I think it's safe to say that the Xbox One reveal hasn't exactly gone down well with gamers. In fact, in all my years of gaming, I don't think I can remember a console reveal that has been received so poorly. The Wii U reveal at E3 may have been underwhelming, the famous PS3 reveal embarrassing, but neither inspired the same amount of disappointment and outright anger that Microsoft managed today.
I should know. I've been out there ranting on the forums with all the rest of you guys.
'But what if you want to bring a game disc to a friend's house and play there? You'll have to pay a fee—and not just some sort of activation fee, but the actual price of that game—in order to use a game's code on a friend's account. Think of it like a new game, Harrison said.'
The fact Microsoft's own support team are conflicting with what their corporate vice president is saying kind of implies that Microsoft have done-clusterfucked this issue. If they're not stomping on used game sales, then they'd just outright state it. No hassle, no bother. They'd just come out and say "Our console supports used games." The fact that they can't even put out a consistent message suggests they've got some kind of shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Shenanigans that don't bode well for us gamers who actually buy second-hand games on occasion.
Now, that's not what's got me worried. It's been clear for a while that a) Microsoft are ramping up on the corporate douchebag behaviour, and b) they're more interested Xbox being an entertainment centre than an actual games console. If they want to stomp on used games, then fine, they're free to do that. We're free to take our business elsewhere as result. My worry is about the PS4.
"But Titus" I hear you cry, "All Sony has to do is allow used game sales, and they'll automatically sell a bajillion more consoles than Microsoft."
See, now that's my main worry. If Sony allows used game sales.
"But Titus" you cry once again, "Sony have already said they're not going to stop used game sales."
...yeah, see, here's the thing. That's not quite what Sony said. When Gamespot interviewed the head of Sony Worldwide Studios a while back, Shuhei Yoshida, after the reveal of the PS4, they asked him to clarify Sony's position on used game sales. Specifically, they asked him whether second-hand games would require an activation code on the console. His answer?
"It's a publisher decision. We are not talking about it. Sorry."
That is not the same thing as saying the console won't crack down on used games. In fact, it's not even close to saying that. What Sony have essentially implied is that while they won't stomp down on used games, they will allow other publishers to do so if they so desire.
Now, here's where things start getting worrying. In a console ecosystem where one console doesn't play second-hand games and another does, the latter has got a huge advantage over the former. However, when you have got a console that cracks down on second-hand games, and another console that can crack down on used games, then that advantage disappears. Why? Because the publisher, if they so desire, can choose to crack down on both platforms. Both become equally valid platforms for pushing DRM. Whatever advantage the PS4 may have had would be undermined by publishers being free to engage in the same anti-consumer behaviour they get as standard on the Xbox One.
Remember all that brouhaha when rumours came out that EA was burning all its bridges with Nintendo over their refusal to allow Origin on Wii U? At the time, I was somewhat puzzled, as I wasn't sure what that meant for both Sony and Microsoft regarding the same. It didn't seem feasible that both companies would be actively trying to stomp down on used games and integrating DRM on their consoles as standard. Not when one company could drop said feature and get an instant marketing advantage over their competitor. Now, though, I think that puzzle is starting to piece together.
What we're likely to see is one console that enforces DRM on behalf of the publishers, and one that allows publishers to push their own DRM. And in both cases, the net result is the same for the publisher: they crack down on those used games they hate so much, and push this "games as a service" line even harder than they have hitherto done.
This would explain why EA are so nonchalant about abandoning the Wii U. They've essentially got two other platforms where they can bring in Origin and have complete control over the purchases of their consumers. If Sony had actually gone out of their way to make sure anti-consumer DRM wasn't a part of the PS4 architecture, then EA would have been faced with the choice of either betting their Origin schemes on a single horse, Microsoft, or abandoning them altogether. If Sony are letting them freely push their own DRM on PS4, then that gives them enough wiggle room to push the same strategy on two consoles and focus on making Origin a console service, even at the expense of having a presence on Nintendo's console.
This would also explain why Microsoft feel they could get away with such an anti-consumer practise. If Sony just came out and said "We're not going to let publishers piss all over gamers who buy or sell second-hand games", then that would literally give them every advantage over Xbox One. But Sony haven't come out and said that. Instead, they've chosen some very vague wording and an implication that DRM is based on third parties, rather than being built into the system.
Microsoft would have no reason to crack down on used game sales unless they felt Sony at least had a similar contingency. Publishers would have no reason to push for in-built DRM on one console unless there was at least a similar contingency on the other. If FIFA 14 is going to have DRM software on one console platform, then it would only make sense for EA to push to have similar DRM on the other leading console platform as well, right?
A lot of people are assuming that Microsoft handed the next generation to Sony on a platter today. I'm not so sure. I think based on everything we're seeing, the statements given by those in charge, the behaviour of certain publishers, what we're seeing is a move towards DRM on consoles, and an industry wide move on the part of publishers to try and bite into the used game market. Because if there's one thing I'm certain, this is all at the behest of publishers. Consoles that have built in DRM (Xbox One), or allow them to put up their own DRM (PS4) get support. Consoles that don't let them put up their own DRM (Wii U) get the shit hazed out of them.
At the very least, I would be hugely surprised if we don't hear more from Sony between now and release about what exactly they mean when they say "It's a publisher decision." And I would be very surprised if it's not a more bitter pill than gamers were initially expecting. If Microsoft go all in with in-built DRM, it's because that's what publishers have pushed them for. I cannot think of how those same publishers wouldn't have pushed Sony for the same thing, or for a similar alternative.
Cynical? Sure, I'm a character straight from a Raymond Chandler novel. But the last ten years of gaming for me have been nothing but an exercise in cynicism. Project $10, Ubisoft's always-online, and Xbox Live adverts took whatever optimism I may have had for the gaming industry, and kicked the shit out of it out in the back alley. The Xbox One reveal may have been one mother of a let-down, but I very much doubt the PS4 has been given the crown to Generation 8. I guess time will tell. I hope I'm wrong. But then, I hoped Dead Space 3 and Mass Effect 3 wouldn't require EA accounts to play online on consoles. And look what happened there.
If I were to try and truly render my cynicism on the issue, this is how I think it might sound...
"The cigarette smoke hovered around me like a lover's perfume. Stale, clinging, but with a scent I'd always savour. It was past midnight. I should have clocked out hours ago, but my friends Jack and Jim had kept me for an after-hours meeting. Five slugs already, and I was still seeing straight. It was going to be a long meeting. Really, I should have been charging overtime. My sense of charity is going to kill me one of these days...
The door swung open, and the dame walked in. And what a dame she was. First thing I noticed, she had a real thing for the number eight. Eight cores in that pretty little CPU of hers. Eight gigs of the fastest RAM money can buy. She said her name was PS4, and she needed my help with a problem. "Honey" I said, "We've all got problems. What makes me think I can fix yours?" Turns out, Madamoiselle PS4 has a cousin. Xbox One, the most successful whore out on 52nd street. Every night, she's pulling in the richest clients this city has to offer: EA, Ubisoft, Activision, the new bourgeois as I like to call 'em. Every night she's getting their cash like she's house-owner winning at the casino of life. Not just cash. There's rumours they're giving her marriage proposals, exclusivity deals, exclusive DLC... and all they're asking in return is for her to make a few calls, call in a few favours. There's some used sales been going on around 52nd, some games changing hands without cash flowing in the right directions, and they'd like to see 'em taken care of.
"And let me guess" I said. "They made the same proposal to you?"
If looks could kill, the look Madamoiselle PS4 gave me would have gotten her five life sentences in any court in America. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Ma'am" I said, "I ain't young anymore. I've been around the block, seen a few things. And if there's one think I know, it's when I'm talking to a whore. You're no high society lady, but you've got RAM so expensive I could mortgage my apartment on it. I bet you're down there on 52nd Street too, wowing the customers with your big round polygons and your tight little texture maps. Teasing all the boys with your pretty Killzone demos and your oh-so-revealing Diablo III announcements. And those monied men chatting up your cousin, I'll bet they tried to make exactly the same deal with you."
She looked at me with a wary eye. I could tell I'd got her spooked. But I could also tell I'd rumbled her. She was in the same business as Xbox One, selling the same wares, making money out of other people's pleasure. Professional intuition is a wonderful thing. Never let me down yet. She firmed her expression up, obviously trying to regain her footing. "And if that were true, what business is it of yours?"
"Well ma'am," I said, "I'm a professional private investigator. Finding answers is my business. And as a professional, I'm interested to know what your answer was."
She looked at me without blinking. I could tell she was a wily one, a regular street cat dressed up in a classy black outfit. I'd spooked her before, but now she had her composure back. The only sound was the soft crackle as I drew in on my smoke. Her answer came wrapped in a voice cool and uncompromising. "That," she said, "Is a publisher decision. I'm not talking about it."
What a dame! I knew right then and there, as soon as she said it, that this was a woman who would either make all your dreams come true, or leave your hopes crushed like broken glass in the gutter. And right then, my intuition failed me. I had no idea which she was. All I could do was pray she was the former, and fear she was the latter...
It's amazing how these things go. I was looking at my blog, and thinking I should update it with some more non-Nintendo topics to balance things out... and then this week happened, we got a veritable plethora of Wii U related news, and now here I am. It's 3am in the morning, and I'm writing another Nintendo blog. Go figure.
Anyways... I find communities amazing. You can really tell how important something is by the community that surrounds it. And if I've noticed anything this week on Destructoid, it's that Nintendo is a pretty important company.
It's not been a great week for Nintendo. Let's be honest here. We're still waiting for Wii U sales to pick up, still waiting for the heavy hitters to get revealed. Today's (or indeed, yesterday's) Direct didn't show us much we weren't already aware of. Nintendo have been vilified for their stance on Lets Players and ad revenue, criticised for patching out gay marriage in one of their games. And to crown it all, EA dropped the bombshell that they haven't got any Wii U games in the works.
Ultimately, I think that's going to end up hurting EA far more than it will hurt Nintendo, a company who have proven time and again they don't need anyone's games but their own in order to make a profit. But in the short term, it's still a kick in the teeth for those of us wanting to see the Wii U's fortunes pick up. I don't think I've ever seen a new console with so many enticing, exciting exclusives get shat on so readily by the rest of the industry. But that leads into the point I already touched on- you can tell a company's worth, I think, by how readily the community steps in to support it when things are looking down. I don't mean in a mindless Apple-herd mentality sort of way. I mean when a community steps in to point out all the good that a company has done, all the good memories that their products have fostered, all the happiness and joy they've brought. Nobody steps in to defend EA anymore. Their legacy is carved in stone, and they look set to ride it all the way into an industry crash. No-one seems to feel the need to come out in overwhelming support of Microsoft, or Activision, or Ubisoft. Those are all cold, unfeeling corporate entities, with a naked love of cash and increased share prices.
And yet with Nintendo, people always seem ready to come out and link arms together around the company. Whether its recounting how Nintendo single-handedly dragged the videogame industry forwards after the crash of 83. Or the quotes from Miyamoto about how a delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is bad forever. Or just reminiscing over the best Nintendo games, those fabled experiences where we all realised just how extraordinary the medium of games could be. There's a sense of shared joy around Nintendo that I don't see many places else in gaming. We're all too used to ripping each other apart over the consoles we like, the game franchises we like, the genres we like... but on this site at least, Nintendo seem to be that rare common bond where gamers of different stripes can come together and celebrate a universal love of videogames. And with that in mind, I thought I'd share one of my memories that is responsible for planting in me such a respect for Nintendo.
It's regarding the Wii. A console often vilified or patronised by the traditional hardcore, a console many see as one of Nintendo's lesser offerings despite its phenomenal sales. Because there's something that the Wii managed, something Nintendo managed to pull off, which I feel doesn't get talked about enough. Something which created a profound change in the medium: Nintendo changed the entire dialogue surrounding games. In fact, they didn't just change the dialogue itself. They changed the very people who were taking part in it.
Before the Wii, gamers were gamers, and non-gamers were non-gamers. If I wanted to talk about videogames, I'd have to talk to my fellow nerdy gaming friends. And as much as I love talking games with them, that's a pretty insular conversation to have. But when the Wii came out, that conversation changed completely. All of a sudden, I was talking to hot girls at high school about videogames. Hot girls happily playing the likes of Zelda, or Wii Sports, or Kirby. I was talking to friends' parents about games. Hell, I once talked to a friend's grandparents about games, simply because the Wii had finally introduced them to the concept in a way they understood.
Nintendo made it possible for grandparents to get videogames. The Wii was the Babelfish, the universal translator that got people to finally understand what the deal is with games. When has anything like that ever occurred in the industry before.
As an Englishman, and inhabitant of the fair, verdant lands of the United Kingdom, there's one example that particularly stands out to me- Nintendo turned the Queen of England into a gamer.
I'll say it again: Nintendo turned her Majesty the Queen of England into a gamer.
Just think about the implications of that. Videogames have always had an image problem. They've always been that hobby that's corrupting the youth, inspiring the massacres, turning the children gay and making them worship Satan. Even today, news companies like FOX or Sky happily demonise games to push their own agenda. No other game company has yet broken that image of videogames as gore-happy murder simulators. Possibly because many of them are too busy developing gore-happy murder simulators. But Nintendo not only managed to transcend that stereotype, they turned videogames into something that could be enjoyed by everyone, something so inclusive that even the Queen of England had no problem with being a gamer.
That, more than anything else, sums up for me why Nintendo will always be that company worth defending. Even if I don't agree with everything they do, even if I think they're perhaps sliding in certain areas, or not keeping with the times in other areas, things like this are the reason I will always step in and stick up for Nintendo when corporate hacks at EA start flinging shit. Because totally regardless of software sales, completely ignoring marketshare or profit margins, Nintendo has done more than EA could ever hope to achieve when it comes to proving the worth of videogames as a valid medium. They are the champion always riding out proudly waving the videogame banner. Sometimes they'll stumble. Maybe once or twice they'll be knocked out of the saddle. But they will always get back up and wave that banner ever more proudly, and carry on riding forwards towards the sunrise.
And it gives me a sense of warmth to know that I share that with other members of the DTOID community. To know that no matter what new crap EA is pulling, no matter how much Capcom is trying to fleece its customers, no matter how much we lament the fall of Square, we'll all be there, voting in our hundreds for the Wii U version of Resident Evil Revelations to be reviewed, celebrating a new Sonic game being developed for the console, looking forward to Pikmin 3 and Wonderful 101. I've had my differences with the DTOID community in the past, and I think when it comes to things like feminism in games the majority and I will always share a difference of opinion. But I'm glad that on this site at least, I share a common admiration for the biggest and oldest videogame company out there.
In the spirit of this blog, I'd love if any readers could share some of their fondest Nintendo memories as well. Things may be rough down the road for the company, and they've got a difficult path to cross, but let's share some goodwill and remind ourselves what it is we love about the Big N.
So, as if the title wasn't a giveaway, then yeah, I want to talk about sexism.
"But Titus, all anyone does anymore is talk about sexism and gaming! Why don.t you just, like, get over it?"
Because believe it or not, sexism is still a very big part of the gaming industry. And it's not going to go away until we've dragged it out and shown it under the cold light of day to be what it is.
I want to get something out of the way right from the off, something which I think isn't made clear enough in these debates: women make up a huge part of the gaming audience now. In fact, studies have regularly pinned female gamers at making up between 40-50% of the total gaming audience. That's around half of all gamers out there. Despite all the jokes and memes, female gamers are no longer a rare thing. I've met plenty of girls myself who openly admitted to enjoying games. Some preferred Nintendo games like Super Mario, others were committed 'core' gamers who bought games like COD and Halo Reach on launch day.
It's important to stress this point, simply because of a lot of the arguments which get brought up in discussions around sexism and gaming. Namely, that the industry can get away with a lot of its more... problematic portrayals of women, by virtue of the fact that this is still largely seen by many gamers as a boy's hobby. Quite frankly, this is bollocks. This isn't the Eighties anymore, and gamers aren't the weird D&D nerds who used to give everyone else the heebie jeebies. Gaming has arrived as a mainstream, mass-appeal medium. I think we can all agree with that. With that mass appeal comes an increase in the number of demographics it reaches. It's only logical to assume that, with an increase in the number of gamers by hundreds of millions, more and more of those gamers are women. And this is what the studies have borne out.
Again, half. Half of gamers now are women.
Here's something to put it in even more perspective- the number of women over 18 playing videogames is larger than the number of guys under 18 playing games. You know that teenage male demographic that the industry likes to court with titillating character design, brosplosions and interesting new uses for the word 'fuck'? They're now a minority demographic compared to women gamers.
So, what's my issue? My issue is this. Not only does the industry seem reluctant to try and change its structure and its games to be more accommodating to women, but many gamers still seem hostile to this idea that women might want to play their games as well. It's a mindset I'm sure many of you have witnessed first-hand. It's the idea that any attempt to address sexism is an attempt by the feminists, or even the feminazis, to try and actively take our games away. That we won't be able to play Call of Brosplosionfield anymore because those damn horrible feminists won't let us have any fun.
It's a fucking stupid mindset. And I mean the stupidest of the stupid.
Firstly, this mindset tries to paint as one united group a movement which has diverged, splintered and fractured more than any other. There are no 'the' feminists, just as there aren't 'the' racists, or 'the' conservatives. There are a number of different groups, ideologies and arguments that exist under the umbrella term of 'Feminism', and they all differ from each other in important, sometimes profound ways. Believe it or not, but not every feminist subscribes to the Political Lesbian Separatism movement, or the Virginia Wolfe Navel Gazing movement. This idea that feminism as a whole is some united force that's trying to impinge on our right to play videogames is just farcicle, but I keep seeing it get brought up time and time again. Apparently 'the feminists' are trying to infringe on so-and-so's right to play the games he enjoys, or are trying to stop such-and-such from getting to play that hot new shooter that's coming out next month.
This is an argument that I'm seeing more and more, and that worries me, because it's an argument which strives to shut down argument and debate, rather than engage in it. Rather than looking at issues, we see gamers trying to ignore them by claiming them as the whinging of 'the feminists', as if that somehow makes them comparable to people who claim to have seen Bigfoot, or been abducted by aliens, or who've heard a good Coldplay song. These issues aren't fairy stories or conspiracy theories. These issues are real. You only need talk to ANY random female 360 player, and chances are at some point she'll have been harrassed over Live because of her gender. This sort of thing is endemic, and we need to start looking to fix it pronto.
Secondly, it's a mindset which tries to stop people from calling out developers when they make legitimate fuck-ups. I don't think I'll be surprising anyone when I say that many gamers, possibly even the majority, can exhibit rather worrying mild signs of addiction when it comes to certain game franchises they love. We're certainly not a medium of crackheads, and I'm not trying to imply that, but there's this apparent trend among many gamers where a game will be forgiven a multitude of seemingly great sins simply because it's the latest in 'X' franchise, or the newest game from 'Y' developer. It's that idea of needing to get a certain fix, and being able to overlook some rather worrying issues in order to get it from a beloved franchise or developer.
I'm going to potentially rustle a lot of feathers now and bring up Dragon's Crown, the latest game from 2D maestros Vanillaware. Now, I've got a huge amount of respect for Vanillaware. In an era where retro-16 bit 2D games are all the rage, Vanillaware buck the trend and show what's possible when you go all out with beautifully drawn hi-resolution art instead. Games like Odin Sphere and Muramasa are just stunning to look at. I have nothing but respect for Vanillaware's accomplishments within the 2D genre, which is why I feel so troubled over, well...
See, here's the thing. Dragon's Crown is an undoubtedly stylised game. All the characters have a certain over-the-top style to them. Personally I feel from an aesthetic view that Dragon's Crown is much weaker than previous Vanillaware games. The other characters like the Amazon and Dwarf are a mess of steroid-fuelled muscles that play into power fantasy archetypes, but which just look unappealing and messy. But the Sorceress is my real point of contention. Partly because of her design, but partly as well because of how we've reacted to her.
See, from a design perspective, there's almost nothing to her but sexualisation. Look at that above picture. Really look at it. What are the highlighted design features we see here? Clearly not her face. Not only is it comparatively tiny, but it's half-concealed by her hat, and overshadowed by her hair. The most prominent design elements are, quite simply, her tits and her arse. Not only is she doing the classic impossible-spinal-twist to show both those elements off, while bending over, no less, but both assets have been inflated to extreme degrees. Her boobs aren't just large, they're ridiculously so. That behind isn't just prominent, it's the literal centrepiece of the design as portrayed in the picture. The entire rest of the picture revolves around the centre that is her bottom. Not only that, but she's taking the skull from a skeleton (I imagine due to being a necromancer), and shoving it up into her ridiculously low cut cleavage.
This picture is, quite literally, of a pneumatically titted woman motorboating a skull while waving her arse at the viewer.
The only other emphasised feature here is the miles and miles of leg on display through that generous slit in the side of her skirt. Again, not exactly subtle here.
I would hope that I'm not alone here in concluding that the character design shown here is rather strongly focused on sexualisation. I mean, she's riding her staff up the crack of her behind like it's some sort of Anne Summers toy she's modelling, so I really don't think I'm reaching. But even if I'm wrong, there's something which disturbs me even moreso than this.
Whenever I've seen this issue get brought up on forums, both here and at sites like Neogaf, the people raising concern are shouted down by those who think there's nothing to worry about. Now, I have no problem with people disagreeing with me if there is room for us both to debate an issue. What I have a problem with is people even refusing to look at an issue, because it doesn't conform to their notions of what's going on. Even worse are when people admit there is an issue, but claim that as a member of a privileged group (in this case, hetero male), they should be free to enjoy that privileged, and damn what anyone else thinks. "Well I'm a male and I enjoy looking at titties, so what's the problem?"
If you like looking at tittles, either get a girlfriend or go watch some porn. When a mainstream level game is pushing ridiculous boobage like this for cheap titillation, it makes me wonder just what he developers think of their audience. Are they being cynical by cashing in on such cheap objectification, or do they actively enjoy and encourage such portrayals of women?
I'm going to bring that claim from the beginning back again: half. Half of all gamers now are women. Half the people going out and buying games, reading reviews, playing Angry Birds on the bus and pwning noobs online are female.
Now, there is a certain understanding when you work on anything other than the most indie of indie games that when bringing stuff to market, you should try and avoid stuff that's deliberately offensive or belittling to certain demographics or minorities. You couldn't justify a game with a homophobic main character, for instance, by claiming that the majority of your players are straight. Likewise, you couldn't justify having a character go black-face by claiming the majority of your audience is white. Regardless of who your game is aimed at, there's an assumption that you should treat the general public with respect.
This character isn't respectful to women. I would be embarrassed to play this game in front of any woman I know. This character presents such a hyper-sexualised portrayal of women, it feels like it belongs more in a fantasy Hentai than it does a follow up to something as good as Muramasa. Even if Vanillaware wanted to specifically target young, horny male gamers with their new game (even though as mentioned, that's now a minority demographic), there's no reason they couldn't have done that without also presenting a rather outdated portrayal of a woman that patronises half the gaming community out there.
What particularly riles me up is that we haven't been afraid to raise a stink about this before. I'm sure many gamers will remember when Namco were working on Soul Calibur IV, and their character designs for Ivy looked like this:
And of course, there was the promotion art which looked like this:
...and gamers raised a stink about it. We recognised that this was a rather shameless piece of objectification, and we got onto Namco about it. We told them it was cheap, tacky, and utterly sleazy. It didn't change the game itself, of course, but it at least got them to dress Ivy moderately more sensibly in Soul Calibur V, and to stop with the gratuitous boob adverts.
People have been getting onto Team Ninja for years about this exact same issue regarding the Dead or Alive series, to the point where it's all the series is practically known for- counter based combat, and titties. I remember when DoA3 came out, and the trailer included on my OXM demo disc had a rather shameless gratuitous shot of a pair of breasts attached to a girl suspended in a giant test tube. Now, from what I can tell, Team Ninja have seriously started to haul back on the gratuitous jiggle physics, but it's still all anyone talks about, and not exactly in glowing terms.
Why is it, then, that in those instances we were so ready to call out some rather dodgy portrayals of women, yet in this case we seem so reluctant to? I mean, the Dragon's Crown example doesn't seem all that different- there's a ludicrous focus on tits and ass, to the exclusion of almost everything else about the character. Is it a fear of being called a 'White Knight', that term which seems to have been created to shut down discussions of sexism before they even begin? Do we just not care all that much any more? Is it really not that big of a deal?
I think it is. Again, gaming is now made up of more women-folk than it ever has been before, and I think we should try and ensure that it's as welcome and open a community as possible. There's room for different niches and demographics, sure, but I'd like to think there's a way to go around making games without deliberately objectifying women. Maybe that idea of a welcoming community is where I'm wrong though. As a culture, the 'hardcore' gaming community seems to define itself based on all the people it tries to exclude. We've seen this time and time again with the way 'hardcore' gamers refer to 'casual' gaming as some sort of slur. We see it in the way PC gamers look down on console gamers, and vice versa. The way 360 owners look down on PS3 owners, and both look down on Wii or Wii U owners.
Despite 30 years of advancement, gaming still seems to be a community of warring tribes, like the Italy represented in the Aeneid, and perhaps that's why these problems haven't disappeared yet. In order to overcome any sort of -ism, be it sexism, racism or what-have-you, you need to have an overriding desire amongst the community to overcome such divisions and build bridges. And sad as it is, but maybe the gaming community, with its fractured install bases constantly squabbling with each other, simply isn't minded towards building bridges. Maybe that 40-50% of the total gaming audience is always going to have to view things from the outside, from the recieving end of Xbox Live insults, sleazy advertising, booth babe culture and terrible character design.
I really hope not. I'd really love to think that one day we as a gaming community could not just openly embrace all the women who want to join in, and all the different feminists along with them, but any sort of minority or demographic. Anyone who wants to play games, no matter how casual or hardcore, whether they're male, female, straight, gay, black or white, it'd be an open invitation for everyone to come join in the interactive fun. A community united by the love of the medium. But I think we'd need some pretty drastic changes first. Not just in the industry itself, and the way developers and publishers make and market their games, but in the way we as gamers view the medium, and the community that surrounds it.
I'm going to make an addendum here, and recommend that before the comments devolve further into tirades of "Men are sexualised too!" "What's wrong with games for men!" and all that other crap that always appears in these debates, readers of this blog take the time to read thesearticles on Nerd culture and the male gaze from the Doctor Nerdlove page.
These articles cover the idea of sexism/male privilege in nerd culture in a staggering amount of detail, and point out all the ways that the male gaze in geek culture, but particularly in gaming, as a topic needs to be addressed. Pointing out that the majority of gamers are male, or that Kratos and Batman are ludicrously muscley, doesn't address the actual topic at hand, it's just deflection from the real issue here.
I didn't initially want to write this blog. See, it involved bringing up something I've already discussed in my last two blogs: the Wii U. I didn't particularly want to write a third successive blog about the console, when the truth is, I've yet to pick mine up. Terrible, I know. Chalk it up as one of the joys of being a minimum wage monkey working temp shifts. One month you think you have money, the next you discover you really, really don't. But anyways, initially I was going to leave the topic be, and try and find something else to try and discuss. But then, as often happens, I couldn't help posting responses in a forum here, or an article there, and all of a sudden I was knee deep in debates I'd already told myself I wasn't going to have, and so I thought fuck it, I'll just get the whole bloody lot out of my system.
See, I've been noticing something recently. It's not something new in and of itself. In fact, it's a trend that's been around for as long as gaming has. And yet, now more than ever it seems to be becoming more prominent. It's what I like to call the Jeremy Clarkson problem.
If you're from the UK, chances are at some point or other, you're going to have seen Top Gear. Even if not, I'll wager you've at least heard of it. It's got one of the biggest audiences of any tv show in the world. And one of the show's most endearing/controversial (depending on your political and cultural preferences) elements is Jeremy Clarkson, the curly haired embodiment of a perpetual mid-life crisis. Ostensibly, Clarkson is an automobile journalist and critic. He is paid to talk about cars, and hopefully review them in a balanced, measured way. But as anyone who's watched the show knows, when it comes to driving, there's only one thing Clarkson ever looks for in a car.
In his defence, his lust for torque and horsepower is regularly portrayed as a bit of comedy, a single-minded, lunk headed pursuit for speed which exasperates his fellow presenters. After all, if you're actually reviewing a car, there are a whole host of factors to consider: how it handles, how it rides, fuel consumption, reliability, etc etc. A good car isn't just about horsepower, it's about how efficiently and reliably the thing as a whole works. As an example, a Lotus Elise has got far, far less raw horsepower than your average supercar, yet it could probably still outperform the majority of them round a racetrack due its superb handling and light weight.
What on earth does all this automobile rambling have to do with games? Well, it seems to me that more and more of the gaming community is succumbing to this Jeremy Clarkson mindset of:
...except without the self-referential irony.
When it comes to videogame hardware, it seems like the entire community is only ever concerned with GFLOPS and other raw numbers which scream "Lots and lots of polygons!!!!" How efficiently gaming hardware is put together, how well it works within the limits set for itself, is something which is still nigh on ignored by the majority of tech-heads. To illustrate this, I'm going to use two examples:
First up, the aforementioned Wii U. The reason I'm using this console as an example is because of a thread which was posted on Neogaf, examining the consoles innards. Now, if you're aware of the Wii U, you're probably aware of the claims that it's no better in terms of hardware than the PS360, or only marginally better.
As it turns out, this is actually balls. If you go simply by GFLOPS, then yes, the Wii U isn't as huge a step as, say, the PS4. But what you're doing there is focusing purely on one element of the hardware which is used as a yardstick for "POWAH!", and ignoring the rest of the architecture. Architecture which is actually pretty crucial to understanding why the system works the way it does. The main example of this is the Wii U's power draw.
The PS3 and 360 both draw around 70W of power when playing games, sometimes more. As a result, you get two very noisy consoles with a load of fans whirring away in order to get rid of the huge amounts of heat that are built up. The Wii U? It draws around half the power of either console. According to Eurogamer, playing something like Fifa 13 only drew 32W of power, whereas something simpler like watching Netflix only drew 29W.
This is with hardware which, no matter how you slice it, is more powerful than current gen hardware. And yet, it is also able to perform with smaller power requirements. At a time when custom PC builds will soon be needing their own nuclear reactors in order to power all the insane hardware, a console which manages to outperform the others while requiring less juice is surely something that, purely from an engineering perspective, should be celebrated? To return to the car analogy, it would be similar to someone inventing a car that manages to go faster than, say, a Lancer Evolution whilst at the same time having much better fuel efficiency.
Or there's the fact that rather than using an off-the-shelf GPU, Nintendo decided to go for something almost completely custom. Anyone who's looked at the pics posted on Neogaf knows that the Wii U has got a highly unique GPU running inside it. In fact, to anyone with a sense of history, it's almost as if Nintendo has gone back to the Gamecube days. Anyone who remembers that console will remember that despite its lowly specs, the custom hardware meant that developers were able to put out amazing looking games for the time. I believe Rogue Squadron II has officially the highest polygon count of any sixth-generation console game. And yet, at the time, the Gamecube's specs on paper were paltry compared to the Xbox's.
Does that mean the Wii U is going to outperform the PS4 and Nextbox in terms of graphics? I highly doubt it. But what it does mean is that you can't simply look at the number of GFLOPS the Wii U has, and then write it off. One of the guys at Chipworks responsible for taking the Wii U die shots said himself that the Wii U is a highly efficient, impressive bit of silicon. Not because of raw power, but simply because of how cleverly engineered everything is.
I'd like to contrast that with another console, and I know that this may well raise ire with certain gamers: the 360.
When the 360 came out, it was praised for having a top of the line GPU and tri-core CPU. In terms of hardware, it had huge amounts of "POWAH!" and looked like it had everything it needed to keep hardcore gamers happy. What happened next? Well...
Yeah, I'm sure we all remember that. But why did the 360 have such a catastrophic RROD failure rate? Because, to be blunt, despite having cutting edge parts full of "POWAH!", the original 360 was an incredibly badly designed piece of engineering. Parts were simply bolted together, without much thought spent on how much heat they would generate. Fans were then stuck in to deal with the excessive heat, without much thought given to how much noise they would generate. And the whole thing was so badly put together, that the console would damn near melt itself if given half a chance. No single reason had ever officially been given for the catastrophic rate of failure with the original 360s, and ideas range everywhere from the wrong kind of solder being used, to Microsoft cutting corners on the GPU that led to overheating.
By any definition other than pure power, the initial run of 360s was an engineering disaster. It made all the noise of a passenger jet taking off, it required a huge draw of electricity just to turn on, let alone play games, and it was as reliable as a Citroen C4 with a banged up engine. This should have been a defining moment for gaming: an example of what happens when you place more importance on 'power' and 'hardcore graphics' than on good old clever and reliable engineering.
And yet, we're still in that Jeremy Clarkson mindset. We never seem to care about how reliable a new console is, or how likely it is to implode on itself. We never seem to care about how much electricity it requires, or how efficiently the inner-parts works in harmony. It's all about Power! Power! Power! And to me, that seems rather sad. Sure, gaming will require leaps in technology in order to advance. But surely there are technology leaps other than how many hundreds of millions polygons a second can be rendered? What's the point in making a console with huge hardware potential if it soaks up electricity like a lightning conductor, and melts if you so much as point your hair dryer at it?
What exasperates me even more is those gamers who constantly go on about their dual-GPU custom build PCs. OK, yes, you've got a PC that can easily push Crysis 3 at maximum. But how are you keeping that thing cool? Oh, you've rigged it to the mains water supply. Well, I'd like to see what happens if that ever goes wrong. How much power does it draw? Wow. I'd love to see that electricity bill. How much of the hardware is actually taken up by OS and other software bloat? I see. Really efficient machine you've got there.
I kid, slightly. Not every gamer with a gaming PC is one of the PC master race, jacking off to their 8 core CPU. But still, I find it rather ironic that so many claim PCs are superior bits of gaming hardware, when your average PC can take anywhere from 1-2 minutes just to turn on, before any games have been so much as selected. PCs are powerful, and they're wonderfully customisable, but efficient they are not.
So, what's the conclusion here? I dunno. Part of me hopes that sometime soon we can stop judging hardware just on one small part of its specs sheet. Part of me hopes we can recognise bad engineering work when we see it, no matter how 'powerful' it may be. Part of me is just plain old tired of this graphics circle jerk that's going to bankrupt the industry. But that's a topic for another thread. Right now, I guess I'm just encouraging your guys to go out and appreciate the finer points of tech engineering. Anything which requires motherboards and chips is a lot of work, and we should always be mindful of all the areas in which such design can succeed, not just one narrow category.
Because believe it or not, Jeremy Clarkson is a bit of a dick. And I'd rather the industry as a whole doesn't try and emulate him.
It's been a mixed few weeks for us Nintendo fans. In fact, the past few months have been something of a smorgasbord regarding good news and bad. When the Wii U initially launched, it moved more units than either the PS3 or 360, and made Nintendo more money than the Wii's launch. By any definition, that sounds like a pretty good launch. Now we're being told that the console only shifted 55,000 units in January, which isn't all that rosy no matter how you look at it. We had a Nintendo Direct about three weeks ago revealing a veritable host of upcoming games for the console, with the promise that more are on the way. And yet just last week, Rayman Legends got kicked all the way to September, and one of the Wii U's most intriguing exclusives is now exclusive no longer.
For every bit of good news, there's been something to dampen proceedings somewhat, and it's easy to ask just what Nintendo's gameplan with the console is. So far this year, the console hasn't had a huge amount of software, and things aren't looking to get much better until March, when Monster Hunter 3: Ultimate, NFS: Most Wanted U and Lego City finally end the dry spell. When you compare that to the slew of titles already made available this year for PS3 and 360, it's easy to feel like Nintendo hasn't so much dropped the ball as purposefully kicked it down a well.
But perhaps we're looking at things from the wrong perspective. If there's one thing Nintendo is known for, it's banking on financial strategies that aren't always obvious from the outset. The DS and Wii are testament to that.
Here's the thing. The 360 and PS3 are currently on their last hurrah. Their successors are all but guaranteed to be announced this year, and with them the 8th generation of consoles will get into full swing. So when we see the glut of titles releasing for PS360 this year, we're seeing developers getting their final games out for consoles that are soon to be replaced.
Now, while we know very little about PS4 and Nextbox outside of rumours, there is a common consensus that they're both going to be released towards the end of this year, with the PS4 at least expected to be announced imminently. With the release of both, Microsoft and Sony are going to be changing their strategies, and focusing on getting their new machines established. But here's where it gets interesting. Because from what Nintendo have been telling us in their interviews and Direct videos, they themselves have got quite a few titles penned in for release towards the end of this year.
What does that have to do with anything? It's simple. I think Nintendo may well have been rather crafty. When the PS4 and Nextbox launch, they're both going to be very expensive consoles, with launch titles of questionable quality. The 360 launched with the likes of Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo and Quake 4 amongst others. None of those exactly set the world on fire. In fact, it took a while for the 360 to start getting real must-have titles in its library, first enduring the likes of Bullet Witch. The PS3 was even worse. It launched with titles like Genji, Sonic '06 and Ridge Racer 7. There were decent titles mixed in there as well, but again, nothing deemed a killer-app. Generally though, we just accept that as the way of things. Console launch games are always somewhat dodgy, and you pick the console up on the promise of future, better titles.
Anyone remember this? Anyone at all?
When the PS4 and Nextbox launch, there's bound to be a lot of crap mixed in with whatever good launch games they have. And here is where Nintendo may have positioned themselves rather advantageously. Because the period when the other 8th-gen machines are rumoured to come out is also the period where they're likely to be bringing some of their heavy hitters to the market. They've already confirmed Wind Waker HD for the end of this year, and they're heavily hinting that we're likely to see new Smash Bros and 3D Mario before the year is out, as well as the SMT/Fire Emblem crossover game. If they time these releases to coincide with the release of Sony and Microsoft's machines, that will give them one hell of a hand. Not only will they already, at that point, have a back-catalogue of games like Pikmin 3, MH3 and Wonderful 101, but they'll be releasing four of their heaviest-hitting titles to entice consumers with.
You know this is going to drive gamers batshit.
What will Sony and Microsoft have to offer on launch that can match new Mario and Smash Bros? I highly doubt there'll be a Naughty Dog game from Sony, as they're already committed to The Last Of Us. Santa Monica is similarly committed to GOW: Ascension. Halo got dished up just last year by 343 on 360, so it's highly unlikely they'll already have the next instalment ready to go for launch this year. Epic have got their latest Gears Of War down for this year. All the big guns for Sony and Microsoft already seem to have prior engagements with the PS3 and 360, so it's doubtful we're going to see next-gen versions of well known exclusives to help generate enthusiasm at launch. They're going to be relying on the usual round of somewhat questionable launch titles that they have done for generations prior, and that gives Nintendo a unique opportunity to steal some of the thunder.
To me, this sounds especially plausible when you look at what happened with the 3DS. Similarly to the Wii U, the 3DS got about a year's headstart on it's more technologically advanced competition. It's library was similarly bare at launch. But then, just as Sony was getting ready to release the Vita, Nintendo started bringing out the games like Super Mario 3D Land, Kid Icarus, Mario Kart 7, and getting third party titles out like Resident Evil- Revelations. All of a sudden, it had a rather attractive looking library compared to the Vita's one-two hit of Uncharted and Gravity Daze. The 3DS started taking off properly, and the Vita ended up stumbling at the starting line.
Of course, it wasn't just the games. The fact that the 3DS had been given a hefty price cut no doubt helped things along. But still, the fact remains that Nintendo managed to get some of their best games for the system, games that people had been waiting to get their hands on for over half a year or more, at the same time that Sony were just trying to get their new handheld off the ground. And to many, many consumers, the 3DS all of a sudden looked like a much more attractive option.
Perhaps it was just fortuitous timing. But even if so, I highly doubt Nintendo weren't writing down notes and seeing just what caused the 3DS to start taking off. And the strategy with the Wii U seems to me far too similar to be pure coincidence. If they weren't worried about the next-gen consoles from Microsoft and Sony, I think they'd have spaced their releases far more evenly throughout the year. As it is, we're apparently going to be getting a lot of high profile releases at right about the time the competition will be wanting gamers to look at their new offerings. Once again, that's either chance timing by Nintendo, or they know damn well the best way to steal the thunder is to bring out your heavies right when your competition can't compete with them.
After all, it's worth remembering that the period when Sony was launching the PS3 was also the period Microsoft was finally getting some exclusives worth getting excited about. Namely, Gears Of War. And that hurt Sony a lot. Timing your exclusives right is one of the best ways to mess up a competitor's launch, and get all eyes on you instead. All three know this, and Nintendo is thus far the only one placed to be able to pull that off.
I could very well be wrong. The videogame industry is a horrible, writhing mess of incoherent business decisions and facepalm worthy economics, so it may well be that Nintendo legitimately didn't mean for the start of 2013 to be a drought for the Wii U. I'm certain they were at least counting on Legends to carry February for them, a notion Ubisoft has made sure to shatter. But looking at the way Wii U titles are weighted right now, and the way the industry seems to be pushing its momentum for the year's end, I'd be very surprised if they're not trying the 3DS approach again, and taking a long-game approach in competing with the PS4/Nextbox, as opposed to actively trying to compete with the PS3 and 360 now.
This isn't meant as some kind of Ooh-Rah Nintendo blog or anything, though I will admit I do prefer them out of the Big Three. Instead, this is meant as an analysis on the sort of methods and intrigue that make up corporate videogame behaviour. All three companies are in competition with each other, and it can be very interesting to sit down and try and work out the various strategies they're using to try and get the edge. We've already seen with Nintendo, with several successive consoles, that they're either the luckiest sons of bitches working in the industry, or they've got the sort of killer instinct that could shame a great white shark. Going up against the Vita, and with the advent of smartphones and tablets, no-one expected the 3DS to succeed. Instead, it's going from strength to strength, with 2013 looking to be its best year yet, with the Vita still struggling to get off the ground, and smartphones having seemingly little effect at all. With the Wii U, expectations are similarly low, and I wonder if Nintendo aren't simply hanging back in order to give themselves more running space when the competition reveals their hand.
Who knows? That's the joy of speculation in this industry. As it goes though, I think the old adage still holds true. No matter how things look, never count Nintendo out. They'll always end up surprising you.
So, with the Wii U having been out for a few months now, people are getting to grips with the new controller Nintendo has thrown their way. I'm sure most readers are familiar with the Wii U gamepad, so all that needs saying is that it's a regular controller with a tablet-esque screen plonked in the middle. By all accounts, some games use it well, some use it atrociously, and some barely use it at all.
I'm still saving up for a Wii U myself (the joys of being a minimum wage monkey), but my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Nintendo's latest is not what I want to talk about. For this blog, I want to write about the way gamers in general (but particularly that oft-cited 'hardcore' demographic) seem to approach controllers. It's one of those things where an awful lot is said, and yet I don't seem to see many people thinking about it.
Let me explain: when the Wii came out, a large number of 'hardcore' gamers scoffed at the Wiimote, and its non-traditional input method. It's a mindset which is still as prevalent, if not even moreso today. The Wiimote, and motion controls in general, are laughed off by many as inaccurate, inconvenient waggle-fest disasters. Go on any Wii topic or article, and such points are inevitably brought up. It's something also affecting discussion of the Wii U. For a large number of people, the very idea that the Wii U is a controller which has an integrated touchscreen is seemingly insulting. Gamers are already labelling it a 'gimmick', a piece of motion control trash, and other such charming names. In both the case of the Wii and the Wii U (though this probably applies to any console which has used a non-standard method of input), the common thought seems to be that regular controllers are perfect as they are, and Nintendo are actively ruining a good design by changing the format as they are.
Touched by God...
Now, my question to these people is: when did we start assuming that controllers as they are now are the perfect form of gaming input? A design that can't be bettered?
Think about it. When was the last time you played a real-time strategy game on a console? Even more importantly, when was the last time you played a console real-time strategy game that wasn't atrocious? And lastly, when was the last time you played a good console RTS game that wasn't gimped in some manner or other to make it playable?
What does that have to do with anything? Well, the fact is that controllers, rather than being a perfect form of input, have actually kept entire genres from making inroads onto consoles. The RTS genre has remained pretty much exclusive to PCs simply because regular controllers are so atrocious at the kind of large scale management required. Console MMOs have only ever been a niche genre, compared to the blockbuster PC MMOs like World Of Warcraft and Guild Wars, again because of the fact that controllers are utterly restrictive, whereas Mouse and keyboards are not.
Hell, look at the first-person shooter genre. It's arguably the genre that currently defines console gaming, with the likes of Call Of Duty and Halo. And yet, in terms of gameplay mechanics, FPS games have long been severely handicapped on consoles compared to PCs, simply because of how rubbish controllers are as a method of aiming. It's obvious, really: when playing with a mouse, the movements you make directly translate into aiming movements made on screen. With a controller, you're given a small stick stuck in a circular ring, with which to make all your aiming movements. Which means that all your aiming has to be done via a weird combination of circular thumb movements and short straight-line jabs. In terms of efficiency, it's almost no different to an Etch-A-Sketch.
Tango down! I repeat, Tango down!
The fact that console FPS games are so heavily reliant on behind-the-scenes mechanics such as aim assist shows just how many compromises have to be made by developers in order to make use of controllers as a method of input.
Or just think about anytime a game requires you to put in a profile name or a character name? How much fun is it to use a D-pad to select one letter at a time from an onscreen alphabet? How is it that in the 21st Century, after all the revolutions in game and software design, games are still requiring us to type in letters one at a time, like an arthritic geriatric sat at a typewriter? It's so primitive, it's absurd. I can type in letters more quickly on my phone than I can on a game console. That's something that needs to be addressed. If things stay as they are, soon my toaster and kettle will have better text input than my game consoles.
So why is it that whenever a company decides to try and mix things up regarding controller design, gamers collectively flip their shit? People start acting as if standard controller design is this holy thing which cannot be messed with, even while that same controller design is keeping entire genres from reaching consoles.
The truth of the matter is that, as they are, controllers are well suited, with certain gameplay tweaks, for a select few genres of gameplay. And as it happens, those select few genres happen to be the ones which publishers have been happy to push out non-stop for the past few years. Because the current console gen has been defined by action games, third-person shooters and FPS games (albeit, with the gameplay tweaks mentioned above), many gamers have fallen into the assumption that as standard controllers work well for those genres, they work well for everything, as that's all there seemingly is.
In my opinion, however, controller design has still got a long way to go. For the most part, controllers are restrictive, inaccurate, and downright confusing. Which is why, for all its faults, I still remain a fan of the Wii. Sure, not many developers other than Nintendo ever managed to use the Wiimote well, but when the Big N got motion controls right, it frankly embarrassed regular controls. My go to example is the Metroid Prime Trilogy. Here we had a set of three console FPS games which finally, without compromise or effort, controlled and aimed as smoothly as any PC shooter. You aim with the Wiimote, the crosshair follows exactly. No Etch-A-Sketch thumb movements, no trying to translate half a centimetre's thumb twitching into a headshot or a kneecap.This was it. This was the big step that console shooters had been waiting for for years. This was the evolution which should have allowed console games to have all the accuracy and precision of their PC brethren... and we shot it down. We said that it was inferior, and was nothing more than a gimmick.
Similarly, the Wii U gamepad promises all sorts of potential to any developer with a creative spark. Already we've seen sparks of originality, such as Zombi U's multiplayer mode. For those unfamiliar, let me explain: one player uses a Wiimote to control a human in FPS mode, shooting zombies and capturing flags. The other player has the Gamepad. Their objective is also to capture flags. But, rather deliciously, rather than also play in shooter mode, they get a top-down view of the entire map on their Gamepad screen. Not only that, they're in control of the zombie hordes. They can direct the zombies, call in zombie reinforcements, level up their zombies into new horrible beasties, and generally try and position their shambling subordinates to try and capture flags for themselves.
You know what this is? It's an attempt to translate RTS gameplay directly onto a console. This is something that simply could not exist without the new form of input the touchscreen offers. Quite honestly, you could not do this with a regular controller. This is something which we, as gamers, should be applauding. These new controller inputs are offering us gameplay potential that we've never had before. If touchscreen controllers take off, we could very well see full-blown RTS games start coming out for consoles. Good RTS games, not the embarrassing shite we've had to endure so far. Blizzard have already said they're interested in seeing what the Gamepad could do with something like Starcraft II.
I know this blog could be interpreted as one giant "LEAVE NINTENDO ALONE!" but that's not my intention. My intention here is to challenge the assumption that comes up whenever discussion about new controllers comes up, a discussion that Nintendo always seems to find itself in the heart of. We need controllers to keep evolving in design if we want console gaming to keep expanding. Right now, there is still a veritable Santa's Sack of limitations and restrictions with current controller design, and we should be encouraging companies to try and overcome those limitations. Nintendo seemingly has the potential to with the Gamepad. Jesus, even the Kinect at least has the potential to do awesome things, if the hacks for it shown on Youtube are anything to go by. So let's stop assuming that anytime a company shows a new type of controller, they're spitting on the 'holy input design' set down by others.
So yeah... the next time you see someone complain about how 'such and such' a gimmicky controller sucks compared to the Dualshock or the 360 Controller, kindly ask when the last time they played Starcraft on a console was. And if, by some chance, they reply with the N64, kindly ask them to start acting their age.