The Next Gaming Revolution Will be Televised

Most gamers are aware that with each hardware iteration we stand to be less impressed with graphical fidelity than the generation before. It’s argued that the last real leap in visuals was the Playstation One to the Dreamcast (brief pause for the fanboys). What’s beyond contest is that biggest change occurred between the 16 bit era and the 32 bit era with 3D polygonal technology. I don’t see another leap similar to that occurring for a long time; and the big three understand that they are limited by budgets and technology when trying to fleece money from gamers every new generation.

Microsoft and Sony have done a good job understanding this and it has turned into a service arms race to see which one of them can clutter your system user interface the worst. Microsoft is winning by a landslide, with Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, and Hulu already on the console and HBO Go coming soon. Microsoft is not only trying to compete with the Playstation 3 itself, but with television watching time in general. I do enjoy the extra layers of services and I’d even toy with the idea of making my Xbox 360 the set-top box it’s pretending to be now if they can offer actual live television in the future. Beyond that, I would like to get even better integration with my media files. As it stands now, it’s clunky, though power users are loving it. Making it easier for casual gamers to access their home movies, music, and pictures is simply adding value to the console and is a relatively easy tweak to do.

The gamification of every single thing under the sun is another innovation that’s come out of this generation; one that badly needs refining. While it’s fun to earn badges from Foursquare every time I walk into Subway and get treated like dirt, I’d like for one of the big three to take the reins and show everyone else how it’s done. Yes, notify me that I received the “Press Start to Play” achievement but they need to mean more than they do now. I’d like to convert my points to buy virtual goods. My dashboard needs dressing up, as does my avatar. I shouldn’t have to spend hard earned, poorly converted space points to do that when I have a boatload of useless points accumulating for collecting every single package in Grand Theft Auto 4. Also, it would be fun to be able to wager my points against someone else in say, a hand of poker, or a Call of Duty match. Point is, yes; it’s fun to accumulate points and rewards at every corner, but letting me do something with them, anything with them, will go a long way in making me care.

The biggest innovation in this generation is the digital marketplace. This is critical for the big three to understand; we have spent hundreds of space bucks in the digital game space and we intend to carry our DLC over into the next generation. The first company to block that path will likely forfeit a lot of potential shoppers; since there is no real precedent for digital game libraries, we are blindly trusting Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft right now. Of course they will tell you that you still own the games since you can still hook up the old console to play them, but realistically I’d say there is a very small percentage of gamers that keep their old consoles hooked up once it’s time to move on. I can’t stress how important this is for consumer trust and for the gaming economy in general.

Motion gaming also needs to go. It’s a lame duck innovation that created the facade of converting people into gamers when in reality, that is simply not the case. Anyone with arms and legs can play Wii Sports and according to sales everyone has, but they’re not buying new games; there isn’t any growth from that sector. Instead, people only bring out the Wii during family events and flail their arms until grandpa has a heart attack. Grandpa going into cardiac arrest does not make him a gamer. Sony with the Eye Toy for the Playstation 2 had the right idea. Create some casual games for casual fans and move on. Before the Wii drove every soccer Mom mad, Sony had no intention of making the center of the gaming world a motion activated one. Let’s press the reset button and pretend motion gaming did not happen; let’s get controls right before moving on to the next big bang.

In the end, the next generation will bring with it, a few surprises. After all, this is still a very young industry, one that is still trying to find it’s place in our culture. It’s important to continue to move forward as we always have; I only hope we take some time to stop and refine some of the great ideas that came out of this generation before we move on to the next one.

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Answering the Call of Duty Elite

Call of Duty is as close to an eSport as you can get in the gaming community. A new season comes around every year, and for the most part, the rules stay the same, and everyone just tries to get better. People win, people lose, and according to what I hear, everyone has slept with everyone else’s mother; just like the NBA.

Currently, in Call of Duty: Black Ops, I have a respectable kill/death ratio of 1.33 and climbing. I’m not very good at a lot of games, but the ones I am good at; I can usually do well enough to brag. Like I’m doing now. I have one major gripe; most of my friends that play Black Ops do so on their Playstation 3s. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but I prefer the Xbox 360 controller because of the offset analog sticks and the better triggers. So while I can brag to them about my numbers all I want, it’s a narcissistic hassle to turn on my 360 and load up COD whenever they come over, just to show them how amazing I think I am. This is why I’m so excited about Call of Duty Elite.

Sports have ESPN, and now serious COD players have Elite. Sports and eSports come down to the same things – competition, strategy, and stats. From what I can see from the CODE beta, it has everything an eSports fan would want out of a service. I can compare myself against others, I can gauge my improvement over time, and among a host of other things I can look at specific maps and plan my attack accordingly. While this may not be brand new to everyone (Bungie.net says hi), this will be the first time a service like this goes mainstream in a way that only the Call of Duty brand can do.

What hasn’t been clear up until now, is what’s going to be free and what sits behind the paywall. Now we know the extensive stat tracking will be free, which for most gamers will be the enough, you also get clan support, and mobile device apps, among other things. For those that want a bit extra, Activision is promising for $50 a season (a year) they will get monthly downloadable content, including maps, “Pro” analysis & strategy, and Elite TV which will is described as “episodic entertainment” hosted by Will Arnett, and Jason Bateman.

Arguable the biggest draw here is still how deep the stat tracking rabbit hole goes. Virtually every bit of information you could want is there and easy to access. Want to know how long you’ve deprived your loved ones from your company? You can see here. Maybe you want to see how many faces you’ve shot off; they have that too. You can even go through recent matches and pinpoint where XxMadblunts69xX kept stabbing you in the face. Right now, the information on Call of Duty Elite has me really happy with the service. I believe other gamers that are serious about Call of Duty will be also.

Activision always has an uphill battle when it comes to perception of them and the Call of Duty franchise, but credit needs to be given when they’ve clearly earned it. Call of Duty Elite, if it works, can change the landscape of competitive gaming for years to come. It’s true that this was always the direction it was going, but when a game of this magnitude goes the extra mile to impress us, it’s our duty to answer the call (sorry about that).

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A Tale of Two Sonics

After playing the Sonic Generations demo for the 40th time, I began to think about the Sonic franchise and it’s meteoric rise and epic fall from grace in the industry.

I credit Sonic, Sega, and the Genesis system for making me the hardcore gamer I am today. Of course, I had game systems before the Genesis but they weren’t exactly mine. I played the family Atari and my older brother's Nintendo. The Genesis though, that was all mine. It came packed with Sonic the Hedgehog and when I first popped in the cartridge, I remember thinking – no – knowing that this was something altogether different. The Badniks felt almost life-size, the cacophony of sound that came out of my television was surreal; and how about that “waiting” animation Sonic performed when I let the controller sit for too long? All were, at the time, utterly mind blowing.

What made Sonic such a compelling game back in the 16-bit era was not just the speed the game moved at. Sonic games were great because the amount of exploration the levels offered for a platformer were at the time, rivaled only by Super Mario World. Sure, running through them like a hedgehog out of hell was fun; but the option to stop, let Sonic catch a breath, and explore or backtrack in the world for a hidden Special Ring or Goal Post for bonuses was half the fun.

That exploration is what’s been missing from Sonic games since Sonic Adventure came out for the Dreamcast. Don’t get me wrong, Sonic Adventure was well received, but that probably had more to do with the the shiny new Dreamcast than the actual game. Ever since Sonic travelled into the 3D realm, the Sonic Team has thought it wise to remove exploration from the franchise. I’m not entirely sure who thinks the racetrack levels are good, but they’re not; they’re actually sort of terrible. For reasons, the Sonic Team seems to think that improving Sonic simply means "make him go faster". The poor guy has been running for the last ten years at top speed with no where to go.

Let’s pretend the first ten years were like the last, where all you did was simply press forward until you hit the finish line. Forget about finding hidden Special Rings, forget about branching paths within levels, and forget about the excitement of finding just enough rings to turn into Super Sonic. It would be transformed into the monotonous activity of running forward until you turned gold, only to then fly forward even faster. If that sounds exciting to you, then you’re in luck; Sega has a catalog of recent Sonic games you're going to love. For everyone else that grew up on 16-Bit Sonic; Sonic Generation might just redeem the franchise.

From what I've played, the game looks like it will finally give the blue dude with a ‘tude (sorry, before I wrote this up, I bet myself I couldn’t work that into a sentence; I won) somewhere to go. I can ignore the contrived reasoning behind two Sonics in my game because Sega looks like they finally have the level designs right. They go up, they go down, they let you backtrack a bit for hidden rings and power ups. This is literally the most excited I’ve been in years about collecting rings. That is as sad as it sounds, but I don’t care because as a Sonic fan I’ve been put through the wringer for the Blue Blur (yup, again) and it looks like I can finally hold my head high.

Keep in mind, the disclaimer here is that the demo showed off only the 2D side of Sonic; but contrary to popular belief those same "press forward pitfalls" have tainted the last portable 2D Sonic games also. This is still a marked improvement over those; and in my opinion, I can forgive some bland 3D level design if the rest of the 2D gameplay is solid (I’m all about baby steps).

If you’re wondering, I’m purposely avoiding anything about Werehogs, Excalibur swords and Evil Hedgehogs with guns. As bad as those ideas are, they’re not the most egregious offense Sonic Team has made with the franchise. Of course, I haven’t played the full game yet and knowing how Sonic Team likes to throw dirt in a perfectly good martini, there is always reason to worry. This is just my opinion from playing the demo over, and over again, but it seems like Sonic Team finally got it right.

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Day in the Life of a 16-Bit Boss

I wake up at 7:00 AM every day and brush my teeth like everyone else. I put my pants on one leg at a time just like you; but this next part is where we differ. I work on the top floor of a very tall building; a sky scraper if you will. I run a company –no, sorry– a corporation that specializes in getting results. What results, you ask? Whatever I want them to be; but it usually revolves around taking over the world. Some may call it an empire, but I don’t like to brag. They also call me evil, but they’re just being dramatic. So what am I? Well, for starters I’m bored.

See, plotting to take over the world is not that difficult. I could create a virus that turns everyone into zombies – just like that. You’d be surprised how much your government is willing to pay for that sort of thing. Something about ultimate weapons and such; those details, I don’t get into them. I could also unleash an evil monster that threatens the existence of every living person on this planet. That’s the side that gets all the press, but in my opinion the day to day is far more interesting; and that’s what this is about – my way of getting through the work day. Waiting at the top floor for some tights-wearing, blue haired freak who’s trying to save the day can get quite boring at times.

For starters, good help is key. So I take out an ad in the local paper and conduct meet and greets (I learned long ago the word “interview” scares off the type of people I’m looking for). It’s important that these underlings are no smarter than a high school dropout; I can’t have them asking morally gray questions, now can I? I also prefer to get them in packs so twins, triplets, and quadruplets are ideal. Matching outfits is a must (they are a team, after all) and of course a chip on their shoulder is practically required. That’s why I only hire thugs with names like Nails and Slag. These particular individuals are so angry at the world. They’re willing to punch anything and anyone that stands in front of them.

Enough about them though, because I’m the one that does most of the work. I’m the one that sends the threatening letters to would-be heroes. I kidnap girlfriends and princesses, and generally provoke everyone I can; all by myself. Who do you think prepares all those whole turkeys dinners? My men have to eat. When my henchmen are gathered, hidden in a dark alleyway (in strict single file formation, of course), waiting...and waiting...and waiting for anyone with a head to punch, they get very hungry. So I hide turkeys and burgers in trashcans, mailboxes, basically anything that can be punched into oblivion at a moment’s notice. I can’t make it too hard for my guys though; you know, high school dropouts and all that.

So you see, the food is for them – not Johnny Square Jaw. Yet, they never manage to find it themselves. Sir Saves-a-Lot usually comes and takes all the food for himself. This, as I’m sure you can understand, gets quite old; you can see why I try to handle things myself when I can. How do you think I got this body? I’ve had to work at it. I’ve trained myself to be the ultimate killing machine. I’ve practiced and perfected a strategy that tires my opponents while I stand there with practically double their health. I have this amazing front kick that can destroy anything in it’s path. After about three vicious front kicks and a short spray of bullets from my rifle, I usually call in some guards to tire this Joe-do gooder out a bit while I rest and regain my strength. Once I’m at full health again (or close to it) I go back to my devastating, unstoppable attack of kicks and bullets; a few rounds of that always does the trick. I know what you’re thinking, what happens if I fail? What happens if some no name schmuck with an unreasonable amount of lives and hair trigger special attack were to take me down? Sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t worry about those things. See, I’m a 16-bit boss, and there’s always a sequel.

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A Summer Drought to Get Excited About

On the Weekend Confirmed podcast last week Garnett Lee and Jeff Cannata briefly talked about summer droughts and how it allows them to tackle their pile of shame. That’s exactly the reason why I love summer droughts. Like many gamers, I find it hard to keep up with new releases while pretending to maintain a real life, so I use this lull to catch up on all the unfinished games that hate me.

The summer and winter months used to be the best time to make up ground on games you’ve skipped or haven’t had time to finish, but in the last few years the trend of pushing games back until after the holidays has seen winter releases become just as big as the fall’s. That leaves me with the summer. The perfect time to go outside, get some color in my skin, meet some new people, then hurry myself back into an air conditioned room, cursing the stupid sun for trying to kill me. Does it have to be that hot?

This is my chance to tackle my pile of shame; which so large I’m a little afraid to count it out loud in fear that the hardcore police will knock down my door while I try to perfect my pose in Kinect Adventures. So in order to maintain my hardcore cred, I’m going to start and finish Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood. I’m a big fan of the series and I’m really intrigued by where this story is going. Also, at the pace Ubisoft is going, if I wait any longer they’ll take the series into space and all hope of catching up will be lost forever.

That’s the beauty of the summer drought; sure podcasts aren’t talking about much, and blogs are rolling a bit slower, but it’s a nice time to reflect on what we have. Sometimes the Industry moves at such a fast pace it’s hard to not get caught up and skip perfectly good games because the new big thing came along. Summer time droughts are like a pause button for your gaming career. A hot, sweaty pause button.

What are you playing during the summer drought?

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How Hackers Let Sony Off The Hook

I’ll be honest, I never once thought to touch the OtherOS feature that was initially built into every Playstation 3. In that regard I’m a pretty boring gamer. I don’t tinker with my systems; I can hardly get myself to install new themes. I usually enjoy the console I get in as “pure” a form as possible. With that being said, some people love to tinker, and upgrade, and push their hardware in whatever means possible. When Sony updated the Playstation 3 to 3.21 and removed the OtherOS feature it started a commotion like nothing we’ve ever seen in this Industry. The subsequent events that followed were as dramatic as they’ve ever been in gaming. Hacker, George Hotz rooted the Playstation 3 to get the OtherOS feature back, Sony, in turn, sued him for it, soon after the Playstation Network itself was hacked, and then taken down, this left users with their data compromised and pundits bickering about who was truly to blame.

Since those dark days of the Playstation Network outage, among others; Sega managed to get hacked, Bethesda also, and never to be outdone, EA was the latest target for hackers. What do these game companies have in common, other than the obvious? Nothing–to mainstream media outlets; but the hardcore gamers that are invested in this story understand the Sony hack had little if anything to do with the other game companies. Originally, when Sony was hacked, there was a small movement that felt Sony’s unjust business practices brought this upon themselves and now it just seems like a random attack from a cyber-bully. This works in Sony’s favor. Howard Stringer, CEO of Sony (for the time being), has argued that these attacks are part of a global attack and not just Sony.

Sony did what they’re supposed to do; defend their intellectual property. By suing George Hotz they were attempting to send a message to anyone else wanting to modify their system. Again, I’m not into the hacking scene; I usually take what the hardware manufacturer gives me and go on my merry way, but what all this comes down to is George Hotz putting a feature back into a system he purchased and showing others how to do it also.

It’s more than mildly upsetting to think that Sony will ultimately learn nothing from this. I’m not suggesting someone else go out there and make an example of them but when I buy a game system, I want features added, not removed. The fact that these events will unfold and end with a Harrison Ford-style hunt for fugitive outlaws means the initial consumer rights issue will be lost.

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I Believe the Fall of Troy Began This Way

It’s called NUad or Natural User-Interface Advertising if you’re the long winded type. It’s being touted by Microsoft as the platform that will “change television as we know it forever”. I’m a bit more skeptical, but let’s get to the details first. Using the Kinect, Microsoft intends to change the passive viewing of advertisments into an interactive sport; you know, like trying to close a pop-up ad.

The Apple-style hyperbole comes from Mark Kroese, General Manager of the Advertising Business Group within Microsoft’s E&D Division. Mark points out five formats with Kinect that enable advertisers to create an “interactive experience”. From what I saw, I will give them credit; the technology works. Other than interacting with Kinect and voting for say, your favorite color; you can also talk to your TV and say things like “Xbox Tweet” which sends a tweet telling everyone you fell for it. Saying “Xbox More” will send you an email detailing the product further and Microsoft also says users can use this feature to receive digital coupons as well, “Xbox Near Me” sends a text message to your phone locating the nearest retailer, and “Xbox Schedule” will send a calendar reminder about upcoming shows.

With Microsoft promising to revolutionize how we interact with ads on our Xboxes, it’s not too early to predict that Kinect will probably come bundled and/or built into the next Xbox console.

Right now they’re leveraging their 10 million Kinects out there, which brings back not-so-fond memories of the Trojan Horse worries of the original Xbox when it was first released. Rightfully so, as many gamers will tell you while the Xbox brand became more popular over the years, our Xbox dashboards have gotten more cluttered with irritating ads.

It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Microsoft is trying to reinvent TV ads; after all, the TV is still the biggest screen in the house and as phones and computers have become more prevalent, TV ads have become more irrelevant. Microsoft is trying to get a jump start in the new/old space and they believe Kinect being the new hot thing will help them to do so.

I will say this about Microsoft – they may misstep with a lot of products and services but when they really want to, they can penetrate a market very quickly. I have no doubt that NUad could be big but we’re going to have to endure some downright awful attempts from advertisers before someone hits the sweet spot.

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EGMi for iPad

If you haven’t checked out EGMi on the iPad, you’re missing out on the future of digital magazines. Anyone familiar with the digital edition of Wired will feel right at home here. I’ve long thought of myself as a connoisseur of video game magazines and I love how interactive and fun the digital version is. Once you download the issue it (obviously) resides locally on your iPad which is a good thing for me since I travel underground to go to work. What makes EGMi so good is that, like Wired, its pages are interactive; from slide shows of the game in question to video trailers, and even audio clips pulled directly out of interviews. The overall design of the magazine suits the tablet well, and as much as I love hard copies, I would not be entirely unhappy if the EGM magazine one day went digital only. At the very least it’s a viable last ditch effort if the magazine were to fail.

It's been well documented that the Internet has killed a lot of the magazine business because a monthly magazine simply can’t compete with the ‘round the clock coverage that websites provide. On the flip side, where magazines tend to excel is in how well thought out and well written a lot of their features are. While you may not get a timely review for a game, you will get a thorough feature on the company behind the game. To me that is the draw of a quality magazine. However, I also want my news updates and with a weekly delivery schedule, EGMi is attempting to provide the best of both worlds.

EGMi also works on a browser and is still fully interactive, but it tends to lose some of it’s sparkle on a computer monitor. Bravo to those guys at EGM for coming up with this quality product. Their readers have been asking for this since the relaunch of the brand and magazine in March of 2010. It’s been a long time coming; with a lot of deadlines missed, but in my opinion the wait was well worth it.

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Keep Calm, and Quiet Down

I miss being surprised at E3. Lately it’s like the video game industry has "kid sister" syndrome where they want to tell everyone everything, all the time. If it’s not platform makers posting the details of their press briefing hours beforehand, it’s producers talking throughout entire demos, telling us every bit of detail so we don’t–god forbid–gloss over how well textured each street lamp is. Can someone in this industry practice some discretion? Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate demos and trailers, but some of these games risk being overexposed too early into their development cycle.

I really wish I hadn’t known about Halo 4 before it was announced; it would have been a great surprise at the end of Microsoft’s otherwise humdrum showing. While I’m wishing for things, I also wish “Mr. Caffeine” didn’t exist. Some games showed well but the combination of carefully scripted demos and over-anxious PR reps giving talk throughs rather than walk throughs, left some of the presentations feeling a bit flat and uninspired. I don’t need to know how many weapons are in the game; I assume there will always be a shotgun and sniper rifle in every game from this point on and I look forward to shotgunning Lebron James in NBA 2K12 as much as the next guy. I also don’t need to know how many different ways I can take down a thug. Yes, I’m glad I can break every damn bone in his body when I level up; yes, I’m that angry, but let me find that out for myself.

Letting me discover things on my own adds so much to the experience. I think experimentation is one of the core attributes of the game industry. When I turn on my game for the first time, I press all the buttons one by one to see what each one does. I don’t bother opening that flimsy user manual for help, besides, these days it’s only good for reminding us not to swallow our tongues and if said tongue is swallowed Activision is not responsible. So I want to be on my own. I want to get the game in my hands and run around; finding out what the developer has in store for me first hand.

Lastly, if a game isn’t scheduled to come out in the next 16-24 months and/or you don’t have a single piece of game footage, would you kindly not tell me. I noticed Nintendo made an attempt to get the attention of the hardcore by mentioning they were making Super Smash Bros for every platform they ever created. That proverbial dog bone was thrown in towards the end of the show, and while it got a thunderous applause, Nintendo didn’t show a single slide and quickly moved on to the next topic, thus killing the momentum.

E3 is a lot of fun and surely this is the place to make announcements and show off new builds of upcoming games. After all, when the stock market is watching, everyone has to put their best foot forward – just don’t show all the goods at once.

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Nintendo WiiU Will be a Big Deal

So I haven’t quite figured out how to write it, is it Wii U, is it WiiU, or Wii+U? I doubt it’s that last one. However the collective decides to write it, it’s sort of a game changer. Listen, I’m not a Nintendo fanboy. I hugged my Sonic doll before Mario in the 16 and 32 bit era but know your history. Nintendo makes game changers. Who do you think made analog sticks a standard? Or force feedback, or motion, hell, even the diamond shape button configuration on controllers can be traced back to the Super Nintendo.

The WiiU will be a big deal. It may not be exactly what we expected and Nintendo’s message might have been a little muddled (we weren’t even sure it was a separate console until G4TV asked Reggie after the briefing) but the idea that you can have your inventory on the controller, or call plays in sports games privately is a concept worth stealing (Note: Not unlike what Sega wanted with the Dreamcast). That UI stuff on the controller is a cool idea but it’s not even the idea for the WiiU.

Being able to play console games while dad watches his sports, or mom watches Cake Wars is a big deal for families, and can bring in even more casual gamers into the fold. Still, the hardcore doesn’t have a real reason to care about this yet. All we wanted was HD graphics, and dual analog sticks, and we got it.

With Battlefield 3, Batman Arkham Asylum, Darksiders 2, Tekken, and a few others all announced for the WiiU, Nintendo might have finally hit that sweet spot for gaming, attracting hardcore gamers along with their mothers.

I guess time will tell how this really does, or at least until one of the other platforms copy it.

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