Archive for January, 2008

Valve Announces Steamworks

In an interview with next-gen.biz, Valve announced Steamworks, a collection of development and publishing resources for 3rd parties.

This means that for no charge, game makers can implement all or some of Steamwork’s publishing and development tools, such as up-to-the-hour sales tracking, an encryption system, auto-updating, territory control, voice chat, multiplayer matchmaking, social networking (including features such as Achievements) and development tools, including private betas and QA tools.

The promise of these free services is great for developers, publishers, and ultimately consumers, but the implications of Valve’s offering run far deeper.  The PC gaming industry has continued to stagnate over the past few years – even the awesome sales of World of Warcraft haven’t been enough to give the platform a shot in the arm.  Steam, Valve’s content distribution platform, has been the exception in regards to PC gaming decline, and the company is hoping that further standardization will help to solidify the industry.

Valve business director Jason Holtman (pictured) tells Next-Gen, “By not charging for this, it’s just another way to get more people onto Steam and to enjoy all the games. Our motivations here are pretty clear.”

Valve is one of my favorite developers – their games are fantastic, and Steam is a great service.  Here’s hoping that Steamworks will provide developers the chance to focus on the fun parts of games while also giving the PC platform the differentiation from consoles that it needs in order to be successful in the coming years.

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Mass Effect

Mass Effect is the newest game from BioWare (of Baldur’s Gate and Knights of the Old Republic fame), and as advertised, it is an epic adventure set in a very believable world. Like most of their other games, it has a number of interesting design choices but is marred by technical glitches and loose gameplay.

Mass Effect has a lot of conversations. A lot of them. And if you’re expecting this to be an action game in the vein of Halo or Gears of War, the numerous NPC (non-playable character) interactions might get boring very quickly. But if you’re open to a more cerebral experience than the standard fare, the dialogue trees in Mass Effect are a lot of fun.

The basic idea is that you get a choice of responses during conversations. In general, there is at least a “positive”, “neutral”, or “negative” response to every statement in a conversation. The other participant(s) in the conversation will react according to the response you choose. It’s all very seamless in its implementation, and the sense of choice you get throughout the game is pretty astounding. Most remarkable is the way that your crew members react to you throughout the course of the game – as you progress through a number of conversations, these characters will adopt varying levels of respect, admiration, and even attraction to you based on how you converse with them. While it’s tough to get a real sense of the extent to which relationships are mutable from a single play through (though there are some key indicators of at least some real choice), the very existence of any choice in regards to how the narrative unfolds is very exciting.

In fact, this theme of “choice” permeates the entirety of Mass Effect’s design. Like most of BioWare’s other games, you are allowed to modify the appearance, name, and backstory of your main character.  As the game progresses, you are given the choice of how to upgrade your character (and other party members) as you obtain experience. There are a number of upgrade choices (based on the chosen class of your character), and the resulting combat styles are pretty unique. Further, you are not only given the choice of whether or not to help various citizens of the galaxy, but you are given the choice of how to help these citizens. Also, there are a few big choices that you have to make as the story progresses that most definitely change the way the game unfolds. It really feels like you have an impact on the story, and in that regard Mass Effect is really unlike anything else ever released.

But “choice” isn’t the only aspect of Mass Effect’s design that leads to immersion – BioWare has obviously gone to painstaking lengths to create a very believable setting for the game. Throughout the adventure, you gain a number of entries for your Codex that explain the intricacies of the galaxy – from back story to how humanity discovered that they were not alone in the universe to descriptions of the various races (history, customs, notable attributes, etc) you encounter to explanations of the multitude of technologies that are found throughout the adventure. By the end of the game, there is an almost overwhelming amount of information in the Codex. And while some of it helps to illuminate the importance of some of the plot points in the story, most of it is largely irrelevant to the game. What it does, though, is provide a startling amount of depth and context to the universe, which in turn increases the player’s level of immersion in the narrative.

Unfortunately, not every aspect of the game is as well done. Throughout the game, you will be given a number of optional tasks by various citizens in the galaxy. While the context of the tasks are generally unique and interesting, the tasks themselves ultimately come down to traveling to some barren planet, driving around in the Mako (a type of land rover), and killing all the bad guys in a cookie-cutter underground base. Though unfortunate, the lack of variety of side missions doesn’t ruin the game. I just hope that BioWare has some more dynamic things in store for the sequel.

Mass Effect is also littered with a number of optimization issues and glitches. For starters, the frame rate is really bad – screen tearing is the norm, and stuttering/slowdown is common. Also, as was the case with Gears of War, it often takes a few seconds for textures to properly load in a scene. This is distracting during gameplay, but it is even more jarring during the game’s many (and otherwise fantastic) cutscenes. Further, for the amount of planet hopping and quick-traveling you do throughout the game, load times are longer than they should be. Finally, even basic character control doesn’t quite feel right – the camera is a little jumpy and general character movement feels stiff.

Ultimately though, the strength of the narrative, the dynamic gameplay choices, and the resulting sense of immersion more than make up for any gameplay or graphical shortcomings in Mass Effect. The game is very riveting and, more importantly, very fun. I can’t wait for the sequel.

Iwata Asks: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

There’s a new Iwata Asks feature up on Nintendo’s website – this interview is with Masahiro Sakurai, the director of the upcoming Super Smash Bros. Brawl due out for Wii on March 10th in the US. Sakurai, who worked on the two previous Smash Bros. games at HAL Laboratory and now leads Sora Ltd., was signed on by Nintendo to specifically oversee the development of Brawl.

For the unfamiliar, Iwata Asks is a neat feature that pops up in the wake of big Nintendo releases where Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo, conducts casual interviews with important development staff on the particulars of a new game’s design history. Satoru Iwata was actually a programmer for HAL Labs before becoming president of Nintendo (he worked with Sakurai on the first Smash Brothers game for N64), and his deep understanding and experience helps to make these very interviews very enlightening. I always enjoy reading them.

Smash Bros. Brawl

The most interesting aspect of the interview (this is the first part of a multi-part feature) is the discussion of how Brawl’s development originally began. Iwata announced the game (as an online endeavor, none-the-less) at E3 2005, the same event where Wii (under the codename Revolution) was first publicly unveiled. As we later found out, development of the title had not begun at that point, and Sakurai (who was instrumental in the previous Smash titles) had not even been contacted regarding potential involvement. This interview is the first time we’ve heard from Sakurai about his reaction to the surprise announcement.

Iwata: Looking back at it now, I do regret the way I said this; you can’t blame them for interpreting it that way…Naturally, it was a splash of cold water for you.

Sakurai: Absolutely. (laughs) You can imagine my surprise when I was told by the others at the E3 show site that you made the announcement out of the blue.

Iwata: I even heard that the people around you at E3 were asking you whether or not you would develop the Smash Bros. game.

Sakurai: Yeah, it was rough. (laughs) I had no idea what to say.

It’s a good thing that Iwata was able to convince Sakurai to come onboard for development, because Brawl looks to be the best Smash Bros yet. For those who are interested, the official website for the game is updated every weekday by Sakurai himself with information on characters, levels, and game modes. It’s a cool website (I’ve never seen an official game site with so much content) and is very much worth a look.

NPD December 2007

NPD sales data for December was released today:

Hardware Sales:

NDS: 2,470,000
Wii: 1,350,000
360: 1,260,000
PS2: 1,100,000
PSP: 1,060,000
PS3: 797,600

Software Sales:

1. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (360) 1.47 Million
2. Mario Galaxy (Wii) 1.40 Million
3. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (PS2) 1.25 Million
4. Wii Play (Wii) 1.08 Million
5. Assassin’s Creed (360) 893.7 K
6. Halo 3 (360) 742.7 K
7. Brain Age 2 (NDS) 659.5 K
8. Madden 08 (PS2) 655.2 K
9. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (360) 624.6 K
10. Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games (Wii) 613.0 K

Additional sales data from IGN and the simExchange:
Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock (Wii) >500k
Mass Effect (Xbox 360) 401,000
Mario Party DS (DS) 385,700
Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles (Wii) 147,600
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings (DS) 117,200
Half-Life 2: The Orange Box (PS3) 56,500
Nights: Journey of Dreams (Wii) 60,800
TimeShift (PS3) 25,000

Other notable releases (by platform):

December is (unsurprisingly) the biggest month of the year for the Video Game industry. Not only are a huge amount of consoles sold throughout the country, but software historically performs very well as people buy presents for their friends and family. In general, results for software outpaced predictions while results for hardware were in line with predictions (barring some notable differences). NDS (2,470,000) and Wii (1,350,000) again won the month, though 360 (1,260,000) finished only 90k away from the console leader. PS2 (1,100,000) surprised with a very explosive November, while PSP (1,060,000) sold solidly and PS3 (797,600) again came up last.

As expected, Nintendo had a fantastic month, with NDS and Wii topping the charts. While both systems have been popular all year, their low price was no doubt instrumental in making them great gifts for the holidays. NDS in particular had an absolutely phenomenal month – its low price and wide audience appeal really resonated with customers over the holiday. Wii came up a little short of expectations, though that was more an indication of restricted supply as opposed to slackening demand. In fact, in order to satiate rabid crowds, Nintendo introduced a “rain check” program late in the month to ensure that people could at least take comfort in the fact that they would receive a Wii in January. On the software side of things, Super Mario Galaxy had a fantastic month for Nintendo, and SEGA must be pleased with sales of Mario and Sonic worldwide. Guitar Hero III and Resident Evil: UC sales show that there is a market for more adult games on Wii.

In spite of Nintendo’s success, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 had a great showing, nipping at Wii’s heels to the tune of less than a 90k difference between them. As has been the case since its launch, though, software performance is where 360 really shined, with Call of Duty 4 winning the month at 1.47 million copies sold and 4 games total charting in the top 10. Assassin’s Creed continues to perform strongly for Ubisoft. Overall, though, I’m most pleased with the continued steadiness of Mass Effect – I was worried when marketing for the title was less prolific than I had hoped, but I’m glad that owners are picking up this gem of a game. It will be a battle between Wii and 360 for overall leadership of the US market in 2008, but regardless of how that turns out, 360 will be the platform of choice for 3rd parties for the foreseeable future.

As has been the trend for months now, Sony saw both success and mediocrity in December with PS3, PS2 and PSP. PS2 came out of nowhere to lead the pack of Sony machines with 1.1 million sold – much like DS, the low price and wide library of games made it a great gift for the holidays. Even software for PS2 had a great showing, with Guitar Hero III and Madden 08 in the top 10. It will be scary to see how sales look when Sony drops the price below 100 dollars. PSP had another steady month of sales, though without any software successes of late, it’s hard to ascertain how attractive of a platform it is for 3rd party developers. PS3 had the lowest sales of the month among all consoles, though it did have a higher % increase over November (weekly sales) than either 360 or Wii. On the software side, sales for Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune were solid (though not spectacular, given its quality). The debut of HL2: The Orange Box was disappointing. At this point, it is highly improbable that PS3 will ever be number 1 in the US. Still, it performed well enough at the end of 2007 to assure that it will maintain some level of relevancy in 2008.

Storylines for 2008:

-Many analysts have suggested that Wii might lose some momentum in 2008 – can Nintendo continue to convince people that Waggle > HD?

-As Wii continues to gain market share, will 3rd parties be able to capitalize?

-Can the recent Blu-ray victory over HD-DVD and the impending release of Metal Gear Solid 4 do anything to reverse the fortunes of PS3?

-How long can Sony ride the 129.99 price for PS2?

(thanks to sonycowboy at NeoGAF and NPD)

A Message for 3rd Parties Regarding Wii: Don’t Compete With Nintendo

Since its release in late 2006, Nintendo’s Wii has been making headlines for its strong sales worldwide. And yet, despite its stellar hardware performance, there have been few breakout successes amongst 3rd party software titles. The most common complaint from 3rd party publishers and members of the press is that Nintendo’s own software is so popular that it hurts the market for other software titles to succeed. James Brightman, CEO of Codemasters, recently commented:

If you look back at the Nintendo track record over the last 20-25 years, it’s a typical situation where Nintendo will take 60-70 percent of the market and third parties will compete for the remaining 40 percent.

There is no denying that Nintendo sees remarkable success with their various software properties – games like The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, Super Mario Galaxy, and Wii Play are among the best selling on Wii. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ample opportunities for success for 3rd parties on Nintendo’s platform. To take advantage of them, though, developers need to realize that competing for Nintendo’s core demographic is not the best strategy. Instead, they should focus on creating games that cater to older gamers, a segment of the market that Nintendo has historically (and vocally) ignored.

To illustrate my point, take a look at these LTD (lifetime to date) figures for Wii 3rd party games:

Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock – ~700k
Rayman Raving Rabbids – ~500k
Resident Evil 4: Wii Edition – ~400k
Red Steel – ~400k

Sonic And The Secret Rings – ~350k
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007 – ~350k
Call Of Duty 3 – ~300k
Carnival Games – ~300k
Madden NFL 08 – ~300k
Trauma Center: Second Opinion – ~200k
The Bigs – ~200k
My Sims – ~200k
Cooking Mama – ~200k
Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 – ~200k
Dance Dance Revolution Hottest Party – ~200k
(see a larger list here)

I’ve bolded the titles that primarily appeal to adult gamers, and as you can see, there are more of these titles than more kid-friendly fare (and I’ve been generous – games like Trauma Center and DDR are arguably “bold worthy” games). But this isn’t surprising, right? Wii has been stunningly popular for over a year – for the first time in over a decade, Nintendo is cool. This means that adults who had little interest in GameCube and (to a lesser extent) N64 are now picking up Wiis. Nintendo properties like Zelda and Mario will obviously have some nostalgic appeal to these gamers, but 3rd parties have a very real opportunity for success in this demographic that, up to this point, they have (mostly) failed to capitalize on.

There is success to be found on Wii, but publishers need to step out of Nintendo’s shadow to find it.

Predictions: NPD December 2007

NPD video game sales data for December 2007 will be released next Thursday. Please note that December was tracked as a 5 week month, while November was tracked as a 4 week month – therefore, any trends/percentages that I reference will be in regards to weekly sales (that is, they will be adjusted properly to account for the discrepancy).

My predictions are as follows:

NDS: 2,250,000 (+17.65% change over November)
WII: 1,600,000 (+30.48%)
360: 1,350,000 (+40.26%)
PSP: 950,000 (+34.04%)
PS2: 825,000 (+33.06%)
PS3: 795,000 (+36.48%)
GBA: 350K (data not provided in November)

Video game sales in December are historically higher than any other month and are driven almost exclusively by the holiday rush, as few games are released during the month (most high profile games are released in October and November). While manufacturers like to have as much stock as possible available to help satiate demand, the potential for supply constraint is higher in December than at any other point in the year, and that makes predictions very difficult because trends from previous months are less reliable.

Nintendo again did very well in November – DS and Wii topped the charts, and titles like Super Mario Galaxy, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Guitar Hero 3, and Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games all performed strongly. As you would expect, the lower prices (compared to the competition) of Nintendo’s console and handheld mean that they make great gifts – I anticipate another winning month for the combination. In fact, due to massive worldwide popularity, Nintendo might have a hard time keeping up with demand, so it will be interesting to see how much of a limiting factor that is for overall sales. On the software side of things, Galaxy and Phantom Hourglass should again see great sales because of their family-friendly appeal.

November was another example of how Microsoft has done a great job of maintaining Xbox 360’s positive momentum that began in September with the release of Halo 3. And while hardware numbers were good, it was software sales that once again stole headlines, as the newly released Call of Duty 4 and Assassin’s Creed both sold >= 1 million units for the month. December should be another big month for the console, and I expect total hardware sales to eclipse the impressive 1.1 million tally that it accrued last December. Software sales will also be fantastic.

Those who have followed the industry over the past year know the difficulties that Sony has had with the PS3 – a high price and lack of popular games has hurt public perception of the console throughout the world. PSP and PS2, though, have both had solid years (especially PS2, considering its age) and have provided some stability to Sony as they deal with their next-gen problem. I expect sales in December for the three Sony platforms to reflect this now common trend, with PS3 lagging slightly behind PS2 and PSP.

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, Jan. 17th after market close (4:00 PM).

Assassin’s Creed: Immersive and Flawed

Assassin’s Creed took me by surprise. Upon its release, the internet was split over the game’s quality – some were disappointed by its gameplay and artistic repetition, while others were impressed by its compelling atmosphere and impressive technology. If you’ve read some of my thoughts on other recently-released games (read: Halo 3), you’ll know that I’m a stickler for great gameplay. With that in mind, I couldn’t help but expect to be ultimately let down by Assassin’s Creed.

Thankfully, my fears were (mostly) unfounded. Assassin’s Creed is startlingly cohesive – there is a lot of thought that went into the creation of the game, and it shows. From the great narrative (think The Matrix meets The Da Vinci Code) to fantastic art direction, it’s hard to dismiss the hard work that Ubisoft Montreal (the team behind the awesome Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and its sequels) put into this title. In this day and age where high development costs dictate safe sequel after safe sequel, it’s heartening to see a big studio take a chance on an original IP like Assassin’s Creed – the game has a soul, and that goes a long way.

The interesting thing about Assassin’s Creed is how drastically my enjoyment fluctuated over the course of the game. I was originally blown away by the synergy between the free-climb mechanic and the art design – you can climb on anything that looks like it should be able to be climbed on. The way that Ubisoft Montreal so organically integrates gameplay with the game world in this manner is perhaps the single most stunning technical/artistic accomplishment I’ve seen in years. But the shock at this design success eventually wore off for me, and after a great opening sequence, I was thrown into assassination missions with rinse-and-repeat gameplay that bordered on tedious. The strength of the narrative and atmosphere kept me interested enough to keep playing, though, and about halfway through the game (after assassination #5) the story really picked up and I discovered some nuances in the game design that increased my level of immersion in the adventure.

For instance, the fighting system did not impress me initially. After the obligatory learning period, I was quickly bored with the game’s frequent sword fights. While Altair, the main character, has a number of moves at his disposal, his ‘counter’ move is the most powerful, and I found myself simply waiting for enemies to attack before striking them down with a simple (though well animated) counter move. But as the game progressed, I tried to mix things up a little bit – for instance, instead of just waiting for enemy attacks to counter, I’d slash at a few enemies, throw a bad guy into other bad guys, then transition to a counter move and then into an offensive lunge. It’s amazing how the fights gained intensity (and more importantly, fun!) when I mixed up my fighting moves. The fluid animation transitions and quality camera-work really added to the experience, and the more I tried to act like a real assassin, the more enjoyable the game became.

Further, the swordplay is very rhythm based, which takes some time to wrap your head around (and it’s not explained very well, unfortunately – a more intuitive, comprehensive tutorial would have gone a long way). Most fighting systems in games rely on combos and button combinations, but Assassin’s Creed is more timing based – calm, controlled swordplay decisions are rewarded with buttery-smooth kickass-ery. It’s all very satisfying, and I can’t wait to see how the system is expanded on in future games.

While fighting is a major focus of the game, climbing/acrobatics play a bigger role in the adventure. As Altair, you can literally climb on anything, and a lot of the game’s appeal comes from the how cool it feels (and looks – the animation is superb) to traverse the game world via buildings and fortress walls. While games like Spiderman and Crackdown have employed similar free-motion styles of play, Assassin’s Creed takes a very realistic route for its gameplay mechanics. Some of Altair’s moves are indeed fantastical (you’ll often dive hundreds of feet into a pile of hay to evade pursuers), but he has a very real sense of weight and momentum that plays into the way he climbs and jumps.

To complement Altair’s physics, Ubisoft has done an impeccable job in designing the various cities – the environments are laid out so that there are always a number of paths that Altair can take to reach his destinations, and this gives the player a lot of freedom while at the same time allowing a constant sense of forward momentum. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the Tony Hawk series – Neversoft (the developer of those games) usually does a great job of ensuring that there are a number of lines and paths to allow for crazy grinds and huge trick combos. The action all feels very seamless.

It’s this very palpable sense of immersion and cohesion that makes Assassin’s Creed such a great experience. Taken on its own, the climbing gameplay mechanic, though awesome, would ultimately get boring. The fighting gameplay mechanics would be similarly tiring. But taken in context of the world’s impressive atmosphere and design and the game’s quality characterizations, the gameplay further adds to the player’s immersion.

That’s not to say that the game is without its flaws, though, because despite its impressive aspects, there is a large amount of gameplay repetition in Assassin’s Creed – so much so, in fact, that the entire experience is nearly ruined. After the opening sequence, the game falls into a predictable pattern. For each assassination you are assigned, you first must first do some detective work in the city to discover the whereabouts and particulars of your target. Initially this is pretty exciting stuff – you do things like pick pocketing, eavesdropping, intimidation, secondary assassinations for your brothers… and that’s it. For the whole game, these are the only ways to gain intel on your targets. As you can imagine, this gets old very fast. Fortunately, you only have to do 3 tasks for each assassination, so the monotony can be largely skipped over. Still, more varied content would go a long way in improving the pacing of the game, and I expect that some gamers who are not as enamored with the game’s narrative and atmosphere as I was won’t make it through the tedious middle portions of the game.

Nevertheless, the quality of the plot and gameplay mechanics ultimately overshadows the unfortunate content deficiencies. Even now, hours after finishing the game, my mind is working over the various scenario possibilities for future games in the series. In spite of its faults and shortcomings, Assassin’s Creed is both compelling and entertaining and is the type of experience that I would classify as truly deserving of the overused ‘next gen’ moniker.

Recommended.