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Used Games Are Not the Problem
Jun 25th, 2010 by worldblee

Videogame publishers and analysts are blaming used games for shortfalls in revenue and profit. But the problem goes much deeper than can be explained by any increase in the sales of used games. If people are flush with cash, they will buy a new car. If they’re worried about money, they’re going to buy a used car.

It’s similar with games. Consumers aren’t trying to rip off game developers when they wait a month or three to buy a used copy of the latest hit game—they’re spending less and forcing themselves to wait patiently because a new AAA game is $60, and that money is slotted for rent or food or childcare.

Publishers, led by my friends at EA, have struck back with new pay-for-play access to online features. If you buy a new game, you get a coupon for online play. Buy a used game, and you’ll have to fork over $10 or so for those privileges. Will this slow used game sales? I doubt it. Will it increase revenue for publishers? It will increase DLC sales figures, but it won’t affect the fundamental problem for the industry: there are only so many dollars that can be allocated toward entertainment. The $10 EA takes in from the guy who bought Madden two months after launch is $10 he won’t be spending on NBA Live (sorry, NBA Elite—as one of the guys from the original NBA Live launch, I have trouble letting that one go).

If you try to nickel and dime your customer in a time of financial hardship, you’re endangering your customer relationship over the long haul. In these days of quarterly performance, that lesson is often lost in the boardroom—but ultimately the price will be paid. It will probably just become the problem of a new management team that’s brought in after the current regime is forced out because of declining market share.

A harsh assessment? Most definitely. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: a better strategy is to lower pricing on frontline games. You want to put the hurt on used game sales? Try selling your sports game for $20. Make online play an extra charge, let hardcore fans buy roster packs and extra levels, release limited editions, do what you have to do to extract more value from those willing and able to pay more. But realize that recession is a time to increase market share, not a time to boost profit margins. Maintaining revenues vs. 2008 or 2009 is not going to happen. Publishers will make less money, because there’s less money in the hands of consumers.

If you want to blame someone, blame the financialization of our economy that is transferring cash from the hands of workers into the hands of bankers and other financial wizards who ran up bad bets they expect taxpayers to cover. That’s the real reason people have less money in their pockets for games.

But don’t make the cost of entry so high your customer starts looking for a new door. Like the one to his or her local Gamestop, where they can buy a used copy of last season’s hit game for $40 less than your brand new game. Give your customer a real choice. Put yourself in their shoes and price your games accordingly.

It’s the (Videogame) Economy, Stupid
Mar 3rd, 2010 by worldblee

While games may provide an escape from reality, the global games business is enmeshed in economic reality. A large scale, polished experience like Uncharted 2Dragon Age, or Modern Warfare 2 requires investment, which requires revenue, which requires customers willing and able to pay money. With the current generation of consoles (although more so for Xbox 360 and PS3 than for Wii), revenue has been driven by the $60 list price, roughly three times higher than that of a DVD movie and four times more than a music CD.

That price has started to creep down as publishers realize that anything other than new AAA games won’t sell at $60. EEDAR has a good newsletter on the topic of recent price trends that you can read here. The average list price on Wii is now $40 compared with $50 in 2007 (via EEDAR), which is in line with the trend for previous console systems at this point in the cycle.

However, for PS3/Xbox 360, the average game price has actually risen by 6% compared to what games cost at system launch. When you couple that with declining household income, you have a real problem. There is a long term economic shift happening before our eyes, and there is no expected result we can see that points to an upswing in improved household incomes—which leads to less disposable income available for games.

A year ago, we predicted game publishers would use the economy as an excuse to lay off workers, and this has sadly come true. We also said, “entertainment performs well in recession compared to consumer goods.” This has held true, but the drop in consumer good sales has been so steep that performing relatively well still means a drop in revenue.

This where the story gets political—or at least some will perceive it that way. Why is the world economy faltering? Is it because of drought, natural disasters, low worker productivity, strikes, or war? No. Although war and natural disasters have hit many countries, they have not affected overall output. The economy is suffering because it has been financialized, with resources diverted away from production, workers, and families to a narrow group of financial elite who gamble with the livelihoods of the rest of us.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of financialization, the following graph may help you understand the issue:

GDP share of US financial industry (via Wikipedia)

The so-called booms of the 80s, 90s, and 00 years were not fueled by a growth in consumer income, they were driven by speculative bubbles. And where does the profit from these bubbles go? Into the financial sector, as the chart shows. The most recent boom, that of housing, was fueled entirely by borrowing (for which the taxpayers picked up the tab, shoveling some $13 trillion dollars in aid, loans, and guarantees to the financial sector while the rest of us shared well under $1 trillion in bailout money). Former Assistant Treasure Secretary Paul Craig Roberts describes the issue succinctly:

Unable to maintain their accustomed living standards with income alone, Americans spent their equity in their homes and ran up credit card debts, maxing out credit cards in anticipation that rising asset prices would cover the debts. When the bubble burst, the debts strangled consumer demand, and the economy died.

It’s not a pretty statement, but it reflects the reality we face. And there are no factors lined up to improve the situation. Government spending, the only practical way to pull a country from recession or depression, is being curbed except in the case of military spending. This will likely further contract the US economy. If consumer spending, which constitutes 70% of the US economy declines, the government is the only institution capable of filling the gap. However, the US government shows no signs of investing in the consumer economy as the vast majority of its bailout money has gone to the financial sector.

So where does this economic fiasco leave the gaming business? The best, hottest games will still do well, although the prices will move downward to reflect lower household incomes. If you have a hit, it’s still a good investment to spend behind it, both in development and marketing. And the low end of the market, whether in casual games for social platforms, iPhone games, or used games, is still healthy since people still want to play games (especially if they’re free or cheap!). The economy hasn’t impacted the viability of gaming as a leisure time activity. Where the economy has hit and will continue to hit most deeply is the middle of the market, the games that are good but not driven by marketing and/or buzz to be the ‘gotta have’ games. These games are too expensive to develop for small, low overhead developers, yet they don’t produce the economic return that major publishers are looking for.

If people aren’t really excited about your game, they’re not going to buy it in droves even if you buy a Super Bowl ad. Money is too tight to splurge on titles that are not essential for your videogame library—a rental or used purchase down the line, maybe. But not an automatic purchase even if the reviews are good.

And when people buy fewer copies and/or spend less to purchase each copy of those AA games, that’s bad news for a lot of developers. We see trouble ahead for the ‘middle class’ of game franchises, developers, and publishers alike. Is it time to go big or go small—while abandoning the middle?

If so, we expect this will mean a further siphoning of jobs from the industry with publishers continuing to close developers they own to save on overhead. Continuing to roll out DLC to support existing titles could serve as a buffer for jobs, but most of that DLC will come from teams already employed on the hit games. It can keep the content teams busy while the core design teams are working on the next big iteration, but it’s not likely to serve as a panacea for creative workers.

Things We Can Learn from Blizzard
Sep 26th, 2009 by worldblee

With World of Warcraft, Diablo, Starcraft, and the original Warcraft franchise, Blizzard is not only one of the most successful developers ever; they have a track record for quality that’s hard to match. Why are they so good? Using a recent Gamasutra interview with two development leads as a jumping off point, we’ll look at how Blizzard design principles can be extended—or not—to other games and creative endeavors.

In the interview, six themes useful to developers emerged, and we’ll look at these in turn. From Concepticate’s point of view, these themes can be applied to many creative projects, not just games. (Note: The bulk of this post first appeared over two columns I wrote for the Examiner.com – David.)

1. Endless iteration

“Here’s the secret to Blizzard games, and this is a secret that won’t help any of our competitors: endless iteration. We’ll take something, we’ll put it in the game. Maybe we’ll like it when we put it in, maybe we won’t. We’ll leave it in there for a while, we’ll let it percolate. We’ll play it and play it and play it, and then we’ll come back. We might throw it all out, or we’ll throw half of that out and redo it.

“It can be a long time, but it is fun to work on as well. That’s the thing that keeps you going. Multiplayer always works, and the builds are always playable. We’ve played them constantly, and it’s fun. You actually look forward to the weekly play session even though the game is still in progress. That’s what keeps us going, and that’s also why it takes so long. We’ll do it over and over again until it’s just right.”

– Kevin Martens, lead content designer

Analysis: Blizzard gets forever to make their games, right? While most of us are stuck with a constrained development schedule, ship dates that can’t move because of quarterly revenue goals, we need to ask ourselves just how Blizzard can afford that extra development time. Why? Because it works and their games have been successful enough to bankroll the additional months (and years) of development.

No matter how much experience designers have, there’s no better way to prove a point than trying out a feature to see how it works in the game. The proof is in the playing. And this appears to be what Blizzard does—put it in, tweak it, take it out, put it back. It’s not the most efficient way to develop, but if you really want to hone your design, exploration and experimentation are two great tools.

There are certain things you can try out at a low level, using simpler geometry in pure gameplay tests. This is a practice I’ve always encouraged, but for some things—visual design elements, characters, etc.—you need to see them in context. No shortcuts there other than building your 3D elements out of modular re-usable pieces. But in general, the earlier you concentrate on experimentation, the less costly it will be to the development process

What Blizzard does is essentially re-investing their royalty revenue back into game development. Rather than building a whole bunch of different games and hoping one of them takes off, they focus on multiple elements for a single game. If you have a strong concept, this is great. It goes without saying that you want to start with a good concept before you invest heavily in iterating on it…

2. Find the line by crossing it

“[A] Blizzard philosophy that may have been there but may have not been disseminated across the entire company, which is, ‘You find the line by crossing it.’

“I think we’ve gotten really good at that now, allowing ourselves to push things to a point where they go too far, and then you look at them and you say, ‘Oh, okay. Now we know where the line is.’ But if you’re trying to just edge up to the line, you might never find it.

“That’s the goal here, to push things as far as they can possibly go.”

– Julian Love, lead technical artist

Analysis: In today’s clone world where games are sold based on their association with existing titles (it’s GTA . . . in space!), there’s little incentive to dial things up and down, tinkering to see just how far you can push technology, weapon powers, outrageousness, or whatever. It’s safer to take an assumed safe point, perhaps doing some tweaking around it but never straying far from your comfort zone. But let’s face it; with so many games out there, it’s harder to get noticed while playing it safe. Go big, and see what happens. If it works, go even bigger. You’ll see the point where it gets ridiculous and you can reel it back in.

This goes hand in hand with the iteration discussed above, but here we’re talking less about discrete elements and more about the properties of elements—not necessarily trying out a different character or item but seeing how far you can push an existing character or item.

3. Build games you can play for years

Diablo II is still on the PC sales charts every week. Over and over again, you have a big Christmas rush, and it bumps off, but then it’s back on in early January again.

“I think Diablo II is the standard for this kind of game, so largely what we’re thinking about is making sure that we do the series justice—which we feel that we are—and making sure we’re trying to expand the market. Personally speaking, I hunger for a game like this, one that’s going to last for a long time—something we can play for ten years, like Diablo II.”

– Kevin Martens

Analysis: Too often, we focus on providing a game that pays off in the first ten minutes of play to the exclusion of long-term satisfaction. In a corporate world fixated on instant results, this is natural. But even from a strictly financial perspective, Blizzard’s strategy has paid off. Diablo II, as Kevin says above, is still selling nine years after its release date. That one heck of a long tail.

Crafting your game with care and eye to the long term means you will take fewer cheap shortcuts. You will take the effort to fix a weak level rather than figuring most players won’t make it that far into the game anyway.

Games that players keep playing yield not only continuing sales of the core product, but opportunities for add-ons, compilations, special editions, etc. Make one game really well, and your long-term prospects will be better than if you make four average games.

4. Everyone can play

“[E]veryone has a PC, and we try to keep our system requirements down as low as possible. That’s one of the ways that we can make sure to appeal to enough people. Some of the really cutting edge games that come out for PC require a brand new video card and probably more RAM at least, if not a new CPU as well. That’s really rare with Blizzard games. I think that’s one of the reasons we still keep doing well.”

– Kevin Martens, lead content designer

Analysis: Blizzard’s emphasis on low barriers to entry goes beyond the hardware requirements for their PC games. While Blizzard games appeal to hardcore players, they’re not difficult to get in and play. Seriously, who can’t play Diablo? There are strategic elements to the game, but the basics of clicking on the map to move or clicking on a character to attack it could not be simpler. World of Warcraft is the same way: there’s plenty to do in the game, but the basics are idiot-proof.

This philosophy is not going to shock anyone with its originality, but it bears repeating: the more players you invite into your game experience, the more will be able to enjoy it. The more you shut out, the more you limit your audience.

5. Make everything as awesome as the most awesome parts

“One of the reasons we keep retooling the Barbarian stuff—some of the Barbarian skills were done a long time ago—is because as we added a new class or added higher level skills in, we did something else that was more awesome. And part of the Blizzard design is that if something is too awesome, we generally try to make everything else as awesome as opposed to pulling that one back.

“That’s one of the reasons that the iteration takes a while, but it’s also one of the reasons why everything is over the top. The example about art—you find the line by crossing it—applies to the design as well. You make things way cool, smashy, explodey—everything. Then you pull it back a little bit, for balance reasons more than anything.”

– Kevin Martens

Analysis: The efficient way toward getting your game noticed is to have a few really cool or innovative features—a new cover mechanic, a new way to use the controller, or a great story premise, for example. Raising the rest of the game to match the high points? That takes a lot of dedication and work. This tip is not for the faint of heart.

But if you can get your team focused on a kind of friendly competition, you can raise the stakes of the development. When engineering does a great job, challenge the art team to do the same. When one character looks great, challenge the other character artists to match the level of quality. The only thing to watch is overemphasizing things that don’t matter—objects that do not matter to the player should not get as much attention as ‘foreground’ issues that are central to the game’s premise and gameplay.

6. Every voice matters

“It doesn’t even have to be within your area of expertise. If I have an idea for a spell effect, I can go right to Julian and say, “Hey, what if the guy did this and ice went out his spine and blah blah blah?” and vice versa. Anyone. QA guys come in and offer brand new class ideas. It’s very open-ended. It’s the good ideas that come to the top. It doesn’t really matter where they come from.”

– Kevin Martens

“Even in QA, we have a core value that says every voice matters. Literally, every voice. Anybody, even sometimes outside the company—you listen to what they’ve got to say and consider it, which is exactly how we got to a new form of [the Barbarian's skill] Whirlwind. Even though it wasn’t the message we wanted to hear, there’s something to it.”

– Julian Love

Analysis: Every developer says they do this. The question is whether or not they take it seriously. Not having worked with Blizzard, I don’t know if they do this as well as they used to, but it’s a critical component of company culture to encourage.

Without naming names, I used to work at a large publisher. It wasn’t like every game we made was great, but feedback could move across channels and come from anywhere. QA people were encouraged to criticize products and share ideas, and eventually the QA guys would become assistant producers or product managers and move up from there. They had started where they heard directly from customers (QA guys worked on customer support as well), and they carried that forward into their careers. When the company got so large and successful that people at the bottom couldn’t contribute anymore, the company started to go downhill.

Listen to what everyone says—a person’s title doesn’t mean they can’t have good ideas about things not in their job description. It doesn’t mean that everyone has great ideas, just that you should listen to the ideas themselves without worrying where they come from.


Sorting Out Sony’s Gamescom Announcements
Aug 18th, 2009 by worldblee

Kudos to Sony. It took them long enough, but they finally dropped price to $299 and came out with a smaller, more power-efficient console, the long-rumored PS3 Slim. Because Sony is focused on profitability at a time when the corporation is losing money, they first got their manufacturing costs down before making the move publishers, analysts, and customers alike were waiting for.

The $299 Sony PS3 Slim: Late to the party, but not unwelcome

The $299 Sony PS3 Slim: Late to the party, but not unwelcome

Sony made other good moves at Gamescom, coming up short on only one major item: failing to provide PS2 backward compatibility via software in its latest firmware update. The family that’s still using its PS2 doesn’t want to throw out its huge library of games, but nor do they want to have two consoles to try to plug into their TV or receiver. Sure, they could shift the PS2 to the kids’ room, but in today’s economy people want to see maximum value for their purchase. Sony can argue (and rationally so) that the Blu-ray capability of the PS3 makes the system a great value. And it’s true. But when trying to convince late adopters to pick up a PS3, letting them know they can play all their PS2 games (which every person tempted to buy a PS3 will have) on their new system is a good argument.

Back to the other Sony moves. The PSPgo app store with iPhone-like pricing and size is a good move, although a copycat one. But better copying someone else’s strategy than sticking with the UMD forever. I like it for small developers because for what should be a manageable port (fingers crossed on that one) they can expand the size of their potential market while putting their games on a device that’s actually made for gaming (with real buttons and a D-Pad). Of course, I imagine the crossover between iPhone owners and PSP owners is fairly substantial but the market will be increased nonetheless. For anyone to be able to stay in business making quality games the median price will have to rise above $2, but that’s another discussion.

With Sony’s film offerings for Europe, PSN cards that kids can buy at shops without a credit card, and a €299 (£249 in the UK) console price, Sony has put the pieces in place to strengthen their hand in Europe, where the PS2 brand is strong. I can see Sony being the #2 console in Europe this console cycle.

What I can’t see is the company overtaking the PlayStation 360 in the US. Microsoft has a big lead, their audience skews younger than Sony’s, and they have a strong games lineup and good online services for their paying customers. If MS offered everyone Gold services for free, it would be game over. They could still make money with upcharges for things like Netflix, although the revenue would be far less than they’re making from Gold. But as long as they continue to hold steady on sales I don’t see them changing…

The Battle for Number Two

Unless Nintendo stumbles horribly they’ll remain #1 worldwide. Microsoft will be a strong #2 in the US and Sony may become #2 in Europe. Sony has the PSP market to flank Microsoft with, but MS may eventually get a viable HH platform themselves. Zune HD? I don’t know; we’ll see.

Sony should see a sales lift from their price cuts but it won’t catapult them into the lead unless they have exclusive games that are so absolutely killer that anyone who loves games can’t live without them. If their video offerings become so compelling that you can service all your entertainment needs with a single device, then they could also take the lead in new consoles sold (not total consoles sold; new consoles sold from here on out).

But with the lack of purchasing power of US households it’s a hard time to be hawking $300 machines. The great recession is not going anywhere; over $13 trillion of household wealth has vanished in the US the past couple years and it’s not returning soon. The so-called ‘green shoots’ lauded in the mainstream press are a figment of Fed policy that has pumped a tremendous amount of money back into the financial sector. Having no place to go, it got pushed into stocks. But it didn’t go into consumer pockets and a consumer-driven economy needs low unemployment and higher wages to thrive. Unfortunately, neither of those will arrive in the near future.

However, for a company willing to invest, a down economy offers the opportunity to grow a brand. The New Yorker had an interesting article in April about the success Kellogg had in outspending Post to take a huge chunk of their market share during the Great Depression. When other business cut ad spending, Kellogg increased theirs and boosted profit by 30%, and they kept their increased market share after the depression was over.

Does a similar possibility await Sony or another console maker this cycle? I would argue that Nintendo has already done just that. They came out with the cheapest console, made it fun, and advertised the heck of out it. The battle from here on out is about maximizing the remaining sales in the market And for this, the $299 price helps, but it’s not yet low enough to move millions of consoles in a down economy. Not when you still have to pay $60 for a AAA game.

But a PS3 for $299 with God of War and some other extras? That would be a step in the right direction.

Does Take-Two’s Bioshock Delay Presage Greater Quality?
Jul 14th, 2009 by worldblee

One of the most frustrating things about working in the gaming industry is the focus on quarterly results. Time after time we’ve seen games that needed more polish released to fit their slot in the quarterly revenue queue. When one title gets pulled in to ‘save’ one quarter, another game has to be accelerated to fill out the next quarter. And so the vicious cycle goes.

It’s not a phenomenon unique to games, of course. The corporate obsession with quarterly revenue, which drives stock prices that drive executive compensation, crosses most industries. And that’s to the detriment of customers and the long-term health of the companies and their workers. The true worth of any company is in the quality of its products and the strength of its relationship with its customers. Neither of those factors is represented in short-term economic returns.

The mark of quality?

The mark of quality?

If there’s any upside to the economic downturn it’s that gaming companies are taking advantage of the fact their quarterly and annual revenue in 2009 is going to be down anyway, so why not look to maximize titles for 2010. Take-Two got into the act big time yesterday, delaying not only the highly anticipated Bioshock 2 but Mafia II, Max Payne 3, and Red Dead Redemption until calendar 2010. EA has also made noise the past couple years about increasing product quality and shipping games ‘when they’re ready’. (That’s quite a different philosophy than I experienced when I worked there, believe me.)

The sad truth is that the economy won’t be picking up anytime soon. While press reports endlessly hype ‘green shoots’ and any positive data they can turn up, the fundamentals don’t support any true recovery. A lot of government money has been pumped into the banking system but it’s not reaching consumers. Unemployment continues to rise, wages are decreasing, and consumer wealth has decreased by a whopping 13 trillion dollars since the latest bubble began bursting.

For game developers and publishers this means you need a quality game to succeed in the marketplace. The old hype machine and channel stuffing won’t get the job done. Having their rose-tinted glasses removed by economic reality is making game purchasers ever savvier. Whether they actually read game reviews, hear from friends on Twitter and Facebook, or just ask the GameStop salesperson if the game is any good, they’re demanding good value for their hard-earned dollars before they commit to a game. And if they want it, they may wait until they can get it used—or just rent it in the first place. Only if they really want to play it longer than a weekend will they pay $60.

Sales numbers, which are expected to be down substantially when the new NPD report comes out tomorrow, are showing publishers the stark reality of this. And if it means that games get a proper gestation cycle for development then it might, just maybe, be worth it. These days you have to look for positives where you can get them.

Demo Play: A Step in the Right Direction
Jun 15th, 2009 by worldblee

In an interview with USA Today, Shigeru Miyamoto revealed this week that Nintendo is planning to add a new help feature to Super Mario Bros. Wii. Called ‘Demo Play’ (for now), it will allow the player to choose to let the CPU play his or her character through a difficult part of the game.

Its a me, Mario, and I can play as myself now!

It's a me, Mario, and I can play as myself now!

Here’s USA Today’s summary of the feature:

Beginning with the upcoming New Super Mario Bros. Wii (due this holiday season), players will be able to pause a game during a particularly difficult level and let the game take over to complete the level. Press a button at any time to resume playing. This will help reduce barriers of entry for new or younger players – without purchasing a strategy guide or resorting to websites that list cheat codes.

The response from the fan boys of the gaming community was typically harsh. On GameSpot’s article on the topic a user named Koopatrol summed up the hardcore response to the feature:

I understand games are supposed to be fun, but what happened to skill? Gamers are supposed to face challenges they can’t get through.

For young male gamers his attitude makes sense. Games mean different things to different people and for core gamers the challenge is a huge part of the fun. Saying they beat a tough game is a badge of honor and they don’t want n00bs to be able to say they got through a game if they used Demo Play for all the hard parts.

But for the gaming industry, Demo Play is a belated recognition that most of us, particularly the ‘maybe’ gamers that Nintendo is trying to reach, want to have success when playing a game. We play games for fun and missing a tricky jump ten times in a row is not fun–it’s frustrating. Most of us get plenty of frustration in the rest of our lives; we game for entertainment more than the challenge factor.

If we followed the logic that more difficult games are more fun, why not remove the user interface and let the user type in code on a command line to launch the game? Or make them play blindfolded?

The challenge for developers is most of us are core gamers. We recognize that our games should be accessible but since they’re accessible for us, we don’t see the problem. “This game is easy,” we say, casually zipping through a level that we’ve played a hundred times by the time it’s reached alpha.

But the gamer playing through the game the first time at home often encounters problems not anticipated by the development team. He or she may not know the level boss is vulnerable to fire and that he needs to equip the flamethrower he found on level two to have a chance of victory. If the player can watch Mario navigate through the level properly, he may be able take control and rip through the level himself after seeing how it’s done–or perhaps he just wants to see what the next level looks like and is happy to never go back and replay the difficult section.

And there’s no reason the player should have to replay a level time and time again–games are not a competitive sport unless you’re actually playing by choice in a tournament or other competitive venue. The more we force players to conform to a standard of expertise to play a game, the more we limit our audience.

From Concepticate’s point of view, features such as Demo Play are long overdue (and it’s no surprise that Nintendo is the company bold enough to break the mold; they’re #1 right now for a reason). Reducing the barriers to entry helps more people to discover the magic of interactive entertainment. And for those who decry Demo Play as turning gaming into passive entertainment, watching a game is part of the fun. How many times have you watched a friend play a beautiful game and been entertained? Sharing the experience is much better than playing alone and if having some training wheels helps your friends or family join in the fun–and if you don’t want to use the feature don’t activate it. But I have a feeling that even the most core gamers will be tempted to use it if they fail repeatedly in certain situations–they may eventually wonder how they got along without it.

However, there is a downside to Demo Play of which we should all be aware. If you have an autopilot function players can use as a crutch, designers may be tempted to not hone play mechanics and level design as much as they might otherwise–in crunch time it’s inevitable that certain things get less attention than is ideal. If you know players can get around a tough section you may be more likely to think it’s OK to leave more fiendishly difficult gameplay scenarios than you would if autopilot was not an option. Demo Play should be an option for less skilled gamers; it shouldn’t mask poorly conceived gameplay. If people are using Demo Play in a level you need to ask yourself: are they unskilled or is this level just not fun enough?

That caveat aside, we’re looking forward to getting to the next level in Super Mario Bros. Wii even if our gameplay skills are not up to par. Knowing that Demo Play will be an option makes us more eager to open the box and start playing.

Post-E3: Ranking the Big 3
Jun 6th, 2009 by worldblee

E3 2009 is over and hundreds of marketing people are writing up their show summaries, each one trying to show how their product or company dominated the show (been there, done that). Certainly, Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo expended a lot of effort and no little sum of money trying to show through press conferences, booths, interviews, videos, etc. that each of their respective consoles was the ‘bestest with the mostest’. (There were also handheld-related announcements but we’re focusing on consoles for now.)

Pick me! No, pick me!

"Pick me!" "No, pick me!"

Microsoft made the most announcements and showed they were serious about going after Nintendo. Sony has the best pure technology in their system and continued to posit they were the best company to bet on in the long term of their ‘ten year plan.’ And Nintendo has the best market share and, while not wowing anyone at the show, continued to execute on what they do best while preparing to sell into their huge existing audience with technology that requires no major change on the part of their customers and will be packaged with software that is almost guaranteed to be a major hit.

Does the last sentence of the preceding paragraph reveal too much about which company Concepticate thought ‘won’ E3 2009 no matter what industry insiders and the press said? Regardless, we’ll look at the strengths and weaknesses of each system following the show.

Microsoft

Strengths:

  • First console to announce 3D camera controller for full body motion gaming
  • #2 installed base
  • Had a great combined weight of announcements–exclusives, technology, new games–that got the most buzz during the show
  • Best combination of online features

Weaknesses:

  • Have to prove that Project Natal is a good fit with installed base
  • Selling a new gaming paradigm for console play
  • Project Natal is only a good fit with certain game genres
  • Best online features require paid Gold membership

Unknowns:

  • Price point and ship date, as well as final name and marketing strategy for Natal
  • What software will be packaged with Natal to sell it

Sony

Strengths:

  • Possible the most accurate technology
  • Even though a tech demo, running software looked tight and gaming applications very, um applicable
  • Core technology is undeniably strong and PS2 is proof they can execute a 10 year plan–don’t hear much about Xbox 1 software sales, do you?
  • Free online features

Weaknesses:

  • #3 installed base
  • Technology requires a PS Eye Toy camera and essentially seems like Wii Motion Plus controller with greater accuracy
  • Highest price of any console

Unknowns:

  • Price point and software shipped with new controller, as well as its name and positioning (they did say it would ship in Spring 2010)
  • What their killer app will be for the controller

Nintendo

Strengths:

  • #1 installed base
  • Tech is proven great fit with existing customer base
  • Killer app for tech is already proven (c.f., Wii Sports)

Weaknesses:

  • Least amount of new news gave perception they were resting on their laurels
  • Weakest tech of any of the big 3 could slow sales in coming years
  • Perception among hardcore gamers is lowest of big 3

Unknowns:

  • Can Microsoft and Sony steal customers from Wii by adding new ways to play to their technologically superior systems?

One announcement that gamers, publishers, and analysts were all hoping for was a price drop–but none of the manufacturers announced a change in their price point. Nintendo could drop their price if they felt threatened since their SKU is the most profitable per unit, but they don’t feel threatened. Sony is pushing for greater profitability so as much as analysts would love to see $100 drop (and their sales would certainly benefit!) it’s not happening in the near term. And Microsoft has already come out with the lower-priced Arcade SKU so they feel they’ve addressed price by creating a lower-featured model although we haven’t seen the Arcade flying off shelves.

Sans a price drop, Wii continues to lead in sales and we don’t see this changing anytime soon. It remains to be seen what a bundled Xbox 360 or PS3 with a motion control system will cost but unless they are sold at a loss they won’t be cheaper than a Wii, which includes a motion controller in the core SKU, and presumably by the time Natal or the Sony product ships Nintendo will be shipping Motion Plus bundled with every new Wii.

Finally, and this can’t be understated, the killer app for Motion Plus is a known quantity that is a perfect fit for the owners of the 50MM existing Wiis: Wii Sports Resort.  The Sony controller looks to work well for swordfighting, shooting, ‘mouse’ actions, and other traditional gaming gestures, and Project Natal will work great for exergames, dance games, and some sports games and casual games. But neither system has announced a killer app to beat Wii Sports Resort.

As much as core gamers continue to put down the Wii, Nintendo continues to sell millions of Wii systems week after week, month after month, expanding the demographic of console gamers with each year. Microsoft and Sony have aspirations to do the same thing, but until they show they can do it, Nintendo is still the king. Nothing that was shown at E3 did anything to change that, as exciting as it was to see the Beatles, Uncharted 2, Steven Spielberg, God of War 3, et al.

Here’s the equation:

Proven gaming quotient + largest existing audience + ‘small, quiet, and affordable’ = the champ until dethroned

Having said that, we’re looking forward to someone topping Nintendo–the more the ante is upped, the better it is for gamers everywhere.

E3 2009: Sony Press Conference
Jun 2nd, 2009 by worldblee

Is there an inverse relationship between installed base and the length of E3 press conferences? Nintendo (#1) was definitely shortest, and I think Sony (#3 if you just count ‘next-gen’ consoles) was even longer than Microsoft’s. This wasn’t because Sony had the most news to reveal; it was because Sony showed longer demos and went into more detail on each game. To see for yourself you can watch the replay here.

So what did Sony reveal? Well, as usual, that if you look at the data the right way, Sony is number one. They’re coming out with the PSP Go (Tretton poked some fun at how that story was leaked), the PS2 is still selling, the PS3 is the most powerful game system out there, and they’ll have 35 PS-exclusive titles including Rockstar’s Agent, God of War 3, Final Fantasy XIV (which was shown for the first time), and Gran Turismo 5, and they’ll launch their own motion controller in 2010. And with 364 games projected for PlayStation platforms this year they’ll have nearly a new PS game for each day of the year.

Kratos is back for more blood

Kratos is back for more blood

Sony is expanding in Latin America, where their brand is strong. Interestingly, it seems the Sony brand is strong in Romance language countries, while Microsoft is correspondingly weaker outside Anglo countries. Anyway, maybe that will help Sony with the ten-year plan they’re always talking about for the PlayStation 3 (they took pains to point out that the PS2 outsold current-gen consoles in April despite the fact that it’s in its ninth year).

I wish the PSP Go was priced at $199 rather than $249 but with Sony dedicated to reaching profitability I can understand their reasoning. But paying the same price as a Wii for a refresh of a portable that’s been out for over four years seems steep even if it has new features. I won’t go into PSP Go details covered elsewhere other than saying the other PSP SKUs will still remain in the channel; Go is a new option but doesn’t replace the PSP 3000. There are 50MM PSPs out there and 15MM sold through last year according to Sony. Also, the PSP games shown by Sony this year looked promising, including Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker (sequel to MGS 3), Little Big Planet, and a Gran Turismo with no less than 35 tracks and 800 cars you can trade and share with your friends via ad hoc connection.

Moving to the PS3 titles shown, Assassin’s Creed II, set in the Italian Renassaince and featuring a Leonardo-like glider you can fly over the city looked like awesome fun. Drake’s Uncharted 2 also looked great; even better than the original and the battle sequence demoed was fast-paced and chaotic with great visuals. The crowd liked MAG and its 256 players but it didn’t move me, probably because I’m not in its intended audience. Gran Turismo 5 was as expected, the Final Fantasy XIII video shown got me more excited about the title than what Microsoft showed yesterday (figures that the Square Enix guys would be tighter with Sony).

Mod Motion Racers, a kart racing game with a great track editor, had me yawning at the initial announcement but when I saw the editor I perked up immediately–I’m not a huge fan of, um fan-generated content but this tech looked like the easiest way yet to create high fidelity tracks and environments. Could be an upstart to watch.

Finally, God of War 3 looked as fun as expected and the graphics looked better than the trailer a few months ago that had people underwhelmed. That game will move some PS3s. (Disclosure: I did some work for the Sony marketing team so feel free to doubt my motives even though I’m just calling it like I see it.)

Near the end of the presentation Sony finally got around to showing what I was most looking forward to: their new motion controller. Unlike the Microsoft motion camera, Sony is using a physical controller with a glowing sphere that’s tracked by the PS Eye, so you’re still holding a controller–sounds a little like the Wii, no? The sphere can change colors to reflect different states in the game, and the tracking accuracy is less than a millimeter according to the Sony engineers. Lag time was virtually nonexistant and the tracking looking one-to-one accurate in the tech demos they demonstrated.

The Sony motion controller in action

The Sony motion controller in action

Aside from the accuracy, it was interesting that Sony was using live video in conjunction with 3D objects to show the player’s movement–obviously can’t track the player’s body like a motion camera can, so this is a good idea. For instance, the demoer was shown on the screen holding the controller, which turned into a tennis racquet, a baseball bat, a sword, etc. The demoer had trouble hitting a tennis ball but it was easy to see how this could work in sports games, in magic games as a wand, or as a sword in a fighting game. It was also shown as a mouse substitute for RTS games, and as a very capable drawing and painting tool (much better than Microsoft’s painting demo; not sure why MS tried that as motion cameras are not a good interface for painting and drawing).

Next, they showed the use of two controllers to control a sword and shield, a bow and arrow (hmm, just like in the Nintendo demo), and as two tools. The sword and shield combat looked hella fun–would be interesting to try to cobble together a tech demo using a DDR floor mat and two controllers to allow the player to move through an RPG game while using both hands for fighting and spellcasting. Sony, please get on that.

We’ll post an anlysis of the motion gaming options for all three consoles in the next day or two after we have some time to think over the possibilities. But Sony showed more than expected for motion gaming, and that’s exciting for those of us interested in the motion gaming category.

E3 2009: Nintendo Press Conference
Jun 2nd, 2009 by worldblee

In many ways, Nintendo’s press conference felt like a reprise of their 2008 presentation: lots of Wii Fit, Wii Sports Resort, and Motion Plus as well as the continuing fact that they’re #1 on console and handheld. They had a snappy new set but otherwise you could substitute images from last year and it would be hard to tell the difference. Watch the GameSpot replay here as soon as they have it archived.

But when you’re #1 by a large margin, you don’t have to grab the gaming audience by the lapels and scream, “We’re shaking things up, and BTW, Sony and MS suck!” Instead, you can play it classy and focus on what you do best, which in Nintendo’s case involves Wii Fit, Motion Plus, Mario, Metroid, and a strong focus on fun family entertainment. Unfortunately, it didn’t involve a new Zelda game other than Spirit Tracks for DS.

Nintendo announced the new Wii Vitality Sensor, a heartrate monitor that clips to your finger, and it seems they’ll have some relaxation-oriented games to go with it when it launches. Anyway, I filed Vitality Sensor under “interesting” and we’ll see what comes of it.

The Wii Fit Plus information was all positive, with the ability to skip the annoying interludes (Yay! I love it when they fix things that should have been corrected in the original product–but nonetheless I’m grateful), online support, 15 new games including skateboarding, and the ability to customize your workouts to a greater degree. While Wii Fit sales are still strong, I’d love to see Plus come out sooner rather than later as the first wave of Wii Fit adopters is ready for something new, as we’ve seen with strong sales of even crappy products (cough, cough, Jillian Michaels) that utilize the Balance Board. It’s scheduled to ship this fall–c’mon, Nintendo, make it September for back-to-school.

Super Mario Galaxy 2 looked fun–an evolution of the first game rather than an reinvention but I’ll be looking forward to it when it ships. For the non-3D folks, there will be Super Mario Bros. for Wii, a 4-player 2D game in the classic Mario style–it looked a bit chaotic with four players, but fun. The Team Ninja + Nintendo collaboration, Metroid: Other M (2010) had good graphics and was a bone tossed to core gamers.

Metroid Mmmmm, tasty (courtesy of GameSpot)

Metroid Mmmmm, tasty (courtesy of GameSpot)

But while Nintendo acknowledged their rep deficit with regard to core gamers, they didn’t offer up much to address it–which given their success reaching beyond that group is certainly understandable. Instead, Nintendo President Satoru Iwata discussed the three groups of gamers (as they parse the market): active gamers, non-gamers, and ‘maybe’ gamers. Their figures show 295MM actives in the US, Japan, and Europe along with 149MM ‘maybes’–who if persuaded to pick up a game could grow the gaming market by 50%.

So philosophically, Nintendo and Concepticate are aligned in terms of the best way to expand gaming–experiences with universal appeal that don’t rely on previous gaming expertise for success. Provide a fresh, fun experience and try to reduce the barriers to entry as much as possible: that’s what developers should be aiming at unless they already have a successful niche they can continue to exploit.

Rather than making games specifically designed for the more serious players from the active segment, Iwata said that Nintendo’s goal was to make games that newcomers and veterans alike could play. Amen.

Moving on to motion gaming, Wii Sports Resort was demoed in more detail, and the enthusiasm I had for the title (including the Motion Plus peripheral) was still there. It’s enough of a fresh experience to get casual Wii owners who are jaded with the games they have now–and a lot of these folks don’t buy many games–reengaged with their Wii.

Wii Sports Resort hits the bullseye?

Wii Sports Resort hits the bullseye?

From the skydiving intro sequence to the archery game, the gameplay that was shown looked spot on and it doesn’t take an industry analyst to predict that the game will do well. But the quality will reinforce the Nintendo brand reputation (like the original game that basically sold the Wii to 50M people) which is why people will be coming back to pay for an upgrade of a game they got ‘free’ with their system purchase (@ncroal pointed out the first hit was free, now you gotta pay for it).

The increased accuracy of the Motion Plus controller adds physics-based realism to graphics that are anything but realistic, and should allow for a higher level of skill in games that are still easy to pick up and play. The archery looked great, and when Nintendo does announce a new Zelda game for Wii, I want to see archery and sword fighting using Motion Plus in the core gameplay!

Nintendo didn’t rock the boat with their E3 presentation–they played it safe but what they had to show was right in the sweet spot for the majority of their audience even if it didn’t wow the gamers in the crowd.

E3 2009: Microsoft Press Conference
Jun 1st, 2009 by worldblee

Just finished watching Microsoft‘s press conference–if you weren’t there or missed the stream you can watch the replay on GameSpot here. MS showed a good lineup of content for both games and videos, and the Facebook and Twitter additions could be nice too, although I’m waiting to see more information on how you input your updates and Tweets before passing judgment.

Most of the MS games played to their core demographic rather than expanding their base–Alan Wake looked great (really nice particle effects!), but more Halo, Splinter Cell, Crackdown, etc. just continues to feed the current audience. That’s all good, but the Concepticate philosphy is more focused on new and different ways to engage with players.

Tony Hawk Ride, with its new skateboard controller, was a very logical extension of the TH franchise utilizing the Guitar Hero/Rock Band/Wii Fit pack-in controller philosophy. Technologically it should be straightforward to execute and it should do well.

But the part I was looking to most, of course, was the Project Natal 3D camera announcement. We all knew it was coming, although I wasn’t privy to the fact that it had a microphone and voice recognition as a component. The game demos that were shown were very competitive with the other 3D camera sensing technology that’s out there, and they had better graphics than other games that have been shown in the motion gaming space. As expected, the 3D camera (whatever they end up calling it) probably won’t be available until late 2010. Developers are supposed to start getting dev kits now.

Microsoft showed good tech, but they didn’t reveal any killer app that will drive people to the Xbox 360 for motion gaming in the manner the Wiimote and Balance Board have driven players to the Wii. This doesn’t mean they don’t have better stuff up their sleeve, but I have a feeling if they had anything great already in development they would have teased it at the press conference.

Looking at the games they did show via videos or live demos we saw a racing game where the daughter was driving the car using her hands while the Dad performed tire changing duties in the pits, with all the actions, including shifting, being mimed. I didn’t take good notes during the video section, but there was also a skateboarding game with the player miming skateboard motions on the living room carpet, video recognition of people to call up their Live avatars, and gesture-controlled onscreen navigation. A kid also scanned in his skateboard to create a virtual deck he could use in the skateboard game. However, all this footage looked conceptual, created to show the possibilities of the system rather than being video of games actually in development.

Im a model pretending to be a teen skate kid

"I'm a model pretending to be a teen skate kid"

Moving to the motion games actually demoed, we mostly saw ’2D-ish’ outline avatars a la the old Super Punch Out game rather than full 3D avatars. The 3D camera was being used for Z-axis data (e.g., your foot being kicked forward at a ball) but for the most part the experience was similar to the soccer ball game in Wii Fit. The kickball/volleyball game Ricochet shown was like the Wii Fit soccer game but with the option to use hands and feet as well as your head and with the velocity of your limb or head having an appropriate effect on the ball coming toward you.

On the plus side, the girl doing the demoing looked like she got a good workout and there are many more game options available if you don’t have to stand atop a static Balance Board. I should add there was some 3D avatar control demoed with Natal creative director Kudo Tsunoda (the ex-EA guy from the Fight Night franchise) controlling his Live avatar with his body. As is typical with this, the software had difficulty keeping his skeleton intact when he turned his body, but there wasn’t much delay.

They also showed Splat, a kind of party painting game that allowed players to splash virtual paint on the screen and create 2D stencils of their body (they made a very cute elephant silhouette using a guy and a girl and a couple pillows)–if they had 30 such games packed together they’d have something every bit as entertaining as Wii Fit.

Lastly, Peter Molyneux (the best pitchman in videogames) showing a video of a Lionhead project called Milo that featured a virtual boy with whom you can interact. This was very much a tech demo, but had some fun applications, especially if you imagined it embedded in something like Fable 3–I would be first in line to play that game if that’s the intention.

Milo: everyones little virtual friend

Playing in a fishpond with Milo

If I sound underwhelmed by the concept, I’m not. Microsoft showed they are competitive with others in the 3D camera space and with their superior resources and graphics they showed a higher fidelity (at least visually) experience than anyone else has demonstrated. And now it’s announced so developers not working for the major publishers can get into the game with dev kits so we all can get our hands on the technology first hand. While there was some excess hyperbole (not unusual for a press conference) I really do think motion games provide new possibilities for fun while providing exercise benefits, and that’s all to the good for the games industry.

For more reading, you can also check out the VentureBeat article on the conference–I lifted the two images above from them so it’s good manners to credit them.

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