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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.

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.

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.

Videogame Censorship
May 21st, 2009 by worldblee

The politicians are at it again. Like lab rats that push a button hoping that food will come out, California Attorney General Jerry Brown is appealing the state’s earlier loss in court with regard to its bill to restrict the sale of videogames in the hope that votes will come his way should he run for re-election or for Governor. Every time this type of restriction is brought before a reasonable judge or court it is thrown out as unconstitutional. The results will probably be the same this time, with the tax payers of California footing the bill for the failed appeal.

My name is Jerry Brown, and I also hate puppies

My name is Jerry Brown, and I also hate puppies

The response from game industry folks such as me is just as Pavlovian–why would anyone want to ban our lovely games? Parents should be responsible for the children’s buying choices, and anyway games rated ‘M’ for Mature aren’t available for sale to minors… But even if expressed in self-interest, the arguments against censorship are all valid (and personally I don’t believe in the ESRB ratings system anyway-having submitted games through it I’ve seen how arbitrary it can be and the fact that nudity is rated more obscene than violence just makes no sense to me) and there is no empirical evidence that games ever actually hurt anyone.

Columbine wasn’t caused by videogames. People with severe problems kill other people, and pixilated characters aren’t powerful enough to cause a normal, healthy person to kill another person. These truths are self evident.

But not to Jerry Brown:

“These video game makers are shamelessly exploiting vulnerable children for profit,” Brown told The Times in an interview. “And in the same way pornography can be banned, pornographic violence can be banned as well.”

So what can a videogame supporter do? There are a couple things:

  • Follow the issue at www.gamepolitics.com -they do a good job of covering game censorship issues.
  • Follow general censorship issues at http://www.mediacoalition.org/.
  • Don’t be shy about writing to your elected officials-let them know that videogame censorship is an issue you take seriously. If you’re lazy like me, sign up for the Video Game Voter’s Network; this will allow you to receive notifications and express your views in pre-rolled and pre-addressed emails to officials so that you can express your views without having to use your noggin much.

One would imagine that this issue will go away eventually as more politicians enter office having played games their whole lives-but who knows, perhaps having fun* and wanting to hold office are mutually exclusive.

* By fun I mean legal, open activities as opposed to the clandestine affairs that have brought down more than one politician (or preacher).

More Motion Gaming Rumors
May 1st, 2009 by worldblee

First, Microsoft bought 3DV Systems and was rumored to have a deal in place to provide 3D motion sensing cameras for the Xbox 360 platform. Now Engadget reports a rumor that Microsoft is preparing to launch a motion-sensing peripheral:

Here’s a quick rundown of capabilities mentioned:

  • Full body and hand gesture control of games/characters.
  • In fighting games you kick, punch, duck, dive, jump and so forth with your body.
  • It also picks up small hand gestures like pinching, grabbing and scrolling.
  • There will also be video conferencing and games with video.
  • Trivia game over the internet with live images of each person playing. When a question pops up, they can clap to buzz in.
  • You can “move objects on your screen” and the other party can see what you’re doing in real time.
  • Sensor detects only the person playing, not folks observing on the couch.
Engadgets picture of MS peripheral

Engadget's picture of MS peripheral

The reporter is a little fuzzy on the details of how infrared 3D cameras work (they calculate the distance between the camera and any object and in conjunction with software like that produced by my colleagues at Omek Interactive you can algorithmically determine where a person’s hands, head, body, etc. are positioned). Nonetheless, an interesting development given how hard the company has seemingly worked to keep their motion gaming plans secret.

Not to be left out, Variety reports that Sony is readying a similar system, albeit one with an actual peripheral rather than just a camera. Here’s the article’s lead:

Sony’s much rumored motion sensing controller for the PlayStation 3 is real and it will likely be unveiled at E3.

That’s what I’ve been hearing from several sources, one of whom has seen the device and two of whom are familiar with Sony’s plans to show it at E3 next month.

Rumors that Sony will come out with a motion sensing device have abounded for over two years, ever since a patent was first reported on in January of 2007.

It will be interesting to see what is revealed–or not–at E3. I’m expecting peripherals to be released in 2010 rather than 2009 but it would certainly be a happy surprise to see something come out this year.

And Nintendo? I’m sure they’re quaking in their shoes right now. Not. Nonetheless, it will be interesting for gamers to get an option to play motion games on all three platforms with a variety of input mechanisms. Once people try controlling avatars with full body motion I expect to see converts to this style of gaming since it can provide exercise benefits along with exercise. Body motion is not the right controller for every type of game, but for some sports, fitness, and adventure titles it provides a fresh new way to play.

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