29 April 2009

Fallujah's Days Are Numbered...

"ZERO!" says Konami.

I must admit to being *a little* surprised about Konami's cancellation of Six Days in Fallujah just ONE WEEK after showing it off at their very own Gamers' Night event. I say 'a little' because of:

  • a) the backlash from soldier's families and veterans ("how DARE you document true war in a toy?!");

  • b) mixed responses from games journalists regarding the intent behind the game; but most of all:

  • c) Konami and Atomic Games don't seem to be on the same page regarding (b).

Konami storming the Atomic Games office for Fallujah's source code.

[Does anyone else love the fact that 'Fallujah' looks just like 'Hallelujah' except you get to enunciate the 'j'?]

Take a look at these choice quotes and see if you can spot the difference:
'US Marine Corps Corporal Michael Ergo explained how important he feels videogames have become to our culture, and how they are "one, if not the most important" mediums for telling stories such as his.'

Creative Director Juan Benito posted:

"We want people to experience something that's going to challenge them, that's going to make them think and provide an unprecedented level of insight into a great military significance."

Atomic Games President Peter Tamte posted:

"What we're trying to do is recreate the stories of the Marines that we've spoken with and that are involved in the creation. And we're telling those stories of those particular Marines."

Konami Marketing VP Anthony Crouts posted:

"We're not pro-war. We're not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it's just a game."

Bit of a contrast in vision there, wouldn't you say? It sounded like the Konami VP was trying to put out a PR fire.

Atomic Games: on mission to find a new publisher?

It's probably for the best, really. Hopefully now Atomic Games can shop around for a publisher whose vision for Fallujah doesn't conflict with theirs. And then we can finally get around to defending a videogame's right to tell someone's story.

Toy indeed.

P.S. Interesting how Konami backed down from Fallujah, while Capcom went full steam ahead on RE5 following similar, if not greater levels of criticism from the press. If Fallujah was a Call of Duty game, this may not have been a problem.

P.S.S. For more Fallujah-related reading, check here, here, here, and here.

24 April 2009

Zombie is the New Black.

You thought this would be yet another discussion paper on race and Resident Evil 5, didn't you? Not that that discussion isn't worth having or anything (though nearly every article I've read is too timid to provide a definitive verdict on the game, other than to conclude 'this is a discussion worth having' - 'RE5 IS RACIST' - THERE YOU GO; now let's get on with the discussion already!)

Let's have that discussion one day. But not today.

No, I won't be talking about any of that. (From that point of view, it would have been more prudent for me to name this article 'Zombies: The Darlings of the Development Community,' but I needed a real attention-grabber. Seeing as 'RE5 May or May Not Be Racist' is such a hot topic at the moment, I thought I'd use a bit of double entendre with 'the New Black'. For the purposes of this article, 'the New Black' refers to the colour black in a fashion sense. Is that blacksploitation?)

Zombie is the New Black; or, Zombies: The Darlings of the Development Community; or, RE5 May or May Not Be Racist. THERE.

Zombies are all the rage at the moment. Resident Evil 5, House of the Dead: Overkill, Left 4 Dead, Dead Space, Dead Rising - all from this generation of consoles; all featuring undead antagonists. Even MadWorld has zombies. It's a worrying trend when you think about it, not from a genre homogeneity point of view (though there is that, too), but from an AI perspective:

Zombies are dumb. And that's convenient.

The problem then becomes, "how dumb should we make the A.I.?" And it's a lot easier to make something dumber than smarter. It's like porting down games versus porting them up. If you're porting from DS to PS3, then all of a sudden you have to make things that weren't even there before.

When a player sits down to play a zombie game, they immediately throw all expectations of artificial intelligence out the window. Zombies are dumb, and that's why game designers love using them. That way they can spend more time working on scabby oatmeal textures, zombie-swagger animations and body-dismemberment physics. You don't even have to write a story, really - some evil corporation is experimenting on the general populace, a shadowy government conspiracy to cover up a botched military experiment, aliens come to Earth to probe humankind, a stupid kid reads an incantation from a dusty old book in the library 'cause he thinks zombies are k00l, d00d - basically, all possible stories come back to someone experimented on something and now we have zombies, and that's the only real explanation players expect for a zombie apocalypse. (Which suits game designers just fine, as they clearly hate (and suck at) writing stories, and were obviously brought up on a steady diet of B-movies and porno.)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the zombie apocalypse has become something of an arbitrary direction for developers to take (albeit a clear one), so that they can get on with the actual game-making already.

This is all fine, as long as something worthwhile's being brought to the table. Valve springs to mind here, as I suspect they used the tried-and-true zombie apocalypse to showcase their team-play mechanics. And let's not forget the A.I. Director, which for all intents and purposes acted as a Zombie Overmind.

Me? Accuse Valve of unoriginality? Never!

But what about RE5*? Well, it sure brought a race debate to the table, didn't it?! But in the way of gameplay, not a great deal...and besides, aren't we all getting a little sick of the Great Undead?

It's hard to say who's really to 'blame' for all this. Are publishers simply trying to push games out the door? Are developer deadlines too tight? Presumably Valve put out Left 4 Dead to maintain the bottom line while Episode 3 development marches on. Is it laziness on the part of developers, or is it simply focus? Surely there are more original ways to frame a game's mechanics.

With development focus firmly on high-definition graphics, artificial intelligence has been getting the back seat. When graphics hit the dubious watermark of ultra-realism, where do we go from there? Artificial Intelligence, dummy.

There's nothing particularly horrifying about shooting zombies in broad daylight.

So once again, here we are in the thick of a new(ish) console generation, blazing a trail with our face-melting graphics while the A.I. languishes in the dust. In the context of a zombie apocalypse, sales figures and Metacritic scores show we're willing to let it slide, but for how long? Already people are questioning whether the survival horror genre has passed its sell-by date - Capcom responded in kind by making RE5 an action shooter - but maybe we're just sick of zombies.

Or maybe we just want to be challenged by the game and the story.

* The answer's simple: Capcom wanted (needed?) to make another Resident Evil. It stands to reason, though, that if they wanted to make an action shooter, why not make it a completely different game without zombies? And the answer to that of course, is that the story is written for you.

P.S. While I was writing this, I came up with a third title:

'Zombies: the Cure-all Crutch of the Development Community.'

17 April 2009

WiiWare: Nintendo's Third Party Sweatshop.

A simple firmware update was all it took for WiiWare's Strong Bad sales to double, substantiating claims that prospective customers worldwide had long run out of storage space.

Telltale CEO Dan Connors posted:

"Nintendo's new solution really opens the door for players to add to their collection of downloadable games, which is critical for a series with multiple installments. This is a major step forward for episodic gaming. We're looking forward to even greater success on WiiWare with Strong Bad, as well as other projects."

Dan sounds very positive about Nintendo's 'solution' to the problem that they themselves created, but what about the sales they could have made before now? Were all prospective buyers waiting in the wings last week, or did Telltale lose some custom when the iron was hot? Only future sales figures will tell. It is well established, though, that a majority of software sales are made within the first few weeks of release, even for episodic content. Other, less fortunate WiiWare titles - the dates dictated by Nintendo themselves - have since been buried in a sea of newer releases.

Strong Bad performed strongly, but how did the others do?

Strong demand for a Wii storage solution has been well-documented throughout the games media and blogging communities for well over 18 months, but it wasn't until the Game Developers Conference 2009 that Nintendo finally announced the addition of SD memory card play for the console.

This shot in the foot to downloadable game sales was seemingly at odds with Nintendo's minimum threshold policy - developers are required to achieve four-figure sales to qualify for payment - also confirmed at this year's Game Developers Conference.

So, on one hand developers had to sell 5,000+ virtual copies of their software (slightly less in Europe), while on the other, their potential (and target) consumer base was limited from the outset: Nintendo fans with net-ready Wiis, lumbered with hard drives full to the brim with channels, save files, and retro games before the WiiWare service had even launched. Consumers that wanted to spend their money, but not at the expense of games they had already bought. (If they were anything like me, they would have run out of space after downloading their first WiiWare game of import, Lost Winds.) "Cleaning the fridge" became the vernacular for Wii owners who were forced to delete or re-shuffle games they weren't currently playing to make room for new ones.

So many games to not fit on one hard drive.

Online protest was loud in the Nintendo camp, but at every major press event, Nintendo reps would deny the importance and the scope of the issue. After the recent sales explosion of Strong Bad, I think we can put that assertion to bed. NOA president Reggie Fils-Aime [how the hell do you pronounce that, anyway?] and others have dubbed Nintendo fans "insatiable" on more than one occasion, yet here they were demanding the ability to simply purchase games that were already released. That's right, for the better part of two years, Nintendo fans wanted to give Nintendo more money, but couldn't.

Now that Nintendo's panacea has come down from on high, that problem has been solved (well, if you don't mind swapping SD cards in and out), but what about the problem of the indie developer? The indie developer that, for all intents and purposes, has delivered Nintendo free intellectual property for resale; and thanks to Nintendo's dodgy policy and slack response to demand, will never see a cent for their labours? The indie developer whose game sees release whenever Nintendo deems the time is right, whose sales were neutered by the storage problem, and whose title is now buried under a slew of newer titles? Yeah, let's talk about that problem.

Minimum sales = quality control?

Would you believe that this minimum sales policy is to ensure a certain level of quality in WiiWare titles? You heard that right - quality control on the Wii - the irony is almost delicious! I can already think of a more effective quality control method that will separate the sheep from the goats, and net the developers their hard-earned cash: scrap the minimum sales policy and have time-limited demo downloads. That way the developers will earn royalties from the get-go, consumers can discern whether or not they'll enjoy the game, and the demo will expire so that freeloaders will have to download to play it longer than say, a week. It could reduce the sales of a few games here and there, but it wouldn't do so dramatically - any games that don't sell under this system probably wouldn't have made four figures anyway. A more conservative, but less effective solution would be to reduce the minimum sales required, but I guess that's a decision Nintendo would have to make 'out of the kindness of their hearts.' Either way, it's high time Nintendo loosen their grip on WiiWare. They've been happy to strangle their own profits for so long, would it kill them to share the love?

10 April 2009

We Are All of Us Living in the Shadow of the Colossus.

It's rather strange, the timing of the Shadow of the Colossus movie announcement. I had just rented and finished the game a week prior - you know, because it's FREAKIN' IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND, EVEN IN RETAIL STORES THAT STILL HAVE MORE SHELF SPACE DEVOTED TO PS2 THAN THE WII AND XBOX 360 COMBINED AND RIP-OFF MERCHANTS ARE STILL FLOGGING OFF USED PAL COPIES OF THE GAME FOR $90+ ON eBAY - when I saw it sitting on the shelf at my local Video Ezy as a weekly rental, I thought to myself, of course! The answer's so obvious, right under my nose all this time!

Shadow of the Colossus: bankrupting nerds since 2005.

I was under the pump, though, from the moment I rented it. I had only one week to suck the marrow out of an experience that has been upheld as one of two examples of 'videogames as art' in response to Roger Ebert's highly flammable assertions to the contrary last year. (And while we're still here, I agree with the game's 'art' status.) And I had to borrow my girlfriend's pink Playstation 2 [playing games on a pink Playstation can lend them a special kind of irony, especially if they're loaded with machismo like God of War]. If I can make a recommendation to those who have not yet travelled this road: for the full Shadow of the Colossus experience, try renting it for two or three weeks if you can. I only *just* made it on a 9 to 5, with a sick day, and I regret having to rush through the game just to finish it before return time.

(At first I tried to pace myself, trying to defeat two or three colossi per night, under the false assumption that there would be twelve colossi - like the number of signs in the zodiac, or the number of months in a year, or the number of disciples in Christ's flock - it's just a number that makes sense. But once I found out there were sixteen, I had to ramp up my efforts to four per night. It's from that point of view that they probably could have culled a further few colossi from the thirty they reportedly started with. Having said that, you don't want the game to end when it does, meaning that it hasn't overstayed its welcome, and it's just long enough to make you want more.)

(That's why I take serious issue with the whiney 13 year olds that complain about 10 to 14 hour videogames being too short, and videogame critics marking games down for it - 10 to 14 hours is the perfect length for a videogame. Those of us with day jobs don't have 40 to 60 hours to burn on one videogame; we're premium players. We want 40 to 60 hours brought to the boil and distilled into 10 to 14 hours of AWESOME.)

And that's the first cool thing I want to mention about the game: the core experience can be completed in around 10 to 14 hours, but you can lose yourself in its world for heaps longer if you choose. And if it was more than a weekly rental, I would choose. But given I had only the one week, I'll try to stick to discussing the core experience.

It's as if Team ICO went down to the pub (that same pub at the end of all worlds that Platinum Games went to when they came up with MadWorld), and their leader clasps his hands together and he says, "right, let's make a game that combines all the coolest things about videogames: platforming and end-of-level bosses. Except, instead of end-of-level bosses, let's make level bosses." Then everyone stares blankly at their boldest and brightest. "Oh, don't make me bang you over the head with it. The bosses are the levels. They're giants - colossi, if you will - and you must climb them to bring them down." And then they went back to the office and made it.

GTA-radar, eat your heart out.

I won't gloss it over for you, though - the development process wasn't without its hurdles. They wanted to make an overworld that was expansive and ancient - that seemed full of ancient stories, with footprints of heroes and beasts that came before, and they wanted the colossi to feel like an ancient part of that landscape - but they didn't want the players to get lost. So they wanted a radar system, but they didn't want to use a radar per se because radars aren't ancient. So the brightest and boldest of them spoke up again and he said, "let's not needlessly overencumber (he used that word because he plays too many RPGs) our character with too many items; let's build the function into the most important item - the sword. It shall be a sword of ancient power, inextricably linked to the colossi. It shall shine forth a beam of light, leading the wielder to the colossi, and illuminating their weaknesses." So then Team ICO punched in a few ones and zeroes and made it a reality. Genius.

The strength circle is genius too. Shadow of the Colossus is a cinematic game, but Team ICO didn't shy away from game-like elements when it served the experience. The strength circle (or 'bar', if you will) lends the game a sense of urgency. You don't have all the time in the world to climb up a giant's back, you can only do what you can do.

You're the speck at the bottom.

Shadow of the Colossus is the answer to the question, what would it be like if you were a flea on a dog's back? It's pretty safe to say that nobody thought to ask this question prior to the game's release, but now I can't imagine life not knowing. The game has a feel; an epic feel. You are so small, and yet the colossus is so, well, colossal. It lumbers towards you and the ground shakes. You are frozen in your tracks; half by fear and half in awe of the beauty of the beast. You stab it in the heel like Achilles' weakness or a thorn in a giant lion's paw. The colossus roars in mighty pain, stooping down on one knee for a short while. You mount your noble steed, kick your heels in, and gallop towards the living structure. You leap from the horse's back, clinging to a blade of the creature's grassy fur. You climb up its thigh and onto its back. As you reach its shoulders, the hulking mass threshes angrily about to buck you off. Your strength fading quickly, you unsheathe your glimmering blade. Ah, a weakness! You plunge the blade deep into its skull and hang on for grim death as the mammoth melts face-first into the ground. A sting of remorse pierces your chest for having just killed such a beautiful thing, like pulling the petals off a daffodil, or the wings from a butterfly. Am I doing the right thing? You ask yourself. But I must, if I am to bring my lady-love back from the brink of death.

Poor thing.

That's the experience of Shadow of the Colossus in a nutshell. The game is epic and cinematic, yes, but what I'm trying to convey here is how integral interactivity is to its experience. Watching it is not the same. You have to be the flea on the dog's back, you have to feel the remorse as you plunge the blade into the beast's head, you have to ride your noble steed for 10 to 14 hours to feel that connection with your horse [no, not THAT kind of connection with your horse, sicko]. It's like Watchmen: you can't adapt it for the people who can't be bothered reading a graphic novel or playing a videogame, and hope to convey the fullness of its essence to a broader audience. It's already visual; it's already cinematic - you just have to play it. That's why videogame-to-movie adaptations don't work wholesale, and often the reverse as well. I see no reason why a gamer should be excited about this at all. You've already seen it; you were it - you played the leading role - watching it would just be a disconnected, out-of-body experience. All you'd want to do is press the 'Start' button and live it your way.

That is what makes Shadow of the Colossus great, both as a game and as a work of art, and that is why it won't work as a film! Let me wind that back for you...That is what makes Shadow of the Colossus great, both as a game and as a work of art, AND THAT IS WHY IT WON'T WORK AS A FILM! DAMN, I'M GOOD!!!
If Roger Ebert played it, I'm sure he would be all too pleased to concede pwnage. Now I just have to track down ICO and make him play that too.