Friday, June 15, 2007

Raw Danger: are natural disasters best left to real life?

The New York Times has an interesting article about the game Raw Danger, and how it just doesn't feel like the game that it could be thanks to its meager budget. The overall theme is certainly interesting enough: players are thrust into the aftermath of a tsunami, and must relive the entire scenario through the eyes of several different characters. In realistic fashion, you'll find that what you do as one character greatly affects another. For instance, if you happen to meet someone else in distress and refuse to lend a helping hand, you just might find yourself playing as that helpless character later on in the game. With real life consequences such as this strewn throughout the game, what exactly is holding it back from greatness?

Well if you ask the author, all signs point to budget woes. It doesn't take a degree in nuclear physics to come to the conclusion that gamers are constantly expecting each new game to raise the bar on production values, graphics, and most importantly gameplay. Much like Disaster Report before it, Raw Danger just doesn't ooze the snazzy graphics of say, God of War, or the open-endedness of the Grand Theft Auto games. However, if you ask me, something else may be at work here.

You see, most game makers are careful to shy away from controversial games or subject matter that might be considered a bit too sensitive for some. Now, I'm not referring to Rockstar, or some of those home-brew individuals who see a tragic event on CNN, and decide to design a flash game around it. I'm talking about the mainstream developers who usually manage to semi-keep their wares under the radar of folks like Jack Thompson. So what am I getting at? Read on.

It just might be that the average person who plays videogames has no desire to take part in an interactive movie -- a.k.a videogame -- where they take part in moral choices that you are likely to see on the morning news. I could be wrong, but maybe it feels a bit uncomfortable to many. Playing survivor in Raw Deal, and thinking back during that fateful day in 2004 when several hundred thousand people lost their lives during such an event. Much like the prospect of a 9/11-type game where you are fleeing skyscrapers in horror as terrorists strike on our native soil, people just aren't ready for this type of thing. If truth be told, they may never be -- and I can't say I blame them.

On the opposite side of the coin, we find ourselves playing war themed games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor without giving them a second thought. After all, these games also reflect real-life historical events that ended with massive amounts of lost lives. Just what exactly is the difference? It's almost as if we place higher value on one tragedy over another, when each is horrific in its own right. Have we been conditioned to see war as something worth revisiting via videogames, yet cannot find reason enough to take interest in natural disaster simulators? After all, we can avoid wars -- but natural disasters are forever beyond our control.

In closing, it's still unclear what the real reason there aren't more games like Raw Danger, or why such games don't have better backing from developers. Perhaps these things are either too painful to revisit, or maybe they just aren't as exciting as overtaking enemy positions with weapons that were from a time when we didn't have access to laser guided munitions, or had to look down the barrel of an M1 Garand rifle. Whatever the reasoning, the few games we have like this appear to be uninspiring. With the proper backing and attention to good taste, these games could very well be the next great gaming frontier, which has yet to be tapped.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Don't Build It, and They Will Come Anyway

Some things in life just weren't meant to be understood. Take for instance feel good stories of how a sick child is miraculously healed, or how a family in dire need is somehow blessed with a smile from lady luck at the last possible moment. We've come to write these sort of things off as blessed occurrences from a higher power, and that is enough for the majority of us. Call me a softy, but I've always felt that it's enough for me as well, and I leave it at that.

However, this article isn't one of those things. The blessed underdog going into this generation, Nintendo, seems to be struggling a bit too much under the weight of it's own sales, for my taste. Now the problem is, I don't know who to rip into first, about this. You see, we have one side an analyst (yes, I love to poke at these guys), who makes the outlandish prediction that Nintendo may have trouble meeting consumer demand for the Wii up until 2009. On the other side, we have the equally ridiculous concept that a hardware maker with many years of experience under it's belt can't figure out how to crank out a hot product while it's still hot. Like I've stated before, If we were talking about cutting edge technology here, I might be a bit more forgiving. Since we are talking about what amounts to an incremental step from the original Xbox a fair six years after it was released, the thought of it all just confounds me.

For Pete's sake, Nintendo, you have amassed a legion of fans bested only by the yearly totals of American Idol viewers, in terms of sheer numbers. Okay, so maybe I'm embellishing this one a bit, but you can't deny how large the loyal followers of the Nintendo World Order have become. The point is, you could probably talk these guys into building a couple factories for you, and piecing together Wiis from spare parts lying around in any electronics store. If that weren't enough, I'm more than certain that there are enough Gamecubes left in the wild for you to simply gut and refit them with nice shiny white cases. Then all you'd have to worry about is making a few million remotes. You can do that before 2009, can't you?

And as for the aforementioned analyst; your not off the hook either. Are you out of your freaking mind? You have somehow managed to convince yourself that while millions of manufacturers can crank out enough products every day to meet customer demand, that Nintendo will need the better part of two plus years to finally put a Wii in every household that wants one. I'm not sure what the drug of choice is for those in your industry, but I'm glad it's not found over the counter. God help our great nation when it becomes readily available on the street.

So that brings us back to this whole enigma that has yet to be understood by anyone. There's a hot product out there with a niche market. The product seems to be fairly cheap to make, and it doesn't use any form of technology in it's parts that have yet to be reverse engineered from future UFO crash sites. Like the great mystery of just how many licks it really takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop, the world may never know the why this hasn't been remedied as of yet. Until there, I fear that there's no shortage of analysts who will continue to make outlandish predictions about the equally outlandish positions Nintendo has put itself in, yet again.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Chasing Shadows On A Cloudy Day

It's become a real annoyance to me lately how much Jack Thompson has been targeting a favorite hobby of mine (video games), when there are much greater injustices in the world for a lawyer of his caliber to focus on. One only need to watch but a few minutes of the local newscast, or pick up a paper to see that the world is very much turning to shit at an alarming rate. Now it can be rightfully argued that bad things and bad people have been around since the beginning of time, and we now just get wind of it much faster due to Al Gore's greatest invention….the internet. Nowhere near as epic, but equally opinion swaying a power, CNN is due it's respectful nod as well, I guess. Rumor has it that some people still watch tv these days. The point is, you'd be hard pressed to find anything in the media that's considered uplifting for a change. If you don't think so, just keep a mental tally of the stories you hear about for the next couple of days, and you'll soon be drinking from the same cup of wine that the rest of us have been sipping from.

So what does this have to do with video games? Well, a lot more than you may give it credit for. You see, the woes of the world is a complex philosophical puzzle. A puzzle with a whole slew of variables that make it pretty hard to nail down one driving force in particular that is the cause of it all. Sure, certain people in the media might like to jump in the spotlight momentarily and play the whole "The Code is Evil" angle to the fullest, but the truth of the matter is video games are about as harmless as a rain soaked kitten. By themselves, they are but a means of entertainment for millions of people. Millions of hardworking, trustworthy, and otherwise respected individuals who are just trying to get by in life like the rest of us. Although some in high places would lead you to believe that those that play them are horrible, socially withdrawn psychopaths in the making, it's just not like that in the real world.

Sure, there are people out there in the population who fit that profile, but they would still very much be there whether video games were around or not. I can't speak from experience, but I'm fairly confident in making a wild assumption that brooding ,would be killers and the like are more focused on feeding their need to do "evil works", than busting through a few levels of Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt. They just have more important things going on in their minds, I guess. Which is why, I am puzzled by the (bowel) movement to try and associate video games and all sorts of sensationalized acts of horror. But I'm getting away from the point, here

I'm going to say something as a self described lifelong game player that is probably going to surprise quite a few people. There is still hope for Jack Thompson. There, I said it. Now before you choke on your cold beverage of choice and "perch the bird " for me, give it some thought. The video game community as a whole is failing to step up to the plate and make our names synonymous with peace, harmony, and all those other beautiful words that conjure up visions of sugar plum fairies, wet nosed puppies, and the flashy smiles of third world children on those early morning "feel good" commercials. In short, we need to stop firing back with the same type of angry finger pointing, and make it a point to show Jack and his followers that there's a lot more to us than meets the eye. Let's get one thing straight though. It's going to take a little more than a few well placed commercials, internet petitions, and lobbying groups like the Video Games Voters Network. Yes, all these things play a part, but it's going to take quite a bit more than this.

From the highest held positions in the video game industry, to the kid next store who holds the neighborhood LAN party on a weekly basis, we need to lead by example, and get back to the time when accusing a few million lines of entertaining code for enticing riots and other acts of insanity sounded like the most ridiculous thing in the world to associate together. We were doing so well, but somewhere along the line, a few aberrations from the social norm were tied to some less than spectacular things, and it just so happened that the guilty might have played a video game or two in their existence. They most likely ate a few hundred hero sandwiches, watched a few sunsets, and giggled at a few bad jokes along the way too, but these things were lucky enough not to be blamed by psychologists and lawyers as an influence second only to the Devil himself.

The overwhelming majority of video game aficionados out there who have tasted the forbidden fruits of the video game world are as normal as the rest of us. It's about time that these people are showcased for their positive influence on society, and are able to rise above the bad rap that they've been tagged with. Now will some kind folks please take Jack out for a night on the town, and show him some great times filled with video game goodness? I'm convinced that the right mix of people could turn this train wreck around, and change a few opinions in the process. Even the Grinch, with his heart two sizes too small was able to see the error in his ways at the end of the day, and he stole Christmas! We'll be waiting for you.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Outsource Code

If you caught this article back in 2006, then you were as surprised as the rest of us to learn that many of the games you've come to believe were from big name development houses were in fact products of a shadowy group of foreign outsourcing genius. Their name is Tose, and they found a nice market for doing a lot of the grunt work behind the scenes while remaining mum about the whole thing. Now whether or not you think this is a great idea depends more or less on how you feel about the whole outsourcing of work debate. Although it has made us American's quiver in our boots at the mere mention of the word, it's quite apparent that the rest of the world (at least the Japanese) don't seem to share out limited view on it's practice.

Now looking at this from a personal view as someone who's actually worked in a factory where such deals conjure up a great deal of anxiety and anger, as well as spent a little time in business school, I'd like to think that I can appreciate both sides of the argument. This one is a little more complicated though. We're dealing with varying cultures, who have strikingly different views on the subject matter. I'm by no means a historian (so correct me if I'm wrong), but I recall the Japanese being a little more about the individual being less important than the big picture. How this applies the topic at hand is quite simple. I'm guessing that if you were to approach a group of developers somewhere in the States, and request them to work on a high profile project and to not receive any credit anywhere on the game for doing so, it might not go over too well. Would this be the case for everyone? Probably not, but I have the nagging feeling that more often than not, things would fall this way. The climate in Japan is just more suitable for this type of thing to occur.

This, of course, is taking into consideration that we're talking about some sort of software that doesn't involve national security, multiple aliases, and black sport utility vehicles with charcoal colored windows somewhere in the mix. Now don't get me wrong, as I don't want to paint the wrong picture about our great country, or artificially inflate the worth of another. I'm just using this example of a perceived social difference in order to make a point about the whole matter. So, back to the topic of contention.

It appears that Gamasutra was able to do a recent follow up interview with some people from Tose again, and it's interesting to note that while things are very much the same, their name is starting to appear on a few games for a change; most recently Dragon Quest Heroes: Rocket Slime. Of course they have stayed true to their name, and are still very much the "Ninja Developers" behind the scenes for the majority of their work, but now that word has gotten out about them, they have found the spotlight to be more friend than foe. Now that their name is in circulation, the Western market that they once sought to tap into now seems within grasp. Some publishers have begun using their outsourcing service (who, I'm not sure of), and it appears that many more discussions of future endeavors are very much on the table. So once again, you have to wonder…..What does this mean, and is it a good or bad thing ?

It's common knowledge these days, that the costs for creating new games are pretty much off the charts. We're talking about Hollywood Blockbuster tally's here. What's becoming even more apparent, is that the profits at the end of day aren't what they used to be for those involved in all aspects of the game. This is why you hear talk of ads being placed in games (a practice that I still despise), and titles once thought to be bound to one console finding themselves spread across several platforms.

As much as we all might hate to admit it, the whole outsourcing thing with games is more or less an extension of this, and another way for developers to their costs in order to remain competitive…and survive. With the way things are, and are heading towards, those costs are only going to get a lot worse. Having said that, it seems that there are only a couple things you can do about it. You can raise the prices of your product, you can make cutbacks, or you can use the outsourcing method. Oh yeah, you can opt out of the business too. I'm thinking the first couple options are a bit more feasible (and attractive) than the latter.

I'm still not sure how to feel about the whole thing myself, and even though I'm sure it frees up some capital and time for things on the developers end (the one's paying for the outsourcing), who's to say that it will translate into more value and better games for the fans. As much as we would all like to think that the savings will be passed on to us, or the extra time will be spent on polishing a future gem, we just don't know at this point. As is the case with most other things in life, time will tell.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Exclusively Yours For The Taking

Although it used to be a much bigger deal back in the day, it seems that having exclusive rights to a particular game or franchise still packs quite a punch in terms of how people perceive your relative strength in the console biz. As much as I hate to admit it, even I have fallen under it's spell a time or two. The question is, how much does this really gauge success, and does it doing anything more than stir up the hornet's nest….aka… gaming forums across the world wide web?

Take for instance the fairly recent announcement of Devil May Cry 4 going multiplatform. If you follow video game news at all, I don't even have to begin to tell you about the "big deal" that was. The Capcom boards literally shut down momentarily over it, as rabid fans flipped out over the news. Even more astonishing, it spawned one of those useless internet petitions to boycott Capcom over it, and we all know how much bite those things have.

Before this, there was the big deal over whether or not Sony would lose it's power to leverage the next Grand Theft Auto, over it's enemies. Once again, news came to the forefront that the title was indeed going be shared with Microsoft on the Xbox 360. Now, it seems the Crown Jewel of the Sony brand, Final Fantasy, may be sneaking out for a little Microsoft affair as well. So what does this mean?

Well I'm no analyst ( to my favor, I suppose), but I wonder if it means anything at this point. I say that, since it is more of a reflection of changing times than it is a failure on Sony's part. Now I'm known to take multiple jabs at the PS3 at every opportunity I get, but even their own public relations nightmares (Sorry, Ron Workman, they got you beat on that one) can't be to blame for this new phenomenon of developers who don't know how to stay in their own yard. You see, these days video games are just too expensive to bear the burden of alone, and the grass just might literally be greener in multiple pastures. The costs involved are so great that these guys run the very real risk of losing it all, if enough people don't buy a particular title. Just look at Clover Studios, if you need an example.

Although having a particular game on a single system sounds great for the console maker itself, it's a big disadvantage to the people that sell the game in the first place. That places them in a position in which they have only one outlet to reach customers, when they could go multi-platform and reach a lot more people. If you really stop and think about it, not only does this hurt them directly, but it hurts the console maker who has the exclusivity as well. If the developer can't make a decent profit, your hope of future games is going to go the way of the dodo bird anyway. Not only does this translate into a loss on your end, but gamers can potentially lose the joy of the endless sequels they currently enjoy on their boxes o' fun.

Which brings me to the next point. When games start getting close to the double digits in terms of sequels (Final Fantasy, anyone?), does it even matter as much as news of a potentially new blockbuster game in the making going to the other side of the fence? Sure a loss is a loss, but come on! With the exception of first party titles that pretty much represent a company (Mario), I just don't see this as having as much sting as some would lead us to believe. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm right.

So I guess the question remains. Does it mean as much (or more) to lose the rights to have a game stay on your console, even if it's for a limited amount of time? Much like the ingredients of scrapple, hotdogs, and the mysterious cream filling of a Twinkie, the world may never know.

My 360 No Go Ticky!

While sucking up the lifeblood of the internet today, an article decrying the plight of the marvelous beast we've come to worship as the Xbox 360 nabbed my easily distracted attention. As anyone who knows me personally can attest to, I view the 360 as a revolutionary breakthrough in science, second only to Tootsie Rolls, lint brushes, and Viagra. Therefore, it should be of no surprise that I had to read just a little bit more into the propaganda machine that was Yahoo's article.

At first glance, it seemed fair enough. The author, Roger Ehrenberg made it very clear from the beginning that he was reviewing the track record of the Xbox/360 from a financial perspective only. While everyone and their brother seem to have one in their homes, and profess their devotion to the idol that Gates built, it seems that maybe the House of the Rising Sun is the real deciding factor in the pissing contest that is console gaming.

Now I have the greatest respect in the world for Japan, and it's contribution to the hobby that I cling to like a scared child to his mommy's leg. It's just that I still have trouble believing why such a small country packs so much clout when it comes to the proverbial Caeser's Thumb pointing up or down disapprovingly at a game console's future. Yes they have a heck of a lot of people living in a limited amount of space, so do may other areas across the globe. But I digress. The real focus here appears to be on profits (or lack thereof) in Microsoft's Xbox division.

So I skim over the article rather quickly at first, looking for the fuzzy numbers that analysts so adore (see an earlier blog for my thoughts on this), and the following sentence jumps out at me like the Kool Aid man at a librarian's conference…. "after five years and over $21 billion invested all they've got to show for it is $5.4 billion of cumulative operating losses, and Xbox 360 doesn't appear to be the silver bullet to turn things around."

"Whoah Nelly!", I find myself exclaiming aloud. How in the heck can any company consider itself successful when dealing with those kind of numbers? Then I find my hand planted firmly on my forehead, smacking sound included, and I am thrust back into reality that we are talking about Microsoft here. Yes that is a considerable amount of money, but the company in question practically prints the stuff, and uses it to snort the ashes of its competitors. So now I dwell on this for a second, and I think back to when Bill Gates first announced that he was throwing his hat in the race in the first place.

As I recall, he made it quite clear that he was in it for the long haul, and had no plans on backing out of the deal with his tail between his legs like a whipped puppy. He was more than aware of the fact that the Xbox was going up against one weakened industry veteran that still had teeth, and another semi- newbie that was the undisputed king of the console business for the past two generations. He knew that the Xbox was (unlike his other ventures) the underdog, and that it had an uphill battle that was going to lose him a lot of money. Yes he knew all of this, but he also had a hunch that if you build a decent game machine and back it up 110%, it would eventually see it enjoy a following. Would it take over the world and convince the fickle Japanese market that Amercians are more than capable of producing a gaming console that can stand toe to toe with any of it's own offerings? Apparently not completely, but that does little to lesson the impact the Xbox brand has had on gaming.

So now we stand a few years since that November day that the original Xbox was introduced to the delight of gamers, and we see what can only be described as irony at it's finest. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who can't find at least one great thing to say about the Xbox and the 360. It has an impressive library of great games, and it's online infrastructure is unmatched , yet it still fails to secure a decent profit for the house that Gates built. What gives?

Now some guy from Yahoo, and a country full of people might not think the Xbox is worth getting excited over, but I certainly have no regrets buying one for myself. Not sure what it does in foreign lands, but right her in the good old USA, my Xbox 360 No Go Ticky! Thanks Bill, Allard, Fries, and Bach. We still appreciate what you guys made. Now we just have to wait for the East to get with the program.

Eidos Lives in Bizzaro Land ?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't it not that long ago that the parent company of Eidos quoted as saying that all PS3 support would be delayed until the second half of 2008 ? If my memory serves me correctly, it had to do with something about Sony's lack of a sufficient install base of PS3's in people's homes.

Now just a very short period of time later, I'm greeted with the following headline that the Chief Financial Officer of Eidos seems to think that the PS3 will trounce the competition within a year. So I must ask, if you don't mind, Mr. Murphy….. Are you high? Label me an endless skeptic, but I feel to see what makes you think that Sony is somehow mysteriously moving forward at the speed of light, while the other two are frozen in time. Yes, I have little doubt that the PS3 will continue to gain momentum over time. I just have a hard time seeing how that momentum is going to be greater than what Microsoft and Nintendo have up their sleeves. For every gain in PS3 sales, there is going to be an equal and potentially larger jump in the sales of the Wii/Xbox 360 side.

Nintendo already has a comfortable lead, and if they play their cards right ( *cough* A competent online multiplayer infrastructure and some decent third party support) for once in a long time, they will continue to enjoy that lead. And don't even get me started on my personal favorite, the Xbox 360. This console is kicking ass and taking names more and more each month.

Even without going into great detail about how great their online component is, their current and upcoming game line up is anything but anemic (Bioshock, Forza Motorpsport 2, Halo 3, Mass Effect, etc…). So I ask you once again, Mr. Murphy….what is Sony's secret weapon in which they are going to make this happen?

Oh, I got it. Your doing a little damage control to make up for Eidos's previous stance that Sony's game division was in a weak position at the moment, and not worth risking the bank on. What a big pile of poo you stepped in that time. Talk about letting the bad publicity genie out of the bottle. Silly me. And here I thought that you had some insider information that we were in some alternate universe where the PS3 was priced reasonably, and had a library of games that could go head to head with the competition. I see a lot is going to happen in the remainder of 2007.