Tuesday, June 15, 2010

E3 2010 Day One: Please Pretend We're Nintendo

Guess what, internet? It's Christmas for video gamers - that glorious season in which each hardware-producer's fanatics (Primarily Sony and Microsoft) come out of the clockwork to deride the competition (Primarily Nintendo) and the whole of the world loses a few thousand IQ points collectively.

Yes, that's right, it's E3 again. Time for me to ramble on about all things related to the video game industry, its politics, and its neverending problems with consumers - namely that the video game market doesn't buy what the industry wants them to and instead makes its own choices - in a droning, brain-drilling fashion. I'm sure I'll be repeating and re-discussing many things I've already written about the past several years since I began this blog, with a good 2-3 posts covering the Electronics Entertainment Expo every year. But as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same - the more Nintendo pioneers and grows the market, the angrier the competition gets and the more suicidal the third party developers and publishers make their trajectory.

Doesn't that just sound like a pound and a half of brain tumors - er, fun? Well, anyway, after the jump, I'll be discussing the state of things and unveilings of the past 24 hours. There'll be another post or two on the subject this week, plus at least one or two on other things - if only one, then another next week to give those of you who have no interest in or stomach for this painfully nerdy subject something to look forward to.

Let's Get Some Hypocrisy Up In Here
Let's start my E3 day one commentary with the biggest event of the day: Microsoft's conference.

A couple of years back, Microsoft established a new trend in the Xbox 360's third year on the market. With two competitors stomping around - Nintendo having kicked them to the floor effortlessly after the industry assumed the Wii would fail due to its pushing for sustainable budgets and hardware power (Instead of going into cost overkill in the name of shiny graphics like the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.), just as they assumed that the PSP was going to stomp the DS and Nintendo's experiments in changing gameplay would be their end. (Obviously, things did not go as expected. Yes, it's time to enjoy lots of parentheticals.) Adding to that humiliation, Sony eventually effectively caught up to the 360 in hardware sales - as they managed to pull off last year.

Where consumer goodwill toward Sony and the Playstation brand is gone from the mainstream, diehard loyalties still exist within the industry, much to its detriment - the Xbox 360 may not move that much software in the grand scheme and it isn't profitable for most developers that have supported it, even after roughly matching it in hardware sales, the Playstation 3's software sales have been even worse. Because of the aforementioned blind devotion that still exists to the corporation and brand in some third parties, the Playstation 3 is increasingly being treated like a golden boy by many third parties, with more praise and exclusives despite having the worst software sales of the generation by a good margin and higher development costs than even the 360's already-ridiculous costs, due to the incredible difficulty of actually making functioning games on the system. (Even with this spring's Final Fantasy XIII - which underperformed sorely after it was expected to be a game that could somehow take the Wii down, one of many that have received that exact hype, all of which have failed - games being abysmal 20-30 hour CGI movies instead of well-made games is an observable trend. It was "too hard" to program towns for the game on the system, apparently. This one in particular is literally nothing but one big tube with no exploration or freedom. Just some bad combat followed by tremendous amounts of incredibly expensive cutscenes centered on an incoherent plot written by unqualified writers.)

The PS3 was, at heart, designed to be a Blu-Ray disc player to attempt to force the format on the public with the assumption that the console would sell insanely well even at its $600 launch pricetag. This is what corporate hubris and contempt for the consumer can do. But in addition to that, it was also trying to be a "better Xbox 360," Sony and Microsoft both seeing their corporate images at stake based on the graphics their platforms produced. What we ended up with were two consoles with roughly equal hardware power and development costs that would sink the industry if either became mainstream, shutting out virtually all but big name blockbuster development with very high graphical budgets in the long run. Due to the incredibly high costs of their platforms and games - costs which in turn were passed on to the consumer with a middle finger and "You should be thanking us" attitude - neither Sony nor Microsoft appealed to the mass market this generation. Microsoft never has, and Sony simply developed an entitlement complex on a very high level, assuming that after 10 years of dominating the console scene, gamers felt that they'd follow them to the ends of the Earth unquestioningly. And now the PS3 has heavily destabilized Sony corp as a whole due to the sheer scale of its failure. Both consoles targeted the worst demographic in gaming that they really could have - a particularly rabid brand fanatic group that, plagued by insecurity, feels the need to self-identify as serious "hardcore" gamers, in opposition to the "childish" Nintendo. During Nintendo's niche console decade with the N64 and Gamecube, they made far more money than Sony or Microsoft due to their profit-oriented hardware designs rather than betting on the others' strategy where they sold their hardware at a loss with the hubristic assumption that they would end up dominating the industry and make that money back in the long run as hardware costs got cheaper (And said decreases in cost were not passed on to the customer) and software sold. Nintendo was derided as "kiddy" and took that decade to quietly learn a tremendous amount as they fell outside of the video gaming mainstream on the console scene, though they continued to dominate the portable world with the Gameboy Color and eventually the Gameboy Advance during those years. Sony's loss strategy worked for those ten years. Microsoft's has never worked, and ultimately made the Xbox line into a big money sinkhole for the company - despite the heavy mainstream exposure and marketing the 360's games get, it's far from mainstream and even farther from profitable.

With Sony catching up and Nintendo obliterating them, Microsoft had to look at themselves and ask why they weren't kicking ass and taking names like they simply assumed would happen if they tossed enough money around in this industry that their leaders in - much like Sony's - don't really understand. It's another electronics line to them, and that's it. Like everywhere else, Microsoft would like to set a monopoly going in the industry, and they don't hesitate to throw what money around they have to for software support. Just as Sony's executives decided the corporation was entitled to undying loyalty from everyone who ever touched any Playstation in their lives. Magical corporate world bubble thinking that displays the depth of their misunderstanding of video gaming and its audience. First, Microsoft tried to push out some family-friendly first party games through Rare (Yes, the developer famously behind Donkey Kong Country and many N64 classics. Nintendo sold them to Microsoft after they released Star Fox Adventures as their last first party Nintendo title on the Gamecube last generation. Since then, the entire team that made Rare what it was in the old days has left the company, and so Rare is now Rare in name only.), like Kameo, the Viva Pinata games, and eventually an awkwardly vehicle-building based Banjo-Kazooie sequel. They weren't Nintendo games, though they all would have done better on Nintendo platforms, and they ultimately failed to suddenly make families go "Oh, Microsoft's like Nintendo too!"

Yes, this was beginning of the aforementioned trend, now that I'm finally getting to it. Microsoft - and Sony, in following them - has begun to ask itself, "How can we be more like Nintendo?" Families didn't drop the Wii and buy the Xbox 360 for the aforementioned games. Sony's attempted something similar as of late with games like LittleBigPlanet and the recently released ModNation Racers, neither of which are bringing families flocking to the PS3 either - both Sony and Microsoft built their strategies this generation on appealing to that so-called "hardcore" crowd, to whom the notion of families enjoying their gaming platform of choice is offensive. It clashes with the corporate branding and video game system image by which they self-identify a little bit too much. The "We're big boy consoles, no one else is welcome!" marketing approach has never worked out well in the video game industry, in that it alienates the mass market. Tossing out a few family friendly games - "Here, whatever, there's not much else for you but give us your money anyway" - isn't going to win over the audience Sony and Microsoft already invested millions into pushing away.

So with the small first party family friendly game election strategy leading to nowhere, they took the next step a couple of years back - both Microsoft and Sony decided to integrate their own avatar systems into their respective consoles in response to the Wii's popular "Miis" that you can make to represent yourself in the Wii Sports games and numerous others (Though Nintendo hasn't exactly even fully scratched the surface when it comes to potential uses for Miis, a minor disappointment of mine that I'm sure will be rectified in time, since they're a standard feature in their platforms from now on.). Microsoft introduced "Avatars," and Sony introduced "Playstation Home," with its own big avatars. You never tend to hear about these much. Why is this? Because neither of them figured out the appeal of the Miis - they copied the concept on the surface, but missed everything that made them appealing. The creative aspect that makes Miis so fun to make and play with was gone. Microsoft sought to see if they could get people to pay actual money for virtual clothing and accessories for their Avatars, which basically sat there on their newly redesigned - and increasingly outside advertising-laden - main menu, but didn't really give them any purpose, not even plugging into games like Miis. They touted them for 'looking better' than Miis, and completely missed the point of Miis to begin with in hoping to turn them into another microtransaction revenue stream. Sony's "Home" was an ultra-realistic virtual mall with incredibly unattractive hyperrealistic personal avatars that were only used within it. You could get your own apartment within it, socialize with other players throughout the virtual mall, and - as was its primary purpose - you could look at lots of advertisements and spend real money on virtual things. In short, Microsoft and Sony both took Nintendo's Miis, put them through the corporate groupthink grinder, and missed the point in every way while trying to squeeze money out of them. At first, their fanbases tried to hype some of these features, then they got angry when they realized there was nothing to really do with them and the companies were just trying to get them to spend more money on something meaningless. Then they simply ignored these features.

That's two strikes against Operation: Be More Like The Wii/Trick the Public into Thinking We're Nintendo from the two. Phase three began last year with the unveilings of their own motion control peripheral devices at E3 2009 in a cynical effort to - as they entered their respective desperation modes - see if they could use them to trick the public into thinking their consoles were "better Wiis" because of their graphics and the presence of any means of motion control at all. Neither of them were playable at E3 last year - Microsoft's 'controller free' Project Natal just had a grossly exaggerated concept video, which came with plenty of legal notes that the finished product may not in any way do everything or even most of what the concept video claimed it would. Sony had even less for their clunky not-a-Wii-remote-but-let's-pretend wand, which lacked a number of the Wii remote's important features - such as the IR laser pointing capability - and featured a color-changing ball on top that made it resemble a children's toy. Quite probably in hopes that it would draw children to their platform after years of marketing against them. Over time, the design changed to become an even clunkier and more directly full-on concept knock-off of the Wii remote with its own accompanying 'nunchuk' controller, just different enough to avoid a lawsuit. Sony blatantly copied the Super NES's controller for their main controller design back in the late '90s that they've retained ever since - it only figured that they'd do the best they could to copy Nintendo again. Hands-on experiences with both control systems last fall yielded a lot of complaints. Neither was particularly built for traditional video games - unlike the Wii remote and nunchuk setup, which can do everything traditional controllers can, and much that they can't - and neither worked all that well. Microsoft's Project Natal was nothing more than a glorified Eyetoy - the brand of camera-based motion control gaming that Sony introduced last generation, which largely failed due to lack of public interest in flipping out in front of a camera and a severe lack of compelling software. Sony's Playstation Move claimed superior internal hardware to the Wii remote, but didn't work anywhere near as well and its motion controls were nowhere near as responsive. Neither control system had any real games to speak of then.

Getting at last to Microsoft's E3 conference yesterday - after all that rambling for context - they finally fully unveiled Project Natal with a new name, "Kinect." It's a clumsy name that was derived from the same kind of thinking that led to Nintendo coming up with the Wii's name - the notion of coming together to play games. And in Microsoft's case, it also sounds suspiciously like they're trying to tie it in with their recent "Kin" phones, which have led to endless commercials about EVERY SINGLE PERSON WHO OWNS ONE being on a journey to meet their entire social network. (Like nobody in the real world. And that one young girl is NOT actually friends with Questlove. Why am I talking like an old man?) The unveil took center stage at their E3 conference, the corporation's blatant hypocrisy on full display. After years of open contempt for the Wii audience, jabbing at them as lesser, "inferior" gamers at every turn, we got very, very white people dancing in front of their glorified Eyetoy. (On which note, last year, "Natal"/Kinect had been reported as having problems detecting the presence of darker-skinned players as well.) And a software lineup 100% free of any reason for their main audience to buy it - in fact, the software lineup amounted to knockoffs of Nintendo's Wii Sports, Namco's Active Life minigame Power Pad Wii games, and a whole bunch of stuff that would have been labeled "shovelware" (See: garbage) had it been announced for the Wii. Thus, Microsoft's big third swing at cynically hoping that they can get the Wii audience to drop Nintendo for their platform, while maintaining their contempt for the audience. Naturally, there's no shortage of gaming blogs trying to argue that Nintendo is doomed because of Sony and Microsoft's motion control peripherals - which will be expensive, on top of already expensive main systems - in following the usual narrative. No matter what, "Nintendo is doomed," and Sony and Microsoft are always "doing well" or "getting better," and "bound to crush Nintendo any day now."

Why is this a false thesis? Let's look at that.
1) The cost of entry. For what it would take to buy a PS3 or 360, Kinect or one or more PSMoves and their few games, you could get a Wii, one or more controllers, and multiple games. Odds are that Sony and Microsoft will both attempt to push bundles with their motion peripherals, but they still won't be cheaper than the Wii. And this is not factoring in the cost of an HDTV, which the market is continuing to only gradually buy, and in most households with HDTVs, they aren't set up correctly.
2) The false premise that high definition graphics are a primary hardware mover. Sony and Microsoft both staked their ultra-conservative console designs this generation on the suggestion that the market's big demand would be for more of the same running at a higher graphical resolution - graphics taking center stage. "Analyst"/Paid shill Michael Pachter has spent all generation openly trying to argue this premise, when the sales numbers and trends this generation - which he completely ignores in his complete lack of professionalism and integrity - completely contradict this claim. HD graphics move a small amount of hardware - it's the gameplay that sells systems. Mainstream game sites and blogs love to post his comments because his paid agenda is simply to further the narrative that "Nintendo is doomed" and "the HD consoles are poised to dominate." He goes around sharing his "analysis" for free, which actual paid industry analysts do not do.
3) Demand for these peripherals is assumed and entirely unproven. Kinect lacks a substantial library, and in fact represents well the full gambit of everything that Microsoft and the Xbox 360 userbase has openly derided the Wii for, ignoring the console's massive library of excellent traditional 'core' games alongside the 'blue ocean'/'expanded audience' titles that drew in players who were never into video gaming before. Not to mention, games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii - the smash hit first new 2D Mario console game in nearly two decades - which brought back a lot of people Nintendo lost when video gaming went 3D. Playstation Move likewise will undoubtedly be unveiling a similarly unsubstantial and laughable lineup later today with games that desperately want to be Wii games, but lack the appeal, as they were made by teams with contempt for the same audience they want to win over.
4) All things are not equal. The crux of the argument Microsoft and Sony alike have made for their motion control peripherals is that the addition of these peripherals will magically transform their consoles into "better versions of the Wii." This, too, is a false claim. They're focusing on pushing the kind of software they sneered at on the Wii - which, in turn, is not the king of software that made the Wii into the mainstream cultural phenomenon it is, alongside the DS - and instead, the software they're pushing is the kind that ensured mainstream disinterest in the Eyetoy. Motion control is not a standard feature, and having been met with similar contempt and rejection by their respective fanbases after years of being told that motion controls were terrible, horrible, and wrong, will not be integrated into the mainstream on the PS3 or Xbox 360. The libraries for these consoles are not built around standard motion controls, nor is their main focus there. Those who buy an Xbox 360 for Kinect or a PS3 for Move will end up with a limited selection of games using motion controls. With over three and a half years on the market to build up a massive library - which, despite the common insistence that it's mostly crap (By the HD audience and critics that refuse to accept the Wii's legitimacy as the market leader) - contains a tremendous amount of quality, fun games that both use motion controls and don't for any and all video game tastes. In terms of software, there is absolutely no reason to buy the HD consoles for motion control gaming. They assume that the graphics are more important than the games. A premise proven false each and every generation in video gaming.
5) This brings us back to the biggest issue: Audience contempt. Microsoft and Sony have spent all generation claiming that the Wii and DS audiences are not "real gamers," that they're idiots - their followers certainly don't stop themselves from referring to them as "retards," for not sharing their "superior game taste" and thirst for graphic intensive shooters with complex controllers. Microsoft and Sony are pitching their motion control systems with the assumption that the Wii audience will look at it, drop their jaw over the graphics, and throw their Wiis away. This is the same mass market that much of which used to buy Sony's platforms until Sony made it clear that they were no longer welcome, while Microsoft was giving them the same message all along. When third parties have tried to make cheap, throw-away cash-in games on the Wii, they've almost always failed. "Shovelware" titles don't sell, though in Sony and Microsoft fantasy land, they've continually insisted for years that they do, ignoring all sales numbers to the contrary. If you treat your intended audience like idiots, as these companies do, you're not going to get new customers. Existing Wii owners aren't going to lose their minds over more expensive graphics - they're going to look at Kinect and Move, say, "Oh, looks like they're trying to copy the Wii," and keep buying Wii games. Most video gaming households own one console - graphics and a cynical effort to pander to the Wii audience through games of types they already don't buy on the Wii won't make any of them switch. If you want to expand your audience, you have to respect the people you're catering to, and you have to actually figure out what they want. This is the staggering divide between Nintendo and their competitors. When Nintendo already has the motion control market very well saturated and locked up by the Wii, which the majority of gamers this generation already own - and are happy with, as the strong software sales and high attach rate display (Now that the Wii remote and nunchuk have given audiences who weren't comfortable with more complex traditional controllers something they can connect with, video games are finally accessible, and these people are buying games.) - there is no market or demand for a competing motion control system.

How have Microsoft's shareholders responded? They're not confident in Kinect as a product at all, which is very telling. They've also begun to lose patience with the overall unprofitability of the Xbox line, as in its near-decade on the market, it's been a financial sinkhole for the company. While Microsoft can afford to continue to support for a long time, it was only a matter of time until the shareholders were ready to pull the plug, as in the end, an unsuccessful product line is what it is. If it's not making money, there's no point in continuing it. They've expressed an interest in the company refocusing on PC gaming - with the right titles, profit would reasonably be more viable there, as with otherwise going back to providing third party support for others like Nintendo, like they have in the past.

How has the Xbox 360's established audience responded? Through widespread fury on mainstream gaming blogs and websites. They were told to expect some 'hardcore' support for the Kinect that would make them want it - instead, they got the Eyetoy knockoff that they unveiled last year. And they aren't actually letting attendees play with the Kinect at E3, either - which is telling about the lack of confidence Microsoft actually has in the product. Nintendo knew that selling the masses on the Wii remote required getting it in their hands, and went about making it very easy for normal people to get a chance to play the Wii at game shows, special events, and retailers with demo units set up. That word of mouth was vital in selling the Wii as a concept - at last, video games were starting to become more like in sci-fi movies, more engaging, and not so much about pads covered in ever-increasing numbers of buttons, most of which don't even do anything most of the time in most games. To add insult to injury, Microsoft redesigned the Xbox 360's main menu a second time, and like before, they threw away all the customization themes that their users had actually purchased for previous menu iterations, literally just taking away what their fans had purchased to customize their menus. The new menu? A blatant knockoff of the Wii's main "channel"-based menu design.

That's three strikes. Every year, Microsoft has gradually admitted more that they got everything wrong this gen, while insisting that Nintendo was the company in the wrong, all while trying to copy elements of the Wii and getting those wrong as well, in failing to understand why the system was successful and appealing, contemptuous of the console's new expanded demographics and success in drawing the mass market. With each strike, they've turned on and enraged their main cult audience more and more. Some of them bought the more family-oriented games, but the overall response was lukewarm - they bought the Xbox 360 for Halo and games like that, not anything cute or friendly. They were angry when content they purchased vanished in the first new menu and irritated by Avatars, which did nothing, and didn't buy the downloadable clothing for them that Microsoft had hoped they would. They got even angrier when more and more advertisements - none of which generally had anything to do with gaming - were forced into the system, and Sony followed suit on that as well. (While the Wii doesn't force advertising on you at all. The closest you've got is the Nintendo Channel, which is basically a free downloadable digital gaming magazine with new content every week, including free downloadable DS game demos, stat tracking, a huge database of games to look up actual player opinions on, and lots of new regular game videos on top of a goofy, humorous weekly gaming show in Nintendo Week, which just started last September. This channel is pretty much pure advertising for games, but it's a great research tool that anyone can use to find appealing titles. Sony has something similar on the PS3 in Qore - a digital magazine you have to pay for, and which still forces ads on you if you buy it.) And now, Microsoft dedicated the core of their E3 conference to announcing to the world, "We're a better Wii! Kind of. Buy our system!" They spent all generation, like Sony, trashing Nintendo and the Wii and propping up their audience, making them proud not to own Wiis - now they're trying to turn their consoles into Wiis, and as you'd expect, their audiences are getting very, very angry. They won't buy the motion peripherals any more than the mass market will. Three strikes, two failed consoles are out.

As for the rest of Microsoft's conference, there's not a whole lot to say. They unveiled a few more first and third party games, the majority of which is more of the stagnant same-old that only gets lukewarm, unprofitable sales on their system at best. They announced a new Metal Gear Solid game, Rising, which will undoubtedly make money, but that series' cult following already owns the HD consoles, so it won't move hardware. Everything else amounted to dull, trite unnecessary sequels to games they're getting up to three installments of this generation already - there's no pacing in how quickly they rush to run franchises into the ground anymore, since very few games achieve the coveted blockbuster sales and status on the console each year - and more general game design stagnation. The games that kept some of their core audience happy, but is otherwise ignored by most owners, but still represented the continuing downhill slide the HD consoles have been seeing after repeated failed attempts to "defeat" the Wii. They also unveiled a new version of the Xbox 360 for $300, with a complete new external look and built-in WiFi. Basically, it's what the Xbox 360 should have been five years ago - too little, too late - and it's expected to continue the hardware's longstanding history of "Red Rings of Doom," given the Xbox 360's unprecedented levels of hardware failure. The external makeover? Makes it look just like the PS2 and PS3. Because the one-note demographic and focus Sony and Microsoft have kept set on seem to only praise one basic hardware design. If their video game console isn't black, there's visible upset online. "The big boy gamers" indeed.

Whew. That's it for Microsoft's console. Way more than I'd intended to write, but there's my thoughts and necessary context. Let's move on. My head hurts.

Third Parties: Sustainability is for Suckers, All the Cool Kids Throw their Money Away!
Continuing  the delightful trend of bad decisions after Microsoft and Sony, the third parties have, for the most part, followed the two of them as if they were collectively the market leader this generation - and that's all kinds of bad ideas. Many, many millions of dollars have been lost, developers and publishers have collapsed, and others have ended up merging. In general, most major third parties are on shaky ground this generation as a result of their continuous PS3 and 360 software support, while most have put their B and C teams on Wii games, producing some good games and some forgettable mediocrity, all while backing none of it with zero effort to market their games - and then proceeding to attack the Wii and blame Nintendo and the Wii audience for not buying the games they didn't put much effort into making and didn't put any effort into selling. Curious, that. At E3 last year, the Wii started to see more of a meaningful uptick in third party support, with an impressive lineup of third party games across the rest of the year and into 2010. Most of these sold well, and pretty much all of them turned a solid if not strong profit. How have the third parties reacted to that at this year's E3? For many of them, with a blatant retreat from the Wii and even heavier focus on the consoles that are killing them. For now, I'm only going to discuss some of their good and bad calls. I'll make sure to go over the rest in the next post or two.

Konami - So, Konami's been in a rough spot lately. They announced just the other week that Silent Hill: Shattered Memories - their biggest name Wii game and most serious effort on the platform to date - was their most successful and profitable game of the past year. Something to cheer. What do they do after that? Also announce that the next Silent Hill's going back to being HD exclusive after the previous HD one lost money, and talk around the game has people believing it could end up some sort of first person shooter, which doesn't fit the franchise at all. The worst possible way they could follow-up the first profitable Silent Hill game in years, which returned the series to its roots and made fans happy. To top that off? They also said that they're looking for a buyer. Konami has officially joined the ranks of the major Japanese third parties killing themselves on the HD consoles and now looking for a merger by which to survive and continue their suicidal business practices. Their E3 showings this year? Almost all HD games, the vast majority of which will not make money - including the Castlevania in-name-only in Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a European action game they had no confidence in last year and decided to retool, slapping the Castlevania name onto it. One of the team members remarked late last week that it wouldn't be coming to the Wii because he figured there would have to be a "family friendly version." Considering Castlevania's longstanding history as a violent, gritty side-scrolling platforming action adventure series with its main fanbase on Nintendo platforms (Particularly the DS), I can't help but find it hilarious that they have people working on this game that have no actual understanding of what Castlevania is or its history. Furthermore, rather than giving us a new 2D DS Castlevania after three very successful ones this generation, Konami's decided to push a cynical downloadable cash-in on the Xbox 360's Xbox Live Arcade download service by literally pulling the graphics out of the three DS games and slapping them together - which doesn't mesh well - along with the games' heroes (Who don't fit together in any way given the series' actual consistent timeline to its story, making the game like a conceptual trainwreck of Castlevania fanfiction.) and patching together a 'new game' for the XBLA crowd to buy. Except very, very little actually sells on XBLA, and Konami's already seeing a loud backlash over this one on top of disinterest on Lords of Shadow. Some incredibly poor calls. They're staking everything else on Metal Gear Solid games on the Xbox 360 and PSP, some smaller titles that won't sell on those platforms at all, and several Kinect games that won't sell either. Smart move, Konami - you're already collapsing and your response to it, even after a notable Wii success, is to focus even harder on the platforms that're taking you apart. As for their Wii offerings? A new Dance Dance Revolution game, as those tend to sell well on the Wii, and some licensed stuff - something called Gormiti, based on a TV show, Def Jam Rapstar,  and a Lucha Libre wrestling game. Also, a batting cage disc release game - not a full baseball game, but a batting game. Yeah. This is an awful lineup. A company in the dire financial straits they are now shouldn't be making the calls they have been. The best thing that could probably happen to them at this point is getting purchased - at least in part - by Nintendo to bring the Castlevania series back to where it'll actually sell. Maybe then they'll actually consider making a new Suikoden sequel for the Wii, too - it'd sell there.

Hudson - They're a subsidiary of Konami, and one of the oldest Japanese third party game developers, though not quite as old as Konami. They've got their priorities slightly better, though. Their lineup is full of Wii support. Deca Sports 3 is the most recognizable, the other Deca Sports games having done well. They're making a Deca Sports for Kinect, though, too - that won't sell. They're also making another Xbox Live Bomberman, when if anything, WiiWare is far more due for one after they only gave us half the content of their biggest Wii Bomberman title, leaving the main disc release of the game in Japan and just giving us the downloadable WiiWare battle mode. They're bringing over a licensed Beyblade anime game for the kids who enjoy the show, and Oops! Prank Party, which looks like a party game of sorts that may be the team that made 2009's Help Wanted, which is said to be good. So Oops! could be pretty solid too, you can generally count on Hudson to make quality games. What I'm most excited for from them, however, are their two other showings - Bonk: Brink of Extinction, an XBLA/PSN/WiiWare revival of Bonk the caveman, a long forgotten character who hasn't had a new game in nearly two decades. That should be great, especially after last year's enjoyable Adventure Island revival on WiiWare in Adventure Island: The Beginning. And their most interesting Wii title is the disc release game Lost in Shadow - a sort of 2D shadow-based platforming adventure game. You have a 3D world in front of you, but all the gameplay itself is gong on in the shadows looking back into the environment - it's a pretty simple, brilliant, and appealing concept. Where Konami has screwed up pretty royally this year, Hudson's made mostly good calls.

Capcom - Capcom's hanging in there at the moment. They've made some bad calls and seen some particularly huge flops on the HD consoles in the past year. They've also had some good successes on the Wii - since just last fall, they've released Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles, Tatsunoko vs. Capcom: Ultimate All-Stars, and Monster Hunter 3 Tri. (The last of which received a very visible marketing campaign because Nintendo marketed it for them. I have a feeling Capcom wouldn't have put much effort in, had Nintendo not directly invested in the game.) These are all good games, as well, and Tatsunoko's release here was a pleasant surprise in general considering that half its cast is comprised of '70s anime characters who're iconic in Japan, but mostly completely unknown to Americans. Their E3 lineup's a mix. Marvel vs. Capcom 3's HD system bound - skipping the Wii on that's not a great call. They'll be showing the Okami sequel on the DS, Okamiden, which looks wonderful. And they're also showing a mystery detective DS game, Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective, that could be good too. Capcom has a strong track record with detective style games, going by their Ace Attorney series. They're making a third HD exclusive Bionic Commando game - the previous two were both massive flops, yet for some reason they're getting a third now after turning their nose up to and ignoring actual Wii demand for a Bionic Commando revival. (It's not exactly surprising that the HD crowd would ignore a franchise revival based on a semi-obscure NES game as is. There's nothing financially sound about continuing to make those games on those systems.) They're bringing the Wii and PS3 some Samurai-Warriors-on-acid style epic feudal Japan combat in Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes - the first Sengoku Basara series game to keep its Japanese name (The third game), after the first came here on the PS2 as "Devil Kings." The game's basically a Wii game that's getting up-ported to the PS3 - with actual marketing, I can see the Wii version selling longer in the long run, given the sales legs Wii games tend to have that the HD consoles utterly lack. I'm looking forward to Basara, at any rate. Then there's the HD Devil Rising sequel made by a western team that abandoned the original game's Dawn of the Dead trapped-in-a-mall appeal for trying to basically steal Wii game MadWorld's whole "slaughter-based reality TV show" concept, this time fighting zombies instead of stylized street toughs. Way, way less interesting than the original Dead Rising and MadWorld. There's a MotoGP game too, I believe, but that's not something I keep up with. Otherwise, they're said to have surprises - I don't know what those are yet, so I'll keep an eye out. Some bad and less than great calls here, but some good ones too. Capcom can count on my support.

After covering those three, below is one particularly bad recent pre-E3 announcement from Ubisoft. I'll cover them and a number of other third parties in the next post after my Nintendo and Sony conference commentary.

Scott Pilgrim vs. The Terrible Decision
Another bad call unveiled just before the beginning of E3 was in Ubisoft's debut gameplay trailer for the game tie-in to this August's upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World movie, which is my most anticipated movie of the year at this point. I haven't started reading the comics yet, but plan on picking up the first graphic novel soon. Bryan Lee O'Malley seems to be a man after my own heart with his comics centering around the lives of an interesting and goofy group of people, their world littered with tons of retro video game references and homages. Fantastic. A love poem to those of us who grew up with those wonderful video games of the mid to late '80s. The game itself is revealed at last, and it's got a wonderful retro visual style - essentially 16-bit graphics with a bit of an 8-bit veneer. The gameplay? A cross between the NES classic River City Ransom (The Nekketsu Kunio series it came from in Japan is now being revived on the DS, the games' remakes coming to the west as the "River City" series now.) and the memorable Streets of Rage series on the Sega Genesis - excellent, excellent sources of inspiration.

Then comes the release information. A PSN exclusive for a while when it first comes out in August. That's a weird platform call to make - it smacks of someone receiving money from Sony for that. Then it's due for an XBLA release further down the line. Predictable, but it makes sense to give a game tie-in to an upcoming cult movie (Directed by none other than cult director Edgar Wright, who made the memorable Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and TV series Spaced with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) a multi-platform release. Then here's the kicker - no WiiWare release or any mention of any kind of plans for a Nintendo release at all. This is a game that's an homage to retro - and especially Nintendo - games, based on a comic series and delightful-looking movie that similarly pay loving tribute to old school video games. And yet they choose to neglect the console that makes the most sense for it and could easily handle the download? This is a bad call from every angle - especially when you take into account that retro games are typically looked back on with a sneer by the HD crowd. They didn't buy either of the NES-style Mega Man sequels - 9 and 10 - that came out over the past few years, though they did raise a huge stink about 9 initially being announced as a WiiWare exclusive. They were angry that Nintendo fans were going to get a major exclusive retro style revival like that, and yet they didn't actually want or buy the game. They just didn't want the Nintendo audience to have it as an exclusive - and if they could have, they undoubtedly would have called for the WiiWare release to be rescinded entirely. Mega Man 10's been out for about 3 months now, and it's still in the top 20 consistently best selling WiiWare games at the moment, while it passed with virtually no attention when it arrived on the other platforms in the weeks following.

When that audience won't buy a release as major as new retro-style Mega Man games, even after getting angry that Nintendo fans could have access to it and not them, they won't buy the Scott Pilgrim game. They praise it on the blogs, and they're undoubtedly overjoyed to have it as an HD download exclusive, as little sense as it makes. But Ubisoft isn't going to rake in the cash on it, and when the game comes out, they're largely going to ignore it, just like they did the Mega Man games. Retro-style games have always sold incredibly poorly, and the XBLA and PSN download services are notorious as places for indie games to largely go to die with very few exceptions. Many have begun to shift away from those services specifically because downloadable retro-style and indie games just don't sell. And there's not really any wonder why - both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have been sold on their graphical hardware to an audience mainly interested in extremely high-budget graphic-intensive online first person shooters with an emphasis on online play. That's what dominates both consoles' libraries, and it's one of the only genres that can be counted on to sell and make money on either platform - though there's exceptions, as those games also have to be insanely hyped, incredibly heavily marketed blockbuster titles in order to pull that off. Most games on those platforms are not, and as such, lose money. Sony has spent years encouraging their audience to view Nintendo and all gaming that came before Sony's arrival on the scene as "the enemy." There is no real audience for older style games or appreciation for retro graphics on those platforms - if something doesn't measure up to their exorbitantly expensive lofty demands, they trash the game and ignore it. There's a sense of entitlement in those platforms' audiences as the self-proclaimed "serious" "hardcore" gamers (Who buy very few types of games and little else, turning the PS3 and 360 markets into poisonous swamps for basically all developers) where they feel that all games should be released on their platforms - but specifically to their tastes - and that Nintendo platforms (As their owners are "inferior") should receive nothing, despite the fact that Nintendo's platforms are completely dominating the market this generation and software sales on both are extremely healthy, with all sorts of types of games and gameplay selling to the most diverse market the industry has ever seen.

Likewise, WiiWare is a much, much healthier download service than PSN and XBLA. All sorts of types of games sell on there, and Nintendo set the service up to be much more profitable for the developers and publishers releasing games on it than the other two - they see better sales and get a bigger cut of the service's profits, where on PSN, they're downtrodden to the point of having to pay Sony back for bandwidth used. Indie game developers releasing titles on PSN and XBLA get more taken from them by the far more domineering corporations that are Microsoft and Sony, and on top of far less sales on the whole - far less of a shot at any kind of profit - and they also get a smaller cut. WiiWare, on the other hand, has an extremely well-established track record of excellent sales for retro-style video games, whether drawing on inspiration from ages as far back as Atari as Gaijin Games does with their hit Bit.Trip series, something more 8-bit NES style like Mega Man 9 and 10, or 16-bit fare like Final Fantasy IV: The After Years and Cave Story. The Scott Pilgrim video game would be perfectly at home on - and demonstrably far more suited to - the WiiWare download service. And yet Ubisoft hasn't announced any support for that with the game. There's some serious backward thinking going on there - whether there's money being paid by Sony and Microsoft with not releasing the game to the Nintendo audience at all as part of the terms of the deal (Which itself would be an incredibly stupid one for Ubisoft to agree to.) or an executive or two at Ubisoft that somehow thinks the so-called "hardcore" HD gamers are the ones who've been gaming since the '80s and have tons of nostalgia for retro games (A demonstrably false assumption from the sales trends and struggles of indie and retro style games on their platforms). I've commented on Bryan Lee O'Malley's blog, but he has yet to comment on the notable ridiculousness that is neglecting to release a game that is ostensibly a love poem to retro video games on the two consoles where it won't sell, and neglecting the one where the entire main audience for retro video games is this generation. You don't make a retro Nintendo game, then withhold it from Nintendo gamers. "Stupid" doesn't seem like strong enough a word for this decision - there's obviously some poor decision-making going on within Ubisoft, between this and telling themselves that the cute, cartoony Rayman will somehow find a profitable audience on the consoles that reject cute, cartoony games entirely. Hopefully O'Malley will say something - I can't imagine him being cool with completely gypping the Nintendo crowd when so much of this is about retro Nintendo gaming - and people at Ubisoft will listen and make sure the game hits WiiWare at some point this year. If it comes, I'll buy it - I want to support the Scott Pilgrim series, and I love the band that composed its soundtrack, Anamanaguchi - but you can't expect a retro game to sell if you're not bringing it to the audience that buys retro games.

That's a Wrap
Alright, this is pretty much it for my first insanely long E3 2010 coverage/commentary blog post. If you got through it alive, my hat's off to you. There's more coming soon.

The theme to reiterate here? Embarrassing third party behavior in following Sony and Microsoft. They ignore the lush Nintendo market and focus on the poison swamp, all while carrying a grudge against Nintendo and a sense of entitlement to the market Nintendo has following them now. You can't approach any market you wish to cater to and make money on with contempt - that should be one of the biggest lessons of this generation. It's still disappointing, though. I had honestly believed that the third parties were run by people who had more sense than this, and realized that they were supposed to be going where the market was - like they did when they left Nintendo for Sony in the later half of the '90s. The industry doesn't control the market, and any industry that tries to exert force over their market is going to be wrecked by it - you serve your market. You don't treat them like the enemy for picking a different platform. You follow them. This industry vs. consumer struggle has been a big part of this generation, with Sony and Microsoft's platforms focusing so heavily on trying to force preorders to get full game content in deals with retailers like Gamestop, and then not including full game content on the disc anyway, making you buy and download extra content to get the finished game you should have gotten when you paid for it in the first place. And on top of that, allowing installations and patching for console games has brought in some of PC gaming's biggest inconveniences and weaknesses, allowing for the release of broken, buggy, and glitchy games which will eventually be impossible to patch when the console can no longer connect to that server down the line, dramatically devaluing physical release games. They're trying to maximize profit at consumer expense, and so a struggle between the consumer and the video game industry has ensued - the domination of the Wii and DS is the result of a consumer triumph over the companies trying to take them for all they're worth while devaluing the products they sell at every turn. It's just unfortunate that so many third parties are far more set on squeezing customers for every penny and trying to force them onto the consoles the market isn't buying rather than taking the Wii seriously as they should. They're going to drown in that poisonous swamp at the rate things are going, and few will pull through.

It's after 11 AM now. In less than an hour, things get wonderful at Nintendo's conference with the huge 3DS reveal and more - while I'll still be discussing third parties, there'll be a more joyous tone to look forward to in the next megapost here on E3 2010 day two. Where Sony and Microsoft are struggling and betting on peripherals, Nintendo has a killer lineup - including the 3DS, the long-awaited successor to the DS line of portables - scheduled for showing. They've been poised to dominate E3 this year in a fantastic way.

1 comment:

The Gaming Gentleman said...

I've been blogging for 10 months now, primarily on video games although I do review movies, comics and make the odd general comment on life. As a result of my blog I now work for a new website as a writer. Some of our writers are at E3, with full press access and will be updating from the floor. I live in England and am unfortunately unable to get to E3 this year, but I will be going to and reporting from Eurogamer Expo in London in October.

If you're interested my blog is