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 Great Kinect Hoax

In September 1969 a rumour started to circulate that Paul McCartney had died, replaced by an imposter. A pale imitation of the former or exact replicant? Within the hugely passionate Beatles audience, this was treated with suspicion and curiosity in equal measure. The rumour refused to go away as there was enough of a kernel of truth/curiosity/morbidity in something that seemed impossible. The tale has it that in 1967 Paul had died in a car crash. Fans scoured Beatles albums for references and clues trying to uncover the truth, a 1960’s comparison to the code-cracking Redditors of 2012. The Beatles press editor refuted the rumours. Could such an incredible feat have been pulled off in plain sight of a global audience?

In 2009 Microsoft, the Keyser Söze of the technology world, introduced Kinect to the world with an astonishing display of smoke andmirrors. Promises were made and ideas spread that would never materialise, this was the death of Kinect before the introduction of the imposter that would go on to commercial release. This was the greatest trick Microsoft ever pulled, convincing the world that the potential of Kinect existed. For Microsoft, unlike Paul, the car crash came after the idea died.

But how can this be true? Kinect claimed the Guinness World Record of being the “fastest selling consumer electronics device” be selling 8 million units in 60 days.  posthumously it will become apparent that the great Kinect Hoax of 2010 sold consumers on a promise that could never be fulfilled.

What’s more frustrating? That the promise of Kinect was never realised, or that as consumers we were lied to.

The most damning evidence is the Milo and Kate demo. The demo presented a brave new vision of game interaction, that was the reason I bought Kinect. In hindsight it was a scripted sham, never to be realised. Having lived with Kinect, watching it now feels like an obvious pantomime. In short it was a lie. Kinect is a lie.

What we were offered were a series of shovelware titles that were stillborn, unresponsive and in many cases simply didn’t work. Never has there been a platform with such a dire software catalogue that remained on the market. The average score for all Kinect titles is 64% veering between Dance Central at 86% and Fighters Uncaged at 32%. As it turned out Kinect was ill-suited to pretty much all input schemes. The best ideas utilised in the launch titles have never been matched.

The best Kinect game? Easy. Happy Action Theatre from Double Fine. Aimed at Pre-Schoolers: the only example of exciting emergent gameplay mechanics by recreating the kind of cheap parlour tricks usually reserved for exhibits in ‘futurist’ Science Museums. Even now, three years after the E3 announce developers still cannot make Kinect work: Steel Batallion is a stunning example of how incapable Kinect is as control input and has a Metacritic of 39%. Kinect software simply isn’t improving after three years. A clear indication that Kinect is fundamentally flawed.

Living with Kinect (as a non game input device) is like having a petulant toddler controlling your console, one that doesn’t listen, is impossible to control and returns results and commands that have no bearing on the original input. It make simple tasks utterly exasperating. Microsoft’s insistence on pushing forward with Kinect is a clear illustration of foolhardy reliance upon segmentation data and lifestyle surveys.

Kinect is flatlining. Its time to pull the plug.

Television vs. Video Games. Fight!

<BELL RINGS>

“In the red corner weighting in at 110lbs is the TV, undisputed champion of the sitting room since 1954, the darling of countless billions who have succumbed to its simple soporific charms. In the blue corner, the nimble upstart, the Video Game console, weighing in at 8lbs, rocking thumbs since the late 70s, but claiming their first world crown in 1985. The object of parental dismay ever since, and a font of moral panics. TV has been repeatedly bested by the youngster over the years but now is the time for TV to fight back! …”

This fight is far from over and the title bout takes place each year in January in Las Vegas at CES. Las Vegas is more than gin soaked gamblers, lamenting their losses in gaudy palaces of deceit. It’s the battle arena for global consumer electronics giants to fire salvos at each other. Each device is slimmer, faster and more innovative than the next. Want a 4mm thin TV? You got it. A fridge that can chill a can of coke in five minutes flat? Waterproof Smartphone. No problem.

CES is significant as its there that SMART TV is publicly racing ahead. Adoption is yet to reach a tipping point, but the migration is clearly apparent and for the console manufacturers, SMART TV is a spectre that cannot be ignored. App Stores on the device allied with intuitive inputs, motion control, gesture control and voice recognition are all present in the latest TVs. The ‘Killer App’ of Kinect just got pulled into the host, Kinect and the 360 now look like a counterintuitive double act. They’re starting to resemble clutter in the early stages of obsolescence.

It used to be the case that a games console provided entertainment that the TV could not, this hegemony went unchecked for decades as screen manufacturers stood idly by watching Nintendo, SEGA and Sony make a killing, delivering visceral content through adopted hosts. By the time the Xbox came along the stranglehold was vice like and the need for a console to deliver games was unassailable. They were untouchable.

The Wii arrived. Dragging with it new input methods and consumers, who were the exact intersect of the TV/Gaming audience. The lines became blurred primarily as the consumers (primarily) didn’t care which device was delivering the experience. The Wii UI aped TV channels, and recalled an aged CRT screen. The shark had been jumped. The console was invisible. Then the single most seismic event ever to hit gaming came along. The equivalent of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. The App Store.

In hindsight the Wii’s achievements will be all but forgotten, seen as an anomaly, an old model based on hackneyed technology allied with unique ideas.  The App Store opened the wallets of the non gaming ABC1 audience. The iPhone was a trojan horse, silver bullet and a vial of poison all wrapped into one. The games industry is still reeling from its impact. Its clear many will never get up from the suckerpunch.

The App Store explosion legitimized short form content delivery to the mainstream, and awakened every device manufacturer, to the fact they would to become a digital storefront. Many wastefully spent billions in an effort to mimic Apple, few succeeded. In 2012, It’s all about the audience. Samsung and LG command huge global audiences, engaging with them daily. They provide the warm blanket, the reassuring voice and the window on the world. TV is second only to the mobile phone as the ultimate ‘personal’ device. People love TV. Watch as they place them on walls, pushing family portraits to one side. Placed on an altar for the worship of false prophets.

TV as a concept crushes the Video Game a billion times. Video Games are niche. TV is Simon Cowell. TV is a huge metal fist in a velvet glove, the host will defeat the parasite, and the content will migrate into the TV. The consumer has ceased to care. Fanboys are a niche that are no longer the target of the console manufacturers attention.  The irony is that the console manufacturers are driving convergence, with motion control and the drive to turn Xbox LIVE into a ‘entertainment destination’, thereby quickening the infection. The 360 has mutated from a core gaming platform to a set-top box in an aim to capture the lapsed Wii audience. The problem? This audience has already made the jump to mobile and tablet, and they’re not coming back.

To the console manufacturers who think this won’t happen, I have one word. Kodak.

Video Games consoles are laid on the canvas bleary eyed, as the referee stands over them counting …

< … 7, 8, 9 … Its time to throw in the towel … >

The People vs. Saints Row: The Third

The Schlock and Awe of Saints Row: The Third

Warning: Contains Spoilers

Saints Row: The Third is a chaotic mess.

Fuelled by bad jokes, misogyny, clichés,  and puerile humour. The game is fugly, with character models that look like a 360 launch title, pop-up at every stage, clipping, characters getting stuck in walls, frequent game-breaking crashes. It’s almost as if the game never made it through THQ quality assurance. It’s hard to gauge what the dev team were thinking …

Who is the target audience? We can only presume its adolescent Middle American kids amped up on Mountain Dew.

Its schlock and horror all the way. Surely the Dev Team (all of whom are grown men) are ashamed of themselves? Saints Row: The Third is a symptom of a global entertainment industry that has spent three decades emptying the pockets of men aged 18-35. Never before has an industry pursued a section of the core demographic with such vampiric zeal. Its proven very lucrative, resulting in a multi billion dollar honey pot.

Saints Row: The Third is the epitome of Give The People What They Want™.  Henry Louis Mencken called it in the line “No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.” (The Chicago Tribune , September 19, 1926)  Switch American for Western, and its equally valid.

As an Intelligent Gamer™ its hard to reconcile finding pleasure in a cookie cutter open world, that steals from GTA and Crackdown so shamelessly. The GTA comparison is lazy and hackneyed, Saints Row: The Third is a bombastic theft of Crackdown’s pace and core mechanics augmented with gaudy outfits and dildos.

This is the game that asks you to attack an Airliner, fall out the back in a tank, engage in a mid-air tank battle, crash land in a chemical plant thereby releasing toxic fumes which results in the inevitable Zombie infestation. A call to Mayors office results in being asked to wipe out the infected by Burt Reynolds, Burt-fucking-Reynolds. Wait a minute. Did this game just become genius?

Burt-fucking-Reynolds

This is the game, that in the mission ‘http://deckers.die&#8217; pitches the protagonist as a hopping toilet in a game world ripped from Tron, flipping to text adventure, a pastiche of the tank battle from the Atari 2600 game ‘Combat’, punctuated by a fake error screen and a final battle that evokes Japanese mecha titles. In a single mission Volition has created a knowing intelligent polished collage of video game culture, supremely playable and exceptionally clever. It’s at this point if you wonder if there were two competing Dev. teams. Are they really the same team who created the Gimp Pony race segment?

Saints Row: The Third is a video game made for the Daily Mail, to demonize, deride and promote. It’s a game aimed at the increasingly entrenched core gamer (most likely in his room at his moms house), it’s the reaction to the earnest nature of Rockstar’s output, an attempt to recreate WarioWare for the post pubescent. It’s a game made by a schizophrenic dev team who were so keen to shock that they diluted the core pillars of the game to a frameless shopping list in a hollow game world without life or verve. Saints Row: The Third is also a highly accomplished third person shooter, with robust key mechanics, responsive vehicle controls and some astonishing set pieces, sadly populated by characters who are loveless and unsympathetic. Its morality is highly questionable, and in places unnecessary.

Volition cast their net of references so wide, with  a hope of hitting the buttons of the target, they frequently miss the mark. On rare occasions they nail it. They would do well to focus on these moments. Alcoholics call them ‘moments of clarity’. Volition have the potential to make an exceptional Saints Row, underpinned by intelligence and surreal humour, the puerile media baiting tactics are holding them back. Only then can the franchise step out of the shadows of its peers.

If Volition follow the current path, it’s simply a race to the bottom

Who shot Kinect? … How ‘The Gunstringer’ went awry

‘The Gunstringer’ infuriates, dissapoints and charms all at the same time. A difficult feat to achieve.

As the poster boy for the only valid pure Kinect mature experience, ‘The Gunstringer’ is the mature breakout hit on the platform that wasn’t.  The fundamental issue for Twisted Pixel was outside of their control, Kinect. Kinect artificially restricts the freedom given to game designers by a control pad. Microsoft would claim this as an oxymoron, as freedom was a central pillar of the Kinect experience.

Ironically, giving freedom to gamers has tied the hands of game designers.

The best Kinect games take gesture based input, or control schemes based upon familiar actions. Finesse and accuracy aren’t fundamental to Kinect (yet); and as such a game based upon aiming and shooting was always going to struggle. Even so, in ‘The Gunstringer’  the reticule is astonishingly forgiving, a little like playing CoD with a bazooka where every enemy is the size of a barn. The most imprecise gesture summons a rewarding lock on. The main problem? It feels hollow and unrewarding. Leaning  from cover is a flick of the left wrist. Is this immersion? Nah. The basics of this game would have improved a thousandfold on a controller. Twisted Pixel nailed the 2D platformer (Ms Splosion Man) with precise, infuriating level design that was punative and rewarding all at once. At no point do you ever feel frustrated by the controller input, just your ability. At every point ‘The Gunstringer’ feels like shadow boxing the Stay-Puft man. However, it’s nowhere near as amazing as that sounds.

‘The Gunstringer’ shines in terms of characterisation;  the premise of  a demented marionette hellbent on revenge is impossible to resist. Sadly, the gameworld is inconsistent. In a world based on the bizarre, its still a mish mash with some levels looking like they were ripped straight out of Little Big Planet, some created from a splash of Monty Python, and then within the game universe itself;  a lack of internal consistency, that manifests in oversized kitchen cutlery and water made from hand-sewn blankets. Its not odd or eclectic … it just feels half baked. Breaking the fourth wall is, simultaneously, the games greatest achievement and folly.

The game feels as though its been stretched to justify a packaged release. Originally slated as an XBLA title the game morphed into a packaged title, its painfully apparent in sections such as a steamboat ride where only the left hand is utilised, or the endless waves of paper enemies who explode into confetti in a dark cardboard environment. The latter feeling so sparse on content that it felt like the scenery would fall over at any moment to reveal the developers sniggering in the background drinking tea. Publisher pressure feels like it influenced the game design for the worse. The reason is simple, ‘mainstream’ Kinect games don’t buy XBLA titles, to broaden the games reach it had to be on a disc. This is incongruous as all of Twisted Pixel’s previous titles had been digital only.

As a digital developer at the vanguard, a packaged release felt like betrayal.

‘The Gunstringer’ feels like the kernel of the right game, botched and rerubbbed then released on the wrong platform for the wrong motives. And that’s a real shame.

Welcome to the Slaughterhouse: What the new Xbox Dashboard means to developers

At Develop in 2010, Sean Murray from Hello Games described XBLA as a “kind of a slaughterhouse for smaller developers” (his reservations have clearly been overcome as Joe Danger will soon be published by Microsoft Studios). Murray pointed to PSN as a more egalitarian channel for those looking to self publish. Murray isnt alone in noticing the role the dashboard plays in securing the success of download titles on Xbox Live. Before we demonize, we need to understand what role the dashboard plays and the pivotal role of UI.

Xbox Live has always had a fundamental problem. Text Input.

Microsoft has chosen to avoid the input issue by enabling voice search. It works, but doesn’t overcome the primary issue for developers – The fundamental importance of discovery. Potential customers can only search for something they are already aware of, and whilst it makes it easier it is a thousand miles away from a mechanic such as Amazon recommends, or Stumbleupon, which are both highly effective as driving discovery (PSN already utilises this feature).

Controller based input of text is arduous. The solutions are simple (keypad or USB keyboard), but the barrier to discovery (however slight) remained significant. This led to a pervasive influence of the dashboard. This is common to all digital store fronts as iTunes and Steam both have a huge bearing the success of promoted titles. The AppStore and Android marketplace further amplify the problem due to lack  screen real estate. The issue therefore is the consumer, most are passive and  are happy with what is deemed to be ‘preferable’ – ‘The Editors Choice’.  Within a walled garden (as all these storefronts are), promoted content is chosen by the platform holder, based upon potential of commercial  success, platform alignment and fit within the current portfolio. In the case where platform holders are also content creators, the support of Third Party content also has to align with support for First Party titles.

The final piece of the puzzle is paid advertising. XBLA and PSN differ from iTunes and Steam in that they accept advertising. Vocal critics have been vociferous in damming the new Xbox Dashboard as being driven by advertising. These criticisms are a little late in the day, as the previous dashboard was built around advertising, the fundamental difference is the advertising is now more persistent, every slot is currently occupied and clearly labelled. As a Gold subscriber it feels ironic that consumers pay to remove ads from services like Spotify, yet they remain on Xbox Live. The argument would be that the consumer is paying for a subscription service, whereas Spotify is an ad-supported service. That’s a point for another post.

Content creators therefore have a mountain to climb ahead of getting the content live on the service. Awareness. Achievement of supply chain objectives isn’t enough. The chances of success are supported by the few titles that confound sales expectations.

The predefined release schedules of XBLA (usually two titles a week as part of a managed portfolio) provide a focus for consumers, but also create a meat grinder that provides a short window (that is actually reflective of consumers attention spans). XBLA’s pre-requisite for trials for every title, also foster and support a ‘demo culture’ where 90% of consumers are only playing trial versions. This strengthens the platform as it provides a pipeline of free content, and adds value to the platform. This creates a robust consumer offering of varied content that is all try before you buy. A belief this is free to play is misguided as it’s a segment of the full product, whereas free to play is ordinarily a fully realised game, where additional features are purchased for a supplementary fee. XBLA is more akin to being given a free piece of chocolate at the supermarket. The final sale is purely related to the experience of the first taste.

Developers, Independent or otherwise must be cogniscent of the role of the platform and the role of the trial experience they are delivering. A second-rate trial is usually indicative of the quality of the final product. Xbox Live does not owe developers a living, but similarly it owes a huge debt to the content creators who keep the platform alive. Without the content Xbox Live is a server architecture and box of components. Developers can question the restrictive nature of the service architecture and the business models it currently supports, but criticising a platform for being competitive (and therefore destructive) is missing the point, Digital distribution empowers content creators to deliver straight to the consumer, albeit through controlled channels. The alternative is the Wild West of P2P. Ask the Music Industry how that worked out for them …

Whilst there will always be a puppet master, its more about learning how to pull the strings rather than cut them.

How to buy Video Games at Car Boot sales: A practical guide

The History

The Car Boot sale is a peculiarly British phenomenon, that can be traced back to the early 1970s. Father Harry Clarke kicked off the idea , a Catholic priest from Stockport, who had seen a similar thing in Canada. The Car Boot sale has survived even after the advent of Ebay. Their existence is a testament to the fact that some people are either reluctant to sell their tat online, incapable or prefer not to. Car Boots are utterly random, a cornucopia of oddments in a field that you couldn’t imagine if you tried. Looking for a Foot-Spa, go to the carboot. Looking for a fondue you can fill with Baileys? Car Boot. Looking for an amateur oil painting of an oil rig on fire? You get the idea…

This is a guide for those brave, stupid or reckless enough to ‘dig’ for games at Boot Sales. Record ‘Digging’ gave birth to sample culture and is well documented. Everything else is just collecting …

The Basics

  1. Car boot sales are nationwide in the UK and happen most weekends from Spring to Autumn. For the hardy there are many that take place through the year, these are usually in desolate and soul-destroying car parks near to low rent supermarkets and abandoned buildings. The best car boots are in a field on sunny Sunday morning. More details here.
  2. Take change and plastic bags. Sounds basic, but if you don’t have a bag (supermarket carriers are best as they identify you as classless) you will be frowned at and if you have a note over a fiver, there will be a drama like you have never seen. “Twenty pound notes? … Didn’t even know they existed mate …”
  3. Dress down. If you look like you have slept in a dumpster more the better. Don’t get dressed up. Walk hunched if you can. Grunt when you talk.

What will you find?

In short, a field of unimaginable second-hand debris sold by one of two groups of people:

  1. Traders: The scourge of the Car Boot. These are easy to spot. They will be smoking (irrespective of time or day), likely to have tattoos on their hands and generally quite shifty looking. Most likely ‘Geezers’. They usually have a large van that calls out some kind of business that doesn’t always look legit. it’s often scaffolding, car modifications or house clearances. There stalls are usually larger than everyone else, spilling in every direction, often with a sea of tat at jacked up prices. In the case of games, there is a long tradition of selling DVDs and many of these traders have moved into games. The problem is that they have no idea what is good from bad so arbitrarily price games as high as they think they can get away with. The issue with traders is that they will turn up at 7am sweep the remainder of the sale for the items they are looking for and then resell. If you are buying from a trader you will always get a worse deal. I warn you.
  2. Private Sellers: These are ‘normal’ people, who have a bunch of things in their house that they don’t want. Games are only a small part of what they own, so be alert, quick and be prepared to ‘dig’. They are easy to spot, they look like a family, and seen keen to get rid of the stuff they loaded their car with the day before. They ideally want to go home with an empty car and a few quid in their pocket. Mum’s who have cleaned out their son’s room when they have gone to university are a prime target.

Know the Market

As mentioned briefly above there is very little understanding of the market value of games. In comparison to other Car Boot items they are premium items. It’s common to see 95% depreciation in price on other items such as books whereas games still command a relatively high price. As soon as anyone sees a PS3 or 360 game they will charge well over the odds. As a comparison an average quality DVD will go for 75p to £1. Be aware of current second-hand prices through visits to the High Street or check online with a site like CEX. It’s common for current gen software to be priced for near to their high street second-hand value. If you are alert, you can avoid this.

Many traders are now pitching all Xbox games as backward compatible. Around 400 titles are, so there is plenty to dig for. Go here, print out the list and put it in your back pocket. Traders hate it when you know more than they do. If you are a serious gamer you will also have a better chance of knowing the gems than they do. A raft of PS1 and PS2 games are also playable on PS3. Go here for the list. Dont forget the Wii also plays Gamecube games.

If you buy retro you are potentially in for the find of a lifetime, with GBA, Gameboy, Megadrive, SNES, NES and PSP titles all very well represented (often unboxed). I have seen 3DO and laserdisc game but they are very uncommon. The totally unexpected could be one carboot away!

Always check the condition, if in doubt don’t buy!

Look out for hardware, there is often little power on site to test hardware, so buyer beware! having said that if you are looking for a 360 debug they turn up more frequently than you might imagine. The image below is a Xbox debug, look out for them! If you are buying handhelds carry a pocketful of the relevant batteries.

Also look out for hardware bundles (many remain boxed), bought as gifts and remain relatively unused. PS1, PS2 are ubiquitous, and very easy to find. Mega CDs are also more common than you think.

Promo games are common and are the same as retail version but don’t include a booklet. They often have no sleeve (PS3) and x360 games have a greyed out cover with a large flash across the cover. The game discs themselves are exactly the same.

The Price

The price is rarely marked, so involves a  mind game of the trader guessing what you are prepared to pay, and you trying to get them down on price. Use discretion, but don’t be scared to haggle. A deal can always be done. Have a price you think is fair in mind, don’t go above that. You can usually tell from the off, if there is room to move on the price. The better deal is always done with private sellers not traders who will move from one boot sale to the next, whether they sell stock on the day or not is not a major concern.

Don’t Forget: This is not easy (and often not fun)

Most of the time you will get there at 7am, find nothing and meet some characters better suited to a gnarly RPG than a field in Surrey. However perseverance pays off and you need to stick at it. At this point I suppose I should say something motivational to encourage you to sacrifice your Sunday mornings, not so. You stay in bed and let the wild-eyed game diggers do their work, feverishly outwitting the elements to build collections you can only dream of.

Keep up … we’re already three steps ahead of you.