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.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Playstation

PlayStation 3 vs. Xbox 360

Affinity is a bitch. Humans gravitate to certain things. Preference.

Gamers like football/music/literature fans globally become torn by affinity.  For gamers the battle lines delinenate by platforms. Platform holders promote and encourage the points of difference. Killer software = system sellers. The marketing mathematics is simple. Gamers are split down the middle … the platform agnostic and the fan-boys. The seventh generation is typified by three viable, concurrent home based platforms. The flag in the sand came from the X360 in 2005, and as an Xbox fanatic it was easy to make the jump to 360. Case closed.

By 2007, the arrival of Playstation 3, my allegiances were already clear. It wasn’t until 2008 that I felt compelled to actually pick up the Dual Shock. Even the launch of Uncharted hadn’t been enough to sway me. The positioning felt too close to X360, and there wasnt a clear and immediate need for me to invest time in another platform. There was also no Gamerscore which by that point had already got me in its insidious vice-like grip. Only Little Big Planet had intrigued me enough to make the leap. LBP was a system seller, a unique experience unlike any other, powered and empowered by PlayStation 3. The game was jaw dropping.

Then nothing … There wasn’t another experience as compelling on PS3. I went right back to X360.

The PS3 served as a Blu-Ray player, then an iPlayer experience that all but eradicated any scheduled TV viewing. The PS3 had become part of daily life, in a context that I had never anticipated. It still struggled to compete for gameplay time. However in post E3 2011, PS3 feels like the vanguard of core gaming. Standing alone with a purity of gameplay experiences that I’d overlooked before.

Two tasks stand in my way. Finding a local meeting of Gamerscore Anonymous and training my hands to accept the Dual Shock. Muscle memory is a cruel mistress …

Evolution not Revolution: Why DiRT3 matters

Is Hooning a crime?

Innovation in game genres evolves from cross title iteration.

Competition breeds innovation and whilst rapid at first it eventually becomes more and more slight. Racing games likes FPS are decades old. Their birth in the arcade in the early 1970s led them to rise in prominence until they became an accepted genre. SEGA released a Fonz arcade cabinet (1976) complete with haptic feedback in the vibrating handlebars. Fonz was in black  and white and based on an endlessly scrolling track. It wasnt until 1982 that ‘Pole Position‘ emerged, and created the blue print for racing games. I clearly recall seeing ‘Pole Position’ in an arcade for the first time. The first attempt at driving simulation was a jaw dropping experience.

The ensuing slew of racing games, gave birth to game after game, on every platform through the 80s and early 1990’s. Fatigue beset the genre quickly and despite an infinite selection key franchises were established during the 90’s, Ridge Racer in 1993 and Need For Speed in 1994 and Gran Turismo in 1997. The genre raced relentlessly toward the goal of photo realism. Each console launch ushered in by shinier and faster racing game. Posterboys for technical development prowess.

SEGA Rally (1995) was a milestone for the racing genre. SEGA Rally introduced the ability to race on different surfaces (asphalt, gravel and mud), with different friction properties,  the car’s handling changing accordingly. The games release was a revolutionary moment, that earner it a place Video Game history. A generation of gamers immediately started throwing cars into muddy corners, followed by tearing down asphalt. The visceral feeling of reckless semi-controlled slide into immediate traction was something that was not forgotten, once experienced.

SEGA Rally Championship (1995)

SEGA Rally paved the way for the Colin McRae franchise which started in 1998,  a critical and commercial success. It was the pioneer of realistic rally sports racing games, away from the arcade focus of SEGA Rally. Created in conjunction with Colin McRae himself, who provided technical advice during development. They looked and felt amazing amplifying the experience of SEGA Rally exponentially. In hindsight it looks rough and rudimentary. The core gameplay mechanics were, however, nailed on the first attempt.

DiRT3 is the 9th game in the series, and built on the Ego engine, first used in Grid (and subsequently Colin McRae: DiRT2), whereas the previous iterations we guided by the spirit of McRae, Dirt3 is firmly imprinted with the identity of Ken Block, and rather than alienate the EMEA audience, for ‘over Americanism’, the spirit of the game is open, diverse and compelling. Nowhere is this more evident that the Gymkhana events. Gymkhana is a sport typified by YouTube excess and crimes against language and grammar. Hooning may not be a crime, but the word Hooning ought to be. the birth of Gymkhana also, accidentally, created the blueprint for one of the greatest game modes in Video Game history.

At 13 hours in and approaching 150 races, DiRT3 is starting to just stretch its legs with a balance and subtlety that most racing games lack. It represents a high-water mark for the racing genre and has distilled the key components of the past three decades of game development. DiRT3 is definitively one of the best racing games to date, and a startling education for those new to the genre.

PSN, Where Are You?

We are now 17 days into the PSN outage of 2011. Five years ago this would have been inconsequential, in 2011 its damaging Sony’s reputation, annoying consumers and stonewalling revenue to developers and publishers. Sony have their back to the wall.

Litigation and allegation point in one direction then bait and switch in another. The progenitor of this failure is fundamentally irrelevant, the fact that it’s been seen as unthinkable by many, and covered in the mainstream press is another.

Consoles must be connected, when they aren’t they cease to breathe.

Sony immediately were under siege. organisational inertia struck to the core and they froze. Consumers asked ‘what was going on?’ but Sony fell silent. They immediately faced heavy criticism, and the inertia stilted the corporations reaction time. There are two main reasons that consumers felt aggrieved.  They felt Sony had failed to deliver a service that they had learnt to become dependent upon, that underpinned their social graph. Consumers were also stunned that a trusted brand had left themselves open to the industrial scale theft of personal data. Whilst the ingenuity and complexity of the attack on Sony was still not entirely understood, consumers were afraid.

The fact is clear that Sony should have fessed up to consumers as soon as the shockwave hit. Allegations stand that Sony had known for six days before alerting consumers. This is unthinkable, and underscoring the billion dollar sucker punch about to hit Sony as part of a package of free content, upgraded systems and insurance policies. To date Howard Stringer has offered to insure US-based PSN users for a million dollars each. The perks of litigious culture writ large. X360 owns North America, Sony should look EMEA-wards to get their house in order.

The establishment of a platform is a multi billion dollar endeavour, that has crippled many, and blindsided a few. Nintendo established a huge platform but dropped the ball on the online provision of service. Microsoft nailed the Xbox LIVE service (ten years old in 2012) with occasional hiccups such as the service falling over during Christmas 2008, this was not an entire system failure however, just intermittent outages across parts of the service. To placate animosity Undertow (800MSP)  was given away to everyone on the service . This is a world away from the hemorrhaging of content that will leech value from PSN in the month of May 2011.

The eyes of the gaming nation are on Sony. They have been very publicly bested, and lay on the canvas bloodied and bruised. Will PSN ever recover from the fear of attack again. Platitudes and assurances of online security will take time to win people over. Microsoft made a public misstep due to RROD, which was down to a design flaw, and it still haunts the platform to this day.

The billion dollar war chests needed to pull PSN from the brink and rescue the 360 from hardware failures show the brutality of platform holding. Will the future in the cloud placate these worries? will connected consoles forever be compromised? Only time will tell.

Your move Sony, make the right one.

Duck Hunt to Deadstorm Pirates: A Brief History of the Light Gun

When I first played Duck Hunt on the NES with a Light gun I was enraptured. Nintendo called it the Zapper. You could call it Witchcraft. Duck Hunt wasn’t the greatest game but the core mechanic was so compelling that it never became tiresome. Most of all I simply couldn’t understand how it worked. If you looked down the barrel it gave little away. It felt magical. For many years I would play any arcade game with a Light gun, spending hours on Time Crisis, Operation Wolf, Area 51, Point Blank, Virtua Cop and Silent Scope. Silent Scope was probably my favourite. In the arcade the experience was brash more visceral and much much louder; the games rumbling and buzzing with haptic feedback usually surrounded by a small crowd.

Light gun cabinets were the Rockstars of the arcades.

House of the Dead 2 on Dreamcast was the pinnacle of the home light gun experience. The gun housed a rumble pack and VMU and featured a D-Pad by the thumb. The current Sony Sharpshooter delivers the same experience. HOTD2 was a rattling creaky on rails shooter devoid of plot (apart from Zombie infestation of course!), terribly scripted and bordering on non-sensical. It didn’t matter. The fatigue endured in your right shoulder was forgotten and there was always an aching desire to play one more time.

Most home console experiences are utterly divorced from their arcade cousins. A vanilla representation of the Arcade experience, few games deliver a raw thrill. Light gun games come closest (closely followed by fighting games: for a recent example play Marvel vs Capcom 3). A kid growing up without the Arcade experience, is like never seeing a live band.

When Sony announced Move the light gun junkie inside me screamed. It looked like the logical next step. Sure, the guns aren’t allowed to look like guns anymore but it looked like it would deliver an amazing light gun experience. It does, the tracking is sublime, the response times like nothing else. Move delivers with The Shoot and Time Crisis: Razing Storm. Time Crisis: RS features a gem: Deadstorm Pirates. The two-seater arcade cabinet features a ship’s wheel and guns that are part cannon, part gatling gun. Deadstorm Pirates follows the tested Light Gun formula of terrible plot, awful voice acting and over prescriptive prompts. On Move these are painfully apparent. Very quickly Move reveals something. Gun games are shallow, they’ve always been shallow but at home in HD with a million other possible diversions, they’ve lost the crowd. The FPS made them obsolete.

In the post-Kinect era Move feels old, holding a controller pretending to fire a gun doesn’t hold the same thrill it had over a decade ago.

Wielding plastic no longer empowers: it restricts and inhibits.

Killzone 3 and the Sharpshooter are trying to advance the FPS by bolting a light gun mechanic into the game. All that seems to do is induce fatigue and decrease accuracy. Years from now sports therapists will be dealing with SharpShooter shoulder like they deal with RSI now. By plundering the historical back catalogue of Video Games platform holders are trying to make something old feel new again. The continuous iterations of bowling and tennis are enough to clearly illustrate that point. The mainstream aren’t going to fall for the ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ of Third Generation consoles. Time has marched on.

Killing the Golden Goose: The collapse of Guitar Hero

It was only a couple of years ago that the music industry stood outside the doors of the games industry, cap in hand, hoping for saviour  from an inevitable demise. Guitar Hero represented a prime example of a game with an ecosystem of weekly downloadable content that could present a valid new revenue stream for the music industry. On 8th Feb 2011 Activision killed the Guitar Hero brand.

Guitar Hero and Rock Band had fuelled huge revenues on Xbox LIVE. There were 20 million Rock Band downloads in 9 months which fuelled the digital economy on consoles. Xbox had an 80% share of the music games download market.

For a brief period the rapidly increasing volumes of downloadable games tracks were beginning to shape the music chart and briefly considered as a chart eligible format for the UK music charts. If that would have happened it would have been unique as two different entertainment mediums would have contributed to a single music chart position. Not only would it have  illustrated the emerging importance of game DLC in the wider entertainment market, but would also emphasise its importance as a source of revenue for the rights holders (the record labels). The exact shape of this new digital economy, grew rapidly, then collapsed

In the past 3 to 4 years downloadable content on consoles has become a large and lucrative market for the publishers and platform owners. It is a market that has first mover advantages (due to the length of the development cycle). When content creation is fully integrated into the development cycle and creates revenue allied with customer insight it underlines the primary reasons why a consumer may have bought a product from physical retail in the first instance. It provides very valuable data about the appeal of a product over a prolonged period. The music industry has no such insight as once a consumer has bought a product, their engagement and relationship with the product is invisible.

The music industry are slack-jawed to see the evaporation of a revenue stream that was short-lived. The implications for Rock Band will be fascinating to watch, as the legitimacy of a genre seems in doubt.

Have music games left the building?

Brand New Second-Hand

The game industry has a dichotomous relationship with secondhand games. Gamers pick them up as value filling between premium bread slices, and there is no doubt the trade in culture fuels the constant stream of new releases. Publishers are trapped. The second-hand market accounts for a third of all game sales in the US or about $2 billion annually. When these sales do not directly support the publishers, it seems like a lot of revenue is being left on the table. Games have an image problem, as other entertainment media plummets in price, games have managed to hold a price-point that many would have thought untenable. The problem is price is not set in stone and can tumble dependent upon stock levels, trade in volumes and publisher desire to stimulate turnover. Publishers main anxiety is that a second-hand game sale is only beneficial to the retailer and not the source of the funding for the creation of the game itself. The problem is that the connection between trade-in and new copy sales is not entirely transparent.

It could be argued that this view from retail is shortsighted that eventually the cupboard will be bare and there will be no more money left to fund development.

Retail feel the cold winds blowing. Digital is finally starting to encroach into their minds if not directly on their balance sheets right now.

Physical media is dying, how long the extinction takes is the only point for debate.

EA have adopted an aggressive approach with project ‘Ten Dollar’. For those who don’t buy the game mint there will be the opportunity to buy the value added content. Within Mass Effect 2 it’s dressed up as the Cerberus Network. The fact Cerberus is a distrustful and sinister organisation is not an irony lost in the translation.

A punitive approach is fundamentally flawed and devalues digital as a whole. Giving content away as a value-add damages digital as a standalone format. Initiatives like project ‘Ten Dollar’ and Ubisoft‘s recent measures with Assassins Creed 2 feel like the opening of the door that currently hides the spectre of DRM. The games industry needs to look at the devastating mistakes the music industry made, otherwise the support of Gabe Newell will not be enough to quell the digital tsunami of the pirates.

There are rough seas ahead and the consumer is one the industry needs to listen to.