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E3 in Review: Sony

Sony: Move, PSN subscription model, and a 3D solution tied to the consumer products division

  • My response to Sony’s showing falls much closer to that of Microsoft than Nintendo.  Move is playing in now-familiar territory with a motion control concept tied to a range of peripherals.  Sony does hardware well, and each peripheral in the system is appropriately hefty.  They don’t feel like toys.  Developers are very familiar with motion control peripherals, and the same play styles that worked on the Wii will certainly port well to Move.  All good news for third-party publishers, as the investment into Wii development is suddenly less risky, with another system to port those games onto.
  • 35 Move games were announced at the show.  The vast majority of them will be out by November 2010, so these peripherals will have decent support for the holiday buying season.  I’d be a little concerned with how few known franchises are in the bunch, though.  A lot of these titles are generic, nonlicensed sports games (a la Wii Sports)  and the only well known third-party IPs are 2K’s NBA series, Capcom’s Resident Evil, and Tiger Woods ’10, EA’s only announced Move title.
  • Move is dated September 19 in North America, with rollouts shortly thereafter in other territories.  The bare bones controller will retail for $49.99, but the $99.99 SKU (which includes the EyeToy camera) will be the strongest seller.  Navigation controllers (which are optional and replace the current PS3 Sixaxis controller) will retail for $29.99. New PS3 bundles including both controllers and a camera will hit closer to the holidays for $399.  Microsoft has yet to announce a price for Kinect, but I would expect it to come in right around $150 as a standalone peripheral, and also come bundled with the new form factor Xbox 360 for around $399 as well.  Sony’s a la carte pricing on Move peripherals will probably feel like less of a lift to consumers, but end up costing around the same, or even higher, for the full experience, especially considering most households will want to have more than one player “set” if they commit to Move.
  • The much-rumored premium pricing for Sony’s Playstation Network was finally announced as Playstation Plus.  We know it will cost $49.99 per year, and allow for a “try before you buy” program where customers can play any game for a limited amount of time (specified by the publisher, likely an hour or two) before deciding whether or not to purchase it outright.  It will feature a “game club” of sorts, with Plus members receiving a new, exclusive downloadable title each month.  Beyond that, the PSN offers a lot of features in its current, free-for-everyone state that Xbox Live only grants its paying gold members – Netflix functionality, cross-game voice chat, and Facebook integration.  I feel like this is Sony trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube, and generate a revenue stream on par with Xbox Live.  While the PS3 has the highest percentage of consoles online, there are still a healthy percentage of users that simply don’t care to connect their console to any network, free or paid.
  • Sony showed several titles (all produced by either Sony or their partner studios) that will take full advantage of 3D TV sets, but still work on a standard set as a 2D game.  It’s a soft commitment to 3D, especially in light of Nintendo’s offering.  I think it’ll go largely unnoticed by the gaming community in general.  Each player would need an expensive pair of glasses to enjoy it, and I’m not confident 3D TV’s will be ubiquitous over the next year in the average living room at their current prices.

E3 in Review: Nintendo

Nintendo: True glasses-free 3D in a handheld

  • Coming off a less-than-stellar showing at last year’s E3, Nintendo wasted no time with the first session on Tuesday morning.  They showed great-looking Wii updates to nearly all of their top franchises: in rapid succession we saw a new Legend of Zelda, Kirby, Donkey Kong Country, Metroid, Goldeneye, and the new Mario Sports Mix.  Release dates span this summer (the new Metroid is right around the corner) to Q2 2011.  While the Wii remains a decidedly casual system, dusting off these nostalgic IP’s should help improve the attach rate, getting the consumers that bought the system specifically for Wii Sports or Wii Fit (and don’t typically purchase a lot of software throughout the year) to finally pick up some new games.
  • As expected, Nintendo’s big news was the 3DS reveal.  The hardware is impressive – graphics on par with GameCube’s, a 3D camera, and the ability to watch 3D movies (like Avatar) and play games in true 3D without any glasses.  It maintains the entire DS line’s kid-friendly clamshell design, will run on a free wireless network (similar to Amazon’s Kindle) and be backwards compatible with the DSi’s downloadable games, but no word yet on the existing DS cartridges.  All the models on the show floor have their cartridge slots covered.
  • We still don’t know the release date or price for 3DS, but I would be surprised if Nintendo let this holiday season pass by without at least a release in the US.  They’ve already stated that it will hit in all territories before the end of this fiscal (March 2011), but this hardware seems just about ready for retail now.  They have hundreds of units ready for the show, and it’s very unlike Nintendo to put product into anyone’s hands (press or otherwise) that’s not running smoothly and reliably.  I think we’ll see Nintendo announce a price and date at either the Tokyo Game Show in September, or possibly a standalone press event in New York this fall.  The handheld market has always lagged slightly behind home consoles in price tolerance, so I would expect 3DS to launch at around $199.  Supply could be a real issue in that time frame, so I would expect another Christmas where Nintendo has THE sought-after, tough-to-find gift, and then a phased launch for Asia and then the UK coming a few months after the US launch.
  • 68 games in total were announced as in development for the 3DS.  Of course, they won’t all come out, and they’ll be dispersed throughout the 2011 release calendar.  But if even a quarter of them make it to retail within 3 months of the 3DS’ release, Nintendo will have a very solid launch lineup with support from every third-party publisher of consequence.  Nintendo announced 8 first-party games, including a new Mario Kart and a few remakes of N64 and GameCube titles that should be relatively cheap and quick to produce.  EA, Capcom, Activision, Ubisoft, Konami, and Time Warner all announced extensions of their most popular franchises, for the first time in 3D.

E3 in Review: Microsoft

Natal = Kinect

o   Microsoft pulled out all the stops on a big, splashy TV event on Sunday night, before E3 officially started.  They revealed their new motion control system (the former project Natal) dubbed Kinect, and some first- and third-party launch titles.  The early lineup of games leaves a lot to be desired.  Kinectimals, Kinect Sports, Kinect Adventures, and MTV Games’ Dance Central all feel like early tech demos, or… Wii games.  There are FOUR exercise titles in the 15-game launch lineup.  I’m not impressed.

o   To match Kinect’s glossy black finish and hard lines, we’ll see a redesigned Xbox 360 with wi-fi built in, and a standard 250 gb hard drive (only available in the Elite models previously) shipping to retail as you read this at a $299 price point.  We’ll see a $50 price drop on the existing hardware until it clears out.  Kudos to Microsoft for simplifying their retail SKUs – we saw it pay off for Sony this year.  I still don’t think we’ll see these really move the needle on hardware sales until the Kinect bundles hit.

o   Sega was one of the few third-parties to show Kinect games, with Sonic Riders and Child of Eden.  They also showed a version of Eden for Playstation Move, and it looks identical.  I would expect that trend to continue well into next year: games developed for Move will be ported to Kinect, and vice versa.  That’s bad for Microsoft (and Xbox 360 loyalists), as the unique Kinect hardware cost more to develop than Sony’s Move hardware, and will almost certainly carry a higher price tag at retail.

The Vend is Nigh

I ran across one of these high-end vending machines from ZoomSystems in La Guardia a few weeks ago, during a long wait for a flight to Dallas. They’ve become quite ubiquitous over the last few years, dispensing everything from Sephora makeup to shit for weirdos Sky Mall.  Luckily for me, the machine (“automated retail store” if you’re cool, apparently) near our gate was a Best Buy Express, stocked with travel-friendly electronics and accessories.   Chief among those?  DSi’s and two Mario games!

Seeing I had yet to purchase Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story (which was an inevitability anyway) I figured this would be as good an opportunity as any to pick it up.  Besides, when the machines rise up and enslave us all, maybe they’ll remember that one time I patronized one of their cold robo-tailers  and take pity on me and my family.

The shopping experience was smooth – a touchscreen details every product available, and a click on Mario & Luigi called up back-of-the-box copy and graphics.  There was even a little flag in the corner that showed an ESRB rating, and offered to explain the system.  A quick swipe of the credit card, and a little arm grabbed the box (protected in a cardboard outer box) and dropped it into the slot.  The machine didn’t ask me if I wanted a player’s guide or to pre-order something, so it’s already a step ahead of GameStop!  Zing!

ZoomSystems did a lot of things right in this setup, particularly for a novice game purchaser.  The two games they had on offer work in the one system they sell.  They (or Best Buy, not sure who ultimately calls the shots on these things) resisted the urge to foist some shovelware on unsuspecting travelers and stocked the machine with two very good DS games.  And of course, they’re both E-rated titles, so no issue with someone not badass old enough for Contra 4 walking up to one of these things and picking up a copy.

There are still some missed opportunities here, starting with that great bog touchscreen.  Why did it just show me the back boxart?  I guess Nintendo’s as good as anyone when it comes to writing up back-of-the-box copy, but this is 2010.  How about some video?

While we’re at it, I’ve been able to download  game demos wirelessly from DS Download Stations inside GameStop for years.  Adding that functionality to one of these machines would let the more casual consumer try buy before they buy, and probably improve conversion rates.

Love, marriage, and Kratos

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.

The RPG on the Edge of Forever

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?

Wagging Madden’s dog

Since Mrs. Liquid Architecture got me a Kindle for Christmas, I’ve been on a bit of a magazine article bender renaissance.  In case you missed them, be sure to check out this chilling article on Marvin Harrison’s gun rap from GQ of all places, along with their entertaining take on EA’s Tiger Woods PGA Tour series, post… whatever you want to call Tiger’s whole thing.

Wired’s always a treat to read and Chris Suellentrop dropped a gem in this month’s issue, exploring how gaming’s most successful franchise is also the best selling off-the-shelf  field simulator for a very specific group of employees – NFL players.  Suellentrop calls on a crystal clear illustration from a Bengals/Broncos game earlier this season to show how The Game (Madden) has come to influence the game.

He does a good job showing how EA’s crown jewel series has shaped this generation of NFL players, but I’m surprised Suellentrop didn’t explore how Madden‘s impacted the game itself, and the fan experience of how NFL football is covered.

Digital 1st down lines make the game more accessible to casual fans

For example, every NFL game (and most college football games) I’ve seen since the lat 90’s make use of a digital line to highlight the distance for a first down.  It’s become so commonplace, hardly anyone even talks about it anymore.  When the “virtual line” tech first debuted way back in 1998, I can even recall people saying how it was “just like in a video game.”  Would those handy little markers even exist without Madden?

Skycam apes Madden to show viewers the QB's options

SkyCam (and it’s other branded cousin, CableCam) more recently revolutionized coverage of the game.  It first debuted in the XFL (just like HeHateMe!), giving viewers a floating vantage point above the quarterback.  For the first time in a real live game, we got to clearly see the passing lanes and defensive set at the line of scrimmage, just like in (say it with me now) Madden!  Of course, the makers of SkyCam deserve a lot of credit for their ingenious system of reels, pulleys and cables that make SkyCam work.  But I have to believe the genesis for their entire operation was Madden’s primary camera, and aping that as close as possible in a living, breathing 3D space.

Of course, long time readers (all 3 of you) will remember yours truly covered how ESPN more overtly incorporated Madden into their NFL highlights show.  So Madden imitates life imitates Madden.