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Posts Tagged ‘Grand Theft Auto IV’

As I’ve written before, Sony’s big draw for me (and many others) during the original Playstation era was the level of respect they had for the audience.  Ridge Racer, Tekken, Wipeout, and the Resident Evil series all made their home debut on the system, and all elevated their respective genre to new heights.  Sony marketed to a slightly older audience (remember ‘UR Not E‘?) and introduced an exciting brand of popcorn entertainment.

Fast forward to this Valentine’s Day, and Sony offered up ThatGameCompany’s latest ambitious think-piece, Flower.  For the record, I LOVE this game.  The design is breathtaking, with no HUD and a minimalist control scheme.  The music is subtle and, at times, even a bit somber.   In my short time with the game, it made me think about how our planet functions, mankind’s impact on it, why the movie The Iron Giant is underappreciated, and how various faith’s interpretation of God are different.  Like any good pice of art in any medium, Flower makes you THINK.

It scratches itches that I didn’t even know I had, and makes me want to DEMAND a full apology from Roger Ebert on behalf of theentire industry.  But the million dollar question is, “how many people will really dig this game?”  Perhaps more importantly, “how many people need to buy (and like) Flower for it to be a success?”  Between this game, and PSN exclusives like Echocrome and FlOw, and weird avatar chat/meeting space Home, I can’t help but wonder if Sony may be getting too arty for it’s own good.  It came up in this month’s EDGE Magazine review of Prototype, and I think it’s a valid point.  After all, art that pushes the envelope to an extreme will almost always have a high point of entry that limits commercial success.

Microsoft has exclusive GTA4 content, Gears of War and the HALO franchise to satisfy precisely the type of gamer that Sony connected with over the last two console generations.  Third parties like EA and Ubisoft certainly keep that audience entertained on Sony’s big black box, but I can’t really see Little Big Planet connecting with them.  And with a big gulf in hardware prices in this economy, can Sony afford to let such a big audience go?

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I’ve wanted to cover the NPD Group report for quite some time, but the monthly reports are pretty matter-of-fact and there are a ton of qualified sites on the blogroll that can deliver that quick update every month.  The report they issued today on the year’s top sellers, however, actually holds a few surprises and raises some interesting questions.

Xbox 360 – No real surprises here.  GTA IV had a really big launch, and with the Xbox 360’s sizable installed base, you knew a lot of those copies went to Xbox owners.  I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to say that this year’s Madden probably would’ve been in the #2 spot if the Xbox 360 version were a whole lot better than the one on PlayStation 3.  Keep in mind, last year’s Madden ran at double the framrate on the 360 than on the PS3, and we saw a huge gulf in sales as a result.  Army of Two was critically panned, but still moved enough units to scratch the top 5.  So maybe we’re seeing a more casual gamer migration onto the 360?  They’re the ones that don’t pay attention to reviews, after all.

PlayStation 3 – I love the Metal Gear series as much as anyone else, but even I’m a bit surprised to see just how many PS3 owners scooped up MGS4. Keep in mind, these charts aren’t tracking special editions or bundled SKUs – so ALL those copies that sold as part of the spring 80 gb PS3/Dual Shock 3 package don’t count.  We’re seeing console exclusives go the way of the dodo, but if MGS4 is any indication, they still move hardware and plenty of standalone copies.  Microsoft hasn’t been able to tee up many solid exclusives throughout the 360’s lifespan thus far, and Too Human is getting lackluster reviews all over the enthusiast press.

Wii – Believe it or not, there are a couple of bombshells here, or rather it’s what’s NOT here.  Guitar Hero III is the only third party title to crack the top 5 on the Wii, and this is the first GH game available to many Wii-owning casual gamers.  When a critical darling like Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox can’t raise a flag on your system, something’s not quite right.

Don’t get me wrong – these are 4 terrific Nintendo-produced games, and every Wii owner should have them.  But when you see them all stacked up like this, it makes it really easy to see where some of the more vocal third party developers are coming from when they complain about the not-quite-level playing field on the Wii.  Couldn’t they space all these titles out a little bit more?  Or maybe cede at least one quarter out of each year to their third party partners?

Wii Play launched a few months after the Wii, and it still outsold AAA titles like Madden on the Wii.  What will all these casual gamers play when Nintendo can’t get another Mario game out?

Another big reveal here is the Wii audience’s appetite for peripherals.  4 out of these 5 come with a controller or accessory in the box, and Wii Fit and Guitar Hero III are both way outside of your average price point for a game.

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Seth Schiesel’s NY Times piece on GTAIV voice actor Michael Hollick from last week raised some interesting questions. While I don’t think anyone would argue that a game’s voice and mocap actors help the player connect better with the characters, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison with film, or even traditional cartoon animation.

Actors in a video game are only one small part of a much larger team that builds and develops the characters. Of course, it’s industry standard for actors like Hollick to receive royalties for appearances in traditional media. But as we saw in the recent WGA writer’s strike, the old rules governing things like re-watches, syndication and cross-media viewing simply can’t apply to new media for it to remain profitable.

The fact is, if a developer like Rockstar is forced to pay a hefty residual to the actors that appear in its games, then it won’t be long before the coders, designers, producers, and even QA testers unionize and line up for “theirs.” After all, in a medium where the player is both the director and protagonist (as Stephen Johnson sharply observed), every one of these rank-and-file positions is just as critical as the next. And once publishers have to cut all those residuals checks, it becomes infinitely harder to make a profitable game. So then developers can’t take risks, and the fastest growing entertainment industry quits growing so fast… In short, what’s good for these actors could be really, really bad for the industry.

That said, Rockstar has a reputation for breaking new ground, and fostering creativity. So they (and parent company Take 2) can’t just write off the actors completely. I think Hollick actually showed the way towards a happy medium last week – he appeared on a morning radio show on DC’s WJFK FM. He mostly chatted up his experience making GTAIV, and offered an outsider’s perspective on how the magic happens.

Hollick’s appearance comes after GTAIV was established as a bona fide hit, so it’s unlikely that it caused any noticeable blip in sales. But if Hollick had hit the talk show circuit during release week, chatting up Dave and Jay and Conan, it’s possible that even more copies of GTAIV, and the boxes to play it on, would’ve flown out of retailers. After all, EVERYONE watches late night (including non-gamers), and if games continue to generate cash at a level on par with feature films and TV shows, shouldn’t our talent be expected to pitch in and market them the same way?

Like it or not, actors like Hollick are way more marketable and “TV friendly” than even a marquee producer like Will Wright or Shigeru Miyamoto. If their guilds and unions are going to push for a cut of profits from games in which they appear, then developers should insist that they serve as the face of the game.

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In a development that should surprise absolutely nobody, Grand Theft Auto IV released to a boatload of favorable press, shattered sales records, and even some “Game of the Year” rumblings. It’s a fantastic game and, beneath the hype, a high watermark for an immersive gaming experience that could only be achieved on this generation’s consoles.

Jonathan Kent’s op-ed reaction at GameDaily Biz is certainly worth a read. He doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to how important the success of GTAIV could be – not just for Take 2, but the industry as a whole. It’s a watershed moment for games, being treated as a legitimate entertainment event, on par with the biggest Hollywood blockbusters. It’s the type of reaction that the hardest of hardcore gamers and industry pundits have been clamoring for.

I only wonder if Kent’s piece was about a month premature. If stellar response to GTAIV signified a turning point in the media’s (and the public at large) perception of games as an entertainment medium and an industry, then what will happen when Wii Fit launches?

It’s entirely possible that reaction to Wii Fit will eclipse even GTAIV’s lofty media headspace. It’s been one big public love-in for the Wii since before launch, and the innovative “get off the couch and swing the remote” elements of Wii Sports are STILL landing great ink in local papers nationwide, not to mention books like AARP and Reader’s Digest. Imagine that, coupled with this country’s love affair with fitness and well-being.

Besides all that, the big N still tugs on people’s hearts in a way that the GTA franchise never could. If you can inspire this level of dedication from loyal fans, you must e doing something right:

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