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 … >

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I ♥ Alan Wake

L.A. Noire’s dick is like planet Earth right now, everybody’s on it.

Whilst playing it I was constantly reminded of Alan Wake. Alan Wake changed the way I viewed games and renewed a faith that games could (for perhaps the first time in three decades) be an art form, rather than an exploitative ooh-rah ‘Tin Can Alley’ on console. Alan Wake was critically well received, it settled at 83% on Metacritic (from 100 reviews), Alan Wake sold a little over 400,000 copies in EMEA, and a little over half a million in North America. Commercially, it was close to disastrous for a product that took five years to develop.

There is an Everything Must Go sale at the Alan Wake online store, prices have been slashed. It feels like a downbeat and deserted seaside town … the few tourists who used to visit have drifted away.

Time Magazine awarded Alan Wake the number 1 spot in their list of Videogames in 2010. Time’s list revealed a great deal about the state of games in 2010, as Angry Birds was Number 2. The juxtaposition of the sublime and the stunted, making the contrast all the more obvious. Alan Wake was a game, conceived half a decade before the casual T-Virus outbreak of iOS casual gaming, that transcended its period of development hell. The fact few games occupied the space in the interim illustrates the crisis in Western game development.

Alan Wake now finds itself reconciled to discount shelves and second-hand racks and the fate of the franchise hangs in the balance as Remedy haven’t (finally) confirmed publisher interest. In all honesty, Remedy should ask every Wake evangelist  for the money upfront and crowdsource the funding. I can wait another five years. It’s not an issue.

Fundamentally, Alan Wake and L.A Noire were cut from the same cloth. Only the context, setting and marketing are different. They both succeed as they are cast adrift in a sea of banality littered with detritus. Even their hackneyed tales feel fresh. Alan Wake works for a number of key reasons: the setting is familiar yet believable, the execution is capable and the tale being woven is compelling. But more than that, Wake feels much more than the three-dimensional digital marionette than he is. He doesn’t feel like a ‘real’ character, but he HAS character. Cole Phelps is the same. I’m not fooled into thinking they are ‘real’, but the fiction that surrounds them is enough to pull me with them, as the scripted events unfold. This is critical, as only they can you control them with the compassion that makes it engaging.

Wake and Phelps are both falling apart, through the errors and misjudgments of being human, and more especially being a man. Their self-serving desires and weaknesses provide  their undoing,  they move towards redemption with humility and an evaporation of their previous hubris. It’s character progression … without skilling up, getting XP or a bigger gun. A novelty in gaming,  accepted (and expected) in film and books.

When L.A Noire launched lackadaisical critics espoused how it represented a move toward cinematic gameplay experiences due to the facial animation. Although impressive, that’s just a light show, pandering to marketers who need a USP for their back of pack.

Gaming is a HD experience, that ordinarily eschews any widescreen sense of identity, place or passion.

As such its hollow. For a multi billion dollar industry it’s currently walking in the dead men’s shows of interactive entertainment. Alan Wake and L.A Noire and stark examples of the relative success (low and high) of an intelligent portrayal of the human condition. Wake’s fragility makes him the most compelling video game character of the past decade and an immediate favourite of awkward male cosplayers globally. I put myself firmly in that camp. I ♥  Alan Wake.

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.

Concept: Why the Video Games Industry needs Ubiquity

In the 25 years between 1983 and 2008 the CD player became ubiquitous.

In 1985 the CD player was  “ … transforming the way people listen to music. With their sweet sound, easy operation and virtually indestructible disks, they represent a technological leap beyond records and tapes.” Time magazine described it as the “ … fastest selling machine in home-electronics history”.The reason for the CDs success was simple, the sound quality was an improvement on both vinyl and tape and they were robust. CD players were the must have item of the 1980’s. CD sales increased in the mid to late 80s and sold well in the early 90’s. The first portable CD player, the Discman, appeared in 1983. The first CD player, manufactured by Pioneer, for the use in the car appeared in 1984. The CD was first used as a CD-Rom in 1985.

Whilst the CD had a great strength in its ubiquity, it also caused problems. CDs were not region specific, even with copy protection encryption they were able to be copied, and the commonness of the product meant they started to be perceived as a commodity instead of a vessel for art.

Every CD player in the world could play a properly authored CD (whilst burnt CDs can cause problems), and this meant that not only was the price of the format forced down, but the cost of the technology continued to fall. In 2011, an entry level CD player is £20 or less. This meant that the format was completely interchangeable between multiple devices and there were no problems playing a CD on players from different manufacturers.

In the video games industry the situation is quite different. There have always been competing manufacturers; in 2011 there are 3 main manufacturers of Home Consoles: Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but there have never been an opportunity to play Nintendo games on a Sony or Microsoft device and vice versa. Whilst games may appear on different systems, they are not portable across manufacturers, these releases are multi-platform.

The platform with the most commonly shared architecture is the Personal Computer (PC). Most PCs share the same operating system (most commonly Windows), and the main differences come from the internal components. In most cases a game is limited in its reach by the system requirements, namely a new game may require elements that older PCS do not have to run. PC development has been incremental, but rapid, since their introduction in 1981 by IBM and less specifically bound by the Generations cycle that exists in console gaming.

But what if ubiquity was the goal? As Chaplin and Ruby (2005) comment:

“Ubiquity is what the [games] industry has been after for years, and ubiquity seems to be what it is finally getting. One study, from investment analysts at Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown, has just concluded that the potential market for video games had grown from 20 million people in 1980 to 96 million in 2001 and is now growing exponentially—106 million people in 2005 and onward, as every baby born takes to the videogame habit.”

This was suggested by J Allard in 2003:

What I’d like to see us do as an industry is create more standardisation… Before television was standardised, there was no television. Before video was standardised, there was only Beta. Beta only had limited success, but it was technically superior and was a profitable business – but it didn’t have ubiquitous content, and you didn’t have it in every consumer’s hands, and it was price prohibitive. Today gaming has a lot in common with what BETA had yesterday. DVD, CD, television and radio are all ubiquitous – how do we make gaming ubiquitous too? I think it’s through standardisation

Quote: Ronald Reagan on Young People

I recently learned something quite interesting about video games. Many young people have developed incredible hand, eye, and brain coordination in playing these games. The air force believes these kids will be our outstanding pilots should they fly our jets.

Concept: Digital Liminality

Digital is continuously disruptive. As the games industry migrates away from packaged goods, it is ill-equipped to understand the conceptual implications.

Whilst considering the migration from physical to digital products there is an intangible feeling that supported by much anecdotal evidence. Stories of a feeling of loss associated with the sale of a record collection compiled over many years for instance, and a feeling that digital formats are intangible because they do not have a real world physical “presence”.

This could be explained by the introduction of the concept of Digital Liminality. Anthropologists typify liminality as a “rite of passage”, an oft cited example is college graduation whereby the student had finished the course but is yet to receive the qualification, effectively a no mans land. Another example is Twilight which is the transitional period between day and night. These two examples represent a liminality in ritual and time, but it could also be contended that Digital Liminality has a third dimension, place. In “traditional” purchasing behaviour, there was an interaction between store, store employee and consumer. The meeting between Robert  Johnson and the devil took place at a cross roads, this is a liminal location.

The digital consumer has no real world interaction with time, product or place, and this combination not only creates uncertainty but could create a reluctance to engage with digital products at all.  Victor Turner (1967)[1] identified experiences that were “Liminoid”, even using a rock concert as an example. He argued that liminal experiences were uncommon in Industrial society. For this reason I argue that the migration to digital formats (in the Games Industry) is a Digital Liminoid Experience. You can quote me on that.

This theme was explored further in the PlayStation 2 game .hack//liminality released in 2003.


[1] Victor Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage”, in The Forest of Symbols .Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press