Friday, August 2, 2013

Could AAA games benefit from indie limitations?

Indie games have been a major focal point in the next console battle regarding to the ease of developers being able to self publish their games and what devs are on what console. Seven years ago, nobody would have cared as indie games hadn't hit their stride like they have the past few years. While the cost of the games themselves benefit the discovery of these new experiences, it's the worlds they create, the mechanics that are so well realized and the ambition that can be achieved from so little that create more buzz and leave gamers wanting more.

On the flip side, AAA games have felt more and more stagnant as they become more annual with little to no changes between titles. While this is made as a blanket statement, it shouldn't be treated as such. There are some AAA games that do try to shake things up, but the majority of titles seem to do a rinse-repeat of either an older iteration of that IP or bares a remarkably similar resemblance to a different game (ie Uncharted and Tomb Raider).

One may think that giving indie devs more money would allow them to make their unique games even better, but I don't believe that to be true. Indie games are great because they have limitations that are addressed and worked around. Throwing money at these devs may not make it better, it could make it worse.

For example, take Limbo. The game itself isn't noteworthy so much for it's gameplay as it's a pretty basic puzzle-platformer. None of the tasks it makes the player do is difficult and it's relatively simple all-in-all. But the charm in the game comes from the dark atmosphere it presents as this boy traverses the world with the risk of a gruesome death at every turn while searching for his sister. Now imagine the same game where everything is in crisp detailed three-dimensional models and in color. But they had a vision, and they stuck with it. They turned down publishers in fear of the idea being tarnished, and it worked in their favor.

The biggest obstacle for indie games, at least for gamers, is simply the look. It's outrageous to think that these games will be on par with higher budget games. It's not going to happen. So they have to think outside of the box and find different ways to make it aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. Limbo did it. Braid did it. And Fez did it. But, it also bleeds into another criticism I've seen more lately.

The explosion of 16-bit indie games. There has been more groaning and complaining over these 16-bit graphics and it's driving this writer bonkers. Yes, there's a ton out there, but there's far more current-gen looking games that are nowhere near as beautiful. Somehow, people have grown to hate this style of indie games while not batting an eye to yet another gritty shooter that looks on par with the same 50 games from 2 years ago.

The most frustrating part is that they overlooking what makes these games great. Yes, Fez has a 16-bit style. But there's more to it than that. It has (according to people who have played it) amazing music. The mechanic of world shifting by 90 degrees. The puzzles are actually thought provoking and had an entire community of gamers come together to piece the together the answers. So many positive things that Phil Fish pieced together despite all of the background trouble during the development of the game, and the most some people can get out of it is "Uck...another 16-bit artstyle".

While Mario may be the epitome of platforming to some people, my personal favorite would go to Super Meat Boy. The drawback for most gamers is the frustrating platforming elements one has to surpass, but at the same time, can be strung into a positive. The game is hard, but it's never cheap. Not many games can say that.

Team Meat crafted one of the best platformers in gaming. The controls are so spot on, you never feel there's any lag between a button press and the reaction on screen. If something goes wrong and you die, the game instant respawns the character instead of a small load time to start again. Being able to view a replay of all the failed attempts at passing the level is fantastic especially in the well crafted levels that never felt old. The two members of Team Meat know limitations. They went broke. They rarely slept or ate. They lived on different sides of the country and rarely met face to face. Yet they created the game with a brand new engine (instead of using an old one), received little faith from Microsoft and Sony, and are now two of the most well regarded indie devs in the business.

I've spent the blog so far explaining some indie games and the areas they succeed despite lack of funds or sheer manpower. So why can't AAA games provide the same experience just on a larger scale?

Well, part of it is, the focus doesn't go towards gameplay. Look at games like The Last of Us and Tomb Raider. Both games look astounding. On par with some of the best graphics to date. But the gameplay leaves much to be desired. It's solid. But doesn't do anything new. There's literally nothing about either game that makes me sit back and go "You know what, I can't say I've seen that ONLY in this game.".

Instead, the focus goes to improving the graphics and story. Mo-capping has become increasingly more popular, and bringing in big names to do that and/or voice work. The stories are more grandiose in scale pushing gameplay out of the spotlight and instead becomes moments of action that lead into the next big CGI moments. These gameplay elements don't receive as much focus as the detail of the world does, and while they are serviceable, it's clear they are a means to an end. Not as much thought goes into what can make the gameplay different from other games as it does to make the world different from other games.

I think the other major point why change doesn't occur is because they fall back on the same engines time and time again. I don't have to mention the two games that probably come to mind immediately, but I will anyway: Call of Duty and Madden. While Call of Duty goes a bit further than Madden to make changes, they still fall back on the exact same engine with every iteration. And it's telling. Instead, they make tweaks to the system instead of putting the time and money into creating something new that really sets it apart from past games. And why should they, it's a cash cow. Madden is the same way. The game feels identical year in and year out, and simply adding in extra animations for catching and tackling isn't doing it. It's essentially a roster change and that's the biggest update. Again, why fix what isn't broken?

Other games are becoming more guilty of this such as Assassins Creed where the largest addition was ship battling and that's making a resurgence with Assassins Creed 4: Black Flag. In fact, that's been one of the largest selling points of the game as every trailer features that and little of anything else. Perhaps it's because it was the best thing critics said about Assassins Creed 3?

Despite all of these complaints, the industry still needs these big budget AAA games the same way the movie industry needs those big popcorn flicks during the summer. People love them, myself included, and they sell well making money for the company to put towards more games.

But there's something to be said about the smaller games. The ones where people put their financial future on the line by pulling out loans that would take forever to be repaid. The ones that cause friction between friends or lovers because of the stress of putting these games together. The games where something has to be different to stand out and be noticed or be buried with the rest of the floundering titles that receive no recognition.

And to be honest, the publishers are as much, if not more, at fault for these problems. Once they see a selling title, they are hesitant of change. If a title that receives praise for something unique, such as Mirrors Edge, doesn't sell well...good luck getting another one. And for the games with great concepts in both worlds and gameplay, Remember Me comes to mind, they are not given proper time to be well-realized or the developers simply don't put out a good game. Instead of giving the IP to another well-established dev, they toss the title away never to be seen again.

The end goal should be a fantastic game that pushes the boundaries to prevent stagnation of the industry. No gamer wants to feel like they receive a similar experience between games with the only difference being a fresh coat of paint. They want something new and invigorating to their senses. A game that leaves a mark because they haven't played anything like it before. And currently, very few of those are AAA games.

Indies are beloved for that very reason. They aren't doing this because of the paycheck they get every week. They do it because they love games and they put their entire future on one game. If it doesn't pan out, they may not have the opportunity to make another game. Publisher owned devs have similar worries of studios being shut down and having to look for work, but they still have it better. They have work to throw on resumes that people can recognize over some forgotten game in the bowels of XBLA. They still have money in the bank because none of it was coming out to fund the game they were working on. They didn't have to take the extra time to create a new engine because they were provided one from a previous game.

So again I ask, could AAA games benefit from indie limitations? In my mind, yes. And I believe it's time to test the waters with restricting resources from these devs to jump the creative juices again and see if something new can come out of it. Because as it is, it's looking awfully generic on the big game front. And that's why I appreciate diving into indie games.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Gaming Podcasts

Every so often, someone inquires about gaming podcasts that they can listen to in the car or at work. While the ones I'm about to list are pretty well known, I felt I should make a quick post about them in case someone new to the gaming podcast scene needs a start. Below are my top 5:

5. Super Joystiq Podcast

Super Joystiq Podcast is the remnants of the old Joystiq Podcast and Xbox 360 Fancast. Thanks to the usual host Xav De Matos, and to a lesser extent Richard Mitchell who fills in for Xav usually, the lull after the original two podcasts dissipated finally hit it's steam with a more solidified listen as opposed to the "throw ideas against the wall and hoping they stick" approach that was going on.

While it still feels disjointed segment wise depending who they have on the show from week to week, it's always a fun listen to as most of the Joystiq crew seem to have personalities. Also, if Ludwig is on the show, listen for any and all puns. He is fantastic with them, my favorite being when talking about a disappointing vampire game "Would you say the game is, BLAH!".

Oh Luddy....

4. Cagcast

I don't believe there's another gaming podcasts where personalities clash so much. Shipwreck is the gamer on the show, CheapyD is your somewhat out of touch Man in Japan, and Wombat is the overly opinionated but always cracking jokes guy.

If I had to list criticism for these guys, it comes in two folds. The first is a clear bias they have towards products and their inability to remain neutral or give fair and equal criticism to products that they like. The second, mostly for CheapyD, is that it's hard to connect with someone who is willing to throw money around as much as he does.

However, they are all genuine guys who interact with the fan base and occasionally give codes/games away to listeners. It's always a fun listen as they bust each other's balls over things, no matter how small, and hearing views on people who live in different parts of the world is always interesting (Ship-Ohio, Wombat-NY, Cheapy-Japan).

And poop stories. Lots and lots of poop stories.

3. Player One Podcast

Player One Podcast is the most recent addition to my podcast loop, and it quickly became one of my favorites. The chemistry between the hosts is almost unparalleled (save for the two podcasts above this one IMO), and the humor is always flowing. If a joke falls flat, you'll know it from the ribbing they'll give.

Of all the podcasts, the hosts here feel the most like normal gamers. Their opinions are pretty spot on with the general consensus, but they also have industry knowledge to back up opinions and ideas. And while hearing a child crying in the background can get a little old at times, it's just a nice reminder that these guys don't feel any different than people you would game with in real life.

When gaming podcasts come up, this one seems overlooked quite often it seems. It shouldn't be. I love listening to it each week, and so would you. Give it a try!

2. Weekend Confirmed

The most "inside baseball" podcast I've listened to. Garnett Lee and Jeff Cannata are the usual dynamic duo, but are joined by different guests in the industry. Weekend Confirmed breaks up the podcasts into different segments allowing each individual to touch on a topic they would like to discuss.

It's great to hear valid criticism on not only games but the industry in general. Not only that, but each host will push each other to explain their sides thoroughly whether it be about their thoughts on a game they played or why they are pissed off about a companies actions. Very few podcasts feel like they give the devils advocate side of things a fair view, but those on Weekend Confirmed do.

Since the people on the show have different roles in the industry, it's nice to get a perspective from all sides and I haven't seen another podcast do it quite as well as this one.

1. Giant Bombcast

When talking about gaming podcasts, the Giant Bombcast is guaranteed to be mentioned. There's a reason for that. Not only is the cast absolutely amazing in experience and wit, but the conversations go far beyond gaming yet never cease to be entertaining.

And even with the recent loss of Ryan Davis, there seems to be no stopping them. While it's a slightly different feel as Ryan was one hell of a host, the gang still manages to pull off an hour or so talking about Melvin and the Squirrels and cereal. I know typing it sounds like the most idiotic and boring thing to listen to, but there's a reason everyone loves it.

No matter how random their show gets, you are guaranteed to laugh multiple times during it. Yes, Jeff can seem a bit jaded at times and Vinny never seems to take anything seriously; but like Player One Podcast, the Giant Bombcast sounds like a bunch of friends getting together and shooting the shit. And the shit will eventually touch on video games, but it'll also touch on a lot of random things that just come up during the day or week.

I've never heard another podcast talk about Peter Molyneux's balls while doing his accent. And now I can't imagine my life complete without having heard "muh balls".

Thursday, July 18, 2013

REVIEW: Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward

Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward is the sequel to the Nintendo DS game 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. If you haven't played the original, do not fret. While there are mentions of the previous game in Zero Escape, you need no knowledge of it to understand the story or game play. Zero Escape stands on it's own as a graphic adventure/visual novel with puzzle elements to break up the story. So if you enjoy reading, or feel gaming gets in the way of your reading, Zero Escape is a game you might want to try out.

The game starts with Sigma (you) waking up in a room with very little knowledge of how you got there. In the same room is a blonde mystery woman who seems to have a little more insight than you as to what's going on. A rabbit comes on a screen and instructs you on escaping the room by an elaborate puzzle that was set up. As the story continues, you find seven more individuals who were locked in similar rooms. The overall goal of the game is to score points based on becoming allies or betraying these other individuals as more puzzle rooms are solved. The end result, once nine points have been accumulated, is leaving through a giant door that spells freedom for the winner(s). Anyone who doesn't receive 9 points will have no method of escape and be trapped forever. Conflict ensues as distrust between others is created, some horrible incidents occur, and the mysteries of the hows and whys everyone has been captured.

Zero Escape also boasts a total of 24 endings, all of which piggy back to illuminate the big picture. These endings feature story beats that others do not touch on as certain rooms only open depending on the route that is chosen, and character back stories are explained depending on which ending is received as well. And instead of it being a choose your own adventure-esque, certain endings can not be reached unless another has previously been viewed. This is because a specific item or piece of information is gathered that the main character can use to "unlock" the sequence. Otherwise, the player receives a "To Be Continued..." message and is dumped back to the flow chart of possible scenarios.

This flow chart allows the player to select a specific part of the story to jump back to without having to replay the entire game. So instead of choosing to "Betray" another member, you can "Ally" with them which breaks into a different storyline. The story parts that are repeated can be skipped through with a fast forward button. Skipping isn't 100% perfect as the game decides whether the scene is too important to just breeze through, but for the most part, a good chunk of the game can be sped up if needed. This leads to an easy way to experience all areas of the narrative while giving the player the most control on how quickly they want to witness the game.

I have also found myself loving certain characters and loathing others. The latter isn't a knock against the game. I loathe these characters because they are portrayed as a horrible human being in some cases, too questionable in others, or just downright frustrating. But they are done in a believable human way that people would act when thrown in a situation with strangers who may betray you to escape sooner. But in making this believable, this also makes the difficult decisions against the characters you love that much more heartbreaking when they need to be made. And if you want all endings, you will piss off the characters you love the most.

I focus so much on the story because that's the largest part of the game. The puzzles are there, and they aren't easy. Some are pretty elaborate that will have you checking an entire room multiple times if you are stuck because items can be obtained once certain actions are done. So these may include 20 step processes to unlock a safe which holds the key to your escape. Literally. Each room also has a secret password that can be used on the safe which holds more information on the story that is only touched on briefly in the narrative, but is not a requirement to escape the room.

But the reason I am not going to go in depth on the puzzles is because...I'm awful at them. I tried multiple times to get through rooms on my own and I didn't have the patience to do it. I don't like these kind of puzzle games, but I feel the story itself is so intriguing that I don't want to simply ignore this game.

So I cheat. I Gamefaq through the entire puzzle sequences of this game.

Yes, that makes me a lousy gamer I'm sure. But I think it's a testament to how well the story is told and the draw of the overall theme and mystery. I know some don't want to play a game that's so story heavy as this, and I can understand that. But to others who become so invested in characters and story, this game is for you. If you don't like the puzzles, cheat like me. I don't think this story should be passed on because it's so intricately laid out and beautifully told.

And for what it's worth, I still have 4 endings to unlock, and my total playtime is just over 19 hours. If I wasn't cheating on the puzzles and skipping lines of dialogue, I have no idea how long my game time would be.

But I've enjoyed every second Zero Escape: Virtue's Last Reward.

Monday, July 8, 2013

RIP Ryan Davis

I've never met Ryan Davis. I've never talked to him, I've never had a retweet from him, I've never had an email read by him. To all intent and purposes, Ryan Davis had no idea that I even existed.

And yet, his death hit me harder than I thought it would. Partly because it came absolutely out of nowhere. Who would think that someone at the age of 34, just a week after becoming a husband, would no longer be around to crack jokes, bellow with laughter, and smile like he just won the lottery?

To someone who has listened every week to Ryan and Jeff (and later Brad, Vinny, & Patrick); Ryan became a friend of mine. He didn't know it, but he didn't have to. I looked forward to hearing the gang's antics over the weekend, their opinions on games I was interested in, and their thoughts on various candies and energy drinks sent to them on a weekly basis.

And this went on for years. Every week, 2-3 hours, I became attached to those on the Giant Bombcast. That sounds creepy, but it's true. And I know others have the same feelings.

Ryan is one of those people that exude personality, even when all I have to go off of is a video of him playing a video game, opening a box, or just the audio of a podcast talking about his arcade cabinet. I've never heard a single negative thing said about him from the Internet, and as we all know, that's damn near impossible.

My condolences go out to Ryan's family and friends who should not have to face the harsh reality of a bright life extinguished such as Ryan's.

We will all miss you Ryan. Thank you for the years of fun, entertainment and laughs that you gave me even in some lousy times. Rest in Peace.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Xbox One: Still Not Sold

 Recently Microsoft backpedaled on it's controversial decision regarding their DRM practices. While many were happy with the change, some of us still see more things that need to change. Some label us "Sony Cronies" or "Haters just to hate", Microsoft still has some legitimate complaints. I'm not particularly excited to have a peripheral I don't care about, the $100 difference is still disappointing, not allowing indie developers to self-publish, and more.

To me, it goes beyond that. I don't look at just the past month and make my decision to hold back for years on purchasing the console; I take into consideration the past few years of the Xbox 360's life and judge whether or not I want a console that may be going in the same direction.

And no. I don't.

You see, when Microsoft's Xbox 360 originally came out, I was sold on it. It had a large number of games coming out, the price was right, and developers loved it. Live was a fantastic plus, even if I wasn't fond of paying for it, but the ecosystem it provided was only out-rivaled by the PC itself. I was the consumer they were selling the box to, and I was the consumer willing to purchase it.

So much has changed in recent years. Microsoft put out a large number of exclusives the first few years of the Xbox 360's existence. Games that would once only be released on a Sony platform the previous generation such as Lost Odyssey, Blue Dragon, and Infinite Undiscovery. They had some strong series just starting out including Dead Rising, Saints Row, Crackdown, Gears of War, and Left 4 Dead. Include the popular Halo series, and the Xbox 360 came out with a chip on its shoulder and a point to prove.

But somewhere around 2009-2010, the tone changed. The number of exclusive games started to dwindle, and the focus changed from hardcore gamer to a more casual gamer. Part of this was clearly the focus on Kinect to try and cash in on the popularity of the Wii success by taking motion gaming one step further. So some of the exclusives that did come out were Kinect exclusives. And as many review sites will show, didn't quite live up to what we were promised.

I also started to question where my $50 a year for Live was going to. I didn't really notice any change in the servers to make the online play any better. But what I did notice was more ad space. More difficulty finding the stuff I wanted. More media apps I had no interest in. Instead of my money going to better the Live service I was paying for, it was going to other media apps that I would have to pay additionally for on top of Xbox Live.

So suffice it to say, as I wasn't a big online gamer in the first place outside of a few games, I didn't feel Live was worth it anymore. Around this time I also found myself playing more Playstation games with a free online service, that outside of certain chat functions, didn't really seem that drastically different from what I paid for on the Xbox Live. I preferred the simplicity of the XMB, and the store was far less difficult to find things from my experience. Yes, the scheduled maintenance and slow downloads were incredibly frustrating (and still are), but wasn't enough to warrant a trip back to Xbox Live.

Then due to the way my shoddy house was built, having the Xbox was more of a pain to play due to the trouble I had to go through to set it up. Not Xbox's fault, but it was inevitably the reason I traded in my Xbox to Gamestop.

Fast-forward to May 2013 and the reveal of the Xbox One came to fruition. Instead of seeing a new potential gaming device I was eager for, I was greeted with a media box that had several functions I would never use. Oh, and it plays video games. Of course after receiving some bashing from gamers about the lack of games, we were promised games were coming for E3. Which, to be fair, they delivered on.

But the original reveal is where my doubts started coming in. For years Microsoft has tried to infiltrate the living room with a box of their own to challenge Apple, Roku, etc. The announcement back in May just solidified my opinion that this was the route they were still going. However, when they heard the disappointment from gamers, they felt they needed to "win them over" by showing them games.

The doubt still remains though. They showed their true hand at that conference and everything else has felt reactionary. Literally, everything.

For a company like Microsoft to come out and have employees (some very high ranking) not have any answers, have conflicting answers, and generally seem stumped when it comes to the gaming side of the console is pretty worrisome. Microsoft has been in the business for a long time, and for these employees to not even give a simple "We cannot discuss this at this time", feels amateurish. They should be embarrassed with how everything went down the following weeks. They scrambled and made it worse for themselves.

And if those problems weren't bad enough, then the smugness of specific employees really started to shine through. While not the worst offender, Major Nelson made some waves while doing an interview with Angry Joe. During the interview, Angry Joe made a comment about turning off the DRM, clearly referencing the complaints given to Sim City and how easy it was for them to turn off the always-online portion that was touted as not being possible. Before Angry Joe could finish, the Major decided to steal the microphone and correct him. Which, if you believe what Microsoft has reiterated up until that point, is correct. It simply wouldn't be easy for them to do this as the entire hardware was built from the ground up with this policy in place.

Four days later, that was no longer the case. Policy reversal. Nowhere near as difficult as they made it out to be, especially with as dead-set as they were about it being part of the "future of gaming".

But who really takes the cake is Don Mattrick. If anyone deserves to have a job re-evaluation, it's good ole Don. Who has been so gracious in giving his opinion about the Xbox One such as:

“If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards.”

“We have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity; it’s called Xbox 360.”

"We're delivering thousands of dollars of value to people."

"We're over-delivering value."

Good work there Don. Keep up the good work dismissing consumers and pissing on their valid complaints.

So to some, this may come off as a big bitching post that has no merit. To me, who has felt burned by Microsoft and their direction over the past few years, I can't justify purchasing an Xbox One right now or in the immediate future. They have to prove to me that I'm a consumer they care about, and right now, I don't believe I am. I want a gaming console first and foremost, and the PS4 is striking me as that console. Their management has a clear focus on the gamer while Microsoft wants everyone, and the way to achieve that, is by winning over the gaming fan-base first. But like with the 360, I'm afraid we will fade into afterthoughts for the most part.

But like I've tried to reiterate, I'm not dismissing the console entirely. It has things that I'm interested to try out, but not for $500. The Cloud features are promising, but according to developers, are still a ways from reaching it's full potential due to the current limits of Internet connections here in the States. The Kinect could be a really cool device, but most of what we have been shown now, is what we were shown with the last Kinect. So I'm waiting to see how that turns out. The games they've shown have piqued my interest including Dead Rising 3, Titanfall, and Quantum Break; but I want to feel confident that more games like it will be sustained in the foreseeable future.

Right now my pre-order is on the Playstation 4, and that will not change. But if the Xbox One receives positive reviews and they are committed to providing a robust gaming experience on par with the PS4 for many years, then I'll pick one up. But unlike Sony who has impressed me the past few years, Microsoft has done the exact opposite. This is the time to win me back. Do not disappoint me Microsoft.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Why Sony has an Edge Going Into the Next Console Cycle

Sony burst out of the gate in February with the intention of winning back gamers and clearing the smear the PS3 left on their name. They know they cannot make the same mistakes as last time with exclusives, a complicated console to develop for, and a price point that turns away consumers. Mark Cerny made a point at the PS4 reveal that Sony is moving forward in the right direction. People have voiced their complaints about his speech being long winded with no information they cared about.

But Cerny did one thing that Microsoft failed to do in their entire presentation. He made me feel like they cared. He made me feel like they understood the gamer. He didn't feel like a businessman coming out trying to sell me a product. Instead he came out, acknowledged the faults of the previous console, and the ways they went about correcting on them. The importance of developers were a major point both with the console structure itself, and later with indie devs and Jonathan Blow. Throughout the entire presentation, Sony focused on the gamer and brought out people who created the games and the console itself. Microsoft went the other route by not focusing on games and bringing out people who nobody could connect with.

Sony received some major help after the Microsoft press conference due to the lack of cohesive answers given by Microsoft employees regarding various console topics. Used games, always-online, fees, Kinect requirement; you name it, nobody seemed to have the same response. Microsoft, which should be professionals when it comes to announcements and what to hold off on, came out like a hydra with the numerous heads spouting conflicting information. And while Sony may be doing similar things, their responses were vague enough to get the attention off of them. But most importantly, everyone who spoke about it, spoke in a unified informed voice. Anyone who sees Microsoft flopping around like a fish out of water with their responses should be concerned about how things are working behind the scenes. Their Xbox One reveal was pushed back several times from their rumored date, and they still came out stumbling. It's hard enough to convince people to purchase this console based on the information coming out, and it's even harder when the company behind it appears to have no idea of what is going on.

Microsoft also moved away from what made the Xbox and Xbox 360 successful. In the later part of the 360 lifetime, games became less of a priority and the media aspects grew in relevance. The Xbox One follows the 360 by sticking with media as the first and foremost thing to talk about...but it still plays games! Their way of showing this is by having two first party games, one of which is pretty annual in Forza 5. Then they bring out the big guns in other yearly games in sports and Call of Duty. And among the games shown, no actual gameplay.

So a week before E3, the biggest E3 EVER one could argue, below is a list of exclusive games for each console that has been revealed (not counting PC, previous-gen versions, timed exclusives or just hasn't been announced for the other console). The list does not include games we know exist, but don't know the name for:

1. Infamous: Second Son
2. Killzone: Shadow Fall
3. Knack
4. Drive Club

5. War Thunder
6. Primal Carnage: Genesis
7. Deep Down
8. The Witness
9. Final Fantasy
10. Blacklight Retribution
11. Diablo 3
12. DC Universe Online *free*
13. Planetside 2 *free*
14. Warframe *free*

Xbox One:
1. Forza Motorsport 5
2. Quantum Break
3. Ryse
4. Fantasia: Music Evolved

From the sheer number of announced exclusives, PS4 is destroying Microsoft. Don't fret, Microsoft has games up their sleeve for E3. But the same can be said for Sony. So both lists can still grow quite a bit not only next week, but before and after as well.

E3 will allow for Sony to open up a little more about their system. While the social media functions are important, that can be quickly shown at the end of a new game to demonstrate how it works. Introducing how Gaikai will be implemented could be one of the biggest announcements depending on what it embodies. And if they can prove that remote play works between the Vita and PS4, that could not only sell PS4's, but Vita's as well.

But one of the biggest questions much? We know the consoles will release around the same time (October-Black Friday), but the cost is the big headscratcher. Sony isn't planning on making the same mistake twice with pricing as they already revealed they won't be taking the same hit they did with the PS3. Microsoft on the other hand is also incorporating an updated Kinect. And if the current Kinect is at $100, then what would the current Kinect be worth. Add the system on top of that, and Xbox may very well have a higher priced console. Figure in a subscription which could cost more this generation. Unlikely you say? It would make sense if they are adding in 300,00 more servers with additional content for users than what is currently provided on the 360. And if that is true, why would the 360 users be paying the same amount although what is provided to them is different?

Microsoft has wavered since it's announcement and Sony is riding high from a fairly positive reveal and Microsoft's mistakes. E3 will either make or break Microsoft, and Sony should be stable depending on what Microsoft has to show. But if Sony decides to put their foot down, Microsoft may not have a chance. Microsoft has to wow everyone and Sony just has to continue what they are doing. All expectations could flip come E3, but from the looks of it, it's looking pretty promising from Sony. But there's always Wonderbook...

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why the Xbox One Will Have a Harder Battle Than the Xbox 360

I think it's safe to say that the Xbox 360 proved successful for Microsoft. They are within 3 million sales of breaking 80 million units worldwide since it's initial launch in November of 2005. While it has had it's own hiccups with hard drive issues and the infamous Red Ring of Death, it still went on to impress a lot of gamers and is still their system of choice.

So similar to Sony coming into the PS3 era, Microsoft should feel pretty confident to be able to capitalize on the accomplishment that was the 360. But much like Sony, Microsoft may have gotten a little ahead of themselves and came out with their chests puffed out feeling on top of the world. But after the Xbox One announcement yesterday and the ensuing devastation of gaming press picking apart the news they glossed over at the event, Microsoft appears to be backpedaling a bit and starting to realize they may not be in the position they once were. They are no longer on the cruise ship 360, they are pulling away from it in the rowboat that is Xbox One.

Microsoft came out of the gates with an advantage. They had an appealing online structure that no other system had and, with the runaway series of Halo, many fans who would support the 360 with it's release. And while the original Xbox was only 4 years old, the 360 was the beginning of the next generation of consoles especially with the Wii and PS3 not far behind. So of course upon it's release, it had no next-generation consoles to spar with making it the newest and best console to have as a gamer. And as most gamers know, it's hard to resist that urge for something new.

So as the first system out, they already had an advantage over the Wii and PS3. Of course, we all know what happened once the Wii was released and how it won over all of the mothers who watch Oprah and the Nintendo fans who were hoping to finally see an HD Mario and Zelda. And while the latter didn't get what they want, the average non-gamer consumer received the product they wanted, albeit, one that didn't stay in their frame of mind outside of Wii Sports and various exercise games.

But the PS3 took a different route. Instead of selling gangbusters, they decided to piss off the fan base with an overpriced system that only the hardcorest of hardcore fans would purchase. Blu-Ray wasn't expected to turn out like it did (HD-DVD all the way, amirite?!), PS2 was still running rampant in sales,  and the 360 didn't look worse graphics wise and cost less. PS3 was on the ropes, and the 360/Wii were throwing the jabs.

All it took now for Microsoft was to strengthen their relationships with third party developers. This was clearly evident with the deluge of exclusives the system had their first few years. Games like Blue Dragon and Infinite Undiscovery, which would feel natural on the PS3, were instead 360 exclusives. Games that came out first on the 360 (later ported to other places) such as Mass Effect and Bioshock helped change the gaming industry for the better. Then Microsoft rubbed in their own exclusives with Gears of War, Halo 3, Crackdown and Forza 2. Microsoft was on the ball with exclusive games that other systems would either not receive or receive much later.

But it wasn't just the third parties that jumped into the ring with Microsoft. The 360 started something this generation with it's service allowing indie developers to really strive. While Geometry Wars impressed people immediately, the Live Arcade really hit it's stride around the time of Braid and really showed gamers what these smaller developers could do. It proved that the Live Arcade didn't need to be classic games brought back, and that the games were on par with retail games in terms of quality.

Although the PS3 started to hit it's stride, Microsoft still excelled when it came to ease of development. Due to the difficult PS3 hardware, most devs would work on the 360 version and then port over to the PS3. Developers have come out and said the trouble of developing for the PS3 created more negatives than positives in their mind, which resulted in poorer versions on the PS3 in terms of frame rate, graphics, textures, etc.

It would also be foolish to ignore how big Call of Duty really sparked the "Bro"-mentality of gamers. While the PS3 has these gamers as well, they were shadowed in sheer number of those on the 360. For example, within the first few months of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's release, the PS3 had only sold less than a 1/3 of what the 360 had sold in software. To many gamers, the Xbox 360 was a Call of Duty machine and that hasn't changed whatsoever.

But somewhere along the way, the focus of the Xbox 360 started to shift from games to media. The interface of the Xbox changed to incorporate more ads and more difficulty in finding games. The Indie Games alone proved a challenge to find. The focus on apps such as Netflix became more important over the exclusive games they once released as those began to dwindle to Live Arcade and first party devs. But like some of the older exclusive games, even the once Live Arcade exclusives started to trickle to other platforms including Limbo and Castle Crashers.

So instead of being game-specific exclusives, they went a slightly different route by looking at timed-exclusivity. This is most evident with Call of Duty where DLC is released a month in advance for the Xbox 360, but other games have done it as well including Bethesda's Skyrim. This was to encourage sales for software on the 360 so players who had the game would be able to access the DLC at an earlier stage than those on the PS3.

As this generation comes to a close and the next console war is about to reignite, it's easy to see where the advantages the Xbox 360 had over the PS3 will not play out in the same way for the next systems. The Xbox One will not be released a year before the PS4 and instead will have to go toe-to-toe with it this holiday season. The people who want a new generation console will not have only one to choose from, they will have two.

Chief financial officer Masaru Kato has stated that the PS4 will not be a financial burden for Sony the way that the PS3 was. The PS3 had it's own special hardware that was costly for Sony and this generation they are not making the same mistake. Using third party for production and hardware is allowing the system to be created at a cheaper price. Meaning, the price point between the Xbox One and PS4 should be much closer than the large discrepancy that the PS3's price point provided. And with these hardware specs being pretty similar, the difficulties of developing for the PS3 are now moot and the Xbox won't be able to tout that over Sony any longer.

To the games and exclusives, Sony definitely has the advantage in terms of sheer studios. However, Microsoft clearly doesn't mind throwing money at their problems as evident in the Xbox One reveal and the special partnership with EA. While Sony hasn't revealed exact details of how many exclusives they have (although they said all of their studios are working on PS4 games), Microsoft is bringing 15 to the table within the first year and 8 of them are new IP's. As of right now, the known exclusives (not counting PC) for each system are:

PS4: Infamous: Second Son, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, Drive Club, Primal Carnage Genesis, War Thunder, The Witness (timed exclusive)

Xbox One: Ryse, Forza 5, Quantum Break

More will clearly be announced in a few weeks at E3.

Lastly, there has been quite a bit of indie developers voicing their opinion about the PS4 and Xbox One. Jonathan Blow surprised everyone coming out during the PS4 conference and letting indie developers know that this is the console they should go with. Days after the conference, he was brought onto the Playstation Blogcast where he helped explain why that is. While he did mention how it's easier to develop than the PS3, he didn't hold back when it came to the difficulties of developing for Microsoft and the hoops he had to jump through. This was only backed further when he mentioned that he had still not seen a dev kit for the new Microsoft console, but Sony was more than eager to get one out to everyone who had asked.

This seems to follow in line with how Microsoft has been treating indie devs with their procedures in the past few years. Everything became clear when Fez creator Phil Fish voiced his concerns about spending thousands of dollars per patch to fix problems with the game. Many were not happy that Fish wouldn't fix the issues, but it brought to light an even bigger problem and that was how costly it was to do so with Microsoft. Since then, Microsoft has not been able to avoid that criticism and have done their best to dodge any questions about it. Phil Fish had his own comments about the Xbox One reveal on Twitter...but you should look at that on your spare time...preferably not at work.

While indies were overlooked at the Xbox One conference, the feathers were really ruffled in post-conference comments from people throughout the Microsoft community. Nobody seems to know exactly what's going on with conflicting information coming out about used game fees, how used games work, the importance of always being connected to the Internet, how the Live TV will work with the various Cable Providers out there, and many more I'm forgetting. This inability by the people at Microsoft to have one voice with these answers, and their way of saying information is wrong without really clearing it all up, is making Microsoft look bad. The conference itself felt lifeless and a string of promo videos and the voice of gamers can be heard in disgust as little was shown on the gaming side. And what was shown, were trailers with no actual gameplay.

Microsoft seems poised to shoot themselves in the foot this gen, because so far, they have done very little to provide themselves good press. The conference held yesterday should have been the time to clear up the negativity around their console and rumors and instead all it did was create more concern about the Xbox One. Microsoft will not have the fortune of Sony blowing sales this time around, and they won't have a year head start on sales. If they do not do something at E3 (or before then) to clear up the confusion and worries of the people looking for a next-generation console this year, then they are doomed to lose this console war before it has begun.