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.

Once again, Fable: The Journey isn’t on-rails dagnabbit!

I do feel sorry for Peter Molyneux. Being such a great speaker who calmly relays his aspirational thinking to anyone who will listen, he often talks at Microsoft press conference, regardless of venue. And with Fable being one of Microsoft’s big IPs, Molyneux usually discusses its future titles. But the reason I feel sorry for him is because I get the impression his thoughts aren’t quite at the stage where he should be in front of hundreds of people but still, there he is with a Fable product, dividing the audience on whether ‘it’ll work’.

The recent hotly discussed game was Fable: The Journey at E3, a game demoed on-stage looking a whole lot like it was on-rails. Earlier this month he cleared up any confusion saying for the record, Fable: The Journey ISN’T an on-rails experience and the navigational element was removed at the last minute. Why? According to OXM, Molyneux said “The reason it was on rails was because I told the team to take out navigation, because on stage I thought, right, I need to show off magic, how cool magic is.” Funny thing was, to me, this worked because I did indeed think the magic looked cool and how different hand movements cast different spells. Molyneux went on to say: “If Dimitri doing the demo had had to navigate from one position to another, one, it would have extended the demo to four minutes from two minutes, and two, it would be slightly confusing.”

Another reason for the arguably poor showing was how little time Lionhead Studios had to work on the demo: “This project really only started, well in earnest it started about seven months ago and we started coding about four months ago.” And not straightforward coding either, the team moved from the normal Fable tech to using the Unreal Engine. This generation really is becoming the age of Unreal isn’t it?

So for a lot of people, Fable: The Journey looked iffy at best but Molyneux promises that come Gamescom in August, Lionhead will be able to fulfil their ambition of making something we all want to play. And I can see sleepless nights ahead for the studio. By August, the game would have only had just over six months development time and no doubt there’s even more pressure to get it right after the Molyneux took the negative comments of E3 so personally. I think the press and gamers often forget just how young titles can be at big press shows. It’s rare that what you see in a game stays exactly the same when it’s finally released and being a supporter of in-game demos over flashy CG trailers, I’m glad Lionhead took the risk to show off Fable: The Journey at such a raw stage rather than a random piece of footage which leaves us with just as many questions.

The middle-aged Xbox

More often than not, platform holders develop and release a new system way before its predecessor has really come of age and it’s usually towards the end of this imposed life cycle that developers really understand the power and architecture of a console. So it came as a bit of a surprise when both Microsoft and Sony said enough’s enough, this generation is built to last at least ten years. Since the Xbox 360 just past its fifth year anniversary last November, that would suggest it’s about half way through its life. Chris Lewis, emea vp of Xbox reminded every one of that fact when talking with MCV (via Videogamer) and how the release of Kinect has will help the 360 go the distance.

“Xbox is defying the normal curve you might expect,” he said. “There’s no doubt that Kinect put a huge shot of adrenaline into the business.” This week’s all format chart can support Lewis’ statement as it sees 505 Games’ Zumba Fitness for Kinect stick firmly in the number one spot with a 33 per cent week-on-week sales spike. It’s amusing that health and fitness has become such a huge part of gaming considering gamers are usually depicted as lazy, unfit layabouts. But then realistically, the types who gobble up such games aren’t necessarily the traditional gamer and Microsoft know this: “What we are now seeing is massive swathes of families and younger audiences flocking to it. As you saw at the press conference, we are now in line with what we projected at E3 2010,” Lewis added.

It was feared, and still is by some, that these casual games will consume the industry leaving little or no meaningful experiences for the rest of us as publishers clamber to make the next Wii Fit – or in this case, Zumbe Fitness. However, it’s evident from this year’s E3 that the core gamer is still incredibly important. After all, casual consolers tend not to buy numerous games a year and even if they do, they’re more likely to be the budget party games. Nintendo’s development of the Wii U shows how they’re very keen to get the hardcore back on board with their system and in Microsoft’s case, there was a good number of titles either being enhanced by or exclusive to Kinect that didn’t involve a handful of mini-games. And before more neigh-sayers prophecies the destruction of traditional franchises, Lewis underlined a point which until now has been more common sense than fact :“What you will see is us using Kinect to enhance the experience and not detract from it. I don’t think our core gamers will tolerate anything else from us.”

Back to the point at hand, can the Xbox 360 last another five or six years? With such an emphasis on Kinect I believe it could well do so. It’s a bit alien for the games industry too that a peripheral has become so popular but since the Kinect is selling like hot, delicious cakes (or is that refreshingly cool ice cream what with today’s temperature…) and working incredibly well with this generation of Xbox, there isn’t a great need to upgrade any time soon. Contrasting this however is the widening gap between top end PC and even PS3 graphics and those on the Xbox 360 plus the use of DVDs rather than bigger media like Blu Rays. It wasn’t all that apparent for a good number of years but in the last few more games have come out looking ‘better’ on the PS3 and when a beautiful game like Crysis 2 is being criticised for not being as pretty as it could be, we could be nearing another imposed end of life cycle. What would you rather have? A new system in the next couple of years that is compatible with the current Kinect or a wait of around five to six solar cycles with said peripheral potentially being the driving force?

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.

Fable goes off the rails

The next game from the wilds of Albion was announced a week ago at Microsoft’s press conference when Peter Molyneux walked on stage with charm only he possess to show off Fable: The Journey for Kinect. In the days following, some media outlets weren’t all that impressed with what they saw, even though it very purposefully proved Kinect can track the motions of someone sitting, with poor Mr Molyneux slapping his own wrist in frustration.

The on-stage demo looked rather a lot like an on-rails experience with the camera guiding the player’s movements as he shot spells out of his hands. With the use of Kinect of course. I thought the idea was kind of cool and like the way different hand movements created different spells but a purely on-rails Fable game goes against the whole idea of what Lionhead have been creating with the series so far. Its about open worlds and exploration, not hand-holding.

So as you can imagine, Molyneux was quite annoyed with how Fable: The Journey was portrayed. Speaking with OXM (via MCV), he said “I made an horrendous mistake on the press demo on taking out the navigation allowing players to move. I’ll state on record now that Fable: The Journey is definitely not on rails.” In the past, the English gentleman has made a lot of promises that he nor Lionhead can keep but this one seems less like an unreachable goal and simply a neglect to mention 1:1 navigation. Does that make Fable: The Journey suddenly more interesting? To me, yeah, regardless of wavering quality, I’ve always enjoyed the Fable games. For everyone else though, I’d imagine they’d probably have to see a bit more about it first. After all, it’s one of the new breed of supposedly hardcore Kinect experiences and no one quite knows how they’ll be received.

The force unleashed on Star Wars Kinect

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Praise be! After pondering for many a minute whether what Microsoft showed for Star Wars Kinect was real or another concept demo (my polite way of saying fake), CVG captured real people really playing the game. For real.

The footage shows two people playing through the live demo from Microsoft’s press conference on Monday proving the competence of the game, even if it is a little laggy in places. But that’s to be expected from a game still in development that uses motion controls. The bigger question is not how well it will work as it’s bound to be tighter before it ships this Christmas but who the game is aimed at. It was pegged as one of the hardcore experiences for Kinect yet from the graphics and what we can understand from the gameplay, it’s quite a casual kind of game. That’s not bad and I even think someone referred to Star Wars Kinect as the peripheral’s Infinity Blade which may not be a bad thing either. Taking away the running around and leaving just lightsabre battling and force powers as if some kind of semi on-rails brawler sounds like a lot of fun to me.

Mass Effect Wii U. Confirmed?

As we all come to terms with the name of Nintendo’s new console, developers and publishers are expressing their interests in creating games for it and especially its tablet controller. Kojima Productions, Activision and THQ are all talking about the Wii U and now the head of EA, Frank Gibeau, hinted at the possibility of a Mass Effect game coming to the system. In a recent interview (via My Nintendo News), Gibeau was asked about bringing Mass Effect 3 to the Wii U and practically confirmed something was coming but not necessarily Shepard’s third outing.

“I can’t say we are going to do it on the Wii U, but you can imagine what we could do with that controller in the Mass Effect universe. It feels like a really nice fit, but we’ll announce that when the time is right.” See what I mean? The time may not be right for an official announcement but that sounds to me like something relating to Mass Effect is headed for the Wii U.

Since the second game, BioWare and EA have both spoken about delving deeper into the rich universe of Mass Effect, making new titles following other story lines, not just the troubles of Commander Shepard. But if it were to be Mass Effect 3, I’d be interested to see how the tablet controller is used after Microsoft revealed its version is to have Kinect support. In a similar train of thought, would that force Sony to add Move controls too? And in answer to Gibeau’s question, yes I can totally imagine what they’d do with the tablet. A touchscreen menu and inventory, safe-cracking mini-games, the 6 inch screen acting like an overhead map for strategic combat scenarios. That kind of thing.