The Video Game Awards 2011

On Saturday night, all eyes were on Spike TV as it hosted it’s annual Video Game Awards. Less of an actual award show and more of a huge marketing stunt for multiple publishers, the 2011 VGAs was heavy on the random celebrity appearances and world exclusives but light on awarding achievement. Nevertheless, take the show for what it is – a good place to see new video game content – and this year’s VGAs did promise some exciting new stories. Prior to the show, companies were hyping their fans by claiming new IPs and titles were to be revealed, making us almost forget that Charlie Sheen was handing out an award (yeah, I don’t know either). And with only minutes to go, one of the big stories of the night, that being the future of Metal Gear Solid: Rising was spoilt online with news outlets managing to get early scoops thanks to the trailer leaking. It then became a matter of whether or not the newly born rumours were true.

But kicking things off were Sony and Naughty Dog whose world exclusive trailer for brand new IP, The Last of Us, sent people into a frenzy. The graphics, as you expect from such a praised developer, were stunning and later claimed to be running in real time from the PS3 for which this game is destined for. Joel and Ellie, one a middle-aged man and the other a teenage girl, are scavenging what they can from an abandoned house when they’re attacked by humans ravaged with some kind of disease. They look mutated and it’s unknown as to whether they’re zombies in the traditional sense but it sure looks like The Last of Us will fall in the zombie/survival horror genre. The end of video sees the two burst out into the street which over looks a city that has been reclaimed by nature. Think I Am Legend. But if you do, prepare to be flamed in forums because this game is proving quite divisive despite so little details. The optimists are quick to say how it’ll be the greatest thing ever with pessimists firing back with sighs of how it’s just another zombie game, ripping off Will Smith’s 2007 hit. And while I am one of those bored with zombie games who did notice similarities with I Am Legend, the important factor is that it’s being developed by Naughty Dog, a studio proven themselves to be more than capable at delivering a fantastic narrative experience. Despite a promotional campaign suggesting otherwise, Dead Island wound up being just another zombie game so it’s understandable for gamers to be concerned but Naughty Dog certainly are a studio who seriously could change the way we play these types of games.

Next up was BioWare who first showed off some more footage from Mass Effect 3 with Shepard and his crew fighting a reaper. It looked very much in-game and a great mix of action and short story sequences that is making the wait between now and March 2012 so much harder. Then came BioWare’s big new game, the next thing to come out of the studio after all this sci-fi shenanigans. And it was a sequel to an existing IP. Command and Conquer Generals 2 is the next instalment of PC real-time strategy warfare coming 2013 (unless the Mayans are right) and the trailer didn’t offer a great deal of info other than it’ll be using the Frostbite 2 engine which currently powers Battlefield 3. So at least we know it’ll look gorgeous. I’m sure RTS fans were delighted but I was a bit disappointed, not being a fan of the genre. I wasn’t expecting any particular title from BioWare but am a little surprised that they’re taking on an RTS. I presume EA are hoping the Canadian developers can sprinkle a bit of their magic onto a once forgotten off shoot of a franchise, bringing it back to profitable status. I do worry that EA are relying on BioWare a bit too much and wonder what other types of games will we be seeing in the years to come from a company whose strengths lie elsewhere. But who knows, the RTS genre could be a perfect fit for them.

The next game that caught my eye was Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a downloadable action adventure game first mentioned back in May. Then it had no name but was definitely not Alan Wake 2 and from the looks of it, this isn’t. In AWAN, Wake is fighting against his evil double, Mr. Scratch, who is after his wife. Naturally, Wake isn’t too pleased at the idea so must stop him using the same combat mechanics as the first game where you shine light onto enemies to burn off the evil, then blow them away with a firearm. Mechanics that I really enjoyed and am really pleased are making a come back. It looks as if Remedy are taking things less seriously with this game and adding in easier to follow storyline too. The other thing about this game is how its an Arcade title instead of store release and so hopefully will be less of a financial risk for Microsoft who could of easily buried any chance of extending the franchise after the original game didn’t sell as well as it should have. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is coming early next year.

Epic announced their new game and did prefix the reveal with how it’ll be something entirely new and different from the studio. And it sure did look it. With Epic and its Unreal Engine, a certain art-style is expected but Cliff Bleszinski took to the stage of the VGAs and showed Fortnite, a cartoonish, tower defence shooter where the key is to survive. From the video showing teenage-looking kids rooting around old buildings for scrap, there’ll be a day and night cycle with the day dedicate to strengthening and building your fortress and the night spent fighting off zombies (yep, zombies). Could be interesting but tower defence and/or fortress management never quite appealed to me as it has for many others. It’s good to see Epic expanding on the fortress mechanic from Gears of War 3 however and even better that the art-style is so dramatically different for them.

The show was full of other games with the awards bunched together in montages and respectable heads of studios being T-bagged on stage by a dude in an army costume but the game that closed the show is what I’ll end this piece with. No one was sure what had happened to Metal Gear Solid: Rising after its E3 2010 showing. Konami and Kojima hadn’t said a great deal about it with many suspecting it had been canceled. Which was true, according to Andriasang but that clearly didn’t last long because the game has now been given a different title of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Gone is the Solid and storyline set between MGS2 and 4 with Revengeance now taking place after the fourth game. Platinum Games are in charge of development and Hideo Kojima will produce so expect the absurdity of Kojima’s stories and frantic action from a team who gave us Bayonetta and Vanquish. Cosmetically, Revengeance looks more like a Platinum title and moves in much the same way. Stealth is to be replaced with balls to the wall action too making the game the kind of thing fans joked about after MGS4 was released. Back in 2008, we saw Raiden change from the dorky pretty-boy of Metal Gear Solid 2 to the ultimate badass that everyone wanted to play. And soon, I heard more and more people say how cool it would be play an action game featuring the cyborg ninja. Bizarrely, in order to get that, an MGS game had to be canceled and reborn as something else. Still, I cannot wait.

Battlefield 3(60)

The mediocre single player campaign in Battlefield 3 didn’t put off a number of gamers over the weekend who picked up a copy of the game. I’d imagine the reason for this was because very few of those early adopters give two hoots about solo play and were keen to kick some arse online. With marginally more robust service and arguably greater number of shooter fans, the Xbox 360 version dominated UK retail sales gobbling 53 per cent of the delicious money pie. But those players weren’t too pleased when the servers crapped out forcing them to experience the weakest part of Battlefield 3, the single player mode. That is if they felt like sticking with it at all. Not the best start for EA and their desperate (and a little one-sided) battle with Activision to be publisher of the greatest FPS. Still, the sales were positive and from what I hear, all is well when trying to get online so give it a few days and all will be forgotten. Though it does make the online pass packed with nearly all games seem a little ironic.

Interestingly enough, one of the biggest games this year may have sold the best on the Xbox 360 but it’s Sony that is selling more consoles in the European territory. So far, the PS3 has sold around 3.5 million units whereas both Xbox 360 and Wii are hovering at the 2 million mark. Does that mean these kinds of games are more profitable on the Xbox 360? The figures to suggest that’s where publishers should maybe focus their attention when doing timed exclusive DLC – a practice becoming more and more common. Microsoft were smart enough to snatch up all of the Call of Duty DLC packs first until 2012 but Sony are offering patrons the chance to download all the Battlefield 3 DLC a week earlier than the Xbox 360 and PC. In contrast, the fact that Battlefield 3 sold better on Microsoft’s format may also suggest gamers are getting tired of such exclusivity deals and will buy a game for whatever they feel most comfortable on.

How long is too long for a demo?

How long would you like your demos to last? Enough to get a good sense of the game? Enough to leave you wanting more? How about long enough to actually complete it? That’s what one PSP game is offering. According to Famitsu (via Kotaku), the PSP’s version of Ragnarok, an online strategy RPG, the demo released by GungHo Online Entertainment lasted around 16 hours allowing the publication to see on of the many endings. And that’s why this model works for Ragnarok, because if people want to see the other ones they’d have to purchase the full game. If you fancy giving it a go, the demo can be downloaded here.

Technically, this can be considered a freemium model which may not be big on consoles, but is something that’ll have to be considered in the long run. The PSP has already had a freemium game and again it’s an RPG. Bakumatsu Revolution could be downloaded from PSN and then distributed among PSPs via wireless connectivity. A genius way of virally spreading your game inside a tight community and then charging for additional quests and loot thereafter. Sony seem more keen to adopt the freemium model than other platform holders and are even changing PlayStation Home to incorporate free-to-play games.

Microsoft initially appear less than on board with the freemium model. When Dungeon Fighter Online comes to XBLA, the current plan is that it won’t be the free-to-play version seen on PCs but a fully paid-for game. However, in June, several sources claimed Microsoft was collecting data and discussing the possibility to bring free-to-play games to the 360 where gamers exchanged MS Points for in-game items. Maybe Dungeon Fighter Online will stay a freemium game after all.

Nintendo is adamant that free-to-play games will not be a feature of their consoles. Time and time again Satoru Iwata has scoffed at the idea of this model so don’t expect to see any on the 3DS or Wii U which could make them less relevant to gamers in the near future. On the nearest supposed contender to Nintendo, the App Store, in-app purchases and free-to-play games account for 72 per cent of its revenue. Like it or not (and I don’t), the freemium model is very big business and a better way for console publishers to combat piracy and pre-owned sales than DRM or pre-order bonuses. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next generation of consoles focused on this type of gaming pushing us almost entirely into a digital distribution. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not

And on the seventh day they went to the Eurogamer Expo

Last Sunday, like many thumb-bandits, I ventured to London with a mate for the sights and sounds of Eurogamer’s 2011 Expo at Earl’s Court. Six hours were spent queuing, gaming and chatting to like-minded individuals all eager to get their hand on games either already available or in the very near future. There were a couple of things that I really wanted to see in particular like Bethesda’s romp back into the wilds of the Elder Scrolls Skyrim. However, I was thwarted by a rather long line up of people keen to wield a sword or shoot a fireball or two. I did stare longly at the obscenely thin Samsung TV screens that showed the gorgeous graphics of Bethesda’s (allegedly) new game engine. It was hard to tell whether it was running on the Xbox 360 or PC with a game pad but it sure looked mighty fine.

Next up was the 3DS booth where I dabbled in Super Mario 3D Land and have to admit, left feeling a smidgen of disappointment. It looked and played much like expected, a combination of New Super Mario Bros. and Mario Galaxy with visuals that felt perfectly suited for the 3DS. But when there was any hint of stereoscopic 3D, navigation became harder and smiles turned to frowns all too quickly. When first announced at GDC in March, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said the 3DS’ instalment of Mario would put an end to the troubles caused when platforming and jumping by shifting a traditionally 2D game to 3D. That sounded like a swell idea to me, someone who is more at home with the earlier Marios. But what I found from playing Super Mario 3D Land was that stereoscopic 3D did the exact opposite and made it harder to figure out where I was jumping. Off, and the game played great, on and I fell down every hole possible. Hopefully, this is more to do with the fact I hadn’t played from the beginning and eased into the new 3D looks though if not, well then I guess the 3D switch will permanently be off for that game.

Some games that did do 3D very well were Resident Evil Revelations, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D and Kid Icarus. Sadly all I could do with Resident Evil was peer over the shoulder of another player (in the ‘sweet spot’ too) to watch the superb graphics Nintendo’s little handheld can deliver. Jill Valentine was rendered beautifully and moved just as nice with the environments suitably creepy and the 3D enhancing the immersion (until you move your head. Top tip, don’t move your head). While Resident Evil Revelations had a constant flow of people wanting to play it, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D did not so I had a chance to get my grubby mitts on what is considered the best game of the series. And now in 3D. As expected, it looked as nice in motion (I had feared otherwise after some early screenshots looked a bit muddy) but as with the PSP games, Metal Gear Solid works best with two analog sticks. Since the 3DS second-stick add-on was absent from the show, the face buttons had to suffice in controlling the camera and unfortunately is wasn’t pleasant. I couldn’t see a way of using the stylus in lieu of another stick as that used to be an acceptable substitute on the DS. But hey, it’s Metal Gear on the go and if that go will have to include a bulky cradle then so be it. The 3D effects certainly worked well and the 3DS is where I want to be playing that game again in the hope the Kojima will do something interesting with all the new features of the system. Speaking of which, Kid Icarus was quite a joy to play. Fast, frantic shooting in a Space Harrier kind of way with 3D that didn’t intrude but sat nicely with the art style. I don’t think an expo was the best place to experience a game with narration and what looked like an interesting story but I left feeling confident that Kid Icarus was definitely a day one purchase.

One nice surprise as the venue wasn’t the superb Joker and Harley Quinn cosplayers but my experience with Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Tucked away in the over 18s section it wasn’t something I gravitated towards not being a big fan of the franchise as a whole. And the press haven’t been too kind either after its E3 showing in June. But the multiplayer match I played was more fun than I had expected it to be. A lot more. Maybe it’s because I’m Lancer deep in Gears of War 3 at the moment but Ghost Recon‘s movement felt similar when running from cover to cover and popping out occasionally to take out my foes which isn’t a bad thing at all. A neat addition is a reticule that you can place next to cover showing exactly where you’ll be running to. It made navigating the war torn street map really easy and combat quite fun. Though for a game in development for so long, it did look rough with questionable textures and jagged edges around pretty much everything. I hope Ubisoft can get it cleaned up and eventually released because it felt more tactical then, say, Gears and has promise but could so easily bomb at retail if left in its current state. The Kinect implementation wasn’t part of the demo either, not that I think it’s a deciding factor in whether people will pick it up.

On the topic of motion controls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a game that I originally thought would have to slip to 2012’s list of purchases for me what with a full winter ahead but from what I saw a the Expo, I may have to reconsider. It may end up being the last Wii game that is worth our attention but what better franchise to go out on than Zelda? Everything looked bright and busy with a lot of things going on in the back and foreground making the world come alive. How was the Wii MotionPlus? Well, a bit hit and miss. Swinging the sword had less precision than I thought it would but enough to get the job done. Shooting arrows worked pretty much identically to Wii Sports Resort by holding the Wii Remote towards the screen and pulling the nunchuck back as if drawing a bow. And like Wii Sports Resort, you could quite easily lock you view at an odd angle making you wonder if a simple press of a button would have been better. I imagine the more time invested in Skyward Sword would help players get used to the quirks and there’s a charm that all Zelda games have that I’ve not found on any other franchise.

All in all, Sunday was a very good day for gaming. I didn’t brave the queues for Battlefield 3 or Modern Warfare 3 but both looked stunning with MW3 slightly edging out ahead in terms of frame rate and graphics at least on the 360 anyway (the console I saw them running on). The lack of booth babes made the Expo feel creditable and not a nerd cliche though the ones that did strut about with a large percentage of buttock on show were harmless enough. As were the many guys trying to take pictures of them from behind. But it was a good day and as soon as we left, conversations of what will be buying and how broke we’ll be intertwined with what we’d like to see at next year’s show.

Triple threat

Yesterday, one of the creative directors of Halo 4 spoke to Kotaku about his departure from 343 Industries blaming a lack of interest in the project. Ryan Payton, who previously worked on the amazing Metal Gear Solid 4, joined Microsoft’s purpose built Halo studio to work on the fiction and story development for the new trilogy of games, starting with Halo 4. However, instead of thriving on the potential storytelling opportunities in the universe of Halo, Payton grew bored of what he was apart of. But he isn’t bitter:

“I had a great run at Microsoft. I don’t regret one day of it. But after a few years, there came a point where I wasn’t creatively excited about the project anymore.”

Does that mean Halo 4 won’t be any good? Of course not. No one can be sure of how it will play beyond the fact it’ll be a first-person shooter but from the sounds of it, Payton wanted to make a Halo game unlike anything we’ve seen before.

“The Halo I wanted to build was fundamentally different and I don’t think I had built enough credibility to see such a crazy endeavor through.”

Payton’s time at 343 Industries was spent as a narrative director working closely alongside Frank O’Conner and the rest of the creative team focussing on the story. His work at Kojima Productions on MGS4 gave him what he calls “a crash course on AAA game development,” readying him for the big budget world of Halo. It transpired that such a world just wasn’t for Payton and when watching his buddy Jake Kazdal work on the upcoming Skulls of the Shogun, he began to question whether or not triple-A games are right for him. So rather than continue with his position at 343 Industries, Payton has left to form his own studio, Camouflaj, and is in the process of designing two games.

The breaking of this story came on the same day as Ninja Theory co-founder Tameem Antoniades told GamesIndustry.biz that triple-A games are fundamentally bad for the industry and unhealthy for future development.

“If you’re paying that much [to develop a game], you don’t want to take chances. You want everything to be there, all the feature sets. You want it to be a known experience, guaranteed fun.”

With budget spiralling out of control and millions upon millions poured into a project, the pressure is on to make something that will sell exceptionally well. That means, as Antoniades points out, the risk and experimentation plays second fiddle to, say, building an online multiplayer component with perks. That’s why indie games and smaller titles are pushing the boundaries of video game entertainment and if it works well enough for them, triple-A studios have a reason to follow. But it must be crushing for any creative to work down a check-list of features and giving precedence to a tired mechanic over innovation. What is a little ironic is the actual gameplay elements of Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, two Ninja Theory games, weren’t amazingly innovative and felt as if they were produced under committee. The story and digital acting were however but you did have to fight in order to get to the best bits. At the moment, the studio is hard at work on a reboot for Devil May Cry and have already gathered a fair amount of controversy by challenging the pre-conceived idea of how its lead, Dante, should look. I wonder if similar risks will be seen in-game too.

So what’s going on with triple-A games? They used to be the epitome of game design and what many aspired to be a part of. Sales of said games still range in the millions and profits are good but talk of them being a safe bet and subsequently uninspired is becoming louder and louder. Both Payton and Antondiades may be less than happy with the triple-A development scene but Take-Two and Ubisoft are believe that anything less just isn’t profitable and therefore not worth the time to make. And it’s comments like these which drive the idea of big budget games being little more than a milking of a market, not the furthering of an industry. But the reality is, it really might just be too expensive to make a game and for it not to attempt to sit in the triple-A category gathering triple-A sales. At least not for disc-based console releases as the Limbos, Angry Birds and Minecrafts of the world are doing just fine in the relatively low cost area of digital downloadables.

A Frank view on consoles

From the humble beginnings of both Xbox 360 and PS3, the platform holders optimistically said this generation would last at least ten years. No more jumping ship before a console had time to truly mature, Microsoft and Sony look like companies quite comfortable with their hardware thanks to new additions such as 3D visuals and motion controls. Whether or not the WiiU will make a big enough splash to force a sudden quickening in development for whatever Sony and Microsoft do next is yet to be seen. Thought I doubt it.

Some, like EA’s Frank Gibeau, find it hard to think of a world with the next generation of consoles, wondering what their purpose would actually be. Speaking with CVG, Gibeau dismisses the need for anything new:

“It’s hard for me to conceive what you would do on a PlayStation 4. The displays are already 1080p, you’re already connected to the internet… You could make it faster, you could have more polys and you could up the graphics a little bit… but at what cost?”

It’s interesting that Gibeau focuses on graphics when enemy and NPC AI still struggles to perform acceptably in some games. That is what I’d want from a PlayStation 4 (or Xbox ‘720’). The power to make me believe who I’m fighting against or alongside is a competent representation of thought and not a bundle of scripting. We’ve definitely advanced from the steadfast tradition of static invisible tracks for AI controlled characters to aimlessly stroll down and a good FPS shooter, for example, will have enemies who constantly flank and jeopardise your cover. But there’s also still a lot of remedial AI confused by the simplest of obstacles, taking players right out of the experience in one dumb move. Partly the blame can be put on developers not utilising the full power of current consoles but I do wonder just how much more can be harvested from seven year plus technology.

To Gibeau’s credit, he does point out that as gamers we have a lot of features in the current models than we’ve had before. Constant online functionality with a robust infrastructure and the highest of definitions that TVs can handle not to mention new forms of controls. These are the three usual bullet points touted as a reason to buy systems and in Gibeau’s case, a reason to stick with what we’ve got. Not only that but as he points out (coincidently), Battlefield 3 is looking really impressive on the PS3, better than a lot of games that have come before it.

I’m not advocating new consoles anytime soon, however. Like I said, we’ve just got Kinect and Move opening the possibilities for new interactions with games and I’d rather see what comes of those before having to upgrade the hardware they’re played on. Though I don’t think evolving our systems should centre around adding more features or indeed boosting the graphics when there’s a lot of transparent coding and game-shaping mechanics that can be improved by meatier CPUs. If ever there was reason to release a new console, better AI for me would be at the very top.

Nothing is free, not unless you’re Nintendo

One thing Nintendo needs to focus on the most for this generation and beyond is rallying support from third party developers. They tried and arguably failed to do this right off the bat with the 3DS by withholding the best first party software to allow third party titles a bit of breathing space. A kind and possibly dangerous gesture that makes the recent news all the more odd. According to Nintendo World Report (via My Nintendo News) third party devs aren’t currently able to release free software through the 3DS’s eShop. And no freebies means no demo either or at least not unless you want to pay for them.

At this point in time, anything that appears on the eShop that isn’t by Nintendo must be at least 200 yen which is why Capcom’s demo for Nazo Waku Yakata recently went live on the Japanese store for said price. It was thought that Capcom were just trying to make a quick buck out of the consumer but evidently not.

It’s perplexing why Nintendo aren’t easily allowing demos on the store when they’ve become integral to a lot of smaller games’ success. What better exposure is there than the chance to play a small part of a game for free? It works well for most (i.e good) XBLA titles that must have a demo version and is a method that Nintendo really must accept instead of fighting against on their platforms. Restricting third party content isn’t going to win developers over especially on the 3DS.

The reason again most likely stems from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata’s fear of low budget and free-to-play games devaluing the software and even developers themselves which I tend to agree with. But demos don’t fit into either of these categories and should be viewed differently. Hopefully they will be too what with the eShop being so young and Nintendo showing they are willing to conform, albeit slowly, to current online video game practices.