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.

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 … >

Skyrim: A Digital Arcadia?

99% of Game Worlds are cookie cutter. Built quickly and cheaply like Sitcom sets, window dressing to surround rehashed character models. It simply serves to fill the screen and provide a backdrop for fake up-rezzed screenshots. Gaming icons are always characters. Mario, Lara, Sonic, all of whom are entirely one-dimensional. It used to be the case that Rockstar were the only ones who could create truly engaging Game Worlds shot through with personality. L.A Noire however, felt wooden and the real star of that game was the facial animation, the irony that the setting was a city of fake locations is not lost on me. Even when the setting is close to being deceptive (namely: engaging enough to draw the location into the narrative as much as the characters) it will never be perfect. Draw distances, environmental effects and texture loading will always shatter the fourth wall.

So the question is: What can push a game world to be compelling AND convincing?

The addition of the populace often serves to further shatter the illusion. There are never enough NPCs to make a street feel truly crowded, their behaviour isn’t natural and their presence underlines the deceit of the scene. Assassin’s Creed is beautiful, atmospheric and well populated but still obviously shallow. A forgery of reality.  As a player there will always be a willing suspension of disbelief, but when you turn off the host, the game dies. In Assassin’s Creed there is a sense the scene simply pauses, the Animus narrative provides a believable context. The Player can switch the scene off as easily as Desmond can.

Skyrim is wholly different. It breathes. It lives. It haunts when you are away. It has a Game World driven by ambition, a bravery illustrated by a dev team with no fear of depth and scope. Memories of Skyrim are augmented by the brain ‘filling in’, Skyrim acts like an optical illusion, where the failings and missing details are sketched in by the brain, leaving recollections of time in Skyrim closer to memories of actual events than engagement with a virtual world. Skyrim is both compulsive and deceptive. Rachmandram & Rachmandram noted in 2005:

Filling in is probably a manifestation of what we call surface interpolation, an ability that has evolved to compute representations of continuous surfaces and contours that occur in the natural world–even ones that are sometimes partly occluded (for example, a cat seen behind a picket fence looks like one whole cat, not like a cat sliced up).

Skyrim continuously plays tricks on us, where clipped character models, collapsing textures and falling mammoths, are all obliterated from the memory on recollection. The ‘filling in’ continues long after Skyrim has been left. Skyrim stimulates a continual suspension of disbelief, that prompts feelings of loss when away from the game. In game it fuels a wanderlust like no other.

The setting frames the adversaries of the dragons perfectly, and places them in a believable context that underlines their presence and menace. Skyrim evokes sensations first, a feeling of cold at the Throat of the World or a feeling of weariness when travelling from town to town. It evokes physical sensations, that as a player is almost impossible to reconcile. The one-two punch is complete as it delivers Emotion second, a moment of fearful terror at a Dragons arrival that elicits a response to  flee. These are ‘moments’, not gameplay experience.

Skyrim creates a landscape filled with danger, challenge and malevolence. Never before has isolation felt so comforting.

First the cold, then the fear ...

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.

Plus vs. Minus: Why Game Creators and their Audience HAVE to Change

Which are you?

In 2011 the web has stratified into two groups. Let’s call them the pluses and minuses.

In the simplest terms pluses are the ones who contribute, who add value, who share their voice and the intelligence they are gifted with. The best example I can think of are TED lectures. An egalitarian way to spread knowledge, incredible insight gained over years often decades shared for the common good. Then there are the minuses, the trolls, the off topic forum posters, the racists on YouTube comments, those who lurk and collect information for personal gain. These are the people using the web in a 1.0 way. They take , they don’t add value. The internet has given birth to magpies, who steal,  repeat and ride the coat tails of others. It’s also given birth to intellectual philanthropists. Typified by the actions of Tim Berners Lee.

Children are taught to share,  as we get older that we amass knowledge based on desire for power, supremacy and the upper hand.

This translates directly into game creation,  game players, and gaming habits.

Some games provide an architecture to deride, bully, hate and destroy. Grenade spam, Camping, Spawn Killing and Wall Glitching typify the desire for an unfair advantage. These games are minuses, as are their audiences. One note murder simulators for the masses.

Other games provide an intellectual frame, a platform or a way to add value, to push forward the medium of video games. These are the games created with intelligence and joy as the main drivers, not commerce. These games are not limited to shareware, XBLIG or Game Jams, it’s not about selflessness, it’s about spark. Minecraft is a plus, as is Notch himself. And Notch is at the Three Million sales mark. It’s not about a digital ivory tower and starving artists. Every publisher, content creator and platform holder has the ability to be a plus. Their variance from this norm is the litmus test. Contribution is key. If you don’t contribute, you’re invisible. You’re a minus. History remembers the Pluses. It derides the Minuses.

Concept: Are Digital Storefronts A Barrier To Entry?

Game Over for Digital Stores?

In a recent opinion piece Graham McAllister of Vertical Slice identified a fundamental flaw in the digital revolution. The customer can’t get to the content.

The birth of iTunes, immediately empowered the discovery journey, it launched with a simple and ubiquitous tool at the time. Search. As a PC based client it also had another useful ally. A keyboard. This melded a familiar mechanic with the perfect tool for the job. Searching on iTunes unlocked a world of music a click away. All of the tribulations of the early P2P days wiped out. If you wanted to buy ‘Africa’ by Toto you were seconds away. in 2011, if you’re a consumer looking for Galaga Legions DX, you could be traversing the store, driven by genre clues or an A-Z listing on Xbox LIVE, or tortuously using the search function on PSN. It’s laborious. McAllister is damning and correct in his piece.

He points to a 44 minute transaction. 20 minutes to browse and 24 minutes to purchase. This was a first timer, confused by a counterintuitive platform, with minimal guidance. McAllister extrapolates this to an endemic problem. In some respects he’s right, but he also doesn’t allow for the fact that humans learn over time. Agreed the purchase funnel is far from smooth, but regular transactors overcome this, week in week out. To that point I agree with McAllister, purchase intent should never be fulfilled by overcoming adversity. There is a problem.

McAllister turns to PSN and identifies issues with core mechanics on the platform. Agreed, PSN has challenges to overcome. Neither XBL or PSN are perfect, but McAllister’s comparison to traditional retail, is a fundamentally misleading comparison. The content of XBLA, PSN and Steam overlaps and augments physical goods, it also replaces them. Xbox LIVE Indie Games (as McAllister instructs) don’t exist in retail, neither do most of the XBL and PSN ‘starpowered’ games. The failure of these titles in packaged form, alludes to differing audiences. There’s also a core concept, in the future there will be no need to visit the stores, its likely they wont be there. The traditional retail experience of 2011 is a throwback thirty years, its tired, broken and on the way out.

Like an explosion of Venn Diagrams. It all points back to Chris Anderson. The man who proved ‘niche’ is a viable digital model.

In essence its misguided to think that Grandma and Little Johnny can’t adopt new ideas, but they certainly need help, McAllister and Vertical Slice are clearly perfectly suited to smooth the path. A ready reference to iOS and it frictionless delivery model, infers that the revolution will be digitized (with ease) but ignores DRM, Continual amends to T&Cs, the rampant piracy and jailbreaking on iOS, and that fact that the App Store is drowning in a mire of content reminiscent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The App Store is as much gristle as ‘secret sauce’

Widespread adoption of digital games may have a glass ceiling (but the ‘all digital’ ecosystem of the App Store would refute that claim), and it might be that there is a bifurcated future, of packaged for one audience and digital for the rest. Gifting, Second Hand and Budget ranges might be the things that keep physical goods alive, and as those falter and wither its imperative that Digital Storefronts have adopted the lessons McAllister points out.

How GameLine foreshadowed Xbox LIVE [by Twenty Years]

Meet the GameLine

In 1983, the prospect of downloads to consoles was unthinkable to many.

Bjorn  Borg had just retired from Tennis, the last episode of M*A*S*H had just aired and most importantly the NES launched. In hindsight it feels like the dark ages.  In 1983 GameLine appeared. GameLine looked like an oversized Atari 2600 cartridge, and was a dial-up modem that could download games to your console. In 1983 the Atari 2600 was six years old, only a  year earlier the ‘Darth Vader‘ iteration had come to market. For the record, this was a nickname.

"Xbox LIVE, I am your father!"

The prospect of downloading games at that point was effectively ‘science fiction’. The English nation was still wrestling with loading games onto the ZX Spectrum from cassette, downloading may as well have been alien technology, and effectively was. Alien tech it appeared was everywhere, as in 1979, Kane Kramer invented the first digital music player, in 1981 he filed his UK patent application. The early 80s was clearly tin foil hats and Mel Gibson all the way. However it wasn’t until 1996 that Audio Highway made the first commercially available MP3 player in 1996. Apple wouldn’t crash the party until 2001. Xbox LIVE wouldn’t be launched until 2002.

So why did it take so long from inception to marketplace success? In simplest terms the infrastructure simply wasn’t there, from a technological and cultural perspective. Dial up connections in 1983 were the preserve of scientists, nerds and maths teachers. The rudimentary wonders of the 2600 were enough visual shock and awe  for a generation. The high street was still king and the internet was ‘never going to take off’. GameLine typifies an inherently disruptive technology that would pave the way for those following it. The challenges GameLine faced are still evident for services like Onlive today, publishers were inherently suspicious of GameLine meaning that many top-tier game never appeared on the service, none of the key third parties at the time supported the service (such as Atari, Activision, Coleco, Mattel, and Parker Brothers).

GameLine went bust in 1983, but key members of the team became integral to the success of AOL. Whilst it didn’t have the connected gameplay features of LIVE, that honour would fall to the Dreamcast in 2001, it did introduce online leaderboards. Almost two decades later Xbox LIVE supported by a global corporation finally nailed the proposition and infrastructure. Relatively speaking, the global Xbox LIVE remains small (35 Million current members), but indicates that the experiments made thirty years ago were entirely on target. R.I.P GameLine.