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Archive for July, 2008

One element of appeal I completely missed in my Mega Man 9 post was the cost factor.  As I said before, I applaud the aesthetic direction Capcom’s taking this one.  But I hadn’t really considered what that lo-fi design choice could mean for the bottom line, until I read Chris Kohler’s great piece on Koji Igarashi and the latest installment in the Castlevania franchise.

There’s already quite a bit of negative press surrounding Castlevania Judgement, and with very good reason.  How the hell does a head-to-head fighter fit in the Castlevania universe?  Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood were terrific recent entries in the series, so it’s not like Konami forgot how to make a good vampire-slaying game starring the Belmont clan.

The fighting game approach it just feels like Konami’s blatantly going back to the well to take advantage of die-hard Castlevania fans, and sullying their sturdiest franchise in the process.  And it gets so much sadder when you realize Igarashi couldn’t get the budget for a true followup, so the Konami braintrust’s next move is “toe-to-toe brawler.”

And that’s why Capcom’s decision to go 8-bit is so brilliant.  Mega Man 9 will feel like a true followup in the series, probably even more so than Mega Man 7 and 8.  It can be cranked out by a tiny staff (compared to most current-gen development teams), and delivered via Wiiware for what EA probably spent on snacks on bottled water for the Madden ’09 build cycle.  And, they can bench test a bunch of new, fresh-out-of-school designers before dropping them into more heavy-duty design teams for the next Resident Evil or Lost Planet games.

I hope Konami thinks about taking Castlevania back to its roots in similar fashion.  Of course, a new  Zombies ate my Neighbors wouldn’t hurt while they’re at it.

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When the most beloved game designer of all time thinks your product is crap, you may have an issue on your hands.

I think it’s time for the ESA to hang it up on E3.  The fact is, our audience is too far ahead of the curve, in terms of media consumption, to be well-served by a show like this.  The big 3’s press conferences all fell flat this year, mostly because the hardcore fanbase has already heard everything they had to say.  According to ubiquitous super-analyst Michael Pachter, “E3 is headed for extinction, unless the publishers and console manufacturers wake up to the fact that nobody cares about the show anymore.”

I would argue that the extinction of E3 as we know it is not only a good thing, but the natural evolution of the industry.  We’ve enjoyed the attention of a fervent, die-hard fanbase for decades, and it’s only through their passionate attention following (and the rise of citizen journalism) that the old E3 format became so ridiculously expensive in the first place.  After all, it was hard to keep the numbers down on an “open to all press & industry” show once every fan got the power to become press (with nifty blogs just like this one).

In the short term, there will be much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments over the death of such a tentpole event.  But the industry is proving to be bulletproof in the face of a dwindling evonomy, and we should all rejoice in that.  We’re seeing a truly stable marketplace sustaining three home consoles for the second year of this generation.

Perhaps most importantly, the Wii, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 all feature direct media channels to reach out to gamers, and potential gamers by extension.  There’s still room for a small, no-frills show for retail buyers and analysts, but now that all three first-party companies (and presumably third-parties) can get an undiluted message to the audience via their consoles, they’re taken care of.

Bottom line, the kid’s alright.  The fact that we don’t need an annual show to circle the wagons is the symptom of a very healthy, growing industry.

And if you need more proof than that, plunk down some Xbox Live points for Castle Crashers in a few weeks. At one point I was playing it in front of two designers from a completely different company, a fellow marketer, and a respected games journalist.  We all loved it.  When was the last time the year’s top box office picture recieved glowing reviews AND the Best Picture Oscar?

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E3 is once again upon us (albeit in its retooled, min-E3 format).  I won’t cover every single announcement here – there are plenty of up-to-the-minute industry news sites on the blogroll at right, so set your RSS reader and fire away.  But a week like this always has a few thought-provoking surprises, and presents a good opportunity to take the industry’s pulse.  It’s like halftime, leading up to the holiday season endgame.

There’s a lot to be excited about in Capcom’s lineup this year, with Street Fighter IV promising a return to form in offense-geared, fast paced brawling along with a hot new 3D presentation.  It’s a big, big development for Street Fighter fans, but I’m actually more excited about the return of the true blue bomber in Mega Man 9 on the Virtual Console and PSN.

For this installment, Capcom went back to the series’ roots and opted for the graphics and sounds of a classic NES game.  In an industry that’s constantly pushing the hardware for higher frame rates and jaw-dropping visuals, it’s a breath of fresh air to see someone opt for the look and feel that just plain fits the character best.  Mega Man 7 (on the SNES) and 8 (on the original PlayStation) were both good games in their own right, but just didn’t have that classic Mega Man charm, as anyone that played through Mega Man 2 would attest.

The decision from a big studio to go lo-fi for the latest entry in their flagship franshise is a subtle, but important development.  It’s an artistic choice, to create a similar experience and evoke the same feelings as we had playing through the glory days of the series.

This is the second awesome videogame quilt picture I've run.  Please send more.

This is the second awesome videogame quilt picture I've run. Please send more.

I’d love to see future installments of classic franchises explore what made them great in the first place.  And while we’re at, why not breathe new life into the classics we’ve already played through a million times by adding more content?  Wouldn’t it be cool to pick up a Double Dragon game where part 3 left off?  Or play through the NES port of Maniac Mansion, with running commentary from the (reunited) original development team?

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I don’t have the time (or reflexes – zing!) to post every time Sony release a firmware update.  The latest update for the PlayStation 3, version 2.40, is actually a fairly big deal for Sony and the entire industry.

They might as well have called this update “the Xbox Live patch.”  It finally adds game-specific Trophies (mechanically the same as Live’s Achievements) so borderline OCD cases competitive gamers can scour their retail games and PSN downloads to truly complete every game, and compare Trophy collections.  The real innovation, however, is the ability to access the Sony Cross-Media Bar in-game.

In-game XMB means PS3 players can finally message their friends across the entire network, regardless of what game they’re playing.  So, a player who wants some live competition in MLB 08: The Show could pause the game and drop a line to challenge anyone on his friends list.  One of his friends playing Metal Gear Solid 4 could see the message, pop in MLB, and get a game of baseball going.  It seems arbitrary, but simple functionality like this made Xbox Live the gold standard in online console gaming. 

The PlayStation 3 has supported PSN friends list since launch day, but they’ve never really mattered until now.  Under the old method, you were more likely to find a randomly matched opponent on a particular game than you were to sign on and find one of your friends waiting for you.

In-game XMB also allows you to listen to your own music library while playing, but it’s tough for me to get too excited about it.  After all, haven’t we been doing this since the first time someone turned up the stereo while playing Tecmo Bowl in a dorm room in 1989?

The fact that the PlayStation Network is now a cohesive online community that operates across the entire PS3 games library significantly levels the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 playing field.  The question is, can Sony capitalize on it and bring hardware sales up to a more respectable level?

It would seem that Sony has two significant advantages over Microsoft.  First, PSN is completely free to use, while Xbox Live Gold accounts cost $50/year.  This could be a crucial point for Sony, provided they market it well (easier said than done) AND don’t screw it up with tiered service and pricing.  Qore, their online magazine with “subscriber benefits” like access to private beta tests, is off to a rocky start.   And who knows what Sony has planned with the introduction of their Home virtual world…

Second, Sony can leverage the PSP to expand the PlayStation Network and finally deliver the portability to PSN that Microsoft has been endlessly planning for Xbox Live.  It’s a big opportunity, as Microsoft has shown zero interest in producing a handheld of their own, and even allowing the Viva Pinata characters to appear in Nintendo DS games.  Also, the PSP looks to be on an upswing, with outstanding hardware sales in the fickle Japanese market, some critically successful games on the market and in the pipeline, and a winning hardware/software bundling strategy.

The all-but-confirmed Xbox 360 price drop can’t be far off, and Sony’s unlikely to follow suit.  They already are selling the cheapest Blu-Ray player out there, and have made no secret of just how much they need to recoup as much as possible from the PS3 development costs.  It should be interesting to see how they proceed, once the momentum of Metal Gear Solid 4 wears off.

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