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Archive for April, 2007

Game; Stopped.

Posted by nfinit on April 17, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 4-17-07)

Once upon a time, there was something called the “record store”.

In that place you could find a vast collection of music, from the most pedestrian pop to the most obscure regional new age gospel reggae acts. And these stores would hire knowledgeable, (if not always exactly friendly) people, enthusiastic about music, able to steer customers in the right direction of whatever they were looking for or new stuff that the customer may have not even been aware of. Record stores would have regular customers, they were places were fans could hang out and just enjoy music, they were a credit not only to their particular community, but to the industry in general. The RIAA decided to destroy all that one day, but that’s another issue.

As gamers, we deserve something similar. Small, independent stores staffed with people who have a love for games, shelves stocked with both popular and obscure titles. These stores could, like their music store brethren, be places were gamers could hang out and learn about new games, where neophytes and casual gamers could come in, purchase games, and perhaps even expand their tastes a bit beyond EA and Tom Clancy.

Unfortunately, we have Gamestop.

I wouldn’t complain if Gamestop were a useful tool for the gamer community, a place where you could get your hands on niche titles not likely to be carried by the big box stores. But Gamestop isn’t that place. I realized this last week while trying to hunt down a copy of Puzzle Quest. I was reminded that the game exists when I saw it on the shelves of the local Best Buy, amid rows of That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana. I could have bought the game there, but I thought I’d do the responsible gamer thing and support the other billion dollar sales behemoth instead. Gamestop. I enjoy the luxury of having three Gamestops within five minutes of each other, and I felt sure one, if not all, should carry the title. After all, Puzzle Quest may be a tad niche, but if a big box store had it, surely the store dedicated to selling games would too.

I was wrong. Instead I was met with shelves full of the the exact same movie tie-in crap at Best Buy, along with rows of preteen girl shovel-ware. No Puzzle Quest to be found, or pretty much anything remotely niche for that matter, save for the used section. EA, masters of mass-market pablum, had their own dedicated stand in the middle of the store– just as large as the aisle dedicated entirely to used DVDs and strategy guides. PC games found themselves relegated to the back of a single EA-sand-sized aisle, and even that was shared with used console peripherals.

The space dedicated to console games wasn’t in much better shape. Sure, you could find a variety of titles in the used section, but the new sales area was the domain of Ubisoft, EA and more damned games based on children’s movies. Indeed, looking around the three stores I felt that I wasn’t in a dedicated games store as much as a Wal-Mart games section crammed alongside a yardsale and stuffed into a mall cubbyhole. And if that’s the case, how is Gamestop any more useful to the community than Wal-Mart or Best Buy? How is it that the only dedicated games store left in America has abandoned the hardcore base in favor of soccer moms looking to sate Little Timmy’s desire for the latest Madden roster update? In the age where virtually any videogame currently made is but an Amazon listing away, is Gamestop necessary anymore? Indeed, I believe that if we look more closely at Gamestop’s corporate model, we may see that the chain is, in fact, harmful.

Sure, Gamestop sells us used games at a discount, but isn’t this practice hurting the industry? Consider. Gamestop pulled in 5.3 billion dollars in revenue last year. Analysts believe up to 25% of Gamestop’s revenue comes directly from used sales. That’s 1.3 billion dollars Gamestop pulled in last year that was never seen by the gaming industry, at least not after that initial new sale that lead to the cascade of used sales that followed, and there’s no real way of being sure that the new game was purchased at Gamestop to begin with. Admittedly, not all of this money would have found it’s way back to the publisher, there are cuts on top of what they pull in, but it’s still 1.3 billion dollars directly into Gamestop’s coffers that have been pulled out of the regular distribution channels. All of this made off the backs of the people who make our games, at a time when the average game developer salary is falling. Can Gamestop justify it’s existence when it’s very corporate model depends on money stolen from the industry?

I could perhaps overlook this if it were not for Gamestop’s abominable customer service. Whether it’s the incessant pleas for pre-orders and trade-ins, the practice of selling gutted games as new, the actual act of shopping in a Gamestop is a repulsive, degrading experience, and that’s not counting the outright larceny involved in the paltry trade-in values compared to how much the used games are then sold for. It’s rare to find knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff at a Gamestop. Indeed it would seem that knowledge and enthusiasm about gaming is a detriment to employment, no true hardcore gamer is going to suggest with a straight face that a parent should purchase a copy of Kim Possible over a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. Gamestop managers don’t want enthusiastic gamers working under them, they’d rather have someone enthusiastic about selling Driver 3 pre-orders. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Gamestop experience actively discourages casual gamers from the hobby.

Gamestop relies on the conceit that they are providing the gamer community a valuable service despite the horrid customer service, outright fraud and the money syphoned directly from developer’s pockets. But the truth is, that service is not there. There is nothing that Gamestop provides that cannot be found via other avenues, whether that be Wal-Mart, Ebay, or even direct download. It is time we admit that not only do we not need Gamestop, but we’d be better off without them.


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Of Good Intentions

Posted by nfinit on April 12, 2007

(submitted to The Platformers 4-11-07)

It has come to my attention that there exists a number of otherwise perfectly intelligent individuals who, for whatever reason, wish to destroy the gaming industry.

I don’t speak of Senators Clinton or Lieberman, or of software pirates. Nor do I speak of the infamous Jack Thompson- after all, I did say intelligent.

I don’t mean politicians seeking votes and attention on the backs of of legislation and censorship, nor those who flood the market with hundreds of thousands of copies of black-market Nintendo DS games. I speak of game developers who desire a standardized gaming platform. In the words of the most vociferous of these madmen, Denis Dyack, CEO and founder of Silicon Knights:

“I think in the long term, honestly, [I’d like] one hardware platform to rule them all. It’s what happened in the movie industry. I think we’re moving towards a homogeneous platform whether people like it or not. At the end of the day, I think it’s in everyone’s best interest that there be one hardware console, whether it be Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo or whether all three of them got together and said, “Ok we’re going to agree upon a standard for everyone to make.” In the movie industry it helped tremendously because as a content creator, all we want to do is make games and entertain people. Don’t get me wrong, I love the hardware platforms, like the Sony platform and I think the Wii’s got some really unique things and Microsoft’s platform we obviously love a lot. However, we’d rather spend time making the games than worrying about the hardware. And if everyone had the same hardware and when you made a game you knew you got 100% penetration because anyone who plays this game had to buy this hardware platform just like a DVD or whatever standard media format’s going to be. I think that would ultimately be much better for gamers.”

“In everyone’s best interest” applying to appropriately narrow definitions of the word “everyone”. In this case “everyone” would read as “the company with the monopoly”. For everyone else Denis Dyack desires nothing less than utter disaster.

Dyack forgets that we’ve already had a standardized console platform. Twice, actually. First time, back in the bad old days of joysticks with number pads, the 2600 enjoyed effective market monopolization. We know where that lead us– a flood of low quality games culminating in a concrete covered tomb somewhere in the New Mexico desert filled to the brim with crushed ET carts. After the Crash sorted things out again, we marched right into a second de facto standard, the Nintendo NES. That worked out well until it came to light that the entire time Nintendo restricted games from third party companies in favor of their own in-house brands. As far as industry-approved standardized platforms go, they’ve tried that as well. It was called the 3d0.

You’ll notice no one really pays all that much attention to Trip Hawkins anymore.

Assured doom aside, there are practical problems that would doom any attempt at a standardized gaming platform. Even if the stars aligned and everyone at Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft all drank the same LSD-laced kool-aide and we woke up one fine morn to find one platform to rule them all, it’d last about six hours before some middle management schlump at Samsung remembered that videogames games push more money out the door per year than the motion picture industry and that he could retire at 40. There is simply too much money in the games industry for any growth-hungry corporation to allow to flow around untouched. This logic served as the entire justification for the Xbox. And even if you could control the money, you could never control the talent. It would take all of one talented team to give the system the bird and develop elsewhere to irreparably wreck the faith behind standardized platform.

Which brings us to the biggest problem in Dyack’s ill-conceived fantasy. No matter how iron-clad a supposed industry standard platform may be, it cannot hope to cover all possible places games can and will trickle down to. How does the standardized platform deal with handheld consoles or games on PDAs? What of cell phones? Sure, the majority of cell games out today are Popcap-licensed novelties, but processor power only increases with time; at some point the cell phone will become a viable platform, worth far more money than any single home console could ever hope to pull in. Indeed, the fracturing of the gaming industry is only likely to get worse, provided Apple ever gets around to pushing games for the Mac, iPod and iPhone platforms. Then there’s the PC, already in every one’s home, full of development resources of varying degrees of accessibility and cost. Even worse for Dyack’s whiskey-and-cocaine fueled utopia, the PC has several existing digital distribution services in place, allowing independent development teams to bypass the publisher-driven retail model entirely. All the tools are already in place to kill any viability or justification for the standardized gaming console.

You can hardly blame Dyack and others like him for saying things though, what with game development in excess of eighteen months. Developers can only guess if the console they start production for will still be viable when the game actually reaches completion. One might imagine this represents a particularly sore spot for Dyack and Silicon Knights, who’s magnum opus Too Human began development before Kid Rock was irrelevant. We are on the cusp of a brand new hardware cycle, which only serves to complicate predictions, especially with Sony’s woeful PS3 performance and the extraordinary sales of Nintendo’s Wii. Dyack says a homogeneous platform would prevent developers from chasing after nonviable platforms, but that rings hollow when you consider Silicon Knights has already committed to a single platform, Microsoft’s 360. If the fortunes of the 360 worry him, why not just develop for the PC? If total install base among consoles is what concerns Dyack, Sony would be more than happy to sell him a Playstation 2 development license– Hell, there’s probably already some Too Human PS2 assets amid the Too Human N64 and 360 discs.

So should gamers concern themselves with such insane rumblings from industry luminaries? Probably not, the standardized platform simply cannot work. But you can’t like to hear this sort of talk from our developers. Even as someone who identifies himself as a “360 guy”, I understand that there will be games and themes present on both the Wii and the next Playstation that I’ll never see on my favored console, and due to this I fully expect t own all three before the next cycle starts, as I expect most other hardcore gamers ultimately will. This is a diversity we would not enjoy under the umbrella of a standardized gaming console. Meanwhile, casual gamers simply do not care, they just buy whatever system we tell them they’d have the most fun with and don’t think much about what appears on other systems. The fantasy of a standardized console is the fever dream of people who simply ought to know better.

Sort of like Communism.

Or sex with goths.

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The Fighter is Dead

Posted by nfinit on April 2, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 4-2-07)

This article started off as an examination of three
traditional console genres and how developers and fans alike were
responsible for their demise. But upon further research, I realized that
two of these genres I had thought dead or dying- the shooter and the racing
game- were still vital parts of the gaming dynamic, evolving new concepts and
thus able to attract new fans. However, the third- the fighter-
has not seen a major revision in gameplay mechanics since the first Virtua
Fighter nearly fifteen years ago. How did the fighter, so recently a
essential factor of the gaming universe and a driving force of console sales,
collapse into irrelevance? And how have the shump and the racer, both
far older than the fighter, managed to escape obsolescence?

The Racer– Mirror Course

I know, it’s hard to understand how I could think the racer was near the
edge of relevance, especially when you consider how much marketing
faith Microsoft placed in Project Gotham 3 or how important Mario
Kart is to Nintendo. But as a devoted fan of the genre, I am hard
pressed to find appreciable evolution as of late. Today we see
racers split into two camps, with little leeway between. In one you
have the over-the-top brainless arcade frenzy of Burnout, where catastrophic
wrecks at 200 miles per hour with no discernible loss in position are
common. On the other end of the spectrum you have Forza Motorsports and
Grand Turismo 4 engaged in mortal combat over who can produce the most
soulless Nurburgring experience, the joy of driving wrung dry amid a maze of
menu screens set to a jazz fusion soundtrack.

But something happened to racers, the subtle sort of shift you don’t
really notice until it’s already passed by, and I believe the roots of this
change lay in Grand Theft Auto 3. Free roaming gameplay has come to the
racing genre, first seen in a full fledged game in Eden Game’s Test Drive:
Unlimited, and it represents a fundamental change in the philosophy of how
racers are played and presented. Whereas practically every other racing
game made gives you a list of racetracks to chose from with no transition
whatsoever between, TD:U presents the player with a thousand miles of roadway
modeled on Hawaii’s Oahu island. The island is the racetrack,
the player able to seek out races and events staged within.
Further, TD:U has a fully integrated online component, one that melds
seamlessly with the single-player game, the player often unable to tell the
difference between the normal AI cars and other, flesh-and-blood
drivers. As an actual racing game though, TD:U is a tad
uninspiring. Cars are largely the same, with little other than
acceleration and top speed differentiating them, and the racing
physics lean toward the arcade end of the spectrum while still not able
to approach the reckless joy of Burnout. However, it points a
way forward, and the sort of idea I desperately want to see Polyphony Digital
(the detail obsessive madmen behind Gran Turismo) copy whole cloth and place
their own racing ethos within.

The Shooter– Smart Bomb

By the end of the PlayStation 2 cycle Shumps had fallen into utter
irrelevance. While the games remained fundamentally sound (after all,
it’s hard to screw up a something three steps removed from Space
Invaders), they had become exercises in franchise self-abuse, with
gameplay conventions carved in stone before the NES was set to
silicon. If anything, the genre has actually
devolved from previous generations that
gave us Panzer Dragoon, Galaxy Force and Star Fox 64. Even
Treasure, masters of the traditional 2-D shump, gave us the excellent,
inventive puzzle shooter Bangai-O for the Dreamcast… barely a console
generation later they returned to remaking Gradius.

Shumps find themselves travelling quite the opposite path to redemption taken
by the racer, their evolution represented by a return to the roots of the
genre. Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved hearkens back to the frenzy of
the arcades shooters of yore, using the power of the 360 not to create
high-rez polygons, but instead to throw a riot of lethal particle effects
at the player, frantic action not seen since Berserk and
Defender. Meanwhile the freely distributed Warning Forever
literally evolves, constantly pitting
the player in single-screen combat against a single, constantly changing
enemy. This minimalist (and free-of-charge)ethic is also found in
the work of Kenta Cho, creator of rRootage, Torus Trooper
and GunRoar; any of which in another age would have easily qualified
for franchise-worthy blockbusters.

The Fighter– Ring Out

I want you to try an experiment next time you’re mooching coffee and
magazines at the bookstore. Find a strategy guide for a 3d fighter,
something relatively simple, say Dead or Alive 4. Now find a
beginner’s guide to C++. Open them side by side. Which seems more
rewarding, learning the counters, command throws, string combos, alternate
stances, step-baiting, ect of DoA, or programming your own videogame from
scratch? It’s going to take you a good couple of hundred hours of
practice either way, at least one of the two will land you a degree somewhere
down the line.

You see, instead of devolution or division, the fighter fell victim to its
fans. Mired within arcane language and obtuse concepts, the
fighter finds itself cursed with a hardcore fanbase struck with
tunnel vision, a tunnel vision which the developers have embraced. excluding
new fans for the demands of tiered tournament play.
The hardcore fighter community does not want change, they want
incremental improvements to the same basic strategies laid out in Virtua
Fighter, and that’s something Namco and Sega and Temco are more
than prepared to dole out along with regularly scheduled graphics
upgrades. There is simply no way for a newcomer to the genre to find a
foothold, and without new fans any demand for new gameplay mechanics have
fallen to the wayside.


Stagnation of gameplay leads to stagnation within the playerbase. Once
your market stops growing you’re stuck with the same core group of people who
will buy your sequels no matter how stale they are, and you wind up catering
to those fans, forcing out new players. Within a short time you wind up
with Virtua Fighter 5 selling all of fifty thousand copies in it’s opening
week. This is the trap the racing genre found itself on the precipice
of, and the one the shump is currently trying to free itself
from. I don’t know if there’s a way out for the fighter, perhaps
we’ve seen everything interesting left to do with it. Nintendo
fans tell me the Smash Brothers franchise remains uncompromisingly fun while
still allowing a semblance of high-level play- I’ll have to take their word
for that, it’s not the sort of game that appeals to me. Even Midway has
admitted that the promise of fighting action itself isn’t quite enough to
sell Mortal Kombat anymore, having long ago decided to fill game discs out
with kart racing and puzzle games, turning what was once a well-respected
fighting franchise into something of a slipshod party game. Even Capcom,
progenitors of the genre and renown for their willingness to squeeze the final
penny from a franchise, realized there was no money left in the 2d fighter and
vacated their crown.

Which leads us to the real crime of all this. We’ll never
see an updated Morganna sprite.

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