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Archive for the ‘Microsoft’ Category

I can’t get enough of Mass Effect 2.  I’ve spent nearly all of my play time over the last three weeks with it, hardly touching any other games.  Looking at its impressive debut at #2 on January’s NPD rankings after only six days on shelves, I’m not alone. And with all that love comes A LOT of coverage in the enthusiast press in this immediate post-release honeymoon period.

Mass Effect's' story is driven by players' choices - rooting it in the here and now

There’s been some bitching backlash on Twitter about ME2 coverage fatigue this week.  And if you’re suffering from it, well… this is probably not the post for you.  Sorry.  Perhaps a link to this awesome site will make up for it?  Cool.

Aaaanyways, there has also been some really excellent discussion around the game.  Be sure and check out Rebel FM’s full hour of thoughtful banter (with some very minor spoilers) and a particularly good episode from the 1Up guys.

All these very qualified games journos have lauded the way choices the player makes throughout ME2 impact the story.  Sure, BioWare games almost all have some level of this “choose your own adventure” mechanic, but it really sings this time out.  The choices feel natural.  As a result, I found myself making my in-game decisions based more upon what I actually felt was right (or at least justified) given the circumstances, rather than explicitly trying to play either the badass or boy scout role.  And in the end, my character was more believable as a hero with shades of gray.

I wonder if this approach to decision-driving storytelling actually handicaps ME2 it in the nostalgia department.  If it had come out 10 years ago when I was younger and obnoxious less patient, my playthrough (and by extension, my Commander Shepard) would be completely different.  I’d probably go Rogue more often, my character would be kind of a jerk, and the body count would be a lot higher.  If I were to blow the dust off that game today at 28 years old, I’d play it just as I am now, with more balanced choices.

The most elegant example I’ve seen of nostalgia-by-way-of-videogame was in the 1988 CLASSIC (and sick day movie favorite of yours truly) Big. In the movie’s third act, adult Josh is playing through the same adventure game that we see young Josh playing as the film opens:

You are standing in the cavern of the evil wizard. All around you are
the carcasses of slain ice dwarfs….Melt wizard….What do you want to
melt him with? …Throw thermal pod

He makes the same choices in both playthroughs, and that’s what makes Josh remember what it’s like to be kid.  I’m not sure anyone could, or would even want to, play through ME2 the exact same way from different stages in their life.  So does that make it… unnostalgic?  Non-nostalgic?

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ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

The NPD Group’s US Video Game Report for September just hit my inbox last night, and it may be an early indicator of the exciting fourth quarter predicted by some pretty smart cats.  We saw increases across most categories from September ’08’s numbers, but not enough to pull the year-on-year numbers out of their recession doldrums.  However, Sony’s got several reasons to smile, in spite of Halo 3: ODST nabbing the top spot on this month’s Software Top 10:

Rank Title Platform Units
1 HALO 3:ODST 360 1.52M
2 WII SPORTS RESORT WII 442.9K
3 MADDEN NFL 10 360 289.6K
4 MARIO & LUIGI:BOWSER’S INSIDE STORY DS 258.1K
5 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND 360 254.0K
6 MADDEN NFL 10 PS3 246.5K
7 MARVEL:ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 360 236.0K
8 BATMAN:ARKHAM ASYLUM PS3 212.5K
9 GUITAR HERO 5 360 210.8K
10 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND WII 208.6K

Yes, there are only two PS3 titles in the top 10 this month, but looking at this list, you can practically see the purchase behavior!  Madden and Arkham Asylum both shipped to decent numbers on the PS3  in August, but not enough to overtake their respective Xbox 360 counterparts.  These particular games’ second month in the Top 10, despite the PS3’s much smaller installed base, is a clear indicator of a positive trend in hardware sales for Sony.  More casual gamers that only buy one or two pieces of software a year religiously get Madden, and strong word of mouth among hardcore gamers (not to mention a pretty good ad campaign) for Arkham Asylum has made that a must-have title for anyone just purchasing a current gen system.  So gamers that were holding out for a price drop seem to be gravitating towards the PS3, and they’ve essentially created their own hardware bundle in the process.

The price drop and slim hardware proved to be exactly the 1-2 punch Sony needed.  Take it away, NPD analyst Anita Frazier!

“Compared to last September, the PS3 was the big winner, more than doubling last year’s sales.  This portrays a very strong consumer reaction to the price decrease as August and September both realized a lift of more than 70% over the prior month.  This is the first month that the PS3 has captured the top spot in console hardware sales.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft rolls out a new hardware bundle or retailer discount for the holiday.  This very well could be the PS3’s year.

In other news, this month’s NPD report saw Wii Fit fall out of the Top 10 for the first time since its introduction 15 months ago.  Of course, it was immediately replaced in the Top 10 by Wii sports Resort.  But for a $90 game to spend 15 months in the Top 10, where even a soft month has the floor somewhere around 200K units, is impressive.  Just like the home crowd standing up for their starter during his 7th inning exit, I’ve got to salute Nintendo on this one.  Well done.standing o

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a_christmas_storyWith today’s The Beatles: Rock Band launch, I can’t help but wonder if all the cards are already on the table for what could be a very interesting Christmas’ “console war.”

Sony’s slim hardware redesign was a non-starter for me, until they blinked first and threw in a matching slimmer price point.  Microsoft followed suit almost immediately, discontinuing the Pro SKU and making the Elite model their $300 go-to.  Both good decisions.  While the Wii’s still got them both on price*, it’s a much slimmer gap now that’s more than bridged by the feature sets.

A lot of major third party releases have been pushed back into early 2010, and the ones that are still on the calendar are mostly multiplatform – The Beatles: Rock Band chief among them.  Microsoft will get another Halo title in ODST this holiday, as Playstation fans finally get their hands on Gran Turismo 5.  So we’ll have (at least) one more year where these two boxes duke it out on a fairly even playing field.

Xbox still has a more cohesive online experience, but the Playstation 3’s installed base is finally at the point where you can jump into a well-populated game at any time of day.  While I’m sure the price adjustment was a tough pill to swallow for Sony brass, they’re now offering the best value-for-dollar in gaming hardware (PS3 buyers get a Blu-Ray player while new Xbox 360 owners still need to cough up another $100 to make the thing wireless).

I’m looking forward to a well played, late generation holiday throwdown that will really put the consumers in the driver seat and rely heavily on Sony and Microsoft’s multichannel marketing effort, and maybe some cool pack-in deals.  Game.  On.

*NOTE: I know both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have limited-feature SKUs that fall below the Wii’s $250 price point, but let’s talk about the systems gamers actually want to buy here.

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While I didn’t get out to last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E³), I was really glad to see the show return to the more recognizable “under the big top” format.  At a time when just about everyone is forced to cut costs wherever possible, it was nice to see some of the industry’s big hitters pull out all the stops once again.  At the very least, it gave us all a lot more to watch than the very weird “editorial speed dating in office parks” feel of the last two years.

This year’s show was poised for success from the start – we’re far enough into this console generation that most developers understand how to get the most out of the hardware, but we’re not quite to the point where everyone expects to see new all-new consoles unveiled.  E³ 2005 was the most boring show I’ve been to, with the big reveal of the PS3 and all the tech demos and non-games that came with it.  This year was mostly focused on the games.  Be sure to check out the big honkin’ E³ coverage summaries over at Kotaku and Joystiq, just in case you missed anything.  Read on for my highlights (and a few not-so-highlights) from the big keynotes of the show.

MICROSOFT

beatles RB sullivanThe Good: M-soft came out strong right out of the gate with The Beatles: Rock Band.  They managed to have Paul McCartney and Ringo Star onstage, turning an otherwise ho-hum demo into a newsworthy event for even non-game press.  Perhaps most importantly, they created the most newsworthy event of the show for non-enthusiast press, and managed to have the surviving Beatles on stage with all sorts of Xbox branding behind them.  It’s a multiplatform title – in fact, the first Rock Band to ship day and date on the Wii as well as the PS3 and 360.  But Microsoft has managed to “own” this game in the minds of exactly the type of casual gamers that will eat up The Beatles: Rock Band — and a system to play it on.

The Bad: Microsoft managed to grab headlines with their project Natal camera system.  Essentially, at-home, real-time motion capture for gesture controls in games.  It looks like it works pretty well, and is much easier to set up than Microsoft’s earlier efforts with the Live Vision camera.  But I still can’t get excited about applying that technology to games.  I guess time will tell, as no release date or even a price point are in sight yet.

The Rest: All in all, Microsoft had a strong showing with those two reveals, and then a lot of smaller, fan service announcements.  The first ever Final Fantasy game on Xbox, a Metal Gear Solid multiplatform title, and a ton of sequels to familiar Xbox franchises rounded out their hour.

NINTENDO

The Good: Last year, the enthusiast press felt abondoned by Nintendo, with their keynote centered around Wii Motion Plus and the pack-in game, Wii Sports Resort.  This year, they made sure to take care of the hardcore set, with ample stage time given to a new Metroid game by Tecmo’s Team Ninja, The return of Mario Galaxy, and the very classic feeling New Super Mario Bros. finally brought to the big screen as a fun coop game for up to 4 players.  Charming, timeless IP goes a long way toward keeping the Big N in good graces with their loyal fans, and they delivered quite a bit of love for them this year.

wii_vitality_1The Bad: The Wii Vitality Sensor is… puzzling at best.  I’m an unabashed Nintendo fan, and I stand by the notion that failures along the way like the Virtual Boy are essential for a company to foster the free thinking brand of R&D that could deliver the Wii unto us.  But the idea of a peripheral that pinches you on the finger so it can get a read on your pulse… I just can’t see the application here into anything that would make a fun game.  I’ve been wrong before and I really hope I am in this case, but Nintendo certainly didn’t help its cause by not even really demoing this at the show.

The Rest: I was honestly hoping for a little more of a preview of what’s coming down the pipe for DSiWare and WiiWare.  They’re both underutilized networks on the best-selling pieces of hardware out there.  Beyond that, 6 new exercises and 15 minigames added to Wii Fit Plus doesn’t sound like very much new content to me.  I’d prefer to see them deliver more exercises throughout the year as DLC.

SONY

The Good: Team Ico revealed The Last Guardian, the sequel to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. True to form, this one will be a PS3 exclusive, and looks to be hauntingly beautiful.  I will probably buy it on launch day, and cry at least once by the time I beat it.  So will you, if you happen to have a soul and a PS3.

The Bad: Sony’s gesture control (was this a requirement to present his year!?) just seems way too early to show to the public, and I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t have if Microsoft hadn’t made such a big splash with Natal.

The Rest: I’m intrigued by the PSP Go.  That tiny form factor looks to solve a lot of the issues the original design (and subsequent iterations) had to deal with, but not all.  The screen’s still not protected in your pocket, which is a much bigger deal to me than the fact that there’s only one analog nub.  Sorry, FPS fans.

It’s puzzling to me that the PSP, which has had such a hard time reaching any audience other than teenage boys is the first to market with a download-only portable system.  Not to mention, one with a $250 price tag at launch.  If they don’t market the Go hardware the right way, they could be left with a diminishing audience that feels burned about all the useless UMD’s they bought to go with their original hardware.

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42Today marked the 62nd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s historic first Major League Baseball game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Throughout the league, MLB teams honored Jackie in their own way, from a dedication at the new Citi Field to scholarship awards and Jumbotron retrospectives.  And every single player in every game today wore #42, with no name on the back of his jersey.

It was a class move that involved the entire league.  And yet, it didn’t carry over to either of the officially licensed baseball franchises,  MLB 2K9 or MLB 09: The Show.

Considering these games (and every major sports game, for that matter) get continuous roster updates and patches throughout the season, is it really too much to ask that this carefully planned, well executed salute make it into the digital version of our favorite pastime?

Sports games have led the way in verisimilitude for quite some time.  Madden brought in authentic rosters and 11-on-11 formations 20 years ago, and still adds a nifty trick or two each year to bring the game just a bit closer to reality.  A few years ago, they linked in-game weather conditions to the actual field conditions in each stadium in realtime.  This year’s NBA Live game features daily adjustments to player performance based on their real-life counterparts’ hot and cold streaks in realtime.81705570SL030_JACKSONVILLE_

For all of EA’s attention to the little things, even very recent editions of Madden missed the occasional detail.  Where were the Gene Upshaw memoriums in this year’s game?  No, their lack of inclusion shouldn’t (and hopefully doesn’t) impact anybody’s enjoyment of the game overall, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect these seemingly minute details to come through in the games.

I really hope Sony’s MLB: The Show team can get around to a pink bat update in time for the Mothers’ Day games.  Maybe they could even tie in a charity component with the Susan G. Komen foundation.  That’s DLC that really adds value to a game, and makes us all feel like we’re a small part of something much bigger.

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el-camino-back“Chicken or the Egg?”  “El Camino – car or truck?”  “Used games – great for building audience, or scourge that will bring down the industry?”  These are all Sisyphus-ian questions that only get more divisive with educated conversation.

The heat got turned up on the used games issue this week, with Amazon’s announcement of their new used games trade-in program.  Gamestop stock immediately plummeted 14% on the news, and then the real fireworks started.

Dave Perry, a guy whose opinion I respect, named names and called out the ECA on not addressing the issue with big retailers.  Dave Jaffe and GamePolitics’ Dennis McCauley also weighed in, at opposite sides of the spectrum.  Let’s face it, this issue has been simmering for over a decade now.

I hardly ever buy used, simply because I’m usually buying on release day.  I’m willing to bet this is true for most hardcore gamers.  But as Nintendo has proven time and time again in the last 3 years, casual gamers are a much bigger audience.  And there’s no way a parent will choose a $60 brand new game over a $45 used copy of the same title that’s guaranteed to work, and is available at the same store.

It would be easy to say that all this hand wringing and carrying on is worthless.  After all, used games is an issue that WILL go away eventually.  When was the last time you bought a CD?

But the seismic shift in audience we’ve seen over the last few years means the switch to all-downloadable will be even harder to flip.  Before, we could count on at least a healthy majority of console owners being tech saavy, early adopter types.  But the more casual gamers, and the people (read: parents) that make those purchasing decisions expect to walk in to a brick-and-mortar retailer or hop onto a site like Amazon and get a physical piece of media at the end of that process.  You can’t put a download-only title under the tree on Christmas morning.

For the time being, we will have to continue putting games on discs, putting discs in boxes, and relying on retail to move them off shelves.  And like it or not, there will be SOME form of reconsumption without any additional compensation to the developer.  Especially in rough economic times.  Even if the ECA strikes an unbelievable deal with every retailer under the sun tomorrow, you’ll still have rental, players swapping games with each other, and E-Bay for starters.

gta-lnd1The onus on developers is to build additional value into new copies, and create compelling downloadable content that can generate revenue from used game purchasers.  Microsoft Game Studios was really on to something when they packaged each new copy of Gears of War 2 with a unique, one-time-only redemption code for downloadable maps.  And GTAIV’s Lost and the Damned DLC will no doubt generate a ton of revenue for Rockstar, from both owned-it-since-launch-day die hards and used game bargain hunters that just picked it up this week.

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Early estimates from Black Friday 2008 are slowly trickling in, and it would appear that Nintendo is off to a third straight killer year for the Wii.  Impressive, considering they’re working with a sparse holiday software lineup and their only first-party offering is the tepidly received Wii Music. By all indications, Wii Fit is flying off shelves, and likely keeping the hardware a hot commodity almost by itself.  

This really demonstrates Nintendo’s Blue Ocean strategy working well.  Wii Fit launched nearly seven months ago.  Under normal circumstances, it would be rocking the discount bin this Christmas with a sequel on the way.  But that’s just it: hardcore gamers that would run out to get a game on launch day aren’t fueling the Wii’s swollen installed base, and they certainly aren’t the target audience for Wii Fit.

Microsoft had a good weekend as well, handily outselling the PS3 and last year’s Xbox 360 number.  Sony’s no doubt up on year-over-year sales, but I can’t help wondering how their numbers would have looked if they had put out a LittleBigPlanet bundle in the US, like they did in the UKLBP is getting some decent ad support now, and Sackboy appeals to a family that could really only afford to spend $400 on a box if it’s going to keep their entire family entertained for the better part of this year.  As much as I love Metal Gear Solid 4, I just don’t think Snake has the same appeal to that audience.

In theory, the PS3’s Blu-ray player helps on the family entertainment front, but I’m not sure that’s a real value add for that type of consumer.  Disney is just beginning to put animated features out on Blu-ray, and those discs aren’t compatible with the portable and in-minivan DVD players that parents already bought.  Between the Netflix addition, price drop, and Kung Fu Panda/Lego Indiana Jones bundle, the Xbox 360 deserves to be on their radars.

Beyond that, Pricegrabber shows Sony’s own budget-priced Blu-ray player (the BDP-S350 1080p) as one of the top 3 searches over the weekend.  Did they cannibalize PS3 sales with their own player in a similar price range?  I think we’re seeing a case of what’s good for Sony the company not necessarily benefitting the games division.

Obviously holiday sales are a much longer battle than one weekend, but it looks like the industry may just be as resilient as we had all hoped.  I’ve long held that Wii Fit will be the best software seller this season (hardly a bold prediction), and it looks like the very deserving Gears of War 2 will pull in second.  Weren’t single console exclusives supposed to be go away?

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