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WHY MICROSOFT ARE LOOSING THE EXCLUSIVES BATTLE

At E3 2008, Square Enix’s Yoichi Wada shocked the gaming world. Taking to the stage at Microsoft’s press conference, he announced that the latest in a series long associated with PlayStation would no longer be exclusive to Sony. Final Fantasy XIII was hitting Xbox 360.

It was a huge surprise, perhaps E3 2008’s only true megaton, an increasingly rare phenomena for an event beset by pre-show leaks. Comments threads and forums around the world exploded with rage.

The news was heralded as yet another example of the US giant’s spending power and increased market share. PlayStation were no longer the dominant force. One by one, the strong relationships Sony had developed with publishers over more than a decade were being eroded by the prospect of increased revenues that only Microsoft could offer.

But as well as nibbling away at Sony’s exclusives, Microsoft had also proved more than adept at securing their own. Indeed, their efforts dwarfed that of their rivals. By the close of 2008 a massive 205 titles were available exclusively on the Xbox 360. In comparison, Sony’s PlayStation 3 had merely 60.

Microsoft had quality on their side too. The Halo, Fable and Gears of War series were among the industry’s very hottest properties, and they were all on Xbox 360. Add titles like Crackdown and Mass Effect, timed-exclusivity on Bioshock and the GTA IV episodes, and Microsoft’s position looked strong. Unassailable, even.

Yet the intervening years has seen a shift in power. Franchise mistreatment, disappointing sequels and over-familiarity have tarnished the impact of Microsoft’s line-up. Now, in 2010, it’s Sony that have the upper hand.

(Read more at GamingUnion)

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MOLYNEUX & CORONATION STREET: THE FUTURE OF EPISODIC GAMING
August 9, 2010, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: , , ,

Last year I attended the Annual Videogame Lecture at BAFTA’s swanky central London HQ. The event saw Lionhead boss Peter Molyneux look back over his career in videogames in an effort to contectualise his vision of the medium’s future. Rather oddly, that vision involved Coronation Street.

For those of you unfamiliar with British television, Coronation Street is a soap-opera set in working-class northern England. Known to its fans as “Corrie,” the show follows the affairs, scandals and sordid daily lives of the street’s residents. My wife loves it, as does half the country. Week after week it sits at the top of the viewing figure charts. It has done for 40 years.

However, it’s also complete nonsense. Currently, the storyline concerns the aftermath of an underwear factory explosion, where an escaped convict held a woman (who used to be a man) hostage, following a failed attempt to push her husband (who didn’t used to be a woman) into the canal. See what I mean?

It is far, far removed from the everyday concern of videogames.

So when Molyneux presented the crowd with a selection of slides detailing his influences, the auditorium was surprised to see a still from Coronation Street projected onto the giant screen behind him. We all laughed.

But he wasn’t joking.

(Read more at GamingUnion)



INDIE, BEATING THE MAINSTREAM AT ITS OWN GAME

This is the golden age of indie. The past few years has seen an explosion of astounding independently developed games. Around the world, bedroom coders and small teams of devs are producing some of the most exciting, innovative and just plain fun experiences available. And what’s more, with the maturation of digital distribution on consoles, PC and handheld devices, they’re reaching ever larger audiences.

It’s never been easier to make them either. Tools such as Flash, the Unreal Development Kit, Game Maker, Unity and Microsoft XNA have made development ultra-accessible. The creation of videogames has been democratised. Now anyone with an idea and a little skill can realise their dreams in videogame form.

And what dreams they are. The indie scene is awash with interesting, challenging, charming and joyful games. While the mainstream seems intent on either playing it safe with endless franchise sequels or going after the Wii buck with motion-controlled casual titles, indie games are taking more and more risks and reaping the rewards.

It’s a notion that has been echoed elsewhere, but the current state of videogames echoes that of Hollywood in the ’60s and ’70s. At that time the major studios – the likes of MGM and Universal – were a factory, pumping out film after film, sticking to tried and tested genres in order to recoup the huge expense of production. It was filmaking as industry, not as an art.

However, the rise of a group of independent directors and producers revolutionised the system. The likes of Scorsese, DePalma, Altman and Peckinpah rejected or subverted the established norms, creating relatively cheap, experimental films that rejuvenated cinema. The boundaries had been destroyed and it had a trickle-up effect on the entire medium. The big studios couldn’t help but take notice.

Independent developers are beginning to do the same thing for videogames.

(Read more at Gaming Union)



INSIDE REALTIME WORLDS
June 2, 2010, 9:32 am
Filed under: Features | Tags: , , ,

“Come on, admit it. You must be insanely bored by now.”

It’s 2 am in a hotel bar in Dundee, Scotland. I’m trying to get Ben Bateman, Community Officer at Realtime Worlds, to admit that after spending hundreds of hours playing All Points Bulletin over the last year or so, the game is starting to lose its lure. It’s just a job after all, right?

But he’s having none of it. For Ben and the rest of the 300-strong team involved with creating APB, the prevailing mood is excitement. After 5 long years in development, numerous rethinks and one abandoned platform, the PC-exclusive, ultra-urban MMO shooter is almost done. It’s good, and Realtime Worlds know it.

Bateman says that the beauty of APB is that, thanks to the game’s open-world multiplayer design, anything can and invariably does happen. Outstanding, hilarious or just plain cool things occur on a regular basis. It’s this that keeps him eager to come back for more.

I’ve listened to similar statements from other members of the team. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking this was simply the company line. But he’s being honest. Several of the hotel barman’s dodgy cocktails have ensured that.

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KILL SCREEN & THE EVOLUTION OF GAME MAGAZINES
January 27, 2010, 11:49 pm
Filed under: Features, Interviews | Tags: , , , ,

“We’re so concerned about the minutia that we’ve missed the much more interesting question of ‘how does this game make me feel?’”

Kill Screen is the ambitious new magazine from ex-Wall Street Journal reporter Jamin Brophy-Warren. Launching in January, it’s a project that promises a fresh approach to games journalism. Rejecting the established cycle of news, previews and reviews, Kill Screen aims instead to provide literate, thoughtful pieces on the people, culture and meaning of the medium.

In Brophy-Warren’s own words, “We want to be what early Rolling Stone was to rock n’ roll or Wired was to tech. We want to look like the Fader and walk like the Believer.” It’s an enticing prospect.

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CHAOS AND CHARM: A NIGHT WITH THE INDIE GAMES ARCADE
November 1, 2009, 11:24 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: , , ,

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“Thanks for coming everyone. We chose this venue because it had a plasma screen, but we found out 30 minutes before kick-off that it’s fucked. So we won’t be able to show any games.”

So began 2009’s gloriously anarchic Indie Game Arcade Show and Yell event. Part of the Eurogamer Expo, it was a kind of open mic night for Indie devs, a rare chance for them to get together, swap tips, get drunk and look towards a bright future.

“Just like independent games, tonight is going to be cheap and a little bit buggy” (Boos from the assembled devs). “What? It’s better than saying it’s gonna be cheap and shit!”

Crammed into the sweaty backroom of an east London pub, a ramshackle selection of devs proceeded to squeeze to the front to give their talks. As befitted the disheveled charm of the evening, much was drowned out by the noise of laughter, heckling and the odd shattering pint glass. Shyness crept in too, with one adorably self-effacing dev bashfully announcing that the game she was working on is “crap, really.”

But what the event lacked in slick sales pitches and soulless fluidity, it more than made up for with passion, enthusiasm and a sense of pride that many in the room were on the brink of something special. It’s cliched, but the image of man sitting in the dark at 2am, face lit only by the stare of his monitor, is for some the reality of independent development. Many have sacrificed well-paid jobs and long-term relationships, pouring every ounce of effort and every penny into the opportunity to follow their dream. Events like this, held on the back of the staggeringly successful Eurogamer Expos, are vindication.

Notable among the speakers was Robert Fearon. A short, retiring man with a fascinating mustache, Fearon is the creator of the wonderfully titled War Twat and Squid Yes, Not So Octopus 2: Squid Harder. Making his way to the head of the room he stood on a chair and introduced himself with, “Hello. My name is Robert Fearon and I don’t usually like speaking to people.”

He was being disingenuous. What followed was an impassioned call for increased accessibility in games, questioning developers’ need to obscure otherwise great titles with obtuse mechanics. Thanking his friend Barrie Ellis for inspiration, Fearon added that accessibility options do not break a game. You don’t have to use them, so why deny those that need it?

By far the highlight of the evening, however, was the talk by Hello Games’ Sean Murray. Flying high from successfully exhibiting the gloriously charming, Excitebike-esque Joe Danger, Murray discussed the game’s journey to completion. As one of the team held a laptop aloft so the crowd could see, Murray showed videos of the game’s various builds, from construction of the very first wheel, to the near-finished product. With the game playable after just a few short weeks, the rest of the development time was spent polishing, honing and refining. It paid off. Now, with buzz for Joe Danger reaching a crescendo, all the team have to do is decide between PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade.

As the night wore on, the drinks kept flowing, a megaphone was found, and a chaotic Q&A got underway. With an open format, it wasn’t long before the evening descended into a discussion of everybody’s favorite and most hated games. Developers are gamers too after all.

There was no sense of competition in the room that night, no jealousy of others achievements; just camaraderie, excitement and hope. As we left, one of the devs (whose name will go unmentioned) took a drunken tumble backwards, noisily shattering a massive glass lamp. Cheers went up. Perhaps fittingly, the “buggy, cheap night” so full of character and charm, ended with a crash.



YES, VIDEOGAMES ARE POLITICAL
October 5, 2009, 9:55 pm
Filed under: Features | Tags: ,

aobabo

In a recent piece over at Bitmob, Christopher Quach discussed the validity of conveying political messages in videogames, essentially concluding that the industry’s reputation as disposable entertainment, along with its desire to cater to as wide an audience as possible, precludes it from ever engaging in political discourse.

It is an interesting piece, well argued and certainly representative of the majority of mainstream opinion, but it is also flawed in a number of ways.

Perhaps most obviously the piece overlooks the work of many independent videogame developers. Games like Cutthroat Capitalism, Kabul Kaboom! and Super Columbine Massacre RPG! go some way to challenge the idea of an apolitical videogame landscape. With varying degrees of success and tastefulness, these modestly sized games use the medium to communicate overtly political statements, encompassing military, economic and social issues. There are many more examples out there.

That these games operate on the peripheries of the industry should come as no surprise. The same is true of all media, where overt political statements are best explored on the margins. But that doesn’t mean that mainstream games are bereft of political content, anymore than big-budget movies or the best-selling comics and novels.

Videogames, as cultural artifacts, are unescapably political. Even the most vacuous of games, despite their ostensible mindlessness, cannot fail to reflect the politics of the culture in which they were produced.

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Take this example. In the Eighties, western politics were dominated by two figures; Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The US President and the British Prime Minister’s relationship was a close one, due in large part to their advocacy of a particular brand of conservatism. Though they chose to express these beliefs in slightly different ways, their ideology was the same.

This quote from Margaret Thatcher conveys the message most concisely;

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour.” (M. Thatcher, Woman’s Own, October 31, 1987)

What Thatcher is trying to communicate here is that a successful country, indeed a successful world, is the direct result of individualism. Do not rely on others, just be the very best you can be and everything will fall into place. In short, look after yourself.

Similarly, Reagan’s ‘Social Darwinism’ embraced this notion of the individual, perhaps most obviously in the field of economics. Reagan stimulated the entrepreneurial realm by rewarding it with economic gain, while simultaneously cutting several welfare programs. The message was just the same as Thatcher’s; strive for personal glory, for individual gain. Look after yourself.

This is the reason that Gordon Gekko, the “greed is good” protagonist of 1987 film Wall Street, is rightly identified as a symbol of the decade. He was primarily self-serving in his quest for power and wealth.

pitYou can see this notion reflected clearly in the western videogames of the period, although in a less sophisticated way. The vast majority of these games employed a lone hero protagonist. While co-op games existed and were technologically possible, single-player reigned supreme. Regardless of the narratives and their sci-fi/world war/fantasy archetypes, the central political message was the same; You and you alone are capable of saving the world. Do not rely on help, do not rely on others – success, glory, riches, empowerment – all of this will come through your individual efforts.

Oh and there is a good chance you’ll be a white man too.

Fast forward 20 years and the political landscape has changed dramatically. While Thatcher and Reagan’s legacy is still apparent, attitudes are different. Most obviously, both countries are now run by liberal governments. As a result, notions of society and community are once again on the agenda. Just look at President Obama’s current efforts to introduce universal healthcare, funded by the taxes of those who have achieved their individual wealth. The language of Presidency has changed from “I” to “we.” Now we strive to look after each other.

Similarly, race and gender politics have progressed in the intervening 20 years. While inequalities still exist, the gap is closing. Racial tolerance and gender equality have vastly improved since the Eighties. All of this can be seen in current-gen videogames.

Perhaps the most profound shift in the games industry in the last few years has been the explosion of co-op. Not only are developers dedicating more and more time to providing co-op experiences in their games, they are also finding new ways of exploring the dynamic within it. Perhaps the best example of this is the work by Valve in the Left 4 Dead series. Here, rather than just providing a space for a team of individuals to progress through the game, they are explicitly designing them to punish those who do not co-ordinate their efforts.

In Left 4 Dead, the term co-op is not used as shorthand for campaign multiplayer, it is truly co-operative. You cannot look after yourself anymore, you have to look after each other. Only by communicating, compensating for team-mates weakness and working as a unit can you survive and ultimately ‘win.’

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Even in games where the co-operative element of co-op is less pronounced, the ideology is the same; you are not on your own anymore, you are part of a team. What’s more that team is more than likely multi-cultural and/or multi-gender. Don’t dismiss the presence of the Hispanic Dom in Gears of War, Black-African woman Sheva in Resident Evil or Afro-American Louis in Left 4 Dead as tokenistic additions. In today’s political climate it is expected that any representation of a group in any medium will be reflective of the society we live in. It is politically correct.

Now, this isn’t to say that the lone white-guy hero has been eradicated. Far from it, the bald, white space-marine is one of the most over-used characters in modern gaming. But it increasingly rare that they are lone heroes. A shift towards team-based, co-op featured games is undeniable.

In this way, mainstream videogames, even those seemingly void of political statement, are implicitly political. While for the most part they are not designed to tackle political issues head-on, or carry overt political messages, they do reflect the values and the popular ideology of the culture in which they were created. Be it the conservative, economically focused Eighties or the liberal, increasingly tolerant Noughties, politics are ingrained into the very code of the games we play.

So the problem with Christopher Quach’s article is not that it comes to the wrong conclusions, but perhaps that it asks the wrong question. Mainstream videogames are political, but can they be subversive or controversial? Can they challenge the popular ideology? Can they engage in discussion of a difficult political debate? It’s highly unlikely.

Subversion and controversy are divisive acts. Division means a smaller potential market. With publishers falling over themselves to make videogames as accessible as possible, and with the increasingly high cost of bringing games to platforms such as the PS3 and Xbox 360, only a profound shift in the industry would allow it. In this respect, Quach is absolutely, depressingly, right.