Miyamoto ISN’T retiring

The big news last night was that Shigeru Miyamoto, the saviour of home consoles, was to retire from Nintendo. An announcement like that unsurprisingly sent shockwaves throughout the gaming community ranging from those saddened by such news and others (ignorantly) cheerful that Miyamoto would be leaving games. But as with so many things on the internet, the facts have become somewhat misunderstood. The original story was from Wired.com who stated that in an interview with Miyamoto (59), the legendary creator said he wanted to retire from his current position and take on a smaller role still within Nintendo, allowing younger designers to be in charge. His plan was not to ever really leave the company but focus on less demanding games and was excited to show off his first mini project next year.

Shortly after the news spread online, Nintendo was quick to clear up the potential PR nightmare by issuing a statement (via Reuters) saying this was not true and that what he has said all along is that he want to train the younger generation.

“He has no intention of stepping down. Please do not be concerned.”

And why should we be concerned? Firstly, it’s not ‘we’ as such but investors in Nintendo whose market stock has been rather turbulent ever since the launch of the 3DS which didn’t go exactly to plan. But in the last couple of months, after the price drop and release of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7, things have started really kicking off for Nintendo’s handheld. So when the man responsible and who has very direct links to all of the company’s main IPs – the games that people buy Nintendo hardware for – confidence will naturally begin to falter.

However it does indeed have an effect on the everyday gamer as Miyamoto’s influence is pretty much everywhere. Most if not all platform games look to the Mario franchise for inspiration and the Mario games themselves are nearly always superb in their execution. And even further a field, game designers are applying ideas from Miyamoto’s games in titles that you’d never expect. Cliff Bleszinski of Epic games was famously quoted in saying that Gear of War was like Mario without the jumping. And of course, there’s the Z-targeting. Pioneered in Ocarina of Time, Z-targeting has become such a staple of third-person action games that it’s hard to think of a time when it didn’t exist. Lastly, we have motion controls. Love them or hate them, they’re now a huge focus for all the main platform holders and if it wasn’t for Nintendo and Miyamoto’s desire to push the boundaries of video game interaction, we wouldn’t be where we are today in the industry. The neigh-sayers may argue that motion controls and casual games are ruining the hardcore but in reality, that’s not exactly true so their importance is very much valid.

The idea that a visionary like Miyamoto could be working on smaller games that may not feature any of the usual characters is quite an exciting one indeed. The 3DS has the space and delivery method for these smaller games to exist and the chance that new IPs may spring up with of the same quality of Mario and Zelda is reason itself for at least some of the original story of Miyamoto’s stepping down to be true. But whether it’s PR tidying or delaying the truth, the fact is that one day Miyamoto will have to retire and even sooner, younger designers should be allowed to take control of Nintendo’s top franchises though for now, I’m quite happy to see Miyamoto on stage at each E3 to reveal the next big thing from Nintendo. Apart from Wii Music.

GTAV

Less than a week after the modern take on Grand Theft Auto turns 10, Rockstar Games has announced GTAV by no more than a simple Tweet containing the hashtag #GTAV. Right now, the only thing known about Grand Theft Auto V is the logo that adorns Rockstar’s website with the first trailer scheduled for next Wednesday. Don’t expect much footage however, the publisher tends to tease their products by artistically crafted snippets but it’ll be enough to get many major sites scanning it frame by frame to see what’s hiding within. The five in the logo is reminiscent of a that found on an American five dollar bill. Whether that is any indication of what to expect is anyone’s guess.

One of the many older rumours surrounding GTAV was that it could well be a launch title for Nintendo’s Wii U and the timing of this announcement may well support that rumour. Latest educated guesses is that the Wii U will launch next Summer of Holiday season which is around the time I’d expect to see another GTA since the fourth game came out in 2008. But who knows, this trail of thought could go on for ages so lets just see what next Wednesday has in store.

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

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.

The return of the Wii

This year’s Gamescom, which is still in full swing, looks to be all about the shrinking of SKUs and their price tags. Sony announced a price drop on the PS3 to around £200 for the model with the smallest HDD (160GB) as well as the bizarre relaunched PSP which will have no Wifi connectivity, only UMDs and will cost £90. The move is a complete 180 to their last push for the PSP, the PSPgo that famously had no UMD support in an effort to create a market similar to that of Apple and Android where all games are bought digitally via PSN. That, for lack of a better word, failed leaving Sony to turn back to good old UMDs. After all, some companies didn’t even release their games onto PSN but did have disc-based versions. I can’t help but think Sony are flogging a dead horse by releasing yet another PSP when the PSVita is just around the corner but getting a device under £100 does strange things to people and seems to instigate fresh interest in old hardware. Good luck to them, the PSP was a great little handheld and deserved more support than it received.

Speaking of wanting to revitalise a disappearing platform, Nintendo too had a relaunch of their own, the new smaller Wii. It also looses something from the previous model, the ability to play GameCube games. That’s probably not a big deal what with some of the more popular titles having Wii ports and like Sony, Nintendo are hoping to do what they can to gain the most money out of the last few official months of a product’s lifecycle and streamlining features means less cost to produce and more profit to sell.

Along with the revealing of another Wii was the confirmation that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will be coming to stores on November 18th (20th in the US). Because of this, plus a price drop and the release of a new model, general manager of Nintendo Germany has told Reuters (via GoNintendo) that he believes the Wii will have a healthy and profitable Christmas:

“We have seen an enormous increase in sales since [the price cut] and this gives us another indication of what will happen in the Christmas season.”

It’s a definite possibility since many Wii owners have been clambering for the next home Zelda game ever since they finished Twilight Princess (I know I have) but most likely these people already own a Wii so won’t pick up a new console. That is unless they sold theirs after the lack of titles caused it to gain dust under the TV. A price drop and redesign could them see a lot of ex Wii owners pick up another console just to play Skyward Sword and then hopefully go on to play the other great games they’ve been missing, Like Donkey Kong Country Returns and GoldenEye 007 Wii. I am a little dubious as to whether consumers will buy a Wii just on the strength that it’s cheaper and smaller because the insane eBay bids and hysteria surrounding the system not too long ago would suggest anyone who really wanted a Wii already has one. But sales figures and the power of a brand often surprises me so who knows, this Christmas may be the right time for a lot of hesitant families to finally grab themselves a slice of Nintendo pie.

But that does bring up another question. If the new Wii does indeed sell exceptionally well would that impact the launch of the WiiU? There’s yet to be any firm date for the tablet-controlled console so Nintendo could still shuffle their early 2012 plans for hardware and unknown whether the sudden and severe price reduction on the 3DS has forced them to rethink the RRP for the WiiU. Nintendo may not have the luxury anymore to launch a device and make turn a profit straight away so if the GameCube-less Wii boosts sales they may want to coast on it until the very last minute. Then again, there’s pressure from Sony who are set to release the PSVita towards the end of the year in Japan and Q1 2012 for the rest of the world. The ability to link the PSVita to a PS3 would make it a potential competitor to the WiiU so Nintendo might not want to wait too long before unleashing their HD beast. So may questions, so many ‘what ifs’ but one thing’s for sure, the 3DS should enjoy a decent holiday. That at least is a little more certain.

The highs and lows of Nintendo’s digital service

When you have to slash the price of a brand new piece of hardware and your managerial staff take considerable pay cuts to make up for losses, you would have thought Nintendo would be upping their game when it comes to 3DS releases, especially via the eShop. The DSi was and still is littered with low-tier titles through DSiWare and the hope was the eShop would begin a new period of higher quality digital downloadable games from the Japanese giant. However, coming this week is the GameBoy version of Pac-Man. For £3.70 (€4).

Now Pac-Man maybe one of the all time classics video games but the very week after pretty much admitting your new handheld has a problem with generating interest and consumers, isn’t the time to trawl through the back catalogue of over-played hits. I don’t doubt the release date has been around longer than the idea to cut the price of the 3DS but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been pushed back to make way for one of the many more exciting classic GameBoy titles. Furthermore, charging £3.70 is baffling when you can buy newer versions with more features for much less on competing platforms. The mind boggles as to what’s going on at Nintendo HQ.

That being said, news that Nintendo is currently working on a transaction system enabling the 3DS and next year’s Wii U to receive premium DLC is also hitting the internet, lifting spirits dampened by silly eShop titles. In an investors meeting on Friday (via Andriasang) president Satoru Iwata said feature will be made available to developers by the end of the year allowing them to begin pumping out chunks of content presumably in-game for new titles and via the eShop for older ones. But we all know the shadiness of existing DLC services with things like unlock keys and purchasable stat increases and Iwata said these won’t be making an appearance on their platforms. Both he and Shigeru Miyamoto said they want to see content that will extend the life of a game – like new levels for example. Anything less than that they believe will damage any possibility of solidifying long term relationships with consumers and fans (ironic after the first two paragraphs of this post…)

Don’t expect to see free-to-play games appear on the 3DS anytime soon though as Iwata again down-played their importance. To him, a platform like that would undermine the premium value of Nintendo’s content. To everyone else, it starts to look like backward thinking from a company with massive potential to once again dominate the handheld space. I don’t go for free-to-play games myself but do understand their relevance in todays market and think that if Nintendo cherry picked the best ones for the 3DS and Wii U, it would do more good than not having them at all.

Wii U’s launch will better that of the 3DS

The launch of the 3DS may have started with promising sales but quickly became a bit of an issue for Nintendo. Accused of not having quality titles and lacking any real impetus for typical Nintendo fans to buy a system at launch, NoA president Reggis Fils-Aime recently admitted the faults saying the 3DS has now moved into a new phase. One with two superb first party Zelda titles and a fairly well stocked online store with more games in the coming weeks and months ahead. But Nintendo isn’t out of the woods just yet and are still having a little trouble persuading people to buy a 3DS. This is something president Satoru Iwata wants to avoid with the Wii U.

In a shareholder meeting, Iwata echoed Fils-Aime’s admittance (via Gamespot) of a less than stella list of launch games (though I didn’t think they were all that bad) and said how the company are carefully looking at ways to prevent it: “We also must reflect on the fact that we were not able to launch Nintendo 3DS at a time when a sufficient number of strong software titles were ready,” he said. “In order to avoid the same thing from happening to the Wii U, we are considering details, such as what software is suitable for the launch, more carefully than ever before.”

One of the more infamous reasons for Nintendo not releasing more first-party games for the 3DS launch was to allow third-party titles some breathing space since Nintendo consoles are often considered only good for Nintendo games. Once again the company fell victim to this but it didn’t help when publishers thought re-hashes of old games would be acceptable for day one of the device. Given that thought, you can imagine a greater urgency being put on a Wii U Mario, Zelda or Mario Kart being ready for its release next year. Nintendo may also be leaning on third parties to get Wii U versions of multiplatform games ready to land alongside the system what with the desire for the Wii U to be viable competitor to the Xbox 360 and PS3. If it could arrive with games that look and play like those found on the other HD consoles, that would be a positive turn. More often than not, systems launch with average experiences in a time when developers are new to the type of technology on offer. But the Wii U is meant to sit alongside platforms that have been out for years which maybe an advantage when trying to port games over.

Whatever happens in 2012 when the Wii U is supposed to come out, I would be more surprised if Nintendo didn’t keep their promise of a strong launch line up. They’ve learned an awful lot with the Wii and DS in terms of the kinds of gamers they can attract, the online experiences expected from consoles and how developers will work with them and with all these points I feel Nintendo are heading in the right direction. They promised a better online area and we have that in the eShop. They wanted to appeal to a wide variety of people and with the right game, even the most hardcore gamers can enjoy the Wii and with new Wii U controller offers an input less jarring than a Wii remote and nunchuck. So far so good, lets see where this new promise takes us eh?