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.

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Limbo for PSN next week

In case you missed all the hubbub recently involving Playdead’s brilliant XBLA hit Limbo, the story goes as follows; A rumour surfaced that Limbo was headed to PC and PSN some point this year and now it’s been made official on the game’s website. Next Tuesday (19th) sees Limbo saunter onto the US PSN and Europe will get it a day later with Japanese customers having to wait a little longer as a date is still unknown for them. Steam shoppers will be able to pick up the game on August 2nd.

As part of the announcement, Dino Patti, ceo of Playdead set interest alight, teasing us of how there’s to be a “little extra secret” added to these versions. Hopefully whatever this secret is, it’ll find its way over to the Xbox 360 too.

Happy days then for anyone without a Xbox 360 as one of its best downloadable titles will soon be available for all to enjoy. I gave it top marks in my review, noting the absence of a traditional soundtrack and instead having a haunting score, adding to Limbo‘s creepiness. As of today, said score has been released onto iTunes for £3.49, including six tracks of melancholy and woe with equal measures of glee. Nice.

Alan Wakes up

Following yesterday’s rumours of an Alan Wake 2, developers Remedy have publicly announced that yes, there will be another game but no, it won’t be Alan Wake 2. Oskari Hakkinen, head of franchise development told Eurogamer: “Fans of the franchise will be excited to learn that yes, more Wake is coming! But to be absolutely certain to avoid confusion, this next Wake instalment will not be Alan Wake 2. And neither will it be DLC,”

He refrained from saying too much as he wanted to save the specifics for an official announcement where the game will be shown off for the first time. Hakkinen teased a few tit bits however revealing how the game will “definitely give more to the Wake fans out there” but also allows for players unfamiliar with the goings on of Bright Falls to “jump on board.” Remedy are viewing the two audiences with equal importance, possibly because Alan Wake sadly didn’t perform as well as they or Microsoft hoped. This was more to do with unfortunate timing because the game was brilliant and was one of my best of 2010.

Hakkinen said that “release dates, platforms and pricing” were yet to be confirmed but Fall 2011 is “probably a good guess.” If we are to be receiving a new Wake game in around four months, it’s almost a certainty that we’ll be seeing more at this year’s E3. And it may have been a bit of a red herring but suggesting a platform needed clarifying may be a clue as to what kind of game it will be. First thoughts are some kind of prequel, following Thomas Zane, the diving suit-wearing guide who also became trapped by the Dark Presence before Wake came onto the scene. Perhaps as a downloadable XBLA game. Another popular concept, probably due to Hakkinen’s reference to the unfamiliar audience, is a Kinect-enabled remake. It’s definitely plausible, this year E3 press conference from Microsoft is bound to be filled with Kinect software and they’ve always promised more hardcore titles for the device. Alan Wake would work quite well as a Kinect game because of the protagonist’s trusty torch. Moving your hand in real-time to illuminate areas on screen is a pretty cool idea and one that Silent Hill: Shattered Memories used to great effect.

But I fear I’m getting ahead of myself and, more to the point, Remedy who are keeping schtum until they’re good and ready to light the way. Geddit?!… Sorry.

Angry bloke rants about Xbox live

Peter Vesterbacka has been in the news recently for many things most recently being his statement that consoles were dying, making way for the mighty Smartphone. Now it seems he isn’t pleased about Microsoft’s Xbox Live content approval system because of the current inability to allow frequent updates to games. In an interview with MCV about the success of Angry Birds, Vesterbacka said: “Is that our fault? No, that’s their problem. There is no reason why, when you do digital distribution on console, you couldn’t do frequent updates. It’s just a legacy way of thinking. If the consoles want to stay relevant they have to start mimicking what’s going on around them on app stores, Smartphones and online. It’s the only way, because people expect games to stay fresh.”

However, I would argue that the reason why games like Angry Birds need a constant stream of updates is because of the type of game it is. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one hell of a game but fundamentally you are doing the same thing in each level with the varying factor being the layout of said level. Adding more of these over time will indeed keep everything fresh but I don’t think games that are traditionally found on consoles require the same amount of updates.

Vesterbacka added: “If you pay $59 or $69 dollars and you get no updates – but you pay 99 cents for a game in the App Store and get updates every month, then it sets the expectations higher. So the pressure is definitely on those guys.” If I pay full price for a brand new game, I don’t expect to have it updated every month. I expect the price I paid for it to cover my entertainment for either a decent amount of time or deliver me a truly memorable experience. And constant updates aren’t always a blessing. I have a good number of games and Apps on my iPhone and feel like I’m forever downloading bits and pieces – be it content or patches – for them which has resulted in me deleting more Apps rather than keeping them.

Backtracking on his previous comments, Vesterbacka withdrew his “consoles are dying” remark replacing it with how he thinks consoles and there markets are important – possibly because he’s trying to get his game onto those markets – but they’re not the fastest growing platform whereas mobiles are. Team Meat, makers of Super Meat Boy on XBLA, are well known for their contrasting opinions to that of Vesterbacka and believe, despite the numbers of Smartphones out there, such a format isn’t best suited to be the sole provider of a gaming experience: “A phone is not a generic gaming platform. It works for some games, but not everything. I cannot stress this enough. Just because something has the ability to run games that doesn’t mean every game should be made for it.” They go as far as to express a hatred to the App Store, preferring to stick with consoles and soon PC and Mac, with their updates for Super Meat Boy taking a little as a day in some cases. It clearly can work for them.

Microsoft and for that matter, Sony, do have a legacy way of thinking for their stores but Vesterbacka has to remember that those stores are very different from those found on Smartphones. The games are different (for the most part) and expectations from gamers is different. It’s just different, not necessarily wrong. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t change nor do all developers for XBLA and PSN feel comfortable with the system in place but if anyone can point Rovio in the right direction, it’s Team Meat.

A shift in thinking

There are so many video games getting released nowadays it’s hard not only to keep up with everything you want to play but also finding the money to pay for them all. The two solutions to this are both frowned upon by developers for taking away potential profits. The first, renting, sees only a handful of games bought by a distributer but never the same as if those who rented actually went out and picked it up themselves. Second is the pre-owned market, a practice loathed by many publishers. But ceo of Saber Interactive (makers of Timeshift), Matthew Karch, believes the industry has only itself to blame because the cost of retail releases are far too high for the average consumer. To him, digital distribution is the way forward because the £40/$60 price tag becomes an immediate barrier for entry, especially if you’re spending a few hundred quid on a new console or PC.

“People in our industry are in a panic about used games, but honestly, can you blame people for playing a game and then trying to get some value back out of it? The only way for many gamers to currently play multiple AAA games is to shell out quite a bit of money and that definitely limits our consumer base.” I agree, paying full price for a game can be hard to justify but Karch’s comments to CVG come on the same day that EA announce how last Friday’s release of Crysis 2 has become the publisher’s biggest UK launch so far, beating Dead Space 2, Dragon Age II and Bulletstorm. While some may feel like trading the game in after completion – or even before – the £40/$60 price wasn’t enough to put those consumers off in the first place.

Karch adds: “If you want to reach an audience that is not accustomed to spending or can’t spend that kind of money, then you need to give them an alternative. I think this also applies to our core audience. Smaller, high quality digital downloads are a great way to do that. It not only provides people with games that they might actually finish, but it also enables them to play a variety of titles.” The target audience in question is quite important to the argument. Referencing those who aren’t accustomed to spending the normal price for games aren’t necessarily the kinds of gamer who are hesitant to spend vast sums of money to fuel their habit. It’s become an accepted normality to pay around 40 quid for a game and has been for the core market for a good number of generations. I remember paying £60 for Mortal Kombat II on the SNES back in the 90s so for me, games have come down considerably in price while offering a great deal more in terms of longevity.

But Karch does point out the powerful draw of the sequel due to such high development costs. He states how expensive it is to make, manufacture and market a game can be resulting in less innovation from developers who are keen to pump out the next Call of Warfare, Modern Shooter. Karch hopes that markets like XBLA and PSN begin to see more “high end” games that are smaller in size and cost to the consumer. It’ll be interesting if this does indeed happen because the downloadable space has been very profitable for a number of publishers though still the debate about a game’s length is called into question. Limbo was chastised by a small number of people for being “only four hours” and costing around £10/$15. I believed Limbo was worth every penny.

I don’t know if the future of games, more specifically triple A shooters, will become smaller, cheaper downloadable releases. With all the competition from mobile Apps costing a little as 59p, full retail titles are still incredibly popular with publishers announcing record-breaking numbers seemingly every month. The numbers may indeed be falling but there are various initiatives in place to counteract the fall including preventions to buy pre-owned games and strong advertising campaigns. If anything, I’d be more likely to pay full price for a game that gives me value for money be it a superb single player campaign leading onto a full featured multiplayer mode or just a lengthy adventure RPG. I’d be reluctant to only have shorter, easily absorbable experiences even if it does save me a lot of money. I think Karch does have a point that games need to offer more in order to stay in gamers’ houses but I’m not sure if this is the way to do it.

The future of 3DS

With the UK launch of the 3DS looming on the horizon, Chris Kohler of Wired sat down with the man behind the third dimension, Hideki Konno, producer of the upcoming handheld firing questions at him specific to the automatic system update feature. If you’re a console owner, you can relate to the sometimes barrage of firmware upgrades, particularly on the PS3, that have altered the way we play with them significantly over the years. Nintendo could have a similar intent to reshape the 3DS as it ages with the first example coming in May with the addition of an eShop and web browser.

The last generation of Nintendo handhelds offered a clunky online multiplayer experience so this time around, the company are trying to position the 3DS more in line with current hardware by allowing the user to trade their friend code with others to then see what they’re up to and the games they’re playing. But that’s it. No chatting, no game invites no real communication at all. Konno hinted to Kohler that a messaging service may be headed in a later update: “We are going to be making updates to the system, and I think [text chat could be] something that would be really interesting to do.” I hope so or it would feel like the online functionality has been left unfinished. A crying shame when the system is full of such promise for a thriving online community. The fear of unwanted text messages or game request from those will ill-intent is a barrier that a little common sense can overcome.

One area that Nintendo lags behind all other systems is their approach to demos, or rather lack of. They flirted with the idea for WiiWare games a while back but only released a select few for a short amount of time. Similarly, the Nintendo channel offers a few DS downloadable demos which tend to generate a flurry of excitement from fans so the reluctance on Nintendo’s part is even more bizarre. But Konno argues whether or not demos are actually worthwhile. It’s not that they can’t be done on the system as he said entire games could be automatically sent to your 3DS. Konno simply isn’t sure whether they’re effective: “There are cases where people play a demo game and they’re satisfied with that play experience and they don’t buy the game. There are also times when they play a demo and think, ‘Wow, this is great, I’m going to buy this when I have the chance.’ So whether or not it’s an effective use of resources, I’m not sure.”

I think the key is making a good demo, one that teases your interest leaving you wanting more and not seemingly showing you everything the game has to offer. It’s true, a bad demo can be disastrous, take Hour of Victory on the Xbox 360 for example. That played terribly in demo for leaving gamers soured by the experience. But on the other hand, the necessity to include a demo version of every arcade game has helped those with decent tasters to go on and become profitable titles. A quality demo can be crucial and should really be the norm what with ever expanding game prices compared to the ever shrinking budgets of players.

Speaking of budgets, Konno was asked about the possibility of sales or reductions for games akin to that of Steam and the App Store with his response confirming Nintendo’s defiance of the flexible pricing scheme: “If what you’re coming up with [is something like] the Apple iTunes store, where people can freely set their prices, I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” adding,  “Having a business model that allows for the prices to be driven down that low, as a developer it’s kind of scary because we want to protect our content, and the only way we can justify creating good content is if it makes business sense. It’s more than a pricing issue, it’s a company value. We want to compete with ideas, we want to surprise our consumer base.” I like the idea of competing with ideas rather than price tags but ultimately, price flexibility is what a large proportion of people would want. If you have a great idea that goes on sale for a week, it’s more likely to give a boost to sales than a crappy concept which is always cheap. At the moment, Nintendo are still in a strong position but with a market as fickle as that of video games, it could change rather quickly.

Lima Sky doodles on Kinect

Normally, publishers instruct development teams to awkwardly port console games to mobile devices but Lima Sky have turned that idea on its head with their announcement that Doodle Jump is to soon become an XBLA Kinect game. On the second birthday of the often-copied seldom-bettered platformer, over 10 million downloads has made Doodle Jump a very hot property with more improvements coming to the iPhone versions soon like a multiplayer mode. How it’ll work exactly is still under wraps but the hope is that two players will be able to go head-to-head on one playing field, potentially knocking one another out of the picture. A numbered life system would probably have to be implemented too because imagine the rage if your pal kicks you out in the first few seconds?

Lima Sky are also at work on an iPad version for those who prefer a more two-handed approach to their doodle jumping. Video games are just the start too with toys and comics coming later this year. Lord knows what the comic will be about but I quite fancy getting my hands on a cuddly Doodle the Doodler, the game’s aptly named protagonist. But it’s the Kinect port that is the most interesting for me, a new owner of Microsoft’s motion device. Will it be controlled via hand movements or a shifting of the whole body? The former wouldn’t be as much fun as the latter so that’s my guess. Another point of interest will be the price. Currently, Doodle Jump is only 59p on both Apple and Android marketplaces but the cost will no doubt rise when it comes to XBLA. Just how much is dependant on the time and effort put into porting the game but you can bet there’ll be a few disgruntled gamers if it goes too far beyond the 400 MS Point mark.

It’s funny how a medium which has been said to be in decline, or dying if you will, is the next port of call for the games which are said to be killing it. Perhaps the popularity of mobile gaming is just part of the continuous broadening of the market rather than anything to do with one platform replacing another. Either way, Doodle Jump headed for XBLA Kinect could be something that all types of player will appreciate.