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.

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.

Second hand rain

There’s nothing new about the used game market. I frequently bought second hand SNES and GameBoy games as a child because money wasn’t something I had a lot of back then. In the last few years I’ve opted to purchase my games new mainly because of the incentives offered and because I’m an inpatient git but the market for pre-owned titles is certainly not a shrinking violet. It’s huge and many publishers don’t like that one bit. Quantic Dream co-founder Guillaume de Fondaumiere is one of those not overly keen on the idea of his products being re-sold without his team receiving any money.

In an interview with GamesIndustry.biz Fondaumiere said how around 2 million copies of Heavy Rain had been sold worldwide but looking at the PS3’s Trophy system, the number of people who played the game is somewhere in the region of 3 million. One thing he didn’t take into consideration are households with more than one account on a PS3. The extra million players may not all be from second hand sales but siblings and housemates passing on Heavy Rain or even game rentals. Still, the annoyances of Quantic Dream remain the same:

“On my small level it’s a million people playing my game without giving me one cent. And my calculation is, as Quantic Dream, I lost between €5 and €10 million worth of royalties because of second-hand gaming.”

While this may be true, another way to look at it is that a further 1 million people played Heavy Rain meaning around 3 million people experienced the art and story Quantic Dream wanted to tell. The company may have lost an estimated €10 million but also may just have gained a further million followers. Put like that, pre-owned sales are actually helping expand the potential audience for future Quantic Dream releases.

Fondaumiere wants the industry to address what he feels causes gamers to go the second hand route; the high price of video games. He states how he’s always believed games are too expensive and there must be a happy medium where all parties – consumers, publishers, developers and retailers – are content with a game’s price tag. Until then, the industry is “basically shooting [themselves] in the foot,” leading to either an end to retail-sold video games are exclusively move to an online distribution model. But this looks to be where platform holders are taking the industry anyway with a greater emphasis on downloadable content that aren’t just additional content but full games. One of the biggest problems right now is the throttling of bandwidth internet service providers have on consumers. All the while people are fighting to up their download caps and speeds, they’re unlikely to accept the exclusivity of digital distribution. So maybe that talk Fondaumiere wants to have to find a happy place for gaming should include ISPs as well.

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.

PSValue

With Nintendo dramatically dropping the price of the 3DS recently, all eyes were on Sony to see if they felt like doing the same for their new system, the PSVita. But with the new handheld not even released yet, Sony don’t exactly feel like they need to do anything with the suggested RRP and are quite happy with the pricing. As it stands, the standard Wifi model will sell for €249.99 and both Wifi and 3G one will be €299.99. The UK hasn’t been given any figures at the moment but the you can expect the PSVita to retail for around £220-£280 with these figures likely changing right up until a week before the system goes on sale next year – much like the price of the 3DS did this year.

A number of experts and analysts suggested that Sony follow Nintendo’s lead and lower the PSVita’s RRP now rather than risk causing another blow to dedicated handhelds and launch a system too pricey for today’s more economical gamer. However, regardless of the jump in sale for the new cheaper 3DS and boost in the company’s shares, Sony aren’t budging. In an interview with Eurogamer, worldwide studio head, Shuhei Yoshida confirmed the decision to stick with the current structure:

“We are totally happy with the price we put. Personally, I was expecting Nintendo might move their price, but I wasn’t expecting them to move at this time. We didn’t price Vita relative to 3DS or those other devices. We plan the value we want to put in to the Vita and the price people would perceive the value would be. Nothing changed since the announcement. We are totally happy.”

The ‘other devices’ he’s talking about are mobile phones and tablets and it’s been well documented that the PSVita is equal if not more powerful and feature packed then a lot of the popular devices. While Sony may say the competitors didn’t have an effect of the price of the PSVita, right now, they are the biggest threat and being more affordable and desirable than those who are slowly eating into your market is something the new handheld must do as quick soon as possible. But no matter what the hardware cost will be, it’s the price of games which in this day and age is causing the biggest debate. I’ve always been a strong supporter of higher-priced, traditional games and the platforms you can play them on due to their execution, narratives and tactile buttons for greater immersion (if you are having problems and concentrating on controlling a game then how can you truly be immersed?). But the slip in quality from some developers and greed that drives publishers to screw over gamers with £40 titles that have £20 experiences, or less, just makes it harder for Sony and Nintendo for that matter to persuade consumers to buy their products.

But where Sony may succeed where Nintendo struggled is in early software that shows real potential and not just updated older titles (no matter how good they actually were). Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Resistance and LittleBigPlanet are just three of the laundry list of titles said to be coming out alongside the PSVita so the hardcore gamer crowd and early adopters should have plenty to keep them occupied. But this then causes somewhat of a catch 22 situation. Having games worthy of the higher price pushes them closer to being home console experiences and potentially puts the PSVita in the same ill-fated position of the original PSP. Again Sony have been smart with the launch line up ensuring games that are in addition to existing mega franchises are front and centre which then helps make the PSVita look like an addition to the PS3 and its library.

So the question as to whether Sony would reduce the price of the PSVita maybe should have been whether or not you think they ever would? Sony is all about the expensive hardware and making products initially for a crowd who have money to burn. Though it’s less about duping the consumer (some would argue otherwise) and more so about the kind of technology used. The PSVita is crammed with everything you can think of for a mobile device covering all bases but dangerously becoming a jack of all trades, master of none. Whether or not it’ll end up that way is a different topic but the hope is that Sony are making damn sure their next handheld will be worth every penny at launch and not need a drastic price cut so soon after.