So about that Kinect...

Well, it's not every day that I wake up to a bomb exploding in my face.

Well, let's talk about the Kinect.

It once watched your every move. Now it simply cries.

So now the 180 is complete. Effective June 9th, a $399 version of the Xbone will be available without the Kinect. Also on June 9th, the requirement to have Xbox Gold to use apps like Netflix and Youtube will be dropped, but that's small potatoes. Come June, the price advantage Sony enjoyed will be gone.

However, so too will anything making the Xbox One anything more than a weaker version of the PS4.

Mind you, this isn't a death knell for the 360. The PSOne and PS2 weren't the strongest of their generations, nor was the 360.

However, those systems had a sheer deluge of quality games to make up for it. Particularly pre-2010, the Xbox 360 was the console to get games on. It had an amazing variety of titles, and the multi-platform games performed better there. Somewhere along the way, however, Microsoft started resting on their laurels. They culled off most of their 1st party development talent, leaving only Turn 10 and 343 Industries left. They leaned harder and harder on non-gaming audiences and left gamers in the dust. As performance parity was established between the PS3 and the 360, Sony leaned heavily on their first-and-second party studios, with hits like Uncharted, Killzone and The Last of Us. Sony once again established the PlayStation 3 as a console for gamers, while MS was re-branding the 360 as the all-in-one entertainment device for which gaming was a secondary consideration.

Indeed, 2010 marked the year where Microsoft was struck by the same hubris that had captured Sony in 2006 and hasn't let go of Nintendo since 1996. Much like with the PS3 and the N64, the Xbox One was ruined by the company behind it simply taking consumers for granted. MS didn't think it needed to serve us, because they believed we were in their pocket. One need only look at the Xbox One reveal 11 months ago.

We clearly didn't matter. And we continued not to matter until the PS4 was effectively positioned, both at its reveal and at E3, as the culmination of a generation's worth of soul-searching and much-needed restructuring at Sony. While Sony was wooing and wowing the people they'd turned away with the PS3 and rebuilding the tarnished image of the PlayStation brand, Microsoft was busy having its own version of Sony's embarrassing E3 2006 press conference.

Now, to Microsoft's credit, they've been rapid about changing many of the worst issues. The DRM that people raged against was removed, along with the region locking, while the system went from having Kinect be plugged in at all times to having the Kinect be something you can keep in the box and never use again if you so choose.

However, Microsoft maintained for months that they would never remove the Kinect from the box. It, along with the ransoming of Youtube behind the Gold paywall, were the last straw. If they bent on these, they would be broken.

Well, now they have bent on the very last issue. And now, they have to prove that they haven't broken. And it comes down to one thing.

Games.

Now let's be clear; Sony will always have the more powerful system. Sony's will always be the system that is easier to develop for. When a third party game comes out that really taxes the two systems, the PlayStation 4 version will run better. However, Microsoft can help close the gap by improving the development tools for the system, and continuing to optimize the firmware to tap whatever else was reserved for Kinect and the cloud nonsense. It falls on MS to bend over backward to support 3rd parties in the development/porting process.

They need to move beyond just "bro shooters." The Xbox 360, especially post-2010, wasn't really worth owning if you weren't much of a modern military shooter fan or a huge Call of Duty online player. The system needs platformers, action-adventure, RPGs, sims, fighting games, everything that makes a diverse library, and they need them in abundance. And since Japan has almost completely returned to ignoring Microsoft, limiting the parity between the two systems' library, well, that leads to the next point.

Microsoft desperately, desperately need to re-establish a robust lineup of first-party studios. Put bluntly, 343, Turn 10 and whatever studio ends up being stuck with Gears is not enough. They need multiple developers to establish a strong exclusive lineup, a bunch of games that cannot be found on the PS4, and thus not be included in the debate about which version has a better frame rate or which version has better textures or what the hell have you. Microsoft needs exclusives, and they need those exclusives to be permanent, so they need to make them in-house, and for that, they need to build up a stable of first-party studios that exceeds that of Sony and Nintendo, and they need to do it yesterday.

Microsoft has done an amazing job fixing the problems that plagued the Kinect. As was pointed out on the new Bombin' the AM, Microsoft has shown an agility up until now that should be praised. Sony took years to course-correct the PS3.

However, up until now, all of Microsoft's moves were just reactions. The time for reaction is over. Now is the time to do something that doesn't merely follow Sony. Now is the time to make decisions that excite us on their own, lest Sony continue to jab them for being a me-too company. Now is the time to act.

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So I Got the Super Retro Trio...

A few days ago, my Super Retro Trio arrived in the mail, and I've been playing with it.

Play ALL the games!

The system's a pretty good piece of kit, but there were some small issues.

First off, all the cartridge ports are astoundingly filthy. There's this weird, oily black grime deep in all three ports that have to be resolved for proper function. Seriously, in the Genesis port, I couldn't use the lock-on feature for Sonic and Knuckles until this was resolved, and many NES games just wouldn't run on first try, or at all.

To clean the ports, you can either use the original systems' cleaning kits if those around, or you can use a game cartridge as a cleaning kit instead. You'll want to make sure to fully clean the game you intend to use for the purpose before beginning. Once done, it's a two-step process. First, insert and remove the game five times, clean the connectors with alcohol-soaked Q-tips, and then repeat until the black gunk you're cleaning off with the Q-tips is not as jarringly black as when you started. The cartridges will have a far, FAR tighter grip as a result, which leads me to believe that this was meant as some form of lubricant, and you'll likely have to do this for a half hour on each port the first time you go, and you'll still have to Q-tip the games after use. I might just make cleaning these ports a weekly thing for a while, see if I can't really make a dent in the remnants of that junk.

Also, the insides of the control pads have a similar issue. Upon taking one of the controllers apart, I noticed that both the boards and the pads had quite a bit of grime as well. Cleaning those is done with Q-tips and alcohol as well, though it'll likely take a long ass time for the boards, as it's layered pretty thick. Thankfully, the rubber pads were easier to clean, but they weren't of the highest quality either. I'm probably going to get some new SNES rubber pads, as the shell is designed just like the OEM controller, and the replacements should fit right in. However, even with the stock rubber pads, the controllers will feel great after they've been cleaned.

Lastly, the reset button. I had to press it a ton of times to get it to work reliably. I can only assume that they're using the same shitty lubricant as the ports, meaning I might have to take it apart and wash the button and spring.

Once all that's done, you have what is a pretty damn nice system. Like I said, once the ports are clean, it fully supports the lock-in feature of Sonic and Knuckles, and all the other Genesis games I've tried so far have had no issues. The SNES is equally impressive. While I don't have the Megaman X games to try out, I can play Super Mario RPG (made in Japan version) and Earthbound with no issues whatsoever, which impressed the fuck out of me.

The ONE issue I have is the NES portion. While it's mostly just as great as the other two, the standard Castlevania III and Dragon Warrior I incompatibility persists, and while Dragon Warrior III runs, the sound is absolutely atrocious. The sound for Crystalis is also mangled. While I don't have Journey to Silius, I can only assume that also has issues. Thankfully, these issues can likely be addressed through modding, and I look forward to seeing what Satoshi Matrix and other modders do to address the issue.

While the OEM controllers have an SNES layout, it's important to remember that they connect to the GENESIS controller ports, so they can't be used in an actual SNES the way the Retro Duo controllers can. I sent my Genesis off to get repaired, so I can't say with 100% clarity whether the controllers will work in an actual Genesis, but I imagine they would. If you'd rather go original, though, you can switch between Genesis and SNES/NES with a flick of a switch. It's important to remember that, while the Genesis port can play all three systems (playing SNES with a Genesis pad sucks, BTW), the SNES and NES ports cannot be used to play games other than those originally intended for those pads.

The button layout when playing NES and Genesis games on the SR3 controller takes getting used to. For NES games, NES B maps to Y and NES A maps to B. For Genesis, Genesis ABC map to buttons YBA, while Genesis XYZ map to buttons LXR. It takes some getting used to, and you WILL likely have to go into the options screen for the Genesis Street Fighter games, but after a while, it'll become second nature.

Lastly, the video quality. It's only Composite or S-Video, but the quality is pretty damned good for those connections. No jail bars, and the NES portion isn't over-saturated the way it was with the Retro Duo.

Overall, the Super Retro Trio is a fine bit of kit, and worth a place in any gamer's library. Be warned, however, that it's going to take a bit of elbow grease to get the most out of the system.

Oh, and the smell of plastic is strong with this one.

(EDIT: I originally stated that Genesis XYZ mapped to XLR on the SR3 pad. This was in error.)

6 Comments

Harbingers of the End, and why they're so damned ridiculous.

There's been a bit of discussion... Actually, there's been a shit ton of talk about whether the eighth generation of consoles will be the last. The idea that we're never going to see a real PS5, Xbox Two or whatever nonsense Nintendo cooks up is an asinine one that is, unfortunately, shared by many short-sighted pundits (are there any other kind?). Let's examine three of the most prevalent reasons people are predicting the death of the console market.

Number 1: Cumulative console sales are down in 2014 compared to 2007.

Cumulative sales compared to 2007 are a bit of a false correlation, because it ignores something that was happening in 2007, mainly the mad frenzy that people had for the Wii. Seriously, that system was hard to find for much of the year, even going into 2008. In reality, as Machinema points out here, the PS4 and Xbox One have both outsold their predecessors quite handsomely, comparing the first four months of each system's life. There is a huge, HUGE demand for this stuff, so why would any company turn down free money? This is especially true of Sony, for whom the Computer Entertainment division is one of the few bright spots in a relatively bleak landscape.

Number 2: Smart phones and tablets are taking over!

Are they? Without concrete software/micro-transaction sales or ad revenue, it's hard to say, but for this statement to be true, it would have to be a guarantee that everyone buying smart phones and tablets are gaming on them. Obviously that's not the case. There's probably more than a couple of smart phone and tablet users who have no interest in playing games on them. Maybe they're using them for music, or movies, or web browsing in Starbucks, or - GASP - actually calling people and doing business-related things. While there may be some consumption of passive media on game consoles, people buy them mostly for gaming, as Microsoft is learning now as Sony builds a large, commanding lead in the race.

Furthermore, smart phone and tablet gaming is a different beast. The free-to-start model, as Satoru Iwata so eloquently termed it, is far and away the prevalent business model for phone and tablet gaming. The problem is that, rather than getting money from a large number of people, they tend to rely on whales, or people willing to spend a very large amount of money on a game. That's why so many phone/tablet games play similarly to Facebook games, with energy bars, absurd grinding requirements, or other ways to make actually playing without giving money on a continuous basis a chore. And the games that don't use that tactic? The "cheap app mentality" has been engrained in many people, and they won't buy something unless on the iOS/Android stores unless it's extremely cheap. It's even showing in PC gaming, where more and more people won't buy games at full price, opting instead to wait until some stupidly low Steam sale hits. These aren't really a problem in the console space, as AAA games rarely go on sale, and even more rarely end up selling for pennies on their original price.

In addition, while smart phones are becoming more and more powerful, are we truly to believe that more powerful home hardware won't come out to match? PCs are already more powerful than the PS4 and Xbox One if you're willing to pay a whole bunch of money, and in six-to-eight years time, those prices will come down enough for a stupidly awesome console to come out in the future.

In reality, smart phones and tablets haven't even killed off the handheld gaming market. The 3DS is a juggernaut. It's served to prop up Nintendo, who would be in a far, FAR worse position right now if not for the dominance of the 3DS.

Number 3: Digital distribution, cloud gaming, etc...

This is perhaps the greatest fallacy, that most users don't want to go to the store anymore. This despite hundreds of millions of CDs, DVDs and Blu-Rays being sold yearly. The problem with many who make this particular argument is that they're coming from the view that most people are highly connected individuals like them, who have absolutely amazing internet and no trouble downloading or streaming anything at all. The problem with that is, in large parts of the US and much of the larger world, that internet speeds are somewhat lacking for increasingly bandwidth-intensive tasks such as HD streaming and game downloading. Also, there's definitely value in increasing the options for impulse buys and the like by having things on a shelf. Look at the Vita, for example. The system has a large, vibrant selection of digital titles, but the selection of physical titles is nothing less than abysmal. By contrast, the 3DS is the reverse: not a very great eShop, but a large selection of physical games. Perhaps its coincidence that the 3DS is so far ahead of the Vita that the latter isn't even worth discussing, but I can't help but wonder if the small selection of physical games, and the resulting smaller retail space it receives (seriously, go to a Wal-Mart or a Toys R Us, it's sad to see the Vita tucked away in a tiny corner like it is) are perhaps effecting exposure.

Then there's cloud gaming. Look at the sad state of OnLive right now. It's mostly been derided as a laggy, lower quality experience, and it never really caught on. PlayStation Now has had good reviews, but so far, the only servers people have tried it on have been in the convention centers where Sony's been showing it off. Where the rubber hits the road is whether someone in Miami, probably connecting to a server in St. Louis or something, can play lag-free Call of Duty multiplayer and not have the image look like someone smeared Vaseline on the television.

Of course, this all ignores the currently hazy outlook for net neutrality in the United States. If ISPs are given free reign to discriminate against certain types of traffic, the prospects of digitally downloading large games are going to look even bleaker for most Americans. Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and the like fighting like mad for the right to extort internet services, mostly to protect their cable services, and the price might be too high for Sony, MS and even Valve to pay every single ISP the potential millions, if not tens or hundreds of millions of dollars needed to get on the "fast lane." Without that privileged access, downloading that 13GB Dead Rising 3 update's going to be a lot more of a hassle...

Put shortly, consoles (and physical games) are likely to be here for a long time to come. The pundits are making the classic mistake of assuming one thing will destroy the other, rather than compliment it. Remember when the Wii came out, and everyone was having a similar discussion? About how, rather than making large, immersive games, companies would instead focus on cheaper, gimmicky waggle titles? Did that happen? No, it didn't. TV didn't destroy radio, internet hasn't destroyed TV, and the prospects for tablets to kill off consoles are pretty damned low.

Put short, consoles aren't going away any time soon, and I'll see you all in six or so years for the PS5 launch.

6 Comments

Gender, Equality and the Search for Common Ground.

I hate this topic so very, very much. I spent way longer than maybe I should have contemplating whether I wanted to type this here blog out, but here goes.

Sexism in gaming. Yes, I'm going into that tornado, even knowing what I'm about to subject myself to.

See, the second-to-last The Point has me once more thinking about this topic, and while I agree that it's something that needs to change if gaming is to ever evolve, I also think that the topic has to nuance itself a bit more.

See, while there are discussions about what happens in the workplace of gaming - where the real issue is - so much of our time is spent talking about character appearance. Once a woman in tight outfit or a low-cut blouse comes on screen, that's what they are. No one talks about her personality or role in the story (save when a Mario game comes out and the tired Princess Peach rants are recycled). Nope, it boils down to tits and ass, because heaven forbid women be beautiful, right?

I find it funny because the PS3/360 generation has given us some of the most interesting female characters in recent memory, from Bayonetta and Morrigan (Dragon Age) to Oerba Yun Fang and Crystal Dynamics' recent re-imagining of Lara Croft. Even characters like Sheva Alomar, Anya Stroud and Princess Hilda have their moments.

Unfortunately, when the discussion only ever goes negative, when the Anita Sarkesians of the world turn every low top and pretty face into some attack on all women everywhere, it obscures the real problem - that women working in the industry have a shit time in a lot of companies.

Also, the assumption that "dudebro" games are somehow what men want to be is pants-on-head retarded, not to mention very, very selective. The assertion that games like Gears of War are "power fantasy," or that all - or even most - men want to be the sort of mindless slabs of beef that detractors think of the Gears characters is a prime example of the misandry that prevents either side from finding common ground.

On a side note, the word "misandry" wasn't in the Firefox spell checker. That should tell you everything you need to know about how one-sided the sexism debate is.

So what common ground do all gamers, male and female, have?

1. We like video games. No shit, right? We don't like being pigeonholed into the nonsense of casual/facebook/social games.

2. We're getting increasingly tired of the increasingly iterative business model of so many games companies. We like variety, so long as the games are still fun.

3. We'd rather not have characters in larger games be cardboard cutouts or tired ass cliches. Interesting characters make for better game stories, which helps with long games, especially marathon-length RPG games and similar.

4. We want the most qualified, passionate people making these things, as that's the best way to make better, more thoughtful games.

I'm sure we can come up with more common ground, but that's a good place to start. None of these things are helped by women being made unwelcome or uncomfortable in the gaming industry. Nor is it helped by harassing and punishing female gamers. Indeed, quite the opposite is true; by narrowing who is allowed to work in gaming or play games, stagnation will reign supreme, at least until gaming dies entirely, which is entirely possible given how shaky many game companies' financial standing seems to be.

None of this precludes women (or men) who dress or act in a sexually provocative manner. Sex, as we all know, is pretty cool too. The issue is when sex appeal is all that a woman has, which is what makes games like Scarlet Blade such a chore to play. Fun, interesting ideas, depth, these are universal things that both men and women enjoy.

We also enjoy being respected. No one wants to feel like they don't matter or, worse, like they're being pushed out because of their gender (or religion, sexual orientation, etc, etc...). A welcoming industry integrates diverse people into it, and thus has more and more diverse ideas, which helps to combat stagnation as you have different people coming up with ideas to please more and more diverse audiences.

That, in the end, is why sexism in gaming needs to be approached in a deeper way than "this character has huge tits, BURN THE WITCH!" Ending sexism in the gaming workplace helps us all, making for more and more diverse ideas. And ideas, in the end, are what gaming requires to survive.

13 Comments

On Nintendo.

I got a Wii U in April of this year, when we were all still reeling at Microsoft's DRM reveal and convinced that Sony was in line with them. I bought the basic, mainly because I didn't really need Nintendoland (or the extra storage, as I don't really partake in digital console content), along with New Super Mario Bros.

I've since built up a decent library, certainly more than I had for the Wii in the same number of months since purchase. However, with Sony crushing any ideas that they were following Microsoft's path, and Microsoft in turn backpedaling so hard they might just slip and fall on their asses, the Wii U has lost its one potential advantage. And now, with both the Xbone and PS4 out, it's time to assess the Wii U.

Despite the click-bait headline, Danny O'Dwyer made several strong points in the most recent edition of The Point.

Put short, the lack of system-selling games on the Wii U, combined with Nintendo's failure to create a second fad, have put the system in a bad position now that the eighth generation is in full swing. PS4 and Xbone will almost certainly outsell Wii U globally by some time in 2014, and third party support will continue to dry up. Sure, Ubisoft will drop the occasional dance and party game on the system, but it's becoming clear that 3rd parties aren't bothering this time. EA has burned bridges with Nintendo, and the near-crippling silence from everyone else with regards to the Wii U speaks volumes. I imagine that, were it not for the 3DS' continued domination, we'd see a lot more companies going the EA route with Nintendo. Thus, Nintendo's going it alone on Wii U.

So, how did we get here? Well, the beginnings of Nintendo's downfall can be traced back to the height of their success. In the years following the video game crash of 1983, Nintendo rebuilt the industry in their image, using their NES monopoly to strongarm 3rd parties for all the money they could get. Carts could only be manufactured by Nintendo themselves, so the price per cart was artificially inflated, and companies were only allowed a limited number of releases per year. Despite unlicensed outliers like the Sega/Atari/Namco front Tengen, Nintendo ruled the industry with an iron fist, abusing their position to tie 3rd parties into loyalty pacts that served to kill the Master System and Turbografx-16. Even the Sega Genesis and a lawsuit ending some of the more blatantly abusive aspects of their business, Nintendo never treated 3rd parties like partners, instead running their games business like a dictatorship, angering many 3rd parties.

Third parties like Sony.

After Sega released the Sega CD, Nintendo looked into making a CD add-on for the Super Nintendo, but backed out well into development with two different partners. Their partnership with Philips resulted in the long-forgotten CD-i and a quartet of the worst games ever to bear Nintendo mascots. Their partnership with Sony, themselves a 3rd party previously, resulted in a cultural phenomenon.

Sony took the technology from their SNES CD project, enhanced the hardware for revolutionary (at the time) 3D graphics, and proceeded to steal the entire games industry from Nintendo, whose hubris led to the N64 being a huge commercial flop. Nintendo was clearly caught flat-footed by the sudden change in the pecking order. Suddenly, they were no longer the top dog, and were really only the second place console by default, owing to Sega's prolonged implosion. With the PlayStation, and then the PlayStation 2, absolutely decimating all competition in the console hardware space, Nintendo systems became known for droughts of quality software between their tent-pole franchise titles. The 3rd parties they treated like servants were gone, and even with the domination of the Game Boy line, Nintendo was unable to secure meaningful support for their home systems.

The only bump in the road downhill was the Wii. With the novelty of motion controls and Sony's own moment of hubris, Nintendo was able to sweep in and relive the amazing successes of the past... Sort of.

The problem with the Wii, other than Nintendo's ego once more inflating, was that it sold to people who didn't really care for gaming. It sold because people were curious about motion controls, and drawn in by Wii Sports. The people who bought the Wii for Wii Sports never bought anything else, and Nintendo failed to see that gamers were going to the 360 (and later the PS3 as Sony turned the ship around) in droves, while Nintendo was stuck with a fickle group of users who quickly forgot about the Wii as the next mainstream fad came. Thus, while the Wii itself was practically everywhere, 3rd parties had treated it like the last-place console anyway. Save for a few fantastic games that failed in retail, the system became a dumping ground for all the worst software in existence. Shit like Ninjabread Man became the norm, and the pitiful signal-to-noise ratio became the stuff of legends.

All the while, Nintendo ignored gamers, to the point where a massive campaign that basically amounted to begging was needed to release arguably 2012's best Wii games. Put short, Nintendo repeated the mistakes of the SNES era. They were riding high, and they didn't care one iota if people were dissatisfied.

So that leads us to the Wii U. After an initial, promising holiday 2012, things quickly went downhill. In the year that they've been the sole eighth generation console, the Wii has sold just over four million, and those people have been treated to a lackadaisical release schedule, mainly populated with hand-me-down ports from 360 and PS3, while Nintendo's post-launch offerings were delayed repeatedly. Worse yet, the people who'd been captivated by the Wii either got over it, or believed the Wii U to be simply an updated controller for the Wii. Either way, the non-gaming market did not want, and the gamers stuck to the 360 and PS3, waiting for something to capture their imaginations. Nintendo squandered their year in the spotlight, and when the Xbone and PS4 hit the scene, the Wii U's fate was sealed.

So where does that leave Nintendo? Before we go on, let's stop talking about Nintendo going third party. They've got massive amounts of income coming in from the 3DS, and the Wii has built them an impressive war chest. Nintendo would have to have multiple decades of straight losses for them to be in any position to question their solvency, and with 7.2 billion yen worth of profits for fiscal year 2013, that's not going to happen. That said, the Wii U itself sells at a loss, while the competitors sell for a profit, and software isn't moving on the Wii U, so things need to change. If Nintendo wants to be a player in the home market and not just handhelds, there are going to have to be some major changes. First off, third party relations are going to have to become a long-term project. Between the oppression of the NES and Super NES eras and the gamers' rejection of the N64, Cube and Wii, Nintendo needs to slowly rebuild their relationships. For the eighth generation, however, they are mostly going it alone, with whatever exclusives they can develop or buy. Given how much money they have, they need to massively build up their first party development. Most important, however, is that they need to diversify their lineup.

See, after the release of Pikmin on the GameCube, Nintendo stopped trying to make new IPs, content instead to feed its young base and most rabid fans a steady diet of established mascots. This is just fine for those who have already bought in, but it's not going to win over detractors. While it would be suicidal to abandon their bread-and-butter franchises, Nintendo needs to do some serious outreach. That means making more titles out of their wheelhouse; shooters, RPGs, strategy... Nintendo themselves need to make games for people who aren't fans of the core five mascots or party games. A company as stupidly rich as Nintendo shouldn't have any problem financing the needed first party expansion to do this.

Lastly, online. It's been said that Nintendo has no idea how the internet works. Nintendo have also shown a willingness to gimp their online services in order to protect its position as the electronic babysitter. In response, those looking to play online games have moved on. If Nintendo wants to move in on the lucrative core gamer demographic, they're going to have to loosen up the restrictions on their online network, and make it easier for people to meet, and play against, each other on their services. As it stands now, Nintendo's arm's-length attitude to online interaction is failing them, and will continue to do so until they change.

Hopefully Nintendo will make the needed changes to become a relevant player in the eighth generation. However, I don't see it happening. How about you guys? Any hope for Nintendo in the future?

3 Comments

Every Generation is Exactly the Same.

Well, here we are. The eighth generation of consoles is officially upon us. I've just played the ever-loving fuck out of Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack, and already have plans to pick up Injustice's ultimate edition next week along with the sweet accidental damage insurance Sony's selling. We see a generation in front of us, full of opportunities for great games, amazing moments and overall excitement. We're also going to see lots of disappointment, rage and the standard idiocy from all sides: publishers, media and fans.

Put short, it's another generation of games.

We're already seeing the beginning, really: people selling up the coming of cloud computing, the end of physical media, artistic gaming, garage developers actually meaning something in the broader marketplace, and this potentially being the last console generation. Talking heads from all over are talking, and the likelihood of any of this being anything more than marketing bullshit is hilariously low. Especially that last one. Let's be honest, we're all going to be here again, talking about the PS5, Xbox Two and Nintendo's next attempt to catch lightning in a bottle, come 2019-2020, and the cycle will begin again. This will almost certainly be preceded by another failed Sony attempt to bite into Nintendo's handheld dominance around 2016-2017. We'll also be enduring another few years of fanboys trying to convince us that tablet and mobile gaming really is more than failed ports and pay-to-win drivel or how PC isn't a totally different market and are totally going to destroy the console model.

We've yet to see the first true stinker of the eighth generation, but we already have a divisive title. We already have people grumbling about features and games that didn't make launch. In a week, we'll be seeing the alpha nerds of the fanboy tribes scanning every pixel of every multi-platform title for any "evidence" of one system's inferiority to the other, and we're seeing Nintendo fanboys try to talk down the next generation, as though only their chosen faceless corporation is capable of compelling gameplay experiences. As the current generation reaches more and more people, we'll get called all sorts of horrible names and be thankful that both PS4 and Xbone share party chat capability so we don't have to sit there muting everyone individually. There will be people saying the most vile, disgusting shit toward each-other, with gamers often being as racist, misogynistic and homophobic as possible, and the media will try to paint these fuckwads as the whole of the fandom. A few gaming-related laws will be passed by state governors, a few studies will be issued by the federal government, and we'll probably see an amulance chaser or two launch a crusade against the sick filth that is GTAVI.

Lather.

Rinse.

Repeat.

We're also going to see games that leave our mouths open, make us jump and cry out to the heavens in joy and reignite our oft-battered faith in this wonderful pastime of ours. We're going to fall in love with new characters, worlds and music. We're going to save the world a few times, maybe have a laugh or two at some caricatured larger than life figure, or skip a heartbeat or two, maybe even shed a tear as a character we'd grown fond of bites the dust in a horrible way. We'll watch walkthroughs and commentaries, both serious and funny, that bring a smile to our faces. We'll find the one or two machinema darlings, bang our heads and laugh at some hilarious meme that a game starts up, and talk about awesome moments with our friends, be it around the water cooler or over our headset. Some crazy e-sports showing will rock our worlds and leave us hype as all fuck. We'll be pleasantly surprised by a sleeper hit every once in a while, a game or two will spark some interesting debate, and @zombiepie is going to have a shit-ton of awesome blogs to look through for the Community Spotlight.

The sun rises in the east and sets in the west, bears crap in the woods, the Pope wears a stupid hat, and the eighth generation will largely come and go like all the others. Some of it is bad, some of it is good, but so long as console gaming is a competitive market, it's going to be one hell of a fucking ride.

Maybe the seventh generation lasted too long. Maybe it ended too soon. It really depends on who you ask. But no matter what you feel about that, we can all agree that it was one crazy ass ride. I expect no less from the eighth, and I'm glad to have got on right at the start.

16 Comments

The End of Blockbuster and the Insular Tech Press.

Blockbuster recently announced the closure of all its remaining US retail outlets, as well as their by-mail rental service, by the end of the year. It's a bittersweet end to what was once one of the most important names in the home entertainment video. Unsurprisingly, many media talking heads have laid the credit exclusively at the feet of digital distribution, failing to see the full range of issues that doomed Blockbuster to the position they ended up in.

Now, I want to be clear, I'm not discounting the rise of digital services, especially the all-you-can-eat juggernaut Netflix. However, this was only one of many issues that Blockbuster failed to address.

Now, first and foremost, Blockbuster was shit to go and rent at. Particularly in the late nineties and into the 2000s, Blockbuster had become more and more dirty and unattractive, with movies getting harder and harder to find on store shelves, usually due to not being placed properly. This was mostly because the concept of customer service had been forgotten by Blockbuster seemingly immediately after they pushed all the smaller rental stores out of business. Hell, Netflix was founded by a guy who'd gotten fed up with Blockbuster's legendarily stupid late fees. Not only that, but true to their name, it was not that easy to find anything that wasn't a blockbuster, which we'll talk about later. Put simply, they beat the competition and then proceeded to get all kinds of lazy. Sounds familiar....

Hella cheaper than VHS

Second, the movies got cheaper. I mentioned the lack of variety in the last paragraph, but this is where it really started hurting them. When DVD hit mainstream at around 2000, it was a format designed with user purchase in mind. Even back around the PS2 launch, it wasn't unusual to see new releases at $25-$30, and that price got cheaper and cheaper to the point where new releases on DVD are $15-$20 nowadays. When Blockbuster came up, it wasn't unusual for a new release movie to be around $50-$100, due to the cost of producing VHS tapes. Now, what does this have to do with the variety at Blockbuster being an issue? See, back in those days, people would go from store to store looking for the movie they wanted. It wasn't unusual for people to have BB accounts at more than one location (as the stores weren't networked, another service fail). Fun story; as a young gal, I actually walked half a day to a Blockbuster several neighborhoods away, looking to rent The Professional: Golgo 13, back when I was really into anime. With the advent of DVD, it became easier to just go to Best Buy or Wal-Mart or what have you and just buy a fucking copy of that less-than-blockbuster movie you wanted to see with the crew over the weekend. The cheapening of movies would not only make purchase of movies a viable idea for the first time since CED, but would also give rise to new competition...

We're EVERYWHERE!

This was the next pillar in the fall of Blockbuster. Even before streaming, Netflix began eating Blockbuster's lunch with their fantastic rent-by-mail service. Instead of having to deal with getting reamed by Blockbuster late fees and not being able to find the movie you wanted half the damned time, you just ordered a movie from their catalog, got it in the mail moderately quickly, and sent it back when you were done with it to get the next film in your queue. In their hubris, Blockbuster dismissed Netflix as a passing fad. It wasn't, and the money made by Netflix's mail-order business funded the streaming service we know and love today. Then there was the automated kiosk, which was pioneered by Redbox. I'm sure you've seen these little bastards everywhere at this point: a red box (thus the name) with a bunch of movies/games in it that can be rented for a buck a day, and even if they don't have the movie you're looking for in one kiosk, it's entirely possible they can have it in another one just a stone's throw away. Seriously, I don't know about you, but 'round here they're all over the place. I have one in my grocery store, my drugstore, the local Wal-Mart, and a few places I'm sure I've forgotten. Because DVDs are cheap and compact, the cost of having a Redbox in your establishment are minimal. As with online streaming, Blockbuster ignored the threat posed by mail-order renting and automated kiosks until Netflix and Redbox had snatched up huge swaths of their market share.

In reality, the writing on the wall was written for Blockbuster before online streaming even became as large as it is now. Between lack of variety, poor service, and cheap ass DVDs, the chain had no way of surviving into the 21st century. Indeed, that it lasted into the 2010s is little short of a miracle, despite the fact that there's still a thriving disc rental market. Had Blockbuster simply been more agile, we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Now, what does this have to do with gaming?

Plays many different games, in many different ways, for many different types of gamers.

There's this narrative, spun by corporate types with a vested interest in taking away ownership rights (along with their fanboys), that digital will completely replace physical distribution in gaming, rather than co-existing the way it does with both movies and music. This ignores the one fundamental truth of the consumer market: different people want different things. Just as not every gamer plays the same games, not every gamer plays - or buys - them the same way. Broadband penetration is still a joke in parts of the US, to say nothing of the world at large, and ideological disputes over DRM will persist for the foreseeable future, and the attitudes consumers will have will by and large vary from person to person. The console market clearly didn't approve of the all-or-nothing mandate Microsoft had initially proposed for the Xbone, but going digital will appeal to probably as many people as it revolts. Options are everything, and those who provide the most options will be king, simply by virtue of being able to appeal to the broadest amount of people for a sustained period of time.

Make no mistake; the time of monolithic, dictatorial retail is over. However, it's not being replaced by monolithic, dictatorial digital distribution. It's being replaced by a cornucopia of choices, both online and off, catering to a consumer base that is becoming more diverse rather than less. The company that makes the most consumers the most comfortable will be the winner. That company was not Blockbuster, and it won't be any company that believes they can make one size fit all.

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The DRM-Free Paradise Behind the Curtain

Giant Bomb, GameSpot and many other press outlets cover Steam almost exclusively when it comes to the PC, to the point where one would be forgiven for thinking that Valve's DRM service was the only place to get games. I got to thinking about this after seeing GB's quick look for The Chaos Engine. I'm not sure if there's some sort of agenda driving the "Steam is PC gaming, submit to DRM" mantra, and I hesitate to call it a fanboy agenda (though, let's be honest, Valve and Blizzard the Nintendo of PC gaming), but I thought I'd take a moment to highlight a few great PC gaming services that offer a wide variety of DRM-free gaming.

GOG.com - This is perhaps the most famous DRM-free service out there. Starting out mainly as a means of reviving classics for modern PCs, they've grown into more and more current game experiences, including the reboots for Rise of the Triad and Shadow Warrior. Of course, since the service is run by CD Projekt, they really got on the map with the first new AAA game release on the serive, The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings. They have an enormous library of games, and it's constantly growing. The sales are pretty cool too. This was also the first place to get the re-release of System Shock 2.

DotEmu.com - While not quite as vast as GOG, DotEmu makes itself known with a variety of arcade collections, as well as a ton of Sega Genesis titles for those who'd like legal, DRM-free alternatives to running them on emulators. there isn't QUITE as much overlap between GOG and DotEmu as one would think, making it worthwhile to look at both stores from time to time. The only thing is that bringing up their genre catalogs can be a bit slow at times - the site needs some serious streamlining. However, DRM-free means client-free, so once you buy, it's all good. They also have android and iOS stores, but I mainly look at their glorious DRM-free PC selection.

The Humble Bundle (mostly). While not always DRM-free, the Indie bundles are almost always DRM-free in addition to Steam Keys. They even have an Android Widget to offer DRM-free android games, which is well beyond the call of duty.

Bundle In A Box - Another "pay what you want" service, this one is far more committed to DRM-free gaming, which makes it a fair alternative even to Humble Bundle.

These are the ones I know off-hand, but if you know some more, let me (and other readers) know! And please, don't take this as some Steam hate post. While I've fallen out of love with DRM, if you can deal with it, that's cool. However, I hope that by posting this, people become more aware that there are options for DRM-free gaming on PC... LOTS of DRM-free gaming. Hopefully, by making people more aware of the many viable alternatives, we can get the gaming media, and even some of the Steam fanboys, to acknowledge that there's a world beyond their walls.

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Constant Revision: The Amazing Adventures of the Xbone.

As I'm sure you all know by now, Kinect 2.0 will no longer need to be plugged in for the Xbone to function or play non-Kinect games. While this is a good thing, this is not going to turn Microsoft's fortunes this holiday.

Now, before I get into the meat of this post, let me make something abundantly clear; in the long run, the myriad reversals Microsoft have made with regards to the Xbone are good for their standing in the gaming industry for the next eight to ten years. With the coming generation likely to outlast the current one, Microsoft doesn't want to be hobbled by unpopular decisions and restrictive design. As indecisive as they look about the system's direction right now, these changes were mandatory if they wanted to stay relevant in the home console space.

That said, now Microsoft has some issues that need to be addressed in the short-to-medium term.

Right up until their humiliation at E3, Microsoft were quite loud and confident in their belief that theirs was the only future, and that we would be thanking them for their bold vision and initiative when the dust settled. The DRM restrictions would lead to better games through the magic of the cloud, and constant Kinect connection would mean that developers would really make the peripheral soar.

Then Sony came by and offered an alternative, one that gamers eagerly ate up.

In the two months since E3 (and in the face of presumably lopsided pre-orders) Microsoft has backed off on nearly all of its controversial policies, leaving only the forced bundling and $100 premium remaining. However, in doing this, they're going to have a shit ton of work ahead of them, and a very short time frame to get it done. We all know that new Xbones will need to undergo a "one-time setup," online, and anyone with a brain can infer that this is a day-one patch to replace the pre-E3 firmware with the current, less controversial firmware. This likely entails re-writing reams of code that took a hell of a lot more than four months to write in the first place, and with this latest reversal, making a version of the front-end that is more intuitive for people who've thrown their Kinect in the closet. Delaying the console is almost certainly out of the question, as they don't want to miss Black Friday.

You know what that means? Microsoft is, once again, rushing a product to market. We all know how wonderful that turned out last time, but unlike the RROD, firmware isn't quite as simple to fix as wrapping a towel around the system. There's almost certain to be busted code somewhere that's going to make the system unstable in those first three or so months. Unlike with this generation, there's no year-long head start for Microsoft. PS4's going to be here this holiday as well, and will likely not have as many issues. Consumer distrust over just how crappy the launch 360s were will lead to every single hardware/software/firmware issue being magnified in the press. MS might want to consider shipping with a 3-year warranty in the box in lieu of the camera.

However, these are going to be mainly issues for the first two quarters or so of the system's life. Fires that burn brightly and run out of oxygen rapidly in the constant winds of the blog-driven news cycle, much like the Wii U's initial update woes (that took two-plus hours, if you all remember).

No, now they have to deal with the tent-poles of their next-gen strategy simply not being there, or not being reliable. The cloud, already hampered by the fact that 3rd parties won't use it for their multiplat titles for anything but token stat-collecting, can't even be relied upon for first-party since systems can now be used without an online connection. The tinfoil hatters worried about encroaching DRM can stop worrying - we're not going to see online-only become a thing this generation, at least not for single player titles. Seriously, I can't even imagine the scale of the controversy if Halo 5 ran like shit unless you were online 24/7. Thus, no matter how much Microsoft PR wants you to believe otherwise, games aren't going to look better on Xbone than on PS4. In fact, the opposite may end up being true more often than not, with the two systems using x86 architecture.

This is easy enough to survive, however. Less powerful systems can have amazing gameplay experiences too, as the Xbox 360 itself has proven time and again. No, it's our next issue - the Kinect - that will almost certainly be the biggest bugbear for Microsoft over the next year.

Firstly, whether it's true or not (and how can it not be true?), most see the Kinect as the reason the Xbone costs $100 more than the PS4. While MS is at least relenting on its demand that we move our coffee tables out of the way to play regular Xbone games, the fact that it's not even needed to run the system only intensifies the question of value. Activision's Eric Hirshberg is already on record stating what we already know - MS has to make the value proposition more apparent than it's doing right now. While removing the requirement to have it plugged in is sure to please privacy activists and people who are already good to go with Xbone, Microsoft continues to do nothing to explain why they're asking for $100 premium versus technologically superior competition.

Not only that, but with all the reversals happening left and right, people have more hope than ever for a version to come out that doesn't have the Kinect at all. While it most likely won't happen this holiday, or even for the first two quarters, Microsoft has proven they're not so pigheaded as to ignore a chorus of people spending their console money elsewhere (unlike another console maker, but that's another post for another day). Thus, "I'll wait for a Kinectless release" is no longer an unrealistic troll post, but a legitimate response. I'd honestly be surprised if we didn't see a Kinectless version of the system by holiday 2014. Why? Because, with a viable alternative from Sony, holding out has never seemed so easy.

I need to state this again - the changes Microsoft are making to the console are good in the long term. Come 2015, only fanboys and trolls are going to be flooding forums with posts about the DRM and Kinect scandals of 2013 (especially if MS relents on packing the Kinect in with every Xbone), whereas their policies would have kneecapped their Xbox business for the whole generation had they stuck to their guns. However, Microsoft will have to prove agile and attentive if they want to minimize the short-term damage, especially since Sony isn't giving them even a moment's rest this time.

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Super Ultra Mega Hyper Crazy Turbo Great Amazing Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition Home Version

Oh Capcom, only you can take a game released in February of 2009 and stretch it out in such a blatant and cynical manner.

Seriously, this is the fourth release of Street Fighter IV.

The fourth!

Now I'm not against special editions that pack everything together in a single version. Hell, I prefer to get expanded versions of games that way (as opposed to DLC that likely won't be there when XBL and PSN leave this generation behind). I have GOTY/Complete editions of Mortal Kombat, Oblivion, Skyrim, Saints Row the Third, and several other games that I can't remember at the moment, and I'll likely get the complete edition of Injustice when it comes out.

Hell, it also serves as a great reason to be against the stupid DRM MS wanted to have on the Xbone. Who needs multiple versions of any one game instead of easily being able to pawn off obsolete editions, right?

However, what Capcom is doing isn't releasing a special edition after a game is successful. This is Capcom doing what they did with Street Fighter II: making minor tweaks and adding a couple characters in an attempt to milk a single game for all it's worth in a desperate attempt to milk a dedicated fanbase.

This is, need I remind you all, a huge part of what killed the 90s fighting game craze. Mind you, the game first came out in 2009, and has since had two special editions, in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Now I'll give them credit for offering this at a reduced price like they did with Arcade Edition and for offering a DLC pack for those so inclined. However, seeing how little effort is apparently going into this (The four announced characters are copy-pasted from Street Fighter x Tekken), this is less a special edition and more an excuse not to get working on a true successor.

Now the question that I'm sure is on everyone's mind is "why does Capcom get away with this nonsense?" The answer, in reality, is quite simple: the FGC worships Capcom.

Pretty much anything that wasn't Street Fighter was abandoned the instant Street Fighter IV came out, and now it's the primary game in most fighting game tournaments. The only game that comes close to the tournament popularity is Marvel VS Capcom 3, a noisy button masher with an equally noisy, obnoxious fanbase. This while other fighting games are doing interesting things with the genre. There's pretty much a block of fighting game fans who look down on any game that doesn't have Ryu and Ken in it. Hell, if it wasn't for Capcom not granting MLG rights, Namco and Netherrealm would have been forgotten.

With this in mind, why wouldn't Capcom exploit this blindly loyal fanbase? They've successfully cultivated a large group of people willing to buy the same game on a near-yearly basis with nothing but roster updates. Street Fighter IV is now confirmed to be a game that can be released on an almost-yearly basis. It's Madden. No, it's better than Madden. EA has to pay the NFL hundreds of millions of dollars for NFL exclusivity, something Capcom doesn't have to worry about when it rubber-stamps Street Fighter rehashes. So they don't have to pay in licensing fees, and they don't have to put nearly the amount of effort and money in that Ubisoft or Activision have to for their annualized franchises.

It's a formula for making wads of cash with very little investment that any company with a brain would die for. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if the only work going on at Capcom right now is porting the game over to next-gen for yet another re-release with a couple more characters and balance tweaks. This while games that are really pushing the boundaries of what can be done in the genre are left to a fraction of the fanbase.

This isn't just a re-release. Capcom's gone past that. This is, once and for all, a confirmation that the fighting game genre, like any sports game, only has room for one mainstream game.

So, how about you guys? You gonna pick this up? I'm not sure I am, but what I am sure is that I won't be buying the first release of Street Fighter V... Assuming there is a first release of Street Fighter V, as opposed to endless yearly Street Fighter IV editions. There's just no reason to be first in the door with Street Fighter anymore.

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