Losing My Edge

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Edge turned 20 recently, that could have been the impetus to review our relationship, but in all honesty I’d checked out years ago. I’d been living a lie. A mistaken belief that buying it and piling it round the house meant it was the same … it wasn’t. It’s impossible to not draw an analogy with marriage, my relationship with Edge is one of the longest I’ve ever had, longer than my actual marriage and relationship with my children. I’ll even lie, and say it was all great. It wasn’t.

If you asked if I was an Edge reader, I’d still say yes.

It had started so loftily, a recommendation, from a hipster peer, who looked down his nose at me as I was a ‘mere’ console gamer. He was a PC snob, my god, was he a PC snob. Edge, similarly looked down it’s nose at me and I let it.

In fairness, Edge helped me understand more about game design, about the medium itself, and let me listen in on conversations with the best game devs in the world. There were lots of good times.

However, Edge was also the arrogant ‘know it all’, the name dropper, the ‘too quick to quote’ and worst of all an arbiter of taste. Edge 10s are hateful and self indulgent. This conceit was clear in its benchmark, Famitsu. Impenetrable and mythical to Western readers, Edge filled a void that didn’t need to be filled. Edge became a smart arse.

The emergence of metacritic, made the single opinion, irrelevant. Edge fell into the meatgrinder, where only the outliers get noticed. Second rate click baiters trump editorial credibility. The snake eats itself. A symptom of an industry lost, even Edge couldn’t shine a light.

I remember the point when they lost me, the issue number is irrelevant. A piece on BioShock Infinite was simply a description of an E3 video (that turned out to be an elaborate bull shot anyway), it was shallow and vacuous. It served no point. Once I’d realised, the covers with the Ad funded UV spot varnish, the obvious platform bias (witness the recent U-Turn on Xbox One from demon to contender) and the self indulgent wallowing in self importance stuck in the craw.

This bile belies what Edge gave me, a fundamental toolkit for critical evaluation, but at what price? Can my opinions ever be my own, or has 16 years of Edge readership stolen my unique perspective? Maybe I never had one? And just thought I did. How very meta.

All in, it’s time for a trial separation. Honestly, it’s not you. It’s me.

The Beatles Killed The Dreamcast

Dreamcast

The 9th of September 2009 marked the 10th anniversary of the North American launch of the Dreamcast. A decade later it was the release date for The Beatles: Rock Band. These two events are both symbolic as they bookmark what has been one of the most turbulent periods in the history of entertainment media. Time feels like its accelerating with an exponential nature, the speed of progress. 1999 was a world away from today, the key evolutions in the online space were yet to come. Napster was launched in 1999 and closed down in 2001. Google came into being in 1996 and grew to its pre-eminent position throughout this period. Facebook wasn’t launched until 2004, with Twitter bringing up the rear in 2006. Throughout this period the music industry faced its biggest struggle as it wrestled with the colossus of peer to peer, and the digital tsunami it faced. The music industry emerged bloodied and bruised, and has never fully recovered. This context is relevant as in 1999 the Beatles back catalogue was considered to be so valuable that its inclusion in a video game, ‘a child’s toy’, would have been unthinkable. Therefore, something must have changed. Did video-games grow up or did the music industry wake up to its potential? Or was it somewhere in the middle?

The launch of the Dreamcast, represents a high water mark. The Dreamcast was a seminal moment in the history of both Sega and Video Game consoles themselves. So much was right with the Dreamcast, the device itself has an understated elegance, its dimensions were balanced, and it is arguably the best looking console in history. It had the might of Sega behind it, who had an unprecedented history of innovation and success. The previous generations of consoles had divided the video game nation and created a loyal and unflinching following. Whilst the winds of change were evident, namely the spectre of the Playstation, each and every Dreamcast owner was proud and excited about the potential of the system and the future for Sega. As history has proven this was to unravel over the next two years. The potential reasons for the Dreamcast’s demise have been eloquently and exhaustively discussed. At this point I can only contribute my own perspective. The Playstation represented the start of the erosion of the pursuit of video games as an innovative artform. The wildy inventive Chu Chu Rocket! came out soon after launch and Rez came out in 2001 on both Dreamcast and Playstation 2, although it’s natural home was the Dreamcast. Sega had a vision and  purity derived from the gameplay lessons learnt through the evolution from arcade to home console.

The Dreamcast redefined what a console meant by a single inclusion of the 33.6  kbps modem (in Europe), and the accompanying Dreamarena online service. Dreamarena was a dial up service created through a partnership between ICL, BT and various ISPs. Dreamarena closed in March 2003. Dreamarena was free and provided the blueprint for services like Xbox LIVE and PSN. The lessons learnt provided an insight to Microsoft and Sony at the expense of Sega. The online capabilities of the Dreamcast were at odds with the times where online PC gaming was nascent and seemed unthinkable on a console. Sega were aware of the risk and the inclusion of the modem in each Dreamcast cost them dearly:

“I forced [Sega] to put in modem functions. At that time, I had a lot of opposition that said it was ridiculous to stick in a modem that cost several thousand yen. But, I managed to get it my way” Isao Okawa, President of Sega

After Sega bowed out of the console arms race, it was left to Sony and Nintendo to slug it out, until the arrival of the Xbox in 2001. Sega had occupied a unique market space, as it had attributes of Nintendo and Sony, a unique combination of genre defining IP (Sonic) and hardcore gaming appeal. The video game industry owes a huge debt to Sega. As Sega moved across to become a developer/publisher the devotees rubbed their eyes in disbelief …“How could this have happened?”

In the years that followed the Games Industry grew, and fractured into a myriad of subdivisions, built around genre and target audience. In 2005 Red Octane released Guitar Hero. In 2007 EA/Harmonix/MTV Games released Rock Band. The material differences between the two, in 2009, are essentially irrelevant.  To date Rock Band has sold 13 million copies with a billion $ in total sales and in excess of 50 million track downloads. From the outside looking in, it appeared there had been a perfect synergy of games and music. This was far from the case.

The games and music industry were bumping heads as the music industry was still trying to attach the material values of a physical world to a digital landscape. Well documented digital hold outs began to emerge, AC/DC, Metallica and most famously the Beatles. The exact reasons for this are varied, be it a consideration that digital was devaluing music, a natural suspicion or blind fear and panic. In the realm of music games the music of the Beatles represented the ultimate goal. The digital hold outs began to fall … lured by a new audience and inevitable revenues as they were coaxed onto the gaming platforms. As the games hit the mainstream the pressure from band managers, record labels and publishers became so ferocious that no-one could resist. The Beatles were literally for sale.

For the games industry a band like the Beatles represents a gift. A huge and dedicated  fan-base with a history of repeatedly buying the countless re-issues that have been force-fed to the audience over the years. Stereo? Mono? Limited edition Miniature album packaging? Box sets?. The fan-base devoured them like a gluttonous beast, seemingly insatiable and ever thankful. George Lucas faces criticism for endlessly profiting from his audience, whereas the Beatles strangely have avoided this fate.

The Beatles also represent a route to the non-traditional gamer, or indeed for that matter the non-traditional music purchaser. Whether Beatles Rock Band is a good game or not is wholly irrelevant. It will sell, this is a given as the stars are aligned in such a way that the plaudits and sales figures are inevitable. Who is going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg? Not the games press, and certainly not the worldwide media who enjoy huge sales spikes everytime they put the Beatles on the cover.

You may think this churlish, of me as a killjoy who is standing in the way of the enjoyment of others. For me these events, separate by a turbulent decade illustrate the limitless potential of video games as a medium, ranged against the calculated creation of a product that is intended to break new markets, recycle IP, and perhaps even make enough money to soften the blow once the Beatles music falls out of copyright. Everything about Beatles Rock Band is recycled, The concept for the game, the music therein and perhaps even the plastic in the instruments. The Dreamcast represented a visionary company making and brave, ambitious and ultimately disastrous strategic move. However, without the Dreamcast the ecosystem that has allowed Rock Band to sell 50 million downloads would not exist.

If we try and re-engineer history to infer an aetiology in reverse, it could be argued that the drive towards commercialisation, sequelism and fundamentally mainstreamism were the seeds that were apparent at the very point of the Dreamcast’s collapse. Therefore it would seem that the very thing that has advanced the video games industry  as a whole was the exact thing that helped to eliminate the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast is a cautionary tale to the games industry, but in hindsight created the industry we have today.

The Dreamcast is dead. Long Live the Dreamcast.

What Project Natal actually means …

Kontrol

Ever since the emergence of the Wii, there has been a continual movement away from, and criticism of, the ‘traditional’ methods of game input/control. The tail end of 2006 was the point where console designers decided that the control pad were redundant and defunct. This was amplified by the desire to capture the casual/mass market that, many think are intimidated by the spectre of the control pad:

“It has everything to do with breaking down barriers and getting to the mass market, where controllers are barriers and they’re intimidating. It’s awkward for some people to learn to use a controller.” Shane Kim – Microsoft

This was writ large across the stage at the Microsoft E3 2009 press briefing with the announcement of Project Natal. Speculation has suggested it will be called ‘Xbox Fluid‘ at launch and it is predicted to be released into the wild in Autumn 2010. A day later Sony showcased their take on motion control, that felt crude by comparison and all but had been revealed in their patent application. Sony, like Nintendo before them is reliant on a controller, albeit covered by rendered graphics in Sony’s demonstration. So whilst E3 2009 doesn’t bring a new home console platform to play on (PSP GO excepted), it seems to be focused upon ‘new ways to play’. That of course presumes that the previous iterations were failing us in some way …

Natal breaks down the line, but immersion can be achieved through a pad. The inherent problem is built around muscle memory and the belief that a ‘casual’ gamer needs immediate immersion, and without that they will walk away. I believe this may be a misconception and that the content of most games is the barrier not the input method. Natal like the Wii remote takes the fear out of the control method, thereby lowering these psychological barriers for entry. Paradoxically it could also alienate those familiar with the controllers we have now. I am quite sure that I could perfectly visualise the 360 controller in my mind. Indeed, thinking about it now I have a memory of its dimensions and its weight. The 360 controller is unique and I would argue is as close to perfect as any controller I have used. Case in point occurred when I used my PS3 for the first time, my exposure to the DualShock had been extremely limited, and at first I was wrestling with the dimensions and the button placement, even now it is by no means second nature.  So, it would appear even for a core gamer that Shane Kim has a point. It seems that familiarity does not always breed contempt.

Watching the Natal demo reminded me of being in a drama class as a child and being asked to ‘be a tree’. Dismay and confusion broke out with the ubiquitous snickering and lack of attention. The basic point was that when the parameters of interaction were removed, the default setting was confusion. Natal was presented as being entirely intuitive, but games and their architecture are bound by rules and convention. One of the demos being shown behind closed doors at E3 is Burnout, and Natal is being used as the control mechanism, but the brake and accelerator are configured in a different way to those in an ‘actual’ car, so the method is not wholly intuitive (for now) and requires adaption. Such acceptance of game world norms would be a small step for gamers to take but belies the premise of purely intuitive interaction.

Natal’s greatest challenges are therefore:

  • Can it create an experience so immersive that even the self-conscious act of interaction is forgotten?
  • Does Natal rely too heavily upon the users imagination, as it requires a leap of faith to ‘mime’ the action being depicted on-screen? A controller gives the audience a prop. The staggering and continuing success of Guitar Hero et al is testament to the power of plastic.
  • What does Natal actually mean for game design and the future of games as whole?

Peter Molyneux explained Natal with passion and enthusiasm. Even the most disinterested in games  have connected with his brief eulogy to the merits of its potential. Molyneux, like Spielberg, is a modern day Gepetto who seems preoccupied with creating a digital being that is sentient, moral and autonomous. Milo is not this creation, but gives us a tantalising glimpse of what Natal could hold for the future. Natal’s current status as vaporware overshadows all other discussion about motion control methods, and ensures that the Xbox as a platform remains vibrant and relevant.

The name is, of course, not accidental. If we turn  to the dictionary for a moment:

na⋅taladjective
1. of or pertaining to a person’s birth: celebrating one’s natal day.
2. presiding over or affecting a person at birth: natal influences.
3. (of places) native: nostalgia for one’s natal town.

Is Natal a flag in the sand for the generation that will follow the 360? Does this represent the future evolution of the Xbox? If Natal is due to arrive in Q4 2010, that would foreshadow the anticipated ‘When Gen’ that is predicted to follow in 2015 (this is the lifecycle as predicted my Microsoft). Natal seems more at home as a control system for an entirely new experience and it’s success on the 360 is entirely dependent on software. Lionhead and countless others are more than capable of delivering rich and powerful experiences using Natal but the question of whether Natal will make you cry is entirely erroneous. Games still need to make you smile, care and hope in the first instance. The time when they evoke real human emotion and not digital empathy is still some time away, irrespective of the complexity or apparent simplicity of the interface.

Soul Calibur IV (Namco)

There are few things in life that you recall with a true vivid clarity that imprint themselves on your mind. What these are make you the person that you are. I recall seeing Soul Calibur for the first time at an independent game store in Nottingham some time around the 8th of August 1999. I can’t exactly be sure of the date, but it was a couple of days after the Japanese release. The game was running on a Silver Sanyo TV that was elderly, and had a slot for VHS cassettes beneath its rounded screen. The time was close to 12.10pm. Even at a distance I was stopped in my tracks, and took a deep intake of breath. By 4.30pm that day I had bought the imported Japanese Dreamcast it was running on, and was looking at the large bag behind the counter of Selectadisc. I could not wait to get home.

dreamcast

For a few weeks I carried it around Nottingham to friends houses armed with a copy of Sega Rally in tow. I don’t know why I bothered it never came out of the case. Soul Calibur was stunning, but utterly ridiculous. The characters were odd, with a peculiar pompous sense of “otherwordlyness ” that is almost impossible to place in time or space. Famitsu had given it the perfect score of 40, and it felt justified. For certain the plot was overblown and the voice-overs were ludicrous. It did however contain the “special sauce” that meant you couldn’t put the controller down. Just one more go …

A lot has happened since then, I have become the proud father of 2 children, played Soul Calibur 2 on Game Cube, got married, skipped Soul Calibur III (as it was a PS2 exclusive), and started my MBA. Time is passing, and I half wondered if time would have got the better of Soul Calibur. I was reminded of this on three occasions recently:

Firstly, I said goodbye to three quarters of my vinyl record collection. The collection had lost its meaning for me, whilst I could still recall each time and place that I had bought most of the records, the reason seemed hazy and unclear, and the possessions that I had previously thought were part of my very fibre, we redundant and outmoded. The digital revolution had finally got me, and I had lost my attachment to the physical. George came and took them away in a white hire van, and I didn’t have a single twinge as I said goodbye. This therefore led to the redundancy of my Technics 1210‘s.

I had DJd for years, with varying levels of commitment and competency, and had spent hour after after on these decks. They were the altar to my vinyl worship. A friend of mine who plays drums in a band had dropped an email round asking if anyone wanted to sell theirs, as he wanted to get into DJing. It seemed like the perfect opportunity. The deal was struck, and I drove to St Albans to drop them off. Whilst there I realised that everything had changed as I had more in common with his dad that him, and when I went to his bedroom, it was like a flashback to being 14. I then wished I had taken my shoes off as soon as I’d come through the door. Hip? I don’t think so.

Finally, growing up I had a huge passion for Star Wars, not in an ironic t-shirt kind of way, but a deep affection for the films that was unaffected by the prequels. Try as I might I had always had a problem with Yoda, he was almost 900 years old, 0.66 metres tall and had a predilection for talking back to front. I thought he was smug. He was a tiny authority figure who told Luke what to do. I didn’t like him. I was 10. As I grew up I started to warm to his eccentricities, and he diffused my animosity. It wasn’t until I first played Soul Calibur IV that I finally realised. I’m not Luke Skywalker, Kurt Cobain or Jackson Pollock. I am closer to Yoda, but not nearly as wise.

In short, Soul Calibur IV rocks.  Kilik? I’ll leave to the one trick pony button bashers on XboxLIVE, I’ve moved on.