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8:57 AM on 10.30.2008

The Iron Law (read: Guideline) of Release Dates

After all the news recently, Australia doesn’t seem such a bad place to live in. Yes they have an issue with games classification, but that will be rectified eventually. But the game shop magnets in Australia seem to have their own ideas on how to behave…
Most of us will know about Spore. There was an EB Games in Australia that sold a copy because of the mistake made by some young douche-bag that didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to sell it yet. The Receipt got faxed (those still exist apparently) to EB headquarters and from that point on they were allowed to sell it. Pretty weird considering all the issues with release dates recently. Most games are getting pushed back a certain amount of time to smooth over all the bugs (or for miscellaneous) maybe breaking street-date is part of some elaborate ‘change of pace’ strategy.
But now Fable II has had a bit of a controversial thing. This time around it wasn’t EB Games that had broken the release date, exhibit B is K-Mart. They were selling Fable II before it was officially released. Maybe it was a conspiracy kind of thing or maybe K-Mart took EB Games as an example. Whatever the cause, in Australia gamers could go pick Fable II before everyone else.
But Microsoft apparently Really did not appreciate it. In other words: They Were Not Amused. As a fine for putting out Fable II too early, they have too pay $10.000 Aus. This of course isn’t that much for such a big chain, but what’s more important: K-Mart will be forbidden to sell Gears of War 2 until two weeks after release. Microsoft Game Studios apparently doesn’t believe what K-Mart put as a ‘error in judgement’. This hasn’t been reported by a reliable source, it was a over the counter conversation. So it remains to be seen if it’s true.

But it does raise an interesting question. Should/ are the shops that break street-date be(ing) punished? It can be argued that the Spore leak affected sales, as it was available via download before it was officially released, but how strict are these release dates really? As something that is universally accepted, it seems to be ignored again and again. Maybe people should be punished for this kind of thing.
It does almost seem like it can be used as a marketing tool. After all, look at Spore. All EB Games were conveniently stocked the moment that the Spore street-date was broken. Other shops were allowed to sell it from that point on, however they didn’t have it in stock. Mostly because they were expecting to sell it 3 days later.
On the one hand, street-dates are used to ensure the entire release region has stock and seeing fair treatment all around. So it does make sense to punish those that break street-date. K-Mart might get punished, but EB Games seems have gotten away without as much as a speck of dust on their black, black heart.
On the other hand, we as gamers couldn’t care less. We just want the games, if we can get them sooner that’s a good thing right? It’s just that all the corporations will end up unhappy. This eventually might cause friction and affect us. If this will happen is all talk for the future, but it is a bit worrying.   read

10:26 AM on 10.26.2008

The good the bad and the patches….Oh, the patches…

Games are a dynamic being, they have been since they’ve been able to have access to the internet. But quite recently, it’s gotten ridiculous. Especially in ways of the patching culture. It used to be, that a good game was simply well thought out, well designed and executed. Bad games on the other hand, were pits of despair meant for the careless wanderers. I get why this has changed. It all has to do with marketing (or maybe marketing). After all, it’s very important to hit a certain street date.

If you release your game just before a holiday, like now with the upcoming Christmas etc. you extend the shelf life for your game. But do we really want an escort service who promises to put on make-up at a later time? After all, we’re still paying full price for the service. Especially since we seem to in fact be ‘borrowing’ a license instead of actually buying a tangible object. Which is good for the analogy as slave trade is outlawed (for the most part).

The fact that it seems to be spreading to hardware is a bigger problem though. As we all know the Red Ring of Death / Three Red Lights incident has been a problem. Although I admire Microsoft for how they have handled it. It doesn’t take away that they dropped their Q&A testing to put their consoles on the street quick enough. Despite the great customer service they provided in solving it, the fact remains that Microsoft made a doo-doo.

In software land steps are being taking, thankfully. As all of us know, the [echo] ‘Gamers’ Bill of Rights’ [/echo] would help with it. If people would actually take it on, it would mean that we would get a finished game on the shelves. Not one where the first couple of hours are OK, but after that we get the feeling the game is trying to deny us the candy. Then there’s the Fable that we call Fable II (apparently the pub games were a foreboding). Yes, it’s a good game. But would we have the glitching problems as it stands if they play tested the game well enough? They’re now promising to sort out the problems with patches. When Peter Molyneux wholly declared the game to be finished some while ago. Of course you should take everything Molyneux says with a couple of Mountains of salt, but still.

Patching wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. If we got meaningful content. Again, I point to that which I have carved out in my soul: The Gamers’ Bill of Rights. At first it could be argued that removing glitches can be considered as ‘meaningful content’, which it is of course. But not if the game was finished on release. Best examples are of course MMO’s. Those are always a work in progress, but that is the nature of the genre. Other games should really be finished when they hit stores. Patches should be fixing content that actually could be missed with play-testing, as well as introducing new features/gimmicks, stories etc.

In a way the industry is realising that they can’t continue as they are doing. So they introduced episodic gaming. Although it does sometimes feel like you’re watching a soap opera, it gives developers just that little bit of more time. They can divide the content over a longer period of time, giving them more time to make sure the games are finished, but it also means you don’t get to play the entire game at once. Most notably of course the Starcraft II trilogy announcement. I’m not saying it will be bad thing. I just hope they provide value for value as well as don’t copy Valve. I’d like to play the Protoss campaign somewhere before I’m on the wrong side of the grass occupying six shelves.

All in all, there’s a lot wrong with the games industry as it stands. Not that surprising as it’s still a relatively young market. But as problems arise answers will be provided…eventually. Maybe the fact that they’re corporations brings the problems. But, the fact that we pour a good amount of our lives into their products does not warrant our demands. After all, the customer is not always king. Sometimes, they’re just snivelling little mud covered beggars. Not saying that accounts for everyone of course…
But this does still raise a question of irresponsible purchasing. Almost everything gets sold because all of us, to a certain extent, believe:.

1:55 PM on 10.24.2008

Monkey see, (M)MOnkey do...

I’d like to talk about a problem in the industry, that is also a benefit. As always the case, it’s just how you look at it.
I’m talking about the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ attitude that has been spreading like pneumonia. The current MMO generation has been going for a long while now. We all know about the behemoth that is called World of Warcraft (WoW) and everyone that has been keeping up with the news has seen the term WoW-killer more than once.

Firstly, I’d like to particularly mention a development that seems to go mostly ignored. I’ve noticed that almost all the sites and podcasts that deal in MMO’s have been making comparisons, mostly between WoW and the latest triple-A title addition Warhammer Online. But people seem to be forgetting something here. Both games are solid packages, WoW as a matter of course more streamlined with its history in the books. But I’m talking about a phenomenon that WoW introduced: The pre-paid game card. WoW was there at the right time, with the right media coverage and very importantly, the right subscription methods. There were a lot of people on the fence that were swayed because of a different payment method than the credit-card only system. Also kids that don’t have a credit-card (legitimately anyway) have had the opportunity to play it. Word of mouth started and gained momentum until we have the modern day wildfire that -proverbially- killed Smokey the Bear. This is one of the best developments in MMO gaming in the recent years, and a positive thing picked up by the aforementioned Monkey syndrome.

On to the topic of the day. It’s been mentioned in the news that WoW has ‘stolen’ features from WAR. Not really that strange of an idea. If it works, and if players like it, introduce it. This is something that a lot of games have used with great success. It also gives players a good game that keeps getting better. For instance EverQuest, which is still going strong.
But it also halts innovation. Instead of devising new ways of adding to the player experience, they just look at other games and copy what they did. Maybe just that little bit different, but still generally the same. That’s one of the reasons why we’re seeing all those similar MMO’s and people are starting to have the Genre-burnout en masse.
This has also been added by the fact that the promise of innovation doesn’t seem to deliver. The lore of games may vary, but the game mechanics are generally the same. Most of us will remember the promises made by Age of Conan, they didn’t deliver. This is a pitfall that most developers will wander into. They’re always full of promise and ideas when they are developing. But most studios seem to underestimate the workload that a MMO brings with it. Best example is seen in the Free-to-play MMO’s. This system for micro-transactions has taken over the west. It’s something that has been done in Korea for a long time now, and it’s finally made its way here. It’s a good system, but developers forget that free-to-play does not mean easy cash. These are almost all fairly basic MMO games that have been tagged as ‘Korean-style’. If you like that kind of thing, they’re not bad. But most of them feel incomplete. Until of course they copy what they didn’t already into their games. Most of the good ideas are actually stolen from the Multiple User Dungeons. As a former Medievia player, I know that a lot of the MUDs have innovative systems. Developers should start paying more mind to them. Maybe then the MMO genre can have a evolution, of sorts.

Maybe the problem is in the setting. Almost all the current large player based MMO’s are High Fantasy. A recent Daedalus Project survey depicted that the most players like High Fantasy. Although the survey is good, I would advise a certain degree of caution. These surveys are made with a MMO background in mind. This means that if no one has seen a good implementation of a genre, they might have objections against it. But developers are skiddish about making something that is not High Fantasy. Mostly, because a lot of MMO’s that are not High Fantasy have failed.

Nonetheless, there are very promising MMO’s in development. I’d like to draw attention to Project Powder (Open Beta), a snowboard MMO, free-to-play, reminiscent of the SSX series. As well as Otherland (in development), a Cyberpunk MMO based off the Tad Williams' novels. Lastly, the officially announced Star Wars: The Old Republic (pre-production). These seem very promising and have great potential, although they seem to be taking too much of a workload, I’m going to keep my eye on them hoping for innovation. Now that MMO’s are starting to branch into different territories, the possibilities as well as their development rate will keep increasing. But the Monkey Syndrome will most likely remain to be a boon and a problem.   read

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