The End of the Line? New IPs in a Console's Twilight Years

This November, Microsoft's newest gaming console will turn 7 years old. Let's put that in perspective, shall we? When the Xbox 360 was released, Kanye West's "Gold Digger" was at the top of the charts. Saw II, Jarhead, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire were topping the box offices. You were about 7 years younger than you are today. We are still playing that same console. The PlayStation 3 and Wii were released within the next year, and the seventh console generation was in full swing.

Back in 2005-06, one would reasonably expect that, by July 2012, we would have a pretty clear idea of what the next console generation would look like. We would be our old hardware to rest, and developers would be refocusing their efforts towards the coming advance. With the exception of the Wii U, this does not seem to have occurred.

So what does this mean for new IPs trying to penetrate the market share of established genre benchmarks? Certainly, there are several avenues available for indie developers to market their efforts nowadays. But for large studios backed by even larger publishers, any non-sequel represents a substantial risk. This risk is multiplied exponentially at the end of a console generation, in which many gamers have already settled in with their favourite franchises, and are more than satisfied by annual instalments. That's what Ubisoft's chairman and CEO, Yves Guillemot, would argue, at least. He has recently stated that he feels his company has been "penalised" by the sluggish pace of hardware innovation, and asserts that "it's important for the entire industry to have new consoles because it helps creativity. It's a lot less risky for us to create new IPs and new products when we're in the beginning of a new generation." Guillemot would no doubt have to concede that these new IPs are often just shovelware and glorified tech demos, but there are certainly some big exceptions.

But is a longer console generation really stifling innovation? Gearbox's Randy Pitchford doesn't think so, arguing that "We launched the first Brothers in Arms in March 2005 and we sold 3.2 million units. Xbox 360 launched in November 2005 so that's about as end of the lifecycle as you can get. And you know what else launched in November 2005? God of War." In truth, God of War launched in March of 2005, but he still makes a valid argument. For example, Okami, a critical and commercial success, was released just two months before the launch of the PlayStation 3. "You can create IP at any time," Pitchford argues. "You just have to make something that people want."

Ultimately, I would have to agree with Pitchford on this one. I don't believe that Guillemot should be pointing the finger at Sony and Microsoft for harming innovation when they merely provide the platform for it--not the content. Games like Okami prove that new IPs can succeed, even when in the shadow of a big new console launch. They are the exceptions rather than the rules, of course, but it is the job of the publisher to invest in the projects and ideas that they believe in, regardless of the console calendar. A bold and innovative new title does not need to be mutually exclusive with one that can turn a sizeable profit.

Has this generation overstayed its welcome? Maybe. But that's no excuse for publishers and developers to rest on their laurels.

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What is a "Positive Female Character"?

Now that the collective ire of the Internet has settled down after the, well, let's call it spirited debate regarding Anita Sarkeesian's Kickstarter "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games", I figured now would be a prudent time to add my two cents. For those unaware (or too lazy to click on the link!), the Kickstarter was an initiative of a FeministFrequency.com writer and critic with the goal of "exploring female character stereotypes" in our favourite medium. She was subject to a litany of misogynistic filth, but also challenged with several legitimate questions--both (primarily the former, these are YouTube comments, after all) can be found en masse here. She managed to rake in a whopping $158,922, far exceeding her requested $6,000 figure, and supporters and critics alike are waiting to hear what she has to say about everything from "The Fighting F#@k Toy" to "Women as Reward". Love her or hate her, she's been a major voice in the industry for the past few weeks.

What really intrigues me, however, is the scheduled topic of her 11th video: "Positive Female Characters!" What exactly does Ms. Sarkeesian mean by this? What makes a particular female character a "positive" or "good" one, as opposed to a "negative" or "bad" one? Essentially: what is our measure for assessing the positivity/negativity of female characters in games?

A good place to start is actually with her critics. Not the vitriol--"Back to the kitchen cunt" doesn't qualify as a legitimate contribution to the dialogue, or, well, as an actual thought--but rather something along the lines of "Men are stereotyped in games all the time. Look at Mass Effect's James Vega, God of War's Kratos, or Gears of War's Marcus Fenix: brawny and entirely unrealistic. What about the confidence and hypersexuality of characters like Dante, or the strong-and-silent types like Cloud? Men don't complain about being pigeonholed into the narrow categorizations, so why are women so upset?" That is a legitimate argument, but one that I think has a couple of problems.

First off, where's the sense in saying "Well, we're both subject to the same conditions, but most of us are cool with it--you should be too"? If both men and women are being stereotyped, but men are generally OK with it, how does that rob a female gamer's right to be upset? Secondly, and more importantly, let's take a look at typical male character tropes: strong and confident, usually leaders. Females? Well I think it would be a bit dramatic to call Super Mario Bros. a discriminatory title, but the motif of "damsels in distress" like Peach or Zelda is getting a bit tired. Perhaps men don't mind being stereotyped because it is usually as a male of extraordinary strength, whereas most women in games are one-note characters characterized by their helplessness or sexuality.

That, to me, is an example of a "bad" female character: one with a personality that is flat and static. They don't undergo any meaningful growth or character development, and continuously harp on one theme, over and over again. "Look at how sexy I am," or "Look at how much help I need," or even "Look at how strong I am,": they're all equally guilty. So, in truth, what makes a bad female character is the same thing that makes a bad male character: lack of dynamism and "roundness".

Marcus Fenix is a good male character, truth be told. He is originally portrayed a musclebound meathead with a bad streak, and not much else. And if you don't look much deeper, that might be all that you see. But keep playing and you see that he's capable of empathy, sadness, and vulnerability. He is a devoted friend and son, and goes out of his way to take care of his own. Hell, he's actually a fairly smart tactician. He has highs and lows, and his personal story is well-paced.

Bayonetta, I would argue, is an example of a good female character. Yes, she is undeniably hypersexualied, to the point of parody. But there's nothing wrong with that: she's confident, and proud of her aesthetics. She is not a weak woman in need of rescue; to the contrary, she dominates enemies and uses her sexuality as a key strength. But, more importantly, you can see her motherly instincts in her interactions with Cereza, evidencing that she runs the full gamut of human emotions. Like with Marcus, many might glance at her and peg her as another sexed-up floozy, but anyone willing to get to know her will realize that she is a dynamic character that develops along a very clear spectrum throughout the game.

Bayonetta shows way more skin than say, Princess Peach, but sexuality alone is a very narrow measure to assess the "positivity" of a female character. That so many people get so hung up on the external appearance of female characters is a huge issue. Again, positvity is dynamism: a positive female character is one that undergoes meaningful and honest character development. Another great example would be Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider, who we are told will evolve from a scared girl to a powerful woman, while dealing with some primarily feminine challenges (I don't care what Crystal Dynamics calls it, that gameplay footage portrayed blatant sexual assault) along the way. Even Chell, Portal's silent protagonist (who looks to be a subject for Ms. Sarkeesian's "Positive Female Characters!"), does not represent a "positive" female character to me--more of a neutral one. I loved Portal just as much as the next guy, but she doesn't really undergo any meaningful character development, does she?

More dynamic female protagonists in games will undoubtedly get more females into the community, which is the reason why all of this is so important. Female gamers can bring unique visions to the industry, and help spark further innovation. Can you imagine a world without Kim Swift? I sure as hell can't.

So when Ms. Sarkeesian makes her video about positive female characters, I hope that she uses this sort of scale to measure positive female characters. The good ones aren't just the ones that are strong and confident, but rather the dynamic ones: the ones who can be all that and so much more.

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The "Actionization" of Niche--And Why it's Going to Be OK

It hit me at about halfway through the onstage walkthrough of Splinter Cell Blacklist at Microsoft's press conference: "There goes another one. We lost Sam Fisher." Somewhere between the new "killing in motion" mechanic, the unbelievably spry cliffside ascent, and the motherfucking precision airstrike, I saw the writing on the wall: Splinter Cell is not what it used to be (you can see the footage at here). Sure, we'll still get to use neat gadgets; we'll still feel the satisfaction of silent kills; we'll still get to hide in the shadows--but that used to be all that Sam was about. Blacklist looks like a game that has stealth sections and components, rather than a dedicated stealth game. Sam Fisher plays a lot like James Bond or Nathan Drake, now: he'll stealth around for a bit, but always seems to end up in some outrageous, explosion-laden firefight.

To be clear, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing. Good pacing requires both peaks and valleys, and the people at Ubisoft Toronto look like they understand this. I also don't want to give the impression that I'm somehow not excited for Blacklist--on the contrary, it made my Top 20 Games of E3. Blacklist looks damn good to me, and it may prove to be that this makeover that I call "actionization" was the best thing that's ever happened to the series. Besides, more radical transformations have had great results: look at Metroid Prime. And why should this trend not continue? Conviction sold over 2 million copies, no doubt due in part to the addition of mechanics like mark and execute. The adrenaline of playing hide-and-seek with patrols has been replaced with the high-octane twitch of firefights. It's familiar and fun to the archetypal Call of Duty online enthusiast, so it makes Ubisoft money. More money means more games--and that's a good thing, right? It's certainly up for debate.

What I do want to emphasize is that this is a trend that is not going to stop. It might make the lot of us hardcore squirm when they read this, but it's difficult to deny: actionization--or in even broader terms, casualization--is evolution. Stealth, survival horror, RPGs--you name it, it's there. For now, we still have our Amnesia's and our Dark Souls', but we have to be prepared to see the titles in these niche genres adapt to a new market demographic. This may prove to be some sort of awkward teenage growing pain, but I doubt it. The genre is changing in ways that may scare a lot of us, but we can't stop it. Some call it homogenization, some call it disaster--and these are fair points. But even though game quality may ebb and flow, the constant of time marches on. Whether the industry is going up or down is up for debate, but one thing is for sure: we're always moving forward.

All of this actionization, casualization, the death of niche? It's progress. And here's hoping that Blacklist shows us how it can be done gracefully.

Thoughts?

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An Introduction of Sorts

While I'm not new to the site, I figured it was long overdue that I actually created an account.

I'm going to be posting regular reviews, lists, and blog posts that probably won't get read. But whatever! That just gives me more leeway to be irreverent.

Looking forward to it,

Travis

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