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.

 

 

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.

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.

Creating Moral Panic: Bulletstorm in a Teacup

Conversations about Bulletstorm usually start with a criticism about the banality and puerile nature of the subject matter. A friend discounted the game as the product of a 10 year olds over active imagination. EA were #winning. EA had been happily fanning the flames of moral panic for close to a year in order to give Bulletstorm a USP. The panic had started at E3 2010 when EA distributed burgers outside allegedly made from human flesh. A cheap shot that wouldn’t  be the last.

CNN described the core game mechanic (skill kills) as ‘grisly’ and Fox described it as ‘The Worst Videogame In The World’. Carole Lieberman inferred a direct relationship between Video Game violence and rape. She attributed it to sexually explicit scenes in Video Games. It is a this point that one has to wonder if she had even played the game, or even knew how to turn on the X360. Lieberman has made a point of criticising video games over the years and that supported by the all too readily available, highly polished PR shot seem to infer she’s ready at the drop of a shotgun cartridge to denounce the games industry. An agenda was clearly at play on behalf of both Lieberman and Fox.Courted, encouraged and solicited by Epic and EA.

Cliffy B took great pleasure in proclaiming “I made a video game where you can blow out a mans ass-hole”. This was frat-boy marketing 101. The Bulletstorm circus created instantaneous folk devils. The Parody-Generator had gone into overdrive, lines were becoming blurred, and the media and publisher we creating exactly what they wanted moral panic. If sex sells, so does controversy. PT Barnum would have been proud.

This followed the all too familiar path that Stanley Cohen had set out in the early 1970s. The Mods and Rockers had created panic, Dungeon and Dragons has been a lightning rod on many occasions and yet again the games industry had deliberately created a panic for column inches. Hard to believe these sensationalist Smoke and Mirror tricks could still be so effective in 2011. The speed, velocity and communication of the panic was web-based and would evaporate quicker that you could say “Yesterdays news is tomorrows fish and chip paper”. The panic had been so quickly and deftly executed, it was a shock and awe case study. By the time the consumer was at the counter cash in hand it was forgotten.

So, was it right to drag games reputation through the mire again for the sake of one game? In an industry built on Groundhog Day thinking it’s expected. Inevitable to happen again … oh wait … Dead Island trailer anyone? Its time for fresh thinking, this shit is just getting old.