Microsoft are the Darth Vader of console gaming. But that doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does.
The last few years have been pretty terrible for the Xbox brand. Even before the cackhanded XBone reveal, the 360 had been struggling for a while from the perceived notion that it had changed tack from a gamer's console to a broken Kinect machine. The Xbox One has been fighting negative press since day one, and is getting roundly pounded by the PS4 in the sales race. It's still yet to outsell the Wii U after four months which, in some corners of the internet at least, is comparable to getting beat in the egg-and-spoon race by that one legged kid with multiple sclerosis.
And you know what? That's all fine. The Xbox One deserves every bit of bad press it gets after the monumental con-job Microsoft tried to pull on us last year. And Kinect had the lasting effect of taking the genuinely interesting area of motion/pointer controls, and turning it into one giant pile of waggle that no-one would ever take seriously again.
But for the last year now, there's another attitude that's become ever more pervasive in the gaming community, and it's one that makes me genuinely sad. The attitude of Microsoft the Great Pretender. Where Sony and Nintendo earned their right through generations of battle and blood to lay claim to the Console Throne, Microsoft are seen as the fakers, the ones who stayed in the race simply by throwing enough money everywhere.
Sort of like this guy, but without his winning personality.
The fact that the Xbox division has been a consistent money loser for Microsoft is often used as an argument that they made no real effort to stay in like the other two, and were content to simply throw out moneyhats and the occasional Halo game in order to keep in the running. Go on any forum or messageboard now, and you won't just see posters claiming that Microsoft should leave the console race, they never should have joined in the first place.
Admittedly, gamers have always had a thing for fighting over which hardware makers deserve to win, but it seems like much more of an issue with Microsoft now. "Get thee gone from my house, and never darken my door again with thy foul presence!" seems to be the rallying cry of thousands of gamers everywhere. Which is genuinely upsetting.
Because believe it or not, there was a time when Microsoft didn't just make a decent attempt at being a console gaming company, they were the dream company of hardcore gamers everywhere. They walked the street with a spring in their step, because they knew they were so good. They were the swaggy daddy-cool pimpmaster of gaming.
To understand the tragedy of Microsoft, and how awesome they were back in the day, we need to rewind the clock back to the days of this beauty right here:
It's big, black, and I love it so much I want it inside me.
The OG Xbox is the closest any company has ever come(possibly excepting the SNES) of taking a nerd's wet dream and turning it into silicon and electronics. This thing was the dream machine. It was pure gaming excess, the fantasies and hopes of millions of gamers taken and hammered into sleek, rugged, black perfection.
Ok, the original Duke controller was a bit shit. But the OG Xbox is basically what happens when you get a bunch of hardcore gamers together, and give them access to Microsoft's unlimited bank account. This thing was meant as nothing more than the perfect hardcore gaming machine. Sony wanted the PS2 to be a sleeper-agent for the DVD format. Nintendo wanted the Gamecube to also double as a handy lunch container and designer accessory. The Xbox, however, was meant to be nothing more than the purest gaming machine available on the market. To understand just how overboard Microsoft went in creating the dream gaming monster, I'm going to have to hit you with just a bit of tech-porn. Bare with me here, because this isn't going to be kind to the competition:
The specs between the PS2 and the Xbox? They weren't even comparable. The difference between the Xbox one and the PS4 is a mere trifle compared to the vast gulf that existed between the PS2 and Xbox. Microsoft looked at everything the PS2 had, and decided to double it at the bare minimum. Where the PS2 had 32mb of RAM, the Xbox had a whopping 64. Where the PS2 had a 295MHz CPU processor, the Xbox had a 733MHz beastie. Where the PS2 GPU ran at 148MHz, the Xbox ran at 233MHz. In every single tech aspect, Microsoft went above and beyond in utterly crushing the PS2s specs. The Gamecube fared better, with Nintendo using bespoke architecture to punch way above the console's weight, but even then in most aspects, the Xbox still came out on top.
Quite simply, there was no piece of gaming kit outside of a super PC-rig able to beat the Xbox's specs. It was excessive in every possible way, like a Lamborghini made out of cocaine. But that turned out to the console's advantage. Because by going all out on tech, Microsoft were able to snag PC ports for the Xbox that the PS2 could only dream of. Morrowind? Doom 3? Half-Life 2? You'd never see those games on PS2, yet Microsoft's decision to go all out on hardware porn meant it got them all, and other console versions of otherwise PC-exclusives.
It wasn't just the pure power either. Microsoft were incredibly thoughtful, and made the thing really easy for developers to work with by using PC components. If that doesn't mean much to you, you have to realise that during the PS2 era, Krazy Ken was still in charge of Sony's hardware design. And as much as we all may love it, the PS2 was an absolutely horrible bit of kit for developers to work with. Many famously fell out with Sony over it. The entire reason, for instance, that Shinji Mikami tried to make the RE franchise Gamecube exclusive was because he utterly, utterly loathed the PS2's architecture. By comparison, the Xbox had all the familiarity of the PCs developers were already using to make games on, and it was powerful enough that anything they struggled with, they could just brute-force their way through.
You notice how both Sony and Microsoft made a big song-and-dance about using PC architecture to make development easier on Xbox One and PS4? And how even Nintendo is making efforts to move towards more standardised, easy-to-work-with PC-based hardware? That didn't start this gen. That started back when Microsoft released the first Xbox. It's just taken this long for everyone else to start catching up.
And it wasn't just in terms of raw power that Microsoft went above and beyond. The Xbox was the first console to come with its own hard-drive, an 8GB internal monster. Sure, that doesn't sound like a lot now, but at the time that was 8GB more than what Nintendo or Sony were offering. The OG Xbox is the sole reason our consoles come with hard-drives as standard now. If you've ever downloaded a game onto your console from PSN or Xbox Live, you have the OG Xbox to thank for that. Along with online mutliplayer too, actually. Yes, the Dreamcast was the first to really dabble in online, but Microsoft was the first console maker to nail multiplayer in the way we expect now: loads of servers hooked up together, creating an extensive network dedicated just to gaming.
Again, at the time, the competition were offering nothing. Xbox Live was an absolutely unprecedented development in console gaming, and while we may hate what it has become now, back then it was nothing less than revolutionary. It gave developers an entirely new way to support console games after they were released, and encouraged gamers to form clans, groups and entire communities around their favourite multiplayer games.
In every respect, the OG Xbox was a vision of the future. It had every last thing a gamer could require from their hardware, yet cost the same as a PS2. But here's the wonderful thing. As amazing as the specs were, as utterly lustworthy as all those processors and electrodes were, that was just the tip of the iceberg. It was the games that really cemented the Xbox as something special.
Hear me out: there was a time when Microsoft went out of their way to support their console with the best hardcore games they could find.
Those are some of the games everyone remembers for the OG Xbox. Jade Empire, Halo, Dead Or Alive, Fabel... we all remember those. What's even more incredible is how much effort Microsoft went into securing even the most niche, uber-hardcore games. The sort of games that would only appeal to the most niche of gamers.
Did you know, for instance, that before making the Souls series, FROM Software made a pair of Xbox exclusive games under the Otogi name? Two games based around an undead Samurai assassin killing demons in a fairytale version of Japan, where boss battles took place over supernova stars and in the atmosphere of the planet. Where the Xbox specs and built-in hard drive meant that levels were completely destructible on a level no other hack-and-slash game has beaten to this day. Why yes, they are both every bit as awesome as they sound. No, they did not sell well at all. Yet they still found a place in the House of Xbox.
Or how about some Phantom Dust? A game where you collect cards to have magic battles in post apocalyptic arenas to remixed versions of classical pieces.
If these games were any more hardcore, you could stick a band of silver round them and use them to propose to your partner.
There was a time when Microsoft didn't just moneyhat exclusive DLC for multiplatform games. There was a time when the Xbox was home to the sort of games for gamers that meant, well, if you called yourself a 'real' gamer, you simply had to own an Xbox. Sure, Halo was the killer app, but away from that there were so many other games worth playing that a gamer could literally thank Microsoft with tears in their eyes for bringing so much incredible gaming goodness.
The Xbox wasn't an expensive system, despite its tech. Microsoft made steps to ensure they matched the PS2 dollar for dollar at retail. It wasn't a PS3 level act of hubris, requiring gamers take up a second job just to pay for it. They made a console more powerful than God, then sold it at the same price as the competition, with a shitload of incredible games they made sure to support the system with.
So if you want to rail against Microsoft, and bemoan their direction with Xbox One, then fine, but don't criticise them for being a pretender. Don't act as if they never brought anything to the industry. If you want to criticise Microsoft and the Xbox brand, criticise it for not living up to the legacy of the original console, the console that went on to define how other consoles are made. Because as much as Microsoft may have fucked themselves over now, the real tragedy is that like Marlon Brando, they could have once been a contender. The Xbox may have never outsold the PS2, but the record breaking day one sales of games like Halo 2 and the overwhelming success of Xbox Live dealt Sony a blow that left them shaking, and that inspired them to go all-in on tech with the PS3.
Microsoft are the Darth Vader of console gaming, because they were once its greatest champion. The original Xbox offered a vision of gaming which they have spent subsequent years turning their back on, and that's the real tragedy here. They may be evil now, but there's a reason the Xbox brand managed to eventually take off.
So it's a little later than I would have liked, but I finally managed to cobble together a music track that represents some of my current thoughts on gaming. Nothing concrete, or particularly insightful. It's just a track that's inspired by various gaming flutterings, happenings and thoughts that have occurred to me over the last few weeks. The month of February as seen by Titus in musical form, if you will.
It's scrappy as hell, badly in need of being re-recorded and re-polished, but I'm quite chuffed with it all the same.
For those interested, read below to find out the long, needlessly complicated process I went through to make the track. For everyone else, press play, and I hope you enjoy.
You actually want to know how I made this? You sad buggers. Anyways, the recording process was broken down into three key stages:
1) working out which tunes I wanted to remix and fiddle around with, and working out how they'd fit together.
2) creating the drum loops which would act as the foundation of the song.
3) recording everything else, and putting it all together.
Step 1 was pretty easy. There were a few recent games I wanted to reference for their topicality, and some I wanted to include just for the heck of it. As it turns out, a PC port of Deus Ex The Fall was announced this week, so that ended up being pretty on the money anyway.
Step 2 was a lot of fun. I've been playing around with Famitracker a lot recently, and that proved ideal for creating the sort of drum loops I wanted. For those of you who are unaware, Famitracker is a program which allows you to create genuine 8-bit music, using a hacked version of the actual NES software. You can genuinely compose in Famitracker and, if you have a way to put it to cartridge, get a NES to play your compositions. It's used a lot for chiptune compositions, and is a lot of fun to work with, if you like composing in hexadecimal.
What's really great about Famitracker though is that you can load samples into one of its channels. I had a notion of having drum loops with a really old-school gamer vibe, so decided to import individual drum samples into Famitracker, then build up the drum loops from scratch, rather than using a standard loop creator. It's a lot more work to create individual loops from scratch, but the upside is that you get a lot more freedom and creativity than you do with something like Fruity Loops. Having downloaded a large collection of free drum sounds and samples, I then imported the ones I liked into Famitracker, got that old school 'Tchk!' sound I wanted, then built up some drum loops.
I really like creating drum loops. It's a lot of fun trying to create drum grooves that go beyond the simple 1-and-2-and-3-and-and feel, and finding good places to pit in accents and fills. Once I had a collection of loops I was happy with, I exported each of them as an actual sound file.
Now, when you're creating drum loops from scratch, you can't just export them then use them straight away. Exporting loops as a wav adds a decay period of half a second or so, which means they won't loop properly. If you want to sue them, you have to use a sound editor to cut off the extra tail, and create a sound file that starts as soon as it finishes in order to loop cleanly. I prefer to use Audacity for this, as I find it's the easiest tool to zoom in and select and delete the exact amount of sound I want. Again, it's extra work, but it all adds to the joy of creating your own loops from scratch, rather than just getting a sequencer to do everything.
Once the loops were edited properly, it became time to actually create the song proper, in a full DAW program. I used to use Cubase, but have recently moved over to Reaper, and would genuinely recommend it to anyone. It's a fully featured recording software suite that comes with an unlimited evaluation period. If you're looking for free software to start dicking around with recording, Reaper is where you should definitely start, and it's what I'll be sticking to for the forseeable future.
I imported the drum loops into reaper, and used them to create a basic 'skeleton' for the song, working out how many bars I wanted dedicated to the 'funk Halo' section, how many to the Donkey Kong section, how many to the Dubstep drop, etc. Rather than building the music up section by section, I laid out the entire song in drums to get an idea for the length and flow, and sang along as it played. I find it's better to get a good idea of the length and flow of your song right from the start, rather than spending hours perfecting a lovely section, only to discover you need to add/subtract another few bars or measures in order to make it work.
I also found some vocal loops I liked, and imported those into Reaper to. Vocal samples are something I've been wanting to play around with for a while, and it was a fun effort to try and get various snippets lined up with the various drumbeats.
Once that was all done, it was time to record the music proper. All the non drum/vocal loops on the track were recoded by a guitar, plugged into a knackered old multi-effects processor, then into my PC through an external soundcard. I'm planning on upgrading my recording gear at some point this year to have a proper keyboard and effects rig, but right now I can bet by with what I have.
Putting the actual music together involved a lot of practising parts, making stuff up on the fly, and experimenting with different ideas. A lot of the time, ideas I had planned had to be drastically altered. Originally I planned to have the Deus Ex theme play more prominently over the dubstep drop, but I couldn't get the syncopated melody to line up with the half-time drumbeat adequately, so instead kept it as a little snippet at the end, and instead allowed Jock's sample to convey the Deus Exyness. On the plus side, I'm very chuffed with the deep 'synthy' sounds I managed to create with nothing more than my guitar and an octave effect.
The Bloody Tears section is probably my favourite, as it allowed me to really show off my alternate picking chops, and to re-arrange the tune in a different way. The main refrain becomes a chunky, dancey guitar riff, and the first snippet of the main melody becomes a Nile Rodgers-esque guitar lick that plays over the top. I was originally tempted to slow the track down, record the guitar parts, then speed it back up, but decided that would be cheating. So everything you hear in the song was recorded at the same speed, and it was quite a fun challenge to make sure everything was in time. I might have made a few minor wobbles in a couple of places, but I think for the most part I kept the temp pretty well.
This is a snapshot of one part of the total Reaper piece, covering about 1/3 the song's length, and 1/3 the tracks recorded.
For anyone looking for advice on how to record parts in a DAW, I don't have too much to give, considering how much I'm still learning myself, but here are a few things I learned that I consider essential:
- Double track everything. If you're recording a part, don't just record it once, record it twice. And by that, I don't mean copy it into a second track, I mean actually play the part for a second time, and record that on a second track. If you do that, and pan the tracks left and right, you get a much greater sense of depth than if you leave one track panned in the middle.
- If you're recording guitar parts using distortion, record the same part using a clean tone on a separate track. If you set the volume just right, so it's on the edge of being audible, then it's a great way to add definition and clarity to guitar parts that can run the risk of sounding muddy.
- Make sure you include reverb. If you're not mic'ing an amp, then make sure you have some kind of reverb applied to your track. Reverb is what gives a track a more organic feel, and without it, tracks can sound sterile and overly digital. You don't need power metal levels of reverb, just enough to give the impression that the sounds may have actually been in a room somewhere.
The most important thing is not being afraid to change things up if needed. Get a good idea of what you want a song to be, but if something needs to be changed at the last minute, don't be afraid to get rid of it and try something spontaneous. The song I ended up with is very different from the song I had in mind when I first embarked on this crazy scheme, but I'm chuffed with it all the same.
Hopefully I'll be able to keep this blog updated with other bits of music I come up with. I had a lot of fun making this. In fact, recording music is just about the most fun you can have by yourself at a computer, and I've already got ideas for the next VG Remix I want to do.
Award season rolls on and on. After presenting the awards for Most Average White Male and Best Cancelled game, we're now onto one of the most hotly contested of all:
The 2013 Award for Best Fuck Up by a Developer or Publisher
Everybody fucks up one-time or another. I fuck up. You fuck up. We all fuck up. It's a fact of life that, being only human, we will all make mistakes of one kind or another, some big, some small. Those in the videogame industry are no different, and can make just as many fuck-ups as you or I. The award for Best Fuck-Up is meant to recognise those who go above and beyond, who make the extra effort (or indeed lack of it) to truly squander themselves, and deliver nothing less than a full catastrophe to the gaming community. A disasterpiece which removes any shred of goodwill the community may have had towards them. In doing so they play an important role, reminding us gamers that no matter how much we may idolise them, developers and publishers are as fallible as everyone else. So without further ado, here is the winner of the 2013 awar-
...sorry, I fucked up. Before we present the award, here are the nominees for Best Fuck Up.
The Xbox One reveal, Microsoft
Why it was nominated: There has never been a console reveal like that of the Xbox One. It was not just the press conference itself, but the ripples it created in the community. Microsoft didn't just present gamers with mixed messages about a patently anti-consumer machine, they managed to turn the gaming press and the gaming community against each other. When presented with a console that clearly tried to rob consumers of the right to play offline, sell games and play without a camera, many gaming journalists tried to mount a cautious defence of Microsoft. A few of them even came out in open support of the new machine. This inspired the wrath of many online gaming communities, to the point that many now simply do not trust the gaming media. The console itself was revealed with next to no games, and an overwhelming focus on television applications that any smart TV or plug-in box can already perform. The executives were sending completely contradictory messages to the press, and the entire thing was performed with a sense of smug, self-congratulatory conceitedness which was just nauseating.
Sony's E3 '06 presentation of the PS3 was legendarily bad, but at least they focused on games. Nintendo's reveal of the Wii U may have resulted in apathy or confusion in those who watched, but not outright anger. This was, by comparison, nothing less than the worst console reveal in recent history, and for that it deserves the nomination.
Why it didn't win: If Microsoft had stuck to their guns, the Xbox One would have walked this award, no contest. Sadly, Microsoft had to fumble things by backing down on all the most egregious points of contest. The 24-hour connection requirement was dropped, the mandatory Kinect became optional, the baked-in DRM was removed and gamers were allowed to buy and sell used games once again. The Xbox One could have been a consumer right disaster par excellence, but as of right now it's just an overpriced box with an optional gimmicky camera.
Why it was nominated: This is the first of EA's nominations for this award, which should tell you all you need to know. Before the game was even released, long-time fans of the series were upset by the new online requirements for the game. EA tried to deflect criticism by playing up the MMO aspects, telling gamers that the new SimCity would redefine the series by integrating multiplayer in never before seen ways, and using 'cloud computing' to do advanced industry-first ingame calculations.
Then the game launched. And everyone saw what a crock of shit that was.
The game was simply broken at release. It required access to EA's servers in order to function, but EA in their wisdom had not got enough servers ready for launch day, and thousands upon thousands of gamers were left unable to play the game they had bought. Those who were lucky enough to get a game were still plagued with numerous crashes and broken gameplay mechanics. Even worse, enterprising modders soon discovered that the much ballyhooed cloud computing was total balls. The game could in fact be modded to play offline, albeit still with its fundamentally broken mechanics. The shitstorm that resulted from this perfect storm of fuck-ups forced reviewers and game journalists who had otherwise been kind to the game to go back and revise their scores downwards, lest they be seen as utterly incompetent and/or in the pockets of EA.
Why it didn't win: To be brutally honest, I could have happily given the award to this game. It's a masterclass in how to fuck up in every single way, and the only reason it didn't win was because of other brutal fuck-ups which were even more fucked up.
DmC Devil May Cry, Capcom
Why it was nominated: Some gamers out there may try and tell you that DmC was a worthy new entry into the franchise, that it brought fresh ideas to a stale series. Don't listen to those people. They're wrong. DmC was a colossal fuck-up by Capcom for a number of reasons.
Firstly, despite DMC4 managing to become the best-selling entry in one of Capcom's best selling franchises, Keiji Inafune decided they needed to make the next game deliberately more appealing to 'western gamers' in order to make it sell more. Again, this on the back of DMC4 pulling the best numbers in the franchise. That right there is fuck-up number one. When you abandon an established, best selling formula to try and ride the coat-tails of whatever fad is currently appealing to western gamers, you doom yourself to failure, as any number of WoW/COD-clone developers can tell you.
The second fuck-up was the downgrading of almost every great gameplay mechanic the series was known for. Instead of the silky 60fps DMC fans were used to, console owners were treated to a 30fps game which made high level play that much harder. Over successive instalments, the prior games had created an intricate Style system which peaked with DMC4, wherein you could change combat styles on the fly for ludicrous combat depth. In DmC, styles were completely gone. Where the previous games encouraged you to experiment and improvise, DmC locked you into using certain weapons against colour-coded enemies. There was no lock-on button. The ranking system was broken to the point that it was possible to get an S rank just by mashing random buttons. In every gameplay mechanic that mattered, DmC was a serious step down.
The third fuck-up was the deliberate antagonisation of the fanbase, and Capcom/Ninja Theory's decision to use a story and artstyle completely removed from everything fans had previously loved. There was no Gothic sensibility, no camp melodrama, no sly winks at the audience and good natured cheesiness. Instead, we had a game which was both earnest and yet vulgar. Instead of the good-humoured combination of Die Hard and Dracula that typified previous games, we got something which felt like a 70s exploitation flick, yet possibly even more tasteless. Boss fights with demon foetuses, abortion-by-sniper rifle, demon vomit, squirrel semen and copious amounts of 'Fuck You!' resulted in a story that tried to be earnest, yet came across as incredibly immature and tasteless. And to make things worse, the game felt the need to antagonise fans of the previous games by mocking the style of the previous games, and repeatedly making a point of what an utter ass-hole the new Dante was.
All of which led to the fourth fuck-up: sales. Instead of capitalising on the success of the previous game, and using that as a stepping stone to better things, the game bombed at launch. Capcom repeatedly had to downgrade sales forecasts, to the point they were fortunate when it made it just over a million. When you shit all over fan goodwill like that, you know you've made the biggest fuck-up of all.
Why it didn't win: Unfortunately, as much of a downgrade as DmC was in every way, Capcom and Ninja Theory still managed to ship a working game. While it may not have stood up to the series' legacy, but it still worked in a functional manner. Which is more than can be said of the award winner.
So, without further ado, the winner of the 2013 Award for Best Fuck Up by a Developer or Publisher goes to:
Battlefield 4, EA
Why it won: It's hard to know who to blame more for the unfinished state of Battlefield 4, DICE or EA. The signs were already there in Battlefield 3, with a campaign criticised for being clearly rushed and unfinished, and multiplayer having all sorts of teething troubles. But nothing could have prepared anyone for the utterly monumental fuck-up that was Battlefield 4's launch. In a year where COD finally showed signs of jumping the shark, and EA could have at last grasped that coveted sales crown they've wanted so long, it took the mother of all catastrophucks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
It's not just that the multiplayer was broken at launch. It's not the fact that every new patch DICE puts out seems to cause just as many problems as it fixes. It's not even the fact that production on all post-release DLC has had to be put on hold while DICE and EA try and clear up the mess.
All of those are nothing compared to the fact that Battlefield 4's launch was so bad, EA are now being sued by their own shareholders over allegations that upper management knew the game would be unfinished at launch, and tried to cash-in their shares before release. With pre-release hype being only bolstered by the launch of new consoles, the allegations are that EA's top level brass tried to sell around $7 million worth of shares to cash in on hype, before anyone could realise just how incomplete the game was.
When your own shareholders aren't just complaining, but are actively taking you to court over how bad your game is, then you've made a singularly spectacular and unique
fuck up. Which is to say nothing, of course, by the thousands upon thousands of gamers who have essentially paid money for a game that was apparently never put through quality assurance, and is a buggy, broken piece of shit that should have never been put out on sale. People paid hard-earned money for this game, and EA took that money, bent over and gave those people a giant steaming turd in response.
In fact, EA don't just win the 2013 Best Fuck-Up Award for Battlefield 4. Oh no. To respect the fact that they had not one, but two games of their own in the running for this award, and in recognition of the many fuck-ups they have made throughout this generation (including but not exclusive to Mass Effect 3's rushed ending, Spore, selling the same FIFA game with nothing more than a title swap and a roster update, the recent MoH games, closing Pandemic Studios among many others), the judges are proud to present EA with the Lifetime Award in Recognition of Consecutive Fuck-Ups Made Over the Years. An award which honours the singular legacy of one of the most consistently anti-consumer, anti-quality publishers out there. I know that EA will proudly display this award on their shelf, alongside the bones of Westwood Studio and the collected tears of KOTOR fans.
Sure, I said the follow up to the Most Average White Male Award would be Most Excessive Cleavage In A Female Character, but that one's taking a little while to put together. Differences in opinion amongst the judges, if you will. So in the mean time, let's skip past that one and go straight to one of the most highly sought after awards:
Best Cancelled Game of 2013
In the words of the great Ernest Hemingway- "If ifs and buts were candies and nuts, we'd all have a merry Christmas". Nothing generates interest, speculation and even anger amongst the gaming community like a cancelled game. The promise of what might have been, the sense of expectation and hope, often coupled with the crushing disappointment of what a game actually is when presented before our eyes. Cancelled games allow us to project our desires and dreams onto the gaming industry, to allow our imaginations to soar like the wings of Icarus, thinking about what revolutionary new features this game or that game may have brought if only given the chance. Cancelled games are the ones that fly too close to the sun, the games where grand ideas and brave new visions are held briefly aloft among the clouds, before falling to the earth in a pile of feathers.
It is because of those grand visions, those lofty dreams, that I am proud to present the award for Best Cancelled Videogame of 2013. But again, before we reveal the winner, here are the other nominees:
Star Wars 1313, Lucasarts
Why it was nominated: Oh, the tears that this game caused. Upon its reveal, this game created some major waves in the community. Not only did it look like a genuine effort by Lucasarts to start making quality Star Wars games again after the so-so Force UNleashed games and terrible Star Wars Kinect. It was also widely reputed to be one of the first examples of a game running on Next-Gen hardware. Those silky animations, those textures, those set-pieces... this was how games would look on the next generation of consoles. And that premise: you're a bounty hunter, chasing down targets in the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the Star Wars universe. Not just any bounty hunter either, but a young Boba Fett.
Sadly, it was not to be. After Lucasarts was purchased by Disney, they wasted no time in shutting the company down, cancelling all internal projects and offloading all Star Wars game development to EA. All we have now are those scant few minutes of footage, and our wounded hearts.
Why it didn't win: Because despite all the broo-ha-ha with Disney and Lucasarts, it's impossible to say whether this game is truly dead, or just Tupac and Elvis dead. We all know those two are out there somewhere, and thanks to Disney's licensing deal with EA, there's a chance this game is still alive to, just living under a different address. One of the first announcements EA made after the deal was inked was that they'd moved DICE onto development for Battlefront III, a game Lucasarts had struggled with for years. However unlikely it is, we may just get a similar announcement a year or two down the road that Visceral, DICE or even Bioware have taken the reigns on 1313. Sad as I am to say it, EA are our only hope.
Aliens: Crucible, Obsidian
Why it was nominated: Although technically the game wasn't cancelled in 2013, it was only this year, after the aftermath of Colonial Marines, that the community was even made aware it had ever existed. An action-horror RPG developed by Obsidian, makers of new Vegas and KOTOR II, based around the Alien franchise. What could be more perfect? What makes the sting even harsher is that we got to see footage of the game in action, and it looked great. Far, far better than the crushing disappointment that was the final version of Colonial Marines, with added RPG goodness.
And the real kicker? The game was finished back in 2010. Completed. Ready to go. SEGA cancelled a finished game so that they could instead focus on Colonial Marines, which ironically ended up being unfinished in every possible way. It's enough to make you scream, even if no-one can hear you.
Why it didn't win: Because while we only learned about the game this year, thanks to Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquheart, the reality is that the game was cancelled three years ago. We could have had this game three fucking years ago, and we never even knew until after Colonial Marines shit the proverbial bed.
Streets Of Rage, Ruffian Games
Why it was nominated: Before you call me out on it, I'm not talking about the original Streets of Rage, a game that clearly made it through production and went on to influence an entire genre. I am, in fact, talking about the modern, 3D reboot that was in the works by Crackdown 2 developers Ruffian Games, at the behest of publisher Sega.
Pretty colourful, right? There's plenty of nods to the classic games, and enough retro neon lighting to make your eyes bleed. The entire prototype was put together in about eight weeks, and was supposed to lead onto a full-on game. Sadly, Sega decided that they were going to hunker down on Sonic and Football Manager games, and this game was one of the casualties. While the combat looks a little ropey, I'm pretty sure with a full two years of development, this could have turned into something pretty special.
Why it didn't win: As impressive as the footage is for a mere eight weeks work, it simply doesn't inspire the same kind of longing or regret that 1313 and Crucible do. We'll never know how good a full reboot could have been, just that this design pitch had a lot of potential.
The Last Guardian, Team Ico
Why it was nominated: Until Sony actually comes out and says this game is coming out soon, we'd all be better off to just accept that it's dead, and move on with our lives.
Why it didn't win: Because as healthy as it would be for us to all move on, Sony keeps hinting that there's life in the damn game yet. And that just makes it so hard for us to stop hoping...
And with that, the winner of Best Cancelled Game of 2013 is:
Ashes Cricket 2013, Trickstar Games
Why this game won: For the sole reason that it takes something truly special for a publisher to cancel a game after it's already been released, and that is exactly what 505 did with Ashes 2013. A game which is simultaneously so bad its publisher cancelled it, yet which actually made it to retail and can be experienced by the consumer. No other cancelled game this year managed to drag its sorry carcass to the finish line in such a pitiful fashion, and for dropping the ball so spectacularly, it has to get the award.
Join us next time as we present the award for Most Overuse Of Blue And Orange in a Videogame.
Yep, everyone else is getting in on it, so I thought I may as well jump in too. It's time to look back over the past year, take in all that gaming has achieved, then hand out a bunch of random awards based on completely arbitrary criteria and subjective opinions. It'll all amount to nothing, but with any luck we'll get a few good arguments along the way.
So with that out of the way, it's time to present the award for:
The Most Average White Male Character in a Videogame 2013.
It takes something special to be truly average. True mediocrity is hard to achieve, and nowhere is this clearer to see than character design. Over the years, we've seen developers try time and again to achieve that highest of aims- the relatable, generic, average white male. The character that the largest demographic of gamers can relate to, and therefore project themselves on to. It's an impossibly tricky thing to do. One badly placed eye-patch, cheeky mullet, or pair of geeky science glasses, and your ho-hum character has gone from being average schlub to an iconic piece of design.
Some people might say that unique, inventive, creative character design and solid gameplay are all you need to be able to immerse yourself in a character. They may even point to atypical character designs like Samus Aran, Spyro The Dragon or Oddworld's Abe to bolster their argument. These people are wrong. Immersion is clearly about how much like real-life you a videogame character is, and the law of gaming demographics therefore states that a caucasian, early-mid 30s looking, stubbly man is the most average character design, and therefore the best. And 2013 did not disappoint. Developers really stepped up to the plate to give us some truly average character designs, so that us white dudes could play their games without making our brains work too hard.
Before we reveal the winner, here are the nominations for Most Average White Male in a Videogame 2013:
- Booker Dewitt, Bioshock Infinite
Why he was nominated: This cover from Bioshock Infinite truly ticks all the boxes when it comes to the AWM category. The designer stubble is present, and is neither too rough or too smooth. The hair is the perfect length of average: neither too long to be misconstrued as overly hippy or liberal, nor so short he could be mistaken for a skinhead or other far-right type. The jowls are just defined enough to give the perfect brooding, determined expression, whilst not being so defined that they could alienate younger players. He even has a shotgun resting on his shoulder, just to blend even more into the AWM videogame crowd.
Why he didn't win: Sadly, as truly average as this cover design is, the game itself stays in Booker's perspective, robbing you of the chance to take in how phenomenally unphenomenal he looks. Without the box art and that TV trailer, it would be difficult to know at all just how average Dewitt really looks, and it is on that crucial hurdle that Infinite stumbles. Well, that, and telling a coherent story...
Joel, The Last Of Us
Why he was nominated: One game that certainly has no issues with showing you your AWM lead character is The Last Of Us. While Joel is creeping into the wrong side of middle aged, he still otherwise has all the hallmarks of a standout AWM. He has the sort of face-fuzz that would make him relatable to many a nerd in the gaming community, and a well trimmed head of hair that suggests even when society has utterly fallen apart, there will still be hair dressers to give out mediocre haircuts. His fashion sense never seems to waver from canvas shirts and jeans, the most everyman of everyman looks, and his skin is the perfect shade of pale to suggest that he's been out in the sun a fair bit, whilst making sure we know he is most definitely white, not black, asian, indian or latino. This isn't surprising, of course. Naughty Dog already have pedigree in this particular area, with Uncharted's Nathan Drake being AWM winner for both 2007 and 2009.
Why he didn't win: Sadly, as hard as Naughty Dog's art team worked to make Joel the most non-descript of average joes, their writers threw a spanner in the works by making him a genuinely well written character with harrowing backstory and emotional turmoil, and starring in one of the best narratives of the year. Dead family members, paternalism and existential angst in the face of a zombie apocalypse are just not the sort of things your average gamer can relate to, and it is on that note that TLOU snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
Mario, Super Mario 3D World
Why he was nominated: Because Nintendo designed him to be the sort of relatable, non-descript avatar that gamers can easily project themselves onto. It's their mission statement. It's his entire reason for being. He even has a trope on TV Tropes named after him for that very reason. The jack of all stats, master of none. He has the brown hair and blue eyes, the everyday overalls of a tradesman complete with work boots... Nintendo even went above and beyond by clearly giving him a bit of podge around the middle, elevating him even further into the realm of the average than other AWM characters who somehow also have Olympian figures. I'm sure an overwhelming number of gamers can identify with any character who carries around a bit of tummy luggage. Not me, because my body is lithe, chiselled perfection, but for the rest of you lazy slobs...
Why he didn't win: Firstly, because of that moustache. While facial stubble is the in-thing now, prominent moustaches are the domain only of university professors, bank managers and hipsters. Without that moustache, Mario would be the pinnacle of forgettable blandness. With it, he instantly alienates himself from the majority of stubbly neckbeards too lazy to engage in a bit of facial maintenance.
Secondly, because at one point he was officially more recognised amongst American children than Mickey Mouse, and anyone more recognisable than Mickey fucking Mouse must be doing something good in the character design department.
Thirdly, because all jokes aside, he's Mario. An Italian plumber who lives in a kingdom of talking mushrooms, is banging royalty, solves problems through jumping really high and has a giant dragon-turtle for a nemesis. You'd have to be knee deep in LSD at a Hawkwind gig to find that in any way relatable.
And with that, the winner is...
Sam Fisher, Splinter Cell Blacklist
It's one thing to make an average white male character. It's another thing entirely to retroactively take a beloved character, and turn them into an AWM. For the sheer audacity of taking one of stealth gaming's most iconic, honey-voiced characters and turning him into beige wallpaper, Ubisoft deserve the gong for Blacklist.
To truly understand why Blacklist won, you have to understand who Sam Fisher once was.
Back in the days of classic Splinter Cell, Fisher was a stocky, imposing figure who was clearly approaching retirement age, and had facial wrinkles so deep you could go spelunking in them, and a jaw strong enough to pump iron. He was an OG badass, and the games repeatedly made point of the fact that he was an old-timer getting further and further out of touch with the youth of today and the high tech shenanigans of the modern world. Not only did he look old and imposing, but he was voiced by the aural perfection that is Michael Ironside. Every line he uttered was an exercise in smooth, velvety bass. Every snarky aside, every sarcastic quip, delivered with gravelly octaves so low they could make your speakers rumble. Those old haggard looks and that delicious voice all served to make Fisher the most memorable character of the Tom Clancy games, and able to go toe to toe with Solid Snake in the forums.
Blacklist's Fisher is allegedly the same character and has all the same traits, but he also doesn't look a day over thirty-five, has a voice so unidentifiable it could be covered in blood and still slip through an identity parade, and all the imposing nature of a saggy balloon. Fisher has gone from being one of the most identifiable characters of the seventh gen, to someone who could easily blend into any office meeting, canteen or hardware shop without note. He's so average looking he could jump into your car unannounced, tell you he was doing the car pool you'd forgotten about, and you'd probably believe him.
For such an incredible redesign from iconic to beige, Blacklist wins the 2013 award for Most Average White Male hands down.
Join us again soon as we present the next 2013 GOTY award: Most Needlessly Excessive Cleavage in a Female Character.
Zombies are a weird thing. The idea of them has been around for ages, they helped kickstart the new wave of horror film-making back in the Sixties, and yet it feels like its only comparatively recently that they took over the world of popular culture. Ever since 28 Days Later came out, the world has gone zombie mad, and right now they're on every street corner of mainstream culture, shambling in their hordes into our films, TV shows, and into our videogames. They're everywhere.
Of course, in reality zombies have been a big part of gaming for a while now, arguably ever since Resident Evil kicked off the survival horror phenomenon, if not before. But even with that in mind, it seems like zombies have become more prevalent than ever in gaming. Just this weekend we had Dying Light showcased on the VGX awards with its sledgehammer-wielding undead madness. Dead Rising 3 is one of the most high profile launch titles for the Xbox One. Dead Island managed to get both fame and notoriety for its portrayal of zombies in its pre-release material. Valve managed their own take on the co-op shooter formula with the Left 4 Dead games. Ubisoft released Zombi U as a (underrated) Wii U launch title. Even Call Of Duty has gotten in on the craze. One of the biggest additions Treyarch made to their iterations was to add a zombie mode in World At War, a mode than has gone on to define their take on the franchise. And this is ignoring zombie long-runners like the Resident Evil franchise.
So why are they so popular? Even with popular culture and appeal being what it is, why have so many developers decided to jump on the zombie bandwagon? What is it about them that's so appealing to gamers?
Well actually, if you look at things from a design perspective, it's not about what's appealing to gamers, but what's appealing to game designers.
See, here's the thing about zombies: they're stupid. Mindless. The literal definition of braindead. They shuffle around slowly and aimlessly, and when they see a living person with warm brains inside their head, they shuffle/lurch/sprint towards them with nary a secodn thought for their own well being.
For a game designer, that's golden.
Game design is reaching a funny crossroads. We've already seen developers struggling with the rising cost of graphics and visuals, and that's causing all sorts of problems of its own which I won't go into here. but there are other obstacles developers are having to overcome, and one of the big ones is AI. you see, a lot of gamers seem to have this notion that with improved hardware specs, artificial intelligence in games will sort of just magically improve on its own. "Oh, see, this console has an octo-core CPU, just think of what that will do for AI". It's as if by scaling the hardware upwards, gaming AI will scale itself upwards with it.
As it happens, that's not the case. AI in games is actually just about the hardest, most difficult thing to program. You're a good developer if you can get enemies to merely act convincing, and you're a goddamn rare developer if you can actually fool your players into thinking the enemies are smart. The reason for this is because of how AI is coded. You can't just program AI to do whatever you want, how you want. You have to program it with incredibly basic instructions, instructions which basically amount to "If___ then___". There is no grand coding solution for getting an enemy soldier to intelligently lay down suppressing fire while another enemy flanks the player. If a developer is able to do that in game, its only because the developer was able to write down enough "If___ then___" instructions for such a thing to occur. Bear in mind, it takes a lot of those sorts of instructions just to make a Goomba-type enemy react to the player character in a 2D platformer. In a 3D shooter, you're talking about having to create an incredibly complicated script, made up of thousands of incredibly basic "If___ then___" instructions in order to create even the illusion of basic intelligence and self-preservation.
It's a lot of work. A huge amount. And no matter how better specs get, if developers are still having to work within a two year development schedule, then there's only so much they can do before they reach the productivity ceiling. Gamers are demanding more advanced AI, in that lovable gamer way, but it is getting more and more difficult for developers to live up to those demands.
What does that have to do with zombies? Well actually, it's quite simple. As already discussed, zombies are not intelligent. They act in very predictable, basic fashion, and exhibit none of the behavioural traits we would expect from a living person. And because of that, they're exponentially easier to program.
In a convincing first-person shooter, you need to program any enemies in the game to realistically take cover when shot at, have a demonstrable understanding of how to navigate the level, know how to avoid getting stuck on the scenery, shoot at the player without being too accurate, and work together with any other enemies in the area. With a zombie, all you have to do is get them to lurch towards the player, because that is all the player expects from a zombie. You don't need to program them to work together. You don't need to program them to shoot weapons. You don't even need to program them to take cover if they're shot at. in fact, all those things would serve to make a worse zombie game, because the player would not be able to believe they're shooting at zombies if they exhibited such behaviour.
Can you perhaps see why more and more developers are choosing to make zombie games now, and why we're inundated with so many of the bloody things? Making a convincing zombie game requires significantly less AI programming, pathfinding and such than a game with intelligent human/alien/demonic enemies, and is therefore much less hassle for the developers. A shooter with dumb human enemies will get poor reviews for the lack of AI. A shooter with dumb zombies? That's expected.
That doesn't mean that games with zombies in are lesser than those without. On the contrary, in fact. If you want to make a game that will stand the tests of time, that will be looked back on as a milestone of interactivity, as one of the all time greats.... stick some zombies in. Seriously. Let's take a look.
First, let's start off with the original Resident Evil.
One of the original Playstation's killer apps, and the game that kicked off survival horror. While it's aged somewhat now, it's regularly held up as one of the most innovative games ever made, even if the story was a bit of a jill sandwich. What's it about? Zombies. Not magical undead zombies, true, but zombies nonetheless. You're in a mansion, trying to hide and survive from a man-made zombie horde. We'll come back to this franchise in a bit, but for now suffice to say that zombies made this game what it is: one of the most important games in the entire history of the medium.
Alright, so that's one game. Surely they can't be all that important though, right?
Yep, good ol' Half-Life. The Greatest FPS Ever Made[sup]TM[/sup]. The game that redefined the genre. That changed how narrative could be told in an interactive setting. What do you spend most of the game doing?
Shooting headcrab zombies.
Now, you could argue that headcrabs aren't real zombies, more people possessed by the Valve equivalent of a facehugger. You could argue that... but it would be balls. In terms of their behaviour and actions, headcrabs are pure zombies. They lurch around, then slouch towards Freeman as soon as they catch sight of him. Functionally they're no different from zombies in any other game, and as such they most definitely count. Most of Half-Life, for all mysterious sci-fi trappings and cool atmosphere, is a zombie shooter. And it's not the only FPS acclaimed amongst the best of all time to fall into that category...
It really cannot be overstated the effect Halo had on gaming. While Goldeneye and Perfect Dark has showed that FPS games could be done on consoles, Halo was the one to create the template which is still used today. It set the bar for console shooters, pretty much carried the OG Xbox singlehandedly, and with the second instalment created one of the all-time definitive multiplayer experiences. It set players on an alien world full of atmosphere, had them facing colourful aliens who were (for the time) frighteningly intelligent, and gave them all sorts of neat toys to play with.
Which makes it all the stranger when the game reveals the Flood halfway through, and the game becomes a zombie shooter. The Flood would go on to dominate the first three games, pushing the Covenant more and more to the sidelines, until Bungie finally said ENOUGH and excised them from the series with the franchise prequel, Halo Reach. And yet, looking back, the Flood defined the Halo series just as much as the Covenant. The entire story of the first three games is an epic journey to halt the Flood before they wipe out the galaxy of sentient life. Their spores are in every part of the franchise's DNA, and they even live on in Halo 4 with the Prometheans, braindead bullet spongey enemies who can respawn on the battlefield and tend to just charge headlong at the player. The game even has a multiplayer mode where players become Flood and try to infect each other.
OK, so Zombies were a key part of some of the most important FPS games ever. What about third person shooters? Well...
There's a reason I'm mentioning Resident Evil 4 separate from Resi 1 or the rest of the franchise. The same generation that Halo came out and redefined console FPS games, Resident Evil 4 came out and not only redefined the RE franchise, it redefined action games. When best-ever-games lists are drawn up, this game always sits near the top. It created the over-the-shoulder viewpoint used by games like Gears, pioneered the use of in-game action commands that games like Uncharted went on to commandeer, and provided some of the slickest, tightest game design ever seen in a blockbuster release. Everything from the level design to the reload animations was slick as hell, and the game still stands as one of the best action games ever. What do you do in it? Being a RE game, you kill zombies, this time while trying to save the President's daughter. The game's mechanics were designed entirely around the idea of shooting down zombie hordes as they lurch, jump and run towards you, and in that regard it is peerless.
OK Titus, I hear you say, so zombies have been important in action games, but they're all about shooting anyway. You're not going to tell me that sticking zombies in a story based game, a game about characters and emotions, is going to make it one of the most critically acclaimed games ever, right?
Yeah, about that...
The Walking Dead is a funny game. It came out of nowhere in 2012, with barely any hype, and by the end of the year had made off with every GOTY award going. As it turns out, adding zombies can apparently make a story better. Telltale did so, and created a story where the player was forced to make heartwrenching choices. While it's a 'game' in the same way a David Cage game is, it still managed to marry interactivity and storytelling in a way that caused many gamers to well up like babies in an onion factory. It became the focal point of storytelling in games, and even the Games As Art debate, and is probably the most unanimously acclaimed game of last year.
Ok, you say, so that's just one game. An outlier. An oddity. The outcome of a perfect combination of chance factors: timing, marketing, and reception. It's not as if you could put out another story-based game about zombies and expect the same thing to happen, right?
The Last Of Us. ladies and gentlemen. One of the best reviewed games not only of this year, but of the entire generation. The Game Of The Generation, if you believe some of the reviews. Where TWD stole the GOTY crown last year, TLOU did for many this year. What's it about? Well, it's much like Resident Evil 4: you escort a young girl through a brown-and-grey hellhole while shooting zombies in the face. Where it beats RE4, of course, is in its narrative focus, telling a heartbreaking tale full of mature ideas, dark themes and horrible betrayals. It's the crowning jewel in the PS3 library, if you believe the hype, and it is fundamentally a game about zombies. Ok, so it's also about other stuff like the human will to survive, hope, and other existential bollocks, but fundamentally its about zombies.
See? All these games are regularly hailed as amongst the very best of all time, and they've all got zombies. Is it any wonder the gaming industry has gone zombie mad? They're easy to program, and are statistically likely to get you GOTY awards, and all the sales that go with them.
I have no idea what next year's overall GOTY will be, but I'll hazard a guess that it will likely feature zombies in some fashion. We just love them too much not to have them. They're braindead shooting fodder, though provoking story material, and everything inbetween. We've already got two zombie games out for the new 'current' generation (Zombi U and Dead Rising 3), another one on the way (Dying Light) and who knows what else on the horizon.
Just like how comics ended up being defined by superheroes, perhaps games will end up being defined not by military brown shooters, nor peppy platformers starring plumpy plumbers, but by zombies. They'll be our medium's Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman all rolled into one shambling, moaning horde. Isn't that a fun thought?