Archive for August, 2008

Regular visitors to the site may notice a slight change at the top: I’ll be running the New York City Marathon this November, and will be fundraising for Child’s Play along the way.  The new donation button will take you to the official Liquid Architecture gift, so please give it a click.

If you’re unfamiliar with this outstanding organization, you might want to check out their site, or take a look at the big Funde Razor post from last Christmas.  In a nutshell, they buy new game consoles, portable systems, video games, books and other toys for a network of over 40 children’s hospitals worldwide.

The Child’s Play program presents a unique opportunity to reach out through this hobby we all love so dearly, and help some very sick kids get through a very scary time more comfortably.  Beyond that, Child’s Play has the potential to show the world that gamers really do care, and we’re not at all the cold-blooded killers that 60 Minutes would have you believe.  I hope you’ll take a moment to make a contribution – and remember, every single dollar helps.

If you happen to be in the city during the marathon, keep an eye out for the Child’s Play logo.

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The annual Games Convention is going on this week in Leipzig, Germany.  When it was first introduced in 2002, the GC was an oddity at best.  It falls on the calendar barely a month after E3 and before the Tokyo Game Show, is open to the public, and is a mostly console show seated in the heart of a decidedly PC-centric gaming scene.  So it was a surprise to see any big news come out of the show.

Six years and a confusing E3 metamorphasis later, Leipzig still isn’t a white-hot show by any stretch of the imagination.  Nintendo’s not attending this year, and Microsoft won’t be holding a press conference.  However, a few nuggets were saved from min-E3 and are making a big splash at the show this week.

Capcom will finally be showing the console version of Street Fighter IV.  The arcade game was still pretty fresh at E3, and they gave the public a pretty good look at the San Diego Comicon earlier this summer.  Smart move to sit on the console version.  But the big Leipzig news that caught my attention came out of Activision: Guitar Hero World Tour on the 360, PS2 and PS3 will be combatible with all the instruments from previous Guitar Hero games on those systems, and even Rock Band 1 & 2.  It’s about time.

World Tour’s set list, composition mode and exclusive bands are attractive, but Rock Band’s commitment to DLC and serious, curatorial take on the rhythem game are a tough act to follow.  It was shaping up to be a tough choice for gamers (including yours truly) this Christmas between the two… especially for those gamers who couldn’t possibly bring more toy instruments into their living room.

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On Monday night, hordes of dedicated fans lined up outside their local Gamestops, Best Buys, and Wal-Marts to get their hands on Madden ’09, the 20th installment of EA’s powerhouse franchise.  This year’s version shipped on the 360, PS3, PSP, and weirdly enough, the PS2 and Nintendo DS.

I always get a chuckle out of how many systems get a visit from the Madden fairy each year.  I can understand releasing on PS2 – there are still plenty of active users, and EA just can’t turn their back on an installed base of that size.  But the DS? Who the hell plays Madden on the DS?  The same people that made Nintendogs and Viva Pinata: Pocket Paradise million sellers?  But I digress.

This year’s game is a big step up, and they’ve finally figured out how to take advantage of the PS3 and 360 equally.  Most importantly (at least for yours truly), the new Madden adjusts difficulty to each player’s Madden IQ, determined through a few in-game tests and then constantly adjusted after each match you play.

EA got some mileage out of the 20th anniversary, mostly in the mainstream press. It felt a little more subdued among dedicated gaming blogs, though.  Joystiq’s Kevin Kelly tried to manage a smile at the big Rose Bowl launch event, Kotaku covered a smaller, more low-key local event, and Deadspin’s correspondent, um…  basically had the worst time imaginable.  All in all, the launch just didn’t have that “Christmas morning” feel that we’ve had in past years.  In fact, it’s the first time in over a decade that I didn’t know anyobody that took Tuesday off work.

Make no mistake – Madden ’09 will still be one of the top 3 sellers this year.  It’s the most enduring franchise in gaming, and to EA’s credit, this year’s game really pushes the series forward.  But I think we’ve seen so many megawatt launches over the last year (Metal Gear Solid 4, Halo 3, Mario Kart Wii, Smash Bros. Brawl) that it’s tough to get too excited about one more.

We’ve come to normalize and even expect pretty frequent AAA releases.  As a fan and avid gamer, that’s great news.  We’re consistently seeing good games release throughout the year.  As a marketer, is a bit daunting.  Clearly, we’re all going to have to raise the bar.

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The combined E3 game critics panel released their final winners list yesterday.  Not a ton of surprises here, but it’s interesting that EA won 4 of the 15 total awards, including Best PC Game, Best Action/Adventure, and most importantly, Most Original Game.

It’s expected for EA to win Best Sports Game, and from what I’ve seen of the new Madden, they certainly deserve it this year.  But over the last few years, it would’ve been hard to imagine them winning any awards for originality.  Yearly updates to time-tested sports franchises and crappy licensed games have been EA’s bread and butter, and I don’t think anyone would have bet on them changing strategies.  Clearly, new leadership and their radical reorganization are paying dividends quickly.  Just take a look at the breath of fresh air that is Mirror’s Edge.

Unfortunately, the best games still don’t get played without inspired marketing.  I must admit, I’m thoroughly impressed with how The House that Trip Built is promoting this year’s crop of surprisingly original IP.  Mirror’s Edge is getting a six issue comic book miniseries from DC’s Wildstorm imprint, exploring their near-future world under a police state that requires the use of runners (like the game’s protagonist) to deliver messages.  Even better, EA’s supplementing their forthcoming sci-fi survival horror title, Dead Space, with a six-book prequel series from Image Comics AND an animated, direct-to-video feature film that sets up exactly the games central set piece, a deep space mining colony, became overun with pure evil.  Check out the spooky trailer below.

While the look of the game doesn’t exactly translate to hand-drawn cell animation, direct-to-video supplements worked for The Matrix and The Dark Knight, so EA must be doing something right. With all this supplemental material beyond the game, EA has built their own Deeply Immersive Narrative Universe.  Having such fully realized worlds created as part of the development process frees EA from having to shoehorn a video game into other, licensed universes.

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RIP Scrabulous

RIP Scrabulous

If you’ve been keeping an eye on the rapidly expanding world of casual gaming apps delivered over social networks (and who hasn’t?!), last week was an interesting one.  At the beginning of the week, the poster child for Facebook as a gaming platform, Scrabulous, was turned off for all North American users.  By the end of the week, it had gotten a minor facelift and was reintroduced as Wordscraper.

With all the parties involved, and all the legalese to wade through, it’s tough to tell who ultimately made the call to pull the plug.  I mean, what are they really saying in a publicly issued statement like this: ‘Hasbro is pleased that the developers have voluntarily removed their infringing Scrabulous application on Facebook, and we appreciate Facebook’s assistance in expediting this matter‘?  Besides, it was in pretty much everyone’s best interest to make Scrabulous not look like an exact Hasbro knock-off, at the very least.

EA paid a no doubt princely sum to execute games based on Hasbro’s IP.  To keep potential suitors interested in their games, beyond EA’s 2013 expiration date, it’s to Hasbro’s advantage to protect their game concepts as ownable, patent-worthy product.  Facebook needs to prove to the world (including advertisers) that they have a handle on protecting copyrights within their platform, and it’s not the hedonistic wild west that MySpace or Second Life turned into.  Even Scrabulous‘ designers, the Agarwalla brothers, had something to gain by pulling and modifying the game.  They’ve shown the world that they know how to make a simple, working social game.  It’s the hottest hot spot right now for VCs, and it behooves them to not get sued back to the stone age so early in their careers.

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

Died and reborn as Wordscraper... like a zombie!

It’ll be interesting to see how Wordscraper fares after its relaunch, combined with competition from EA’s fully branded, household name Scrabble app.  Even more important are the results of Hasbro’s lawsuit in this case.  After all, it could set a precedent for tons of litigation down the road.  At its core, this suit asks the question, “what constitutes a ‘game’ and just how much of that is ownable?”

Do the makers of a million bad Tetris knockoffs owe Alexy Pazhitnov royalties?  Do the makers of that Wii beer pong game owe your fraternity some coin?  This suit could decide once and for all.

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