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.

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Pay to play your old games on Vita

The long running joke in the video games world is that Nintendo are often re-selling the same game over and over again by way of re-packaging or re-distributing. I mean, how many times have you bought Super Mario Bros.? A new version of this is the HD remake which Sony have adopted as their go to solution for selling old content and that’s fine, most of the games are classics and should be experienced by new audiences. However Sony’s solution for current PSP owners to be able to play their UMD games on the UMD-less PSVita isn’t exactly ideal. Or all that fair.

According to Kotaku, Sony are to launch something called the UMD Passport service on the 6th December in Japan where the UMD Registration App will become available for PSPs. Once downloaded you fire up the handheld, insert a game disc and register it through your PSN account. After said stages, the game will be available to download – for a price. Yep, in order to play your old games on a PSVita, you’ll have to pay anywhere between 80p (¥100) and £19 (¥2400) depending on the title. The former is much more palatable than the latter. At the moment, 40 publishers have signed up to the program offering 200 games with the average price looking to hover at £8 (¥1000). Games like Gran Turismo and DiRT 2 for example.

It should be known that the prices mentioned are discounted and those 200 games will cost more to download for people who don’t already own the UMD but it does make me question why there is any cost at all. If the price was one set fee I could understand that. I could be told it was to cover admin and the cost of setting up this scheme in the first place but differing prices just looks like previous supporters of a product are getting screwed. Sony have also covered their butts when it comes to the prospect of piracy as once a UMD is registered with an account, it can’t be passed on and registered to another allowing more than one owner to receive the discount (via Andriasang).

But hey, on the plus side the scheme also works for the PSPgo meaning finally owners of that ill-fated downloadable-only hardware can play the games which never came to PSN in the first place.

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.

PSVita is a little more expensive than you thought

The PSVita now has an official UK price tag, set last week when Sony announced what us folk here in Blighty are expected to pay. And as with pretty much everything video game related, we’re getting screwed. You’ve seen the numbers by now, the Wifi only model has an RRP of £229.99 and the all singing all dancing Wifi plus 3G will set you back £279.99. Converting those figures into American dollars will only add insult to injury but needless to say, it ain’t pretty.

Much like the 3DS which may not have had an official UK RRP, the price was initially £229.99 and soon dropped once online retailers and supermarkets found ways of subsidising costs. I would like to think the PSVita will experience the same fury of price competition close to the February 22nd 2012 release date but Sony have made it quite clear in the past that they’re not budging when it comes to RRP. That’s fine, the PSVita is a beastly piece of kit with a gorgeous OLED screen and has oodles of potential to right the wrongs of the original PSP but one thing that’s not been at the forefront of press releases is how not all games can be saved directly onto the game card (via Kotaku). Some, like the poster boy for PSVita, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, requires a memory card to save progress. Proprietary memory cards that is meaning we’ll be paying overly inflated prices for standard hardware. Exactly how much isn’t known but if the Japanese figures are anything to go by, a 4GB card will cost ¥2,200 or £19 whereas a 32GB card is ¥9,500 or £78 (roughly).

To make the most out of your PSVita, it looks like a proprietary memory card is essential, a concept not seen in gaming since the last generation now that most systems and devices come packed with a hefty hard drive or indeed capabilities to save to humble SD cards. Will this hurt day one sales of the PSVita? Probably not. Those lucky enough to be early adopters will most likely find it to be an annoyance rather than a deterrent but it’s not all that welcoming to future consumers. When many are touting this to be the last generation of dedicated handheld devices, I would have thought the PSVita wouldn’t come with little surprises like this because the more people they can get on board, the better for Sony.

I want the PSVita to be a hit. I want it and the 3DS to re-ignite the glory days or handheld gaming but I’ve been slightly burned by picking up a 3DS so early and can’t quite get the bitter taste of the PSP – or its lack of attention from publishers – out of my mouth so am somewhat apprehensive about getting a PSVita. Who knows, come February I may have the cash for one. As long as these scratch cards deliver something…

UPDATE: It turns out that the choice whether or not to save directly to a PSVita game card or memory card has been left up to the publishers not Sony. The reason? Because saving to the memory card means that game can have post-launch DLC. But those which save directly onto the game card can only save in that way so from the get go we’re to have a minor fragmentation in software. Lets hope it stays minor too.

Only On PSN

GrimGrimoire

Today’s the day that Sony will begin releasing PS2 games onto PSN. It’s part of an initiative designed to trump the competition called Only On PSN which, as the name suggests, will feature games only available on PlayStation devices. Xbox Live’s Summer of Arcade is a close comparison or a least used to be with it’s once fully exclusive experiences but along with brand new games, Only On PSN will host classic PS2 titles that Sony consider rare. Odin Sphere, GrimGrimoire, Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, God Hand and Ring of Red will kick things off on a campaign that hasn’t had much marketing behind it. You would have though the arrival of PS2 games over PSN is worthy of celebration.

Well actually it’s not all that great. These PS2 games won’t have any additional features at all. They’ll be exactly the same as they were on the older system. Which means someone somewhere as figured out how to get last-gen games working on a PS3. A once standard feature for all consoles that was removed from the PS3 to cut cost and drive the potential for profits. If you own any of these games and don’t have a launch system you may have been a little bummed about not being able to play them without setting up your PS2 again. For those gamers, Only On PSN means just that. In order to ever play them again, it can only be on PSN for a price.

Re-selling software isn’t anything new, just look at Nintendo and the huge push for HD versions of classics mainly found on the PS3. I always thought it was because of the inability to emulate PS2 games and maybe it was until now but instead of selling the games over PSN, in a perfect world we’d be getting the emulator instead, awakening the forgotten game libraries. But this isn’t a perfect world, it’s a business.

Looking on the flip side, if you don’t own any of those games, hunting them down over eBay etc can be a nuisance, especially if the seller does consider them rare. Another big factor is how there could well be younger gamers who never owned a PS2 or were so young their collection w as fairly limited. With that in mind, the ability to hop on a digital distribution service and pick up a classic can also be seen as a welcome feature.

Right now, Only On PSN is just for America but Europe will be getting something similar in the near future.

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

David Cage gets heavy

David Cage, head of Quantic Dream and maker of Heavy Rain doesn’t want your money. That’s not why he got into video game development. He wants to build that brand that is ‘David Cage’ and create brand new IPs rather than revisiting existing ones. In an interview with Develop, Cage spoke of how there definitely won’t be a sequel to Heavy Rain, despite selling so well and being an unlikely poster boy for some of the first Move supported games. He said that he wasn’t in the business to make money and wrote Heavy Rain because he was excited about the idea and wanted to tell a that story. Now the story has been told, Cage sees no reason to go back to it and prefers instead to focus the energy of Quantic Dream into making ground-breaking concepts.

On release, Heavy Rain was a fantastic showcase for Sony and the PS3, with stunning graphics and a story that was truly mature, tackling subject matter that wouldn’t normally be found in a video game. The plan was to support the game with DLC furthering the story and the characters personalities but only one was actually made available as the studio was persuaded to develop Move functionality. Sony didn’t seem to bothered but the halt of Heavy Rain and nor does Cage who once famously said (and now claims he was mis-quoted) that you should only play Heavy Rain once and live the the story and consequences you chose the first time around. As tempted as I have been to go back to it, I’ve only ever played it though the one time and agree with Cage that there really is no reason other than a wallet-padding to go back to that world.

Cage added how he sees himself as more of an author and regardless of him celebrating his 42nd birthday this year, he hasn’t lost the spark or passion for game design and isn’t yet worried about concentrating on making money in order to fund his family. Maybe Cage should have a chat to his colleague Guillaume de Fondaumiere about the money making abilities of Heavy Rain. Just this month, Fondaumiere criticised the second-hand market for losing him and the studio upwards of €10 million in royalties because a rough estimation showed that 2 million people bought Heavy Rain whereas 3 million actually played it. The way I saw it, a further 1 million people were exposed to the work of Quantic Dream, potentially expanding the audience for whatever they make next.

Back in March, Cage’s talk at GDC caused quite a stir when he begged for the industry to make games for adults, not teenagers and forget the preconceived ideas of how to make a game – boss battles, levels, points, shooting, missions etc – and think of games in a totally different way. This latest chat with Develop echoes these sentiments but also adds even more pressure for the next Quantic Dream game to be as forward-thinking as Heavy Rain was. The fact that it’s not Heavy Rain 2 is a very good start.