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Archive for the ‘The biz’ Category

I’ve been critical of President Obama’s attitude toward the industry in the past, so I have a responsibility to point out that the administration seems to be getting it.  Last week, he announced the National STEM Video Game Challenge.  It’s the latest in a line of very worthy programs that challenge young students with designing an educational video game.

With some brilliant minds behind it and an excellent group of sponsors, it’s a great program with national scale.  I just hope there’s more where that came from. It kills me to hear about the plummeting interest level in math and science among school-age children, and then hear “these darn video games” blamed for it in the same breath.  Game development is not only the most sought-after career for young people in this country, it’s also a very demanding pursuit of math and science based disciplines.  Harnessing the passion for this industry should be a no-brainer for educators.

My own alma mater, Michigan State, launched an ambitious game design program only a few years after I graduated.  Of course, I’m envious of the lucky Spartans that came after me. Many, many other universities are currently offering or exploring a similar program. We still haven’t seen a University establish itself as THE game design school in the US, so there is certainly some work to do in marketing these degree programs to prospective students.  And it’s up to high school and middle school administrators (throw in K-8 while you’re at it) to make sure their pupils are prepared for them.

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I quite often get official word of marketing campaigns for new and soon-to-be-released games.  They’re second only to architectural trade stories in “things I’m most often pitched.”*

Anyways, EA is taking a novel approach to promoting their supercops-and-unsavory-characters MMO, APB. They’re making one fan put his money where his mouth is, literally turning him into an avatar that could be produced in the game’s design-your-character interface.  I’ve seen more than enough promotions that put one lucky fan into a game as a background model, and even occasionally as a playable in-game character.  So it’s cool to see EA turn that concept on its head.

The community is at the helm, making choices via popular vote on who their base model is, his hairstyle, even tattoos the poor guy has to get. To be fair, Josh (the “winner” in this case) lists “Free Runner” as his occupation, so he probably had plenty of time and empty pockets to commit to this project.  And hey, it’s not like his shift supervisor is gonna reem him out for showing up to work with stupid visible tats or a crazy haircut.  That’s why you make career choices like “Free Runner” in the first place, right?  Except this guy.  He’s a badass, and it look like dude gets paid.

The whole thing has me thinking more about our relationships with what we control onscreen.  Tom Bissell had some very, very good points in Extra Lives about how much of (another EA title) Mass Effect’s success is tied to Bioware empowering us all to create OUR Commander Shephards.  I still bristle a little bit when I see a YouTube video or something from that game, and it’s not MY Shephard running around.  It feels like the lost footage from Back to the Future with Eric Stoltz in the Marty role.  Creepy.

...that's just not right

But I don’t think I would ALWAYS be more emotionally invested if I could design my own avatar.  Case in point: there’s nothing on this earth that turns my “nostalgia” valve quite like a Mario game.  Even when I could play a sidescrolling platformer — that most nostalgic of genre — with an avatar of my own design in LittleBigPlanet, it just didn’t resonate emotionally as much as one starring everyone’s favorite plumber.

APB designer Dave Jones (of Lemmings and GTA 1-2 fame) clearly wants us to feel like we’re inhabiting that world.  As WoW has shown us, a custom avatar can really make players buy in to the setting and fiction on a very deep level.  Let’s hope Josh can hack it.

* Really.  Enough with the damn pitches about building materials.  I’m sure advances in shaftway cabling are a very big deal, but we write about videogames here, peeps.

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God of War 3 will have been out for a full week by the time I post this, and I still haven’t bought it.  It’s a big change for me.  I love that series.  I picked up the first one early on the strength of Dave Jaffe’s development chops, and wasn’t disappointed. GoW2 was the perfect franchise second act, and pretty handy swan song for the PlayStation 2.  I even have fond memories of playing the series’ lone portable entry, Chains of Olympus, on my PSP on the way down to my bachelor party.

As I walked past GameStop on my way in to work last Tuesday, I was fully prepared to pick up GoW3.  But I just didn’t go back in that day.  Or the next day.  So many good games have come out recently, and since the birth of my daughter, I’ve barely had time to play the few of those that I could rationalize buying.  I still want to spend a lot more time with this year’s MLB The Show, and I have a few more crew members to recruit and a ton of missions still waiting for me in Mass Effect 2. For now, Kratos has met his match.  And it’s my adorable 4-month-old.

Since I read Stephen Totilo’s  arresting piece last month on how father figures have become central in games, I’ve been turning over in my head just what that story meant for me.  Totilo quite brilliantly eyed how more and more games (Heavy Rain, Bioshock 2, Silent Hill Shattered Memories to name a few)  put us in dad roles, and make fatherhood and fathering core to the game’s story and mechanics.

As a new dad myself, this makes a lot of sense.  Children motivate us to be better.  We learn things, sacrifice things, step outside of our comfort zones and adapt to almost anything as long as it’s for them. So for game designers, a compelling parent/child relationship among characters solves  a universal challenge: motivating the player to stick with your game. And from a purely business perspective, it’s even more of a no-brainer.  The generation that grew up playing Nintendo is right around 30 now, and haven’t put down their controllers en masse.  We’ve got mortgages and marriages and kids now, too.

But what good are all these newly “daddened” video games when we have barely any time to play them?  Did the collective industry miss the boat?

A very timely piece by The Question Block’s Matthew H. Mason (stumbled upon via Bitmob) helped put it all in perspective for me.  I play less often and have to play fewer games now, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy them less.  In Matt’s own words:

I can’t really summarize what video games mean to me; they strike me in both profound and simple ways. That will never change. Where I’ve found my path diverging is how I’ve come to appreciate them.

I’m lucky that I have a job where I need to keep up on this great industry of ours, and occasionally work with video games and the talented people that make them.   I’m lucky to have so many great games to play at home that I can leave Kratos’ latest adventure on the shelf for a few months.  It really speaks to the health of the industry that I can pass up one game with a 90+ Metacritic score for the two other 90+ scorers I have at home.  And I’m lucky to have a beautiful family that keeps me balanced, and helps me to better appreciate the time when I can just sit and play again.

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Of course this game will be awesome. He looks like the frickin' Rocketeer!

Just like last year, this Christmas’ new games slate went lighter than planned, as quite a few high priority games’ release dates slipped into the first quarter of next year.  Hardly anyone wants to delay a project release, especially when you consider how long the development cycle on current gen games can get.  But sometimes a game could benefit from a few more months of polishing, as was the case with this year’s GOTY contender Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Other times, a real juggernaut hits retail, and it makes more sense for a publisher to hold back a release until it can find more room in headlines and on shelves.  Modern Warfare 2 and New Super Mario Brothers Wii in particular sucked all the air out of the room this year.

It’s been fascinating to watch what Capcom’s community team and developer Airtight Games have been doing with the extra time until the release of their delayed title, Dark Void. Of course, they’ve checked all the necessary boxes: a fan site, a Facebook page, and a Twitter feed. Their Twitter community manager is really committed to speaking as the character of a survivor from within the Void, and ties in the game’s fiction nicely with even routine things like giveaway contests.

And this is where it gets really cool.  Last week Capcom announced Dark Void Zero, an 8-bit “prequel” to their soon-to-be-released current gen game.  Retro lightning already struck twice for Capcom, with Mega Man 9 and the outstanding Bionic Commando: Rearmed, so why not try for a third?  But Mega Man and Bionic Commando really are established, well-loved franchises with all the history and nostalgia that entails. 

Dark Void’s a completely new IP.  And it’s been hard out there for a pimp new property lately.  Just ask EA!  On top of developing an impressive fiction to serve the current-gen Dark Void game and the fan community, AND developing a fun 8-bit game to expand that universe and generate buzz, big C also developed a suitable backstory for the 8-bit game, as if the property had existed during that era.

All this attention to detail in the pre-release period has elevated Dark Void from a title I was merely interested in to pretty much a must-buy on day 1.  I’ll probably download Dark Void Zero to boot.  Well played, Capcom.

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It's never too early, or too late, in the year to talk about baseball games. Right?

If you haven’t been reading Kotaku’s awesome weekend sports series, Stick Jockey, do yourself a favor and head over there immediately.  These weekly thinkpieces are consistently fascinating, especially considering that 99% of the sports game coverage out there is a very paint-by-numbers affair.

This week’s is no exception, as columnist Owen Good really shows his sports business chops examining the 2005 semi-exclusivity deal between 2K Sports and MLB.  Good does a much better job than I ever could in breaking down the how’s and why’s of the deal, but what I found to be really fascinating here is just how off the mark otherwise savvy companies like 2K and Major League Baseball could be in striking a deal, and how ultimately iffy a property MLB has become for a video game license.

There have been a few bright spots here and there (RBI on the NES, World Series on the Genesis, and Ken Griffey Jr. Presents MLB on the SNES come to mind), but baseball has had the must lackluster games library of all major US pro leagues, hands down.  The recently released Madden NFL Arcade and another tremendous annual installment of NHL, both from EA, remind me just how broken baseball games are.

So is the answer as simple as “wait till EA can do another MLB game?”  Possibly.  After all, the Triple Play series was becoming very good just before 2K locked up the exclusivity deal, and MLB2K has a lot of flaws that just wouldn’t make it through EA’s very polished sports game development process.  But Sony’s first party series MLB: The Show suffers for reasons wholly different from 2K’s product – an unforgiving difficulty curve and an engine that emphasizes photorealistic stadiums over responsive controls and a smooth play experience.

With baseball’s annual winter meetings just concluded, the countdown is on for next year’s outings.  They’ll likely be tweaked versions of last year’s games, built upon the same engines that 2K and Sony already introduced this console generation.  2K’s in particular seem to be showing its age.

It’d be great to see one of these license holders tear the whole thing down and start fresh.  Perhaps EA’s 7 year absence from our nation’s pastime will end up benefitting them AND us in 2012, for the simple reason that they haven’t had a baseball game on any current-gen system, and will have to field a whole new team and start fresh.

2K’s pricey misadventure makes it unlikely that anyone, be it EA, 2K, or another player, will be in a hurry to buy up exclusive licensing rights when they become available again for the 2012 season.  But if someone opens the checkbook, I hope MLB Digital Media takes a close look at the plan, the team, and at least asks to see a preview build this time around.  In all fairness, that office wasn’t yet created for the 2005 deal.  Who knows how many fans they’ve turned off or missed out with lackluster branded games since then?

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While this year’s Black Friday sales numbers should be trickling in over the next few hours, I just had to point out First Party,  the new clothes-for-professional-nerds venture from the Penny Arcade guys.  They won’t win Cyber Monday or anything (thanks to teenage girls, anything that doesn’t involve vampires is at a huge disadvantage this year), but every well dressed gamer should have the launch polo on their wish list. 

I first heard about the concept for First Party over a year ago in Wired’s piece on Jerry and Mike.  Just like Child’s Play and PAX, it’s a natural fit for the community and it’s a wonder no one stepped up years ago.  I’m excited to see what their line looks like a year from now, once they’ve diversified beyond essential polos.  One of these may just find a home next to the rainbow of Lacoste basics in my closet.  As an added bonus, they’re available for Xbox LIVE avatars too!

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dpIt must be marketing week around here.  Only a few hours after I hit “publish” on my developers-are-the-best-marketers post, Sony announced a completely on-target concept: including the God of War III demo on the District 9 Blu-Ray movie disc.

I’ve seen a few fairly lame attempts to market games via home video, and vice versa.  Usually, it’s just a trailer for a licensed game in front of the exact DVD movie upon which the game is based, e.g., a non-interactive trailer for the Kung Fu Panda video game on the DVD movie release of Kung Fu Panda. Isn’t that a wasted effort? Are there really that many Kung Fu Panda fans out there that have no idea a video game exists?

What I like about Sony’s bundling is it demonstrates an understanding of the audience for both properties, and simply makes the introduction.  I didn’t see D9 in theaters, but some pretty smart cats I know thought it was a good, cerebral sci-fi movie.  Similarly, the God of War series has always appealed to a more sophisticated audience than your average brawler, with its operatic story of betrayal and redemption set against a faithfully presented backdrop of Greek myth.  It stands to reason that some D9 fans love Kratos’ exploits, whether they know it or not.

On the flip side, GoW is an established series with legions of fans, and their desire to play a level or two from the long awaited series finale (before it’s available for download) might jbat dogust lead them to a purchase of the District 9 Blu-Ray, even if they missed it in theaters. So, win-win for Sony, as D9 is a product of their Pictures division and GoW is an exclusive franchise that moved plenty of hardware last generation.

I’d really like to see this type of partnership explored further, especially with some less obvious (but perhaps more effective) pairings among multiple companies.  How about a demo disc for Batman: Arkham Asylum with every adult size superhero costume sold at Halloween USA stores this time of year?  Of course, physical media should be a non-issue here.  I’m willing to bet EA Sports and Stubhub would probably hit it off, so that way everyone that prints out their ticket to an NHL game could also get a download code for the NHL 10 demo on their system of choice.  The possibilities are pretty much endless here.

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