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Expectations

In my last post, I mentioned that “what you get out of the experience depends greatly on what you are expecting.” I have found this to be especially true in the case of the most recent three games I purchased.

Before I buy a game I read reviews and view trailers and gameplay samples. All three of these popular games are favorably reviewed, but much like any piece of art or entertainment, the mood of the audience greatly affects the way the piece is experienced. To illustrate, I will use the following three games: Forza Horizon 2, Borderlands The Pre-Sequel and Destiny and myself, my family and friends as the audience.

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Forza Horizon 2

To be completely honest, the first Horizon did not blow me away. While I am a huge fan of the main Forza series, I have always preferred driving games that focus on the realistic experience of driving as opposed to those that concentrate on the nightlife, street racing and party car culture. While I much preferred the original Horizon to any of the Need for Speed titles that I own, I still liked the on-track Forza 5 better. My sons, however, have always liked driving open world games, especially ones that allow the user to drive almost anywhere. That’s why they liked Test Drive Unlimited 2 and Driver San Francisco (though in truth its world is not entirely open). They all like Horizon 2, especially like the barn finds.

The new Horizon improves on the first in every way. The resolution and attention to detail both in the cars and the environments are impressive. The art direction, lighting and weather systems help elevate this game greatly in terms of its style and mood. In fact this game comes very close in depth of mood to my favorite of all – Colin McRae’s original Dirt. The gameplay is smooth, the handing is realistic and completely adjustable to match the user’s skill level. Horizon 2 takes all of Forza’s best features, the handling of the cars, the ability to make the game as easy or challenging as desired and allows you to drive some of the most exciting cars in beautifully crafted southern European settings. I mean who wouldn’t want to drive a vintage Ferrari through Tuscany?

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Borderlands The Pre-Sequel

Those of you who have read my posts before know that the Borderlands series is one of my personal favorites and I often mention its humor and its bravery in what the developers chose to include. So it is surprising that I have spent little time with the game thus far, something telling in itself.

How is it possible that the sequel to my favorite game is out and I am not playing it? Here it is: I am more interested in playing Destiny. Really? Destiny? A game made by the same studio that created the Halo series that I knock for not having a soul? Yes, things seem to have changed.

My sons also awaited the release of this latest version eagerly and have played more extensively than I. They defend the game and say that I need to give it another chance. I will do that, but I am not alone in feeling sluggish about this title. Some of the people I game with most often have echoed the sentiment.

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Destiny

So what is it about Destiny? The simple truth is that while it’s not a game that aspires to make you laugh, there are beautiful, quiet moments as well as intense firefights and overall, it is a great, solid game that keeps you coming back.

I have not played Titanfall since getting this game. I love Titanfall and have regenerated many times. In Destiny, I am on my third character, with a nearly level 28 hunter and a level 25 warlock and somehow even going through the story mode three times is not boring. I have assembled my own personal strike team and we play every chance we get. We are very much looking forward to the newly announced downloadable content pack, The Dark Below due to come out December 9th, regardless of the fact that as Xbox players we will not get access to all of the new material. Please see Destiny‘s New DLC Kinda Screws Over Xbox Players for details.

The Destiny season pass also includes the second scheduled DLC pack, House of Wolves, which should, along with special events like the Queen’s Wrath and Iron Banner, keep the game fresh and in active rotation while other new titles are released. Considering that the competition includes the well-reviewed Sunset Overdrive, not to mention Call of Duty Advanced Warfare, gamers everywhere will have their hands full and so will we.

Hype and its Costs

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There seems to be an established norm in the game industry that the biggest releases require not just brilliant marketing and seemingly limitless advertising budgets, but must inevitably accrue a previously unprecedented level of hype as well. Sometimes the hype is internally generated in the form of claims of “Next-Gen” or whatever and other times, it is the target audience or press that project their desires on the game in varying levels of accuracy. No doubt, hype sells games. It also has its downsides.

It is impossible to ignore the recent release of Bungie‘s Destiny. Ads for the game and its release are everywhere you look online and the live action commercials run frequently on television. I have played the game extensively, finished the campaign and am continuing with the strikes, crucible matches and various available sides missions. I like the game more than I expected I would. It is beautifully crafted and apart from some recent server connection issues, plays smoothly. It cost $500 million dollars to make and earned that amount back in its first day. But it’s clear that it is a victim of its own hype. Most of the criticisms I have read and heard are a direct result of the claims that the developer made. I expected that there would a backlash to a launch this large, but some of the critiques go well beyond my guesses.

As Dennis Scimeca of “The Daily Dot” noted “If any studio other than Bungie had released such a bait-and-switch as Destiny, critics and gamers alike would be losing their minds.” It could be worse? Maybe I am missing something, but this is a solid and fun game and no game ever lives up to the hype. In fact, nothing does. No film, no phone, nothing. People always seem to expect more – at least some people do. I could mention politics at this point but that world is so skewed by each individual’s own agenda to render it inapplicable. I don’t think that the detractors of the game have a specific agenda, but the scale of their disappointment still surprises me. In his article “Destiny doesn’t come close to living up to the hype,” Dennis Scimeca provides his review of the game and explains what he believes are the game’s many shortcomings. For the most part, I agree with his opinions. The main missions are repetitive and follow the formula too closely. The addition of the recent Queen’s Wrath missions have helped broaden the selection if only in levels of difficulty and not terrain or the enemies fought.

It is odd that the game cannot be played without Xbox Live, a fact that came acutely to our attention a few weeks ago when we temporarily lost power and as a result, our Verizon FIOS as well. A local transformer had spiked and then ran out of juice completely which, in turn fried our master FIOS box and left us without phone, cable or internet connectivity for days. This was especially irritating as it was over a long weekend when my oldest son and I were planning on spending some time playing the game. As our friends played and advanced beyond our player levels, we realized how much we enjoyed and missed the game. We are back and have been making up for lost time. It’s a shame that there is no split screen option as most of the time we play we could both be playing if the option was available.

To me, Destiny feels like a blend of the recent titles from the Halo and Mass Effect series. If I have one complaint about Destiny it is that it is a bit short on soul. The Halo series casts a long shadow in this respect as the characters in Destiny are in no way personal. Even the live action commercial contains more emotion, humor, wit and bravado. Mass Effect went much farther in that respect with actual scripted interplay between the characters. It added another level not only in gameplay but in how much you like and identify with the cast. If you are really looking for a game with personality and soul try Red Dead Redemption or any of the Borderlands series. No one has more soul or humor than Borderlands. But no matter what the critics say, there is plenty to enjoy in Destiny.

Age Appropriateness

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My boys are all at camp for a month, and it is the time of the year that my wife and I clean up and organize the house and yard. It has also been a while since I wrote about the latest games, many of which my sons and I have been playing over the last few months. These include Watch Dogs, Wolfenstein: The New Order and Disney Infinity. I finished the main campaign of Watch Dogs last week and Wolfenstein a few days ago and enjoyed both.

Watch Dogs has a few sections that definitely earn the game its Mature (M) rating. Often games end up with this rating and you wonder why – take the Halo series, for example. The violence is slightly gory in an otherworldly sense, but when compared to other games, films and television and cable series it seems rather tame. There is no foul language and no sex.

There are games like the Grand Theft Auto series that earn their M ratings with pride. Practically every minute of the game is filled with language and actions that are inappropriate for younger players. But these games are the exception, not the rule. Most fall somewhere in between and require responsible parents to make a decision, black flagging certain games because you don’t have the time to examine their content read the reviews and watch the previews or better yet, try them yourself.

Many games on the market today fall on the border of what tweens should be comfortable with. Of course, this greatly depends on the tweens in question. My own sons, who are 11 and 13 years old, are not in a rush to mature (and who can blame them), yet show interest in certain types of content but not others. As I am sure is common at their ages, the excitement of battle is thrilling, but sexual content is unappealing and scary.

Language is another matter. My kids typically do not swear – at least not when I am in earshot. Although we are far from saints with our language, we do not encourage or abide by our children expressing themselves using language inappropriate to their surroundings.

To those of you who are under the impression that modern video games expose this generation to language rougher than that to which we were exposed as kids, I have a wake up call. Select your favorite comedy film from the 1980s, say Ghostbusters, Trading PlacesAirplane or Short Circuit, and watch an unedited (uncensored for broadcast television) version. You will be surprised how many commonly bleeped words are used, not to mention the casual references to oral sex acts and the like. I don’t know about your parenting style, but I would rather reassure my child who might be frightened by a video game monster than explain what the stewardess in Airplane is doing to the “auto pilot.”

This is why in the case of games such as Dead Rising 3 and Watch Dogs parents must be extra vigilant. You might think that hacking and fighting bad guys is fine or that mowing down zombie hoards is so far from reality that it seems fine, but keep in mind that these games contain scenes that make it pretty clear why they earned their M rating. In Watch Dogs it is more implied than explicit, but in the case of Dead Rising, the side missions where you fight the psychopaths present a who’s who of perversions that would make the hillbillies of Deliverance blush.

Now, I have read some complaints about Watch Dogs being a bit of a disappointment and not living up to its hype. It’s an engaging game with a large sandbox and a few new ideas, but I would agree it’s not the groundbreaking next-gen stunner that it was purported to be. I am still holding out hope that Tom Clancy’s The Division will be that game.

I doubt that many had high expectations for the reboot of the Wolfenstein series, and it fared better in reviews as a result. It’s old-style carnage fun brought up to today’s graphic and gameplay standards. It’s hard not to enjoy this game, but again it’s not for all audiences.

My kids are at that pivotal moment where they are interested in games and films that are more adult than what they are used to but still welcome playing games that aim squarely at a younger audience. I am not in a rush for them to move from this spot as with the broadening of their horizons comes a loss of innocence that cannot be regained. Watch Dogs, meet Disney Infinity.

I will leave you with a new video from this year’s E3 highlighting the developments in The Division as well as the other game that I am greatly looking forward to, Far Cry 4. Both look stunning.

On the Eve of the Next Generation

XBox-One Horizon 1000This has been an important week for the gaming world. The Sony Playstation 4 was released and despite some issues is being heralded as a success. Its rival, the Xbox One is being released on Friday and with it the next generation of gaming is upon us. The flow of new games has already started with many, many more queuing up behind them. Along with these releases and announcements, there are the obligatory worries, criticisms and panics concerning what might or might not be changed or removed. There certainly has been a lot of talk. It is to be expected as this is the first major update to the two leading consoles in many years. The Xbox 360 debuted in May of 2005 and the PS3 in November of 2006. That same November saw the release of the hugely successful Wii console. Its replacement, the Wii U debuted last December but has not sold well in the U.S.

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(Selected) Total Gaming Platform Sales | 11/20/13

Pos Platform North America Europe Japan Rest of World Global
1 PlayStation 2 53.65 55.28 23.18 25.57 157.68
4 PlayStation 38.94 36.91 19.36 9.04 104.25
5 Wii 44.95 33.47 12.75 9.28 100.45
7 PlayStation 3 27.45 32.26 9.6 11.24 80.55
9 Xbox 360 44.86 24.87 1.65 7.77 79.15
16 Xbox 15.77 7.17 0.53 1.18 24.65
23 Wii U 1.64 0.87 1.15 0.27 3.93
Source: VGChartz.com | For more poll details

Many predictions have been made about the success of the new consoles and polls have been taken to gauge public reaction. I have written about what I consider unexplainable biases present in some of these polls in earlier posts. Cast Your Vote: Consoles and Cast Your Vote: Xbox One Anger – Is it Genuine? While understand that some of the policies initially presented at the Xbox One’s launch were received badly and that the One costs $100 more than the PS4, I consider these fairly moot points as Microsoft has rescinded the most egregious of the policies and the cost difference is easily lost in the enormous expense of buying games and peripherals. In any case, I simply cannot understand why so many who responded to the surveys were turned off by buying any new console.

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Poll of the Day | 11/10/13

With the launch less than two weeks away, do you plan to buy an Xbox One?

Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered from a local store 2.58% 907
Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered online 2.17% 763
Yes, I haven’t pre-ordered, but I plan to find one on launch day 0.56% 196
Not at launch, but I expect to have one by the end of the year 5.4% 1901
No, I don’t have any plans to get one yet 89.3% 31428
TOTAL VOTES 35195
Source: GameFAQs.com | For more poll details

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Poll of the Day | 11/09/13

With the launch just a week away, do you plan to buy a PlayStation 4?

Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered from a local store 7.36% 2372
Yes, I’ve got one pre-ordered online 5.94% 1914
Yes, I haven’t pre-ordered, but I plan to find one on launch day 2.28% 735
Not at launch, but I expect to have one by the end of the year 23% 7417
No, I don’t have any plans to get one yet 61.42% 19805
TOTAL VOTES 32243
Source: GameFAQs.com | For more poll details

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If these numbers accurately represent the gaming public, then I feel badly for Sony and Microsoft and for the industry as a whole.

Despite the GameFaqs polls, the industry is doing well. A recent report aired on NPR’s “All Tech Considered” stated that the gaming industry has grown to $20 billion a year – that is twice what Hollywood brings in. Some close to the industry expect this total to rise to $70 billion by 2015.

I for one am looking forward to the new games and new capabilities, but I can’t escape the feeling that the general gaming public is spoiled and jaded and expects that everything will be perfect at launch. They are ignorant of the fact that the consoles are not the money makers (as it was released this week that Sony spends $381 manufacturing each PS4 which they sell for $399) and that many of the new games do not fully take advantage of the power of the new systems.

For me, the Xbox 360 was a significant milestone for many reasons. It was my return to gaming after a long absence. It was my first gaming console since I was a teenager and most importantly, it is the console that my children are growing up using. When we purchased our first 360, back in 2006, my eldest son was five years old and my twins were three. My eldest took to it like water and I tend to forget just how well he did playing games, some of which are still challenging for adults today. I think of all three of them playing MotoGP 2006 with me. It is still a beautiful and excellent, but very demanding game and I doubt that they would put up with it today. As new games came out and the boys grew, they each found games that appealed to them personally and today they all have their specialties. There are still many new games that they all play together such as Minecraft and BattleBlock Theatre.

My first post, in fact dealt with this feeling related to Pixar’s ”Cars” games (Nostalgic for Cars) and I can easily think of several times when the boys and I all focused on a single game together. Past favorites included Castle Crashers, various Halo iterations as well as the music games, Rock Band and Guitar Hero

But the point is, I have literally watched my boys develop and grow using the 360. They have become better players and in many cases learned valuable lessons about how to interact with those sitting next to you as well as those with whom they play remotely. (My twelve year old now spends most of his time playing with friends on Xbox Live.)

So I am looking forward to the new generation and all that it its expanded technology can bring. The increased graphic capabilities, the levels of interactivity, the integration of the television all have potential to elevate the experience. It took six or seven years to get where we currently stand. I bet that looking back in 2020, when my boys are nearly independent adults, we will have a similarly nostalgic feeling for this time and this new generation of consoles.

Blockbusters Leaving Less Room for Indie Games

blockbusters_1000It is hard to look anywhere online and not be bombarded with promotions for and reviews of the latest blockbuster games.  Currently, Grand Theft Auto V is the reigning champion with a nearly constant stream of videos and news. Unfortunately for the game’s developers, the current news about the difficulty with the online multiplayer is the dominant message of the day.

My point is that It is difficult for smaller, independent developers to get noticed.

In his article, “Shrinking List of Video Games Is Dominated by Blockbusters” published in The New York Times this week, Nick Wingfield explains why:

The biggest console and PC games — usually those games that are part of an established franchise and have the slickest production values — are posting spectacular sales figures. This month, the latest in the gritty urban adventure series Grand Theft Auto took only three days on store shelves to reach $1 billion in sales, faster than any video game ever, its publisher said.

The richest games are getting richer partly because the industry makes fewer games over all, concentrating players’ spending. Publishers are also squeezing out a little more money per game sold by selling add-on content and other digital goodies. And the legions of players eager to do battle with one another online create a sort of virtuous cycle, as players are attracted to the titles with the biggest pool of opponents.       

Now, the most popular games, like Call of Duty, Halo and Assassin’s Creed, or top sports games, like the FIFA soccer series, have the biggest development budgets and fan bases and are getting a bigger portion of sales. The top 20 games in 2012 accounted for 41 percent of total American game sales in stores, nearly double what they did a decade earlier, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.

The lower output of publishers makes the stakes higher. In 2012, only half as many new games were released in American stores as in 2008, NPD said. Electronic Arts, the publisher of the Madden football series and other sports favorites, sold 67 different titles in stores in the fiscal year ending March 2009. In its last fiscal year, it sold 13. Because fewer games are released, game makers must get more sales out of those games that do reach store shelves.

The development costs on Grand Theft Auto V were likely to have been more than $100 million, and its marketing $50 million more, said Evan Wilson, an analyst at Pacific Crest Securities. He estimated that a typical console game would break even at about four million units, while that figure would have been one million a decade or so ago.

I have no issues with the popular big-budget game series and often play several of them but I want to be sure that their success is not at the cost of smaller games that try to do something new.

While this feeling has been increasing for me recently due to the hype around the launch of these huge franchise games, in truth I have come to this thought quite late. Nearly eight years ago, Stephanie Barish, the chief executive and founder of IndieCade, started thinking that the gaming industry had become unbalanced towards the blockbuster games. In his article “Where Indie Game Producers Come Out to Play“, published in The New York Times this week, Harold Goldberg explains:

IndieCade is the brainchild of Stephanie Barish, a former digital media producer. In 2005, after becoming convinced that the game industry had tilted too much toward blockbuster franchises, she began brainstorming with friends in her living room about how to correct the imbalance. After some smaller showcases, IndieCade really established itself in 2008 with 20 games in an art gallery in Bellevue, Wash.

Digital distribution has been driving sales of independent video games for nearly a decade. But the rise of the indies can be traced in no small part to IndieCade, a quirky, artful gathering that attracts people from around the world to an event that’s known as the Sundance of games.

IndieCade, which will showcase over 120 games and is expected to draw 5,000 enthusiasts to Culver City, Calif., this week, features creations made by eager college kids with something to prove and youngish professionals disgruntled by the assembly-line anonymity that can come with working on big-budget productions.

This year the games Myst and Doom  will be honored on their 20th anniversaries. They are two of my all-time favorites and each represents a seminal moment in a game type’s history. Although each started small they proved to become huge hits, true precursors to the blockbusters of today.

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