The casualties to Gears of War

Discussing the third instalment of the Gears of War franchise at the San Diego Comic-Con, Epic game designer Cliff Bleszinski said Gears 3 will include a casual mode for both online and offline play (via Eurogamer). The main feature in this mode will be an aim assist that should allow less experienced players to lay waste to the Locust threat without becoming worm food themselves. But the mode isn’t available for everyone because if you’ve had even a whiff of Gears of War, you’ll be locked out. Anyone who has played the first or second game or took part in the multiplayer Beta earlier this year won’t be able to select the casual mode. Nor will can they play in the dedicated casual multiplayer channel, giving newbies the chance to learn the ropes instead of repeatedly dyeing.

Having a casual mode in any game makes a lot of sense with the stigma that online gaming has of being an area unfriendly to anyone who doesn’t spend their life with a controller in hand. If only Modern Warfare 3 were to include a similar mode then maybe it would escalate to an even greater fan base than it already has.

But like Mass Effect 3, it does seem a little odd that an easier mode is included after two games have already shipped. Back in May, John Riccitiello spoke of how BioWare are adjusting Mass Effect 3 in order to appeal to the largest market possible. In short, he wants casual players to pick up the game as well as veterans. Though I suppose in Gears 3‘s case, it’s a bit different since the story is enjoyable but not essential to the entertainment. If you miss the Gears 1 and 2, sure you’d have missed out on two fantastic shooters, the first being incredibly influential on this generation of video games, but you’d be able to catch up on the story pretty quick. And it’s better late than never to try and wrangle in even more customers to a very expensive franchise.

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The retailers’ battlefield

For better or worse, there are gamers and publishers who want Call of Duty to fail. They want to see the smugness disappear from Activision, they want the ‘dude bro’ gamer to find some other hobby and most definitely want to see some significant change to first person shooters. John Riccitiello and his merry band of EA would love to usurp the FPS thrown from Activision and haven’t been shy about saying so with Battlefield 3 being the best chance they have. It’s coming out before Modern Warfare 3, has a gritty real-world setting that we can relate to but feel equally heroic and features a stat-tracking service, similar to Call of Duty Elite but is free instead of paid-for.

All in all, it’s looking good and EA can’t put a foot wrong with marketing and hype – except for the unnecessarily lengthy tank level shown at their E3 press conference which quickly lost its appeal. But if there’s one thing that pisses off gamers it’s pre-order bonus that give unfair advantages to those who stump up the cash early and Battlefield 3 will be no different (via Kotaku). Customers in the UK who pre-order from either GAME or Gamestation will receive the Physical Warfare pack which includes additional weapons and ammo that are normally reserved for unlocks. This means getting them early could shift the balance from a level playing field to downright unfair for anyone not willing to pre-order.

For the UK, it’s not about money because you can freely pre-order titles without paying a penny until release and even then you’re not always obliged to buy them. But it does get a bit crappy when you think of everyone who would rather pick up the game from another retailer, not the two EA have partnered up with. They won’t be entitled to having a suped-up shotgun or flechette ammo on day one but will likely be pitted against someone who does in multiplayer. And there’s nothing that breaks a decent online mode more than feeling like you’re gimped against the opposition.

So for all the belly aching towards companies like Activision for trying to monetize features, it’s become frightfully clear that there are few companies who wouldn’t. But hey, they’re exactly that, a company so while it sucks for us, it’s now just the unfortunate reality of video games and in the grand scheme of things, will it effect whether you buy the game or not? Or rather, should it?

A little birdy reveals Dragon Age III. Anyone surprised?

As is the norm for modern day reveal, BioWare have chosen Twitter as a good place to coyly announce the development of Dragon Age III. Yep, a third is on the way, hot on the heels of the second which released just a few months ago. Senior director of creative development, Alistair McNally, tweeted the studio’s need for “exceptional environment artists,” purposely using the tag #DragonAge3 to cause all kinds of “OMG”s on the social site.

It’s no surprise that game number three is in the works for a franchise as popular as Dragon Age but it amused me to read the want for more environment artists after the criticisms of DA2. One of its sticking points was how you seemingly visited the same location over and over again, heavily relying on recycled backgrounds. Are BioWare looking to right the wrongs of repetition? It would appear that way.

Lets hope the team get a little longer to work on Dragon Age III than they did with the second though. A famously short development timescale soured more than an ignorable number of gamers but EA boss John Riccitiello has gone on record (via That Video Game Blog) with his desire for annualising the publisher’s top properties. That could very well mean Dragon Age, Dead Space and Medal of Honor (to name a few) would have yearly iterations instead of the 18 month – 2 year breathing space that is good for certain IPs. This may not be a such a bad thing as it clearly works for Call of Duty and sport games so why not for all types? Well we’ve seen the crushing effect of milking a franchise for all its worth with the demise of Guitar Hero and subsequently Rock Band too. Given the breadth and scope of fantasy RPGs like Dragon Age, the more time they have, they better then experience and less likely they are to have you running around a dungeon wondering whether you’ve been there before.

Still, a third Dragon Age huh? Cool. I’d best get cracking on the second one just in case it does appear around March 2012.

EA’s mass tweaking

After the news that Mass Effect 3 will be delayed until next year and to coincide with the release, a handheld/mobile version is also in the works, EA boss John Riccitiello spoke to investors yesterday (via Eurogamer) about the franchise and his plans for the third game. Some may interpret it as dumbing down and others opening up Mass Effect 3 but either way, I’m not sure what to make of it: “One of the things that Ray Muzyuka and the team up in Edmonton have done is essentially step-by-step adjust the gameplay mechanics and some of the features that you’ll see at E3 to put this in a genre equivalent to shooter-meets-RPG and essentially address a much larger market opportunity than Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 began to approach.”

Considering Mass Effect 3 is supposed to end the trilogy for Shepard, trying to broaden the franchise to a larger audience seems a little odd. I guess a lot more people will potentially by the game regardless if there are anymore to come. Like Mass Effect 2 on the PS3, it’s said to come with a digital summary of the previous two games so you don’t necessarily need to play them to get the full story. But you’ll be greatly missing out if you don’t. It’s hard to imagine what else can be done in order to tweak it even more to the genre of RPG shooter since Mass Effect 2 tread the lines between the two blurring them as it went along.

One thought is that Mass Effect 3 will include a multiplayer component, often denied by BioWare but with EA hungry for the Call of Duty pie, anything is possible. Another idea could be the inclusion of motion controls by means of Kinect and PS Move but where would that leave PC gamers? Depending on how it could be implemented, they may not even want motion controls. EA has previously spoke of a desire to have some kind of connected experience in all future games with Frank Gibeau saying how the publisher’s job is to ‘inspire’ developers to “edit and tweak [their creative vision] so it’s a bigger commercial opportunity.” Sounds familiar huh? Who knows, maybe Facebook integration will be a part of Mass Effect 3 but without any more details, we’ll just have to wait until E3 when EA will reveal how they plan to extend (or insult) the franchise.

EA loses faith

Aw, now this brings a tear to my eye. Just one mind you because the end of the first game really did my head in! I’m talking about the apparent cease to development of Mirror’s Edge 2 by EA. According to Press 2 Play (via Videogamer), the publisher was shown a prototype of ME2 but they didn’t like what they saw and canned it instead of allowing DICE to continue with the project. The team behind it are now moved on to another game, most likely to help out with Battlefield 3 since Riccetiello wants nothing more than to dominate the FPS genre.

It’s a shame that Mirror’s Edge as a franchise has not been allowed to develop even though it was full of great ideas. The biggest problem was how it confused audiences with what it was trying to be. Adding a shooting element was unnecessary and poorly implemented so those going into the game thinking it was a FPS left feeling bitter and disappointed. For what it was, a Parkour adventure game, it was really good and the kind of game that would transcend brilliantly into a beefier, better sequel. Sadly, this hasn’t been allowed to happen in a market where low sales can mean the end to an otherwise fun experience. I hope EA eventually do revisit the IP, remove the combat and pinch a few ideas from Assassin’s Creed. That would be cool but unlikely. Sigh.

Riccitiello’s moving comments

I do like John Riccitiello. Mainly because he’s willing to share his views regarding the video game industry with anyone who’ll listen and his comments spark a lot of interesting debates. The latest musings from the boss of EA are his feelings towards motion controls and whether he believes they’ll ever replace the standard controller. The short answer is no but Riccitiello does see that type of gameplay carving out its own market and taking with it a few existing genres. Speaking with IndustryGamers, Riccitiello spoke of his cautious optimism towards both Move and Kinect with their gesture-based controls actually being a superior way to play certain genres like music, dance and exercise games, “It’s really hard to imagine an exercise game with your thumbs,” he said though the pedantic would point out that true exercise and dance games are a result of motion-based peripherals, superseding those that use plastic floor mats which are arguably just controllers played with your feet.

He added that the idea of solely using motion controls for games like first person shooters isn’t something he’d like to see: “It’s really hard to imagine that I’m going to play a future edition of Medal of Honor, or Call of Duty, or Battlefield, hiding behind my couch, making a gun out of my finger. I’ve tried driving with gesture-based controls; I don’t really like it.” A great example of this is GoldenEye for the Wii. A brilliant shooter that does a good job of using the Wii remote and nunchuck but is still ultimately best played using the classic controller. Riccitiello hypothesised that in the future we could see a merging of hands-free and controller-based gameplay with certain genres combining both mechanics while others only using one of the other. Again, Nintendo have shown that this concept can work remarkably well with their inspiring Super Mario Galaxy franchise. A perfect blend of traditional gaming methods with the waggle added for positive effect instead of shoehorning it in.

The concern Riccitiello has is just how long can gesture-based games last and whether gamers will buy enough of them to make it a worthwhile investment for developers. He uses his family as an example saying that games that primarily use motion controls aren’t ones that are revisited often with only one or two one the go at any one time. Compare that to traditional controlled games and how he could be playing through three or four at once, swapping between them all without viewing them as a novelty experience. Though that could just be down to a volume of quality titles. Take the Christmas season for Wii games. It was full of great titles and in fact is the system I play the most at the moment as I try and work through all of them. In the next few months however I’ll no doubt be going back to my Xbox 360 and PS3 as a wave of triple A releases are on the way.

But Riccitiello is right, motion controls simply won’t replace traditional methods for a number or reasons and I don’t think any of the three platform holders plan to either. Microsoft has always said that Kinect is an addition to the Xbox 360 rather than a successor to the game pad and while their focus on marketing is towards the new peripheral, none of their top franchises are being forced to use gesture-based controls. Sony may have been reported to emphasise the Move over their Dualshock 3 for certain games but again have only really used it where it seems a natural fit. Like LittleBigPlanet 2 for example. Riccitiello is more interested in what happens by the end of the year and if Kinect and Move will receive that killer app to make believers out of the cynics, “what’s going to trigger the hot game? What’s going to use Kinect in just that way?” Something like Infinity Blade maybe…

My brand is better than your brand

EA boss John Riccitiello has always been an outspoken chap with his views covering all manner of video game subjects. Today is the turn of the HD console war with Riccitiello claiming the PlayStation brand is still vastly superior to the Xbox. Them fighting words right?! Well, no. Despite Microsoft leaping head first into this generation of consoles and producing a system that has somewhat stolen the thunder from Sony, in terms of brand awareness and popularity outside of the US, PlayStation wins. Sony has managed to keep a healthy flow of brand loyalty from players upgrading from their PS2s. And the iconography that goes with PlayStation, namely its controller’s face buttons, goes beyond the gaming public.

Speaking with Industry Gamers, Riccitiello was asked whether Microsoft has blown its impressive lead or has Sony just been too strong. His response was: “I don’t think it’s either of those things. Honestly, I think that Microsoft has done great work the last couple of years, and they’ve made a lot of smart moves: hitting pricing when they needed to, the right combination of hitting price points and disk drive sizes that allow them to hit price points that matter, and they’ve done a great job with Xbox Live. At the same time, the Xbox brand, the Microsoft brand, doesn’t carry anywhere near as much sway as the Sony and PlayStation brand do outside the United States, and so I think the reality is the international marketplace is just so important and it’s a natural advantage that no matter how good Microsoft is at growing their business, Sony has an almost-impossible-to-supersede head start.” He adds that Sony’s marketing message has greatly improved – not a hard task after the terrible ‘this is living’ campaign – and that Home is helping their online presence though Xbox Live still beats them on features and support.

Quick to not burn any bridges with Microsoft who have still sold more consoles worldwide than Sony, Riccitiello said he wasn’t taking sides and that both have done “a pretty good job,” adding: “The big disadvantage Sony carries is they have an expensive platform because of Blu-ray, so they have a harder time hitting price points. Microsoft has taken advantage of that and their online service, which really is the gold standard. Sony has [leveraged] their limited amount of unique content really well. They’ve done a nice job promoting the Blu-ray, their advertising and marketing campaigns have been stronger, and they’ve done a nice job of supporting some EA content to their own advantage.”

Out of the two, especially this year in terms of XBLA titles, I prefer the Xbox 360 and all that comes with the name but can’t argue with the strength of the PS brand. However I do think that that brand has taken a few knocks over the years allowing MS to close the gap. Most cross-platform games still use the Xbox 360 as their lead SKU meaning ports to the PS3 don’t often make full use of the hardware resulting in a weaker performance. On top of that, Sony seem reluctant to secure exclusive downloadable content so gamers can arguably get a fuller experience quicker on the Xbox 360. And while Microsoft has fought with the RROD persona, the PS3 has been nicknamed the PlayStation Update due to the constant patches and bizarre process of downloading content then waiting to have it installed. Without chickening out and taking the diplomatic route, I own consoles to play games and everything else is secondary to that. As long as those games are of a quality and deliver an experience worthy of my money, I couldn’t care less which system I play it on.