Archive for the ‘The Industry’ Category

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The Sunny Side of SimCity

March 9, 2013

Everybody's Happy!I feel terrible.

No, not for something I did, at least not directly. I feel terrible for the people who created SimCity, the people who brought it to life, the people who tested it and programmed it and decided what colors it should have and what Simlish sounds like. I feel terrible for the programmers who came up with a way for thousands of little Sims to influence the direction of a city, to appear to each think for themselves and live unique little lives as we create the infrastructure of their city — and in some ways, their world — around them.

So much of this game is a feat of design and programming. It is so sad to see it reduced to a server complaint and a one-star Amazon review.

Here is what I want to say to the rest of them, to the devs who had nothing to do with the debacle that is now transpiring:

This game, this toy, this thing you have created, it is brilliant.

SimCity is a beautiful game, with a color scheme that’s like every color in nature except brighter. These are the colors we wish we saw in a growing suburb or a bustling metropolis, colors not yet obscured by the browns and grays that come with disrepair, with salted highways, with the pollution that hangs in the air of the modern city. Hell, even the pollution of SimCity is something to behold, a gently wafting cirrus cloud of smog that hangs in the air just long enough to tell you that you have a problem.

This is a game that actually makes the player believe that every action has an effect on each of the individual Sims walking or driving or lounging around the city. You don’t just see stats like crimes and fires, you are actually alerted to individual ones. You watch your police car patrol chase criminals around the city. You see flatbeds with construction materials moving their way to build sites. You watch ambulances transport the sick to the hospital, and you watch the sick try to lurch their own way to the hospital under a constantly, pitifully endless fountain of what I presume to be vomit. The new SimCity makes you care for your city’s citizens in a way that no previous SimCity has.

This is a game that promotes collaboration, even if that collaboration is between you and yourself. Your city is not an entity unto itself. In order to truly succeed, it must ship materials to, or borrow emergency vehicles from, or encourage tourism among other cities in a predetermined “region”. You can create cities whose sole purpose is to exist as a supply house for a city you’d really like to see succeed, or you can create cities in direct opposition to each other — say, a green self-sustaining environmentalist nirvana next to a high-tech smog-covered industrial manufacturing center — just to see what happens, to see if they can coexist.

There are so many little touches that make this game such a charming experience, things that people just won’t see because they’re so angry right now. Someday, when the servers return, when cheetah speed is again attainable, when there’s less vitriol clogging the promotional space, people will return. They’ll see what you’ve done here. And one by one, they’ll applaud your efforts.

Thank you for sharing your vision with us. I hope it’s not too long before you get to share that vision with everyone who wants to experience it.

* * *

The picture I’ve painted here is a rosy one. SimCity is not a perfect game, and I’ll be going through my issues with the gameplay side of it and, to the extent that I can, the server side of it in my review. Still, my personal experience with the servers has been mostly positive, and I want to give credit where it’s due, from someone who has only played it in the time when it’s been open to the general public.

SimCity is a fun, absorbing experience. It’s too bad so much positive has to be outweighed by such an invasive, inexcusable, but still singular negative.

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Playing the Meta-Metacritic

May 7, 2011

Disclaimer: About halfway through writing this post I realized that “Joseph Bernstein” was likely the same “Joseph Bernstein” that made his way, for a short time, to the games staff over at PopMatters while I was editor. I feel as though I should note that in the little bit of time that Joseph spent as a writer on the PopMatters Multimedia staff, he was courteous and prompt, and he delivered quality reviews. While I may not agree with all of his written evisceration of GamesRadar (and by extension, the entire mass market games journalism racket), he never wronged me or the site I represented in any way.

"...no metaphor too strained..."

As an idealist, sometimes you have to sit back and remind yourself that it takes a tremendous number of wood planks to build a bridge, and if you spend too much of your time hacking the rot out of one of those planks when you’re halfway across that bridge, the whole thing may well fall down.

I have been reading Joseph Bernstein’s Kill Screen undressing of GamesRadar and its journalistic practices with a mixture of bemusement and annoyance. Sour grapes as journalism has never really appealed to me, though Bernstein’s conversational tone and humor throughout the pieces is actually pretty appealing even if all it amounts to is complaining. The fourth and final piece is the step too far, however — it is the essay that causes the reader to wonder just how much of Bernstein’s work is truly reflective of the ridiculousness of the industry, and how much of it is simply the ego of a writer who sees himself as the dying voice of integrity amidst an otherwise complacent and broken system.

The first three parts of the series featured a lot of people doing their job — granted, the way those jobs get done contribute to the somewhat broken nature of the PR-press relationship. It comes down to the dance between PR people who are out to sell their product, and the games press, who depend on those same PR people for information and pre-release product while simultaneously striving to offer something like “objective” critique when a game is released. This is not a phenomenon unique to the gaming industry (sponsored junkets and pre-release screenings are necessary evils when it comes to covering film, for example), but the fact that gaming is still struggling for something like widespread legitimacy as an art form makes the problems feel more pointed. But really, people are doing their jobs, and it’s up to the consumer to figure out which news and review sources can be trusted, and which ones are in the pockets of PR.

The fourth and final entry in the series, however, is called “I Am the Metacritic”, and as the title implies, it involves game reviews. Tasked to write a game review, the intrepid intern is told that if he feels as though he must score a game in a way that deviates too much from whatever the current Metacritic score is, he will have to do the additional work of providing a formal justification for that score to his editor.

Now, this in itself does seem silly. Theoretically, the review itself would be justification for the score, would it not? To offer a separate justification seems redundant at best, as Bernstein points out.

His solution to the inconvenience, however, is to give scores of 6 out of 10 to games that he finds utterly wretched, simply so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of justifying those scores to his editor.

NOOOOO! NO NO NO! NO!

Story time:

When I, as gaming editor at PopMatters, requested a product for the sake of a review, the PR person in charge of sending out that product often asked that I send a link their way once the review was posted. This is a simple request and an understandable one, but it was a request that always made me nervous, given my natural predilection for avoiding conflict at all costs.

Providing a link was, of course, never a problem when the review was positive. I just hated sending the negative ones, because generally, I had a pretty good relationship with the PR folks. The ones who sent us review copies knew what we did, they knew I didn’t promise anything other than the fact that a few hundred words would be written and published about their game, and that was fine. Sending a link to a negative review, however, opens up an awkward line of communication. The best case is that they don’t send a response, and I go on interacting with them as if I’d never sent it.

In a couple of instances, reps stopped sending us review copies after I sent those links. I have no proof that the lack of material was related to the lousy reviews, but I do have my suspicions. PopMatters is not the first destination people think of when they think of video game coverage, and quite frankly, most of these publishers don’t need us. The PR relationships were tenuous, and changed at a whim, and so losing contact with publishers for months at a time was not uncommon whether it was related to a review or not.

One time, however, PR for a major publisher took a special interest in one of the reviews published on PopMatters. Word of mouth on the game was very good, but for whatever reason, our writer didn’t care for it. We posted the low score, and I reluctantly passed along the link.

And for the first and only time, the recipient of that link took issue.

The resulting back-and-forth brought in discussion of our score in relation to the Metacritic score, criticism of the minutae of the review, and the insinuation that maybe our days of getting review material from that publisher were at an end (note: they weren’t. Despite the immediate reaction, our relationship with that publisher remained fine). PopMatters did not change a word of the review or the score, and I’m a little bit proud of that, honestly.

Here’s my point: I was inconvenienced that day. It was about 20 minutes worth of e-mails, and 20 minutes worth of stressing over exactly how to word them. Not the way I wanted to spend two thirds of an hour, but very little trouble. At most, that’s all the trouble justifying a 2 or a 3 would have been for Bernstein.

"AM I NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU, JOSEPH?!"

His reasoning for not wanting to go through the trouble is that he didn’t want to be the person who argued for the sake of giving a low score to a “minor” video game. To his credit, he admits that “Pride is a sin…but it’s my favorite one.” Pride for him is to only fight the battles that he deems worthy of fighting, battles that are apparently related to the relative popularity of whatever he might be covering. I guess, after 1000 words of trying to figure it out, that’s my problem here — I think they all should be worth fighting. Without honesty, a review is worthless. Integrity when it comes to minor games leads to trust when it comes to major ones. While that “6” may not have had much of an impact, maybe a “2” would have had an impact. It can characterize you as either fearless or reckless; either way, the words you assign your name to mean a little more.

If you don’t think those battles are worth fighting, you’re part of the problem.

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Video Games, Too Expensive? Are You Kidding Me?

August 27, 2010

Every once in a while, a blog post, or a Twitter “tweet”, or a news article will say something like “video games are too expensive”. Even the people making them come out with this every once in a while. And every time I see this, every time someone bemoans the $70 limited edition of some major release, or the $40 asking price of a premium PSP game, or what-the-hell-ever, it becomes an exercise in taking a deep breath, collecting myself, and moving on to some other piece of writing that doesn’t strike me as so utterly and completely wrong.

How about this: Games are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and we should probably just be glad we’re not paying upward of $100 for every one we buy.

Look, I’m not rich, and right now, it kind of feels like nobody’s rich, but shouldn’t we appreciate just what we’re getting for our money when we buy a game today? Look at this, from a Sears catalog back in 1983:

31 of the 36 Atari 2600 games featured in the Sears Wishbook that year were at least $27.99, with such notable exceptions as the notorious E.T. ($17.49), Mattel’s heavily-discounted Dark Cavern ($7.99), and Activision’s ridiculous play on the “chicken crossing the road” joke, Freeway ($19.99). Do you know what $27.99 translates to, adjusted for inflation? According to the Inflation Calculator based on the Consumer Price Index at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, $27.99 in 1983 is the same as $61.27 today. That looks…remarkably familiar! Better yet, look at little Centipede, down at the bottom there. $34.99. That would be like paying $76.59 for a game today. The internet would explode.

Now, that was 1983, when we had games like, say, River Raid that were literally designed and programmed by one person, and all of the costs went into advertising and manufacturing. Sure, manufacturing costs have probably come down quite a bit since we stopped putting games on cartridges and started putting them on CDs and DVDs and Blu-Rays, but that much? Of course, we actually still have a format that’s using cartridges — the Nintendo DS — and lo and behold, that system’s games cost almost exactly as much as 2600 games did nearly 30 years ago. And we think this is expensive?

Even better than that, here are a couple of scans from the 16-bit wars — some Sega Genesis games from ’91, and some Super Nintendo games from ’93.

Anybody remember "Powerball"?

How about Populous? Hot damn I loved Populous.

When I started this post, my basis for it was a memory of Phantasy Star 2 being $79.99 at Toys ‘R’ Us the day I bought it for my Sega Genesis (worth every penny, too). It’s reported that the original Phantasy Star, for the Sega Master System, sometimes even sold for that much back in ’88 (which would put it at a cool $147.41 in today’s dollars). While I couldn’t find scanned evidence of either of those pricing atrocities, I did find my beloved Phantasy Star 2 running $59.99 in 1991 ($96.02 in 2010 dollars), while Strider, well-hyped as the FIRST 8-MEG GAME(!!), went for $67.99 ($108.83). Not pictured, but from the same catalog, is Shining in the Darkness, which ran $69.99 ($112.03).

Obviously, as can be seen from the above scans, the SNES was not immune to high prices, either. Of course, then, nobody blinked at paying $69.99 ($105.60) for an experience that was so close to that of the arcade, at a miniscule fraction of the price of an arcade machine. It was just the going rate, after all.

The gaming climate today is far different than it was in the early ’90s, and we have outlets like Steam giving us incredible values on bundles of games (having just bought the entire X-Com series for ten bucks, I can certainly vouch for the appeal), and downloadable services like WiiWare, Xbox Live Arcade, and the PlayStation Network have given us an awful lot of under-$20 games over the last few years that have at least the staying power of the AAA releases in the same time period. I’m sure I’ve put 30-40 hours into Puzzle Quest alone, and I probably have another 20 left before I even beat the thing.

The point being, with all of this discount gaming going on, it can feel like $60 is a bit much. For many games — games with glitches, games that feel unfinished, games that don’t even bother to try advancing the medium — $60 is a bit much. But for the good ones, the highly-anticipated ones, the well-designed ones, the ones that end up on those silly lists you see at the ends of years, $60 is a bargain. And not just a little bargain. Hell, we should feel a little bit lucky that we are actually paying less for our games now than we did for many of the best games in the early ’90s. Expensive games aren’t the problem — our ridiculous expectations are.

It’s entirely possible that I’m missing something here, some economic / technological reality that truly does make $60 a ridiculous price point for a top-of-the-line game. I invite you to tell me exactly what that something is. Until then, my fairly vivid memories of the games that supported the 16-bit console wars will be offering a pretty convincing argument otherwise.

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Rhythm Game Marketing: All in the Timing

July 2, 2010

Having reviewed both for PopMatters, it’s no secret that I’m neither a fan of Guitar Hero: Van Halen, nor of Green Day: Rock Band.  Still, I find it hard to imagine that either game deserved the fate handed down to it by their respective publishers, miscues of timing that may well have led to the commercial failure of both games.

Guitar Hero: Van Halen got it the worst of the two, a casualty of a time period in which Activision had so flooded the market with Guitar Hero games (not to mention its new DJ Hero property) that it couldn’t possibly justify one more on the market.  Rather than release it when it was ready, then, Activision gave it an initial release as a mail-in bonus to Guitar Hero 5, a tactic whose primary result was to show just how much of an improvement the Guitar Hero 5 engine was over that of World Tour, which Van Halen was based on.

Awkward avatar selection aside (despite the near-unforgivable slight of Michael Anthony), Guitar Hero: Van Halen was actually a decent showcase of guitar charting, complete with some of the hardest solos (“Eruption”, “Spanish Fly”) the genre had yet produced.  Still, alongside Guitar Hero 5, what can you do but notice that a) the multiplayer feels severely limited, b) the bass and vocal parts are almost tacked on, and c) the graphics just look awkward.  Guitar Hero 5, flawed as it was, at least looked like the next iteration of the franchise.  World Tour‘s engine was like a smoothed out version of Guitar Hero III, all blobby and awkward, a trip and tumble down the Uncanny Valley.

Van Halen didn’t get an official release until December 22nd of last year, not even bothering to court Christmas shoppers with a discount game.  Every step of the way, this game was treated as an afterthought, right up to its retail release.  Why in the world should consumers be expected to treat it as anything else?

More recently, Green Day: Rock Band has suffered a similar fate, though in a far more subtle fashion than the travesty surrounding Guitar Hero: Van Halen. Where Van Halen was a casualty of what already was, Green Day was a casualty of that which is to come.

Specifically: Green Day: Rock Band was out for all of two days when Rock Band 3 and all of its ridiculous (known) new instruments and features showed up in a USA Today article.  Keyboards.  A fleshed-out story (as opposed to Green Day‘s utter lack of story).  Dynamic drop-in and drop-out.  A ridiculous new drum kit and an actual freaking guitar that senses where your fingers are for the sake of gameplay.  And Harmonix expects us to keep having fun with the Rock Band 2 engine until then?

In a sense, the timing of the Rock Band 3 reveal couldn’t really be helped — Harmonix wanted to get the information out before E3, for the sake of putting questions and clarifications in the express lane.  This allowed them to concentrate on the jaw-dropping business of demoing the thing at E3 without their audience asking what the hell was going on.  Still, could they have released Green Day sooner?  Could they have waited a bit until the Rock Band 3 hype died down to give newly-excited Rock Band fans a little morsel to chew on until they’re levelled by the hype train that will inevitably surround the third game’s release?  Just about anything would have been better than to undermine Green Day a mere two days after its “hello, world” moment.

Sure, there were too many rhythm games released in the last two years.  Still, especially given that the rate of releases is decreasing as consumers slowly lose interest, one would think better care would be taken in the release of these games — particularly Harmonix, whose entire stake in the industry is rhythm games.  The least they can do is give the games enough respect as to have an opportunity to succeed, rather than bury them right out of the starting gate.

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MARKETING FAIL: Record of Agarest War

May 17, 2010


I knew about the American marketing behind Record of Agarest War before I requested it for PopMatters. Specifically, as I was trying to figure out whether it might be something I want to play and review, I ran across the “limited edition” of the game on Amazon.com, which, if appearances are anything to go by, is the only way to buy the game for the Xbox 360. Thankfully, my review copy was via PlayStation Network download.

Here’s the rundown: This is a T-rated SRPG, and the “S” does not stand for “sexy”. It stands for “strategy”. Having played the game a bit, it is for the most part a long way from a “sexy” game; granted, most of the female characters wear outfits that would be more appropriate for, say, Dancing with the Stars than the battlefield, but you spend most of your time with those characters in 16-bit-style sprite form. That’s right, this is a game for which you need 10 gigs of free space on your PS3 — not to mention 20 gigs to accommodate the swap space it takes to install the thing — and the sprites are barely PlayStation 1 quality.

During instances of dialogue, you get nicely-drawn close-ups of the characters in play, however, and occasional sections — particularly the “marriage” parts of the game that take place between chapters — show much more of those female characters than is strictly necessary.

In a way, this sort of thing has become something of a necessary evil for this sort of game — 150 hours of pushing chess pieces around a polygonal field needs some sort of “payoff”, after all — though the blatantly sexist approach is likely to turn off a large portion of the audience. What is not even close to necessary, or even explainable, is a marketing approach that makes someone who’s buying this thing feel like they’re getting something that’s one step removed from Custer’s Revenge. The special edition comes with a soundtrack (not sexy, actually kind of cool), a pillowcase with one of the game’s more stereotypically “sexy” characters emblazoned on it (uh, okay), and a mousepad depicting another female character, complete with ergonomic boob cushions.

Oh, good Lord. I just typed “ergonomic boob cushions” on my blog. (watch the hits roll in!)

As if the mere inclusion of these, uh, “goodies” wasn’t bad enough, there’s this:

I mean, wow. Wow. That just happened. We get to come up with our own mental image of what pillow sex (ew), mousepad sex (double ew, and awkward), or CD sex (um, ouch?) might look like. Just great. I can’t believe that trailer exists. I feel bad for the marketing interns who probably starred in it for nothing but “industry experience”.

...and there it is. I weep for my hobby.

I know I talk up Atlus a lot in this space (not to mention other places), but one of the reasons I respect them so much is that they don’t resort to this cheap lowest-common-denominator baiting. They’ve released plenty of games with stereotypically sexy female characters that they could have played up for the sake of attracting horny teenagers, but they’re too good for that.

Even worse, I can’t help but wonder if this sort of marketing is actually going to hurt the numbers of Record of Agarest War (and, by extension, the chances of obscure Japanese games being released in North America) for the long run. Gamers tend to have an inferiority complex, as if our hobby is constantly fighting to be taken as seriously as anyone else’s hobby, and buying a game with a sexy pillowcase and boobpad is only going to reinforce the illegitimacy, as it were, of the hobby. It’s playing into the stereotype of the gamer as lonely, sex-starved, development-arrested adolescent, even as the game will only actually appeal to the most dedicated. After all, there are other SRPGs out there that you can spend 100+ hours with and not feel ashamed; why waste your time with one you need to bring home in an unmarked brown paper bag?

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Breaking the Chains (or, Region Free or Die)

May 15, 2010

Finally.

Finally, I’ll get my chance to play some of the shmups that have exactly ZERO chance of landing an American release. Finally, a publisher realizes that a good way to gauge overseas interest is to actually open up those games to a worldwide userbase. Finally, the globalization and standardization of media is dragging the antiquated standards of the console era into the 21st century.

Finally, Cave is lifting the region locks on some of its most celebrated shmup series.

Perhaps spurred by the groundswell of interest in the upcoming American release of Deathsmiles (most of which unfortunately centers on the appropriateness of an apparent “loligoth” aesthetic in its character design), Cave has begun to release its celebrated cult-hit shmups without region locks.

Way back in November, Mushihimesama Futara was the first. As far as the current generation of bullet-hell shooters go, Mushi-Futara is actually purported to be one of the more forgiving. Of course, so is Ikaruga, and I still spend 20 or so lives getting through its final level. By starting with one of the more forgiving shooters on the market, however, Cave is making a calculated choice to ease American gamers into the genre if they choose to import it.

February saw the release of Espgaluda II, supposedly a much more difficult entry in the genre, but with enough innovation to perhaps capture the imagination of a gamer looking for something with a little more meat than a mere Gradius-style space shooter. [more]

Finally, in June (or maybe, July, August, October, February 2011 the way some of these shmup releases go), Deathsmiles will arrive. It’s actually older than the other two games that will have been available for months before its American release, and it’s actually the most traditional of the three games. Still, there are hooks built in to the other two that may actually provide a bump to the sales of Deathsmiles, from players who have developed an interest in the genre who will be happy to be able to get such a game at domestic prices (rather than the actually-pretty-reasonable 70 bucks the imports cost).

It’s a great time to be a shmup fan if you own an Xbox 360. Small as the audience for these games might be — especially the portion of that audience willing to import a game that won’t be released domestically — it’s hard not to think that the PS3, a future-friendly region-free machine, might have benefitted from a few of these types of games that would bolster its worldwide clout as much as its local clout.

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The Fallibility of the ESRB

March 3, 2010

It’s not as if I’ve ever treated the ESRB as some gold standard for what my kids can and cannot see in terms of video games. Sure, I know it’ll be a long time before they ever get their hands on an M-rated game, but even the M rating will be open for discussion at some point — after all, there’s a big difference between, say, Halo 3 and, oh, Aliens vs. Predator, even if we take the sticky conundrums of sex and nudity out of the equation.

See? That's not so scary, is it?

As such, there are some T-rated games that I allow my kids to see now — the Super Smash Bros. series was their introduction to video games, after all, and those games feel like “light” T ratings if I’ve ever seen them. After much begging, I let them try the Metroid Prime series as well when the Trilogy appeared, and they handled that just fine. It seems in some cases, if the “fantasy” in “fantasy violence” is, uh, “fantastical” enough, it’s far enough removed from the real world to not really be scary anymore. At least in my house. If you’d rather not show your kids giant wasps getting blown away in the first person, well, more power to you.

That said, until this week, I had yet to see a single game rated E10 that I wasn’t OK with my older kids playing. Most E10 games are like animated features that are rated PG — there might be a little bit of language, or an uncomfortable double entendre, or some scary moments where it looks like the world might end, but it’s still an animated movie and the kids are going to be fine as long as we talk about it. PG ratings have gone soft since the 2000s started — they don’t have the F-word in them anymore (Beetlejuice) and they’ll never scare the hell out of you (Gremlins) like they used to.

Spike was a baaaad dude.

Okay, I was five when I saw Gremlins in the theater. When you’re five, that’s some scary shit right there.

I’m getting off track. I’ve railed on Ragnarok once already for its awful tutorial approach, and I’m going to rail on it again. Probably won’t be the last time. This time, however, my ire is not directed at the developers so much as it is the ESRB. Here’s a smattering of dialogue from the first three hours of Ragnarok:

“Shut the hell up!”

“What the hell?!”

“I’m pissed!”

“I don’t give a damn about that.”

…my memory’s not strong enough to remember the exact quotes, but the naughty words are definitely the same, as is the spirit of the exclamations. Perhaps worse is that a helpful character is a complete ass while totally hammered. Or, there’s the “bunny ear” headgear, actually stronger than most of the early-game headgear options, which contains the following kicker in its in-game description: “Hef would be proud.”

Hef? Hef?!

To borrow an earlier phrase: What the hell?!

Like I said earlier, the ratings are clearly fluid, and yes, I do have to acknowledge that humans make these ratings; they’re not just a product of some massive algorithm. I’m sure they’re doing their best, and a niche product like Ragnarok simply isn’t going to get the sort of attention that a massive release like, say, Grand Theft Auto will. One almost gets the sense that they took a look at the style of the game, played it for a few minutes, and figured E10 would cover it. Unfortunately, what this means for my household is that even the E10 games are going to have to get a good hard look before I decide that my eight and five-year-old can get their own hands on it.

Because the last thing I need is my eight-year-old daughter asking me (or her teachers, or her classmates) who “Hef” is.

(This blog is Rated T (Teen) for some strong language and rampant egomania.)