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Comment MS's gaming strategy has been weird for years (Score 5, Interesting) 404

I've not understood MS's strategy around gaming for years now. Don't get me wrong, I owned an original Xbox and liked it, I own a 360 now and like it a lot - but I've never understood why MS would choose to move into the console market.

I'd have thought that there's much more of an incentive for them to make Windows work as a gaming platform. After all, what's one of the biggest reasons that people shy away from switching OSes? The games. Running modern commercial games consistently and in a relatively hassle-free manner is - and has for quite a long time - been one of the things you can do on Windows that you just can't do on other OSes.

So they launch the original Xbox which is basically - at launch at least - the console that runs games you'd otherwise have expected to be focussed on the PC (Halo and Knights of the Old Republic were both from genres that the PC utterly dominated at the time). Then the 360 comes along and - for quite a long time - if the only reason you stick with Windows is gaming... then why not just buy a 360?

And then as we get to the late-cycle point where PC gaming really starts to outstrip what the consoles can do (even on a bargain-bucket PC), they go and foul it all up with Windows 8.

It's like MS is determined to take one of its biggest advantages in the OS market and hammer it into oblivion.

They make periodic efforts to "get serious" about the PC as a gaming platform, but these tend to be inconsistent, badly thought through and horribly unsuccessful. Games for Windows Live, anybody? With Valve looking at the PC gaming market in a distinctly predatory manner, MS should be seriously worried.

And while it's not such a major matter, they've also made some really odd choices with their internally developed games. First they shut down the Flight Simulator series - a brand with immense loyalty from its enthusiast following - abandoning the market to competitors. Then they try to come back with Flight - a free-to-play-pay-to-actually-do-anything monstrosity that discards the series's historic strengths.

Selling off their entertainment division? At the point where they're finally making a profit from console gaming? It would fit...

Comment The best bit of this... (Score 4, Insightful) 87

This is a good thing. By all accounts, the game is awful. However, it is also squarely the kind of game that wouldn't have been given a 15 rating under the old system (and hence would have been denied release). So it's an indication that the new 18 rating is an actual 18 rating, rather than an excuse to just mark games that would previously have been 15s even more harshly, while still keeping many games out of the country.

Comment Re:wrong problem (Score 1) 344

Actually, I think while there could be a wide range of factors behind the problems, there are three big ones:

1) The rise in development costs. Watch the credits for a game released in the last year or two. Compare them with the credits for a PS2 era game. Then with an even older game. There are a lot more names there these days. If you want to look at all competitive in the mainstream commercial market, you have to invest a hell of a lot in development. I remember when Wing Commander 3 was launched, people cooed over its $4 million budget (a lot of which had gone on paying its acting cast). £4 million doesn't buy you much in games development terms today.

2) Prices have fallen in real terms. When my parents moved house a couple of years ago, I cleared out a load of my old stuff from their attic, including a load of 90s video games - many of which still had their price tags on. Games like X-Wing and Gunship 2000 - for the PC, not consoles (so no licence fee to be factored into the price) - were sold for 45GBP. You wouldn't pay that for a PC game even in a high street store these days. On Steam, you very rarely pay beyond 30GBP even for a brand new title. Factor in inflation and that's a huge real-terms price cut for the average game.

Now, those two themselves wouldn't be fatal - they were true to an extent during the PS2 era. But there's a third aggravating factor now:

3) The market isn't growing at the speed it once was. From the launch of the original Playstation through to around 2008 or so, the gamer demographic went through a massive expansion, breaking comprehensively out of the kids-and-nerds niche (and expanding within that niche as well). That expansion hasn't quite stopped now, but it has slowed considerably. For a moment it looked as though the original Wii might pressage a further quantum shift in the size of the gaming demographic, but instead the tide rolled back a bit - many of the non-gamers who bought a Wii reverted to being non-gamers after a couple of weeks.

This slowing in the rate of expansion is probably due to the economy to an extent, but also due to the fact that the low hanging fruit - the people with the capacity to enjoy gaming - has already been largely picked.

Having development costs soaring, prices at the till falling and the market's growth slowing is a recipie for disaster.

Comment About more than just Sony (Score 3, Insightful) 344

There's a lot of Sony-hate swirling around the comments on this story. Believe me, I can understand that. This isn't exactly the most pro-consumer technology ever to have been patented (though as yet, Sony haven't said they intend to actually use the technology).

However, I actually see this as symtomatic of a wider problem for the video games industry; very few people are making money from it. Sony makes some pretty thumping losses these days; their gaming division is one of the better performing parts of the company, but it's still a long way from where it was in the last console generation. Nintendo's making some pretty big losses; it had to overturn a long-held hardware-at-a-profit business model to get any kind of installed base for the 3DS, has had to continue to sell at a loss on the Wii-U and faces an uncertain future of the Wii-U doesn't get traction. MS's situation isn't quite so bad, but its stock price has been flat for a decade and if it had the same currency issues that its Japanese competitors face, then its situation might be just as bad as theirs.

The situation's hardly any better in the land of games development. Big developers like EA struggle to turn a profit despite trying every trick they can think of (day-one DLC, online passes, season passes etc). Their few guaranteed cash-cows like the annualised sports series and modern military shooters are basically the only reason that the more interesting games they put out can continue to appear. Mid-sized shops like THQ which don't have those cash cows are in very unpleasant places indeed. A couple of companies like Zynga and Rovio manage to get-rich-quick on the basis of low-budget titles that strike it lucky with the zeitgeist, but they increasingly look like one-hit wonders. And for every indie studio that produces a hit, there are 99 that produce forgettable garbage before vanishing into obscurity. It's even worse over in Japan, where all but a few of their developers have given up on true global competition, focussing instead on the same domestic kids-and-otaku market that most anime is produced for. Some people are clutching at free-to-play/pay-to-win as a potential solution, but that bubble's already bursting.

And retail? Here in the UK, our biggest specialised retailer (Game) went into administration during 2012. Sure, it got rescued, but it doesn't seem to be doing particularly well since then either. Its most direct competitor (HMV) looks like it won't survive the next few months.

Make no mistake, stuff like this latest Sony patent isn't thought up by plutocrats sipping champagne as they lounge on top of a Scrooge McDuck style lake of gold. These are desperate moves to stay afloat in what's become, over the last 3 years or so, a very unfriendly industry.

People moan about the price of games, but these are, in real terms, substantially lower than they were a couple of decades ago, when development costs were a fraction of what they are today. What I'd actually welcome is a company which is prepared to say: "We won't do any of this evil stuff like anti-resale measures or day-one DLC - but for those games with high development costs, we will accordingly charge a higher price than you've gotten used to paying". The prices of Wii-U games are noticably higher than those for the older platforms - but unfortunately, most of them are very thin pickings compared to other games, or are already available on other platforms with a much lower price.

Comment Re:Summary (Score 1) 227

They might have been ok if they'd started out actually trying to develop the game they ended up releasing. If I remember correctly, KOA:R broke over 1 million sales worldwide - that's the level that a "big budget" release normally requires to break even (though some of the mega-AAA releases now are starting to go higher). However, because they'd originally tried to make it an MMO, they ended up sinking a lot of time, effort and money into material that didn't get released.

Indeed, a quick glance at google shows that the game would have needed 3 million sales to break even. If you're not one of the big names sports series or modern military shooters, your chances of breaking over 3 million are not good. To give some context here - Dark Souls, last time I checked, managed around 2 million sales (possibly a bit more with Steam sales of the PC version added in, but probably still shy of 3 million). It's regarded as a massive, storming success by its publisher. That's a game of somewhat similar scope and genre to KOA:R (though personally, I think Dark Souls is the better game).

I don't think 38 Studios were killed by the game they released, I think they were killed by the money they wasted elsewhere.

Comment Re:Sweet! (Score 1) 280

Yes, I remember that and it was pretty good. Kind of slipped through the cracks for a lot of people because it appeared for consoles that were just about to be retired and the Xbox version wasn't on the initial back-compatibility list for the 360 (which was a staggering omission).

Comment Re:SimCity? Command and Conquer? (Score 2) 280

Yes, that was deeply odd in Starcraft (and is one of the reasons why I never warmed to the game). See, I can understand why you might not need to be able to select many units in some RTSes - the likes of Mech Commander or Dawn of War 2, where the emphasis is on making best use of a small number of units. In fact, if you're playing Dawn of War 2 on anything above Easy difficulty and you find yourself drag-clicking multiple units, you're doing something wrong.

But Starcraft is a "big army" game, particularly if you're playing as Zerg. Now, I know that at the top-tier competitive level, players are using insane amounts of micromanagement. But for your average player working through the singleplayer campaign, having to break armies up into 12 unit parcels in order to move them just felt odd and unnatural.

Comment Re:Dragon Age (Score 1) 280

Quite possibly a side effect of the rushed development. As in, they might have intended to add a load of plot and dialogue about finding that skeleton and taking it to the NPC and might have put the basic triggers for the quest in place, but never actually had the time to put the flesh on the bones (no pun intended).

Right back to their earliest days, there have been odd little signposts here and there in Bioware games where you can see where they'd planned at one point to add more content. In most Bioware games, when you come across these, you treat it as a fun kind of Easter Egg, speculate briefly about what might have been intended to go there and move on.

But yes, in DA2, it feels like half the game is missing. Only KOTOR2 (which wasn't Bioware anyway) comes even close to that.

Comment Re:SimCity? Command and Conquer? (Score 1) 280

It's true for the Amiga version as well. And for the (little remembered) Genesis version. The game's whole UI and menu-bar system is designed around single unit control.

The other odd thing about Dune 2, compared to more modern RTSes, is that the fog of war doesn't get re-covered after being explored once. This was also true for C&C - the modern idea of RTS fog of war didn't get introduced until Warcraft 2, although the much earlier proto-RTS Battletech 2 did something similar, where the player could see all terrain, but could only see enemy units that were in line of sight or sensor range of one of his own.

In C&C multiplayer, of course, dashing a fast unit into the enemy's base early on so that you could see what he was building for the rest of the game was an essential strategy - as was working out which areas around your own base your opponent couldn't see yet. Alternatively, as all of my C&C1 multiplayer was done via LAN or serial cable, you could substitute a sneaky glance over your shoulder at your opponent's screen.

Comment Re:SimCity? Command and Conquer? (Score 1) 280

Except as I said before, there's no drag-clicking (or any other form of multiple unit selection). So if you want to send a large group of units across the map, you have to tell each one to move individually. Co-ordinated attacks in the later missions become all but impossible. The AI labours under no such restriction. Dune 2 was a stepping stone towards the modern RTS, C&C was the first true modern RTS.

It's amazing how many people swear blind that Dune 2 had drag-clicking - I suspect most of them are basing their memories on the later remake, Dune 2000, which updated Dune 2 onto the C&C interface (and added multiplayer). But if you look out the original, you'll find the truth - no multiple unit selection and no multiplayer.

Comment Re:SimCity? Command and Conquer? (Score 1) 280

Actually, disagree a bit on C&C. The original is a hugely important game. In many ways, it's more the "true" father of the modern RTS than Dune 2. While Dune 2 gets the credit in most accounts, what people forget is that it lacked two absolutely key, defining features of every RTS made since Command & Conquer - drag-click unit selection and multiplayer. Without drag-click selection, Dune 2 became a nightmare to play once your army grew in size beyond a dozen or so units.

However, despite its importance, I don't think C&C has aged all that well. Its left-click interface feels clumsy, unit design and balance are crude and the resource gathering mechanics are poor. It's an interesting historical artifact, but if you want to play an old-school RTS, then Starcraft and Total Annihilation are both better propositions.

Also worth bearing in mind that Westwood weren't exactly innocent victims in the C&C story. They did just as much as EA, if not more, to drive the franchise into the ground. C&C was revolutionary, Red Alert was fun but felt like treading water, while C&C2 and Red Alert 2 were both dreadful games. Their technology and game mechanics were both utterly obsolete by the time they launched, while the production values of the famous cutscenes had actually fallen since the first generation titles.

Also worth remembering that the (superb) C&C3 was an EA game. C&C4 may have been a train-wreck, but they really managed to do a very successful updating of the franchise with 3.

Comment Re:Sweet! (Score 1) 280

My big problem with the way they've taken Star Wars from the moment the prequels started to come out is that it stopped being a franchise about a neat dark-ish sci-fi fantasy world and became a story about magical space wizards.

Some of the best Star Wars games ever made (the X-Wing and TIE Fighter games and the original Dark Forces) didn't feature a single lightsabre. Returning to those roots feels like a step in the right direction.

Comment Re:Dragon Age (Score 1) 280

Actually, I'm vaguely optimistic for Dragon Age 3. Some of the early preview stuff and developer interviews make me suspect that they've learned some hard lessons from their last couple of games.

Dragon Age 2 was undeniably a mistake. There was actually some interesting stuff in there (the story had a lot of potential), but it lacked a clear direction guiding the gameplay mechanics and it blatantly needed another 6 months at least of development time to get some additional content (particularly environments) in there.

Then there was Mass Effect 3 - some brilliant moments, but a distinctly underwhelming whole, due to a combination of bad writing at the moments where it really matters and shooter mechanics that aren't robust enough to survive the weight that's placed upon them.

I think and hope that EA realise that they're very close to killing any power left in the Bioware brand. 1 bad game can (and does) happen to any company. 2 bad games in a row starts to look like a trend and makes people nervous. 3 bad games in a row would be fatal. Early indications are that they know they've got to get this one right.

Fingers crossed.

Comment Re:Dragon Age (Score 1) 280

I did a big journal post on my favorite (and least favorite) games of 2012 here. Obviously, not all of the games I liked will be everybody's cup of tea, but there were a couple of absolute stand-out titles, such as Borderlands 2, Farcry 3 and XCom.

Also some crushing disappointments, of course, particularly Mass Effect 3, but that's true of any year.

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