I'm a time traveler! But I can only go forwards... And only at normal speed... But I'm still traveling through time, damn it!
On a vaguely more serious note, my name's Marcus and Ive been playing video games for more time than I care to admit. By day I work for a popular movie streaming website, which veers between fun and boring on a near constant basis. When that's not happening I can usually be found procrastinating over doing more stimulating things.
As you may be able to tell, I like to write about games, but I also have a background in film, so occasionally I write about that too. If you like what you see here then check out my personal blog for ramblings about things other than games.
Random facts about me:
1. I'm Cornish (and mildly proud of it)
2. I've worked on a number of short films
3. Sometimes I forget how old I am (25... I think)
4. I know quite a lot about very little
5. I once played chess for my county
6. I bloody love the Simpsons
7. I'm a friendly drunk
A few days before the event, I had received an email informing me that I was required to arrive no later than 6:45pm. Unfortunately I had to stay at work a bit longer than expected. This is how I found myself standing on a stifling, cramped tube train worrying about whether I was going to make the deadline. I hopped off the train at Piccadilly Circus and briskly walked the short distance to the event's location at Loading Bar, Soho. Upon arriving, I could see a group of interesting looking people gathered around outside the venue. I greeted my friend and recovered the tickets I had hastily printed out earlier in the day. As it turned out, the 6:45pm deadline wasn't quite as important as I had been led to believe.
We waited outside for a few minutes, discussing the latest gaming news flowing steadily out of E3. Of course the popular topic was the dichotomy between Microsoft and Sony's pre-show press conferences. We also speculated as to what might await us inside the bar -- neither of us knew quite what to expect from this little event. While we were talking, a rather charming, very drunk man approached some of the interesting looking people gathered in front of the bar and asked them "what the fuck they were looking at". Silence and bowed heads were the only answers he received and he promptly retreated. Shortly after this we were let into the bar and I found out exactly what this event really was: It was bloody brilliant, that's what!
For anyone who's unaware of Etoo, it is an event dreamed up by the Guardian's Keith Stuart, and game designer Georg Backer. You can read more about it over on the official website, but the short version is that it's both an accompaniment to, and an antidote for, the all consuming monster known as E3.
This is the event's first year -- it was in fact conceived only a few short weeks before its opening on Monday June 10th. It was for this reason -- not my self-aggrandising pomposity -- I chose to write about my journey to the event as an introduction; my hasty, sweaty trip, the late start, the interesting people outside the venue, the gaming conversations, the slightly insane drunk, these things feel analogous to the event itself. It was cobbled together in an incredibly short amount of time, the organisational side of things seemed like real seat-of-the-pants stuff, it was rammed full of interesting people talking about games, and it had a bit of a mad edge.
If none of that sounds very appealing then let me tell you why it was so great. I've been to a few trade shows in the past; they're great fun, but they are also very loud, pompous affairs that have a tendency to leave you intellectually drained. Hours of wandering the show floor, interspersed with visits to overly crowded panels, is not the ideal way to learn about games and their creators. Etoo was the antithesis of these events, it was intensely personal and intellectually nourishing. While I would leave a large trade show or comicon type event buzzing about the swag I'd received and the big games I'd seen, I left Etoo on a high about gaming and it's bright, creative future.
The format for the show itself was split into two parts. In the daytime the bar was filled with developers demoing their latest wares, and people were free to come in and have a look around. Annoyingly, my silly job prevented me from attending this part of the event. In the evening the bar played host to a live show presented by the aforementioned Keith Stuart and Georg Backer -- they were sporadically joined by Leigh Alexander, who was just as sharp in person as she is on the page. The dynamic between the presenters was great, and they never once talked down to the audience; these were highly articulate, passionate people who really knew their stuff.
The same could be said for all of the developers and various other speakers that were interviewed that night, but, unfortunately, if I were to go through each one we'd be here forever. Instead I want to talk about a couple of presentations that really stood out and, ultimately, defined the experience for me.
Strangely enough, the first pair of speakers I want to discuss didn't talk about videogames at all. They were Quintin Smith and Paul Dean of the website Shut Up & Sit Down, and their stated mission is to show people just how amazing board games can be -- and we're not talking about dusty old boredom inducers like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit here. The growing popularity of board games is something I've been vaguely aware of for some time now, but it wasn't until seeing these guys talk that I really sat up and took notice. Their passionate, engaging and amusing presentation completely sold me on the merits of the current gaming scene, and it led me to their website, where I found I could waste a lot of time watching their excellent videos. I get the feeling that some board game purchases may well be made in the very near future.
The second group that really stood out to me was composed of four MA Games Design & Development students from the National Film and Television School. These men went by the names of Albert, Rich, Bojan and Bagley, and they pretty much blew me away. With backgrounds ranging from bronze caster to undergraduate, it was clear that these guys had won their places through shear creativity and raw talent. The games they showed easily matched the diversity of their backgrounds, running the gamut from an open-world revolution sim to an Oculus Rift developed exploration game. Also, from description alone, I would pay good money to play Rich's theme park sim / romantic comedy. Seriously, I need that in my life right now.
These two groups encapsulated the breadth of experiences that Etoo had to offer. The Shut Up & Sit Down guys gave me a lighthearted, funny, but ultimately informative experience. The NFTS students, on the other hand, were at the other end of the spectrum entirely. Sure, there were some funny moments, but their time on stage was characterised by creative energy and dangerously high levels of inspiration. I don't feel that either of these experiences could have existed outside an event like Etoo. At a larger show these people would have been sequestered in a corner somewhere, not getting the attention they deserved. At Etoo they were given the spotlight, and boy did they ever shine bright, as did every other developer, writer or creator that took the stage.
After experiencing Etoo I must say that we need more events like this in the gaming industry. Don't get me wrong, I still love the pomp and circumstance of huge shows like E3, and I certainly wouldn't want to see them go away, but we need the intimacy and indie spirit of Etoo just as much. I've used the word interesting a lot in this article, believe me when I say that was a conscious decision. Screw the synonyms, Etoo was straight-up gosh darn interesting. I just hope they do it again next year.
Quickly! Before the internet explo…. Shiiiiiiiiiiiit! Too late. Yes, Microsoft have finally clarified -- kind of -- how the Xbox One will handle used games, DRM, online connectivity and Kinect. This has made a great number of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a very bad move. Seriously though, I'm here to take a cold, hard, clinical look at Microsoft's policy and give you an opinion that isn't so extreme it feels like being gang raped by a dozen Facehuggers. So please, if you wouldn't mind watching the following relaxing video and then we can begin…
Let's get straight down to business and summarise the main points that Microsoft has addressed. We shall do this through the glorious medium of bullet points!
• Used games are still a thing.
• It isn't always online.
• Kinect can be turned off.
• All games will have simultaneous physical and digital releases.
• You can access all your games on any Xbox One.
• Your family can access your games on any Xbox One.
• How the bloody hell is any of this going to work?!
• Used games actually aren't still a thing.
• It kind of is always online.
• Kinect can't really be turned off.
• Traditional renting is no longer possible.
• Lending games to friends is no longer possible.
• Private sales and independent retailers are going to die.
Yeah, sooooo… Back on track with the critical analysis. The implementation of a BPGD (buy physical get digital) scheme is brilliant news. It doesn't matter how you buy your game, you will always have a digital version available. Combine this with the fact that this digital version can be played on any console and we're looking at Steam-like levels of integrated awesomeness. Going one further than that, though, is the ability for up to ten of your family members also being able to access your game library, again, on any console. Taken in isolation these are unarguably brilliant features, unfortunately they can't be isolated, and that's where the problems begin to arise.
The largest of many Elephants in the room is the issue of used games. Before we go any further I would like to clarify my views on the matter: I am for the sale of used copies of physical games in principal, but strongly dislike the current state of the used games market and the culture it promotes.
As a former employee of Game *shudder* I had to up-sell every customer on used games. If they came to the counter with a new copy I had to offer them used, and, while I'm not going to pull a percentage out of my arse, I am comfortable saying that more often than not they'd take the used copy. If someone did buy the new copy I was required to inform them that the sooner they came back and traded it in the more money they'd get. This is a horrible system; it actively cannibalises new sales and promotes the attitude that games are nothing more than disposable playthings.
For these reasons, I see the biggest problem with the implementation of Microsoft's restrictions, not the fact they are actually trying to enact control of used games. For example, you are only able to sell your used games to "participating retailers," in other words Game, Gamestop, other big chain retailers. Doesn't that pretty much kill independent game retailers? Maybe I'm jumping the gun a bit on that one -- the system could well be available to any retailer, I suppose -- but it almost certainly spells the end of private sales. But hey-ho, at least it isn't always online, right? Well technically no, but it does have a list of online requirements as long as, well, a very long thing.
Firstly the 24 hour connection requirement seems like far too short an amount of time -- Steam gives at least two weeks of offline play. Secondly the fact that the method of control they've chosen is online verification appears incredibly short sighted. To quote a military friend of mine "no soldiers will be buying an Xbox, then". Yeah, that's a pretty big group of people to piss off, and it's not the only one either. When I was a lowly student my University blocked the use of Xbox Live on the hall's network, and that's pretty common practice. Hey, Microsoft, you know who buys a lot of games? Students!
Possibly the biggest problem, however, much bigger than peoples personal internet connections, are Microsofts servers. If these go down, and nobody can play any games, that's really big problem time, as in huge lawsuit problem, not internet complaining problem.
The existence of these often-online controls gives the impression that what Microsoft really wanted was an all-digital ecosystem. Now, I actually sympathise with that because I'd love an all digital system, in fact I already use one, it's called the PC. Regrettably the console market isn't ready for all-digital yet. People simply wouldn't accept it, so instead we've got this weird bastard child, this half-step to digital that provides an annoying compromise.
Because discs are still a thing but Microsoft wants all our games to be on our hard drives and in the cloud, these restrictions were kind of inevitable. If the Xbox One featured a Steam-style two week offline mode people could potentially use one disc to install copies on all their friends Xbox's, and all would have enough time to finish the game. No publisher would ever allow this, and Microsoft needs publishers. Conversely, if Microsoft had opted for an offline verification system -- such as a one-time-use verification code -- this would have entirely killed used sales. No retailer would ever allow this, and Microsoft needs retailers.
Some people have compared the Xbox One to Steam, but this is a foolish comparison. Consoles are closed systems, walled gardens, proprietary boxes or however you want to put it. This means we have to rely on the console manufacturer to provide everything for us, and this will never change. Steam is just one of a growing number of delivery platforms that all work on a somewhat open platform, the PC. Steam has competition, it has alternatives, and ultimately this system provides consumers with choice. Consoles, on the other hand, have always limited choice, and the Xbox One limits it even further.
While we're on the subject of choice, Microsoft have confirmed that the Kinect can be "paused" while you're using the system, and it can be turned off completely when the system is powered down. Of course they have also confirmed that users will have complete control over their privacy and how their data is used -- this was inevitable. The real question here is do we trust Microsoft to abide by these rules? Personally, I'm going to say no, but I'm also going to say I don't care. I have a smartphone on me at all times, I have a laptop with a built in webcam, I use the internet pretty much all day, if someone wants my data there are already plenty of ways they can get it that are all easier than going through a Kinect. If you're really worried about this stuff you shouldn't even be on the internet reading this blog.
This all paints a pretty bleak picture, right? Well yes and no. The main problem is still uncertainty. Before, we were unsure what Microsoft was actually going to do, whereas now we know what they're doing but we don't know how or if it will work. People are scared of the unknown and they're scared of change, the Xbox One embodies both of these fears.
Beyond these fears we also have the issue of trust, and I'm not talking about the data sharing here. The DRM system that they have implemented essentially puts our games in their hands. Do we trust them to keep them safe? Do we trust them to make sure they always work? Do we trust them to keep support going beyond the lifespan of the console? Most people on the internet right now seem to be saying no, but does this really mean anything? Outrage on the internet rarely translates to the real world. How many people buying the Xbox One will even be aware of these policies or the effects they might have? My experience in the retail business would appear to indicate, very few.
Cliff Bleszinski tweeted last week that the games industry was going to go through a period of brutal and bloody change. The Xbox One is part of that change, and I don't think we'll really know what effect it will have for at least another two years. The music, film, and PC game industries have all been through these sorts of changes, now it's console gaming's time. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'm pretty excited to see how it all plays out.
As I'm sure most of you already know, Nintendo decided last week to have a bit of a crackdown on Let's Plays. Upon entering the comments section of some of my favourite gaming outlets (mistake number one), I was surprised to see how divisive this issue was. I know, shock horror, divisiveness and online shouting matches in the comments section of a gaming website, you say? Never! Seriously though, I was pretty sure this was one issue that gamers would generally agree on and, just to make it clear, I thought we'd mostly be on the side of the LP'ers, but apparently not.
The first thing that shocked me was the number of people that didn't even realise it was possible to make money, let alone a living, from Youtube videos. Even more infuriating were the people that thought it was somehow morally repugnant to do this, "get a real job," they cried. As someone who works in the media industry, I thought creating videos for peoples entertainment was a real job, if it's not then I sure as hell wasted a lot of time and money learning the skills you need to be able do this. Maybe these comments were coming from a position of ignorance? Maybe jealousy? Whatever the reason, a lot of commenters weren't too happy that there were people out there making a living doing something they loved.
As I was poised with hands hovering over the keyboard, ready to type my lengthy, chastising rebuttal to the ignoramus' inhabiting the comments thread, I had a thought. First of all there were a lot of people already doing this, and doing it pretty well, and secondly, maybe I should look at this issue a bit more carefully. After all, this has clearly raised tempers and brought on more heated debate than I expected, so why not dig a little deeper?
First things first, let's define our terms, or rather Nintendo's terms. Now it's not entirely clear from the wording of the statement, but it seems that Nintendo are going after the traditional long-format Let's Plays. In other words the lengthy series of videos, broken down into 30-40 minute chunks, that portray a game from beginning to end. Specifically, Nintendo state that adverts will only be placed on "videos featuring Nintendo-owned content, such as images or audio of a certain length". This would mean that anyone creating reviews - especially the 'cult of personality' kind that focus a lot of screen time on the reviewer - news, previews, guides, tips, tricks and any other kind of short form content should be fine. The only real grey area would be the extended looks / mega reviews that drift over the 30 minute mark.
The actual effect this will have very much depends on the size of the individual LP'ers following and what they hope to get out of their videos. It's important to note that Nintendo aren't banning these videos; instead they're funnelling all of the money made from adverts appearing on or next to the video directly to their own pockets, as opposed to those of the video's creator. Any LP'er who doesn't monetize their content, and/or is just doing it for fun, won't really be effected. On the other hand, the really big guys, who make most or all of their living from doing this, may be in a bit of a pickle. Or will they?
They already have huge followings, vast game libraries, and they trade very much on their personalities, meaning that they'll just stop posting any videos of recent Nintendo games. There's plenty of other gaming content out there to cover, and for most LP'ers Nintendo games only make up a small percentage of their total output. Also of note, so far Nintendo are only making claims against videos that contain footage of very recent Nintendo games. This narrows the field even further and leaves many popular LP'ers - Game Grumps, for example - relatively safe, as a lot of their videos focus on classic or retro games.
Going even further than that, a lot of the biggest Youtube personalities in gaming don't really feature Nintendo games very often, if at all. Take a look at the recent uploads for PewDiePie, Tobuscus or Yogscast and you'll see that there's very little Nintendo to be found. In fact, the only Youtuber I could find with a sizeable subscriber base who features almost exclusively Nintendo games is Chuggaaconroy, and even then he's got a good mix of old and new.
So if the LP'ers themselves aren't going to be immediately effected in a big way, what about Nintendo?
Honestly, I don't see it having a particularly positive effect on Nintendo (shocking!). Sure, they'll make a little bit of money on advertising revenue, but in the grand scheme of things it really will be just a little bit. Beyond that there's really no positive for them. In the short term they get a lot of bad press and piss off some of their most dedicated fans, and in the long term they risk alienating these same fans from promoting their games online. It really seems like they did it because they could, it was their legal right, but they were very much obeying the letter of the law and not the intent. In other words, to stop people pirating their games, not to stop fans giving them free advertising.
So if Nintendo lose and most LP'ers either win or remain relatively unaffected, what's the real issue? Unfortunately this all comes down to the slippery slope argument. If Nintendo get away with this, other large publishers and developers may well follow suit and, if enough of them do, that absolutely will have an effect on the Let's Play community. I wouldn't go so far as to say it will kill it off completely, after all, many popular LP'ers are focusing more and more on indie games, and the indie devs love it, but damage will most certainly be done.
I'm a proponent of the Internet as an end goal for content creation and distribution. If you can no longer make a living on sites like Youtube the quality of content will drop dramatically. Burnie Burns - of Roosterteeth fame - has often espoused the value of the internet as a genuine career path rather than just a stop on the way to more established areas of media, a stop that the vast majority of people will never get out of. On the internet there's nobody to tell you that you can't make something "because it won't sell," "because it doesn't have mainstream appeal," "because they don't want to hire someone with no experience." On the internet you can create whatever you want, and if you can build an audience you've proved that that creation has value and you should be rewarded for it. Who are we to judge the validity of someone's chosen career path?
Yes, Let's Plays are tied up in a legal grey area, but they're doing no harm, and may in fact be doing some good in the form of advertising and promotion. If companies like Nintendo want to survive in the modern age maybe they should try embracing these passionate fans; share in their success, embrace them in a symbiotic relationship, find out why they love your games so much and help them help you. C'mon Nintendo, let's all get in a big hot tub and have a huge hippie love-in. Too far? Yeah, I've probably gone a bit over the top there, but you get the point. It's all about collaboration.
A turning point in the history of videogames. A mind-blowing accomplishment. The best game ever made. These are the kind of phrases that people like to use when talking about Half-Life 2. Now hold on to your butts, people. Because, the first time I played this messiah of the gaming world, I didn't like it. In fact, I more than just disliked it, I bloody hated it. As you may have guessed from the title, this is no longer my opinion. It was, however, genuinely how I felt about the game, and for a very long time too. But before I discuss my change of heart I'm going to go all the way back to the very beginning. I'm going to tell you the tale of my love-hate relationship with Half-Life 2.
The year was 2004, Lost was still years away from unfulfilling it's potential, nobody knew what a 'Justin Bieber' was and the iPhone was but a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye. Much more important than all of these things, however, was the fact that I was a geeky 16 year old boy fully embracing my passion for drinking… Errr no, sorry, I meant gaming. Yeah, that's the one. Actually it was the combination of these two adolescent passions that led me to my first experience with the very subject of this article: Half-Life 2.
It was at a house party, somewhere around the game's November launch date. More specifically, it would have been the morning after the actual party - bleary eyed and smelling of alcohol and shame - when I played that iconic intro sequence. The G-Man's speech, delivered with his brilliantly creepy cadence. Gordon's escape from the train station. The truly stunning chase that gives players their first glimpse of City 17. All moments that will be forever burned into my minds eye. Unfortunately my time with the game was cut short - everyone else wanted to play a little game by the name of Counter Strike: Source. But that first glimpse, that tiny initial sample, was enough. There was just one small problem, a vital puzzle piece I was missing that would enable me to sit in my own house and play. No, it wasn't a chair. It was something even more vital: a computer that was actually capable of playing the game.
Clearly this was a problem that needed to be remedied as fast as humanly possible. But, just like 24 year old me, 16 year old me was a Mac user. So the decision to build my own gaming rig was a big one. Once that decision had been made, however, I threw myself into it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. A whole new world opened up before me. A world filled with graphics cards, motherboards, processors and pretty, shiny cases. Due to my modest budget, I ended up plumping for an AMD Athlon 64 processor, an ATI X800XL GPU and a mighty 1GB of RAM. Very tame indeed by todays standards, but back in the dark ages of 2005 this was a very respectable set up. Anticipating a minor disaster during the assembly of my new machine, I was pleasantly surprised when everything appeared to go to plan. With a fresh copy of Windows XP installed, and all the necessary drivers and software downloaded, it was time to play some games.
Top of the agenda was, of course, Half-Life 2. The intro sequence unfolded just as I remembered, and I was eager to proceed through the rest of the game. It was at this point that things started to go awry. The trek through the canal system, followed by the airboat sequence, really felt like it sapped the urgency out of the story. It literally felt like the game was saying "you need to go here for the story to progress, but that would make the game too short. So instead you're going on a long and tedious detour". I was being pushed down corridors and forced through constricted environments - it was like a step back to the Doom and Quake days of yore. This was only compounded by the boring and generic weapon selection found in the first third of the game.
Making things even worse was the fact that I wasn't connecting with the characters at all. Gordon Freeman's complete silence and lack of any personality created a character vacuum. Why should I care about this guy? He's literally nobody, what's his motivation? And the fact that I was completely free to move around during crucial story scenes made me feel like they were unimportant, unfocused and ultimately unnecessary. I needed direction - if something's important then make me focus on it.
Despite my misgivings, I pressed on in the hope that things would improve, and for a time, at least, they would. Arriving at Black Mesa East kicks the story into high-gear again. I was introduced to the awesome DOG, and the Combine mount an assault against the stronghold. Plus I finally got my first taste of the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator (Gravity Gun). After this, though, I was booted into Ravenholm, and yet again I felt like the wind had been taken out of my sails. Fighting through the zombie infested town slows the pace to a crawl and - despite the presence of the entertaining Father Grigori - I found myself slipping into boredom once more. And what was waiting for me on the other side? Why, another tedious driving section, of course.
The drive along Highway 17 was the final nail in the coffin. It was yet another boring trudge from point A to point B that provided no motivation for my actions. There were long dark tunnels that seemingly existed solely to mask loading times, the dune buggy controlled poorly and I was fighting the same dull enemies as before. So I quit, right there. I tried coming back when Valve released The Orange Box on 360, but I ended up quitting again at pretty much the exact same place, for the exact same reasons.
I thought I was done with Half-Life 2 for good. Until one quiet afternoon - looking at a pile of overplayed games and too poor to buy anything new - my eyes fell upon that glossy orange case. "why not? I've got nothing better to do today". So into the disc tray the game went, and over the next few days I fell utterly and completely head-over-heels in love.
Boy, was I wrong! Seriously, typing all that negative stuff up there genuinely hurt. But before I go any further into my new-found appreciation for Valve's masterpiece I need to qualify a few points. Firstly, I still maintain that the Highway 17 driving section is the weakest part of the game. It feels like it outstays its welcome, and I'm always glad to reach the end of that particular road. I also still believe the initial weapon selection feels uninspired - especially when compared to the kind of awesomeness you get access to in the latter part of the game. Basically, I'm stalling; trying to justify why I quit when I did, but really I couldn't have picked a worse time to give up.
I now realise I was approaching the game from completely the wrong angle. At the time, I was still very used to strictly directed stories in my videogames. Think Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy and Zelda. These games tell you the tale of the protagonist(s) in a slightly removed manner. When the game wants to reveal some plot you have to stop and listen; a cinematic scene unfolds in front of you, and once it's done you're given control over your character again. This break in gameplay is essentially a bookmark telling you to shut up and listen, because this is important. In Half-Life 2 you almost never relinquish control of Gordon Freeman. I very quickly came to realise that this wasn't due to a lack of focus, but rather it was letting me choose what to focus on. Suddenly I was starting to identify with the world, because I felt like I was actually part of it and not just a passive observer.
My new found connection with the world swiftly bled into how I related to the characters. No longer did I see the good Doctor Freeman as an impersonal nothing-character, but as a blank slate just waiting for me to draw all over him with my mind. And I did just that. I became the character in the game, and Gordon dutifully became the vessel that let me accomplish this. I'm in the world, fighting my way through the zombified residents of Ravenholm, commanding my own personal army of Antlions, disintegrating Combine soldiers with the Super Gravity Gun, and I'm loving every last second of it.
Now I'm in the Citadel elevator, separated from Alyx by a thin glass door. As she reaches her hand out towards me I move forward and try to do the same, and that's when I realise my hand's off the controller and I'm actually reaching for the TV. That's one of the most immersive moments I've ever experienced in a videogame, and it would't have happened if Half-Life 2 followed a rigid, one-step-removed structure.
Once I was done with the main game's storyline I dove head first into the two episodic expansions. Having played nary an iota of these episodes, I had no idea what to expect. What I got was an infiltration of the crumbling Citadel, a daring escape through Antlion infested sewers, a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the snipers of City 17, and one of the most exciting drives through the countryside that anyone has ever had, videogame or otherwise. In short, some of the most exciting, engaging pieces of gaming I've ever had the pleasure to be a part of. And that's why I enjoyed it so much, because it felt like I really was an essential part of it.
Then there's that crucial moment in Episode 2 where the control is ripped away from you. No, not the ending - although that is also amazing in an absolutely horrifying way. I'm talking about the bit where they make you think that Alyx is dead. Trapped, peeking out through a small window in my hiding place, I was forced to watch the apparent death of one of the most well realised characters in all of gaming. Of course, it's revealed pretty quickly that Alyx will actually be fine, and there had been multiple moments before this one where control was temporarily taken away from me, but this one really hit home the hardest. It made me realise how successful Valve had been at manipulating it's audience. By giving me the expectation of control, when I lost it I felt all the more vulnerable and powerless.
For me, that's what Half-Life 2 is all about: the fine-tuned manipulation of the player. Valve realised that to really make you care about the game they have to put you in it, and once you're in, once you are Gordon Freeman, that's when they've truly got you. Clearly, this didn't work for me straight away. I was too used to the old story tropes and too lazy to fully engage my attention. As the years went by, however, I got a little older and a little wiser, and I'm so, so happy that I decided to give the game one last chance. If I had such a thing, it would be very high on my greatest games of all time list.
As I write this, it's been about a year since I returned to Half-Life 2. I was blind, but now I see. Unfortunately, what I see is an endless expanse of sky with not even the faintest vapour trail that could indicate the approach of Half-Life 3. This means that I've successfully joined the enormous group of people who are desperately awaiting news of a sequel. How any of these people have held on this long I really don't know.
Now that we've all had a few days for the announcement of the Playstation 4 to sink in, it's time to ask the obvious question: How should Microsoft react? More specifically, what can they learn from the Sony event and how should they apply this to the announcement of the next Xbox.
Before we get into the nitty gritty let's take a moment to clarify something. The PS4 unveiling was a success. It had it's problems, and the cynical reactions in comment threads around the internet were to be expected. Considering the ridiculous length of this console generation it's hardly surprising that people are wary to move on, but the general feeling is one of positivity and cautious optimism. If Microsoft want to take attention away from the PS4 they're going to have to bring it, and bring it big!
This article features five points that Microsoft should stick to if they want their event to be a success. Each point will be followed by a 'likelihood rating'. On a scale of 1 to 10 this will tell you how likely I think it is that Microsoft will actually follow this advice. Also, keep in mind that these points outline only the way in which Microsoft should present the Xbox. They are not about specs or features, as all the evidence points to the PS4 and next Xbox being very similar machines.
1. Just show us the console
One of the biggest complaints about Sony's announcement was the absence of the actual console. This seems to have split the gaming community into two camps. One who don't care what the console looks like - after all, it's almost certainly going to be a medium sized black box - and another who question whether Sony should have even announced the console if they didn't have a physical box to unveil. Whichever camp you're in (I'm in the first one) you have to admit that people clearly care about the appearance of the console.
If Microsoft are smart they'll have Don Mattrick walk on stage, approach a plinth covered in a dark cloth, whip it off, give everyone their first glimpse of the new Xbox, pause briefly for photos, and then move on.
2. Keep it civil
This one kind of relates to the last point. If Microsoft show off their new console and follow it up by making cheap jokes about Sony not showing their's, it's just going to piss people off. It's unprofessional, it wastes time, and it panders to the fanboys. Don't bitch about Sony's mistakes, if you really think you can do a better job then just show us. If we love what you show us you've done your job. No need to engage in petty corporate bashing.
3. Keep Kinect talk to a minimum
If you don't think Microsoft are going to talk about Kinect at their conference you're kidding yourself. We can, however, hope that they keep the talk to a minimum. The people watching these kind of announcements are gamers, and most gamers don't really care about motion controls. Just tell us about how much you've improved the accuracy, tell us it's bundled with every console, and tell us it won't be required to make the console work. After you've done this, show it working in an actual game, no bullshit ball-bashing tech demo.
Sony managed to keep their Playstation Eye 2.0 talk to a minimum so you can do it too.
4. Show us a good mix of games
This is another area where Sony did well. They showed an assortment of first party exclusives, third party muliplats, sequels and new IP. Microsoft need to emulate this. Surely they have someone, somewhere working on something new, and considering their lack of first party studios it would be very exciting if we got to see a couple of totally new and unexpected games. In addition to this they need to show something from established franchises. Forza seems like a given, and would it be too much to ask for a glimpse of Halo 5? Yeah, it probably would, but we can dream.
With the first party stuff out of the way they need to show some different third party titles to the ones we've already seen. We're all very excited about Watch Dogs, but we've seen it twice now; give us something totally new. Maybe whatever Respawn Studios have been working on? Or the new Assassin's Creed, perhaps? And since Sony had Activision, Microsoft should have EA.
Finally, don't forget about the indies. Sony getting Jonathan Blow up on stage was a much bigger deal than a lot of people made it out to be. Sony is making a concerted effort to appeal to smaller and independent developers - something that Microsoft was previously very good at. However, indies have begun to criticise Microsoft's restrictive Xbox Live marketplace, and it would be a shame if these concerns were ignored. C'mon Microsoft, be nice to the little guys.
Oh, and don't invite any devs that are just going to show us a tech demo we already saw last year *cough* Square-Enix *cough*.
5. Don't go over the top
Everyone remembers that insane Kinect announcement featuring Cirque Du Soleil, right? How about that stupid MTV special for the 360's unveiling? Yeah, Microsoft don't have a good track record for announcing new Xbox hardware. For crying out loud, just keep it simple! No teams of dancers, no kids performing staged high fives, no dragging out bored celebrities who really don't want to be there. Sony did a good job of just telling us about the hardware, the features and the games. They made a good first impression and left us wanting more. Hardware, games, services, "thanks for watching, we'll see you at E3". That's all we want.
I've been a 360 owner since launch, and over the past two years Microsoft have been moving in a less than impressive direction. Too much focus on Kinect, very few interesting exclusives and not enough focus on games or gamers. Conversely, Sony have been quietly pumping out great exclusive games and turning Playstation Plus into a genuinely attractive service.
The Sony we saw on Wednesday was a very different company to the one that took the stage in 2006 and proudly uttered the immortal words "five hundred and ninety nine US dollars". They were no longer arrogant and demanding, but humble and receptive. They're working with developers to create a friendly, useable machine that is squarely focused on games and gamers. It just so happens that it does a bunch of other stuff, but that's secondary. Just the way it should be.
Microsoft, on the other hand, are coming off the back of a hugely successful console and are used to getting their way. They're now where Sony was in 2006, and they've become the arrogant, demanding beast. Recently it's felt like they've been telling us what we need rather than asking us what we want. While this doesn't necessarily mean they'll bungle the announcement of their new console, it does mean that the momentum and the sentiment are behind Sony.
Whatever happens, though, I think it's a safe bet that the announcement of the next Xbox will be, at the very least, interesting and possibly very exciting. Come release day I want the choice between the two consoles to be as agonising as possible. Lets kick this generation off with a healthy dose of rousing competition!
It now appears all but inevitable that Sony will officially announce the Playstation 4 on Wednesday the 20th of February. Apart from rampant speculation about price and release date, the question on many peoples lips is "will it be backwards compatible?". And that is a very good question.
More than any previous generation, people have invested heavily into Sony and Microsoft's current consoles. Part of this is due to the unprecedented length of this console generation - The Xbox 360 will celebrate it's 8th birthday this November - but it is also down to the way we've consumed content on these platforms. We no longer simply have a stack of physical games to represent our investment in a console; In the online age we have accounts, avatars, trophies, achievements, and a hard drive full of downloaded games.
The fact that so many of us have invested so heavily has led many people to believe that backwards compatibility will be a given in the next generation. Unfortunately, this may well not be the case, and in order to find out why we must first go back in time.
The Atari 7800
The first console to feature backwards compatibility was Atari's ill-fated 7800. By including chips from the Atari 2600, gamers were able to play their old copies of Pitfall! and Pac-Man. This is where the first lesson comes in. By far the most popular way of achieving backwards compatibility is to include the old console's processors on the new console's motherboard. This is how the PS2 plays PS1 games and, the DS plays Game Boy Advance Games. The benefit of this system is that - because you're essentially including the old console inside every new one you sell - compatibility with the old console's games is nearly perfect. The downside is that it costs the console manufacturer quite a bit of money for what is, essentially, unnecessary hardware.
Unfortunately the cost of including old chips in new consoles will only increase as time goes on. It was for this very reason that Sony only included the PS2's Emotion Engine in very early models of the PS3. It would therefore seem highly unlikely that Sony will include a Cell processor in the PS4 or, for that matter, that Microsoft will include the Cell-derived Xenon in the next Xbox. So, is there another option?
The Xbox 360
The other way of achieving backwards compatibility is through software emulation - which is the method the Xbox 360 employs. As far as games consoles are concerned, an emulator is a piece of software that 'tricks' a game into running on a system it wasn't designed for by mimicking the original hardware. The benefit of this method is that it's a lot more cost effective to develop a piece of software than it is to keep manufacturing outdated hardware. The downside, of course, is that the compatibility is much, much lower. This is why the Xbox 360 can only play a limited portion of the original Xbox's library.
In addition to reduced compatibility, emulation comes with other problems; the biggest of which are the difficulty of programming an emulator for very complex hardware, and the power required to run that emulator. Anyone who's used an emulator on their PC will know that the power required to emulate any given console is several orders of magnitude higher than the power of the console being emulated. Complex or obtuse hardware designs only make things harder. For example, the Sega Saturn used a quirky dual CPU set-up that makes it very difficult to emulate.
The complex designs of the PS3's Cell and the Xbox 360's Xenon would make programming an emulator for these consoles extremely difficult, and the power required to run it may be beyond even next-gen consoles. So is there any hope at all for backwards compatibilty?
Streaming may save us all (kind of)
There have been rumours floating around lately that Sony may leverage Gaikai - who it purchased last year - to provided a streaming games service to PS4 owners. Specifically, the rumours say, the service would allow the streaming of PS3 games - eliminating the need for emulation or old hardware. The painfully obvious problem with this system is that it would surely require a payment of some kind. Whether it was a one off cost per game or some kind of subscription it still eliminates a big benefit of traditional backwards compatibility; namely, that you can play your old games at no additional cost.
Whatever the outcome, it seems that the days of simply shoving your last generation disc into your new generation console may well be over. It's not all doom and gloom, though. A game streaming service done right could resemble a kind of Netflix for games. Having instant access to almost every game from your chosen console makers back catalogue, for a monthly or yearly fee, would surely be worth paying for. Yes, the fact that it would require a constant internet connection wouldn't be ideal, and it would be a painful transition in the short term, but it could become something beautiful. Or, you know, it could collapse in a horrible smoking heap of licensing issues and lag. Only time will tell, and tomorrow Sony will tell us what's really happening for the first time.