Archive for July, 2008

Wii MotionPlus Demo: Proof of Awesome

IGN has an exciting demo up of the new MotionPlus attachment for the Wii remote. Like most people, I had hoped that the technology Nintendo originally launched with their console had the capability for 1:1 motion tracking, but it was pretty clear early on that this was not the case. Still, when used correctly, I think motion controls can be an extremely dramatic enhancement to a gameplay experience.

This video is exciting for two reasons – it’s proof of how sensitive this attachment makes the remote, and it’s an example of how development tools will continue to improve and mature as motion control becomes more prevalent.

As it is, I imagine that programing for motion control is harder than it might seem from our outside perspective, and I’m not talking about the math. Creating intuitive and functional controls on standard controllers is hard enough – to create a seamless and fulfilling experience with the Wii remote must be a great challenge, if only for the increased complexities involved. Tools like LiveMove2 will make the process easier for developers, which will in turn make gameplay experiences richer.

Summertime Dream

I’ve been playing through Grand Theft Auto 4 the past few weeks. Solid game, though I don’t see how it’s doing anything groundbreaking to the sandbox paradigm. The world looks good, but it’s pretty static – other than the designated gameplay spots, there’s not much to do in Liberty City. The story is hackneyed – it doesn’t tread any new ground, and while some aspects are cool (I like how dialogue changes if you have to replay a mission), sometimes the game takes itself too seriously. That’s never a good thing.

I’m still playing, so I guess that counts for something. I do like how Rockstar has managed to come up with some really clever missions. Sometimes these open world games lose themselves in their gameplay concept, but GTA4 offers a decent amount of structure in the main narrative, although I wonder if it hasn’t gone too far with the linearity. At this point, the game has basically devolved into me driving from one waypoint to the next – there’s very little encouragement to explore, and that’s too bad because the city is really quite interesting (at least visually).

The quiet after E3 is always pronounced, but this year’s post show malaise has been particularly resonant to me… probably because the show itself was so vanilla. Still, it’s tough for me to come to grips that I probably won’t know much about games like Alan Wake, the next Zelda, the next Mario, Half Life 2: Episode 3 until next year.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some intriguing games due out by year’s end. I like how Prince of Persia is shaping up, Left 4 Dead looks really flipping awesome, and I’m impressed with the direction Gears of War 2 is headed (I’m lovin’ the colors). But after the greatness that was last fall/winter (Mario Galaxy, The Orange Box, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect), I don’t think this year’s batch will be nearly as excellent.

We’ll see, though. With the downfall of E3 (they’d better put it in May or early June in 09 if they want any chance of a revival), shows like PAX and Leipzeig will continue to improve as venues for new announcements.

NPD June 2008

NPD sales data for June is as follows:

Hardware Sales:

Wii: 666.7k
PS3: 405.5k
360: 219.8k
PS2: 188.8k
NDS: 783k
PSP: 337.4k

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Software Sales:

1. Metal Gear Solid IV (PS3, Konami) – 774.6K (not including hardware bundled copies)
2. Guitar Hero World Tour (DS, Activision) – 422.3K
3. Ninja Gaiden II (360, Tecmo/MGS) – 372.7K
4. Wii Fit w/balance board (Wii, Nintendo) – 372.7K
5. Wii Play w/remote (Wii, Nintendo) – 359.1K
6. Battlefield: Bad Company (360, EA) – 346.8K
7. Mario Kart (Wii, Nintendo) – 322.4K
8. Lego Indiana Jones (Wii, LucasArts) – 294.5K
9. Lego Indiana Jones (NDS, LucasArts) – 267.8K
10. Lego Indiana Jones (PS2, LucasArts) – 260.3K
11. Grand Theft Auto IV (360, Take 2)
12. Rock Band (Wii, EA)
13. Super Smash Bros: Brawl (Wii, Nintendo)
14. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (Wii, Activision)
15. Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games (NDS, Sega)
16. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (360, Activision)
17. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (PS2, Activision)
18. New Super Mario Bros. (NDS, Nintendo)
19. Grand Theft Auto IV (PS3, Take 2)
20. Lego Indiana Jones (360, LucasArts)

Top 10 Wii Titles

1. Wii Fit
2. Wii Play w/ Remote
3. Mario Kart
4. Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
5. Rock Band
6. Super Smash Bros: Brawl
7. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith*
8. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock
9. Game Party
10. Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games

Top 10 Xbox 360 Titles

1. Ninja Gaiden II
2. Battlefield: Bad Company*
3. Grand Theft Auto IV*
4. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith*
5. Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
6. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare*
7. Dragonball Z: Burst Limit
8. Grid
9. Rock Band*
10. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy

Top 10 PS3 Titles

1. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
2. Grand Theft Auto IV*
3. Battlefield: Bad Company*
4. Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
5. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare*
6. Dragonball Z: Burst Limit
7. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith*
8. Grid
9. Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Conspiracy
10. Gran Turismo 5: Prologue

Top 10 PS2 Titles

1. Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
2. Guitar Hero: Aerosmith*
3. The Incredible Hulk
4. Rock Band*
5. Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock*
6. Kung Fu Panda
7. Iron Man
8. God of War II
9. Grand THeft Auto: San Andreas
10. NASCAR 09

Top 10 NDS Titles

1. Guitar Hero: On Tour
2. Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures
3. Mario and Sonic: Olympic Games
4. New Super Mario Bros
5. Mario Kart
6. Kung Fu Panda
7. Brain Age 2: More Training in Minutes a Day
8. Final Fantasy Tactics A2: Grimoire of the Rift
9. Mario Party
10. Imagine: Babyz

* Includes Collector’s, Limited, Legendary, Bundled (Guitars) editions

(source: http://www.interactive.org/top-ten.php)

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Nintendo’s Takeaways:

Nintendo had another banner month. Despite a pretty sizable drop in weekly sales for Wii, it had no problem taking the console lead again in June. And though it seemed a ridiculous notion at the start of 2008, Wii is now the best selling current generation console in the US. There’s no doubt about it – Nintendo has a bona fide hit on their hands.

Not to be overshadowed by Wii’s success, DS saw a huge increase in June on the legs of a new color and the surprisingly strong launch of Guitar Hero World Tour. There were some doubts that a handheld Guitar Hero could mirror the success of the console titles (I was one of the naysayers), but despite a split critical opinion, it had a great first month on the market.

Though I obviously didn’t predict the magnitude of Wii’s sales decrease, it’s a pattern that will probably continue throughout the next few months. There has been speculation over the first part of this year that Nintendo might divert some stock from the US because of the weak dollar. It’s a credible theory (Nintendo has often commented on the affects of world currencies on their bottom line), and I wouldn’t expect to see an increase in stock until the fall.

Further, while it is only July, Nintendo is no doubt keeping a careful watch on their stock in anticipation of the upcoming holiday months. They’re already pumping out a record number of Wiis per month, and they might decide that stockpiling some units now is a prudent investment.

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Sony’s Takeaways:

I expected PS3 to see some decent growth in June, but I was surprised by how much of a positive effect Metal Gear Solid 4 had on console sales. A 55% increase in the middle of the year is dramatic.

But what exactly does this mean for the future? There are really two ways to look at it: either this recent sales surge is the sign of an upward trend, or it’s simply a blip in the radar.

It’s tough to argue that June is the sign of a long term sales increase. Not to say that it’s a complete impossibility, but it makes very little sense for a single title to improve the performance of a console over a long period of time, and it’s especially unlikely for a single player game. As good as MGS4 is, most will only play through it once, and those types of games rarely see long legs (on consoles, anyway – handhelds are a whole different story).

I think people should be careful about reading too much into MGS4’s initial sales impact. If anything, that it had such a profound effect on PS3 sales is almost damming in and of itself. There’s something to be said for the fact that large console bumps due to specific titles are more of an indication of unhealthy platforms as opposed to a viable software ecosystem.

Bear with me for a moment, as I know that what I said probably seems illogical. Common sense might lead someone to believe that this “Metal Gear” bump is a sign that consumers are almost ready to adopt the PS3 platform en masse, that they just need a little extra encouragement. In a nutshell, the thought there is that the PS3 is a valuable platform that only needs 1 or 2 big games to really capture mainstream appeal.

But that is very rarely the case. As we’ve seen with GameCube, a console needs more than big releases to gain a real foothold in the market. Nintendo supported that console with a large number of critically acclaimed and fantastically selling games, and it still wasn’t enough to make notable impression on the industry.

In fact, PS3’s performance in Japan is very similar to what I expect from it in the US. Metal Gear Solid 4 was released to impressive first week sales. Just like here, the game also drove a large increase in console sales. After a few weeks, though, PS3 has settled back to its pre-MGS sales pace. Expect the same to happen in he US over the next few months.

Ultimately, that’s why I think Sony should be very concerned about the loss of Final Fantasy XIII exclusivity. That was a very unique, high profile title that added a lot of value to the PlayStation brand, and it will be tough to replace it. It was more than a game – it was an identity, a tent pole on which the rest of PS3’s library could count on. Not only will consumers find the platform less attractive than before (in relation to 360), but other publishers have one more reason to be uncertain about throwing exclusive support behind PS3.

Uncertainty breeds uncertainty. It’s tough to change public perception, and while Metal Gear Solid 4’s success is nice to see, there’s just not much else on the upcoming slate of PS3 releases that will make any improvements to the perpetual cloud of doubt that surrounds Sony’s best efforts.

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Microsoft’s Takeaways:

E3 came at a great time for Microsoft. While I don’t think the Expo has the large sway over public opinion that it used to command, this month’s NPD report will probably see less press than normal because the industry is focused on other things.

360 sales in June were not surprising – a small drop in week/week sales from May, but that was to be expected with no notable releases for the month. Still, expected doesn’t mean impressive. Everyone can see that Microsoft needs to cut the price to see substantial improvement, and they recently took that to heart… sort of. The price of the 20 gig premium unit has been slashed to 299, but rest of the skus will remain at their current prices. When stock of the 20 gig is flushed out of retail channels, a new 60 gig unit will be released at the 20 gig’s previous 349 dollar price.

So, as usual, Microsoft has sidestepped the pricing issues by trickeration. They’ll see some benefit in July and August, but it will take a more comprehensive price cut to gain real momentum. It would be too soon to cut again in August with Madden ‘09, but perhaps they’re anticipating an opportunity in October or November that would really capitalize on the holiday rush. Sony has commented that they’re content to sit at their current price for the time being, so the potential is there for Microsoft to make a splash.

Still, while Microsoft has so cleverly kept their price flexibility advantage in their back pocket, Sony has quietly strung together a stronger than expected first half of year. Microsoft would benefit from a stronger sense of urgency, but they are still in a decent position heading into the second half of the year.

Expect to see a solid but unspectacular rebound in July on the back of their half-hearted price cut.

As always, thanks to the community at NeoGAF.

E3 2008: Mixed Messages

It’s hard for me to be disappointed with what Nintendo showed in their conference on Tuesday.  Sure, none of the titles they presented were particularly compelling (though I like the way WiiMusic is approaching the music game genre – we’ll see about actual execution), but the teams at Nintendo that make my favorite games – the Zelda team, the Galaxy team, RETRO – are most assuredly hard at work on their next titles.

That’s enough for me.  I can wait.

Sony’s conference was alright. There were a few interesting games shown – the DC MMO might be fun, and inFamous looks good.  But, just as they’ve seemed this entire generation, Sony looked sloppy and uninspired.  They’ve now let FFXIII exclusivity slip away from them, they’ve still not committed to a Home release (it’s been two months since its announcement), and even early promises like Wipeout HD and Eight Days have either disappeared or been canned outright.

I can’t tell if it’s incompetence or disinterest, but the entire story for the PS3 up to this point has been a fairly resounding disappointment on all fronts. Their E3 showing, while not bad, surely didn’t help their cause.

I liked Microsoft’s show. Despite some weak presentations of Lips (which, though not my cup of tea, seems like a nice idea) and You’re in the Movies (weak is probably a tame word – those segments were awful), the great showings of blockbusters like Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, Resident Evil 5 and Fable 2 made for a great couple of hours.

I’ve been pretty critical of the 360 interface, especially as new features have been added and content has ballooned. With that in mind, I’m cautiously optimistic about Microsoft’s new approach to the dashboard.  The early mockups they showed at E3 sure looked a lot better than the current blade interface, though the jury is sill out on whether or not the problems with content organization have been remedied.

The avatars that were introduced are an obvious and blatant rip off of Miis and Home, but I don’t really have a problem them.  A good idea is a good idea, and I’ll be interested to see Microsoft’s spin on things. Already, there has been some talk of having Avatar accessories that relate to specific game achievements. That’s a cool idea.

It’s hard to overstate the implications of Microsoft’s securing of Final Fantasy 13. Not only is it a major blow to Sony (who, oddly enough, seemed to be as surprised about this as we were), but it’s ultimately an affirmation of how successful Microsoft has been this generation at securing mindshare from consumers and developers alike. Of course, much of this success has been at the expense of Sony, and, in many cases, in spite of Microsoft’s own best efforts to screw things up.

But make no mistake about it.  Square’s decision to release FFXIII on 360 is essentially the final nail in Sony’s overpriced, overhyped coffin.  PS3, much like GameCube last generation, is ultimately irrelevant.

Predictions: NPD June 2008

NPD video game sales data for June 2008 will be released this Thursday.  My hardware predictions are as follows:

 

Predicted Total Hardware

Predicted Weekly Sales

% Change of Weekly Sales

Wii

788,000

157,600

-6.62%

PS3

280,000

56,000

7.33%

360

220,000

44,000

-5.68%

PS2

170,000

34,000

2.49%

NDS

615,000

123,000

8.71%

PSP

220,000

44,000

-3.46%

With E3 this week, the June NPD numbers will probably see less press than normal.  That said, they should prove interesting.

  • PS3 should see a modest increase in sales with the release of Metal Gear Solid 4 and the accompanying reappearance of the 80 gig system. 
  • 360 will see it’s sales continue to drop, although there are some indications that Microsoft will announce a price drop at their conference on Monday.
  • Wii and DS will continue their strong performances, despite the lack of any compelling software releases.

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

Trimming The Fat

E3 is just around the corner. Next week, the large (though slimmer than years past) majority of the gaming world will descend upon a convention center in LA.  Games will be oversold, empty promises will be made, and bitter tears will flow like sweet honey.  It’s always a great time.

As the glimmer of E3 has faded over the past couple of years, the lead up to it has actually been more exciting.  Instead of saving everything for the show, small and large publishers alike are now holding pre-E3 events where they show off their newest crop of games. 

It’s a good change.  Before, a lot of great games were overshadowed by the fireworks that Sony,  Microsoft, and Nintendo had a year to cook up. Now, it’s the best of both worlds – smaller games get a chance to shine, while the three big publishers still have a chance to make some noise.

I finished Lost Winds (WiiWare) yesterday.  It’s a fun, quirky platformer that takes great advantage of the Wiimote’s IR functionality.  The adventure is a short ride (took me less than 3 hours), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – the game gets in and gets out while it’s still fresh.  I’ll take 2.5 hours of fun over an overextended 10 hour game any day of the week.

I’m putting together my NPD predictions for June, and it’s looking to be a pretty interesting month. Nintendo will of course still dominate the charts, but with the brief reappearance of the 80 gig PS3, the launch of Metal Gear Solid 4, and a 100 dollar coupon from Walmart, Sony is in a position to score a big win over Microsoft, which will be all the more resounding as the outside media focuses on the gaming industry for E3.

Too Human, A Decade In The (Un)Making

Too Human has seen some harsh press over the course of its development cycle. Most recently, a “preview” build was widely distributed to members of the press, and impressions have fully spanned the scale, negative to positive.

Denis Dyack, head honcho of Silicon Knights, was on the most recent episode of 1Up Yours to criticize how most of the write ups based on the recent build seemed more like reviews than previews (and also to explain how his recent stunt on popular message board NeoGAF was a experiment in the social implications of message board communication).

In regards to his comments on the recent Too Human press, I would agree with him that most of the impressions had a sense of finality to them. Even the positive ones were pretty concrete in their feelings towards the game.

But in this case, I’m confused with how Denis and team did not anticipate this when they sent out a mostly finished (but not final) build to the press. Further, I can’t fault game reviewers for making a judgement on a complete game experience – they had access to the full game (including cutscenes), and any changes made to it from this point on will be for the purposes of polish only.  Their job is (mostly) to give their opinions of games, and while I fully support the notion of giving the benefit of the doubt to an unfinished product, there’s only a month of development time left, and as such, the game is more or less finished.

If game journalists had been given a glimpse at the only one of the game’s levels, I’d consider that a preview scenario – any writeup that assumed the quality of the final, finished product would be out of line. But to give out a complete build of the game with only a month or so of development time left before release, I just don’t see how a journalist should approach that situation other than to state the nature of his impressions towards the game.

Thankfully, Too Human will be released soon, and it will finally get the chance to fully stand on its own merits, good or bad.

 Too Human

As far as the actual game is concerned, I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll enjoy it.  I probably won’t play through it more than once (I rarely do that), so I imagine that I won’t experience everything that Too Human has to offer in regards to replayability.  Still, Eternal Darkness (Silicon Knights most recent original effort) had about as good of a story and atmosphere of any game I’ve ever played.  If Too Human can provide an experience of similar quality, I’d consider that a great success.

That said, I will have to contend with my previously lofty expectations for the game.  Way back when Silicon Knights was recruited by Nintendo as a 2nd party developer, I remember thinking “Eternal Darkness looks cool, but Too Human will be AMAZING.”  It promised to be a very contemplative analysis of the role of technology in society as it relates to the concept of humanity, and  the renders released at the time were pretty provocative.

Since then, the game seems to have undergone a fairly dramatic tonal switch – the current emphasis on Nordic mythology wasn’t as profound in the earlier versions we saw, and the final game is a little different from the concept I was excited about years ago.

It will be interesting to see how Microsoft markets Too Human.  The game has seen a lot of bad press over the past few years, from its bad E3 showing a few years back to the legal debacle between Silicon Knights and Epic over issues with the Unreal 3 engine. 

I imagine that Microsoft has half a mind to wash their hands from the game, and Silicon Knights, completely – perhaps they’ll run a small ad campaign to generate some interest in the Xbox Live community, but nothing too ambitious as to provide some justification for ultimately nixing the rest of the trilogy if the first title sells poorly. On the other hand, quality intellectual property is a scarce commodity, and while the circus surrounding Too Human’s development has been hard to ignore, there’s no doubt that Silicon Knights is wholly capable of creating a very complete and compelling game world.

Too Human is due for release at the end of August, and regardless whether or not some of the issues that people have had with the current build are addressed, it should prove to be a pretty divisive game. Here’s hoping that it’s as entertaining as the lead up to its release has been.