Hooray! Overpriced DLC goes on sale…

Need for Speed World is part of EA’s mission to try and conquer Free-to-Play gaming. It’s a part of the video game market which can be very profitable for a publisher even though a good chunk of it is, as its title suggests, free to play. The best way of clawing back development and maintenance costs; vanity items. Like pieces of armor, weaponry or in Need for Speed World‘s case, a ridiculously expensive virtual car. Released last Wednesday for the year plus PC racer, the Koenigsegg CCX Elite Edition will set you back $100 unless of course you grab it now because the kind old folks at EA are selling it for just $75 (via Gamespot). Baffling when you think Free-to-Play items are also know as micro-transactions. There’s nothing micro about that price.

The Koenigsegg CCX Elite Edition is said to be the first premium elite car which would mean that more offensively priced DLC will be coming to the 5 million users of NfSW. Of course no one is forcing players to buy the cars but it certainly adds to EA’s reputation of being rapacious.  Just the other week they announced a subscription-based version of Tetris. Never mind that Tetris can be found on every platform known to man, in the iOS version you can now sign up to paying $3 a month or $30 a year for exclusive discounts, challenges and a booster to speed up level progression. Because levelling up is what Tetris is all about…

Stories like these are the kind of thing usually saved for April Fool’s day when companies can announced insane ideas and promotions with consumers chuckling at the stupidity and forgetting it the very next day. But this time the stories are true and it’s EA who look like the fools to me.

Nintendo, meet Gameloft

When the 3DS came out just a few months ago, it was a fairly unique bit of kit. It was the first mass market stereoscopic 3D device and the first handheld to adopt said technology. But with each day, new tech ages faster than a teen on a sun bed and within a short period of time, more portable devices in the form of mobile phones are getting the 3D treatment. LG’s Optimus 3D is shipping soon to encroach on Nintendo’s territory and what does every handheld have nowadays? A Gameloft game. Six of their existing titles like NOVA have already made the transition to 3D and according to Yahoo (via My Nintendo News), 17 more are coming soon. Like NOVA, the idea is to for the games to be full experiences but another similarity is that they’re likely to be heavily inspired by other people’s IPs.

Should Nintendo be worried? The rampant success of the DS market was somewhat interrupted by mobiles over a relatively short period but an even shorter amount of time has passed before the market for stereoscopic handhelds is splitting consumers’ choice. I guess it will all come down to the games. Unless we see something like the next Xperia Play equipped with a 3D screen, traditional genres will always suffer the limitations of being on a controller-less platform with the 3DS being better suited to the Zelda and Mario experiences. But when attitudes are continuously changing towards the types of games people want to play on the go, the desire for bite-sized gaming may outweigh the want for fuller titles and the often feared end of dedicated handhelds may arrive quicker than first thought.

But there’s still a decent bit of time before that and Nintendo have previously said how they’re currently researching the possibility of merging their handhelds with a phone and partnering up with mobile companies. So while smartphones are slowly eating away at Nintendo’s audience, we could see a future where Nintendo release a device that claws back some of those who are comfortable with mobile games and a system that comes free on a contract.

So are cheap iPhone games killing the industry or not?

Epic Games, the mighty and historic development studio, once believed that budget iPhone apps were killing the video game industry. Back in April, president Mike Capps said to IndustryGamers in April: “If there’s anything that’s killing [the retail games business] it’s dollar apps. How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it? People are used to paying 99 cents.” An interesting point raised by a company constantly producing brilliant triple A titles but only a few months later it appears they’ve changed their mind (via CVG).

At the Unreal University event in London, hosted by Epic about using the Unreal Development Kit for games, European territory manager Mike Gamble said the company “didn’t believe” all the nonsense that big budget titles were “going away because the cost is huge and content on App stores is 99c.” But whereas Capps’ comments may have come from the heart, Gamble’s might just be originating from the marketing table. He spoke to over 100 attendees at the event and encouraged them to use the Unreal Development Kit as it could help them create some the of the very best game experiences on any platform and that hardcore games on iOS devices offered a great opportunity for upcoming devs. “Experience tells us that if you create content with high production values the audience will buy it,” said Gamble. “You’re customers, what would you prefer to do: Buy a game like Infinity Blade for $6 with plenty of gameplay, good production values that offers a visceral experience; or pay 99c for something you play once and never ever go back to?”

Not all budget games fit into this category however though the number that does certainly outweighs those who don’t. He continued, urging the young devs to use their experience as gamers as a starting point for making games. “The proof for us has been Infinity Blade. It’s a triple-A quality title built and shipped late last year. So far, we’ve earned more than $11 million of revenue from it – that’s after Apple have taken their cut.” Gamble then said there is an audience who want bigger and better games on their mobiles possibly suggesting there isn’t enough of these games to satisfy them all.

There’s no doubt Apple and its competitors are literally in the pockets of hardcore gamers who prefer a lengthier experience for a few quid instead of a shorter forgettable one. Companies like Gameloft price their games around £4-5 which all sell tremendously but that could be to do with then being clones of existing franchises. Nevertheless, it still proves Gamble’s comments to have some truth as do the sales figures of £5.99 games like Real Racing 2 and even the expensive Square Enix RPGs currently on the App store. But time and time again, the biggest sticking point is a lack of physical buttons and uncomfortable implementation of virtual analog sticks. Again, Epic’s Infinity Blade showed that intelligent game design can do away with traditional inputs and work just as well.

The problem with the cheap price point for mobile games, which yesterday went up from 59p to 69p, is that it exists at all. I think the early day self-imposed necessity to release a game for so cheap has left a lasting impression in the minds of users who are reluctant to pay more. Expensive games do sell as Gamble points out but I still see a hell of a lot of App Store user reviews bitching that a game cost more than 59p. But as more and more top quality, higher priced games get released, this mentality should hopefully disappear.

Apple, in ten years time, all this will be yours…

Phil Harrison helped the launch of the original PlayStation all those years ago and was on board right up until the early days of the PS3 where he once famously said rumble for controllers was ‘so last-gen’. But poor Harrison was merely playing the PR game and only said that because Sony was in the middle of a legal battle and not his true feelings. Now he’s no longer at Sony but an advisory for a cloud-based delivery network, Harrison’s thoughts aren’t murky with legalities but clear and most recently, rather divisive.

In an interview by Edge magazine a couple of weeks ago Harrison spoke about future of gaming and how, in ten years time, Apple will eventually become the games industry. Why? Because of the “proliferation of devices,” he said. “You’ve got iPhones, iPads, iPods, which are all part of the same ecosystem; the speed at which Apple sold 15 million iPads is phenomenal. And the number one activity on an iPad, according to some reports, is games, and I think that will only continue.” He went on to praise the App Store for how well it’s integrated and how easy it is to buy things. One click and you have content straight to the device. Harrison called it elegant and continuously refined but as an owner of Apple products, I’m not sure elegancy is a word I’d use.

But it’s the talk of Apple becoming the industry because of the size of its market which is really interesting. With that logic surely the Wii is currently the console industry, Primark is the epitome of fashion and Call of Duty: Black Ops is the best game ever made. Sheer volume doesn’t directly equate to an absolution of an industry. Yes, it means those markets are currently healthy but I would propose the notion that it shows Apple are capable of making a powerful entertainment device which gaming is a by-product. Apple’s approach to gaming, best seen in their press conferences, isn’t one that fills me with confidence of an overall take over of the video games industry. They talk about it but with the mediocre response to Game Centre, the praise and boasting, what little there is, centres around the tech driving it not the experience itself.

Other companies have done well to capitalise on the success of iPhones and iPads  but there is still a huge separation between the majority of games you find on those systems and the ones seen on traditional consoles. Often they try and emulate each other with varying results. One major issue, which is pointed out time and time again, is the lack of a physical controller, mainly the analog stick. Look how important it was for Sony to include a second stick on the PSVita and how awkward it can be for virtual versions to run on touchscreens. To become not just a leader but an industry itself, you’d have to better what came before and that goes for all aspects, not just sell lots of your device.

Mobile developers and publishers can be handsomely rewarded for their games but the 59p model does come with a few restrictions. Lets say the average gamer buys three titles a year and spends £120 doing so. Compare this to a purely mobile gamer who buys 59p games. They have to buy 203 of them in order to match the average gamer’s spend. And while there maybe well over 203 budget titles hitting the App store each month, that shows another problem with this market, it’s almost too big for its own good. Perusing a bloated store with games of drastically varying quality can only take up so much of anyone’s time before it becomes laborious. There would have to be some major changes in how the App Store works over the next ten years for it to be the ultimate place to shop. In that time who knows, Sony and Nintendo could perfect their digital distribution methods. We’ve already seen a huge improvement from Nintendo with the eShop on 3DS.

There’s no denying the popularity of Apple products. Selling 15 million iPads in nine months is superb but Microsoft are shifting a ridiculous number of Kinects with around 10 million of them already in homes worldwide. Is that too a contender for games industry? There’s no doubt Apple have been eating away at the traditional gaming space and the 59p experience has changed the habits of spending but I don’t know if ten years is enough for it to go from where it is now to ruling the entire industry, supporting the kinds of games found on todays consoles and PCs. I do like Phil Harrison, I think he’s a great personality and was a valuable asset to Sony but have to agree to disagree with him on this one.

iOS enters the third dimension

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Companies like Sony and Nintendo are defiant that in one way or another, 3D entertainment is the future. The former relies on fancy TVs, glasses and a PS3 whereas the latter is marketing their latest handheld, the 3DS, as a better alternative, doing away with the need for glasses and instead using a dual-layered screen to generate 3D images. But what if you didn’t need either or those solutions? A pair or developers from the University Joseph Fourier have created a tech demo for iOS devices that creates the illusion of 3D on existing 2D Apple hardware (via Slide to Play).

The App called i3D (available on the App Store now) was developed by Jeremie Francone and Laurence Nigay and uses the front-facing camera to track your face as move the device around. Since your head stays still (or at least should), i3D changes the on-screen image in real time according to its position relative to your head. Or, to put it another way, iPad 2 or iPhone 4 + i3D + head = 3D images. The video above shows just how impressive the demo is at the moment and the potential for this kind of technology rather than investing in expensive glasses or multi-layered screens. The downside – other than i3D currently only showing five proof of concepts, one of which being Mii heads so it’ll probably be pulled soon – is that no matter how cool this kind of thing is, it’s generally seen as a gimmick. Nintendo’s previous DS has a DSiWare title called Looksley’s Line Up or 3D Hidden Picture in Japan, that was pretty neat but puzzlingly not a concept adopted by other developers. Maybe now that i3D has been made for iOS devices, there’ll be more interest from smaller indie studios who regularly create iPhone games. I hope so because in the right hands this kind of thing could be awesome.

Review: DAGi Capacitive Stylus (iPad)

Steve Jobs once said that if you need to use a stylus on one of their iDevices, Apple had failed. However that hasn’t stopped consumers from wanting to use something other than their fingers and equally had little effect on the companies who make them. Considering the amount of drawing applications and the potential for the iPad to become a serious artistic tool, finding a good stylus among the many iPad accessories is essential. Most are fat with a rubber tip and resemble a swollen pencil but DAGi have made a thinner alternative that also offers a remarkable amount of precision.

Using the stylus for drawing works surprisingly well because of the clever design. DAGi replaces a rubber tip with a clear plastic disc that has a red dot in the centre. When held correctly, the red dot is the exact spot of contact between stylus and screen. It’s almost as if you’re painting with a laser sight. It must be said though because of the shape of the tip, there is a certain sweet spot for using the stylus. Drawing still feels natural and you won’t be holding the touchscreen pen at any obscure angles but it’s worth mentioning if you’re fussy about such things.

The Apps I used as a test for the pen were Brushes, Adobe Ideas and Facebook. The first two were to see how semi-professional art applications work with the stylus and they do so very well. If you’re going for detail and don’t want to keep zooming in to 400% or more, having fundamentally a red dot to follow makes everything a lot easier. As for Facebook, that was used to see how well the stylus handles as a navigational tool for people with portly digits. Again, it came up trumps, scrolling through screens and entering text wasn’t a problem at all.

Despite Jobs’ condemnation of iPad styluses, the DAGi Capacitive Stylus is a great accessory for anyone who wishes to sketch or draw precisely. I would argue that using one doesn’t mean Apple has failed but rather that DAGi have succeeded.

Mass Effect 3 delayed, Mass Effect portable okayed.

The official Facebook page for Mass Effect 3 had some bad news yesterday as it posted a message saying the game has been pushed back into early 2012 instead of holiday 2011 when it was said to come out. Executive producer Casey Hudson wrote: Mass Effect 3 will be released in the first three months of 2012. The development team is laser focused on making sure Mass Effect 3 is the biggest, boldest and best game in the series, ensuring that it exceeds everyone’s expectations.”

I can’t but wonder if this has anything to do with the outcry towards Dragon Age II and its many recycled dungeons. At the start of March, composer Inon Zur spoke to IGN about his involvement with the fantasy game saying how it was a bit if a rushed job due to EA wanting to “capitalize on the success of Origins,” pressing BioWare hard for it to be released sooner rather than later. Only 14 months stand between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age II and for some players it really showed. If it were allowed the appropriate breathing space, it’s probable that the gameplay could have matched the high quality story telling that DA2 is said to possess.

What happened to BioWare’s other triple A franchise may have nothing to do with the delay but I’d imagine it would at least be at the back of their minds. The time between Mass Effect 2 and 3 would have been a fair amount longer in comparison if it were to come out this year but an extra few months to really tighten up the code could be the difference between an award winning game and one that’s not quite up to par.

On top the the news about the set back, EA listed a handheld/mobile release for Mass Effect 3 and Battlefield 3 too. It comes as no surprise when EA are actively pursuing the mobile space and already have both franchises on the iPhone. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has an iOS version as does Mass Effect who received a prequel to ME2. However, it needs to be said that neither of them are very good. Though mobile phones aren’t necessarily the avenue here because we could just as likely see a 3DS or NGP versions which would be a lot more interesting if true. Whatever they end up being, I’m hoping the Battlefield 3 (coming late 2011) and Mass Effect 3 (early 2012) portable won’t be watered down ports but follow the brilliant Dead Space on iPhone and create there own unique experiences.