Archive for January, 2011

Is the handheld shoe finally on the other foot?

Over the last two weeks the gaming press has been dominated by handheld news. Firstly owing to Nintendo’s 3DS conference in Amsterdam, where full details on the console were announced, including pricing, games, and more on the system’s capability. The big N’s big blow out event was top of the gaming new agenda for almost a whole week, and why not? It’s big news.

And then last week, along came the announcement of gaming’s worst kept secret: Sony’s successor to the PSP – currently dubbed the NGP. There’s still a lot of details with regards to Sony’s latest offering that likely won’t surface for a while. Chief amongst those is a price point and a release date. But what information Sony did make available is absolutely astonishing. Sony have once again created a piece of hardware that’s nothing short of incredible.

Now when it comes to Sony and new hardware, it’s never surprising when the company rolls out a sleek looking piece of tech that seems years ahead of it’s time. That’s what Sony always does. Building great hardware has always been the company’s strength.

But when it comes to things like software, and good business decisions, Sony generally get themselves into hot water. It’s not good enough to simply wheel out an impressive console if that console then turns into a flop. Lets look at the original PSP as an example: Way ahead of its time, technically superb, and in posession of the UMD as a brand new media format. And yet in it’s early years the console tanked. In fact, even though the PSP is the only handheld I can think of to go against Nintendo and keep going for this long, and even though the console is now in posession of a decent software library, I’d still venture to say that the PSP is still a big flop now, especially when you compare it to just how well the DS continues to do.

I think that the NGP could truly be different though. Obviously, it’s still early days. There are still a lot of ways Sony can go wrong between now and whenever the NGP gets released. But I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t. It seems like the company may finally be making some savvy business decisions.

Firstly, lets look at the hardware itself. Previously Sony’s approach to building something new has just been to build it bigger and better than what its competitors can offer. This approach doesn’t really work anymore. Nintendo has proven that with the DS, and with the Wii especially. Yes, people want bigger and better, but more than that, people are suckers for gimmicks and innovation, which Sony have never really had a go at before. But with the NGP it seems that Sony is having a try at experimenting with new ways to build a handheld. Feature wise, the NGP has a giant touch pad on the back, a microphone, cameras on the front and back, and SIXAXIS motion controls built in (also, on top of these innovative touches, Sony’s still gone down it’s tried and tested route of building a machine with mammoth power. A handheld that can run PS3 games? Yeah, that’s not tempting the shit out of me.).

But the impressive hardware isn’t the only feather the NGP has in its cap. Sony have already announced that a number of pretty important franchises are coming to the NGP around launch. One of the biggest failures of the PSP was poor third party support for games, and this time around it seems that Sony is committed to not making the same mistake again. A solid launch line up will help build early support, and hopefully Sony will be able to keep that momentum going further into the handheld’s lifespan.

But that’s not the best software decision Sony have made for the NGP. They’ve also announced something that nobody saw coming. Something which may well be a complete gamechanger. That something is the Playstation Suite. In a nutshell, the Suite is a development platform for use on both the NGP and on Android phones. And to put it simply, it may be Sony’s best idea since they put a DVD drive in the PS2.

The suite’s a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, it will create a framework for Android phones that can rival Apple’s app store to some extent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that’s a good idea, apps are an incredibly lucrative business, and currently the Android system doesn’t have any kind of universal means of distributing apps, Sony may be about to provide that, and it will obviously be very lucrative. Moreover, by putting content out on Android phones, Sony is extending the Playstation brand beyond its own hardware. In a way, they’re beating Nintendo at their own game, and going for the casual gaming market. When Nintendo went for the casual gaming crowd with the Wii, they basically started printing money for themselves. And now Sony could be about to do the same by getting a slice of the cash all the people who download a couple of of games to play on their phones pay out.

This whole process is a two-way street, which leads me to the other reason it’s a great idea. Not only does the Suite give Sony that brand extension, but it will also work to draw customers and developers alike to Sony’s own hardware. Right now you have a situation where there are loads of developers working exclusively on phone games and apps, and there’s loads of money in it. Apps are the new craze, and Sony would be foolish to not try and do something that would attract the app crowd to develop for the NGP. But instead they’ve gone one step better. They don’t need to try and get app developers on board with the NGP, thanks to the Playstation Suite. Instead, they can just keep developing things for phones, except it just so happens that if they do so using the Suite’s framework, all of that content will also be made instantly available for the NGP, with no need for any kind of extra fooling around. And then there’s the added bonus that people who may start off by casually downloading a few PS Suite games to their phones may then find themselves thinking they’d quite like a dedicated device that plays those things in higher quality. Meanwhile, the execs at Sony sit back laughing at their new money printing press.

Meanwhile, on the Nintendo side of things, it seems like for the first time in the company’s history, the handheld division are actually making bad decisions.

Now, Nintendo is such a powerhouse that I’m sure these decisions won’t really matter at all. Infact, I’m sure that the 3DS will come out, smash some sales records, and continue Nintendo’s handheld market dominance.

But the company may just alienate a lot of people on the way.

When it comes to those bad decisions I mentioned before, Nintendo have made two of them. The first of which is the decision to region lock games.

Region locking isn’t anything new when it comes to gaming, it’s been in place pretty much since the medium began. But this is a first for a Nintendo handheld. Up until now the games have always been region free. But at a glance it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I’ll just have to buy my games from the same region my DS is from. Except that region is Europe – and when it comes to games on Nintendo handhelds and Europe, Europe gets fucked. Admittedly, these days things are nowhere near as bad as when I was a kid. I remember sometimes having to wait as much as three years after a US release for a game to finally make it out here. Sometimes they just didn’t come out.

These days Europe isn’t treated with such disdain from publishers. But there are still games that don’t make it out here, or that we have to wait ages for. Generally speaking they’re more niche titles that don’t tend to have a mass appeal. So it’s the core gaming audience that’s going to be most hit by this.

So financially speaking, since Nintendo’s largest source of funds these days comes from the more casual crowd, maybe it’s not such a dumb move, there’s probably not that much money to be lost. But why do it at all? There’s an argument to be made that the import market skews sales figures a bit, but that’s no big deal, because all things being equal the worldwide number of sales will still be the same, no matter what territory the game was bought from. Except in the case of games that don’t get released in all territories. Like pretty much anything published by Atlus. In cases like that, the import market can actually help create sales that won’t otherwise happen. And more sales means Nintendo rakes in more money from lisencing fees.

So right now by implementing this Nintendo’s got a pissed off section of  customers, and is also fucking over the developers and publishers of niche games, whilst also losing out a bit of money on lisencing in the process. Please tell me if there’s something I’m failing to grasp about why this is actually a good decision, because right now I’m not seeing it.

Then there’s the matter of pricing. And this is the biggy. 3DS games will cost £40 at launch. Quite frankly, that’s going to piss everybody off. As I said earlier, I’m sure the 3DS will be a success no matter what, and I know for a fact hundreds of thousands of people will go and pay that price for games. But maybe they’ll start thinking twice about it. In fact, I’m sure that this is a move which will drive sales down over the long term.

I’m willing to make an educated guess and say that most of the people who own a DS also own at least one home console. If it comes down to the choice of what to spend £40 on, and one of them is a handheld title that looks like something that came out six years ago, and the other is an AAA blockbuster with explosions that are unparalleled in their realism, big name actors providing the voices and likenesses, and some decent online options, I’m picking the latter. In a time where across the globe people are tightening their belts, people want the most value for money. Handheld games don’t often compete with console games on that front. Handheld games mitigate that fact by coming at a much cheaper price, making them appealing.

What makes it an even more abysmal decision is that people will realise that the increased price point is motivated by greed. Yes, Nintendo are a business, and as a business their objective is first and foremost to make some money. But this needs to be done fairly in a way where people don’t feel like they’re getting fucked over.

It’s long been the case that the cost of development for console games has been going up, and perhaps the cost of games should go up to reflect that. And yet it hasn’t. If Rockstar can employ thousands of staff to create GTA4, which basically involved them designing an entire city, all whilst not having to add £10 to the price, why does Nintendo need to add £10 to Dr Kawishima’s 3D cookbook weight loss psychic ability training bootcamp? Or to Ocarina of Time, an N64 game that they’ve made look slightly more pretty? These are really simple games using age old tech, and the fact that they are in 3D is not adding such a great financial burden to the companies that make these games that the price point needs to go up by so much.

Ultimately, there’s still a lot the remains to be seen. And only time will tell what happens to the next generation of handhelds. Sony still have plenty of time to get things wrong in their usual bungling fashion, and Nintendo could wow us with a boatload of amazing new games that make us forget their follies. But at least for now, for the first time I can ever recall, the shoe seems to be on the other foot with regards to which company is making good decisions. Right now there’s only one handheld I’m excited for. And for the first time it isn’t something made by Nintendo.

Disappointment of the Year

In my last post I mentioned that 2010 was a great year in terms of the games I got to play. Even my DotY was something I thoroughly enjoyed playing. If I was going for a worst of the year, I’d really struggle to make a choice, but disappointment is a different thing entirely. And as far as disappointments go, the choice was glaringly obvious to me. In terms of untapped potential, unfulfilled promise, and the amount of dreams that lay shattered like the glass at the Conservative HQ when there are students around; Final Fantasy XIII stands above all, a beacon of bitter disenchantment.

I have to stress again, it’s not a bad game. Although if you read any kind of internet forum with a topic about it, you’ll likely end up thinking that Square-Enix has stooped to a level worse than genocide, and you’ll probably be hearing a lot of that noise from people who haven’t made it past the first 8-12 hours of the game. If this is a situation you’ve found yourself in, then you’ve made two mistakes: firstly, you’ve gone on the internet to find out what people think about video games. Wait, that’s not going to make people read further. one mistake: listening to people who haven’t made it past the intro. After all, you wouldn’t pay any attention to a review of a whole album based entirely on the first song.

However, the intro portion people complain about is terrible. And long. And this is possibly the biggest place where Squenix have gone wrong. You don’t really get to play the game properly until you’ve got past that initial 8-12 hours and acquired a full party and unlocked all the facets of the battle system. Until that point the whole thing is excrutiating. The battle system is incredible when you’re playing with a full party and you understand how it all works. It’s fast paced, flashy and fun to watch. But for those opening hours it isn’t. And here’s a brief rundown of why:

The game has a party based battle system where you control one character and there are 2 others controlled by AI. Each character is assigned a role that determines what moves they’re capable of and how the AI will behave, it’s fairly typical stuff like healer, tank, etc. By the simple press of a shoulder button you open up a menu to choose from 5 combinations of roles that you’ve set up for your team, and you can switch on the fly. It can seem quite complicated at first, but once it’s all sunk in it’s actually incredibly intuitive. The trick to making the gameplay work is to have a certain balance of character roles in your team i.e. healer, tank, damage dealer. And for certain enemies you’ll need to use certain setups for best effect.

The problem with battles during the intro portion of the game is that you only ever get to use two characters at a time, and they’re locked into only being able to access a limited number of roles. This makes things move at an incredibly slow pace, and makes the battles unenjoyable.

The battle system is the least of the game’s disappointments though. At least it rectifies itself. My two biggest gripes with the game are it’s linearity, and the story.

I’m of the disposition that linearity is not necessarily a bad thing to have in a game, depending on what the game is. If this were Halo, for instance, it wouldn’t really be an issue. But if there’s one thing fans of main series Final Fantasy titles expect, it’s a degree of openness within the game. FFXII managed to do a spectacular job of creating a sprawling world for players to run riot in, and that was on the PS2. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable expectation to think that the next game in the series would be at least able to match that, especially with more powerful hardware, and the extra storage capacity afforded by a blu-ray disc.

But for the most part FFXIII eschews an open world, in favour of pushing you down a series of corridors. It doesn’t even try and feign a sense of being part of something larger. If the game didn’t involve battles, you’d almost be able to tie an elastic band around your thumbstick so that it points up, and watch the game complete itself.

What really rubs salt in the wound is that there is a section of the game where the world becomes incredibly open, and if you get involved in the side quests that avail themselves to you during this section, you find yourself enjoying a glut of content and actually doing a bit of exploring. The problem is, that this section is pretty small in terms of both the game proper, and in comparison to other gamess. And if you don’t do the optional content, you soon find yourself going back through the corridors. But nevertheless, this section of the game gives you a glimpse of the Final Fantasy XIII that could have been. And just to make it clear, if you go by that section, the game could have been bloody fantastic.

It’s that failed promise that really builds the disappointment. If the game was entirely linear, it would just be a really badly designed game and I’d think about the whole thing no more. But the game does show that it’s capable of delivering, it just doesn’t deliver enough. It could have been so much better.

The same is the case with the story. It reeks of unmet potential. Although there’s also a serious issue with the pacing. Throughout the game there’s a real sense that Square-Enix have built a rich world that’s just waiting to be sunk into. The foundations of the story are solid, and the world the characters inhabit is thoroughly compelling. The setting is unlike that of any game I’ve played in recent memory. It’s just begging to be cracked open. And you never really get to.

There are moments where it feels like you might, and strangely enough, the majority of those happen during those introductory few hours of the game that I was bemoaning earlier. The story is one of the few elements that section of the game does okay. And I say merely okay, because they’re still not great. But then, that’s usually how stories go, the introduction is there to build you up to something greater, it’s there to get the ball rolling.

But that something greater never comes, the ball stops rolling. And it’s exactly at the moment where the gameplay picks up. For the next 10-20 hours of the game there’s basically no real story development, bar a few bits of exposition. And that’s the greatest disappointment of the whole game. If they’d just kept the ball rolling, and actually added more of a story to the middle section of the game, Square-Enix may have actually had a great product on their hands. Not without it’s flaws, but forgiveable.

And then you get to the end, after several hours of pushing your thumbstick upward. All of a sudden some semblance of a story comes back into play, but it doesn’t really seem to follow from what was just going on. I don’t mean that in the sense that the story isn’t well explained, but rather that the sudden jerk in tempo is abrasive and seems incongruous with how the game has unfolded until then.

Overall the game just fails to deliver on every level. There are hints of genius dotted throughout, glimpses of what could have been, but those glimpses don’t remotely represent what actually is. I still really enjoyed the game, although it seems I’m one of the few that did, but it could have been so much more. Here’s hoping Versus XIII manages to pull the series back to where it belongs.