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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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