Archive for August, 2008

Back From The Dead

A while back, I posted about a physics engine/video game I was putting together. Over the past year, work and school have limited my ability to make any real progress on the game, but I’m ready to jump back into things. 

Microsoft recently announced an initiative to allow for Community games to be published on Xbox Live, and I’d love to put something on there. Who knows – I might never get to that point, but that goal will make me focus on creating a cohesive (and feasible) game.

I’ll be posting updates, so stay tuned.

Grand Theft Auto 4: Party’s Over

I played through about half of GTA4 over the summer, and while I was initially impressed by the game, as I continued to play, my opinion soured.

One of the most fundamental problems with GTA4 has to do with the city itself, arguably the underpinning of the entire gameplay concept. Graphically, Liberty City looks great and is designed really effectively. Each neighborhood has a unique but realistic visual style, and navigating through the city is an entertaining task. But while things look really good, the city provides a pretty lifeless experience from a gameplay perspective.

GTA4

There just isn’t much to do beyond the main story missions. After a couple of hours of gameplay, I had made enough money that taking a cab ride (over driving myself) was not a burden financially. And since the city is so static, the game ultimately devolved into quick traveling (cab rides can be skipped) between mission locations. With that, the entire open nature of the game fell apart – I had expected GTA4 to be nonlinear, but my experience was a shockingly linear one. And as a straightforward, narrative driven action title, a lot of the flaws that GTA4 exhibits that might have been excusable in a more open ended title are a lot more apparent.

My other main gripe with GTA4 has to do with the narrative itself. The early portions of the game are pretty impressive – the writing never quite reaches “Oscar-caliber”, but it was a heck of a lot better than in most games I’ve played. As the story progresses, though, Niko’s character undergoes a drastic shift in personality that undermines a lot of the success the story has early on.

Originally, Niko is a troubled and reserved foreigner who has trouble coming to grips with American culture. He approaches each violent encounter with a sense of unease, but he also has an overall understanding of the inevitable reality of his situation. I thought it was a compelling concept for a character, and the execution was spot on.

About 10 hours into the game, thought, Niko undergoes an improbable transformation into an egotistical jerk. There’s no explanation, no context given in the narrative. He simply changes. It’s a jarring shift, and it nullifies the interesting bits early on in the game. Too bad, too, because what could have been a really special story turns into a run-of-the-mill diversion.

So there I am, 15 or so hours into Grand Theft Auto 4. I’ve lost all interest in exploring Liberty City (since there’s just nothing to do), and the main character that I have been interested in has just been discarded (without reason) for a lame caricature. As the missions themselves are not terribly varied, there’s just nothing left for the game to offer me.

I was living on the other side of the country during the summer, and I was using my brother’s copy of GTA4. I had originally intended to pick it up for myself to finish off the story, but that would just be a waste of my money, as I just don’t think I’d be compelled to continue. What a waste of potential.

NPD July 2008

NPD sales data for July is as follows:

Hardware Sales:

Wii: 555k
PS3: 225k
360: 205k
PS2: 155k
NDS: 608k
PSP: 222k

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Software Sales:

1. NCAA Football 09 (EA, Xbox 360) – 397.6k
2. Wii Fit (Nintendo, Wii) – 369.6k
3. Guitar Hero: On Tour (Activision, DS) – 309.7k
4. Wii Play (Nintendo, Wii) – 284k
5. NCAA Football 09 (EA, PS3) – 242.5k
6. Soul Calibur IV (Namco, Xbox 360) – 218.9k
7. Mario Kart Wii (Nintendo, Wii) – 174.5k
8. Rock Band Special Edition (EA, Wii) – 165.8k
9. Soul Calibur IV (Namco, PS3) – 155.8k
10. Sid Meier’s Civilization (Take 2, Xbox 360) – 147.6k

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Nintendo’s Take:

It was a pretty standard month for Nintendo in July. Sales for Wii and DS stayed constant, and titles like Mario Kart Wii, Wii Play, and Wii Fit once again were in the top 10. Scarily enough, sales will most likely improve in August and September is we head into the busy fall months. Nintendo is producing a lot of consoles, and while a lot of those will be stockpiled for November and December, there is still a lot of stock to go around.

I’m fairly surprised by the performance of Rock Band Wii.  This was its second month of release, and with its strong July, the title has amassed ~400k in less than a month and a half on the market. That’s impressive for a $170 game, especially since it was released in June, more than half of a year after the (more featured) Xbox360 and PS3 versions.

Once again, Wii owners have shown that they are willing to spend big bucks on 3rd party software. It’s just a matter of publishers putting the right content on the platform.  Many people will be quick to dismiss Rock Band Wii because it doesn’t have the DLC of the 360 and PS3 versions, but the base gameplay is still fun. Good games sell.

image Microsoft’s Take:

The half-hearted price drop of he 20 gig sku helped Microsoft escape what could have been a very ugly July. After a pretty sound trouncing by Ps3 in June, 360 was able to rebound with a modest increase. I think that Microsoft probably hoped for a bit more of a bump, but they successfully bided some time until the real price cut hits later in the year (rumored to be in September).

Beyond that, not much to see this month in regards to future trends. NCAA sales seem to be on par with last year, and while the sales of Soul Calibur were pretty close between 360 and PS3, Civilization Revolutions’ top 10 showing indicate a pretty healthy software ecosystem.

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Sony’s Take:

As expected, PS3 saw a big drop off in sales in July. Metal Gear Solid 4, like most “hardcore” games, was extremely front loaded, and its influence on PS3 sales a month after its release was negligible. Still, Sony successfully edged out Microsoft’s box, and as this has been a more and more common occurrence lately, Sony execs are probably breathing a small sigh or relief. At the very least, PS3 has not completely crashed and burned after its initial failures in the marketplace.

Still, it’s too early to break out the champagne. Microsoft has a pretty robust lineup this fall, and I just don’t think that Sony has the titles to compete. Games like Gears of War 2 and Fable 2 will push a lot of consoles for Microsoft, and there are no games on PS3’s schedule that will provide a similar boost.

That’s not to say that Sony doesn’t have quality games in the pipeline, though. LittleBigPlanet looks charming and original, but I’m not convinced that it will see much success from a sales perspective. I’ve seen little evidence that PS3 owners are interested in this type of game, and with cute characters and a tame (but gorgeous) art style, I think Sony will have a hard time marketing it. And since LBP is so focused on community interaction, if the title fails to pick up a sizable userbase early on, it may be tough to sustain as a platform.

As always, thanks to NPD and the community at NeoGAF.

Predictions: NPD July 2008

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

 

Predicted Total Hardware

Predicted Weekly Sales

% Change of Weekly Sales

Wii

564,000

141,000

5.74%

NDS

600,000

150,000

-4.21%

360

232,00

58,000

31.94%

PS3

228,000

57,000

-29.72%

PSP

244,000

61,000

-9.60%

PS2

140,000

35,000

-7.31%

Notes regarding my predictions:

  • PS3 will see a pretty sizable decrease from June, partly from shortages and partly from the fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 launched in June.
  • Wii and DS will maintain relatively constant sales compared to June.
  • Watch for a resurgence of sorts for 360 in July on the strength of the price drop of the 20 gig sku (discontinued for the 60 gig sku).

Actual sales data from The NPD Group will be released on Thursday, August 14th after market close (4:00 PM).

Interview With Valve’s Gabe Newell

Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS) has an interview up with Gabe Newell, covering everything from Valve’s origins to the importance of community in game development to the continued maturity of Steam as a platform.

RPS: This has come up repeatedly as I’ve been talking to designers at Valve, this idea of involving people in the design process. Is that part of staying grounded in the community?

Gabe: Yes. Everybody here has the story about the first time they built something at Valve and then had to watch when someone from the real world came in to try and play it. There’s the initial denial, “Oh they did it wrong,” and then a sort of horror at how poorly their concepts held up in the face of real players. And then there’s this Elisabeth Kübler-Ross “five stages of dying”, you know: bargaining, anger, depression and then acceptance. You finally realise how important it is to internalise what it is that people go through when they play this stuff.

I’ve always respected Valve, both from a game development perspective and a more business oriented perspective. They not only make great games, but they seem to take risks with their properties that other companies wouldn’t think twice about. And I’ve mentioned it before, but Steam is a really great example of how valuable digital distribution can be for consumers and developers alike.

A recent interview with Doug Lombardi, another Valve employee, indicated that the company was open to acquisition talks. Gabe seems to shoot that notion down in this interview, but the potential for a Valve buyout is intriguing. The two most obvious suitors are Microsoft and EA. I’d be worried in either case about Valve’s autonomy if they were purchased, but Microsoft showed with Bungie and EA has been successful recently with BioWare to the extent that I wouldn’t dismiss the buyout as bad news offhand. Still, as a successfully held private company, I’d like most of all for Valve to continue what they’ve done for years – make great games and offer great services.