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.

The motion of Ubisoft

Video game adaptations are generally mediocre at best but Ubisoft have been one of the most successful with last year’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time even though it was considered a flop by movie goers. Grossing around $330 million, producer Jerry Bruckheimer hypothesised Jake Gyllenhaal’s portrayal of a moody Prince would become the next Pirates of the Caribbean. It didn’t. But Ubisoft are confident one of their IPs will make it big on the silver screen and have created a division in France focusing on film and television projects (via Gamesindustry.biz).

Before the horror of Uwe Boll’s Far Cry comes crashing back into our thoughts, the division will have some creditable names attached to it. Former ceo of EuropaCorp, Jean-Julien Baronnet will head up the team joined by Gainsbourg co-producer Didier Lupfer and ex Walt Disney employee Jean de Rivieres. But with all the names in the world it doesn’t stop the preconception that video games movies just aren’t that great.

How can this be changed? By referencing the current Mortal Kombat live-action webisodes. They don’t only capture the spirit of Ed Boon’s fighter but are also really quite good. Other shorts like the Alan Wake prequels and Felicia Day’s The Guild prove that live-action video game shows can work. The big difference is length. Those mentioned are all well under half an hour, some less than ten minutes each. Movies on the other hand don’t work in the same way with the ill-fated idea that action is more important than story. Such a concept is better suited for games based on movies not movies based on games.

No projects have been announced as of yet though one thought is a continuation of the Assassin’s Creed II promotional series, Lineage, by Hybride Technologies, a Canadian special effects house who previously contributed to Sin City and 300. Ubisoft acquired the studio over two years ago putting them to work on Lineage and will probably realign them to be part of this new motion picture division.

If Ubisoft stick to shorter more focused films that draw of the lore of its games, the commitment to live-action projects in this way could be a smart move for the publisher. But if their reasonings revolve around the ease of pumping out more average video game adaptations, hoping to be something they’re not, then things are likely to become a lot more risky. What we ultimately need is more Scott Pilgrims, an awesome movie taking cues from games rather than trying to replicate them. The of course we need people to actually watch them because even something as good a Scott Pilgrim struggled at the box office.

Manually redundant

In recent years the video game manual, a once prized possession in any young gamer’s back pack has shrivelled into something barely reflecting its former self. Publishers have lost faith in the paper based medium and last year, Ubisoft decided to do away with the traditional manual in favour for an electronic version. EA have just recently announced (via Gamespot) their rejection of printed tree-pulp leaving few companies to either follow suit or maintain the status quo. Those who bought either Mass Effect 2 for the PS3 or Fight Night Champion may have noticed the lack of manual in the box and addition of a virtual one on the discs but if you didn’t notice, it really just proves the point that a paper version is no longer needed.

Younger gamers probably won’t be all too fussed about the loss of an instructional booklet but being a child of the 80s, I remember when manuals were cool, feature rich documents that let you immerse yourself into the game world even when your platform of choice was no where to be seen. The car trips or school lunch breaks would always be a good place to brush up on your knowledge, usually bypassing the very first few pages which showed button configuration and onto those which gave background info on characters and settings. They were for me, the prelude to a game.

But for a number of years the manual is but an afterthought with few publishers savouring the chance to use them as extended fiction for an IP and merely regurgitate information readily available on screen. Rockstar are a newer company who know how to make a good manual though and games like GTA or Red Dead Redemption contain what can easily be imagined as documents plucked from the game itself. Maps on the backs of posters or booklets made to look like tourist guides, these are the kind of manuals that get people looking and talking about your game harkening back to the classic gaming literature found in early Zelda or Mario titles.

EA want to be more green however and along with the removal of paper, they’ll soon be using DVD case that are easier to package games. But doesn’t that suggest that these games are disposable? Maybe it’s because I’m a bit of a hoarder – or collector – that I tend not to think of throwing out my old games but I’m sure there are enough people who treat their games differently, either trading them in or eventually chucking them out after a few years or even months. I can’t really blame EA for wanting to rid themselves of what has become a waste of time and money but I do blame the majority of publishers for letting them get that way. I’ll get over it, I mean I’ll have to when eventually we’re all downloading our games without even a disc let alone paper manual!

He who dares gives up easily

Ubisoft caused quite a raucous recently with their passively controversial Wii and PS3 party game We Dare. But in a movement contradictory to its very name, We Dare will no longer be coming to the UK because of mounting pressure from certain members of the public. In a statement to The Daily Mail (via Eurogamer), who warned the nation about the game last week, Ubisoft said “Following the public reaction to the 12+ rating of We Dare, Ubisoft has made the decision not to sell the game in the United Kingdom.”

It should be obvious from the disturbing trailer and content of We Dare that the game was designed and marketed purely for adults which Ubisoft are adamant of. Players spanking each other with Wii remotes in their back pockets and awkward suedo-seductive gyrating aren’t actions that a massive corporation like Ubisoft would risk condoning for children. The product description isn’t much better either: “You can also use your Wii Balance Board for additional gameplay based on pure body mass… are you the lightest one in the group? Perhaps shedding some clothes will even the playing field… it’ll definitely make the party more interesting!”

With visuals and suggestions like that it’s odd, no, downright ludicrous how PEGI rated and insist the 12+ rating is suitable for We Dare. For all we know the game could be utter trite, playing to sexually promiscuous adults fresh from the chemist with a 12 pack and adventurous lubricant but the fact is Ubisoft aren’t at fault here. Predictable scaremongering and baffling misjudgement are. Both of those things do not bode well for the games industry.

How dare they

Ubisoft do like a bit of controversy and are equally fans of making money off their multitude of casual titles. Combining the two, the publisher recently announced We Dare which for all intense purposes, is a game for swingers to break the ice and partake in their sex-fuelled gatherings. Think that’s an over statement? Watch the trailer, you’ll see. As ever, bored journalists love a story like this and unsurprisingly, The Daily Mail were first to print an outraged article (via CVG) about such a damaging game. The bad part is they actually have a point. I know, I feel dirty by agreeing with them but oddly, PEGI rated the game as 12+ so children of that age and above could be swapping partners and licking the Wii remote as if it’s a pink lollipop.

Leicester East MP Keith Vaz has a history of disapproval towards video games though even he knew there must have been a mistake. He said: “The new ‘We Dare‘ game has clearly been wrongly marked as a 12 plus. As a family friendly console, Wii must ensure that there are proper checks and a full consultation before games are graded for use by children. This game should not be released until these checks are made.” It’s not just Nintendo and the Wii that need to adhere to the checks but a good point by Vaz, suggesting that maybe the newspaper shouldn’t make a big deal out of it just yet.

Clearly they didn’t listen, interviewing a number of parents who were naturally concerned for their children. Laura Pearson of Birmingham said: “It is encouraging under-age sex. The video pretty much shows them swapping partners, girl-on-girl kissing. That kind of thing is not something that young teenagers should be exposed to. Nintendo Wii’s are family consoles popular among children and youngsters. This is totally inappropriate.” If the game was and is to be rated correctly and lets face it, it will be, then We Dare is perfectly appropriate for the Wii. The console does have family gaming atop of its agenda but it’s also a system for all ages and if a group of adults want something like We Dare, who are we to argue? Yeah the game is creepy as hell but like an 18 rated game or movie, it won’t be for everyone and shouldn’t have to be. That being said, YEUCK!

Telltale vs O’Malley

Adventure connoisseurs Telltale Games recently announced a number of new titles they’re working on including Fables and The Walking Dead but one property they tried to go after was refused by its creator. Brian Lee O’Malley, the brains behind Scott Pilgrim, tweeted (via GoNintendo) that “Telltale wanted to do Scott Pilgrim but I said no. I couldn’t see it as an adventure game. All respect to them, though.” Instead, Ubisoft Montreal developed a side-scrolling old-school brawler for PSN and XBLA which O’Malley seems very proud of (if you follow his site).

Not to jump of the bandwagon of fans whose opinions clash with O’Malley’s, an adventure game about the life of everyone’s favourite anti-hero does sound pretty cool. Though possibly not strictly the experience that Telltale offer, something like Yakuza or Shenmue. It would have been a huge undertaking and doubtfully released in time to coincide with the Scott Pilgrim vs the World movie but a game where you play Scott as he tries to win the affections of Ramona, inter-spliced with sudden beat-em-up scenarios across the city of Toronto is everything I’d like in a game right now! Ubisoft Montreal created a game inspired by the writings of O’Malley and the world of Scott Pilgrim which admittedly does fit within the fiction whereas the idea I proposed would have just been a video game adaptation of the comics. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

The year of Assassins

With all the fuss last week about the discontinuation of Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk, you’d have thought publishers would be more cautious with their IPs and not allow them to suffer the same fate. But Ubisoft are riding high on the success of Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood which, so far has sold a whopping 6.5 million units. Sales like that mean a PC version is on the way soon and CEO Yves Guillemot revealed yesterday (via IGN) at an earnings call that 2011 will see a fourth game in the franchise, kick starting the series into becoming a yearly production. Guillemot specifically used the words “packaged title,” so it’ll either be a Brotherhood 2 or simply Assassin’s Creed 3, depending on how Ubisoft wish to continue the story, rather than a DLC offering. Guillemot refused to give any other details until May so you’ve got a few months of speculating to fill.

Back in November last year, Guillemot spoke of his interest in giving the game an annual release schedule but his latest comments have made it official. Good news for fans of the series but if anything can be learnt from the demise of Activision’s once lofty titles it’s that nothing lasts forever. It happened to Madden, it happened to FIFA and, as absurd as it may sound now, it’ll happen to Call of Duty too if Activision isn’t careful. All publishers who try and repeat their success over a relatively short timescale will find it harder and harder to do so. Assassin’s Creed is still young and evidently extremely popular but I’d hate to see it become a tired cash cow instead of the great franchise it is today.