28 September 2009

A Lesson in Poor Taste.

Coming to a store near you, from the coat-tails of her father's death, it's Bindi Irwin, with a brand new interactive experience! Ladies and Gentlemen, Ubisoft and Terri Irwin is proud to present:

Bindi Presents Big Ocean Adventures

The final boss is a stingray, and the scene plays out a little something like this:
RAY: Terri never told you what happened to your father.

BINDI: She told me enough! She told me you killed him!


BINDI: No. No! That's not true! That's impossible!!

DARTH RAY: Search your feelings. You know it to be true.


Okay, so that was in even poorer taste, but there's something unsettling to me about Bindi's child star status. It seems very forced, and her rise to fame pretty much coincided with her father's demise. It feels like the poor girl never took the time to grieve properly.

What unsettles me even more is Terri Irwin's business acumen and "go get 'em, Tiger!" attitude. Now that Steve's gone, she seems to have let loose in her unbridled fury. I mean, Steve Irwin himself never had his own videogame.

But hey, what the hell do I know? It could just be a cultural misunderstanding on my part, but the American "everyone's a winner, baby" spirit feels strangely at odds with the Australian "fair go"; and child stardom is the antithesis to our Tall Poppy Syndrome.

If it grows too tall, then it's time to cut it down.

12 September 2009

Could Sony and Microsoft's 'Cold War' Business Model Drive Them Out of the Console Business?

It's no secret that Nintendo's 'blue ocean' strategy has been working wonders for the Wii, maintaining consistently high hardware sales at a profit from month to month. While Nintendo frolics carefree in the open sea, Sony and Microsoft have been locked in a war of attrition, amassing arms for control of the same bloodied waters. According to DFC Intelligence analyst David Cole, this 'cold war' of sorts is not sustainable for either party. Let's take a look at some of Cole's main points, and see what it means for the videogame industry at large:

"The bottom line numbers for Sony and Microsoft’s game business are not pretty. From fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2009, Sony’s game division showed an operating loss of well over $3 billion. Meanwhile, during the period from 2004 to 2009, Microsoft’s Entertainment & Devices Division has lost over $4 billion. Much of this loss can be attributed to the cost associated with launching a new console system that is sold at a loss. The reality is Sony and Microsoft really need their hardware systems to have a true 10-year lifecycle so that initial costs can be amortized."

It makes one wonder why these two companies have fought tooth and nail to keep their fingers in the gaming pie. Both companies have been operating at a loss for quite some time, and both have large, more profitable stakes in other industries. The Sony brand is the most trusted when it comes to consumer electronics and home entertainment, and Microsoft has their operating system on virtually every single computer on the planet.

It also suggests that the PS3's (and to a lesser extent, the Xbox 360's) much-touted ten year life-cycle is borne out of necessity rather than any indication of the platform's long-term viability. Both companies leave their statements open to interpretation, though, and when they say "ten year life-cycle", I'm sure many of us believe they really mean, "support existing hardware for ten years, but release new hardware in the meantime." What David Cole is proposing is a true ten year life-cycle - one without the distraction of next-generation hardware until after ten years - and that's the difference.

"Both Microsoft and Sony have a long-term vision that their game boxes will eventually provide a whole host of entertainment services. The problem with that vision is both companies are still caught up in the arms race of the video game console business. It is extremely expensive to launch a new game system every few years and build an installed base from scratch. But game consumers have been trained to constantly demand a new game system and that is what drives much of the market."

If this is what we're expecting, what chance do they have of delivering?

"For Sony and Microsoft, it simply makes little business sense to launch a new game system. They need their current systems to last as long as possible so that they can actually make some money. What makes business sense for Sony and Microsoft is to focus on getting costs down, offering new (and profitable) services to their existing systems and looking to build renewed consumer excitement via new form factors and incremental additions like Project Natal for the Xbox 360."

This is why Microsoft and Sony will likely release another console before the ten years are up. They're damned if they do, damned if they don't. If they release new consoles before ten years are up, they threaten to prematurely kill their current hardware sales before they've even become profitable. If they don't, consumer demand and the excitement for future tech that drives their business model could wane, and the industry as a whole could take a dive:

"The game industry cycle has been driven in large part by new console launches. New game systems have consistently spurred consumer spending to new record heights, right at a time when the established systems are starting to decline. DFC has run best and worst case scenarios for the current generation game systems and in all scenarios, they show a decline in sales over the next several years. Furthermore, with these systems, a growing portion of consumer spending will continue to shift to catalog product, used games and rentals."

Can Microsoft afford to put a spaceship in every home?

"In short, without a major new console system to pump up consumer enthusiasm the game industry faces an inevitable decline."

So even though neither Sony or Microsoft can afford to launch a new console anytime soon, they may have to break their 'ten year rule' just to stimulate sales. It's clear that both Micosoft and Sony are attempting to address this with console 're-launches', in hopes that Project Natal and the PSEye Wand can fuel another five years of sustainable sales, but how realistic is that? And will it drive their price tags back up?

Can Natal push the Xbox 360 over the ten-year finish line?

I suppose in many ways the Wii was a re-launch of the Gamecube with motion controls, but all that really means is that Nintendo pre-empted the potential destructiveness of the console arms race that Sony and Microsoft remain locked in, and bowed out when the time was right.

"For Nintendo, the business model for launching a new console system every five years could still work because they focused on keeping overall hardware costs low by not pushing the technology barrier. Does this mean Nintendo may be the first to launch a new system by 2012? That would be a first for a company with a market-leading platform. Then again, doing so could also really put competitive pressure on Microsoft and Sony."

Could Nintendo feasibly force Sony and Microsoft into a corner by releasing early? Or could they force them out of the business entirely? Just how much money is Sony and Microsoft willing to lose before they say, "enough is enough" and pull out altogether? It's an interesting thought, and one that I can't say I've entertained up to this point.

What do you think about all this? Will Sony or Microsoft break their 'ten-year rule'? Can they afford to? Or will their console 're-launches' be successful enough to keep them afloat?

10 September 2009

Sonic: Do We Dare to Dream in HD?

"Sonic is back!"

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard those three words, I'd have at least eight dollars by now. Here's another quote for you:

"Once bitten, twice shy; three times the fool - anything more than that and you must be a Sonic fan."
I'll admit, the Dreamcast's anniversary has refreshed my optimism, and interviews around the traps indicates Sega has an inkling of what made the machine so great in the first place, BUT--

The real question here is whether anyone at Sega has an inkling of what made Sonic so great in the first place. And the more frightening question is whether the Sonic fans they've supposedly been listening to have a clue either. Trawl through the comments thread of any given Sonic game review - if you handed any one of these people the reins, the results would be disastrous (Frankensteinian, even).

One thing that rings alarm bells to me is the opening two words of the 'Project Needlemouse' trailer:

Did it ever really leave?

I don't recall anyone complaining about the lack of speed in a Sonic title over the past fifteen years, do you? That didn't seem to stop those games from sucking, though, did it? Don't think for one second that I'm actually advocating a slow Sonic the Hedgehog title [Exhibit A: Werehog]. What I'm saying is that speed isn't it. It's not what made the Sonic games great. It's the most popular misconception about the series, and one that I believe has been perpetuated by latecomers to the party, and outsiders looking in on the original experience.

If Sonic was *just* about speed, or even mostly about speed (which again, it was not), then there'd effectively be nothing wrong with any of them. And yet, I'm sure we all agree they're missing something [or somethings] vital.

What's missing is Sonic's 'Lone Ranger' coolness. Even Tails was an unwelcome addition to the formula in my books - he's without a doubt the Robin of the Sonic series, albeit without any conceptual merit whatsoever [except perhaps a counterpoint to Sonic's seriousness?]. His appearance in Sonic 3 had merit from a co-operative gameplay standpoint, but ultimately he was just another hurdle to the game's momentum, and the true test of a Sonic player's skill was to see if Sonic could reach the same areas Tails could without the aid of flight. Sonic Team seem to have had recognised and remedied this in Sonic & Knuckles (for the record, though, Sonic 3 remains my favourite game of all time).

What's also missing is Sonic's 'silent ninja' demeanour. Just look at his facial expressions in-game - sure, he's got attitude, but he's no smart-ass - he's deadly serious about what he has to do. The biggest mistake Sega ever made was to let Sonic open his apparently Steve Urkel mouth in the cartoons, and then allowing that 'attitude' to feed back into the videogame series. The voice just killed it. Sonic went from cool to '
the cool kid at school' in one fell swoop. And that's not cool.

Of course, the transition to 3-D hasn't helped. Jonathan Blow said it himself - the mechanics of the platformer were designed to operate on a 2-D plane - and even Nintendo seems to have realised this with New Super Mario Bros. Wii on the way. The satisfaction of precision jumping is lost in a 3-D platformer, and that was a BIG part of Sonic's gameplay. There have been many glamorous transitions from 2-D to 3-D, but you will find that it's the atmosphere and audiovisuals that have supplemented any design compromises that were necessary to accomodate the extra dimension.

But probably the number one thing that's been missing from the Sonic series is secrets. Let's have a show of hands, veteran Sonic players - did you breeze through every level at breakneck speeds on your initial play-through? Or did you try to collect all the rings, search for secrets, and enter all the special stages for Chaos Emeralds? Yeah, I thought so. Nearly all of this has been lost, not just in the 3-D outings, but all Sonic titles from DS to PS3. Exploration - real, on-the-run exploration. Multiple routes - vertical as well as horizontal scrolling, breakable walls, burrows, springboards hidden in trees, water/fire/electricity shields, bonus stages - all of these intricacies have been lost on the post-Megadrive Sonic game. I'll be interested to see if they make a return in Project Needlemouse, but I'm not holding my breath.

Needlemouse: fingers crossed it won't sting too much.

One encouraging thing was Ken Balough's acknowledgement that the daytime levels of Unleashed were the game's strength. Here's my thought on just about every single 3-D Sonic title ever released: Sonic Team would carefully craft some brilliant speed runs for Sonic, and worrying that the game was not long enough to warrant full price, padded out the experience with ancillary characters, arbitrary story, and menial tasks for Sonic and friends to perform. They practically crammed a fishing game in there, folks! If Sonic Adventure was just the levels strung together, it would be shorter, but it would undeniably be a better game. Sure, it had collision detection issues, the lock-on jumping kind of sucked, and it lacked the elements I've already mentioned, but the levels themselves were quite well-designed. I'm sure the same thing occurred with Unleashed - the Werehog was added because Sega felt that the core game was too short. Perhaps that was the result of extensive focus testing - by the way Sega, can you please stop doing those? I feel crazy dangerous saying something like this, but go with your gut, Sega. These uncertain afterthoughts have been ruining your games.

The inference here seems to be that Project Needlemouse will be a downloadable title on Xbox Live and PSN. If so, it won't matter how short the experience is, so long as every moment is golden. When people pay $10 for a downloadable title, they're not expecting a 10-15 hour game; they're expecting a polished, streamlined experience. If the intended audience is indeed the older gamers who grew up with the 2D Sonics (which seems to be the case), then digital content will reach that audience. If I'm correct in my assumption, this is the smartest move they could have made.

My skepticism is still well and truly alive, but I will be watching the progress of Project Needlemouse with keen interest.

09 September 2009

9.9.99 - 9.9.09: The Dream Lives On.

Forget the Beatles. Today belongs to the Dreamcast. On the 9th of September 1999, Sega was back, in a big, big way.

I remember staying up all night for the big unveiling of the Sega Katana (previously referred to as the Dural). The first images emerged, and I have to admit, there was some of us Sega devotees disappointed and confused initially. "'Dream-cast'?! What was wrong with 'Katana'? That's a heaps cooler name," the collective complained. (We were too naive back then to know that products hardly ever released under their codenames. We later discovered that 'Dural' and 'Katana' also referred to two different prototypes.) "A white console?! But Sega's always been black!" Sega fans everywhere were inverting their Dreamcast photos in MS Paint for their own peace of mind. "They'll release a black model soon," we kept telling ourselves.

"And isn't that...the Cinnabon logo?"

"No diagonals? Only four face buttons?! How am I supposed to play Street Fighter with a controller of this kind?" Saturn owners were used to gaming at the apex of 2-D fighting, raised on the finest of D-pads and button layouts.

But what were we really asking for? A souped-up Saturn, or a brand new console? Sega delivered a new console, and a new Sega. A Sega with a singular vision [Dream] for Gaming; a Sega with a plan to put that into effect; and a Sega that, heaven forbid, actually marketed their products [cast]! Sega were back, man, and it felt awesome!

The reason it felt awesome was that despite all the cosmetic differences, Sega's vision for Gaming was ours. Today's Nintendo fans would be envious of Sega's fan service at that time. The Dreamcast was our console; it was our dream of two years, finally come to fruition; and though we didn't know it at first, it was the system we had asked for. 'Arcade-perfect' left our vocabularies and our mindset - we could now expect better and more than a mere faithful translation. Online and local multiplayer [is it any wonder Halo was originally slated for the Dreamcast?] - yes, we had games that actually used all four controller ports, and lots of them! Armada, Bomberman Online, Chu-Chu Rocket, and Power Stone, just to name a handful. A 3-D Sonic game, finally - you may laugh now, but if you weren't there you have no idea what that meant to us. We felt like we had been listened to.

More than that, it was what Sega gave us that we didn't ask for that surprised the most - their vision included our dreams, but it also eclipsed them. Sega was the freewheelin' Bob Dylan of the games industry - they made what they wanted when they wanted - irrespective of demographics and sales targets. This virtue had been Sega's vice since the late Saturn years, but would you rather see games like Seaman, Space Channel 5, Jet Set Radio, and Shenmue in the world, or another business-savvy hardware giant? Are those two things mutually exclusive? I'd like to think so.

The bravest game in the world?
I've been trying to dissect mine and others' feelings towards the Dreamcast, and I can put it down to a few things. In many ways the Dreamcast was the first 'next-gen' console - not in any official capacity, but just in its circumstances. By the time the internet had established itself as a household institution, the fifth generation of consoles had already launched and carved out their respective niches. By 1997, gamers were already speculating on the next generation of consoles - namely, the 'Dural', the 64DD, and the 'PSX2'. Sure, people had been doing the same thing in print media for years, but the hype on the internet was worldwide - it was happening [then] now, in front of our eyes - the excitement was palpable. It was the first unveiling and the first system launch I had ever witnessed, and it was all thanks to the wonders of the internet.

For me, the internet and my experience of the Dreamcast phenomena were inextricably linked. 'Sega Dural' and 'Sega Katana' was all I looked up in Metacrawler and Altavista when we were first hooked up. 'Sega X' became my primary source for 'Dural' news. I devoured every scrap of 'information' I could find - I memorised fake tech-specs; I memorised the real tech-specs - needless to say, I was a big fan. Eventually I was asked to write editorials for the site (which eventually became SegaDreamcast.net), so I did, writing Sega-biased articles at the tender age of 14, right up to the system's death. My spelling and grammar were immaculate as always, but my writing was terrible. Still, it was probably a missed opportunity for me - writing under an alias; submitting articles sporadically due to schoolwork; without even thinking to hit up up-and-coming online publications for work - given the number of hits 'segadreamcast.net' probably received. While I can't emphasise enough just how terrible and biased my juvenile rantings actually were, games journalism itself was in a juvenile state, and I really feel I missed my 'in'. Hopefully I'm a better writer for it.

I won my Dreamcast (plus three games) right here on IGN after reading the terms and conditions for the competition. It didn't say anything about being a US resident, so they paid for postage and mailed the box right over to me. Two weeks prior I had won a Dreamcast CD holder and a bright orange Dreamcast T-shirt (a shirt that became synonymous with me at the time), so I figured no-one entered these competitions (and maybe I was right! I couldn't tell you how much stuff I've won on here).

My heart actually skipped a beat when I saw the massive box sitting on my chair at the dinner table. Could it be? No way! I started opening it, and I couldn't believe it. The machine that I had been reading about, talking about, nay, dreaming about for years was right in front of me - in my hands - nearly a full year before it was to release in Australia. I felt like I was living in the future while everyone else was stuck with their Playstations. When the kids at school gave me shit about Sega, I just smiled - I didn't care. They didn't know what they were missing out on. They still don't, probably. Hindsight reveals that most consumers and developers were waiting for the PS2, and the Playstation's brand power, in my opinion, is ultimately what doomed the system.

It took a long time for me to get back into gaming once Sega left the hardware race. After the Dreamcast, I had no excitement left to share around. I bought an Xbox fairly cheap towards the end of its life cycle, partly because the morality system of KOTOR II intrigued me, but mostly because it had the Sega games I wanted to play: Smilebit's (aka Team Andromeda's) Jet Set Radio Future and Panzer Dragoon Orta, mainly.

That's my bittersweet Dreamcast story for the most part. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed re-living it. For the record, my Dreamcast remains plugged into my TV, and there's plenty of gaming left to be done on it. So Happy Anniversary, Sega Dreamcast, it's been a great ten years. Here's to at least ten more. I think between Power Stone and Street Fighter III, we've got it covered. And here's to you, Sega, for your bravery in the face of certain death and your willingness to dream. We won't forget it, so make sure you don't.

"A candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long."