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3:30 PM on 06.09.2009

Motion Control Speculation: 3rd Parties and Exclusivity

Since Sony and Microsoft unveiled their motion control schemes at E3 there has been no shortage of speculation about the impact these new interfaces will have on the gaming industry. Most of this speculation has fallen into two very limited categories: 50s news reel-esque semi-factual attempts to imagine the grand, glorious future of interactive entertainment (flying cars and all) and "Why Console X Will Be Victorious in the Motion Wars" fan fiction. Both of these topics are fine (and inevitable), but tripartite motion control will have ramifications that are at once more pragmatic and more impactful than the current crop of Amazing Stories and console war arms race articles indicate. This is particularly true when it comes to 3rd party developers and software exclusivity, issues that are already significant points of contention between the three primary console manufacturers.

Console exclusives, particularly from 3rd party developers, are becoming increasingly rare. Development costs are high and the expense of porting a title between the current HD systems is nominal compared to the opportunity for increased profits that a dual system release provides. Since the Xbox 360 and PS3 have similar worldwide sales numbers, releasing a title on only one system means exchanging a largely insignificant decrease in costs for a loss of about 50% of a title's potential market. This makes exclusives financially unattractive for third parties. (Yes, I know. I haven't mentioned the Wii yet. That's not an intentional slight. However, the situation for porting onto the Wii is different. This will be discussed later.)

However, motion control have the potential to upset this entire model. Why? Because the vast differences in interfaces offered by the Wii Remote/Motion Plus, Project Natal, and Sony's Wand/EyeToy will make porting software between the three systems vastly more difficult than it is currently.

Before motion, adapting the control interface was a relatively simple affair: you just remap the buttons. Yes, if you were a perfectionist you might spend hours toying with different button configurations until you found the most intuitive combination. Still, controllers were relatively similar, so no changes to the fundamental design of the game were necessary.

But after motion control it's not that simple. Now instead of three controllers with slightly different shapes and button alignments you have a remote with an optional balance board, a wand controller with a camera, and a controller-less camera/IR projector with a voice/noise recognition system. Not only does this mean that you will have to do far more than just remap buttons in order to transfer the control interface from one system to another, it also means that game scenarios that are possible on one system will be difficult to impossible on another. This could lead to significantly increased development costs, which in turn could make porting one game across two or three systems less attractive.

And how will third parties react? I have no idea, but here are a few possibilities:

No motion controls. Let's get the worst case scenario out of the way first. Developers, already overburdening by the ever-increasing cost of creating competitive software, could simply decide that motion controls are not worth it. Mind you, 1st party developers will certainly try to exploit the new control opportunities. With only one system to develop for, they have no reason not to. But 3rd parties may decide that the ease of programing games for traditional controllers may be greater than the potential new audiences provided by motion control. If this happens, expect little change and lots of missed opportunities. Oh well.

Limited motion controls. The waggle option. Developers could opt for simplicity, replacing button presses with broad, generalized movements. This is how many developers currently handle ports of PS3/PS2/360 titles to the Wii. (Remember I said I would return to this.) Button presses become wrist flicks. Goofiness follows. I'm not sure how exactly this approach would be adapted to the newer motion interfaces (particularly Project Natal), but if there are corners to be cut, don't expect developers to leave the scissors in the drawer.

More effort, fewer games. Developers, particularly those interested in preserving the quality of their games, could simply begin producing fewer games per year but releasing those games across all available platforms, having optimized them for the motion controls of each console. This is the [url='s+Done]Blizzard/ID/Valve approach[/url]. Finish the game, make sure it is perfect, and then release it, release windows be damned. This option may seem ideal, but there are some problems. Most notably, how will developers and publishers recoup the costs of having fewer games released, each with more time (and thus more money) spent in development? $70 titles instead of $60 titles? More in-game advertising? More features that would have been on the disc release transformed into downloadable content? All of the above? Yes, probably all of the above.

More small downloadable games, fewer massive epics. Small developers are already taking advantage of XBLA, PSN and WiiWare to produce games for mass consumption on a limited budget. A similar model might allow larger developers to adopt motion control without hugely inflating development costs. Titles of a limited size and scope, focused on exploiting one particular motion-based conceit, might begin to proliferate, while the contemporary premium titles with huge worlds and numerous options might begin to enter decline. This doesn't necessarily mean that games will decrease in quality, just in size. Or, in other words: More World of Goo, less Zelda. More Flower, less Resident Evil.

More exclusives. And here is the final option. Developers could simply opt to focus their efforts on maximizing each game for one system's control interface without accepting the burden adapting it for other consoles, hoping to get more out of a smaller market. This is already occurring on the Wii (see: EA's commitment to make more Wii exclusives). This would allow developers to guarantee higher quality games without significantly increasing development cost and length. However, it also means a smaller potential market for each game. Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft might be able to overcome these losses by offering bonuses and perks to developers who agree to develop content exclusively or primarily for their motion controls. You may also see some new variant on timed exclusivity, with one of the big three paying for a game to be released several months in advance on their console, while developers use the period between releases to gauge the success of a title, to decide whether it is worth porting, and, if they decide it is, to implement the changes necessary to adapt a title for release on other consoles. This will almost certainly lead to more contention between gamers and an increase in fan forum flame wars, but at least it will allow for games to thoroughly utilize each system's new technology.

So which will it be? Well, in reality, developers and publishers will almost certainly mix and match these approaches, searching for a combination that will protect their profits and still allow them to appear progressive and innovative. But regardless of the choices they make, third parties will be a major deciding factor for the fate of motion control, perhaps moreso than the technology itself. Technological optimism is fine, but ultimately it will be corporate pragmatism that decides what we are playing two Christmases from now. Or: We may live in the world of the future, but it is still ruled by the pictures of past presidents.   read

12:15 AM on 08.26.2008

Sympathy for Nintendo

(What follows is more quickly written statement of personal bewilderment than a carefully constructed or purposeful argument. It's not a rant really, more a disconnected, stream-of-consciousness act of thinking... Outloud? Well, no. On paper? Not exactly. Well, whatever.)

Sometimes I think it must almost suck to be Nintendo. Yes, they're making massive profits. Yes, they're turning these profits by selling a half-antiquated/half-gimmicky piece of hardware at something-more-than-cost while the mini-PCs/home entertainment systems/personal IMAX theatres offered by other console makers are being sold at an ever-increasing loss. Yes, they're a large, ruthless, calculating corporation who have a history of using anti-competitive practices to crush their opposition, at least until their competition became other large, ruthless calculating corporations.

But, Lenin forgive me, when I see the criticisms offered against them in gaming message boards and the comments sections of countless N4G news articles and watch their stuttering convict-with-the-IQ-of-an-eight-year-old-seated-on-death-row attempts to defend themselves, like the "core gamer" statements made by the company yesterday, I can't help but empathize, if only a tiny, tiny bit.

Wait, let me explain.

Not long ago, I had an elderly professor who was clearly in the middle to latter stages of some form of mental deterioration. This man was, at one point in career, a prolific and influential literary scholar. He had internalized countless rules and standards that he applied to his research and expected his students to apply to his work. However, because of his condition, he could not articulate these standards to his students. His lectures became a series of vocabulary words and phrases--left unexplained because he no longer had the capacity to explain them--which he repeated endlessly. When questioned, he would repeat these words and phrases with no further explanation, but with ever increasing belligerence and frustration. This lead all of his students to resent him, since they were being chastised for failing to meet standards that had never been clearly explained to them and which often seemed dated or self-contradictory, and it led the poor professor to grow angrier and more frustrated and, as a result, more recalcitrant and sure of his infallibility. (By the way, if you are ever at Penn State University and have a chance to take a course with the esteemed Dr. Bernard Bell... don't.)

When I read the gaming community's reactions to the Wii, I think of that professor. And when I see Nintendo's sometimes apologetic, sometimes defensive, but never fully comprehending responses, I think of his students.

Too often the criticisms of Nintendo feel like a jumble of demanding, belligerent words and phrases from gamer vocabulary, culled from console history or its contemporary competitors and demanded without justification or awareness of self-contradiction. High definition. Storage solution. Voice Chat. No, better voice chat. More games from popular franchises. Less focus on old franchises, more focus on innovation. More games from long dormant franchises. Games that remind us of Orcarina of Time and Mario 64. Games that don't remind us of Orcarina of Time or Mario 64. More motion control. Less Wii-Waggle. Better online multiplayer. More split screen multiplayer. Deeper single player experiences. Better third party support. Now what happened to our first party games? And on and on, ad nauseum.

But don't get me wrong. Gamers, unlike my former professor, are not suffering from the onset of senility. They aren't scatter-brained or inarticulate. They just appear that way when taken as a whole. Almost every complaint above could be--and has been--justified lucidly by their proponents. The problem is that they are not coming from and single person. In fact, Nintendo, moreso than its competitors, has a to appeal to several different groups of players with very different expectations from and definitions of gaming.

First, you have the favorite scapegoat of many who are critical of the Wii: the casual gamer. The casual gamer expects a few, apparently simple things. They want their system (and its software) to be reasonabluy inexpensive. They want games that offer a fresh experience and quick immersion. They want gaming to be a social experience (and, what's more, a friendly social experience). When they get upset and/or feel their needs/desires are not being met, they won't write blogs or articles to vent their frustration, but they will stop buying consoles and software. And, since they've been the driving force behind Nintendo's rise to first place in both home and hand-held gaming, this would be a massive blow to the company.

Meanwhile, there is the High Def Next Gen Hard Core Dual Analog User Generated Content 28 Man (or Woman) Online Deathmatch Gamer. This player's perceptions of what is/is not gaming are largely shaped by the last two generations of gaming consoles. Andwhat they want is fairly straightforward. They want the Wii to offer the same options and same level of graphical polish as its competitors. They want to buy the system and not have to feel that their version of each multi-platform release will be intrinsically inferior than that of their friends/social competitors. When they are displeased, there will be articles and there will be flame wars and they will see that their complaints are answered or, at least, explained.

Yes, yes, you say, we know this. It's the old hardcore/casual dichotemy, right? Well, yeah, but that's not all Nintendo has to deal with, because there's a third group whose demands turn what would otherwise be a bipolar debate into full blown dementia.

The Nintendo Nostalgics. These individuals generally depict themselves as members of the latter category, but their demands are actually very, very different. What they want is not a totally new experience or a of-the-times experience with heavy lip gloss, but rather therelive an old experience. Mind you, they don't want to play Orcarina of Time again. No, it's not that simple. They have played it again and again and again. But it no longer feels like it once did. No, they want to play new Zelda game that feels like Orcarina of Time did. They want to game like they were 14 and naive, not 24 and hopelessly jaded. (Yes, okay, speaking from personal experience here.) And their complaints, particularly when they are seen as one with the wish-I-had-a-real-next-gen-system crowd, are what make everything oh-so-confusing for Nintendo. They don't want innovation, exactly. They want to relive an emotional high. They don't want high definition graphics or voice chat or an external hard drive. They want to feel how they did when they first plugged a third and, my god, fourth controller into a console without a goofy, bulky adapter, or the the moment when they first felt a controller shake in their hands after a blow and promptly dropped it over the side of the living room sofa. And when they are given gifts that are simply "next gen" or "hard core," they only grow more, not less, embittered. In short, they wanted to see Kid Icarus at E3, and they got voice chat.

And this is why I sympathize with Nintendo. They've lived long enough to give birth to three very different children, and now one of those children is an obnoxious toddler, banging on pots and pans (or holding the Wiimote to their mouth like a saxophone), one is an adolescent, demanding they empty their wallets on trendy sneakers and social status symbols (and an external hard drive), and the third is a calloused, battered adult, fantasizing about their lost virginity and the simple joys of their first paper route (and solving the Water Temple all over again). And, of course, there's that nagging fear of the onset of senility...   read

9:38 PM on 08.16.2008

Lessons From the Fall of Luc Bernard

Luc Bernard is bound to be remembered. After Destructiod published a highly critical review of Eternity's Child, his first major title, upstart indie developer Bernard engaged in a vicious flame war with Destructoid members in the comments section of the review and eventually admitted that he was intoxicated. A few days later, he wrote an entry for his personal blog announcing his exit from game design and his intention to publish no further projects after the WiiWare release of E.C.

With his career aborted, Bernard's legacy seems clear. He will be an inside joke and a "remember when?" for hip, self-referential gamers, and Eternity's Child will be fetish object aficionados of campy, botched games.

But are clique-ish comedy and so-bad-its-good nostalgia the only gifts that Bernard's career have given the gaming community? No, it holds some valuable cautionary lessons as well, particularly for those who advocate for electronic gaming as an art form.

Let's remember what it was that made Bernard a figure of hopeful anticipation for independent gamers in the first place. First, his concept art and screen shots are visually impressive. They have a hand drawn, carefully detailed aesthetic that evokes cartoons and comics. This gave the impression that his games were more than simply attractive, but also artistic.

This appearance of artistry was further bolstered by characters and content promised by each game. Bernard's games were self-consciously courted controversial subject matter and promised dark, mature characterizations. Eternity's Child was supposed to confront environmental degradation and global warming and would feature a transsexual protagonist. Imagination is the Only Escape, a proposed DS title controversial enough to earn an article in the New York Times, was to star a young boy fleeing persecution during the Holocaust. The Rose Princess, another of Bernard's unfinished projects, would feature a robotic cross-dressing, alcoholic, drug-addicted rabbit prostitute.

These complex subjects and gritty characterizations, combined with Bernard's unique visuals, seemed to evoke the deeper accomplishments of other art forms. They recalled films like Pan's Labyrinth and A. I. or novels by Bradbury and Burgess. They also shared themes and tones with graphic novels and comics--another form that once struggled for legitimacy--by Frank Miller and Alan Moore. In short, they seemed to be evidence of the ability of video games to be art.

However, for the attentive, there were always small warnings. While the early demo videos of Eternity's Child that showcased its awkward animation are a favorite object of internet I-told-you-sos, what always concerned me was the near total absence of gameplay details in previews and interviews concerning Bernard's games. For example, a three and a half paragraph synopsis of Imagination is the Only Escape offered by Bernard is 100% pure, undistilled plot with no mention of control or level design or even genre. Meanwhile, an article length preview of The Rose Princess expounds at some length about plot, characters and stylistic elements of game, even mentioning that it will have a soundtrack composed exclusively of cello music, but contains only one sentence about gameplay. And that sentence only presents an empty buzz phrase: "Glam Action RPG." This paucity of gameplay details provided a definite foreshadowing of the broken and poorly executed controls and design that reviewers would later lament in E.C.

So what went wrong? How could so much work go into a game's characters, concepts and visuals and so little into its basic mechanics? How could a game be so apparently artistic and yet nearly unplayable?

Because it was trying to be artistic by standards of art forms other than its own. It was exactly by emulating visual art and film and literature and comics--the stylistic choices that earned his work so much initial praise--and failing to focus on creating a title that was successful as a video game, that Bernard created his own undoing. Eternity's Child was, in some ways, too cinematic and too literary--particularly the endless text introduction--without possessing the qualities that define greatness in its own art form.

And this isn't a problem exclusive to Bernard, although he is an extreme illustration. Many games devote extension development time to generating massive, lengthy cinema scenes, hoping their games will be praised in the gaming press a "like playing a movie." Remember the claims that Metal Gear Solid 4 was more movie than game? And how many failed games have had impressive cinematics or have been stuffed full of literary references?

I think, as gamers, we need to understand that video games already are an artform. But they are not an art form that will be best perfected through the imitation of other forms. Film did not establish its integrity by subjecting itself to the standards of literature. For example, Taxi Driver and Notes From Underground both explore the effects of isolation and violent self-obsession, and both are widely hailed as classics, but they achieve their classic status through mechanisms particular to their form. Note From Underground contains extensive passages of internal monologue and self-reflection, something that is difficult to impossible for film, while Taxi Driver depends on detailed performances and carefully composed shots and scenes that are equally impossible for literature. Similarly, a game that wished to explore the same themes could not be successful simply by plagiarizing Notes or emulating Taxi Driver. It would have to use the tools and techniques unique to games--like direct personal association with your character and the illusion of control over its fate--to create its own meditation of these concepts.

The result might be something with little to no plot or dialog and totally lacking in conventional cinematography that was also absolutely successful... as a video game.   read

1:13 AM on 08.16.2008

Disaster: Day of Crisis Release Date Speculation

Yesterday brought the news that Nintendo's oft-delayed 2nd party title Disaster: Day of Crisis, under development by Monolith, had been given a classification by Australia's Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC) ratings board. This has helped to renew hopes that the game will actually see release, since it seems likely that the board would only be asked to review and classify the game if it were on the verge of completion.

But, if you have been anxiously awaiting this title, this only intensifies an already nagging question: When will Disaster actually be released?

Nintendo has offered no official answer to this question. After postponing the game's planned July release in Japan, they've set no new date, and there has never been a specific date for North American release.

Dissatisfied by that answer? So was I, so, rather than, say, wait patiently for official news, I turned to the OFLC database for clues.

A quick search of the database reveals 19 games that were classified on the 11th-14th of August, including Day of Crisis (classified on the 13th). Here's the list, including classification dates:

4 FUNFAIR PARTY 14/08/2008
8 MORE GAME PARTY 13/08/2008
9 HOME SWEET HOME 13/08/2008
10 PONY LUV 11/08/2008
11 FABLE 2 11/08/2008
12 PRO EVOLUTION SOCCER 2009 11/08/2008
15 SKATE IT - NINTENDO DS 11/08/2008
16 WOMEN'S MURDER CLUB 11/08/2008
18 WARRIORS OROCHI 2 11/08/2008

[Sorry about the caps and formating. This is a lazy copy/paste job from the OFCL site.]

First, let's disregard Millionare 2, Funfair Party, More Game Party, Pony Luv, Women's Murder Club, and Disney Sing It. These titles are either quick spin-offs of non-gaming licenses or blatant shovelware, and, as such, have different development and release cycles than games that require more diligence and time. Also, several of these titles (Millionare, Funfair Party) may never see North American release. Let's also disregard "Space Invaders Get Even" and "Home Sweet Home," because these are WiiWare titles and are victim to the whims of an erratic release schedule generally limited to one game per week and which is often independent of the time of the game's actual completion.

Now, here are the current North American release dates for the remaining titles (sans D:DoC, of course), courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. Need for Speed Undercover - November 18, 2008
2. Golden Axe: Beast Rider - September 2008
3. More Touchmaster - TBA
4. Fable II - October 21, 2008
5. Pro Evolution Soccer 2009 - November 12, 2008
6. SingStar Hottest Hits - September 18, 2008
7. Kirby Super Star Ultra - September 29, 2008
8. Skate It (DS) - Holiday 2008
9. Armored Core: For Answer - September 9, 2008
10. Warriors Orochi 2 - September 23, 2008

All of these release dates, aside from More Touchmaster (for which I could find no date) and Skate It DS (which has a vague "Holiday" release window), are in September through November, meaning that most games classified in mid-August seem to be preparing to launch in the Fall.

Does this mean that Disaster must necessarily be released prior to the end of November? No, but it does make it seem likely that we will see the game before Christmas. This is speculation, of course, but based on the release schedule for other games recently classified by the OFLC, there may be reason to be hopeful.   read

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