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.

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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.

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.

 

 

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.