockwork Manual.