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Microsoft Game Room Sucks; Let’s Fix It.

Posted by nfinit on June 8, 2010

I admit holding unreasonable hopes for Game Room when it was announced.  Microsoft and developer Krome promised the ultimate retro jukebox, a one-stop shop for the entire history of videogames.

The first sign that the hype of Game Room was far removed from reality came with the very first game pack.  No Pitfall!, no Adventure, no River Raid– No compelling 2600 titles at all, truth be told.  There was an odd emphasis placed on Intellivision titles, while the three genuinely good games present among those initial twenty-some-odd games– Tempest, Crystal Castles and Centipede– were broken in degrees ranging from mildly annoying (Tempest) to downright unplayable (Crystal Castles).  What was there was mostly awful and wasn’t was mostly broken.

The Promise of Outlaw 2600...

In the following months Microsoft has done little to sell the concept.  The initial slate of games was followed by a month-long wait for additional titles, with perhaps one or two titles in every additional pack proving enjoyable or even particularly playable.

...meets the horrible, deeply confusing reality

The most recent update to Game Room may in fact prove to be its most troubling, and in the words of, “looking back, may be the point where Game Room went off the rails

With every weekly update to Game Room, we were promised seven titles.  This week, the week of the 3rd, we instead received five.  If those five games only one title proved to be compelling, that being Missile Command, it itself being mostly broken thanks to the inefficiencies of the 360 thumbstick as compared to the arcade trackball.

The problems with Game Room may indeed prove to be too great to be fixed without a complete overhaul of the service, but here’s where I’d start:

1:  Expand beyond 2600 and Intellivision.

I’m not saying to stop producing 2600 and Intellivision games for the service entirely.  There are still important games for both systems that we’ve yet to see on Game Room, and they represent an insight to the sort of problems developers had to deal with when working with hardware that was underpowered even for its time period.  But what’s being released right now feels a lot like filler.  The Intellivision is a historical curiosity at best, whereas the 2600 catalog was so bad it nearly destroyed the videogame industry entirely.  Yet every update includes 4 or 5 of these titles.

Maybe Microsoft will never get the rights to emulate the NES on Game Room, but the 5200 existed.  Why have we yet to see any of those games?  The Colecovision was arguably as important and beloved as the Intellivision, if not more, and the MSX code is sitting around not making anyone any money whatsoever.   There’s a lot of room to explore before you get to the Crash, and a lot of this stuff we never heard about– the stuff that Game Room excels at– is nowhere to be found.

2:  Don’t double dip titles.

2b:  If you must double dip, put the good version out first.

The fact that the 2600 port of Millipede was released before the arcade version of Millipede is blatantly cynical cash-grab on Microsoft’s part, a borderline scummy action that will cause fans to hesitate before buying further console ports.  Instead,  include 2600/Intellivision ports when releasing the full arcade original.  Having the 2600 port of Millipede available with full version is a good way to illustrate the compromises made by game developers back before console hardware surpassed arcade hardware, but few people will be interested in buying the 2600 port when the arcade original is available for the same price, and if you release the arcade version later, buyers of the console port just feel ripped off.

(Note that there are some titles where this wouldn’t apply.  During the NES era developers gave up on the idea of trying to convert arcade titles whole cloth, instead rewriting games from the ground up to take advantage of the console market.  So releasing  Bionic Commano arcade separate from Bionic Commando NES makes perfect sense.  Somewhere around the PS1 era the situation actually reversed and the console port became the preferred version.  No one is interested in Tekken 2 arcade when the PS1 game does everything Tekken 2 does and adds more stuff.  But the same idea holds true– release the good version first, and in the case of 2600 ports where the console game is more an approximation of the original, release both at once.)

3:  Optimize controls for the 360 gamepad.

Non-standard arcade controllers– stuff that used paddles or trackballs instead of a joystick– are rendered all but unplayable using the 360 controller.  Crystal Castles is utterly broken on Game Room, whereas getting into high level  Missile Command play may prove literally impossible.

But it also extends to stuff that would be easy to fix if we were simply allowed the ability to fully customize the game’s controls.  As was previously discussed, the Xbox 360’s D-Pad is an awful, awful tool for the purpose of playing videogames, and many 2600 games pay the price for this as non-directional inputs often had to be placed in weird places on the joystick.  For instance, in River Raid one must press down on the joystick to decelerate the plane, upwards to gain speed, with the left/right controls responding differently depending on how fast the plane is going.  With the 360 d-pad it’s almost impossible not to press the diagonal when pressing left/right, resulting in a schizophrenic experience that leaves the player living in mortal fear of moving more than an inch away from the center of the screen, making even the most trivial fuel tank grab…

an exercise in sheer terror.

Now if we were allowed to, say, put accelerate on X and decelerate on A with “fire” mapped to a bumper, this problem is eliminated and you’d have a game that plays as least as well as the original.  Tempest is another good example– far too often it’s easy for the player’s ship to become stuck as the analog movement of the thumbstick no longer tracks correctly within the shape of the tube you’re flying around, resulting in a game that’s difficult if not impossible to partake in high level play using the standard controller.  If instead left/right were mapped to the shoulder triggers you’d accurately replicate the arcade paddle.

This is the sort of rudimentary shit that you expect to see implemented on every single game at\ a flagship XBLA product.  Jeff Minter was basically driven (more) insane by Microsoft’s certification process, yet somehow Krome has released five updates for Game Room and in not one of them has Crystal Castles been rendered a playable product.

4:  The arcade interface is a clumsy gimmick; get rid of it.

The “game room” idea of Game Room is interesting enough– A personal arcade that you slowly fill with authentic replicas of the original arcade machines.

The problem becomes evident when you realize most of the stuff released so far in Game Room aren’t arcade machines at all, but rather 2600 and Intellivision titles.  So instead of an arcade machine you get a model of an arcade cabinet with a 2600 glued to it for each individual 2600 game, a setup no one in their right mind would encounter as if you’re a functional adult with a game room you have a couch and a good TV and a box full of Atari games.  Most of these cabinets exist as a contrivance to fill up spots inside the arcade.  Cute yes, but also clunky.

Additionally, a large chunk of the games that existed as arcade titles are Konami games.  For whatever reason Konami refuses to use the original cabinets or the side art — instead there is this jarring generic black cabinet with a tiny marquee displaying the game’s title.  It looks like something someone with a MAME cabinet might cobble up with twenty bucks and three hours of effort.

Probably one of the top five arcade cabinets of all time and several layers of corporate indifference are keeping you from ever seeing it in Game Room.

For the handful of actual arcade titles that make full use of Game Room, it’s a great feature..  Some of this artwork is stunning in its detail and 80’s sci-fi aesthetic.  But for everything else that populates your arcade it’s just a clumsy gimmick that gets in the way of actually accessing the games you want to play.

for that matter, the entire interface for Game Room is clunky and needs an overhaul.  Trying to find the newest games is an onerous chore that’s best done from Major Nelson’s Twitter account.  There are no filters available for when a game first appeared on Game Room, just filters for year of release, platform it was released on, or title.  Also there’s no way to tell at a glance what games you’ve already demo’ed or any kind of rating system for the games you’ve tried but not purchased.  It’s just a dumb and clunky way to operate a list of games that’s already grown as large as it has, and something that will hopefully one day extend to hundreds of titles.

5:  Let Game Room become a museum for all (feasible) games.

If I had to name my one greatest frustration with Game Room– aside from seeing it populated with dreck like Haunted House and Outlaws– Is that it represents a missed opportunity to serve as a virtual history tour of the videogame industry.

By that I mean that there is almost no background provided with the games, at best a perfunctory paragraph or two.  There’s usually no indication of what influenced the developers, or how that title influenced further games, and there’s usually no real information on the developer.  There’s no story presented for these games and how they fit the greater narrative of the industry, and that’s a shame.

This moment in Adventure (and the game Adventure itself) is an important event in the history of videogames on several levels, but with Game Room you never really know why.

There’s a lot Microsoft could do to improve this.  There could be scans of instruction manuals and concept art.  For arcade games they could provide accurate 3d cabinet models.  They could provide streaming video via Xbox Live with developer interviews and the original commercials.

I should be able to look at Adventure for the 2600, play it and then bring up a menu showing that game’s impact on the game industry.  I should be able to sit a friend down and explain to them why something like Missile Command fit into the zeitgeist of the 80’s

Game Room could provide an entire history of the games industry in one easy-to-access package.  Instead we’re given mascots and fluff.  The confluence of events that resulted in Game Room may never be duplicated and the fact that it’s instead used as a vehicle to sell digital knickknacks is irresponsible.

6:  Reach beyond Konami and Atari.

Not saying that this won’t happen, but we’re into our fifth update and we’ve yet to see a single Namco, Capcom, Sega or Tatio game appear on the service.  These are all companies that have released classic titles for Xbox Live Arcade, so it’s not like they’re reluctant to work with Microsoft in this arena.  Sure, we’re probably never going see a Nintendo game or even a NES title, but there’s plenty of stuff that these companies have in their back catalog that does nothing but fill space on compilation discs.

Apparently Midway thought Defender was worth more money as a MAME rom than as a Game Room title. Observant readers will note that Midway is currently in Chapter 11.

If it’s a matter of price, then that’s workable.  It was never possible to get Namco to agree that Dig Dug should have price parity with 2600 games.  We need pricing tiers;  there’s simply no way to defend the idea that Outlaws (a game that has no single player component at all)  should be sold for the same price as Millipede.

7:  Address the broken games.

One of the unspoken secrets of Game Room is how many games don’t actually work within the service at all.  Take Combat for the 2600 for instance.  Combat never had a single-player component.  It was one tank (or plane, or jet fighter) vs another in brutal, one-on-one… combat.  The 2600 probably wasn’t even capable of producing a compelling opponent AI even if the designers had wanted.  As Game Room games are as authentically reproduced as possible (or, a someone of a more cynical bent may assume, cheaply reproduced as possible) the Game Room version of 2600 features no enemy AI either.

Before Call of Duty re-introduced us to the idea that single player campaigns don't really matter, there was Combat. Also Jimmy Carter was President and we were still making the Trans-Am. Overall it was just a better time to be alive.

Now, this is not unusual for 360 games, some are simply meant to be played online.  The problem is that Game Room  games can’t be played online.  You can have a second player with a second 360 controller join in on your 360 sure, but this is going to be a rare occurrence, and for most users Combat is broken and unplayable.

The other solution is to stop trying to sell this game at the same price as the most compelling and fully featured games on the service.  This philosophy can be extended to games that may fit within the feature set of Game Room but are of obviously inferior quality.  Don’t try to tell us that Grand Prix is on the same threshold of quality as Tempest.  Grand Prix doesn’t keep score and thus lacks the Ranked Mode feature that makes Game Room games inherently replayable.  Grand Prix, Combat, Outlaws, Skiing and other titles are obviously broken on the service and either need to be fixed (not likely considering Krome’s lack of effort exhibited so far) or simply not try to sell form for the same three dollars asked for River Raid and Tempest.

8:  Make all previously released XBLA arcade games Game Room games.

Xbox Live Arcade was an outstanding retro jukebox even before Game Room was introduced.  You can play everything from Rally X to Puzzle Fighter to Outrun 2 without ever turning off your system.  If anything, the arcade content on Xbox Live Arcade is more compelling than anything released for Game Room and serves as a much more useful history of the gaming industry.  The only problem is, none of those games are integrated to the Game Room.  Would it be all that difficult to simply plug Mortal Kombat into the service?  Retro fans would probably be willing to pay a couple dollars for the arcade cabinet and an integrated Ranked Mode– plus once they’re inside Game Room they may be willing to buy more Game Room games.

This argument becomes even more compelling when you realize that a great many previously released XBLA retro titles have been pulled from the service entirely due to low sales.  The work of getting Rally X onto XBLA has already been provided, the arcade boards perfectly emulated within the 360.  With that done, Game Room integration should be a trivial matter. I could be wrong, but how much more could this possibly cost, especially as this code is not making anyone any money whatsoever?

I'm posting this image to remind you all that one day Pac-Man 2600 will be released for Game Room when you could be playing this instead.

In closing, I’d like to state that it’s painfully obvious that Krome and Microsoft want to get away with the least amount of effort possible in Game Room while still monetizing the experience at every turn.  The company is more interested in selling mascots than in producing a compelling product.  As it stands there is nothing in Game Room that isn’t better served within any number of complication discs you can find most (if not all)  of these titles collected within, and the only compelling feature of the service– The ranked mode which allows for online challenges and achievement tracking– isn’t functional within a great many of the games within the service.

There is nothing wrong with Game Room that isn’t a direct reflection of Krome’s lack of effort in producing content for the service.  It’s fixable; it’s just that we’ve yet to see any indication in the past two months that Krome has the ability or wherewithal to do so.


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