Where have all the couch co-op games gone?

People love Rocket League and not just on The Seriousness podcast.

It seems like a great deal of the love people have for this cars-playing-soccer game lies in the offline, split screen multiplayer. This couch co-op, as it’s contemporarily known has harkens back to the origins of video games and even the video game experience. It seems like people want that choice in their games just as developers are foregoing the feature.

I'm fairly certain that @RocketLeague is the best thing that happened to my PS4 since I've owned it! Welcome back proper couch co-op gaming

— Helder Pinto (@HelderHP) July 13, 2015

Is this simply the game-playing audience wanting what it can’t have or has our push for greater graphical fidelity simply stripped the option for the majority of new games?

@RocketLeague some of the best couch co-op nostalgia we've experienced in a long time! pic.twitter.com/s5Ms8VkyNS

— Zach Fuentes (@_German_Mexican) July 8, 2015

People that played together, stayed together

Local multiplayer, cooperative multiplayer, offline multiplayer or just plain couch co-op holds a place as one of the oldest in video game features. Though debate still rages over which video game came first, most of the earliest contenders had a local multiplayer component, from Alan Turing’s theoretical computer chess program to Pong.

The evolution of tennis.

The evolution of tennis.

Despite which game ran first out of the gate, Pong set the stage for the size and breadth of the modern video game industry. Its 1972 arcade cabinet and 1975 home console marked the very first mainstream success of video games and proved the financial viability of the medium.

People can debate on the exact reasons for its success, but the welcoming existence of multiplayer has to be one of the foremost considerations.

Of course, that trend waxed and waned as gaming matured and single player experiences like Frogger and Donkey Kong eventually evolved. However the presence of cooperative play existed right along side it in such games like the Mario Bros. arcade cabinet.

 

The rest of that story is well known. With Nintendo leading the charge, even making the first console with four controller ports, local cooperative games became something of a regular feature up to the last generation of games.

 

2008 stands at the height of the feature, according to a Wikipedia list. Over 75 games were made that included local cooperative and competitive play. It was the year of Army of Two, Castle Crashers, Gears of War 2, Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Mario Kart Wii.

As you would expect, the trend turned towards online multiplayer and the number of games that offered a local option began shrinking.

 

Trends get cooperatively current

One of the most interesting aspects about the current generation of offline multiplayer games is the sheer diversity they espouse. Tiny experiences, party packs, medium games and triple A experiences.

Towerfall, Lego Games, Jackbox, Diablo 3 and more have given local players with friends nearby a reason to make more room on the couch and spend money on extra controllers.

Sibling rivalry entered the digital age...

Sibling rivalry entered the digital age...

Harkening back to past trends, Nintendo seems to currently lead the current swatch of local multiplayer games. The recent Super Mario Games, Smash Bros., Mario Kart and more hold the standard high (though the feature is interestingly limited in the big N’s newest franchise, Splatoon).

In general, however, larger triple A titles have mostly given up on providing the feature. One of the most recent examples, and most telling of the trend, came from 343 Industries when they said at E3 that Halo 5 would not ship with split screen multiplayer. In its 14 years as a franchise, every shooter-based Halo game has included couch co-op, until now.

“Well, we do listen to gamers,” General Manager of Games Publishing Shannon Loftis. told Engadget. “The priority feature for the release of Halo 5 was 60FPS, so that’s what the team has been focused on delivering. But, you know, never say never. The glorious thing about Halo and about Xbox is that we can deliver continuous improvements to any experience. But, no announcements being made here.”

 

So, what's the hold up?

It remains undefined what has caused the shift. Research or developer commentary is difficult to find that would specify the reasons have slowed down drastically in making local coop games.

Most of the conversation around it has happened in message boards and forums.  That discussion and other sources have identified at least three possibilities which might make up most of the reason for the demise in local multiplayer.

The first resides in straightforward system architecture. Split screen experiences double the needed resources from a system. Developers can hedge those features by lowering frame rates, lessening texture performance, etc. It would require less to have local multiplayer using the same screen like New Super Mario Bros., but a whole game would have to be built around the experience.

A former Rare developer interview echoes this hypothesis for the slow demise of local co-op comes from 

“[S]plit screen games have a different set of problems,” Former Rare developer Steve Ellis said, comparing it with online gaming. “If everyone is sharing the same device, that device’s resources - CPU, memory, screen space - need to be divided amongst the players. Since no player has the full resources of the device, sacrifices must be made. With a four-way split you only have a quarter of the resources per player, so the frame rate might be lower, the game world or textures might have less detail, the UI might need to be less complex to fit into a smaller space.”

343 Industries’ commitment to 60 frames per second for Halo 5 certainly fits in this category.

 

The second possible cause behind the lack of current couch co-op could conceivably be found in simple societal trends. Many, many, many responses on the various boards detailed how much easier online multiplayer made things, the convenience it brought to finding people with which to play and the hassle of having to buy extra controllers/find friends/have guests.

In short it could merely be the result of how these times they are a changin’.









 

The third possibility rests in simple capitalism. Instead of creating and selling one copy of a game wherein four people could join up and play, publishers could require these single player games and sell up to four copies of a game.

Another @RocketLeague enthusiast! (After the "final nail in the couch co-op coffin" of @Halo5_ ) @DeejayKnight https://t.co/sbkeyn69by

— Aleshia Hayes (@AleshiaProf) July 29, 2015

 

People keep having opinions

The success of Rocket League has again been telling in this conversation. Certainly the game has online multiplayer, but the inclusion of local play has received a whole lot of attention as well.

It struck a nerve that has risen to the surface over the past few years. Many journalism outlets have published opinion piece after opinion piece.

Are these just the opinions of journalists that probably skew in a little older demographic than studios consider while making games?

Is this just nostalgia? They all read like some version of this:

“When you get together to play games with friends, the space you’re in becomes a ritual space, like the stage at a concert or the altar at a wedding,” Bennett Foddy wrote in an opinion piece on Polygon. Foddy created QWOP and the recent local co-op game Sportsfriends. “It’s a space where you can trash-talk your friends or howl in defeat, where you can trick people, where you can laugh at their expense and dance on their grave.”

Soccer savior?

Soccer savior?

His experience seems to echo the many that have flocked to the local offerings of Rocket League, even though this opinion referred to TowerFall.

“As a designer, I’m looking to recreate the sense of occasion and ritual and importance that I have felt playing local multiplayer games,” Foddy wrote. “As a player, I’m always looking for games that are built for that from the ground up.”


By this point, we'll probably never experience another large rise in couch co-op. The Internet of Things has expanded our ability to house online connectivity while business practices have gotten as stingy as possible. Plus, that nostalgia isn't shared by the upcoming generation who have grown up with more online multiplayer than offline. 

Still, the success of Rocket League ensures that the feature is and will remain far from dead.

Where does Nintendo go without Iwata?

By Peter Allen Clark

 

With President Satoru Iwata’s unfortunate passing July 12, a tumultuous era for Nintendo goes as well. Now, the questions of what the future will bring loom even larger.

 

Leaving with a legacy

It’s difficult to understate the impact of Iwata’s 2002 ascension to the presidency of Nintendo.

His rise from a game developer through the 1990s working on perennial Nintendo franchises like Pokémon and Kirby put him in an insider position as he took the company’s helm.

In the aftermath of his death, it’s easy to find many obituaries to the man that run his quote from a 2005 GDC Conference speech.

“On my business card, I am a corporate president,” he said. “In my mind, I am a game developer. In my heart I am a gamer.”

It’s a nice quote and drives home how Iwata wanted to be viewed as the head of the legacy company. What it hides, however, is just how unlikely or unpredictable his presidency would prove.

 

Iwata replaced the former president Hiroshi Yamauchi in 2002.  Yamauchi had helmed the big N since 1939 coming from the same Yamauchi family that began the company, which started as selling card games in 1889.

Both coming from outside the family and from a development background brought Iwata from the fringes to decision-making process and it couldn’t have come at a rougher time.

In 2002, Nintendo faced a continued dive after the relative Nintendo 64 slump. Sony’s first Playstation solidly won the fifth generation of video game consoles and Nintendo was setting itself up for yet another failure with the 2001 release of the GameCube. The Playstation 2 would go on to stomp that little purple box, which sold over 10 million less than the Nintendo 64 in its lifespan.

The company needed a change of philosophy and Iwata brought one.

Through both the accessible friendliness of the Nintendo DS and the family console of the Wii (as evidenced by retirement Wii bowling tournaments), Iwata wanted to focus on finding that casual market to prop up sales. This would ensure Nintendo wouldn’t have to compete on the technology front with longtime electronics hardware manufacturer Sony and, later, software behemoth Microsoft.

Iwata’s lasting legacy can be found in the success of those two consoles, although he would only hope for it at the time.

“Even though I had confidence that our direction was the right one, the truth is I had no idea things were going to happen the way they did, as quickly as they did,” he told Nihon Keizai Shimbun reporter Osamu Inoue. “On the contrary, it made me think, wow, when things change, they sure change fast. I still can’t be sure what it is that will make people react strongly to what we do.”

Over the last few years however, doubt has solidly risen over Nintendo’s future and it has been often bandied about that the draw of the Wii was nothing more than a fluke of technological faddism.

The same could be possibly argued about the DS, but rather it is the smartphones that has shrank the handheld market.

 

 

Leaving with lasting questions

That leaves Nintendo in the currently difficult place of determining whether Iwata’s strategy was a lasting one for success.

Did the goodwill of casual consumers run its course as evidenced by flagging Wii U and 3DS sales? Or are the current offerings merely missteps in a grander plan?

 

Mario/Link/Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto has had to step up, at least temporarily, to fill some part of Iwata’s role.

In his sentimental response to his longtime friend’s death, he provides a possible answer to the above questions.

“I am truly surprised and saddened by this unexpected news,” Miyamoto said in a statement passed to Eurogamer. “The entire development team at Nintendo will remain committed to our development policy which Mr. Iwata and we have been constructing together and to yield the development results which Mr. Iwata would appreciate.”

Just over two weeks before his passing, Iwata commented on some of the more pressing matters facing Nintendo’s future to the company’s shareholders during an annual meeting.

One of the biggest subjects was the next console, codenamed the ’NX’, which Iwata unexpectedly mentioned last March.

To the shareholders, he continued to keep the company’s cards close to the vest, making the future direction all the more mysterious.

“If I mention every detail of what we are newly thinking, it could be persuasive but it could also give other companies the opportunity to come up with counterplans or implement the ideas that they find interesting," he said. “There may also be the possibility that it will spoil the sense of surprise for consumers. Of course these factors are all against the interest of the entire company and they would ultimately harm the interest of our shareholders, so we appreciate your understanding in this respect.”

The other looming question is over Nintendo’s future in the mobile gaming sphere. Iwata delivered yet another surprising revelation that the company would begin taking steps into the market that it had routinely avoided the same day as mentioning the NX.

To the shareholders, Iwata continued referencing the very vague plan.

“We are trying to make applications that appeal to a wide variety of people so that the games can receive payments widely but shallowly from each consumer,” he said. “In other words, even if a consumer makes a relatively small payment, because of the large consumer base, the game can generate big revenue. This is the business model we would like to realize. I think the shareholder has just asked these questions partially because he is concerned that Nintendo might shift to the notorious business model that asks a small number of people to pay excessive amounts of money and that Nintendo’s brand image might be hurt.”

 

Considering that it took a few years after Iwata assumed the presidency for Nintendo to begin its rebound, first with growing DS numbers and then with the bonanza sparked by the Wii, it’s only logical to assume Nintendo will continue along the same path for the time being.

That said, as recently as June 26, Nintendo’s shareholder meeting brought out very pointed questions about the future. As a publicly traded company, the woes faced by declining 3DS sales and the rough reception of the Wii U into homes has been well documented. Either leadership changes will arrive or Nintendo’s investors will have to make sterner demands of whoever takes the large task of filling Iwata’s role.

 


First one's free...

By Peter Allen Clark 

 

Free to play games have made it to the big time.

After the big three manufactures dabbled with a few experiments in the realm that has made mobile games so successful, it looks like the concept of paying to upgrade an initially free experience has found a new home.

Debuting in the 1990s with MMOs like Runescape and MapleStory, the free to play model of games, sometimes called freemium has dominated the mobile landscape and has gradually begun to supplant the old subscription-based model for monetizing games. Free to play developers provide free a game and offer in-game transactions to enhance the experience in some way. That could take the form of players paying for extra lives, as is the case in Candy Crush, or for power-ups/upgrades, like in Plants Vs. Zombies 2.

Is that thing free? That thing. I'm pointing my sword at it.

Is that thing free? That thing. I'm pointing my sword at it.

Bethesda’s Jan. 21 announcement that upcoming console game Elder Scrolls Online would shift away from a subscription model into free to play sparked a trail of similar declarations up through the present.

 

Microsoft sell

 Just before the start of Games Developers Conference week, Microsoft-owned studio Lionhead excitedly proclaimed that flagship franchise sequel Fable Legends will launch free to play this summer. Since the original Xbox, the Fable brand has remained a console exclusive title that attracts attention, although the most recent additions to the series have gained mixed reactions.

We recently wrote about the four versus one cooperative/competitive multiplayer game as championing a growing gaming trend of asymmetrical gameplay. Well, it looks Lionhead found a second craze to sweep through Albion.

More recently, Wizards of the Coast said that the forth-coming new Magic: the Gathering game, Magic Origins will also come at a freemium price to the Xbox One this summer.

Surely it follows in the tradition of Blizzard’s successful mobile free to play card game Hearthstone.

Microsoft isn’t really a stranger to the freemium model. They experimented with it early on in the Xbox 360’s life with the competitive World of Tanks. The game has gone on to gain 5 million downloads across nearly 150 countries, according to their website.

World of Tanks will continue that free to play move into the current generation as it plans to come to Xbox One in the near future.

"My heart burns for free things," is what this guy probably said.

"My heart burns for free things," is what this guy probably said.

 

Pays to play on this station

When the Playstation 4 launched in November 2013, it kicked off the new generation with the first console out of the gate, but also with the first offerings of free to play games. From day one, players could download both DC Universe Online and Warframe for free and expand on the game with microtransactions.

Sony has continued that model of business from a host of indies announced at last year’s E3 to larger offerings like the former Sony Online Entertainment’s Planetside 2.

“Our philosophy is simple,” Planetside 2 developer, now-named, Daybreak Game Company says on the game’s website. “Free games. No commitment. And if you want to buy, it’s on your terms.”

It doesn’t seem like Sony plans to abandon that line of thinking anytime soon. At a March 4 Game Developers Conference presentation, Gamespot reported Senior Account Executive Sarah Thompson outlined the company’s current philosophy.

"We're really looking at this as a significant part of our digital business," she said about free-to-play. "I think that it's going to be a really a big chunk of our revenues in the next few years; 3-5 years. And it's already growing at amazing rates that are really quite surprising."

 

Ninten-see, Ninten-do

We recently wrote about Nintendo’s flirtation with microtransactions and it seems to have sparked some real chemistry.

Pokémon Shuffle marked the latest in Nintendo’s attempt to test out a free to play game and a recent in-game post trumpeted passing the million download mark. With only two weeks passed since the game’s Feb. 18 release, Nintendo has to look on that as a positive reception.

Of course, they have not released any information yet on the game’s incoming revenue.

I wonder what that brown thing's thinking...

I wonder what that brown thing's thinking...

Pokémon Shuffle joins Steel Diver: Sub Wars and Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball as Nintendo's 3DS freemium test run. The Big N has had just a few console free to play games on the Wii U's eShop since early 2013, such as Tank! Tank! Tank! (exclamations theirs).

 

 

 

Praying for paying players

Obviously, the interesting thing about this new gaming model is that it relies on trusting that game players will spend money of their own accord.

A September 2014 report on monetization by the marketing platform company Swrve cast some really interesting light on where these games derive their revenue. It claims to have compiled the data from “10s of millions” of users.

“We’re now at a full 62 percent of revenue derives from the top 10 percent of payers,” the report reads. “To add further context, if we express that group as a percentage of total players they represent a mere .013 percent of that group.”

That seems like a lot of responsibly to place on the .013 percent of players.

The report also found, in July 2014, only 1.35 percent of players actually purchased something in the studied free to play games.

“[T]he vast majority of players deliver no revenue, and confirms again that great care should be taken when acquiring users to ensure they are, as much as possible, in the subset of ‘spenders’,” the report reads.

It also found that a full 65 percent of all the revenue to be had from paying players would be had in the first three days of play.

Do you want a boring graph to compliment these numbers? Of course you do.

Boom.

Boom.

Even with all of those caveats, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all seem to be embracing the changing winds. 

Cash Backwards

By: Peter Allen Clark

 

Rereleases are the new backwards compatibility. So, don't hold your breath for it coming any time soon.

As Microsoft and Sony gradually announced features for the current consoles, they destroyed many players’ hope to play Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 games on the new machines.

In their February 2012 Playstation 4 announcement, Sony curved the question of coming backwards compatibility by answering it with what would become the Playstation Now service. More on that in a bit.

Microsoft put it less gently.

“If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards,” Don Mattrick, former head of Microsoft’s interactive entertainment business told the Wall Street Journal days after the Xbox One reveal. Remember that guy?

According to the article, he said only 5% of customers play older games on a new video game systems so it wasn’t worth their time to develop hardware supporting backwards compatibility.

Both companies brushed the question of backwards compatibility off their collective shoulders in favor of a new business strategy.

 

Remade in their own image

The first 15 months of the current console generation has not seen a great deal of exclusive titles for each of the top two contenders. However, players have been flush with rereleases both exclusive and multi-platform.

So far in the generations’ life the Playstation 4 has seen the arrival of some 20 rereleases and the Xbox One has had 16. Those numbers includes some high profile titles like the Playstation 3’s Last of Us and the long legacy of Halo games contained in the Xbox One’s Master Chief Collection. They also include digital rereleases like the upcoming Journey and last year’s Guacamelee rerelease.

Dancing the Grim Fandango of remakes

Dancing the Grim Fandango of remakes

The future looks even brighter for those playing catch up or fans of updated versions. Already new editions of previous gens’ Saint’s Row IV, Borderlands Remastered, Devil May Cry, multiple Final Fantasies, Doom, newly announced Darksiders 2 and several more have been announced.

This console generation does not stand as an exception. Last generation had a lot of rereleases as well. However, one could argue past rereleases were more notable since the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3 represented a large shift to a higher visual fidelity. God of War/Team Ico collections and the first Halo’s remastered edition arguably brought a different and some might say better experience than the previous generation versions.

This early time of rereleases might prove a positive thing. Evan Wells, Co-President of Last of Us: Remastered studio Naughty Dog, said the process allowed the developer to get familiar with the new console. He said working with an established title would help to put out an even stronger game in the future.

 

Playstation Now, Playstation forever

Instead of building backwards compatibility into the Playstation 4, Sony instead used cloud gaming service Gaikai, bought for $380 million in 2012, to launch the Playstation Now service last year. Playstation Now streams past releases to the Playstation 4. Sony charges either a set time with games or offers a subscription plan rolled out in January.

It’s certainly difficult at this point to find anyone who is completely satisfied, or even moderately satisfied with Playstation Now. The selection of games and the awkward pricing left many feeling cold after last summer’s release.

Why play your old games when you could pay for them again?

Why play your old games when you could pay for them again?

However, to Sony, having the service is the ultimate response to demands for backwards compatibility in future consoles. It not only saves them money on an individual console’s infrastructure, it allows them to them to continue making money off old games instead of letting brick and mortar retailers reap profits from used titles.

Sony has continued tweaking pricing structures and game availability, ultimately offering monthly updates similar to the Playstation Plus service.

 

 

Exes on the box?

At the BUILD Conference last year Microsoft Executive Frank Savage said the Xbox team had a very tentative idea for an Xbox 360 emulator to run on the Xbox One.

“There are [plans], but we’re not done thinking them through yet, unfortunately,” Savage said. “It turns out to be hard to emulate the PowerPC stuff on the X86 stuff. So there’s nothing to announce, but I would love to see it myself.”

Doesn’t sound too promising. We told you to keep breathing.

More recently, Phil Spencer, the Head of Xbox sounded cooler on the subject in an interview with the Inner Circle.

"Back compat is always a hot topic at the turn of a generation, and I get why, especially on [Xbox 360] so many people bought so much digital content and it means that a lot of us, we're holding on to our 360s," Spencer said. "I get the question. I totally respect the question. There’s nothing I can say about it right now, but I’ll just say 'I hear you.' I definitely hear you and I'll continue to try to work to build something that can help people out."

Speculation has also continued on the Sony-side of things, but through more ephemeral hearsay, like this tweet from Ahsan Rasheed, an industry insider known for leaking things:

 

Again, keep breathing.

 

Wii looking at U, kid

As usual, the Wii U stands alone. Like the Wii before it, the Wii U will gladly accept both the games and the controller inputs of the console that came prior. Heck, the Wii U even comes with a Wii remote sensor bar in the box.

On top of that, Nintendo rolled out the Virtual Console in the Wii and have continued to support it in the most recent Wii U.

Limited titles, staggered updates, high expectations...

Limited titles, staggered updates, high expectations...

But also as usual, many feel Nintendo might have missed an opportunity to capitalize on this idea. The Virtual Console’s output, pricing and accessibility have left much to be desired.

Nintendo seems to want to get back in the game as they announced during their January Direct a few notable rereleases on the Virtual Console like the almost unattainable Metroid Prime Trilogy, Donkey Kong titles and Mario Galaxy 2. A caveat exists in that Nintendo has done nothing to update those games for its current console.


Despite the slight swirl of Microsoft rumors, the future of backwards capability looks pretty unlikely. In their efforts to be businesses, the big three manufacturers have all found ways to monetize past releases instead of giving players the ability to use old discs. Whether the rereleases have the added benefit of aiding a studio in future development, they seem to be here to stay.

Nintendo continues cuddling up to microtransactions

By Peter Allen Clark

Using one of its strongest franchises as a test subject, Nintendo continues an exploration into microtransactions.

 

Grabbin' life by the poké balls

Around a year ago, multiple outlets like Reuters and the Wall Street Journal reported on an letter sent by Hong Kong hedge fund manager Seth Fischer to Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata.

The letter plainly stated the benefits that Nintendo could see from taking the burgeoning mobile route and incorporating microtransactions into the Big N’s properties.

"Just think of paying 99 cents just to get Mario to jump a little higher,” Fischer wrote in the letter Kotaku called “crazy”.

Well, Nintendo might have disagreed with Kotaku.

During January’s Nintendo Direct, Iwata announced the free to play 3DS (also available on the New 3DS) game Pokémon Shuffle, which released Feb. 18.

The tile-matching game comes with the increasingly familiar gimmick of limiting the number of chances to play, leaving players with the choice to wait for a cool down period or purchase more lives with microtransactions.

By ‘Enhance’, they mean ‘continue’.

By ‘Enhance’, they mean ‘continue’.

 

Rough seas ahead

As we’ve discussed before, something is rotten in the state of Nintendo. After last years $456 million operating loss capping off a continued struggle for the two years before, Nintendo is probably investigating all possible routes to entice consumers and sales.

And the game developing strategy has certain worked for others. King Digital Entertainment has certainly found success with a little game called Candy Crush. It employs a similar play style whereby you can wait for more lives or simply buy them.

King claims Candy Crush Saga is played on average 834 million times each day. They also released a total of $1.7 billion in revenue for the first three fiscal quarters of 2014, an overall increase of $394 million.

Surely, Nintendo would like to see similar numbers.

Nintendo has developed a serious sweet tooth.

Nintendo has developed a serious sweet tooth.

 

Micro crushing on transactions

This isn’t Nintendo’s first attempt at the free-to-play market. The company attempted a similar model last year with the release of Steel Diver: Sub Wars for the 3DS. Nintendo offered a stripped down version of the game to players for free — a fuller experience would cost you.

“You can purchase the Premium version to unlock five more underwater adventures and a formidable 18-vessel sub fleet,” according to the Steel Diver: Sub Wars website.

Nintendo also released an oddity known as Rusty’s Real Deal Baseball last April. Players have free access to a limited set of demos with the opportunity to purchase 10 separate expansion packs for $4 each.

“You can download Rusty's Real Deal Baseball for free and play the demo game, but Rusty's going to need to see some real money from your Nintendo eShop account to purchase the individual baseball minigames,” the game’s website says.

What’s interesting about this game is that players can actually haggle with the eponymous Rusty on how much to pay for the additional content. Some outlets, including Kotaku again, appreciated the approach as the “right way” to do in-game purchases.

 

At this point, a week after the Pokémon Shuffle release, players have already found a way to bypass the pay-to-play restrictions by merely putting the system to sleep and waking it up again.

Still, you can’t ignore the move Nintendo has made towards microtransactions. The leadership might merely see it as an experiment. After all, Pokémon shuffle is only a reskinning of Puzzles & Dragons and it doesn’t seem like much of a risky release compared to larger games fighting with much bigger marketing budgets.

As always, consumers with vote with their wallets and Nintendo might listen.

Is asymmetrical multiplayer trending?

By Peter Allen Clark

Last week’s release of Evolve gives one more game in a trend that seeks to unbalance the games we play — asymmetrical multiplayer.

The first big release of the year has done pretty well from critics and plenty more games that change up the multiplayer experience are on the way in the coming year or two.

 

Changing the formula?

Asymmetrical multiplayer games can have different definitions, so let's look at those that involve different numbers of players on either side and games that give competing players divergent styles.

Several of these titles testing the waters of asymmetrical multiplayer credit the play styles as an evolution of traditional competitive multiplayer.

More than stacking the numbers higher on one end of the map, game developers seem to want to provide changing roles for players. Their aim is surely to give a new experience and possibly to extend the life of a game.

We’ve always liked playing co-op games, but we also like competition, so Evolve is a really fun mix of the two.

As the most recent game to highly showcase this changing play style, developers of Evolve said that the title also extends to their philosophy in creating the new game. The studio, bought by Valve in 2008, crafted the popular cooperative shooter Left 4 Dead, but they claim that did not provide the foremost inspiration for their most recent game.

“The idea for Evolve actually pre-dates Left 4 Dead,” a member on the Evolve development team at Turtle Rock Studios told The Seriousness. ”We always thought it would be fun to have a cooperative game where you and your buddies could hunt huge, dangerous space monsters, except those monsters were controlled by another player.”

Instead, the idea came from a straightforward mash up of game modes.

“We’ve always liked playing co-op games, but we also like competition,” the development team member said, “so Evolve is a really fun mix of the two."

Killstrain led the announcements at December’s Playstation Experience. The Sony San Diego Studio game has the unique game set up of five versus two versus five.

“It’s a free-to-play, top-down action game with an unusual five-against-two-against-five competitive structure,” according to a Polygon article linked from the official Killstrain website. “Two teams of five humans compete to gather resources — and rack up kills — while a third team of mutants battles both teams in an attempt to spread their infection and add humans to their mutant ranks.”

Killin' some strains. 

Killin' some strains. 

Killstrain seems to bend more towards the MOBA end of the spectrum in its gameplay, but the player roles definitely lean into this new asymmetrical multiplayer trend.

 

Not so different, you and I

Of course, this ‘new’ trend of unbalanced roles has some pretty deep roots. A few upcoming titles, and a canceled one, reached back into gaming’s past to come up with might prove a future standard of video game play.

Bioware Austin studio canceled their previously trumpeted Shadow Realms Feb. 9. It exemplified another type of asymmetrical gameplay.

“For inspiration on how to innovate, we took a look at the roots of the online multiplayer RPG game experience,” a blog post on the former game’s site read, explaining the gameplay.  Which is, of course, table top pen and paper Dungeons & Dragons.”

In Shadow Realms, four characters would cooperatively dungeon crawl through different eponymous realms.

Another player would serve as the “Shadowlord” character whose objective is to “stop the group of Heroes by haunting them, setting traps, casting spells, summoning monsters, and controlling any monster in the level,” according to the gameplay blog post.

That cancelled game sounds a good deal like the upcoming Xbox One exclusive, Fable Legends.

Albion calls. So make some friends quick. 

Albion calls. So make some friends quick. 

In the return to Albion, the game will let four players tackle their way through a variety of adventures. According to a studio-produced video, Fable Legends will also task one player to play as the villain.

“You literally have a different perspective, you’re looking down on the world from above — commanding armies of creatures, setting up traps for heroes,” Ben Brooks said as the Lead Content Designer for Lionhead Studios.

These riffs on the original will also have some competition from the old guard itself.

Sword Coast Legends, scheduled for a Steam release in 2015, is a project led by Dungeons & Dragons company Wizards of the Coast. They teamed with N Space and Warframe developer Digital Extremes to bring the classic play system to modern video gaming.

“Sword Coast Legends … brings the role-playing dynamic between players and Dungeon Masters to life with DM Mode, a first-of-its-kind real-time experience in which Dungeon Masters guide players through unique customizable adventures,” the Sword Coast Legends website reads. “In DM Mode, the Dungeon Master engages players and empowers them to have fun in a way that suits the party best while creating a tailored, non-adversarial 4 with 1 experience that any RPG or pen-and-paper fan will enjoy.”

"From the producer of Dragon Age: Orgins" You're kidding.

"From the producer of Dragon Age: Orgins" You're kidding.

 

So why now? Cooperative gameplay has surely been on the rise through the last generation. And last year's E3 was rife with expanding your friends' role in helping you complete the game. Could it be that this next phase of multiplayer is simply a further expansion of that idea with the tech to help usher it into home?

N Space President Dan Tudge told us the rise of the recent multiplayer exploration probably involved a mixture of all those elements and more.

People fall into the role of DM far faster than they do on the tabletop.

"Combining today’s game development tools with the internet has empowered development teams to create cooperative play experience they were unable to realize in the past," Tudge said over email. "Playing cooperatively with your friends is something the majority of us enjoy at an instinctual level. My children will play with their toys alone but given the chance they’d rather play with friends every time. As adults that desire to play with others doesn’t go away."

For N Space, Tudge said the development team thought it only natural to offer a multiplayer experience by creating a D&D game.

"We were all fans of D&D, having frequently played tabletop and classic PC games for our entire lives (I started playing in middle school in 1979)," Tudge said. "D&D had produced a lifetime of fond memories for us so when we started bouncing around the idea of making a video game where someone could create and manage an entire adventure for a group of players and we all immediately thought of D&D. It was the perfect opportunity to enable players to experience the true magic of playing D&D together in a video game."

Whatever the reason for the new trend, he said playtesting Sword Coast Legends has shown how quickly players adapt.

"People fall into the role of DM far faster than they do on the tabletop," Tudge said. "The accessibility of the real-time DM features have players changing encounters, placing traps, spawning monsters and creating quest NPCs within minutes. It isn’t long before they start planning a campaign."

Games have certainly tried this in the past, but the recent rash of the style proves more concerted than ever before. Of course, it’s unknown whether this will catch on with any games post-2016, but currently it's en vogue.

Excuuuuse me, Netflix

By Peter Allen Clark

Does a video game television show stand a chance with modern audiences?

The Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 6 that Netflix is working on a Legend of Zelda television show. While the article’s only source is “a person familiar with the matter”, it still opens the question of how well such a show would fare in today’s modern high expectations and the history of poor video game translations.

As it currently stands, productions trying to bring video game property into theaters or onto televisions have not met with much widespread critical acclaim, and few have found steady audiences.

 

Small screen for sub-super shows

Wikipedia’s list of televions shows adapted from video games is pretty darn big. It contains 108 animated and 12 live action shows produced from the late 1980s to the current day.

It shouldn’t come as any real surprised that the whole idea kicked off from the success of the Nintendo Entertainment System, which brought a suite of various games-based shows to 1989, including the original Legend of Zelda show.

Bet the 'N' stands for Nintendo

Bet the 'N' stands for Nintendo

Judging from the variety of shows that have appeared over the years, many of them tried to capture the popularity of specific gaming trends and market them to children. This includes the ongoing animated franchise of Angry Birds.

But from the 2001 Parappa The Rappa show to 2004’s Viewtiful Joe series, the list of produced programs spans a wide swath across the history of video games. And though studios continue to pay for development, the vast majority of these shows seem to have little staying power.

One of the odder ventures, especially one to end up with three seasons, had to be the Canadian 1990 take on the 1987 adventure game Maniac Mansion. Esteemed comic Eugene Levy created the television show and game developer LucasArts contributed, at least partly, in its development.

If one obvious success story exists in the many television shows based off video games, Pokémon takes the prize. With almost 900 episodes, 18 movies and two spin-offs under its Snorlax-sized belt, the series has run since 1997 and has considerably impacted the continued popularity of the games’ Nintendo-exclusive franchise. By rebooting the series every time developer Game Freak puts out a new game, and extending the brand with the long-lasting trading card game, the Pokémon television show seems to have no problem gaining continued audiences for the time being.

Pokémon aside, the very fact that so many animated shows, aimed at children, continue to be made must speak to their relative business success. If studios did not see some small return on investment, the long list might look a little more like the one detailing game-based movies.

 

Not-so-sterling silver screen

The list of video game based movies fared worse in terms of audience and acceptance, except for two notable exceptions.

Of the sad collection of those 28 films, 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within received the highest Rottentomatoes.com rating with 44 percent.

Since 1993’s Super Mario Bros. movie, critics have largely panned movies made from video games. That movie only pulled in $8.5 million on its first weekend.

That problem has not existed for the Resident Evil franchise. Churning out five movies since the original in 2002, it has performed pretty well, even though it never won the heart of critical acclaim (The original film scored the highest on Rotten Tomatoes with 33 percent). Overall the franchise has raked in over $914 million with a sixth movie on the way this year.

The other notable exception to the seeming movie curse is Forward Unto Dawn.

(Note: the Emmy nomination was for Outstanding Main Title Design.)

(Note: the Emmy nomination was for Outstanding Main Title Design.)

The 2012 Halo series, meant to be watched as a long film, set the benchmark for critical and audience praise of a video game property shifting into another medium. Since critical sites list it as both a movie and a television show, no firm Rotten Tomatoes score exists that would put it above other movies — the audience rating sits at 69 percent.

Still the fact that Forward Unto Dawn received both a Streamy Best Drama Series Award and a nomination for a 2013 Primetime Emmy, puts it well ahead of the pack. 

 

As it seeks writers to work on the Legend of Zelda show, the mysterious Netflix person describes it as “Game of Thrones” for a family audience. If the history of video games shows/movies says anything, it’s that you are more likely to have success and longevity with kids programming.

Again, all of the Zelda television news should be taken with the smallest grain of salt. Even the Wall Street Journal piece said,  “It’s also possible that Netflix or Nintendo will kill the project before it gets off the ground.”

Still, none of this has stopped other outlets from attempting to cast the possible show and corralling all of the Internet’s outrage/excitement.

Even if nothing comes of it, Netflix won’t be the last to dabble in the depths of gaming’s intellectual properties.

This tragic trajectory of translations will follow any project that attempts to bring video games to the small or silver screen. And who knows, maybe Netflix’s reported Zelda show will be more Pokémon than Maniac Mansion.

Reality Check

By David Aaron Pierce

 

With Microsoft's recent announcement of the HoloLens, we now have several competing visions of the future of graphical displays that could change the way we play games, use computers and watch entertainment. A lot of confusion exists as to what these things can and can’t do, so let’s clarify these various technologies.

 

Augmentation clarification

The HoloLens name, and Microsoft’s marketing, suggests the use of holograms, but it is in fact an example of augmented reality. Augmented reality can encompass a lot of different concepts, but its core adds virtual aspects to the world around you. Microsoft’s Kinect pioneered bringing AR to the consumer, and it is no surprise that Alex Kipman, who first pitched Kinect to Microsoft, is heavily involved in developing the HoloLens.

The HoloLens augments reality by projecting images on screens directly in front of the eyes. It does not block the view of the world, but simply adds imagery on top of it. With the combination of motion sensing and wall/surrounding sensing, the HoloLens can incorporate the room around the user and is aware of how 3D imagery should align in its surroundings.

If this all sounds similar to Google Glass, that’s because Glass was an attempt to bring AR functionality on otherwise ordinary looking glasses frames that can be worn at all times. Whereas a major part of the HoloLens functionality comes from mapping out its surroundings in an indoor environment, at the very start Google conceived Glass as an always-on outdoor device that could be worn anywhere for immediate access to the internet.

You probably put your head in the hole on top. 

You probably put your head in the hole on top. 

By centering their focus on use in the home or the office, Microsoft might try to avoid the contentious attitude that encumbered Glass. The preconception that Glass was always on, always connected and possibly shooting video at any time begat the turn of phrase “Glasshole.”

 

Holograms: not just for variant cards anymore...

An actual hologram is a display that occupies space, and puts graphics in the physical world, also known as a volumetric display. Voxiebox is a current example of a volumetric display game system. It projects voxels (3D pixels) into a table of 128x128x64 voxels to make blocky, 8-bit graphics in 3 dimensions. The box containing the display is clear on all sides and allows for viewing from any perspective above and around. Fast moving lasers create the image inside the box, and produce a physical 3D image that can be seen clearly by the naked eye. This is a hologram in the true definition of the term, but currently the technology is very expensive (meant for arcades, a day's rental of the Voxiebox is $2700) and very limited graphically, only allowing for games with a blocky, old school aesthetic.

Microsoft’s decision to use AR lenses to place images in the environment is an understanding that physical holographic imagery is still years away from store shelves. For now, volumetric displays will remain a niche product for demonstrations and medical imagery.

 

Patience is a virtual reality

Popularized in the 80s and 90s, virtual reality technology could not match expectations. It was slow and capped at a few frames per second, making for an unresponsive and motion sickness inducing experience.

It provided a virtual view of reality — one made completely red and black. 

It provided a virtual view of reality — one made completely red and black. 

In 1995 Nintendo released the Virtual Boy, a consumer level system that incorporated 3D visuals. It was made for a tabletop and required a clumsy apparatus to remain at eye level. The necessity to keep the system under $200 made Nintendo forego color graphics and use monochromatic red LEDs. The red on black display was uncomfortable for users and it was noticed early enough by Nintendo that they inserted 15-minute break reminders into all their games.

The Oculus Rift changed the perception of VR in 2012 by utilizing better screen technology and modern 3D computer hardware. The visuals in Oculus require a computer to power them, so it is always tethered, unlike Microsoft and Google’s AR devices, which can run on their own using less powerful chips. Combining outside processing power with 1000 Hz (times per second) internal motion sensing and a screen with a maximum 75 Hz refresh rate (DK 2 prototype) Oculus breaks the barrier between head movement and the imagery on screen, filling one’s view with as much graphical fidelity as one’s computer can power.

Sony’s answer to VR, Project Morpheus remains mostly hidden from the public, with limited viewings at events. Like Oculus, this device tethers to a powerful computer, in this case, a Playstation 4. People who have used both prototypes say that Sony still has catching up to do in terms of lag and screen refresh.


Between these three technologies only AR and VR have consumer level technologies, and both have historic failures in their past. Microsoft's take on augmented reality is a direct response to Google's misfire, and the Occulus Rift and Sony's Morpheus have two decades of VR failure to overcome. Which of these technologies will be well received, and which will remain novelties is yet to be seen, but the interest in new display technology in the past few years suggests that things could change at a surprisingly rapid pace in the decade to come.

David Aaron Pierce spends his time defending Bayonetta and planning new games to create. You can follow his thoughts on Twitter here: @da_pierce.



Injustice League?

By: Peter Allen Clark 

Leading Asian Internet platform Garena performed a quick reversal Feb. 4 after announcing a restrictive LGBTQ policy for an upcoming League of Legends tournament.

 

Them's the rules

Garena Philippines eSports first announced the rules  Feb. 3 for their second monthly “all-feminine tournament” The Iron Solari, to take place Feb. 22 at an Internet café in Manila, Philippines. The ruling unleashed new stipulations on the make up of teams.

“Each team will be allowed to have a maximum of one Gay/Transgendered woman for the entirety of the tournament day,” the announcement read. “Therefore, teams cannot do the following: Team_A's first game will be 4 female members and 1 gay, then on Team_A's second game, they will have 4 female members and replace with another gay or transgender member.”

The new rules came after a pledge that the eSports team had given them a “lot of thought” and spoke to members of lesbian, gay and transgendered groups.

“For any events we do, we always want to make sure we are able to have an inclusive environment where no one feels left out, and of course for everybody to enjoy,” the announcement read. “And there are arguments and concerns from other participants who disputes that Lesbian, Gay, Transgendered Women members may probably have some unfair advantage.”

Though it remains unclear what members of the Garena Philippines ESports team meant by “unfair advantage”, many outlets jumped on the story, calling it “puzzling” and “exclusionary”.

Garena's woman-only tournament originally left some women out...

Garena's woman-only tournament originally left some women out...

 

Back up a bit

League of Legends developer Riot Games responded very quickly to the circling story with its own message of inclusion:

Garena served as the publisher for League of Legends in Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, so an established relationship exists between the two companies. And not a day later, Garena Philippines eSports retracted the rules with an updated statement.

“Our initial ruling on LGBT player restrictions within the Iron Solari League has created a lot of good discussion and debate over the past 24 hours,” the statement read. “After discussing the ruling with our partners and re-examining our approach, we have decided to remove these restrictions completely. This means that any player who self-identifies as female will be allowed to participate. We sincerely apologize for any offense we caused to the LGBT and gaming communities.”

They said their original intent was to “promote diversity” and in the future the Garena eSports team promised to continue an open dialogue with planning.

 

Community Communication

We all know League of Legends is popular.

Last year, Riot Games revealed that over 67 million people play League of Legends each month and 27 million playing every day. That enormous fan base also contains a large diversity of players, many of whom were disappointed with the initial ruling.

begin-quotes-small.png

I think the tournament scene makes for a great place for these discussions to take place because they involve people actually interacting in person.

Sal Mattos, Managing Editor of GayGamer.net told us the ruling did not sit right with him. As a Filipino, he wanted to shed light on what might have simply been a cultural mistake.

“The Garena eSports' decision was a frustrating one, to say the least, as it was as discriminatory as it was bizarre,” Mattos said. “But it's important to understand the cultural context that may have influenced the original decision. It speaks to a larger problem of queer cultural misunderstandings in Filipino culture, a culture that is for the most part rather progressive.”

He spoke gratefully about the rule reversal, giving a little credit League of Legends’ developer.

“Thankfully Garena has retracted the restrictions following the negative response from fans, and no doubt thanks to some push from Riot Games,” Mattos said. “Riot has always done an admirable job of fostering positive communities surrounding their games. And it can't be forgotten that Garena's original ruling was intended to be supportive of LGBT players, and their quick response does imply that they're listening to their fans.”

Mattos also shared his own breakdown of the rule change over at GayGamer.net.

The large and diverse group of League of Legends players can be found many other places on the Internet. In fact, a subreddit exists, r/LOLGaymers, solely dedicated to house inclusive LGBT community discussion around the game. That subreddit alone boasts 2,300 subscribers, compared with 630,000 subscribers to the League of Legends subreddit.

In the end, Mattos spoke positively about the evolution of tournament culture and how collecting the passionate players together would help forward everyone’s understanding.

“The competitive gaming scene has been the stage for a number of big stories on diversity for the last few years, from Sasha Hostyn, a trans woman who became a Starcraft II world champion, to Smash Bros. player Lilo's study on sexism and abuse at tournaments to this recent Garena controversy,” Mattos said. “I think the tournament scene makes for a great place for these discussions to take place because they involve people actually interacting in person. It's a very different dynamic from the anonymous online harassment that takes place in virtual gaming spaces, largely because of IRL interactions that take place. So while things aren't perfect there is a lot of great work being done.”

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Because there's no exciting way to use the word 'proprietary'...

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Spotify is coming to Playstation 4, continuing a shift in proprietary entertainment.

 

Sony and Spotify sittin' in a tree

Both Microsoft and Sony developed company-specific music services. Xbox Music basically serves as the spiritual successor to Microsoft’s Zune store outing and Sony’s Music Unlimited sat beside Video Unlimited as the company’s entertainment wing.

Though its unclear how successful (or unsuccessful) Music Unlimited was for Sony, Microsoft showed some of its Xbox Music cards last month as it ended the service’s free streaming.

Not two months later, Sony steps in to announce Playstation Music Jan. 28, which essentially will serve as a portal to Spotify accounts and the 30 million songs that service offers.

It also allows Sony to discreetly push Music Unlimited over the side as it concurrently announced the service would close in all 19 countries by March 29.

Playstation Music also serves as an experience bonus for Sony as Xbox Music does not allow music streaming while a game is played, unless the player is ‘snapped’ in the Xbox One user interface.

It’s not a complete reversal of a proprietary model because even though it’s another company’s software, it still will only come to Playstation 4, Playstation 3 and, of course, Xperia smart phones and tablets.

 

All in one and one for none

When Microsoft and Sony revealed the current generation of consoles, the companies stormed out of the gate with a prophecy that each box would become the center of a living room’s entertainment.

Microsoft hit this nail hardest with its marketing hammer in the May 21, 2013 Xbox One reveal. Everything from the inclusion of the Kinect controller to the A/V inputs that Microsoft meant to tie directly into the television all pointed to the company’s goal to not only take over customers’ living room, but to do so with their propriety services.

“[T]he all-in-one entertainment system for a new generation,” is how Microsoft described their new machine.

“During the Xbox Reveal event, the Xbox team showcased how Xbox One puts you at the center of all your games, TV, movies, music, sports and Skype,” Lisa Gurry, Editor of Xbox Wire, wrote shortly after the reveal. “And how Xbox One is designed to deliver a whole new generation of blockbuster games, television and entertainment in a powerful, all-in-one device.”

Sony didn’t have too much of a different tune when they announced the Playstation 4 Feb. 21, 2013.

“A single device was now expected to provide a range of services and applications,” System Architect Mark Cerny said at the reveal press conference. “We wanted to fluidly connect the player to a larger world of experiences and provide easier access to everything Playstation has to offer, across the console and mobile spaces and the Playstation Network.”

 

Nm...

Microsoft began turning back on the original conceit of the Xbox One shortly after the console’s announcement.

Saying “your feedback matters,” soon-to-leave President of Interactive Entertainment Business Don Mattrick rolled back on always on-line requirements and the strict set of DRM rules announced at the reveal June 19, 2013.

Like a snowball gathering momentum, this movement led to the evaporation of most of the Xbox executive team, as discovered by The Verge. And it culminated with the closing of the Xbox Entertainment Studios last summer.

Recode obtained a statement from current head of Microsoft Studios Phil Spencer that laid out part of the “plan to streamline a handful of portfolio and engineering development efforts across Xbox.” That included folding the entertainment wing of Xbox, which formerly promised a host of original programming, including variety shows, a “hardboard detective thriller” and a drama about “highly-developed robotic servant[s].”

Sony has also long been a fan of proprietary services and devices, from the Memory Stick required by many of their digital cameras to the capabilities of Sony Xperia phones. This is not to mention the overly expensive memory cards used in the Playstation Vita. 

When the company has had a chance to develop its own proprietary means to keep customers on its platforms, it seems to take every opportunity.

This use has decline over the past few years. Sony began selling their own SD cards, in competition with the Memory Sticks of old. And this partnership with Spotify gives a peek into the company's changing philosophy.

 

While the music ball might be in Microsoft’s court, both companies seem to play a game exploring how to smoothly depart from their once grand proprietary dreams.

Freedom of assembly

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Penny Arcade launched the first PAX South this weekend adding yet another show in the booming video games convention business.

 

Remember when E3 died…

Only six and a half years ago, video game news site Joystiq declared, “E3 is dead.” The leading annual convention, where developer and publishers have revealed many, many games and consoles since the show’s 1995 beginning, appeared to have lost its pull on the shifting industry.

With a shake up in leadership and a few attempted changes in the overall model of the trade event, the 2007 E3 conference disappointed many attendees for the second year in a row. This led Joystiq to its pronouncement.

Since then the convention scene has rebounded in an enormous way, leading to not only growth in attendance numbers but a continued expansion of gaming conventions.

Based off of Wikipedia’s list of gaming conventions, which shows 105 current conventions, at least 28 of them were founded since 2007. That’s a full one fourth of listed gaming conventions, including the world’s largest, Gamescom.

The list does not include two of the newest entries in the conventions space, last December’s Playstation Experience and the newest extension of the Penny Arcade global empire, PAX South.

Wikipedia’s list also does not include conventions that are no longer held, like the Leipzig Games Convention, which ended in 2011.

A marked distinction between the newer outcrop of video game conventions and E3 is that the former group sells tickets to the public as well as industry insiders, whereas E3 remains solely for those within the gaming sphere and journalists.

However, the show growth does not stop at fan-based conventions. E3 owner Entertainment Software Association announced a record-breaking attendance to the 2014 show, with a projection for even higher numbers in 2015.

Furthermore, this growth is not limited to the video games industry. In fact, the whole of the exhibition industry has rebounded in line with the economy.

 

This indexes the exhibition industry by sector, Year-on-Year % Change in 2013:

Chart via CEIR

Chart via CEIR

The Center for Exhibition Industry Research announced an overall 1.09 percent increase in the exhibition industry in a March 13 press release.

“1.09 percent… was in line with its economists' forecast for the year,” the release read. “The outlook for growth in 2014 is projected to accelerate and continue through 2016.”

Projections turned out true in the final quarter of the year as the exhibition industry experienced a further 1.8 percent uptick as the seventeenth quarter of consecutive growth.

However, that modest growth still pales in comparison with the surge in video game conventions that have swept the world.

 

For the fans

The reveal of the two newest trade shows on the block proved another change both in how companies communicate with customers and also possible signs of convention saturation.

When Sony announced the Playstation Experience show Oct. 10, it put a flag in the ground to mark more direct, controlled communication with video game enthusiasts.

The big three hardware developers have mostly had to rely on special hardware-announcing events and the stage provided by the larger conventions. Nintendo occasionally pulls the curtain back on one of its Nintendo World events, which can be somewhere in between a trade show and a product release, but on the whole the hardware market has needed the direction of the exhibition industry.

With the Playstation Experience, Sony had two days all to itself in December to show of what the coming year had in store for video game players. Without having to share any stage, the company, which remains in the lead in terms of this generation’s console sales, presented the information it wanted to provide without competitors affecting its message.

From many accounts, Sony’s show was a success, and even “won Christmas before it even began” according to Polygon. Whether it gave the fans what they wanted, it certainly let Sony dominate the video game news cycle for what would have otherwise been a semi-quiet December weekend. 

 

Go south, young man

Penny Arcade and the host of fan-based conventions sprung from that organization serve on the other side of that manufacturer coin.

This past weekend, the first PAX South came to San Antonio. Penny Arcade’s President Robert Khoo teased it last April and founders Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins announced shortly after at PAX East.

The convention is the fifth in the suite of video game shows that includes Seattle’s PAX Prime and PAX Dev, Melbourne’s PAX AUS and Boston’s PAX East.

Judging by the exhibitors listed in the official PAX app, PAX South will also be the smallest of those conventions. In 2014, PAX Prime welcomed a healthy 136 exhibitors, PAX Aus had 164 and PAX East led the pack with 241. PAX South only listed 117 exhibitors who made their way to San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez convention center.

Though some members of the big three manufacturers appear at disparate PAXs, PAX Prime is the only one where all three show up.

Ticket sales provide further signs of PAX South’s soft beginning. Outlet Geekwire wrote about the mad scurry for 2014 PAX Prime tickets, which led to four day passes sold out in a span of minutes. The whole show sold out in a few hours.

PAX South on the other hand, still had tickets left to sell on the day it began:

This screenshot was captured at 2:19 p.m. PST Jan. 23.

This screenshot was captured at 2:19 p.m. PST Jan. 23.

Without any solid attendance numbers offered as of yet, and with no documentation on Penny Arcade’s expectation of the new convention’s performance, it’s unknown whether PAX South was successful.

It might also signify a saturation point in the number of video game conventions. There's at least one other recent example of a video game convention's beginning.

The Washington Post reported on last August's launch of Video Gamers United  in Washington D.C. According to the report, organizer Cesar Diaz expected 25,000 fervent video game players to rush the event. Only around 7,000 people showed up.

Of course, many things could have caused the paltry attendance. Poor marketing, a crowded weekend, weak attractions could have all played a part.

Or, this fledgling struggling convention could have represented a too crowded marketplace.

 

2015 will most probably see the return of E3, all the PAXs, Gamescom and Sony wants to know if fans want the Playstation Experience back. The fact is, a limited number of news items, hardware/software reveals and exhibitor attendance funds exist. The growth of video game conventions will have a saturation point. Has the industry reached it already or is it still to come?

Mobile's gaming bubble and the New 3DS

By Peter Allen Clark

 

With the release of a new handheld, Nintendo aims to carve out a space into what some see as a crumbling mobile games market.

From the same dimension

The Big N kicked off the New Year’s hardware announcements Jan. 14 with a North America release date for the actually named New 3DS over one of the company’s streamed Nintendo Direct presentations.

Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé outlined the bevy of new features pummeled into the new system. Besides getting enhanced processing power, slightly increased battery life, Amiibo support and the addition of a micro SD card, the New 3DS’ hopes seem to hang on two specific new features. One is what Fils-Aimé called “brand new, super stable, 3d face tracking,” which employs the use of cameras on the handheld to tell how to adjust the 3D depending on the position of a player’s head.

Almost 1/8 the console size!

Almost 1/8 the console size!

“The big new addition,” according to Fils-Aimé, “is the C stick.” This feature, which sounds like the old yellow button sitting on the GameCube controller, essentially performs the same function. It acts as the right thumb stick camera control, basically replacing the relatively enormous Circle Pad Pro console addition.

Now, Nintendo initially unveiled the New 3DS in its Aug. 29 Direct presentation. Since then, the company released it in Japan Oct. 11, in Australia Nov. 21 and in the Europe region Jan. 6.

The immediate question is why release new hardware now? Almost four years mark the distance between the March 2011 release of the 3DS and the New 3DS. That’s a lot shorter than the 9 years between the 1989 Gameboy and the 1998 Gameboy Color. Though it’s  double the two between the 2001 Gameboy Advance and the 2003 Gameboy SP. The precedents exist for both so the new announcement doesn’t come out of a vacuum.

However, 3DS growth has slowed the past two years and it has proven the least successful handheld released by the company.

Throughout most of last year, the Wii U had lackluster sales. And in the 2014 year-end fiscal report last March, Nintendo posted a 46.4 billion yen operating loss, which converts to $395 million at the yen’s current position.

Judging by those dooming figures, far from the 2008 height of Wii sales, Nintendo must hope that releasing a new console might put a shot in the arm for the business.

Also, the sinking treasure of mobile gaming might give the new handheld room to rise.

Mobile bubble bursting

Just a few years ago, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the future of dedicated handhelds like Nintendo’s milieu and the Playstation Vita. Many stories were written about how the smaller, cheaper games housed in the necessity of a cell phone would surely bring down the long time gaming travel companions. Simple economic sense dictates that the $40ish games that accompanied the Nintendo DS, 3DS and the Vita might seem daunting to consumers faced with a $.99, or free, price tag from mobile games.

However, over the past two years, the advent of mobile games has begun to resemble an economic bubble in terms of its flooded marketplace and new hesitation among developers looking to achieve a sustainable business model.

Statistica provides some of the most recent data regarding the number of apps in given app stores, including games. They showed that over 1.4 million existed on Google’s app store in September of 2014, and 1.3 million in Apple’s marketplace. In 2013, Apple announced that customers spent $10 billion in their marketplace.

Pulling the Plug

The New 3DS announcement did not come without a bit of oddity. For example, Fils-Aimé proclaimed that the New 3DS would not ship with an AC adaptor. Instead, handheld veterans can use the adaptor that came with the last few models or iterations of the dual screen console. However, new entrants will have to separately purchase a new adapter, lest they will suffer a severe shortage of use from their new handheld. Pity the unknowing relatives who try to give a thoughtful gift. Furthermore, only the XL version of this new console will come to North America, where the other territories welcomed a smaller version as well as this larger cousin.

Theoretically, if all apps cost $1 and were bought in equal numbers, each developer would earn $7,692.3 per game or application. This might be great for a single person developing a small to do list app, but it wouldn’t make so much financial sense for a large company like the flailing Zynga who has many workers to pay.

The prevalence of gaming software available for a single mobile platform also appears outrageous compared to the 3,874 games that were released for the Playstation 2, the most popular selling console of all time.

With such a high number of applications and games available, the marketplace has become one in which success relies on striking it lucky with a hit or having a big financial backer.

Indeed, some part of the development community began to feel unease with the growing mobile focus as early as 2012. In the 2013, 12th annual Game Developer magazine Salary Survey, researched by the Game Developer conference, Patrick Miller summarized the quotes received from worried devs.

“[P]ractically every comment we received spoke to the decline of triple-A and traditional console-development paths, the rise of mobile games as the new industry focus (and an associated unease with the prospects of getting noticed on overflowing app stores), [and a] distrust of a growing free-to-play bubble…” Miller wrote.

This sentiment has since spilled over into development customer reports. For instance, Stardock, a Midwestern developer had some honest things to say about its experience with mobile trends and sales.

“Our poorest-selling DLC for PC games generates more income than nearly every iOS or Android developer app we’ve gotten numbers for,” Stardock’s May 2014 Customer Report read. “Let me emphasize this, we’ve talked privately to a considerable number of developers who have made ‘successful’ iPhone/Android games, games you’ve probably heard of, and their numbers are depressing.”


Stardock also presented this “rough” (their word) chart that outlines revenue gains compare with popularity.

Stardock also presented this “rough” (their word) chart that outlines revenue gains compare with popularity.

Additionally, the rampant piracy that has plagued mobile gaming does little to lure developers toward the platform.

While surely mobile gaming is here to stay, its relationship with developers seems to be waning.

 

Gameboy hits puberty

After the heyday of the Wii and the DS, Nintendo surely looks to tighten up the business. The New 3DS announcement came just days after the Mario maker disclosed they would not sell hardware in Brazil for the foreseeable future and shipping the units without an AC adaptor tells a tale of penny pinching.

The future appears brighter for the big N than it did merely six months ago. In this same week, the company announced that sales of the Wii U console experienced its highest rate of sales in the system’s life.

“This helped total hardware and software sales in 2014 increase by more than 29 percent and more than 75 percent, respectively, over sales in 2013,” a Jan. 15 press release read.

Nintendo also had two large hits the past year, with Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. for Wii U winning over Wii U owners.

None of this paints a clear picture for whether the mobile landscape has shifted enough to grant the New 3DS any room, or if the added features and allure of 3D are enough to bring new people to the platform.

All of it basically depends on the consumer. However, without the supply of good games, the demand might dry up as well and be diverted. At least that’s what dedicated handheld manufacturers would want

But clearly, if the mobile bubble has not yet burst, it’s wavering, and Nintendo plans to proceed with at least one more new dedicated handheld to find whatever space they can.

Pocket Pirates

By Peter Allen Clark

 

This week cast a rare sneak peek into the reality of mobile gaming piracy.

Monument Valley developer Ustwo took to Twitter Jan. 5 to reveal the vast extent of both Android and iOS pirating on their award-winning game.

Ustwo qualified that initial tweet by saying not all of the unpaid installs were pirated and, also, those numbers did not reflect interaction from the Amazon App store.

Monument Valley, which released in April, passed one million downloads only a few months later, as revealed by TechCrunch.

While it’s safe to assume the regularly $4.99 game made its development costs back, the spectre of piracy looms heavily over mobile developers. This has, in turn, affected what types of games developers produce.

We reached out to mobile and desktop games developer, Big Fish Games, to get a sense of how they anticipate or plan for piracy in the market.

“The vast majority of our mobile titles now are free to play,” Creative Director John Cutter said, referring to games that initially cost nothing, but include various paid additions that add to the experience. “And it's much more difficult to pirate an in-app purchase than to download a pirated game.”

He said the prevalence of piracy shaped their decisions on the direction and the implementation of future game development.

“Most of our games are server-based, which pretty much shuts down any piracy,” Cutter said. “Popular client-based games are going to get cracked no matter what.  I do not believe there is ANY way to protect a client-based game.”

...it's much more difficult to pirate an in-app purchase than to download a pirated game.

As exemplified in the numbers Ustwo revealed, Android tends to have a higher rate in piracy. Monument Valley’s creator is far from the first to report it.

For instance, Dead Trigger developer Madfinger Games took to their Facebook page in 2012 to explain why ended up offering the game for free.

“The main reason: piracy rate on Android devices, … was unbelievably high,” the post read. “At first we intend to make this game available for as many people as possible - that's why it was for as little as buck. However, even for one buck, the piracy rate is so giant, that we finally decided to provide Dead Trigger for free.”

Google has repeatedly addressed the piracy problems of Android. It released a study in 2013 which outlined how it actively attempts to fight it.

“Google strives to implement anti-piracy solutions that work,” the report reads. “The best way to battle piracy is with better, more convenient, legitimate alternatives to piracy. By developing licensed products with beautiful user experiences, we help drive revenue for creative industries.”

Apple also regularly speaks out on the company’s piracy policy.

“The illegal copying of software programs is a crime!" the Apple legal policy reads (exclamation point theirs). “Because software is valuable, and it is easy to create an exact copy of a program from a single computer, software piracy is widespread. Apple aggressively enforces our company’s proprietary rights under the U.S. copyright laws, but we know that poor software asset management often keeps people from complying with the law.”

Google developed Android as an open source platform, while Apple maintains strict control over the iPhone’s operating system. Many developers hold the opinion that developing for Android will lead to a greater amount of piracy and so focus on iOS.

Surely, exposure and audience heavily affect how many users will pirate a game. Apple named Monument Valley one of its best iOS games of 2014 calling it, “Equally accessible and engaging to gamers of all levels, the start-to-finish experience is akin to a walk through a museum or listening to a music album.”

The heightened exposure, which included featured status on the App Store and elsewhere, could have also affected the demand for pirated copies of the game.

On the other side of that coin, Cutter said that many of Big Fish Games' audiences do not readily turn to piracy.

“A lot of our mobile games are targeted at a demographic that barely understands how to use a phone/tablet,” he said. “So piracy is well beyond them.”

Regardless of the many reasons why users seek out free software, this peek into the statistical pervasiveness of piracy will continue to inform the future of mobile game development.


How Microsoft and Sony handled the holiday hacks

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Christmas’ hacker attack provided an excellent opportunity to compare Microsoft and Sony's communication strategies.

As many gift recipients found out on Christmas day, hackers brought down both the Playstation Network and Xbox Live. A group calling themselves Lizard Squad claimed responsibility for the distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack that overwhelmed the two services for the better part of three days, in Sony’s case.

Apparently, they only let up when Mega Upload founder Kim Dotcom traded lifetime annual 500-gig storage with his site.

The service shut down aside, the simultaneous nature of the event allowed for a brief real-time glimpse into the juxtaposition between the two biggest video game manufacturers communications technique when it comes to crises management. A lot of people launched a lot of anger at Microsoft and Sony. More at Sony since the actual network disturbance lasted a full day longer than the competition. 

So how did the two giants come to terms with a shutdown of services on one of the busiest video game traffic of the year?

 

Microsoft's management

Though several official blogs host information for Xbox One and Xbox live, any information was slow to leak out from Microsoft on the day of the attack and even soon after. Neither the landing page for Xbox Wire nor the blog of Xbox’s Director of Programming Larry Hryb mentioned the fact that services were suffering  from any sort of problems either during or after the resolution.

Instead, Microsoft maintains an Xbox Live status page that provides updated information on acknowledged issues with either the service or software applications. 

The official forums provided a clearer view of Microsoft’s official responses to concerns about the inability to reach the services on Christmas day.

The first post regarding limited services occurred Dec. 25 at 12:17 a.m. PST. However, at least on the official forums, it was not until a 6:40 p.m. PST post that brought an official response from an official representative of Xbox Support Mister Quimby who said, “This issue has been bubbled up to the proper teams to investigate.”

Microsoft’s communication team also used the forums in order to announce the restoration of services. Mister Quimby posted an update about the Xbox Live restoration on Dec. 26 at 7:49 p.m. PST.

“We have received reports that this issue should now be resolved,” Mister Quimby wrote. “If you are continuing to experience connection issues, please go ahead and create a new thread.”

Most of the Microsoft communications came from Twitter. Xbox maintains five separate Twitter support threads and collectively they admitted the services had run into problems Dec. 25 at 11:41 a.m. PST. 

Hyrb and, head of Xbox, Phil Spencer, also relayed that message.

 

The official @Xbox Twitter account took Christmas day off from both updating and replying to consumer questions.

 

Sony's soliloquies

Sony said more to the wider public, although the content provided little new information regarding the outages. However, the problems for Playstation Network users lasted a full day longer than those on Xbox Live.

The official Playstation Twitter account let fly the first public acknowledgement of a problem on Christmas day at 6:51 a.m. PST.

 

From there, the main Twitter account and the support account continued to update all followers several times a day. Here are few of those messages: 

Replies gave little more information.

And @AskPlaystation asked followers to follow it for updates.

The official Playstation Blog also hosted a few updates of the service disruption and its renewal. Catherine Jensen from Sony’s Playstation Communications team updated the official Playstation Blog on Dec. 27 to announce the return of services.

“PlayStation Network is back online,” Jensen wrote. “As you probably know, PlayStation Network and some other gaming services were attacked over the holidays with artificially high levels of traffic designed to disrupt connectivity and online gameplay.”

Despite all the information and communications that Sony attempted, no official reasoning was given for why it took their engineers a full day longer to restore service.

The capper to the Playstation Network’s extended holiday came when Playstation Vice President Eric Lempel posted “A Holiday Thank You” Jan. 1 to the official blog.

“Since access to PlayStation Network was impacted during the holidays, we wanted to show our appreciation for your patience by offering all PlayStation Plus members that had an active membership or free trial on December 25th a membership extension of five days,” Lempel wrote.

It also offered a one-time 10 percent discount on a PSN item for all members.

Of course, this network outage lasted far shorter than the 2011 network account hack that shut the PSN down for 23 days.

 

What a difference a day makes...

Differences between the Microsoft and Sony communications response to the Christmas hacks boil down into hair splitting semantics. However, the two companies did employ different tactics, targeting different sets of social media users.

For instance, the Xbox Support Twitter accounts have 538,000 followers. Phil Spencer’s retweet went out to 113,000 followers, but one could surmise many of those also follow the support accounts. Compare that with @Playstation’s 5.7 million followers that received the many messages, few of which offered new information.

Additionally, the lack of Microsoft’s blog response might just reflect the nature of content usually provided by Hyrb and Xbox Wire. The Xbox blog sites usually deal with items like content, development and deals. Frequent replies from Hyrb and @Xbox point users to the Xbox Live service status page.

For the record, Sony also has a status page for the PSN.

And then there is Sony’s gift of five free days of Playstation Network access and the one time 10 percent off coupon. PSN members will have to decide whether those five days make up for the lost three that happened over a holiday.

 

Supposed members of Lizard Squad have already made some rounds of interviews with Daily Dot and the BBC. With the infamy they have received (even if they aren’t responsible for the attack) and the DDOS tools they are trying to market, this will probably not be the last time online video game services suffer an attack. Players will just have to wait and see what those companies say when it happens.


Begin again: Adventure games respawn

By Peter Allen Clark

 

One of the first popularized genres of video games has made quite the comeback.

Minecraft developer Mojang announced a story mode spinoff to the incredibly successful game Dec. 18, putting a period on 2014’s revival of adventure games.

An adventure game of a thousand steps...

Upon purchasing Mojang and the Minecraft property that sold with it, Microsoft assuredly seeks to develop the franchise beyond its current capacity. Which is saying something, because its current capacity has captured over well over 100 million PC users alone.

 

So, it’s notable that Mojang, and Microsoft, chose the games first expansion to take the form of an adventure game.

It’s been a big year for adventure games.

> Adventure instead of Action

Adventure games have a marked difference than other genres, though many overlapping aspects remain. For starters, adventure games have a strong reliance on storytelling and puzzling. In their 2003 book On Game Design, authors Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams spell out the distinction of what makes an adventure game. “Although the genre has changed considerably over the years, the games are characterized by certain qualities that they all share: exploration, collection or manipulation of objects, puzzle solving, and a reduced emphasis on combat and action elements,” they wrote. “This doesn’t mean that there is no conflict in adventure games… only that combat is not the primary activity.”

At least seven adventure games on PC and six on consoles were released in the last 12 months. It’s not quite the 46 that exploded onto the scene in 1995, but still a far cry from the dwindling representation that has marked the last decade.

Additionally, adventure games have grown rapidly in popularity and sales. Telltale games, founded by former LucasArts developers, reportedly announced in July that The Walking Dead episodic video games had sold 28 million copies since the initial 2012 release.

The genre, which spurned many other narrative games types, began with 1976’s Colossal Cave Adventure game designed by William Crowther. Crowther said he wrote the game, a text-based exploration that virtually explored a semblance of Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave system, as a “program that was a re-creation in fantasy of my caving, and also would be a game for the kids, and perhaps some aspects of the Dungeons and Dragons that I had been playing.”

From there the genre expanded in form and popularity. From LucasArts’ many games to the juggernaut of 1993’s Myst, adventure games dominated much of the early video game landscape.

Spoiler: this ship is a clue. 

Spoiler: this ship is a clue. 

Many factors contributed to the decline of the genre in the late 1990s. Writing in 2003, Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams said emphasis on graphics might have led to less consumer and developer interest.

“Adventure games depend less on display technology than fast-paced action games do; as a result, they get less attention from the gaming press, which has led to a misconception that the adventure game genre is ‘dead,’” they wrote.

They also brought up the idea that limited replayability had led to less interest compared to the shooter and open world games that dominated the early 2000s.

Other opinions said Myst began the decline or that adventure games couldn’t scale puzzle difficulty adequately to appeal to the broadening base of new game players.

Regardless of the reason, only a few years ago, industry press regularly wrote about how to save the genre and why it deserved to die.

 

Tell the tale of renewal

Let’s face it, Telltale brought popularity back to adventure games.

Though surely many factors led to the renewed interest in the genre, both the critical and consumer reaction to 2012’s The Walking Dead did much to propel adventure games into their current renaissance.

Announcing the game in 2011, Telltale approached the title in a similar style to their last few outings. Working on titles like Law & Order: Legacies, Back to the Future and Jurassic Park: The Game, Telltale had developed a familiarity with using licensed materials while still cultivating their style of storytelling in place since the studio opened in 2004.

A sure difference about The Walking Dead is that it came hot on the heels of the incredibly popular AMC television show of the same title.

Instead of relying on that popularity to buoy the game, Telltale wanted to create a unique experience on top of that fandom.

“[I]t’s going to be harrowing,” Telltale developers said on their blog in the middle of creating the game. “Decisions will range from relatively innocuous (do I lie here and if so, how should I lie?) though to world changing (I can only save one person here, who will it be?). Furthermore, you’ll come under pressure to make decisions quickly.”

Whether it was the popularity, the execution or both, the game’s first episode managed to sell one million copies in its first two weeks.

The developer (and others) hope to duplicate that formula of taking a popular franchise and creating a compelling adventure story around it. 2014’s release of Game of Thrones and Tales from the Borderlands’ first episode highlights the continuation of the lightning in a bottle captured with The Walking Dead.

 

Onward! Towards adventure!

Minecraft isn’t alone in the future of adventure games. Telltale has set up a solid slate of new episodes, with already announced sequels to The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and more episodes of Tales from the Borderlands on the way. Other studios plan to hop on the bandwagon with the rerelease of Grim Fandango and the second half of Broken Age, both by Double Fine.

Dec. 18 also saw the notable end of the most recent video game Kickstarter success. Ron Gilbert of classic adventure game Maniac Mansion and Day of the Tentacle fame returned to his roots by requesting funding to produce a new game called Thimbleweed Park.

The Kickstarter is notable in a few ways. First, the proposed game truly returns Gilbert and company to their roots by trying to emulate the feel of the old SCUMM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion) engine giving the game a distinctive feel that echoes back to the 1980s and 90s.

“Why do we want to make Thimbleweed Park?” Gilbert and creative partner Gary Winnick wrote on the Kickstarter page. “Because we miss classic adventures and all their innocence and charm… We want to make one of those again and we want to do it right. We don’t want to make a game “inspired by,” or “paying homage to” classic point & click adventures, we want to make a real classic point & click adventure.”

The second notable aspect of the Thimbleweed Park Kickstarter is that it earned quite a bit more than the $375,000 initially requested. The campaign closed Dec. 18 with a pledged $626,250 to produce the game.

That third point apparently convinced a whole lot of people to contribute.

That third point apparently convinced a whole lot of people to contribute.

While surely a few deeply interested pockets came out of the woodwork to fork over several thousand dollars to fund the game, the vast majority of the support game from sheer numbers.

15,230 fans of the adventure genre donated anywhere between $20 and $150, thus sealing the fate of the Kickstarter campaign. While that high number doesn’t quite match the sell through stats of the triple A titles, Thimbleweed Park did rank 173rd of the highest grossing Kickstarter campaigns, keeping close company with the Occulus Rift and the Pebble watch.

All to say that the fan base for adventure games remains savvy enough to watch for new games and maintains a willingness to pay for development.

This late-in-the-year crop of news also follows publisher Activision Blizzard’s summer announcement to revive Sierra Entertainment. Sierra expanded adventure games into the graphical era after its start in 1980, providing some of the following decade’s biggest titles like the Kings Quest series and Phantasmagoria. Activision shuttered Sierra, then under the Vivendi umbrella, in 2008 after purchasing the collection of studios a few years before.

Whether because of the growth in smaller titles or renewed interest in adventure games, Activision unveiled the new Sierra-name last August.

“Sierra caters to the individual needs of each indie studio,” the new website reads. “Sierra games will be primarily digitally distributed on platforms including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Steam for PC.”

 

Whether adventure games have merely the happenstance of Walking Dead popularity to thank for the revival or a genuine shift of taste changes in game playing, the fact remains that the genre will stay alive for a few years longer.


How Amiibos fit into Nintendo's toy making history

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Amiibos might pay off for Nintendo.

In the first reported numbers after the legendary company launched Amiibos, it looks like the entry into a crowded market points to a promising start.

December NPD numbers announced that Nintendo’s $13-$20 Amiibo figurines, which showcase characters from various games both old and new, have sold as well as Super Smash Bros for the Wii U.

“Nintendo’s new platform where gaming’s most recognizable characters can be used in different ways in many compatible games,” a Dec. 11 press release read. “Sales of Amiibo are approximately equal to sales of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.”

They put the Super Smash Bros. numbers at 710,000.

The figurines use an NFC (Near Field Communications) chip to communicate with the Wii U gamepad and affect certain games.

 

All in the family...

Fans of Nintendo know that the company started selling decorative playing cards in 1889. Moving shortly after into western playing cards, the company established itself as a toy maker and has largely continued that role to this day.

The fact is, even after finding electronic success, Nintendo has regularly tried to supplement its video games with toy peripherals. Amiibos are simply another mile marker along a history of devices.

The first actual toy that Nintendo produced was a tiny little racing track called the Rabbit Coaster in 1964. From there it only got more complex, especially as Nintendo entered the video game space.

The first outing to work with the launching of the Nintendo Entertainment system is the now iconic R.O.B (Robot Operating Buddy). Only working with two of the NES’ launch games, Gyromite and Stack-Up, Nintendo fiercely marketed it as a toy to enchant the jaded American video game market of 1984.

Far from the end, the success of the NES and R.O.B. only sparked Nintendo’s interest in pairing their video games with plastic peripherals. Of course, the Duck Hunt light gun numbers in that category, but it was far more straightforward than many of the experiments, which leaped onto Nintendo consoles.

The Power Glove, the Super Scope and the Power Pad are all examples of Nintendo’s unique strategy to implement peripherals into gameplay.

Nintendo also released these things. 

Nintendo also released these things. 

The company also insisted on exploring functionality space through the Gameboy’s camera/printer, Mario Party 6’s microphone attachment and Mario Paint’s mouse.

The movement towards stand-alone peripherals has continued into the past five years, primarily with Pokémon. The Pokéwalker a pedometer specifically used with either Pokémon HeartGold or SoulSilver came out in 1999. And Pokémon Rumble U NFC figures accompanied the 2013 game to add their own level of enhancement into the experience.

The idea of stand-alone peripherals in Nintendo’s arsenal crossed paths with the idea of collectability a number of times. Affiliate Game Freak has led that charge with the Pokémon card series and Nintendo even attempted to branch out with Kirby cards.

 

What’s the difference this time?

125 years into its diverse history, Nintendo has found itself at an interesting crossroads. The 1980s and 1990s success was borne on the back of continuing the company’s modus operandi: manufacturing toys for kids.

As those kids have aged, so have the ‘toys’. Video games have long become main stream and Nintendo has run into the dilemma of developing consoles, products and toys to capture the attention of children and also try to keep longtime devotees still on board.

While the Wii’s striking success managed the company to make up ground it had lost in the previous two console generations, it found a home with audiences not used to regularly buying new consoles or keeping current on the latest video game trends.

Many have speculated that Nintendo could have done a better job with the announcement, naming and concept of the Wii U, calling it too close and seemingly a mere expansion on the 2006 console.

Since its 2012 launch, the Wii U has not sold well compared to other players in the market.

Because of that it seems apparent that Nintendo has shifted to a reactionary mood. While they were relative pioneers in the motion control trends of the last decade, they followed a wave of industry interest in 3D gaming with the 3DS and the Amiibos come in warm on the heels of well established franchises like mega-blockbusters Skylanders and Disney Infinity.

In fact, the 710,000 Amiibos sold seems quite paltry compared to the $1.5 billion publisher Activision said they made off of Skylanders retail sales last year.

 

A hard plastic bargain

Nintendo pitches these figurines as affecting a wide range of games, though so far they have only announced Super Smash Bros AI companions, Mario Kart 8 costumes and invite players to “boost your firepower” in Hyrule Warriors.

While Amiibos do offer this expansive gameplay, Nintendo also apparently hopes that they tap into another tried and true video game mechanic: collecting.

For this first period of Amiibo launch, dubbed the Super Smash Bros. series, Nintendo will release a full 29 figurines.

Coinciding with announcing the sales figures, Nintendo also began “retiring” some of the figurines as President Satoru Iwata announced during this year’s semi-annual financial results briefing.

This made some collectors pretty angry, but surely Nintendo hopes the scarcity inspires demand.

The sales figures speak for themselves. Without having official Nintendo projections we can’t say that it hit their targets, but still this figurine gamble seems to have paid off for at least one quarter.

Of course, it’s still unclear what future implementation will make its way from Amiibos to games. For the time being, Nintendo has expressed a desire to bring compatibility to the 3DS but only hinted at a peripheral for those peripherals to come in 2015.

A peripheral for a peripheral...

A peripheral for a peripheral...

As for future games, the company has done no more than listing Mario Party 10, Yoshi’s Wooly World, Kirby and the Rainbow Curse and the currently out Captain Toad Treasure Tracker as those coming with “Amiibo-compatibility.”

With no word on how it will implement the figurines or what new characters Nintendo will make available, video game fans can do nothing more than wait for more information. Nintendo surely hopes those fans continue to collect all current 29, but it has plans for future products along the same lines.

Nintendo icon Shigeru Miyamoto held an extended interview with the Associated Press Dec. 18 and laid out the possibility of extended collectibles.

“Other games can take advantage of past Amiibo that developers want to make their game compatible with,” he said. “In the future, we have the option, if certain Amiibo figures are no longer available in stores, to release an Amiibo in card form with the same functionality.”


It is easy to draw a correlation between Amiibos and R.O.B.. R.O.B. reportedly entered the scene because investors were nervous about the video game crash of the early 1980s and buoyed the prospects of the newcomer Famicom. Nintendo is clearly trying to refine their strategy and update it for a rapidly shifting gaming space and, in a sense, throwing many ideas against the wall, hoping something sticks.

They could have found something lasting with Amiibos, but so far, one quarter does not a success make.

 

Titans Fell: The Autumn of Broken Games

By Peter Allen Clark

 

Console video games broke this fall.

Not all of them broke and not for the first time, still the industry cannot ignore the amount of big games that shipped in a variety of unplayable conditions. From the fiasco of Drive Club to the stealth embargo of a broken Assassin’s Creed, many games bought and played by the new generation of consoles stumbled and fell out of the gate.

Well, why?

The future appears to hold a hefty chance that the game you are most excited to play might not exactly work when you take it home from the store. What is the reason behind this shift that has grown over the past generation and how should your expectations shift?

 

Too much Halo, too soon?

It’s difficult to determine which of the big Triple AAA titles which launched this fall had the most resting on its heavily armored shoulders, but one could make a case for Halo: The Master Chief Collection.

Ever since the week last November that separated the launch of the current generation consoles, the Xbox One has flagged behind the Playstation 4 in terms of sales and arguably the minds and hearts of video game players.

Microsoft announced last month that they had “sold in to retailers” over 10 million consoles. Unfortunately that comes a full three months on the heels of Sony’s “10 million” Gamescom announcement. A difference exists in that Sony’s represent systems actually sold to customers.

Those lagging sales put The Master Chief Collection in prime position to be the veritable Xbox One system seller to buoy profits in time for holiday sales.

Unfortunately, all of the matchmaking capabilities tied to the four games within a game suffered an enormous breakdown at launch, leaving a vast many unable to enter a multiplayer game and continued difficulty playing co-op.

In fact, the first apology for the game’s failures came later in the night on the Nov. 11 launch. Executive Producer Dan Ayoub took to halowaypoint.com with regret.

“You deserve better and we are working day and night to find solutions as quickly as possible, with our first priority focused on matchmaking improvements,” Ayoub wrote. “[W]e plan to roll out a number of server updates to help improve matchmaking.”

So what went wrong?

Some speculate that it was simply too much, too soon. That the four different games, not including the Halo 5 beta that came with it, were forced into a console still new to developers.

“That’s four previously released games (plus a beta of an upcoming game) that were developed by two different game design companies to run on three separate video game consoles, all in one package,” Grantland opined. “The game code for just the first Halo game is some 14 years old, and encompasses a reported 1.6 million lines. Add to that the however many millions of lines of code used to build Halo 2, 3, and 4, the individual graphics engines that run each of those games, plus the remastered next-gen graphics and the unified navigation menu that sits on top of that legacy software.”

Bonnie Ross, founder and head of 343 Industries, put out the most comprehensive apology Nov. 24. However, her only justification for the issues only raised more questions.

“We have encountered unexpected issues that were not apparent in our internal test environment and that have resulted in a frustrating experience, including long matchmaking times and low session success rates,” she wrote. “Only through making changes on both the ‘server side’ (matchmaking and other server rulesets) and, via content updates (to the game itself), can we make the significant progress we’re working towards.”

Although the game never had a public beta, which seems to have benefitted other large releases this year, it still came from an internal Microsoft studio, presumably with many resources available for the success of the game.

In the name of apology, Ross seems to have promised reparations for those affected.

“While our team works on continual improvements and towards solutions, my commitment to you is that we will take care of all owners of Halo: The Master Chief Collection,” she wrote. “Our primary and continued focus is first on fixing the issues at hand. Once we’ve done that, we will detail how we will make this right with our fans.”

It’s tough to say whether this will appease Halo fans.

Update: Ross outlined the reparations 343 Industries would offer to Halo: The Master Chief Collection players Dec. 19 on Xbox.com.  

She said players who had played the game online between its launch day and the time of the post would receive the Halo 2 Anniversary multiplayer map 'Relic' and a remastered version of the Halo: ODST campaign. She said development had "just started" on a 60fps, 1080p Halo: ODST campaign, but that it would arrive in the "coming months." She also said work continued to fix remaining problems with the Master Chief Collection.

"We’ve been working around the clock deploying weekly content updates and numerous server-side adjustments that have shown good results and we’re encouraged by the feedback we’re hearing from you," Ross wrote.

 

Belly up to the embargo

Assassin’s Creed: Unity might have had the sneakiest failure this year as the annualized effort rolled out of Ubisoft’s many development teams and into global homes. After the previous success with last year’s well-received Black Flag, few outlets could have expected the mess that arrived.

Three days after the launch, Ubisoft Player Experience Manager Xhane posted a long list of Unity’s known issues that include game crashes, frame rate issues, multiplayer difficulties, inability to launch the game, corrupted saves, inability to progress and much, much more.

  This was not the typical look during the French Revolution.

 

This was not the typical look during the French Revolution.

Bewilderingly, for a game sold on the prospect of four-player co-op, Ubisoft’s answer for fixing a few of the problem involves taking and keeping your system offline.

Ubisoft made this launch seemingly sneakier than the other fall falters by embargoing reviews until after the game’s release.

In an impassioned Nov. 11 editorial on the Ubisoft embargo, Polygon Senior Editor Ben Kuchera lashed out at the developer.

“The reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity were held until noon, Eastern time today,” he wrote. “The game will have been available to purchase for as long as a dozen hours before anyone could read whether it was good or bad, or if it suffers from technical problems. There’s no valid reason for a review embargo such as this; it’s blatantly anti-consumer and likely designed to get the first rush of hardcore fans into the stores to buy their copies of the game before the reviews hit.”

So what caused Ubisoft developers to lose their heads?

Yannis Mallat, the CEO of Ubisoft Montreal & Toronto took to the site’s community page Nov. 26 and gave a comprehensive apology for the issues, though might not have specified where fault lies. Basically, he lays the failure at the feet of new tech.

“[I}t was the culmination of years of work on new technologies, the development of multiple innovations -- including an all-new game engine -- and an evolution of the Assassin’s Creed franchise’s core pillars,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, at launch, the overall quality of the game was diminished by bugs and unexpected technical issues.”

The unspoken reasoning behind Mallat’s words undoubtedly has to do with Ubisoft’s seeming commitment to put out a large Assassin’s Creed release every year, which they have done consecutively since 2009. This commitment surely limits the time developers need to master those “new technologies” and “an all-new game engine.”

It is also difficult to discuss the fractured nature of Unity without mentioning the fact that Ubisoft currently owns 29 studios in 19 countries. And while all of them did not contribute to the development of Unity, a full 10 had a hand in it. This scattered cooperation may also have some hand in disrupting the cooperative play.

An Ubisoft spokeswoman, who went unnamed for some reason, posited a different reason for Unity’s tribulations to the BBC.

“Having the online elements available and having populated worlds is essential to creating a representative and complete experience for reviewers,” she said. "Achieving this prior to launch is incredibly complex… We are working to adapt our services and communications with consumers accordingly, both by changing the way we work with reviewers and by offering customers open betas or other early access to some games, all so that they have the information they need and want.”

Ubisoft released the most recent patch Dec. 16 for Xbox One and PS4, which came in at an enormous 6.7 gigs and still did not claim to fix every item on the bug report.

  Ubisoft remains in a rather uncomfortable position.

 

Ubisoft remains in a rather uncomfortable position.

On Dec. 2 Kotaku reported a leak of 2015’s next Assassin’s Creed game, reportedly set in Victorian England. As the annualized effort moves forward, maybe the next few months will allow the multiple development studios to learn the new tech and avert another broken game.


Rule No. 1: Don’t talk about Drive Club

While it never had the most hype and never tried to hide its failure, the debacle that was Sony’s first-party Driveclub continues to define the stumbling nature of this fall’s lineup. For those with the fierce fire of console war in their heart, this marked the degradation of the one Playstation 4 exclusive to release this fall (It technically was the sole exclusive seeing how Little Big Planet 3 released concurrently on PS3).

First and foremost, readers should recall that Sony initially unveiled this title to coincide with the launch of the Playstation 4 and only delayed it into 2014 a month before the new console went on sale.

That delay ended up giving the developer Evolution Studios a full extra year to work on the game before it’s Oct. 7 release. Unfortunately, that time did not give the studio enough of an idea on how to successfully implement the game’s ambitious multiplayer. Specifically, server overload crippled multiplayer —  Driveclub could not put together a club.

The first apology came the day after Driveclub’s release.

“[W}e’re facing new challenges which we haven’t encountered as a development team before,” Paul Rustchynsky, Driveclub’s Game Director said on the game’s Facebook page. “We are seeing a lot of activity and new social behaviours right now, but unfortunately this is pushing the servers to their absolute limits.”

It not only set the tone for the months to come, but also announced the delay of the game’s Playstation Plus release, which Sony had touted in September.

“In order to help all DRIVECLUB players who have the game already, we're temporarily holding back the PS Plus Edition and the My DRIVECLUB app to ease the load and traffic to the servers,” Rustchynsky wrote.

Over two months later, the game still has not made it to Playstation Plus owners.

Implementation of fixes took so long that late in October, Shuhei Yoshida, President of Sony World Wide Studios took to Facebook to apologize.

“With the high volume of new players and additional server load the PS Plus Edition is anticipated to bring, we are currently not confident that we can guarantee the best online experience,” Yoshida wrote. “Unfortunately, the time frames required to roll out the fully connected experience will be longer than anticipated and we do not have an exact time frame for when they will be resolved.”

So, what happened?

In late October, as many as nine separate video game outlets, including Gamespot and Joystiq, attribute the following quote to Driveclub’s Facebook page that seems to have since been removed:


“The servers hit their absolute limit soon after the midnight launch on Oct 7. The servers were actually live for over a week before Oct 7 for reviewers and none of these issues were discovered during that time either.”


Evolution Studios has maintained that they prepared for a busy release.

Further details remain scarce though questions continue to swirl around the year delay that did not prepare the game appropriately.

The developer continues to put out updates in hopes of fulfilling promises given before release, which have included performance enhancements and the addition of dynamic weather. But neither the studio nor Sony has provided more information on how they could have avoided the issues.

However, both have had some honesty about the release, with PlayStation UK boss Fergal Gara telling IGN.com that Sony and Evolution Studios are collectively “embarrassed”.

This embarrassment, particularly in a season devoid of big, exclusive titles, will follow consumers and Sony into the console’s second year.

 

Not the first, won’t be the last

These three big titles merely stand out with the most notorious reputation. Others fared only a little better upon release. The Crew, Little Big Planet 3 and even Far Cry 4 experienced issues.

As per usual, Nintendo remains relatively unscathed from this battered deep bench of botched triple A titles. The company’s slow evolution between console generations seems to have also informed its quality assurance testing, especially with its single player outings.

However, Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros for Wii U also seems to have fallen under the weight of multiplayer maladies with an error affecting a “small percentage of consumers”.

Again, these are not the first games to ship broken. This year seems to be merely a notable intensification of last year’s Battlefield 4 or 2011’s Skyrim on PS3. For the three games highlighted here, Alien: Isolation, Shadow of Mordor, Sunset Overdrive and many other games released without high rates of failure.

Whether it’s the player outrage or the fear of something akin to Sony’s  “embarrassment”, this fall’s broken games might have already affected 2015. Some of the most anticipated games scheduled for release have already announced delays including Sony’s Bloodborne and The Witcher 3.

Still, with developers creating more complex games and publishers wanting games released sooner, the future of half-finished, untested titles seems unfortunately bright. 

Video Games Explained

Welcome.png

Hello and welcome to The Seriousness.

This is an attempt to add overall context to the presence of video games and technology in our lives. As news within the games industry continues to break every day, the need grows to gain a larger perspective on what that news means. Here, we will wonder how these events affect this pastime in which so many fine escape, meaning, art, socializing and enjoyment.

Personally, I have something of a two-pronged intention with this site.

First, I’ve loved video games since my dad bought me an Atari 2600 at the age of four. I’ve consistently played them throughout my life and over the past ten years, I’ve developed an even keener interest in the video games industry itself.

To that end, I’ve grown increasingly absorbed in the machinations of such a large force and intensely curious about how it continues to affect global economics and culture.

Second, as a journalist I’ve witnessed that profession bend in an attempt to define itself through a modern lens. The Seriousness will be yet another attempt to place the practice of journalism in a contemporary setting. We will challenge ourselves to find new avenues towards sources and new routes to data, hopefully establishing some small journalistic evolution in the process.

The Seriousness does not deal in opinions.

Flame wars and hype-inducing pieces will have no place here. The Seriousness starts from the foundation that both the writers and the readers enjoy video games and want more in depth information.

At the base level, we aim to provide a regular, richer view of the video games industry than you would find in most other outlets. At its highest levels, we hope to infuse data, analysis and old-fashioned reporting together to add whole new knowledge to the unfolding landscape of this multi-billion dollar field.

At this time, we don’t have the resources and infrastructure to monitor breaking news with the regularity of more sites. Instead, The Seriousness has the luxury of taking a step back from the fire hose of news and find deeper patterns, investigate larger trends and assemble what happens in a clear, comprehensive picture.

In short, we have questions about video games and technology we would like to answer. We know you do as well, so you should probably tell us and we’ll put in the legwork.

As of now, The Seriousness starts as a pretty small site and we hope to expand the size and its offerings with time. Let us know what you’d like to see as we really get things moving into 2015.

Thank you for visiting and I hope you will swing back by to see what we’ve unearthed,

Peter Allen Clark

peter@theseriousness.com