Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ubisoft Euro MD Alain Corre is Clueless

I have no idea what this man is talking about.

The home console market is no longer supporting alternative products for big publishers, leaving only blockbuster titles to break the top ten and become profitable.

That’s according to Ubisoft Euro MD Alain Corre, who told GamesIndustry.biz that it’s safer to invest in one AAA title rather than hedge bets on a handful of smaller productions.

"The games that are not triple-A are not profitable anymore," said Corre in an interview published today. "And that’s changed in the last 18 months.

"When you have a triple-A blockbuster it costs more money to develop, but at the end of the day there’s also the chance of a good return on it because there’s a concentration at the top of the charts. To a certain extent it becomes less risky to invest more in a single game or franchise than spreading your investment between three or four games. Because if those three or four games are not at the right quality level, you are sure to lose money," said Corre.

"So the business model has changed and we’re changing our way of making hardcore games. With hardcore games that we’re not sure are reaching the right level, we stop work on them. And that’s why we concentrate more on key franchises, because that’s what the market wants - something new with huge quality production behind it. The market is not supporting the full range of product that it used to anymore."

Although the French publisher has brought new IP to market successfully this generation with Assassin’s Creed, Corre said that upcoming strategy game RUSE might be the last new franchise from Ubisoft until a new generation of home consoles, as establishing new brands is proving too expensive.

"It is more difficult now. To launch a new IP you have to invest much, much more marketing to establish it, and if you add up the huge costs of development plus the investment in marketing you cannot be 100 per cent sure the target audience you’d expect, which is needed for the comeback on the investment.

There once was a time when "AAA" meant quality.  Today, it stands for outrageously bloated budgets - $30 million or more - on the HD Twins.  That business model was never sustainable, and calls for yet another round of next-generation games consoles would only make things worse.  The solution to a $30 million game that doesn't sell is not to make a $60 million game.  Executives who can't figure this out don't deserve to keep their jobs.

And where does Nintendo fit into all of this?  This whole rant makes no sense.  The existence of the Nintendo Wii debunks every one of Mr. Corre's claims.  Rayman Raving Rabbids, fitness games, and the Just Dance phenom are all from Ubisoft, and they are all very successful and very profitable.  And Just Dance has become the poster child for online viral marketing on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter.  Are the suits at Ubisoft even remotely aware of any of this?

If the "hardcore" video game market is no longer sustainable, then let it go, and pursue the newer - and more profitable - social game market.  This shouldn't be rocket science.  There's no excuse for this kind of infantile whining to come from Ubisoft.  I have no idea what this is about, and I have no patience for it.  My advice is to keep Mr. Corre away from the executive liquor cabinet.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Yuji Naka's Ivy the Kiwi? Arrives on Nintendo Wii and DS

The puzzle platformer Ivy the Kiwi? arrives on Nintendo Wii and DS this week. This is the latest creation by Yuji Naka, who left Sonic Team to pursue more independent-minded games. It's very close to a Nintendo DS launch game called Yoshi Touch & Go, which was a favorite of mine years ago, so I'm very much interested.

Ivy the Kiwi is a small bird, still trapped in her eggshell, who must be guided through 100 increasingly complex and dangerous mazes. The character runs on her own; you use the Wiimote (or stylus on the DS version) to draw vines for Kiwi to walk. You can also spin the vines around to move Kiwi around corners, and even stretch and snap the vines to smash through barriers. You must be on guard from various obstacles and enemies while searching for secret items and the exit.

This is the sort of game that has "cult hit" written all over it. Arriving on a small botique publisher doesn't help matters any (Sega declined to publish the game for unknown reasons). I still haven't seen any advertising or promotion online, or any real presence on Youtube. Smaller video game companies must learn to rely on social networking sites to build customers and sell their games.

Ivy grabs my attention for three key reasons: it uses motion controls, it includes multiplayer (four-player splitscreen), and it's unique. The sepia-toned storybook graphics are certainly inspired, and I always have to stand up and cheer whenever a classic 2D video game arrives on a console. I think the Nintendo Wii needs more games like this.

Most of all, I'm still rooting for Yuji Naka, who gave us Sonic the Hedgehog and NiGHTS: Into Dreams and Chu Chu Rocket and Phantasy Star Online. He hasn't creating anything inspired since the Sega Dreamcast days, which seems to problem among his peer group of older Japanese game designers. But at least he's still making Arcade Games and not Cinema Games.

People often love to complain that no interesting or inventive video games are being made anymore. Then they ignore a quirky game like Ivy the Kiwi and rush over to the latest Metroid disappointment. If's enough to make you wonder if it's all just a cheap setup. Creativity should still count for something in these foreboding days; at least, that's what I think. We need to embrace the clever and charming. It's even worse than it appears, but it's all right. I will survive.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Kinect to Cry

And the list of supposed Kinect features grows smaller and smaller.

The cruel irony is that Microsoft is including the 2009 E3 promotional video on the Xbox 360.  I see it all the time at Target's demo station.  Customers are going to expect all these amazing abilities that Kinect simply cannot perform.  No four-player or voice control or sitting on the couch.  No scanning your skateboard or trying out new outfits.  And no creepy friendships with Milo.  But you can wave your arms slowly to catch volleyballs in a very basic motor-skills game!  Wow!

Make no mistake, dear readers.  Kinect is not ready for launch, and Microsoft knows this.  It's nowhere even close to competing with Nintendo.  But the investors are glaring and time grows short, and the company is desperate to show they are advancing with exciting, new technology to win over the Expanded Audience.  It will not work.  This overpriced, lobotomized camera will fail, and its ignoble death may spell the end of the Steve Ballmer era, and the end of the Xbox.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Michael Jackson: The Experience on Nintendo Wii

Currently, this is the only screenshot Ubisoft provided for the Nintendo Wii version of Michael Jackson: The Experience.  This version is being developed with help from Ubisoft Paris, which just happens to be the Just Dance studio.  I'm sure their expertise will prove immensely valuable.  Frankly, I wouldn't trust anyone else to handle this game.  There are countless ways you can screw it up.

As you can see, the visual style follows the "iPod commercial" look of Just Dance, with running themes for all of the songs, reliving the famous music videos, yadda yadda.  I'm desperate to find some footage online to see how this looks (I'll have to email the Revogames site).  I expect it will be great.  Will it be as spectacular as Just Dance 2?  I certainly hope it compares favorably.

It appears to me that MJ: The Experience could establish the "hardcore" end of the dancing game genre.  Certainly, the promise is to perform all of Michael Jackson's immortal moves, and that's what we'll expect.  This should be aimed at the die-hard fans around the world who know all the moves in their sleep.  They will be the game's true audience, and they are the ones who will choose to make this game a blockbuster smash.

I can have a lot of fun just rolling my arms in Just Dance because, frankly, I have no coordination.  It's a miracle that I can even stand upright without tumbling down.  So I don't want the Michael Jackson dumbed down to my abilities.  I want to be able to learn to grow.  I want to be challenged.

Four players can join in, as is standard on Nintendo Wii.  This is going to become a major selling point against the Kinect, which, once again, appears to be a single-player experience.  That is an absolutely unforgivable oversight, and it's going to hurt Microsoft badly.  The videogames of the Social Games Era must be multiplayer, or it's no dice.

The Michael Jackson dance game should arrive in early November, just in time to hop on Just Dance 2's momentum.  The Wii version will certainly benefit the most.  Cross your fingers and hope for the best, kids.

Michael Jackson: The Experience on Kinect and Move

Ubisoft finally unveiled their much-anticipated Michael Jackson dance game, now given the extravagent and to-the-point title of Michael Jackson: The Experience, at this week's GamesCom in Germany.  Two separate versions are in the works: one for the Nintendo Wii, and another for the HD Twins (Microsoft's Kinect and Sony's Move), and it appears they will both be very different from one another.

These are screenshots of the Kinect version of Michael Jackson, from Ubisoft's press release.  As you can see, the game allows you to perform all of the pop icon's famous dance moves, moving through his entire career.  A karaoke option is also available if you want to sing along to the songs, although I'm not entirely sure how this plays out.  Some gameplay videos would be nice to see.

The Twins' version of Michael Jackson has a very interesting visual style.  It's all flash and pizazz and style, and certainly pushes the sheer graphics power of PS3 and 360.  What's really intriguing is how the game literally puts you on the stage, instead of following a 3D computer model or a video recording of a dancer.  It feels like a gamble - the final effect could be dazzling or it could be embarrassing - so I'm inclined to root for the developers.  I like to see them taking risks.

We're also seeing a an interesting setup for a rivalry between Michael Jackson on the Twins and Michael Jackson on the Wii.  The Wii version is strictly following the visual style of Just Dance, with a costumed dancer performing on-screen.  One game is presented as a grand, garish spectacle, the other is more focused, direct and iconic.  Personally, I think everyone's a winner at this point; give me a few months to decide which approach works best.  What matters right now is the gameplay and the precision of the controls.

I really wish the video game press, which is largely hardcore fanboys, would provide more coverage of these games.  Heck, just shoot a couple Youtube videos, already!  Shouldn't they be doing that with all the games at these trade shows by now?  Ubisoft has been very tight-lipped about this project, and I still feel like I'm grasping at straws.  I'm sure this will change as we get closer to November.

Don't kid yourself, gamers.  Michael Jackson is a global superstar, the kind we will never see again.  A video game that teaches you all of his dance moves, and lets you perform all of his classic hits?  This is a license to print money, folks.  Everything now rests on Ubisoft's development studios.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

How Does Multiplayer on Kinect's Dance Central Work?

It doesn't.  You just swap in and out with the same player during the song.  What a joke.

I chickened out of participating in a two-player Dance Central dance battle last week at MTV's offices, but, hey, I get it. Dance Central multiplayer starts up a song, expects one player to dance along to it, matching moves to score points, and then switches to a silhouetted freestyle mode as one player steps off and the other steps in. Player two dances the next part, racking up points, and then they trade off again. You can't pick your character; the same on-screen character dances the whole song through. Only the people the Kinect is capturing changes.

Kinect can track two players at a time, so why doesn't Harmonix allow for two dancers in Dance Central?  The most direct answer is that they can't.   My guess is that the hardware can follow two players for simple movements, like the whitewater rafting in Kinect Adventures, but something as complex as dancing is out.  Remember that Kinect had its brain ripped out in order to bring costs down.

It's going to be so much fun watching this stupid thing fail.

Photos - Just Dance 2

Here are the latest screenshots from GamesCom in Cologne, Germany.  Does it seem to you as though Ubisoft Paris is shooting for the moon in Just Dance 2?  The art and costume design is nothing less than stunning.  Colors leap out at you, and the detailed stages for each song is so impressive, it's enough to just sit back and watch.  Thankfully, the designers have kept to the clean, iconic style of the original game.  This is a model example of how to design with arcade values in the Social Games Era.

I believe Just Dance 2 is going to become a blockbuster.  The dance game craze is still building, growing.  Have you noticed how this sequel doesn't cannibalize the original game?  Ubisoft Paris is not about to replace Just Dance One.  These games are meant to be played together, back and forth....a wise move.  The Social Games Era appears to be hostile to the "EA Sports formula," in which you are expected to throw out last year's game for the annual sequel.  It is a product of the instant-disposable culture.  The younger generation will embrace preservation, conservation.  They will save resources instead of wasting them.

Examine the sequels to Wii hits that are mostly recycled, only 10% new material.  Boom Blox: Bash Party, We Cheer 2, Shaun White: World Tour.  These are three excellent examples of the old EA Sports formula.  Under the new paradigm, this is no longer acceptable.  Video games are not meant to be thrown out every calendar year - they are expected to last.  You can thank Nintendo's evergreen games for that.  You may also thank the Great Recession, which shows no sign of ending anytime soon (the coming US elections will lead to government paralysis).  Can we include Global Warming to the mix?  Does this influence how we choose to consume and preserve our culture?  I like to think so.  The 6 Great Videogame Eras are shaped by the world and technology as much as anything.

Anyway, I'm hijacking this post, when what I really ought to do is show off these terrific photos of Just Dance 2.  But I think this gives us a chance to examine the mystery of Nintendo Wii sequels, and how everything fits into the paradigm shift ushered in by Disruptive Innovation.

Big Freakin' Deal

So what if Microsoft gets Kinect to work while seated when operating the dashboard navigation?  Are you thinking of buying this monstrosity for the menu screen?  No.  You buy it for the games, and on that front, Kinect fails.  Get used to hearing that phrase a lot.  Just don't expect to hear it from the so-called videogame press.

Nice try, Joystiq.  Microsoft will put the squeeze on the game websites and magazines to tow the company line and hype the product.  Let's see who caves and who stands firm.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Just Dance 2 - Here is the Complete Tracklist - WiiWare Download Tracks to Come

Ubisoft today revealed the complete tracklist for Just Dance 2.  44 songs are included across every facet of pop music, from '60s classics to today.  I think you'll be very impressed at some of the song selections.  This is a stronger song selection than Just Dance 1. I can't find a song I wouldn't like. But check out the classics! Donna Summer! James Brown! Ike and Tina! Quincy Jones! Jackson 5! More Elvis!

According to the press release, Ubisoft will also include downloadable songs via WiiWare.  This is very interesting, as Nintendo has staunchly avoided DLC for the Wii.  I'll be very interested in seeing how these new songs are integrated with the existing game modes.  Will there be new video footage for downloadable songs, including backgrounds and effects?  Would this include Duet Mode?  Or will the new songs simply re-sync with the existing stages?

Just Dance 2 should be playable at GamesCom in Cologne, Germany this week.  Ubisoft will also be showing off the much-anticipated Michael Jackson: The Experience at GamesCom; the Wii version is being developed by Ubisoft's Montpellier studio in coordination with the Just Dance studio in Paris - that is very welcome news.

Here is the complete songlist for the retail version of Just Dance 2:
1. Avril Lavigne – "Girlfriend"
2. Bangles – "Walk Like An Egyptian"
3. Beastie Boys – "Body Movin’ (Fatboy Slim Remix)"
4. Benny Benassi presents “The Biz” – "Satisfaction"
5. Blondie – "Call Me"
6. Bollywood – "Katti Kalandal"
7. Boney M. – "Rasputin"
8. Charleston – "Mugsy Baloney"
9. Cher – "The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s In His Kiss)"
10. Digitalism – "Idealistic"
11. Donna Summer – "Hot Stuff"
12. Elvis Presley – "Viva Las Vegas"
13. Fatboy Slim – "Rockafeller Skank"
14. Franz Ferdinand – "Take Me Out"
15. Harry Belafonte – "Jump In The Line"
16. Ike and Tina Turner – "Proud Mary"
17. James Brown – "I Got You (I Feel Good)"
18. Jamiroquai – "Cosmic Girl"
19. Junior Senior – "Move Your Feet"
20. Justice – "D.A.N.C.E."
21. Ke$ha – "TiK ToK"
22. Mardi Gras – "Iko Iko"
23. Marine Band – "Sway (Quien Sera)"
24. MIKA – "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)"
25. Outkast – "Hey Ya!"
26. Quincy Jones and His Orchestra – "Soul Bossa Nova"
27. Reggaeton – "Baby Girl"
28. Rihanna – "S.O.S."
29. Snap! – "The Power"
30. Sorcerer – "Dagomba"
31. Studio Allstars – "Jump"
32. Studio Musicians – "Crazy In Love"
33. Studio Musicians – "Jungle Boogie"
34. Supergrass – "Alright"
35. The Frighteners – "Monster Mash"
36. The Hit Crew – "Holiday"
37. The Hit Crew – "Toxic"
38. The Jackson 5 – "I Want You Back"
39. The Pussycat Dolls – "When I Grow Up"
40. The Rolling Stones – "Sympathy For The Devil (Fatboy Slim Remix)"
41. The Ting Tings – "That’s Not My Name"
42. The Weather Girls – "It’s Raining Men"
43. Vampire Weekend – "A-Punk"
44. Wham! – "Wake Me Up Before You Go Go"

GoldenEye Wii at Gamescon

Here are some of the latest screenshots of GoldenEye from Gamescon in Europe.  It's looking damned good.  The Nintendo Wii desperately needs a First-Person Shooter that proves the superiority of motion controls and propels the hardware.  Disruption in this genre would prove devastating to the HD Twins.  Expectations are high, and we've seen several attempts to recapture the magic of the Nintendo 64 classic before, but Eurocom might very well deliver.

Don't kid yourself that this isn't a major title in the 2010 Holiday lineup.  This is Nintendo's most crucial third-party title, as critically important as Just Dance 2.  All it takes is for one shooter like GoldenEye to become a steady seller on the charts, and the core genre of the Twins will become disrupted.  Still a lot of Big If's at the moment, but I've got a good feeling about this game. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Video - Punch Out!! on Nintendo Wii

Why wasn't Punch Out!! on the Nintendo Wii a bigger hit?  It barely managed to sell a million copies, despite being one of the most beloved NES games ever made.  This should have become an evergreen blockbuster like Wii Sports Resort and Mario Kart and Super Mario 5.  What happened?

Remember, if a video game fails to become a hit, it is because there is something wrong with the game itself.  Something was missing that should have been there, or there were excess barriers in place that had no business being there, or the controls and gameplay mechanics were flawed.  Do not blame the customers, or fall upon the game industry's condescending "casual gamer" label.  A generation of video game players grew up with Mike Tyson's Punch Out!! on the Nintendo.  Why didn't they show up here?

Punch Out is one of the best examples of motion controls for the Nintendo Wii.  I've had a lot of fun playing it at the arcade demo station at the downtown Minneapolis Target.  Yet, I still haven't bought the game.  I haven't even played the game for a while.  Why is this?  What am I waiting for?  I find myself struggling for answers.

The game industry needs to get off their high horse and honestly answer these questions.  The market is in decline and the core gamer scene is shrinking.  No more excuses, folks.  It's crunch time.

Why Ubisoft's Red Steel 2 Failed to Live Up to the Hype

Speaking at the Euopean GDC, Red Steel 2 producer Jason VandenBerghe offers his insights into why he believes his high-profile Wii sequel sold a disappointing 270,000 copies.  Unfortunately, while he is quite interesting and insightful (and we're all rooting for him and his development team), Mr. VandenBerghe is making excuses.

Allow me to offer my observations.  If your game is not successful at retail, based on however you define "success" (turning a profit, building a franchise, propelling the hardware), there is only one question to ask: What Did We Do Wrong? You have no one to blame but yourselves. There are lost gems and cult classics, yes. I'm a big fan of underdogs. But if a video game fails at retail, there will be concrete reasons why. No excuses.

Back in the Arcade Games Era, a video game was packed into a fiercely competitive environment for scarce resources - kids' quarters. Your game had only seconds to hook the kids in, and keep them playing, before they walk away to try the other 30 machines in the room. Most arcade games would fail, and the strongest would survive and thrive.

On my lunch break today, I stopped at Target and saw that Red Steel is on sale for $30. I'm interested in the game. I want to like it. Now give me a good reason why I should buy. Convince me to cross the line. Have you and your team successfully done this, Mr. VandenBerghe? I don't think so. If the game was enticing enough, exciting enough, and offered enough strong content (what Vincent Flanders calls "heroin content"), I would have bought the game at $50. But I didn't do this, and I remain hesitant now. Why is this? What are the strengths and weaknesses of Red Steel 2? What did we do wrong?

Don't complain to me about motion controls. And don't try to tell me motion control isn't popular on the Nintendo Wii. That's rediculous. Wii Sports is the single most popular video game ever made. Wii Play, Wii Sports Resort, Mario Kart, Just Dance - all make excellent use of motion controls. Heck, the swordplay in WSR is spectacular. I want sword fighting like that! I want to be able to knock enemies off of bridges and mountains and slash them into the ocean. I want to feel empowered by fighting against overwhelming odds.

Why does Red Steel 2 have a tutorial mode? I HATE tutorials in games. I especially hate it when I'm required to go through it before starting the game. I just picked up Excite Truck, and it's a terrific game in many ways, but I just wanted to throw my Wiimote out the window over that stupid tutorial mode.

Arcade games should never have a tutorial mode. The controls should be immediately accessible and easy to grasp. I want as few barriers to entry as possible. Every barrier only angers me and brings me that much closer to walking out. Just today, I walked out of a Starbucks because their wifi connection was a pain in the neck. I knew another coffee shop that didn't make me jump through hoops to go online, so I packed up and walked over there. It's the same way with video games. Heck, if anything, the internet has made me crankier.

Does Red Steel 2 have multiplayer? The Wii is a console for the Social Games Era. Playing with friends and family is an absolute must. In fact, I'd say local multiplayer is even more important than it was for the Sega Dreamcast and Nintendo 64. If you're offering a FPS title for only one player, that's a major strike against you. I don't care about technical hurdles. I don't care about how hard it is to design. I got to play 4-player on GoldenEye 64 in 1997. I don't want excuses in 2010.

How is the design of the game world in Red Steel 2? Is it diverse? Or is it the same brown-ish Western town again and again? Are my actions and abilities a natural extension of this world? Does the gameplay gel with the level design and the art design? Is the action fast and immediate? Am I always three seconds from death (as Robotron was once described)? Do I battle through a variety of environments, or is it just the same big, boxy arena again and again?

Yes, the graphics are great. Congratulations to the art team. But graphics should never be the top priority. Priority #1 is Control. The control scheme must be absolutely precise and perfect. If I get to slash a sword with the Motion Plus, then I want to slash a sword just like I can in WSR. Priority #2 is Play Mechanics. What is the core of the game? Focus on that like a laser beam. This is where multiplayer comes in. A perfect example would be F-Zero X. The core of that game was 4-player racing, so everything was designed around the multiplayer experience. Graphics took a back seat to precision controls, rock-solid framerates, and sheer speed.

Gameplay over graphics. It has always been this way. I don't know why today's game designers can't seem to figure this out. They're far too dazzled by polygons and lighting effects and ignore the core of their games. As a result, most of them are deemed failures and wind up in the used bins at Gamestop. I grew up playing videogames in the '80s, so I'm used to greatness, and I don't have time or patience for anything less. A harsh environment, yes. That's the world we live in, and we just have to deal with it.

Aren't You Tired of Always Being Wrong?

Wedbush "analyst" Michael Pachter proclaims that, once again, the Nintendo Wii iz dooomed!:

“…the Wii appears to be suffering from console saturation and fatigue despite the recent launch of the Wii SportsResort/Wii Motion Plus bundle. Unfortunately, Wii software sales were down significantly in July, driving overall software sales into negative territory… It is easy to say that the decline in Wii software is due to a lackluster lineup of games; we think that is largely true, but note that the PS3 and Xbox 360 lineups were also relatively light. Year-to-date, Wii hardware sales total 2.7 million, compared to 1.8 million PS3s and 2.4 million Xbox 360s, so it is difficult to blame the year-over-year Wii software sales decline on poor hardware sales. Instead, we think it is becoming apparent that the average Wii owner is just buying less software than his PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts."

I added the bold to highlight some of the text, if only to show how absurd this is.  It's astonishing that game industry analysts have been so wrong about the Nintendo Wii, but what's really odd is how they never change their tune.  They only double down on the stupid.  The Wii is always a fad, it's always declining, it's always run out of "casual" customers (the notion of the "casual gamer" is a fallacy), it's solely responsible for the decline in the software market.

You can amuse yourself with a simple Google search.  It's easy to find many examples of prophets and magicians proclaiming that Nintendo has failed, despite all evidence to the contrary.  They sound more like jilted fanboys on internet message forums than serious thinkers.  This isn't something you would expect from educated adults.  Goodness knows, I make plenty of mistakes, and my ability to predict the future is, frankly, terrible.  The only time my predictions are right is when it's patently obvious, like tomorrow's sunrise.  But at least I try to learn from my mistakes, and educate myself.

Here are a handful of headlines pushing the "Wii is Doomed" meme from the past few years.  I just grabbed these quickly from Google as an example:

2007: Is Wii a Bubble?

2008: Will the Wii Bubble Now Finally Burst

2009: The Wii Bubble Has Burst

2009: Nintendo Profits Fall as Wii Hits Saturation

2010: "Wii appears to be suffering from console saturation and fatigue..." (Pachter)

Okay, okay, I get it.  A lot of gamers are not fans of the Nintendo Wii.  This is nothing new; back in the 1980s, the NES drew the same fire from the hardcore gamers of that day, which were Home Computer Era gamers.  Nintendo disrupted their market just as the Wii and DS has disrupted the Cinematic Games market.  And there has always been a "family friendly" image to Nintendo that a lot of older gamers could never deal with.  It's alright.  Not everyone has to like the same kind of ice cream.

When we're talking about industry analysts, however, it is a different matter.  I've aired my criticisms of Mr. Pachter numerous times, so there's little point in repeating everything one more time.  The industry soothsayers have an agenda to push, and to a great extent, that involves pushing back against Nintendo's disruption.  A paradigm shift is never welcome to the older generation whose values and rules are being dislodged.  Thomas Kuhn argued that a paradigm shift only really occurs when younger generations are won over; the older generation must fade away.

The paradigm shift is here and it's not going away.  If Nintendo is not the engine of disruption, then it will be Facebook and Twitter, it will be Apple and Google.  The Cinematic Games Era has given way to the Social Games Era.  For this very reason, talk of Nintendo's decline and fall are nothing less than willful delusion.  It is a fantasy spun by illusionists and fools.

The Legend of Zelda is Not a Puzzle Game!

I don't know if it's because I'm getting older, but I'm becoming increasingly vocal about how much better video games used to be.  Case in point: The Legend of Zelda.  There hasn't been a good Zelda game in a decade.  The last one I really enjoyed was 2005's The Minish Cap for the Gameboy Advance, and that was designed by Capcom, not Nintendo.  Now I'm finding getting cranky at this game, too.

When did Zelda turn into a bland puzzle game?  Did I miss something?  Zelda used to be about action and adventure, with fighting and swordplay against rapid assaults of enemies and monsters.  Now?  Snooze.  It's really a shocker to play through the original Legend of Zelda from 1986.  It's a completely different beast.

Cast in point: here are a couple screenshots I snapped of Minish Cap's first dungeon.  It's the forest dungeon, following the very tired cliche of game levels based on the elements.  Forest castle, fire castle, ice castle, wind castle.  Snore.

No, this is only one beef I have.  What really annoys me is the infantile way the game holds me by the hand and practically shouts at me what to do.  The inclusion of gabby sidekicks who give away hints is a bad habit that goes all the way back to 1998's The Ocarina of Time, the one Zelda game we all decided was the masterpiece.  Now every game needs some sort of sidekick who points out the obvious.  I really, really don't like this.

After playing the original Zelda on my Virtual Console, I've reacquired a taste for red meat.  I want some fast action, and I want it now.  I miss that sense of danger, of always teetering on the edge, overwhelmed by monsters who zig and zag uncontrollably, knocking me senseless as I navigate my way around a hostile world.  None of that exists in Modern Zelda.  There is almost never any action, and you are never in any sense of danger.  It's a safe, secure, baby-proofed world.  Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is tougher than Modern Zelda.

Which brings me back to the Forest dungeon in Minish Cap.  It's bloody boring.  There are no enemies.  Maybe once in a while, a couple slugs drop from the ceiling, but they just sit there like fat steaks.  Everything crawls slooowly.  Compare this to any of the dungeons in Zelda 1.  Now that was a challenge.  The challenge now resides entirely in solving very simple and very childish puzzles.  To Nintendo, Zelda is now a puzzle game.

When the bloody hell did this happen?  I probably wouldn't even mind if the puzzles were challenging, but what's offered is about as challenging as turning on all the lights in your room.  Oh, joy, I get to push a statue over a button on the floor.  I get to press all the switches.  I get to turn on all the lights.  I feel like I'm being handed a Fisher-Price jigsaw puzzle for toddlers....you know, the kind with four pieces.  No, that's not fair.  Modern Zelda would never have that many pieces.

I'm trying not to be too hard on Minish Cap, because I loved it to pieces five years ago, and the rich graphics and beautiful music haven't aged a day.  I love good videogame music - what the kids today call "chiptunes."  I suspect my time reading Sean Malstrom's inspired rants has emboldened my inner child.  Videogames were better 20 years ago!  The NES was the best game system ever made!  2D Mario is better than 3D Mario!  And the original Legend of Zelda smashes the modern sequels to pieces.  It isn't even close.

I'm feeling especially annoyed because Eiji Aonuma, the man in charge of the Zelda series since 2000, is roundly obsessed with puzzles and cheap gimmicks.  Every Zelda game under his direction has been worse than the last.  Zelda with a boat.  Zelda with a wolf.  Zelda with a train.  No overworlds.  No combat.  No action.  No danger.  Only puzzles.  Nothing but those stupid puzzles.  I couldn't even play through the last three games in the series.

Now Nintendo is working on finishing Zelda: Skyward Sword for Nintendo Wii, and they're coming off an extremely impressive showing at the E3 trade show.  That demo showed a Legend of Zelda with weapons, enemies, and lots of combat.  Is such a thing possible?  Will I get to use the Wii Motion Plus for sword fighting and archery, just like Wii Sports Resort?

Ehh....no.  Aonuma only wants to make puzzles.  He's going to take your sword away, so you can solve more clever puzzles.  He's going to take the overworld away, and replace it with more puzzles.  The action from the E3 demo?  Gone.  In its place will be....let's guess....endless chatting with the locals?  Irritating sidekicks that insult the intelligence of toddlers?  Puzzles?

I swear, nobody in the video games business actually wants to make video games anymore.  They all want to work on vanity projects that go nowhere.  They want to make movies.  They want to make Fisher-Price puzzles.  No thanks.  What ever happened to game designers?  Remember those?  I need to find a better hobby.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Photos - Donkey Kong

Donkey Kong may still be the greatest Nintendo video game ever made.  The visual design is exquisite, and the way this world fits so perfectly....it really was unique among early 1980s arcade games.  Shigueru Miyamoto's education in design shines on every stage, and he was forever joined at the hip with the hero, Mario.  And, of course, this is an endlessly challenging and fun game.  Donkey Kong is a standard of the Arcade Games Era.

Thirty years ago, I never could have imagined that Nintendo would completely dominate the video game world, or that Atari and all of their peers would be dead, or that the classic arcade values would become corrupted and lost in the mad rush for overpowered computer graphics.  I think that's why I'm a strong supporter of the Wii.  I want to see those arcade values restored, in the new Social Games Era.

Now where the heck is Donkey Kong on the Virtual Console?  Don't give me the crummy NES version.  Everyone knows the best home version was on the Atari 800.  Now that I think about it, where the heck is Atari Interactive?!

EA Thinks You're a Chump, Part 2

EA Sports Active 2 is going to cost $100.  What the...is this some kind of joke?!

EA will attempt to justify this monstrosity with the inclusion of a heart-rate monitor and a wireless leg strap.  Yes, that would be an improvement from sticking the nunchuk into the leg strap on Sports Active 1.  But I never offered to pay a king's ransom for a suitable replacement.  For all we know, the new attachment won't be an improvement at all.

I'm a strong supporter of the fitness games on the Nintendo Wii.  It's one of the great triumphs of the gaming world these past few years.  But this is outlandish.  Do these people even bother to watch the nightly news?  Who, exactly, has a hundred dollars to waste on a fitness game?  You can get an actual gym membership for that price, and possibly less.

This is a money-grubbing scam by a hardcore gaming company that only sees the Wii market as suckers.  EA hypes Wii fans for months with NBA Jam, and then dumps the game on PS360 for free.  EA turns Madden Football into a cartoon monstrosity that looks worse than NFL2K1 on the Sega Dreamcast.  I guess it's our fault for not allowing ourselves to be herded along mindlessly like lemmings for their lazy annual sequels.

Okay, EA, I get it.  The Nintendo Wii is beneath you, and you don't want to make any games for it.  So you do everything possible, short of dropping the system completely, to sabotage your own titles for the Wii.  Investors are demanding access to the 75 million customers, but you'd rather play with overblown HD graphics and DLC.

You don't want me to buy any of your games?  Fine.  Mission accomplished.  Have fun when the NFL takes away your license.

What Game Industry "Analysts" Really Mean When They Talk About Wii HD

Basically, what "analysts" like Pachter are saying when they demand that Nintendo release a Wii HD (or a Wii 1.5, which is the newest one I've read) is this: Nintendo must abandon disruption, and return to the fold, and compete with Microsoft and Sony in the Red Ocean. Clearly, this is not going to happen. Nintendo did just that with the N64 and Gamecube, and look where it got them.

No, Nintendo has to disrupt the video game market, because this core market has been stagnant for a decade, and is now in decline. In a country like Japan, where the population is falling, this decline is even more evident. The game industry cannot appeal solely to 30-something males. There must be new customers if video games are going to survive.

And let us not forget the global economy, which continues to be very sluggish, and will remain depressed for some time. This will be an influence on consumers for some time to come.  The future lies in sleeker, more compact, more focused, and lower priced.  Excess and bloat are what define Playstation and Xbox, and this is why these brands are struggling today.

Nintendo has to disrupt the video game industry because the old path is no longer sustainable. We cannot manufacture more and more powerful hardware every five years, with game budgets exploding by tens of millions of dollars, aimed at an aging fanbase, while ignoring everyone else. This paradigm must be changed; the values themselves must be changed. Nintendo has been talking about this for years, before the Wii and the DS.

Look to the smartphones. Look at Apple and Google. The disruption is here and it's coming, one way or another. If Nintendo didn't disrupt the market, then Apple and Google will. This is a rough business, folks. Either you adapt and evolve to changing environments, or you go extinct. And the history of video games is littered with tombstones.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sony Teams With Google to Unleash Android 3.0 Smart Phone

(This image is only a mock-up of a possible design.  No official word has yet been made.)

"The next video game war will be fought between Nintendo, Apple, and Google. Mark my words."

I scribbled those words down on my Twitter page late last night. I hadn't expected to be proven right so soon. I didn't mean this was literally coming the next day! But such is the modern videogame and tech business. Everything moves at five times the speed.

This looks eerily similar to Sony's failed PSP Go. True, this is Sony Ericsson and not Sony Computer Entertainment. The key will be whether or not the Playstation name is attached to this device. If not, then this is big news for Google. If it is, then this is still big news for Google, but big news for Sony as well.

I was contemplating what Sony's next move against Nintendo could be, after the Wii and 3DS. The Cinematic Games Era is passing, so a PSP 2 with more powerful hardware and high-definition graphics won't work. Sony would either have to match Nintendo's move into 3D and fight a sustaining battle...or follow a disruptive path by pursuing the low end of the market. Right now, the very bottom level is the realm of the $2 iPhone game and the Smart Phones.

Anyone who continues to dismiss the Smart Phones in 2010 is a fool. Like the Wii, they begin in the low end, but they will move upstream. I certainly can't say if such a strategy would work in the same way disruption has worked for Nintendo, but I do believe Apple and Google will try. Would Sony join them? It's a zany idea at this point, and perhaps little more than the product of my imagination. But, still...I can't wait to see how this plays out.

In the Social Games Era and the Age of Disruption, how would you disrupt Nintendo's 3DS? How would you respond? I think I would do something like this.

Microsoft Has Fought and Lost the Wrong War

Eurogamer has a comprehensive and, frankly, sobering account of Microsoft's Kinect.  The final hardware represents one cost-saving compromise after another, as the company desperately tries to lower expenses.  Downgraded abilities include a CPU within the device, the resolution of the camera lens, and the loss of finger control (this renders such things as virtual keyboards useless).  And, as always, there's the lag, the annoying lag.

I don't believe Kinect ever had a chance of stopping Nintendo Wii, based just on the business model and the rules of disruptive innovation.  But you would at least expect competent hardware.  Sadly, this is Microsoft, a software and marketing company with no experience building hardware whatsoever...and, once again, it shows.

Please, investors, pull the plug.  Kinect is a final, desperate push by Microsoft's crumbling consumer division.  The company gambled that digital technology would one day converge around the living room.  But that did not happen - the digital convergence has come to the cell phone, not the television.  Like the middle son in Kurosawa's Ran, you have fought on the wrong battlefield.  Google is set to destroy your castle.  Every dollar wasted on the Xbox is lost to the mobile market and the Social Gaming Era.

If I were a Microsoft investor, I would be absolutely terrified.  This is George W. Bush levels of incompetence.  How can Steve Ballmer not see this?  The truth is clear to all, even the most diehard Xbox fans.  Kinect will fail to capture Nintendo's Expanded Market.  The machine doesn't even live up to the original marketing hype.  It has only managed to anger the company's core base.

To hell with the Kinect and the Xbox, I say.  Kill the consumer division immediately and save yourselves!  Windows and Office are old and ripe for disruption.  If Google or Apple manages to make any significant inroads there....Microsoft is finished.  When I think of Microsoft in 2010, all I can see is a lumbering dinosaur chasing around squirrels, unknowingly in the path of the coming asteroid.

Why Kinect is Doomed to Fail

Because Microsoft has not earned the right to innovate.  As a result, they have faced a backlash from their core customers, which will cripple any attempts to seriously pursue Nintendo.

I've visited the Kinect camp at the Mall of America a couple times; I tell myself to visit again, if only to see how good Harmonix' Dance Central is, but I'm not feeling much interest in the idea.  Do I really have to go?  What would be the point?  It's something I'll probably have to force myself to do, sigh.  Duty calls.

Microsoft simply doesn't understand why the Nintendo Wii is a runaway success.  They don't understand the values of the new paradigm, who this new Expanded Market is, or why they are drawn to games like Wii Sports and Wii Fit.  Who knows?  Perhaps Microsoft really does understand, but are trapped within the old paradigm.  The "hardcore" era of Cinematic Games, with extravagant production values and HDTV graphics, becomes an albatross around their neck in the wake of Wii's disruption.

Meanwhile, while Microsoft has been setting billions of dollars on fire playing games, Apple and Google have taken over the mobile market.  Jittery investors should be terrified of Google.  They'll be coming for Windows and Office, mark my words.  Even giants can be killed.

Nintendo's Disruption Leads to 30 Million Wii Sales in the US in Record Time

Nintendo's stunning disruption of the video game world continues at a record pace.  The Wii has sold 30 million consoles in the US in 45 months.  That's a record pace, kids.

I think this would be a good time to understand exactly what Nintendo's business plan has been these past five years.  This is no mere "fad" and no luck is involved.  What we are witnessing is a textbook case in disruptive innovation.  The old values of the Cinematic Games era is being swept away by the new values of the Social Games age.

The old incumbents - Sony and Microsoft - will eventually become marginalized if they are not destroyed completely.  Disruption is not a means of competition among friends; it is a bloodsport.  I think the game industry understands this, and to a great extent, this explains their hostility to Nintendo and the Wii.  But that's a long discussion for another time.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Photos - Just Dance Kids

Oof, this is gonna hurt.  When you consider that the gameplay mechanics are already developed and in the can, Ubisoft could conceivably crank out dancing games by the truckload.  And it appears that Ubisoft is planning to do just that.

I cringed when I first saw these screenshots, but after a while, they don't seem so bad.  "They Don't Seem So Bad" is not exactly the ringing endorsement you want for your new hit video game fad, though.  Ubisoft is far too reckless.  The Just Dance genre could go from being the Next Big Thing to the Next Big Joke overnight.

Thank goodness for the Just Dance Kids thread on NeoGAF.  It's wildly funny and it keeps me from getting too cranky.

Ubisoft is Becoming Reckless - Just Dance Kids

Hmm...I don't think this is a good idea. In fact, it's downright reckless:

Ubisoft on Friday announced Just Dance Kids, a spin-off of the multi-million selling Wii music and rhythm game Just Dance that features kid pop songs, due in November this year.

The announcement of Just Dance Kids comes after the June announcement of Just Dance 2, due this fall for Nintendo Wii. Just Dance Kids will feature over 40 dances created by professional choreographers and led by real kids.

Ubisoft U.S. director of marketing Adam Novickas said the upcoming kid title will be "a great way for the family to interact together and learn new dance routines, in addition to providing a great form of exercise." The game's soundtrack will include "Holiday,"Naturally" and "One Time."

The game industry has a terrible habit of killing the golden goose with far too many titles, that are far too alike, in far too short a time. Just ask Harmonix about the collapse of Guitar Hero/Rock Band, or third-party publishers about the collapse of their "casual" games on Wii. As soon as a new hit game emerges, publishers pounce on it and crush the market to death. And then they sit back, puzzled, once the market has been driven off.

Ubisoft's bosses need to get this through their thick heads: There ain't no such thing as "Casual Gamers." The Wii's Expanded Audience are not fools or simpletons; they are, in fact, extremely cautious and skeptical consumers. They are also very hostile to video game sequels. I don't know why the game industry can't figure this out.

Shawn White Snowboarding: Road Trip became a hit game on the Wii; the sequel crashed and burned. Boom Blox was a hit game; the sequel crashed and burned. We Cheer was a hit game; the sequel crashed and burned. Even yearly sports games are no immune from this fate; compare last year's Tiger Woods '10 to this year's edition.

Have you noticed how slowly Dance on Broadway has caught on among the fans? This game didn't explode out of the gate at all. Only now has it moved to the top of the UK charts, and it has yet to catch fire here in America. Heck, even I haven't bought the game yet. THAT is how skeptical by nature we are. Looking at the wreckage third-parties have dumped on the Wii, can you blame us? Among Just Dance fans, there is a great demand for the sequel, but this does not turn consumers into mindless drones. We will not settle for Malibu Stacy in a new hat.

Just Dance is one of the Wii's defining titles. It represents the new generation of music games, thanks to its motion controls. It presents itself as nothing more than a good time, an evening of laughs with family and friends. This makes it a milestone in the paradigm of Social Games. It has one foot in classic arcade games, and the other foot in iPod commercials. Oh, and boys? This game is a girlfriend magnet.

I honestly don't know if Ubisoft understands why Just Dance sells or what makes it great. I think they only see sales numbers, and figure that, well, if it takes six hours to cook a roast at 100 degrees, then cooking the roast for one hour at 600 degrees should work, too. And so we see three Just Dance-inspired titles in the span of six months - Dance on Broadway, Just Dance Kids, and Michael Jackson.

I do think the French development team gets it, and they are carefully constructing a potentially landmark video game in Just Dance 2. Ubisoft should carefully cultivate this sequel as their star title, not flood the market with copycat titles. Heck, I wouldn't even release the Michael Jackson game this year, but very carefully let it marinate and cook until next year. As for "Just Dance Kids," I wouldn't release this game at all. I honestly don't see the point.

If Ubisoft isn't careful, they're going to turn away the Just Dance fans. Meanwhile, Harmonix and Konami are waiting in the wings, ready to pounce.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

It's Not Like Russia is Known For Being Cold

Have a look at Moscow's weather forecast for the next week - over 100F from here to the horizon.

Let's see how long Russia's leaders continue to deny reality.  Maybe they can pretend that the Soviet Union is still alive and that global warming is really a vast Communist conspiracy.  It works for the Americans.

Global Warming is Still a Hoax

Obviously, this is all a vast conspiracy by scientists to...um, well...hmm...Communism?

•According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the planet has just come through the warmest decade, the warmest 12 months, the warmest six months and the warmest April, May and June on record.

•A "staggering" new study from Canadian researchers has shown that warmer seawater has reduced phytoplankton, the base of the marine food chain, by 40% since 1950.

•Nine nations so far have set their all-time temperature records this year, including Russia (111 degrees), Niger (118), Sudan (121), Saudi Arabia and Iraq (126 apiece), and Pakistan, which also set the new all-time Asia record in May — a hair under 130 degrees.

Meanwhile, China is stampeding through their Industrial Revolution at a stunning rate.  Global demand for oil and coal continues to rise.  Americans cling to any deluded fantasy that comes along...Soviet Communism, One-World Government, Raising Taxes.  There is no political will to even consider reducing our endless consumption of fossil fuels.

I honestly don't know what it would take to bring public opinion around.  Even the devestation of the Gulf of Mexicoby millions of gallons of oil has changed nothing.  The last politician who even tried to address our energy addiction was Jimmy Carter - and he was practically tarred and feathered.  You want your throwaway plastics, your gas-guzzling cars, your televisions, and your red meat.  And you'll believe any bullshit fantasy in order to maintain this life.  And meanwhile, the planet burns.

Your children and grandchildren are going to die because of your selfishness and greed.  Just wait until the Greenland ice shelf collapses.  Just wait until the Arctic ice has gone.  Just wait until crops fail and you can't grow food.  Just wait until the drinking water runs out.  You've known the consequences for over a hundred years, and you just don't care.  Cheerfully, you hurl your children into the abyss.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

EA to Nintendo Wii Owners: "Drop Dead"

EA thinks you're a chump.

After months of hype, including the cover of Nintendo Power and an impressive performance at E3, Electonic Arts finally admitted today that their Nintendo Wii "exclusive," NBA Jam, is also about to be released on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 as well.  Better yet, the PS360 version will include HD graphics, online multiplayer...and come packaged as a free download with EA's NBA Elite.  Surprise, surprise!

So, to recap, Nintendo Wii owners are expected to pay $50 for Jam, while the HD Twins get the same game for free.  And this was all being done on the sly, without anyone else knowing about it.  No mention at E3, no mention to the press, no nothing.  Pity that the news from the ratings boards leaked to the internet.  I wouldn't at all be surprised if that tipped EA's hand.

So, once again, Wii gamers get shafted and are made to feel like suckers for buying third-party games.  Why am I being charged $50 when the Twins get it for free?  Heck, let's be generous and assume NBA Jam will eventually migrate to Xbox Live and PSN.  That's still a $15 downloadable game - less than a third the Wii retail price.

I suspect this deception was a very cynical marketing ploy by EA.  They could have announced NBA Jam for all three consoles from the start.  But I think we know how that scenario would have played out.  All the attention would have been on the PS360 versions, from the developers as well as the press, and the Wii would - once again - be stuck with the leftovers.  We would have assumed the Wii version was an afterthought, tossed off to the C-level design team, probably some poor losers who lost a bet, and we wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.

After all, this has been the strategy by the game industry for the last four years.  They've never respected the Nintendo Wii, certainly never expected it to become a runaway success.  And I think this is part of a very long power struggle between software publishers and Nintendo.

This is particularly galling to me, because it appeared that EA finally began to show some respect.  NBA Jam not only filled a very large void in the Wii library - sports games - its classic arcade gameplay fits in perfectly with New Super Mario Bros and Donkey Kong Country, and the 2D revival in general.  Jam on Wii was a damned smart move, destined for blockbuster status.  That's all lost now.

EA has successfully managed to cannibalize their own video game.  Why would any informed gamer buy the Wii version now?  EA is literally giving the game away for free to PS360 owners.  That shows you how much respect they have for you, Nintendo gamer.  And it shows you how much respect they have for NBA Jam.  To their eyes, the paying customers are suckers and chumps; the Wii gamers, doubly so.

Frankly, if you pay full price for this game, then EA's right.  You are a sucker.

(P.S. 8:35pm -- It appears that PS360 owners may be grumpy about having to purchase NBA Elite '11 in order to get NBA Jam.  Wouldn't it be funny if EA ends up offending everyone?  Serves them right.  They should have been honest from the beginning and announced retail releases of Jam on all three consoles.  This too-cute-by-half approach could seriously backfire.  Jerks.)