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The Gaijin Box

Posted by nfinit on July 25, 2007

(Submitted to The Platformers 7-25-07)

Gaijin Box
Gaming otaku don’t know how good they’ve had it.

Back in the sixteen bit days, fans of Japanese games had to go through outrageous contortions to satisfy their cravings. With more than a half-dozen console companies and a myriad hardware configurations, we had to either accept the paltry few examples of Japanese gaming genius that washed up on our shores or happily march into bankruptcy.

Sony’s Playstation made everything exponentially easier. Gaming otaku enjoyed an embarrassment of riches as Japanese developers hopped aboard Sony’s bandwagon. The result was a hobby that was not only less expensive, but meant that devotees of Japanese gaming no longer needed to dedicate an entertainment center lined with exotic consoles simply to enjoy Capcom’s entire library.

For over a dozen years, the story was much the same. Sure, Sega lingered around for a while and there was always the odd Konami or Treasure novelty popping up on Nintendo’s hardware, but Japanese game fans never needed to want as long as they owned a Playstation, and the situation only improved once Sega gave up its hardware ambitions with the arrival of the Playstation 2.

But something strange has happened. Independent Japanese developers that have long stood as Sony stalwarts are either treating the company with sudden trepidation or have jumped ship entirely. The next Katamari Damacy, a niche otaku series if there’s ever been one, has been announced as a Microsoft 360 exclusive, as has the latest Ace Combat sequel. Game series that would never have made sense on American hardware before-Resident Evil, Virtua Fighter, Sega Rally and Devil May Cry, among others- are scheduled to share appearances on both the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360. And through liberal use of good ol’ filthy lucre, otaku-targeted games such as Culdecept Saga, Trusty Bell, Ninety Nine Nights and Blue Dragon will appear exclusively on Microsoft’s 360. All the while Japanese developers grow increasingly vocal in their frustration with Sony’s vision for the gaming industry.

So fans of hardcore Japanese gaming have to ask themselves– Did Microsoft steal the gaming otaku market while no one was looking? Or did they simply pick up a ball that Sony dropped and has thus far shown no interest in recovering?

Profiles in Corporate Belligerence

For Sony, the reversal is as sudden as it is bitter. Namco has throughly embraced the 360 as a development platform. Capcom, conservative as ever, has decided to split development focus on both systems. Square/Enix is sitting the next-gen fight out until 2008 at the earliest. Even Konami, seemingly Sony’s last remaining friend, has threatened to shop Metal Gear Solid 4 to “other systems”. In the meantime, most every independent Japanese developer will produce exclusives for Nintendo’s Wii and DS systems.

Observers may be tempted to cite PS3 development costs as the primary factor. But it’s not a very satisfying answer in light of the far cheaper development costs for Nintendo’s wildly successful Wii. Developers cite PS3 and 360 development costs to be roughly equal, averaging some twelve million dollars per game, while a Wii game can be developed for as little as s five million dollars.

While true there have been rumblings as to the difficulties in producing PS3 games verses their 360 counterparts, make no mistake, this is about the numbers of Playstation 3 consoles Sony has sold. Or rather, haven’t sold. It’s easy to imagine that Japanese developer, seeing the overwhelming advantage the 360 holds outside Japan, would realize hedging their bets is the safest course, and develop the same games for both systems, if not outright snub the PS3 until Sony’s house is in order.

As with all problems the Playstation 3 has experienced since release, it boils down to Sony lost touch with the console market. Sony has yet to show any indication that they are aware of the consumer rebellion against the Playstation 3, and as a result independent developers are reluctant to trust Sony and whatever misguided vision Howard Stringer holds for the gaming industry. Even if the 360 is doomed in Japan, the worldwide numbers and hardcore backlash are impossible to ignore. The market will not absorb a console at the PS3’s current asking price, and with debacles such as the three-week-long price “drop”, Sony has done nothing to regain the community’s good will.

Enter the Bridesmaid

So whither Nintendo? The Wii has dominated Japanese sales charts whereas the 360 could charitably be called a disappointment. Considering the Wii will almost assuredly overtake the 360 in North America by the end of the year, why have Japanese third parties yet to embrace the Wii, especially when, as previously mentioned, Wii development costs represent a fraction of the 360’s?

Perhaps the Japanese third parties remember the sing of Nintendo’s lash, and the consequences of being beholden to a single console maker. Back in the NES era Nintendo was so strong they could force third-party developers to limit the number of titles released each year, while Nintendo released a steady stream of their own in-house brands. While it is easily argued that Microsoft is a more predatory and monopolistic company than Nintendo has ever dreamed of being, memories die hard, and the legacy of Hiroshi Yamauchi churlish rule remains fresh.

As it stands, games on the 360 tend toward the hardcore crowd, while the Wii plays host to experimental, family friendly titles such as Treasure Island Z. In that light, perhaps the third-party embrace of the 360 over the Wii is simply a recognition of where the respective markets lay– the Xbox brand was built on hardcore college-age gamers, the sort who expect to be wowed by high technology and expect an epic gaming experience. Companies know the market on the 360. Meanwhile developers are trying to determine if Wii owners will even accept non-Nintendo titles, much less non-traditional games without the gloss of advance graphics. Perhaps this explains why the Wii’s Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles consists of a retelling of previous games optimized for the Wii’s controller while the 360 and PS3 receive the series’ true sequel in Resident Evil 5.

A Market Sundered

So what’s a gaming otaku to do? Embrace the Gaijin Box and accept that the Japanese gaming market has been hopelessly split by Sony’s gross incompetence and Microsoft’s ambition? It would not be unprecedented. Twelve years ago Japanese developers left for Sony, abandoning Nintendo’s misguided and arrogantly-conceived N64. At the same time these developers snubbed the expensive to buy and difficult to develop for Sega Saturn– Sega, crippled by this shift, never fully recovered.

If there’s anything we’ve learned from the first Playstation, it’s that game developer’s affections can be fickle– and violent.


Posted in Op-ed, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

The Voice of Gaming

Posted by nfinit on June 12, 2007

(submitted to The Platformers 6-11-07)

You would not be reading this if it were not for Shigeru Miyamoto.

You’d be reading a very different Platformers, perhaps instead called The Flight Sim Pilots, expounding on the genius of Microsoft Flight Simulator or some other dreadfully bland topic. No, this article and indeed this site could not exist if it were not for Miyamoto, for it is without hyperbole when I say his games saved console gaming from the Crash of ’84 and as a result rescued the industry.

Were it not for Shigeru Miyamoto’s work on Donkey Kong, Nintendo would never have entered the home console market with the Nintendo Entertainment System, without the NES there would have been no recovery from the Crash of 1984, and with it likely no further videogame consoles. Console gaming, moribund and lacking Shigeru’s spark of imagination, would have slipped under the waves, videogames shackled to the personal computer, lost in a soulless pit of flight simulations and grognard-obsessed wargames.

He invented the platformer genre itself with Super Mario Brothers, the action RPG in Zelda, mentored the men who created Metroid and Pokemon, was named a Chevalier; time and again hailed as a genius by his peers. He is, if any one man can be called so, our hero.

Meanwhile, Johnathan Wendell- Fatal1ty, as he’d preferred to be called- is very good at Quake. And that’s pretty much the best you can say for him.

I mean, we know he’s good at Quake and Quake clones, he’s won something along the lines of a half million dollars doing so. He has a reputation of something of a primadonna, throwing tantrums when bested. He likes to bill himself as the world’s best-known professional video gamer, and between the money he’s won at Quake clones and his line of “gaming” mice, motherboards and other branded PC parts and accessories, he’s probably right.

Shigero Miyamoto. Savior of Console Gaming.

Johnathan Wendell. World’s Best Advertised Quake Player.

There’s about as much in common in them as John Lennon would have to Fred Durst.

Meanwhile, Time magazine in their recent Fifty Most Influential People issue, decided this connection connection, however tenuous, was enough to justify hiring Wendell to write an article on Shigeru Miyamoto’s influence on the videogame industry.

In Time’s defense, they may have intended Johnathan Wendell as Shigero Miyamoto’s spokesman for the sake of juxtaposition. In the same issue they pegged Conservative stalwart (and former House Speaker) Newt Gingrich to pen an article describing the impact of the thoroughly Liberal current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They pegged noted Intelligent Design proponent Micheal Behe to write an article on outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins; coac Lovie Smith, (the guy who coached the Chicago Bears into defeat in Super Bowl 41) to write the article on coach Tony Dungy (the man who would go on to lead the Indianapolis Colts into victory in that same game.). But truth is, we’re talking about the mainstream media here, saying that they get the idea that Newt is to Nancy what Doom Marine is to Mario is giving them entirely too much credit.

No, I think it’s far more likely that in the view of Time magazine- and by proxy the mainstream media in general- Johnathan “Fatal1ty” Wendell isn’t just very good at Quake. He is, in fact, representative of how the public at large view gamers and gaming. Thus, he is now our spokesman.

Not that we should be surprised. The general public- you know, the guys who insist on calling your PSP a Gameboy- still view gaming as a children’s diversion. The only real difference they’ve noticed is that somewhere in between the NES and the Xbox we stopped obsessing over toadstools and turtles and have become foul-mouthed Mountain Dew-fueled reprobates ogling the blue backsides of holographic women. They do not (and perhaps cannot) see gaming as a medium for subtle, sophisticated emotion. It’s as if someone had wiped the public memory clean of Heat, Leon, The Constant Gardner and Blade Runner and left the movie spectrum represented entirely by Chicken Little and The Fast and The Furious.

Now gamers, we know better, we know Johnathan Wendel is a bullshit fraud of a spokesman, that gaming has explored places he’s likely never touched in his six-hours-a-day practice with a railgun. He never knew the joy of rebuilding the cosmos from gumdrops. He never wept as Agro carried him to the last Colossus. He never stood and cheered as he sank the Master Sword into Ganon’s black, black, heart. He never sought his true name amid the streets of The City of Doors.

As for Time, (and by proxy public), how can we expect them to understand the depths of Johnathan Wendell’s duplicity? Ours is an industry fronted by space marines and malcontents with shotguns. The last thing the people in charge of our industry want is art. Art ruins the profit margins for the Madden roster updates. You can’t sell Axe body spray billboards within art. And art makes for lousy sequels. In such an industry Johnathan Wendel, Voice of Gaming doesn’t just make sense, he’s damned near tailor made for the task.

How did we get to the point where the general public honestly believes we are nothing more than a bunch of foul mouth reprobates with a fixation for high explosives and gravity-defying boobs?

I contend the fault is our own. We should have demanded better.

Not that some of us haven’t been trying. There is Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik’s Penny Arcade, long a voice of advocacy within the gamer community. There is Edge magazine, one of the last brave bastions left of good game writing. There’s are select few quality gaming news and blog sites such as Four Color Rebellion, Next-Gen and The Escapist.

But for the most part, gaming press is a reflection of the public’s view of us: unprofessional, focused on hype, obsessed with sex and violence. Gaming journalism is nothing more than a tool for the industry itself, used to re-word and disseminate industry-approved PR literature. No real news is ever reported, only the information the industry wants revealed exactly when it wants revealed. Anything more would be breaking non-disclosure agreements. And we’ve seen first hand what happens when you allow the press free reign with actual reporting- a lobotomized, industry-friendly E3, free from any sort of community oversight.

There’s no attempt to raise the public discourse to something that may be worthy of Miyamto’s legacy, or of the artists and dreamers who build games we love. There’s no desire to expose the inadequacies of the industry, no journalistic fire to hold anyone involved accountable for anything that happens within it. There is no great desire, whether it be from gaming press or the retail establishment itself, to promote art over the mundane.

We have sought no voice. As a result, we’ve been assigned one.

Posted in Microsoft, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Gamestop, Op-ed, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Dyak, Op-ed, Submissions, The Industry, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

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.

Posted in Op-ed, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Sony’s Lazarus Pit

Posted by nfinit on February 21, 2007

(Submitted for approval to The Platformers on February 21st, 2007)

And on the 95th day, Sony declared victory.

Perhaps not in the manner they had wished- after all, subsiding $1200 high-definition movie players to wealthy A/V junkies doesn’t exactly rake in the same cash as dominating the console gaming industry for two generations in a row, but at least it provides attention in the trade journals and serves a talking point for fans, something Sony’s had a hard time providing. But asserting arbitrary victory in a largely unwanted media format is easy. However, that’s not the real fight, it’s not the battle Sony fans or shareholders care about. Instead, they want to know- is Sony still capable of winning this console generation?

The PS3 has, three months into it’s cycle, sold 1.7 million units worldwide, with systems readily available on shelves. Within the first ninety of the PS2’s life, it had sold over 3.2 million consoles in Japan alone. Not that the PS3 is without company. It’s handheld sister, the PlayStation Portable, has sold 20 million units compared to the Nintendo DS’s 37 million, and is in steady supply. Indeed, one may find enough PS3 and PSP boxes at their local Best Buy to build a tiny, horrifically expensive fortress which to huddle inside and play wireless SOCOM 2. Meanwhile acquiring a Nintendo Wii or DS Lite involves waiting in a secluded alley for someone to sell you some merchandise that fell off the back of a truck. In many ways, the PS3 is starting to look a lot like Sony’s PSP campaign. Only this time without Lumines. So perhaps worse. Complicating matters is that this time Sony faces not one competitor, but two, and Microsoft holds an advantage in price well as year’s head start on sales.

As an old Sega fan from back in the 16 bit Usenet wars myself, I admit a certain thrill to the prospects of seeing the PS3 become Sony’s Waterloo. But still, we’d be remiss to forget that Sony is still entirely capable of pulling this one out.

A lot of people are placing parallels to Sony of 2007 and Nintendo of 1997, shortly before the first PlayStation relegated Nintendo to also-ran status. I don’t think this holds true. The failure of the N64 was a culmination of disparate events- long-held publisher dissatisfaction with Nintendo’s business practices during the NES era, a stubborn refusal on Nintendo’s part to switch to optical disc, Sony’s ability to shift the gamer demographic from preteens to college-age kids with disposable income. Perhaps most damning was Nintendo’s shrinking market-share from the NES to the SNES while the gaming market itself grew.

Sony has only increased console sales over the past two generations as the market has continued to expand. They have dominated the console industry for for thirteen years. Surely this has bought the company more than three months worth of benefit of the doubt. So how can Sony pull this out?

Hire some PR already. What’s the most controversial thing you’ve heard from Nintendo lately? That no one was ever shot waiting in line for a Wii? Microsoft, for their part, spent most of the time after E3 convincing people they need to buy a Nintendo. Sony? They’ve got Phil Harrison saying:

[The] PlayStation 3 launch has been, objectively by any measure, more successful than PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2 or other competing system out previously.

Or Jack Trentton’s recent gem:

If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that’s been on shelves for more than five minutes, I’ll give you 1,200 bucks for it.

These aren’t even the worst of the quotes, merely the most recent. Since E3 of 2006, Sony’s suffered from a crippling case of verbal diarrhea. It may seem silly to propose that Sony’s biggest problem stems from their near total lack of PR oversight, after all, the mainstream public has no idea of Sony’s continued and constant PR gaffes. But the hardcore public certainly does, and when you’re trying to sell a $500 movie player on the prospects of being able to play Metal Gear Solid 4 at some vague, undefined point in the future, the hardcore market is all you honestly have. Hardcore games are quite aware of the consequences of owning a losing console, and right now Sony’s CEO class’ inability to stop talking out their collective ass just goes to show a level of disconnect from reality not seen since Marie Antoinette’s attempts at social welfare.

Give us a reason to spend that $500. Grand Theft Auto 4 will be appearing on the 360 before it reaches the PS3. Square/Enix is making bedroom eyes at Nintendo. Metal Gear Solid 4 won’t be appearing for at least a year, possibly longer- and that’s working under the conciet that Metal Gear Solid can still sell systems. Sony needs game you can’t get on the 360 and Wii, and that requires the in-house developers to start delivering. These are the same devs that gave us Shadow of the Colossus, Jax and Dexter, Rachet and Clank, Sly Cooper, God of War, Wipeout and Gran Turismo. But where are they? Polyphony Digital won’t have GT5 ready until early 2008 at the earliest. Incognito’s remake of Warhawk hasn’t been seen since concept renders were released 18 months ago, despite it’s supposed “Summer 2007” release. Killzone 2 won’t be appearing until the later half of 2007, pitting the underachiving series head-to-head against Halo 3.

To be fair, Heavenly Sword, Lair and Motorstorm are coming up in the next couple months, and these games may indeed be worth buying a PS3 for. But compare Sony’s proposed 2007 lineup to the 360’s 2007: Crackdown, Forza 2, Mass Effect, Halo 3, Blue Dragon, Eternal Sonata, Guitar Hero II, Lost Planet, Shadowrun. For this year at least, Microsoft will be able to match Sony blow-for-blow with exclusive titles that at least match, if not exceed, the efforts of Sony’s vaunted first party teams. At this point, Sony may be reduced to paying for 3rd party exclusive titles. Grand Theft Auto went a long way towards selling the public on the PS2 lo so many years ago, how much money would it take to convince Rockstar to return to the Sony fold? It couldn’t take much to lure Team Ninja the superior graphical prowess of the PS3, something which would be an enormous talking point for Sony. Acquiring Dead Rising 2 as a PlayStation exclusive would be planting a dagger in Microsoft’s spleen.

Finally, do something about the price, even if it’s trivial. $500 is hard to swallow, even if a 20 gig PS3 a greater value than the 360 Premium. But sacrifices could be made that would not directly touch the already negative price margin on PS3 hardware. Imagine if Sony included a copy of Resistance: Fall of Man with each sale- then you’ve effectively reduced the price difference between the 360 Premium and the 20 gig PS3 to $40. There are other options that don’t involve Sony losing their one sure-fire sale though, perhaps a Ridge Racer 7 pack-in, or a voucher good for $60 worth of new games bought anytime in 2007. They perhaps offer a high-resolution directors cut version of an existing PS2 title, say Gran Turismo 4, even Metal Gear Solid 3. You wouldn’t be closing the gap nearly as much price-wise as you would if you threw in a free PS3 game, but there would be added value vs the 360, an idea Sony has has a hard time getting across to consumers.

In conclusion, I don’t think it’s time for Sony fans to start looking for ways off the ship just yet. Sure, Microsoft is going to to have an incredible 2007, but they’re not leaving much left for 2008, and by then there will be worries that the 360 has but a year left in it’s cycle. As far as the Wii, Nintendo has yet to prove they’re capable of producing a steady stream of titles for one successful system, much less two at a time. This year isn’t a complete waste, either. There’s every chance Heavenly Sword and Lair will live up to the promises of their screenshots, and Motorstorm is already well-received in demo kiosks.

That said- if the spring trade shows roll around and the public is given no reason to stop holding out on a 360 or Wii, it may be time to start carting out Marie to her date with the Guillotine.

Posted in Op-ed, PS3, Sony, The Platformers | Leave a Comment »

Graphics vs Gameplay

Posted by nfinit on February 12, 2007

(Originally submitted to The Platformers)

There are a great many acts of mental deception console fanboys subject themselves to, and few fascinate me more than that of “graphics vs gameplay.”

Simply put, proponents believe superior graphics inhibit gameplay; that through some arcane process developers without access to transparency filters or Mode Seven or 1080p resolution add Extra Gameplay Magic, making their games superior to games appearing on the most powerful system. They deride graphics as nothing more than “eye candy”. You’d almost wonder why these people don’t toss out their current hardware and live a life of perfect zen gameplay mastery with a Vectrix. Of course, spending much of my gaming life as a Sega fanboy, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit to using the argument myself, Blast Processing be damned. And of course, there is a bit of merit to these concerns, what with Castlevania’s dalliances in the 3d realm being forgotten, and poor Sonic’s not been the same since he moved to the Dreamcast.

But there is no need for graphics to get in the way of good gameplay. Indeed I think it can be shown that advancements in technology only serve to enhance gameplay and open up new gameplay genres. A walk through the past 25 years of graphical progress between hardware cycles illustrates this.

Consider the move from the 2600 to the NES- before, the most complex platformer was Pitfall, we had not seen scrolling platform games anywhere near as complex as Mario. These games were confined to a handful of sprites on screen, making shooters such as R-Type impossible. The most compelling story the 2600 ever told was that of a humble dot endlessly pursued by a vicious, key-hating duck. We’d have to wait on new hardware before we would see stories on the level of Dragon Warrior and Phantasy Star.

The move to 16-bit hardware presented a refinement of existing genres, but new gameplay avenues were still opened. Games like Pilotwings would have been impossible without the smooth scaling at the SNES’s disposal. Eight-bit systems gave us compelling RPGs, but one can hardly argue Final Fantasy 6 would have been the same without the SNES color pallet. Similarly, Lunar: Silver Star Story would not have been the same without full-motion video. And while the NES could approximate Street Fighter II, it’s hard to imagine that anyone not heavy into psychotropic drugs would prefer it over the SNES version.

The PS1 era marked the latest great graphical leap between hardware generations, and gameplay took a leap as well. Finally we could see truly cinematic experiences on consoles, expressed in Metal Gear Solid and Resident Evil. Indeed, the entire Survival Horror genre relies on atmosphere that would have been impossible on previous hardware. The racing genre, long confined to crude 2D sprites, finally flourished. After years of playing second fiddle to the arcade, consoles saw arcade ports that looked and played better at home, contributing to the marginalization of the arcade industry. True 3D FPS games on the consoles became possible, and we even saw first-glass FPG games appearing exclusively on consoles.

The following cycle gave us no revolutionary leap in the way graphics were presented, but the new hardware still allowed for larger worlds, giving rise to the sandbox genre made popular by GTA3. For the first time devs had the ability to do some truly remarkable work in terms of the scale in which worlds were presented, best seen in Shadow of the Colossus. Dynamic lighting not only made games look better, but it made stealth games such as Splinter Cell possible. Existing genres could be presented as a more compelling gaming experience. Sure, it may have been feasible to play God of War on the N64, but would you have really wanted to?

It could be argued that the current console generation exhibits only another cursory polish, but I don’t think that’s fair. We haven’t seen what the PS3 is capable of, and already the 360 boasts Dead Rising, a game that could at best be approximated on the Xbox 1. Meanwhile, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved would not be the same without its riot of particle effects and screen-warping explosions.

The false dichotomy of graphics over gameplay isn’t just a flawed argument, it is indeed a total and complete falsehood, if anything, the direct opposite is true. Every new advancement in graphics have opened up more freedom of design, more possibilities, even more size in each subsequent generation of games. There will always be disappointing games, even games with multi million dollar CGI budgets, but their being bad games is not the fault of the system they’re presented on. Graphics are more than eye candy. The progression in graphics have pushed gameplay farther than new controllers and online multiplayer gaming could ever hope.

Sadly, just as crappy games will never go away, neither will Graphics vs Gameplay. But hey, if anyone wants, I’m willing to trade my Genesis for your Wii.

Posted in Op-ed, Submissions, The Platformers | 2 Comments »