So are cheap iPhone games killing the industry or not?

Epic Games, the mighty and historic development studio, once believed that budget iPhone apps were killing the video game industry. Back in April, president Mike Capps said to IndustryGamers in April: “If there’s anything that’s killing [the retail games business] it’s dollar apps. How do you sell someone a $60 game that’s really worth it? People are used to paying 99 cents.” An interesting point raised by a company constantly producing brilliant triple A titles but only a few months later it appears they’ve changed their mind (via CVG).

At the Unreal University event in London, hosted by Epic about using the Unreal Development Kit for games, European territory manager Mike Gamble said the company “didn’t believe” all the nonsense that big budget titles were “going away because the cost is huge and content on App stores is 99c.” But whereas Capps’ comments may have come from the heart, Gamble’s might just be originating from the marketing table. He spoke to over 100 attendees at the event and encouraged them to use the Unreal Development Kit as it could help them create some the of the very best game experiences on any platform and that hardcore games on iOS devices offered a great opportunity for upcoming devs. “Experience tells us that if you create content with high production values the audience will buy it,” said Gamble. “You’re customers, what would you prefer to do: Buy a game like Infinity Blade for $6 with plenty of gameplay, good production values that offers a visceral experience; or pay 99c for something you play once and never ever go back to?”

Not all budget games fit into this category however though the number that does certainly outweighs those who don’t. He continued, urging the young devs to use their experience as gamers as a starting point for making games. “The proof for us has been Infinity Blade. It’s a triple-A quality title built and shipped late last year. So far, we’ve earned more than $11 million of revenue from it – that’s after Apple have taken their cut.” Gamble then said there is an audience who want bigger and better games on their mobiles possibly suggesting there isn’t enough of these games to satisfy them all.

There’s no doubt Apple and its competitors are literally in the pockets of hardcore gamers who prefer a lengthier experience for a few quid instead of a shorter forgettable one. Companies like Gameloft price their games around £4-5 which all sell tremendously but that could be to do with then being clones of existing franchises. Nevertheless, it still proves Gamble’s comments to have some truth as do the sales figures of £5.99 games like Real Racing 2 and even the expensive Square Enix RPGs currently on the App store. But time and time again, the biggest sticking point is a lack of physical buttons and uncomfortable implementation of virtual analog sticks. Again, Epic’s Infinity Blade showed that intelligent game design can do away with traditional inputs and work just as well.

The problem with the cheap price point for mobile games, which yesterday went up from 59p to 69p, is that it exists at all. I think the early day self-imposed necessity to release a game for so cheap has left a lasting impression in the minds of users who are reluctant to pay more. Expensive games do sell as Gamble points out but I still see a hell of a lot of App Store user reviews bitching that a game cost more than 59p. But as more and more top quality, higher priced games get released, this mentality should hopefully disappear.

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Lara Croft’s perfect model is Lara Croft

I’ve been very vocal about my thoughts towards the redundant idea of using real life models to act as video game heroines in order to sell a product. I think it’s old, dumb and in the worst cases, the emphasis is put on the model and not the game itself. One series guilty of such promotion is Tomb Raider but along with seemingly everything else developers Crystal Dynamics is changing, the use of models portraying Ms Croft is a thing of the past.

Brian Crecente of Kotaku spoke with Karl Stewart of CD and before he could finish his question regarding look-a-like Crofts, Stewart interrupted with “That will never happen again. We want to create a visceral experience. We want people to look at Lara and see the psychological aspect of her character. Having a real Lara out there doing cartwheels kind of destroys that.” It most certainly does. The tone of the reboot is one more serious and sinister from other Tomb Raider games who, even in their darker moments, still remained fairly light-hearted. From the awesome video seen at Microsoft’s E3 press conference on Monday and from previous interview with Crystal Dynamics, it’s clear that Lara isn’t meant to be a pin-up but a fragile victim of circumstance. Someone you care for not lust after.

Crecente and Stewart also chatted about the new Tomb Raider movie set for a 2013 release and how it also follows the early years of Lara and her new persona. Children of Men and Ironman writers Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby are on board to pen the screenplay inspired by the new game rather than directly copy it. I’m not sure whether a movie is really necessary considering the caliber films based on games but Fergus and Ostby have written some decent flicks so you never know…

The beginning of an icon

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This video starts with a young lady plunging into the water, against her own accord. She wasn’t diving or enjoying a casual dip, she fell and that fall was the beginning of the end of her youth. She had to become a woman. She became Lara Croft.

Dramatic huh? Well, the debut trailer for Square Enix’s Tomb Raider reboot has drama by the barrel load. There’s not an ounce of in-game footage but in this instance, that doesn’t matter. This video is about setting the grand scene for Lara, a reboot after many previous reboots that failed to really take off due to overwhelming similarities and less than stellar experiences. But where once stood a real-life model dressed as a video game heroine, prancing around for uncomfortable dudes, now stands a trailer showing an anatomically proportioned girl thrown into a rather unpleasant situation.

The words ‘A survivor is born’ flashes up towards the end and if all the hype is to be believed about a dramatic shift in Tomb Raider, this could be the reboot which finally counts. You’re looking good Lara!…the video I mean… damnit, old habits die hard…!

The necessity of Lara’s reboot

When a franchise of any sort becomes a little stale, there are usually two choices. The first is to take the Activision route; cancel it or ‘put it on hold’. Another option is to wipe the slate clean and start again with a potentially life-saving reboot. For Crystal Dynamics, the only real decision for one of their biggest IPs was the latter and that’s why the next Tomb Raider is being receiving a complete overhaul of ideas rather than letting a once mighty star fall deeper into the bargain bin.

In a conversation with Edge magazine, CD studio head Darrell Gallagher spoke of the necessity to make a serious reboot: “Lara had hit her apex in how she was before, and we didn’t really feel we could take that any farther. It was a chance to look at everything again, bring new people in who had been interested in the franchise before but didn’t feel like Lara was modern enough.” It’s interesting that he suggested Lara wasn’t modern enough. The over-sexualised female lead is fast becoming a joke for games with more realistic characters like Faith from Mirror’s Edge and Portal‘s Chell being championed as the way forward. There’s a common debate over Bayonetta who is often portrayed as a sex object yet her dialog in-game alludes to her being the one in charge of her sexuality. Regardless of my obvious tangent, as a character and the incredibly dated use of look-a-like models, Lara is old and people are noticing.

That being said, changing her completely wouldn’t be right either and although all aspects of Ms Croft were analysed, the important thing for Gallagher was keeping the essential familiarities “We left no stones unturned as we were going through the concept, and then kept the right stones. The crucial thing is that it feels like her, even though it’s completely different.” I’m all for change and admit I came to the Tomb Raider series relatively late but if the new Lara was missing some of her attitude and spirit shall we say, the danger would be her loyal audience being alienated.

When Crystal Dynamics first was given the franchise in 2003, the games which followed were often thought of as reboots by the media yet the developer didn’t view them that way. They just put their own spin on it. But this spin received a lot of criticism for being too easy, neutering the exploration element and not pushing the boundaries enough compared to other similar franchises. Over the years the games got better but still lagged behind the new kings and queens of third-person action adventures. The hope of Crystal Dynamics and fans of tomb raiding is that making a prequel where a young Lara is shipwrecked on a Japanese island and must learn to survive, will not only be a great game but one that wins back come credit for the developers too.

Screen Raider

Continuing with their exclusives of all things Tomb Raider, Game Informer bagged themselves various screenshots, renders and concept art for the ninth game in the illustrious series. It’s hard to tell between the renders and actual screenshots as they all look pretty damn good and show a new level of morbidity that I’ve not noticed in the previous games. Human sacrifices strung up in front of bizarre alters isn’t the usual imagery I’d expect for the franchise that has always had at least one boot firmly placed in the realms of whimsy. Even in death, Lara’s writhing and moaning had a certain comedic value to it but the pained expression of Ms Croft seen in the screenshot above is nothing but serious. Dark days are ahead for the original raider of tombs, I just hope the reboot can live up to the gargantuan amount of hype it is receiving.

For the full gallery over at Game Informer’s site, click here.

Can you keep a secret?

UPDATE: Secret of Mana is out now and costs £5.50, 10p less than the virtual console and without the option of a controller either. Hmm….

Even though it’s missing the feel of tactile buttons, the clunk of cartridge to plastic or the need to blow on said cartridge in order to dissipate any problematic dust particles, I’m increasingly thankful for the revival of retro classics onto the iPhone. My taste in gaming has change dramatically from when I was a beardless youth so if I wanted to experience some of the all time greats, I’d have to fork out a fair more money then I’d like (unless I chose to use an emulator. Which I do not). So news that Apple have given Square Enix the green light to release Secret of Mana onto the App Store is a call for celebration. See how producer Masaru Oyamada does so after the break along with a couple more screen shots of the paramount SNES RPG. Now Square have been quite experimental with their pricing system and for a time had the most expensive game on Apple’s service, Chaos Rings. They’re yet to give SoM a price but have assured us (via Touch Arcade) that it won’t be as much as Chaos Rings but not as cheap as 59p either. My guess would be £3.99 which is still cheaper than the 800 Wii Points (£5.60) it costs on the virtual console.

When nearly all console-based RPGs where making players take turns with the AI to fight, Secret of Mana took the Zelda route with real-time fighting and a top down map of prettied pixels. A lot of iOS role playing games owe their existence to games like this and its inclusion to the platform’s repertoire seems less like a harping of past glory and more like the returning of an old hero. I am a little skeptical as to the control method because like a lot of adventuring games for a touchscreen, it has a virtual d-pad and buttons however. Ironically, by not being turn-based, one of the features that made it interesting for its time, is one of the things that could hold it back from being a truly great touchscreen game due to the need for on-screen controls. But all these question and more (like can those buttons be any less invasive?) will be answered soon before the end of the year when Secret of Mana is said to be out.

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The real Lara Croft

How do you lead a legendary gaming character back to potential greatness after a spell of dodgy decisions? Make her real, make her believable. The unsurprising (but cool) announcement of a new Tomb Raider was met with a pleasing shock at just how much Lara Croft will change, not just in age but in appearance and personality too. The ongoing coverage over at Game Informer has unearthed some new information about the challenges Crystal Dynamics are going through by making their biggest star relevant for today’s market.

Global brand director, Karl Stewart, revealed that at the start of the project, Tomb Raider 9 was going to be a continuation of Underworld but thankfully realised that: “it was not the way we needed to go. We had to stop in our tracks and reevaluate everything in order to choose a new direction. The origin story came about through lots of research and deciding how to reposition Lara to get her where she needed to go. A reboot wasn’t at the top of the list to begin with, but it certainly shone through as the direction the franchise needed.” Amen to that. Art director, Brian Horton, spoke of the need to keep Lara recognisable but update her look to be relevant to an era where realism is highly important: “We want people to care for Lara at the end of the day. And if they can look at her and go “this is someone that I want to help through this survival journey,” then we have met our goal.” To do this, the team started not with character model but with a full understanding of who the new Lara is as a person, someone who is young and vulnerable that has a great deal of inner strength and hopefully admiration from the player. Everyone knows that Lara Croft is the busty treasure hunter but CD wants people to look beyond the guns, boobs and animated hair.

So much so, the swishing braided locks of many a Laras has been replaced with a simple ponytail, “We wanted to have the hair itself tell a bit of the story. So the hair moves and helps to sell the drama,” Said Horton. “The idea is to have it at the right length to give it some great secondary motion in action sequences.” It certainly didn’t hurt Bayonetta to have a head full of seemingly living hair. And notice how in the few promotional shots of Lara, her bust is more in keeping with real life, not unbelievably large for such an athletic lass. Upsetting for some I’m sure but Horton dashed hopes of any of the old school ‘bonuses’ of previous games: “There is a different tone we are going for across the board, and Lara Croft as a sex object isn’t our goal. No unlockable bikinis.” Faith from Mirror’s Edge has always been praised for her appearance and how she looks like a convincing game character. Crystal Dynamics want to recreate that idea for Croft.

Since it’s a story about the development of a hero, the emphasis of Lara learning from doing and growing in strength was also important to the team. As the game progresses, so do her animations, representing her growing in confidence to any given task. Stewart said: “For example, when she hears the scavenger for the first time, her natural reaction is to step back and ask “what the hell is that?” But as you progress she becomes stronger and her animations change, as does her character performance.” Nice huh? Underworld was particularly good at showing the subtle animations of Lara as she shielded her face from fire or walked through thick foliage. Expanding on that and making it something important throughout the game is awesome. It sounds like Crystal Dynamics has put a lot of work into all the areas where the franchise had gone astray over the years. I am indeed a happy boy. Now, about making a new Legacy of Kain game… anyone?