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.

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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.

Fable’s foibles

Earlier today I posted a story about Fable creator, Peter Moluneux and how bad he felt about the showing of his latest game, Fable: The Journey due to the poor reception it received. Turns out his feelings of woe don’t stop there as Gamasutra found out. Moluneux told them how ashamed he was at the ‘weak’ scores of Fable III and how it didn’t reach the five million units sales goal Lionhead Studios had predicted. And much like his reasons for Fable: The Journey, the third game suffer because of a short development cycle.

“The game came together very late. That is one of the things that we’re changing; that is just such an old school way of working. That being said, I still think it was a good game! I just don’t think it was a great game that took us to 5 million units. I know I probably should say it’s a great game just respective of whatever it was, but the Metacritic score was sort of low-’80s. I think I’m pretty ashamed of that, to be honest, and I take that on my own shoulders, not the team’s shoulders.”

It’s highly commendable for a veteran games designer like himself to take all the blame and plays into another discussion as to whether games should be accredited to an individual like movies do. Should the next full Fable game be called Peter Molyneux presents Fable IV? If he’s willing to burden the hate if it doesn’t live up to par, then maybe it should.

Back to the Gamasutra talk and Molyneux tried to add a little bit of positive spin saying “[Fable III] still sold millions and millions of units, and it’s probably going to net out, with the PC version, closer to the 5 million than perhaps you would think; but it’s not the dream. It didn’t end up being the game that I dreamed it would be, because I thought the mechanic of the ruling section were really good ideas. I thought they were good ideas, but we just didn’t have time to exploit those ideas fully.” It sadly didn’t end up being the game fans dreamt about either. I wanted to love Fable III, I really did and to begin with, I did. There are still some brilliant ideas and great moments but a few to many duff ones too. Like the latter half of the game where you’re the King or Queen which didn’t really do anything other than frustrate. Again, neat idea but awkward execution.

With a franchise like Fable and a company like Lionhead with it’s quirky style and humour, there’s certain expectations that come to mind when playing. Fart jokes for example. But Molyneux hates the idea gamers approach his games with preconceived ideas : “I hate the fact that people know what to expect from something like Lionhead,” he said. “‘We know what Fable‘s going to be; we know what’s coming next from Lionhead.’ I hate that idea. We should, again, double down on freshness and originality without sacrificing – because often originality can sacrifice quality – without sacrificing quality.”

I’m all for innovation but there is some value in keeping a certain formula. In the case of Fable, its stories, characters and utterly British sensibilities are what make it great and what I’ve come to expect from a studio like Lionhead and wouldn’t view this as a negative. Molyneux went on to reiterate how he and the team have learned a number of lessons from the criticisms of Fable III and that their working habits have changed accordingly. Hopefully not too much however. I wouldn’t want Fable IV being drastically different to III, just better.

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.