Archive for May, 2008

Seth Schiesel’s NY Times piece on GTAIV voice actor Michael Hollick from last week raised some interesting questions. While I don’t think anyone would argue that a game’s voice and mocap actors help the player connect better with the characters, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with film, or even traditional cartoon animation.

Actors in a video game are only one small part of a much larger team that builds and develops the characters. Of course, it’s industry standard for actors like Hollick to receive royalties for appearances in traditional media. But as we saw in the recent WGA writer’s strike, the old rules governing things like re-watches, syndication and cross-media viewing simply can’t apply to new media for it to remain profitable.

The fact is, if a developer like Rockstar is forced to pay a hefty residual to the actors that appear in its games, then it won’t be long before the coders, designers, producers, and even QA testers unionize and line up for “theirs.” After all, in a medium where the player is both the director and protagonist (as Stephen Johnson sharply observed), every one of these rank-and-file positions is just as critical as the next. And once publishers have to cut all those residuals checks, it becomes infinitely harder to make a profitable game. So then developers can’t take risks, and the fastest growing entertainment industry quits growing so fast… In short, what’s good for these actors could be really, really bad for the industry.

That said, Rockstar has a reputation for breaking new ground, and fostering creativity. So they (and parent company Take 2) can’t just write off the actors completely. I think Hollick actually showed the way towards a happy medium last week – he appeared on a morning radio show on DC’s WJFK FM. He mostly chatted up his experience making GTAIV, and offered an outsider’s perspective on how the magic happens.

Hollick’s appearance comes after GTAIV was established as a bona fide hit, so it’s unlikely that it caused any noticeable blip in sales. But if Hollick had hit the talk show circuit during release week, chatting up Dave and Jay and Conan, it’s possible that even more copies of GTAIV, and the boxes to play it on, would’ve flown out of retailers. After all, EVERYONE watches late night (including non-gamers), and if games continue to generate cash at a level on par with feature films and TV shows, shouldn’t our talent be expected to pitch in and market them the same way?

Like it or not, actors like Hollick are way more marketable and “TV friendly” than even a marquee producer like Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto. If their guilds and unions are going to push for a cut of profits from games in which they appear, then developers should insist that they serve as the face of the game.

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I take great pains to avoid throwing words like “fanboy” around here too often. After all, there’s at least a little bit of a fanboy in all of us over something specific, be it sports or politics or games. And I try to cover industry news related to ALL home consoles, PC, you name it (although I know there are more than a few of you that check out each new post and say, “is he talking about the @#$% Wii AGAIN?!)

The fact is, there have been unapologetic fanboy gamers ever since the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis first arrived on the scene, and gave us all a horse to back. Sega even helped the process along, publicly vowing that the Genesis could do whatever “Nintendon’t.”

Of course, the anonymity of the internet has since turned the opinionated fanboy into some sort of annoying vitriolic supernova. Seriously, read any Kotaku comments thread that’s been up for an hour. It’s enough to make you wonder how any sane person could claim to love one console/developer/game so passionately, and yet hate another so vehemently.

Rob Walker, a regular contributor to Slate, the New York Times Magazine and blogger behind the stellar Murketing, looks at the bonds we form with what we buy in his upcoming book, Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are. It might shed some light into what causes the fanboy condition… Check out Rob’s interview with Rick over at eyecube (one of our new friends in the WordPress Marketing Bloggers Network, in the blogroll at right). It’s definitely worth a read.

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It’s a real rarity to see insider games industry coverage from our dailies here in NYC, so I was pleasantly surprised to see the all the attention that local think tank the Center for an Urban Future generated for their study, “Getting in the Game.”

You can grab the .PDF at their site (and it’s certainly worth a read), but the Cliffs Notes of the report boil down to a very logical conclusion – and a somewhat obvious one, if you follow the industry closely: “The fast-growing video game industry represents a promising opportunity for New York City’s economy, but the sector faces significant challenges and still lags well behind established gaming hubs like Seattle, Los Angeles and Montreal.” The coverage wound up in every reputable game blog (naturally), but more importantly, it made the cover of at least one of the dailies, and Sewell Chan posted on it in the excellent NY Times City Room blog.

I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the lack of a big game development scene in NYC, indie or otherwise. The creativity and talent is here, and the post-bust Silicon Alley community is keeping up with the west coast Joneses when it comes to attracting VC funding. We even have a few superb full-time games journalists residing in the 5 boroughs.

As the report shows, the handful of publishers that have set up some sort of base in the city (Take 2, Atari, and a few small developers) are mostly staffing marketing and C-level operations out of New York, and leaving the development to guys out west/across the pond/anywhere but here.

The fastest-growing entertainment industry can’t stay confined to the west coast forever, but a mass migration to NYC is no inevitability either. The same day that the Center for an Urban Future study went public, the office of Georgia Governor Sonny Purdue announced his state’s new incentives package for entertainment industry investment, with a ton of language specific to the games industry. Not to be outdone, Boston kicked off their inaugural conference focused on wooing more developers to the city last year, with a similar event in the works for 2008.

It’s great to see individual cities pushing for more developers in their locale, but what’s getting lost in the mix here is just how much the industry, as a whole, would benefit from moving a few creative eggs outside of the Bay Area basket. Just as Austin, TX filmmakers developed their own look and feel and the Atlanta Atlanta hip-hop artists pioneered their own sound.  What would their games play like?hip-hop scene became a powerful force in music, the infusion of local developers from all over the map could lead to the discovery of some hot, undiscovered talent.

Services like Steam, Xbox Live, WiiWare and PSN now eliminate the most expensive parts of distribution, so as long as the ideas are good enough (and the developers are savvy about interacting with passionate gamers), the sky’s the limit.

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Earlier this week, Nintendo’s long-awaited WiiWare indie game download service launched in the US, to surprisingly little mainstream media coverage. Perhaps it’s GTA4 hangover, or editors planning to cover WiiFit next week didn’t want to run two Wii-centric features in consecutive weeks, or maybe it just didn’t seem like big news in light of PSN and Xbox Live’s beating Nintendo to the punch by more than a year. Either way, it’s pretty big news for a number of reasons:

  • WiiWare is a decidedly “new Nintendo” move. Bite-sized, casual games from garage band developers are the very embodiment of the “blue ocean” strategy that Reggie Fils-Aime and the rest of the current Nintendo higher-ups operate under. The old guard at Nintendo (the ones that insisted on cartridges for N64 games over CD’s, and limiting the number of NES games they would allow any one publisher to make in a year) would have rather died than put games from indie microdevelopers on their precious system
  • While Nintendo already had the Virtual Console in operation, WiiWare’s debut means all three of this generation’s consoles (and both of the portable systems) have dedicated channels for instant delivery of retro games AND original downloadable content. Nintendo was the last holdout (and a significant one, considering how quickly their installed base is swelling). This could have serious ramifications for retailers, especially the ones that draw heavily from used game sales. How long before the new DLC reality spooks GameStop investors?
  • Thus far, a weak library of third party titles has been the most legitimate gripe consistently lobbed at the Wii – and rightfully so. The Little White Wonder’s seen way too many shoddy ports of last-gen games and minigame collections for its own good. WiiWare has the potential to reverse the trend. With quality titles available for a fraction of typical retail prices, how long can the market last for shovelware at retail prices?

As I write this, the questionable Summer Sports is $40 at GameStop, while $10 on WiiWare will get you Lost Winds, a gem of a game whose novel platforming and gentle, innocent storytelling reminded yours truly of the hauntingly beautiful Ico. Seriously. I rest my case.

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In a development that should surprise absolutely nobody, Grand Theft Auto IV released to a boatload of favorable press, shattered sales records, and even some “Game of the Year” rumblings. It’s a fantastic game and, beneath the hype, a high watermark for an immersive gaming experience that could only be achieved on this generation’s consoles.

Jonathan Kent’s op-ed reaction at GameDaily Biz is certainly worth a read. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to how important the success of GTAIV could be – not just for Take 2, but the industry as a whole. It’s a watershed moment for games, being treated as a legitimate entertainment event, on par with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. It’s the type of reaction that the hardest of hardcore gamers and industry pundits have been clamoring for.

I only wonder if Kent’s piece was about a month premature. If stellar response to GTAIV signified a turning point in the media’s (and the public at large) perception of games as an entertainment medium and an industry, then what will happen when Wii Fit launches?

It’s entirely possible that reaction to Wii Fit will eclipse even GTAIV’s lofty media headspace. It’s been one big public love-in for the Wii since before launch, and the innovative “get off the couch and swing the remote” elements of Wii Sports are STILL landing great ink in local papers nationwide, not to mention books like AARP and Reader’s Digest. Imagine that, coupled with this country’s love affair with fitness and well-being.

Besides all that, the big N still tugs on people’s hearts in a way that the GTA franchise never could. If you can inspire this level of dedication from loyal fans, you must e doing something right:

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Apologies for the extended hiatus between posts.  Let’s just say, I’ve been keeping busy…

We now return to your regularly scheduled nerdery.

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