GameSpotting: Rebirth

This is GameSpotting, where it's not the numbers that matter, it's the words.

by

This is GameSpotting, where it's not the numbers that matter, it's the words.

After producing the grand gesture that was the 100th episode of GameSpotting, we needed a little breather. Quite frankly, all those shenanigans left us physically exhausted. However, we've taken a quick disco nap, wiped off all the stage makeup, and returned to our keyboards, ready to spit game on subjects ranging from product placement to the actual form of video game journalism itself. You'll see some friendly, familiar faces, as well as some new ones, but don't worry, the new guys are pretty friendly too. So dig in, and remember, if you want to add your own two cents, you're more than welcome to do so in our forums, and if you have a different subject you'd like to sound off on, you're always welcome to submit a GuestSpotting column.

The Wall Street Journal: "Videogame Reviews are Stuck in the Pac-Man Era"
Greg Kasavin/Executive Editor
"You'd probably expect someone like me, who spends a vast percentage of his time reviewing games for a living, to feel threatened, or at least insulted, by Delaney's stance."


"Death to the interactive bourgeoisie!" Who said that?
Curt Feldman/Senior Editor, News
"No one said that. Well, someone did say that, but no one you know. Well, someone you know, but I can't tell you who. Can't tell you who..."


Newsflash: Men 18-24 are watching less TV and playing more games...no kidding
Josh Larson/Senior Manager, Market Research
"So, Mr. Network TV exec, you've seen my entertainment options. Still think it's just the Nielsen numbers that are messed up?"


Three-Way Dance
Alex Navarro/Assistant Editor
"Sure, THQ still has the top wrestling license, but without a more focused approach, that license isn't going to carry them forever."


Product Placement is Here
Bob Colayco/Associate Editor
"The fact that every Simpsons fan knows Homer loves Duff beer is arguably the clearest indicator that product placement works."


GameSpot Confessions
Adam Buchen/Editorial Intern
"We at GameSpot certainly don't want to make users feel bad about their choices. I mean, it's not like anyone at a review site should, you know, criticize anything."


Where Have You Gone, Luke Skywalker?
Jason Ocampo/Associate Editor
"It's a damn shame that space sims have completely collapsed as a viable segment of the industry."


Games of the Year
Ryan Mac Donald/Executive Producer, GameSpot Live
"So why don't video game publishers try to capitalize on the summer months, when the market isn't flooded with competitors and people seem eager to spend money on entertainment?"


Zen and The Art of Tetris
Liam Jordan/GuestSpotter
"I intend to put forward my own analogy: Life is like a game of Tetris. Allow me to expand."


Where Gamers Go to Mouth Off
Number One Donkey Kong Jr. Math Fan/GuestSpotter
Anyone can hop on a forum and declare Donkey Kong Jr. Math the greatest game ever conceived, but it takes strong writing chops to make people want to read such an insane diatribe. If you think you have what it takes, read our GuestSpotting FAQ.


The Wall Street Journal: "Videogame Reviews are Stuck in the Pac-Man Era"

Every eight months or so, an article appears in a mainstream periodical along similar lines to a November 3 column by Kevin Delaney, printed in The Wall Street Journal, in which Delaney makes the assertion quoted in the title of this article. His column may be found here in its entirety. (Registration is required.)

You'd probably expect someone like me, who spends a large percentage of his time reviewing games, to feel threatened or insulted by Delaney's stance. How dare him!

But that's not the case. While I felt Delaney's specific examples and arguments weren't entirely convincing, by and large, I understand and, in many ways, agree with his perspective. His article left me wondering whether my work is part of the problem or part of the solution, but that's neither the point of this reaction nor something that's up to me to decide.

Academics have apparently noticed this thing called "gaming." How curious!

Delaney writes about how a demand for writing about games that goes "beyond jargon-filled reviews and advertorials...is being heard from a growing cadre of academics around the world who themselves have begun serious research on videogames." The key word here is "serious." Games are an interesting and big enough phenomenon right now that some highbrow academics have finally sat up and seriously taken notice.

Imagine me making the following statement with a straight face: If The Wall Street Journal declares something to be serious, it must be serious.

I understand precisely why an article in The Wall Street Journal has more influence in the matter of games being a serious thing than, say, my review of Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand. I understand precisely why it would be easy to lump virtually all gaming publications, including the one I work for, into a neat little category that could altogether be dismissed as being amateurish, improper, and base. My own career in this industry--I could call it a career by now since November 1 marked seven years since I joined GameSpot--has been one person's effort to try to bring more legitimacy to this field. I completely understand that there's a long way left for us to go and for me to go, and, ultimately, we need more help.

Games like ICO are proof that many gamers, and many game critics, are more than willing to get behind games that offer more than just headshots and health packs.

Delaney writes, "If the games industry is ever going to get beyond its current fascination with heavy ammunition...the public has to hear from reviewers who can call the game makers to task or applaud loftier offerings--and do it for a new, bigger audience." I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. Lately, I've enjoyed reading comments about some of my reviews being "too harsh" or "too critical." When I look at myself in the mirror every now and then, I ask myself whether I'm growing too soft or too lenient in my critique of games, and these sorts of gripes about me help bolster my resolve that I'm still able to dole out the tough love.

GameSpot constantly faces pressure to be less critical of games, both from game publishers as well as from members of its audience. As you may know, this is a large publication, and many game publishers have good reason to think that it has considerable influence over a good-sized percentage of gamers. Hence, when we give a game a "bad" review--say, anything below an 8.0 or sometimes even higher than that (I even had someone in the industry complain to me over a score of 9.0 recently)--game publishers tend not to take it lying down. Our reviews can and do affect the success of a game.

It's never been my business to berate games, but it's always been my business to be explicitly critical about them.

My reaction to complaints about our reviews is always similar: We take great care to cover games thoroughly in the first place. I am ready and willing to fix any factual errors in any of our content and to publicly acknowledge these changes. However, if all you're doing is simply disagreeing with our reviews, I can't help you.

Whatever level of influence GameSpot has managed to achieve over these years, I'd like to think, is expressly due to the relative consistency of our coverage. We do not cater to people looking to validate their pointless biases--these are the people yelling on message boards, whose minds were already made up long before their flavor-of-the-month game even hit stores. We do cater to people trying to make intelligent decisions about what games to play and what games to spend their money on. To that end, I'd like to think we attempt to do, and at least occasionally succeed at doing, what Delaney describes: We attempt to "call the game makers to task" and "applaud loftier offerings."

Delaney has a comment about "jargon-filled reviews." Our reviews tend to be fairly dense with technical detail about frame rates, system requirements, clipping issues, and whatnot. You don't know how much I wish we could ignore these things and just focus on describing what, precisely, it is about the game that's entertaining, or interesting, or not. But, unfortunately, such things remain indelible qualities of gaming.

Delaney, like many critics of the gaming industry, draws a comparison between the mediums of gaming and film: "Matteo Bittanti, a researcher in Italy, says games are still judged on graphics, sound, longevity and playability. That would be like film critics writing only about a movie's audio track and special effects." This is a fallacious example and the one specific assertion of Delaney's with which I strongly disagree. I suspect that you, as a reader of an editorial on GameSpot, have a greater level of interest in gaming--one that may well be as lofty as that of any of the academics suddenly paying attention to this medium--than that of the average person. I also suspect that you, occasionally or often, use our reviews to help you make decisions. I also suspect that you appreciate the particular level of detail offered by these reviews.

Look at it this way: Would you prefer for me to wistfully tell you how Final Fantasy XI made me feel, or would you prefer for me to tell you how it works, what about it works well, and what about it doesn't work well? I expect it's the latter option. For that matter, when was the last time you decided to see a movie based on a movie review? Film critics write to each other. I still make every effort to write to people with limited time and money to spend on gaming. What drives me is the notion that my work is of some real value.

I may have a different perspective on what constitutes an intelligent critique of a game than Delaney does, but then, I'll bet I play a lot more games than he does. At any rate, Delaney makes a good point, and I appreciate seeing it in a respectable publication like The Wall Street Journal. I know for certain that, soon enough, there will be any number of intelligent, capable critics in this particular field whose own work is of similarly high quality to what can be found in some of the extraordinary games being released these days. All I can do in the meantime is try to grease the wheels.

Curt Feldman
Senior Editor, News

Favorite News Sources: Geoff, Jeff, Alex, John, Mike
Favorite News Sites: FT.com, NYTimes.com, WSJ.com

"Death to the interactive bourgeoisie!" Who said that?

In the news game, sources come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but they all come with names. Sometimes, however (because the industry can be ruthless in ways that, pardon the exaggeration, Gangs of News York can be), it becomes sensible to stay mum on the specifics.

This is one of those occasions where it is practical, tactful, and essential to keep my source's name out of it. Believe me, the bloke lives--and he knows his turf well.

Let's call him Charlie. And this is how the IM went after hearing that UK-based developer Mucky Foot had closed its doors.

Curt007: Charlie, another bad news day. What gives in the UK?
CharlieChap: Another one bites the dust. This is reaching insane levels, Curt, and it can't all be due to bad management, poor business sense, and/or a bad market.

Curt007: And the feeling in the UK is what?
CharlieChap: There's a real sense of impending doom here. Too many developers--including a number of well-known studios--are now defunct for this to be a statistical aberration. We're in the midpoint of the console cycle, for god's sake. This is supposed to be the "prosperous" phase.

Curt007: Why is this happening in the UK? You don't hear about this many casualties in the US or mainland Europe.
CharlieChap: And yet, ELSPA insists the market is just super. Are we simply over-provisioned with developers?

Curt007: Ah, but what developers you have...
CharlieChap: Hey pal, the major studios, which have been floated on the stock market--Argonaut, Kuju, Warthog, etc.-- are all reasonably stable but are not dazzling anybody with their performances. Even DMA Designs was eventually sold off, first to Gremlin, and then eventually rolled into the Take-Two empire.

Curt007: What about your neighbors to the far north?
CharlieChap: Strangely, the Scot companies are not being affected to the same extent. Red Lemon closed its doors, and VIS has had problems, but the rest of the community is very strong.

Curt007: How strong? Scotland, that is.
CharlieChap: Well, off the record, I know a new studio is going to be opening in the very near future. A new developer/publisher will be announced in the next several weeks, and a couple of developers are moving from the south of England back up to Scotland.

Could this be CharlieChap?

Curt007: Start pointing fingers, Charlie. Time is money.
CharlieChap: Look at the profile of people like John Romero, Gabe Newell, American McGee, Will Wright, Sid Meier, John Carmack, Greg Zeschuk, Trip Hawkins, etc. I'm not even going to list the Japanese stars, though if I did, I'd start with Miyamoto and go right on down the list to Mizoguchi, Yoot Saito, Kojima, etc., etc. I can go on to High Street right now and ask who created Gran Turismo and what the team leader's name is. These chaps have strong, strong identities.

Curt007: The UK has it stars too.
CharlieChap: Yes, we have Peter Molyneux, Jez San, David Jones--working right now, that is. We can wax lyrical about the past--David Braben, Jon Hare, Archer McLean (I know he's working now, but come on…), Jeff Minter (ditto), the list goes on and on.

Curt007: Get to the point.
CharlieChap: OK. Perhaps it would be fairer to ask you who the big names in British gaming are right now? I can name most of the heads of studios--many of whom were busy in the early days--but you simply don't hear about them nowadays.

Curt007: Get more to the point.
CharlieChap: Perhaps we're too damn British. But this can't be true. We've taken to Pop Idol, Big Brother, and reality TV like celebrity-starved wanna-bes. Maybe it's because 90 percent of all game PR is done by the publishers, and if those damn developers start thinking they're an important part of the process, they'll want more money for the sequel. Maybe if the consumer knew who wrote their favorite games, it'd matter to them, and they'd object when publishers start farming their AAA's out to Indian and Eastern European studios. Maybe if we start treating these guys as creators and artists, rather than jumped-up database admins, we could get superstar studios, like id or BioWare, on this side of the Atlantic.

Curt007: You're whining Charlie.
CharlieChap: No. No. No. Dammit. Core lost Lara. Rumor has it that the next GTA game is going to be done by another Rockstar Studio. If Activision gave Doom to anyone else in the world, their nice Santa Monica office would be besieged by angry fans--and rightly so (come to think of it, if the lawsuits are correct, then these fans will be highly trained killing machines, capable of shooting the wings off a fly at 200 meters, but that's another argument entirely).

Why are UK studios such disposable assets? Remember Carmack on the cover of Wired? Remember Peter Molyneux (arguably Britsoft's most famous son) on the cover of, well, nothing. Ever. Not even Edge.

Curt007: Charlie, have you ever tried to get a Rockstar developer on the phone?
CharlieChap: Precisely! We all know that Rockstar/T2 have a policy that their developers don't talk to the media. At all. Now try and see this in context. The guys at Rockstar North have created two of the biggest-selling titles ever (latest count, GTA III and Vice City have sold 20 million copies, according to T2's own figures). They have not spoken to the press at all. Outside the credits, people don't know who the boiling hell they are. These guys should be on the cover of The Face, Wired, The Financial Times, on BBC News and bloody Playboy TV. However, in the UK, they haven't a single regular commentator on the GTA series. That's not right. That's not right.

If you are a game developer in the United Kingdom, wear one of these. Thanks very much, and have a nice day.

Curt007: Have drinks with those guys, and you'll wind up with broken legs as swizzle sticks, I figure. -g-
CharlieChap: Dammit, these are the guys at the coal face. In the UK, it's the footballers, the cricketers, and the pop idols we want to talk to, not the coach. EMI doesn't stop the press from speaking to Robbie Williams; they encourage it. I'm sick of hearing what senior VPs of marketing have to say about a game. I loathe press releases that describe a game as "a thrilling third-person action adventure" and a "unique racing experience." Or PR flacks who don't know how many levels are in the game or the name of the team leader.

Curt007: Where's the light?
CharlieChap: Curt, I think the time for talking is past. Open revolution is our only option. Death to the interactive bourgeoisie!

Curt007: Charlie, you're a family man. Stop it, or I'll set the PR police on you!
CharlieChap: Sorry. This was something of a rant, I feel. I could simply have said, "Hey, things could be better," but it's something that's really becoming a plague here in the UK.

Curt007: Anything that'll make me laugh?
CharlieChap: Well, on a slightly more facetious note, Develop magazine, here in the UK, started a directory of developer adverts earlier this year. It's becoming more and more poignant every month, as the ads for Lost Toys and now Mucky Foot are left abandoned and alone. Could it be a curse?

Curt007: Hmmmm.
CharlieChap: Anyway, there are things I should be doing. Schedules, milestones, phone calls--all the joys of business. Please leave me alone now, Curt. These are difficult times in England...

Curt007: Can I quote you on any of this Charlie?
CharlieChap: Quote me? Quote me? I've got a wife and children, dammit! Keep my name bloody well out of this. I'll have to break your legs myself if you print this.

Well, I might post it, but I'd never print it. Don't you worry, Charlie. Don't you worry 'bout nothin'...

Josh Larson
Senior Manager, Market Research

Current Favorite TV-Inspired Game: The Simpsons: Hit & Run (PS2)
Current Favorite TV Show: The Office (BBCA)
Current Favorite TV Dinner: Stouffer's Macaroni and Cheese

News flash: Men 18-24 are watching less TV and playing more games...no kidding

The recent buzz in the media world is about solving this riddle: Where have the young men gone during prime time? Nielsen has reported that nearly 20 percent fewer men aged 18 to 24 are watching prime time TV this fall versus last year. The drop is 12 percent for men aged 18 to 34 (my demographic). These happen to be two of the most sought after demographics for advertisers. Of course, TV network execs have cried foul, saying it can't be true and that Nielsen is wrong. Other media analysts are realizing that this data just confirms our hunches: TV is losing people to video games.

The question I pose to the TV broadcast world is: What did you expect? Here are my TV viewing options for a typical weeknight, which break down into a few easy-to-gag-on formulas:

  • Reality matchmaking shows involving multiple suitors, like Joe Millionaire. A lot of tears, catfights, and awkward conversation. A bit too much like my work life.
  • Sitcom with a dumpy guy married to a chick who is way out of his league, like According to Jim. Way too much like my home life.
  • The blue-chip franchise drama, like ER, which lost me a few seasons ago. When a show has been around for so long, they keep having to up the ante on unbelievable events. I think they've even had the plague and a raging inferno in the past year. Far too similar to holidays with my in-laws.

His brother is rolling over in his grave.

For the most part, TV has failed to inspire and challenge us in recent years. There is such a copycat mentality and tendency to play it safe. TV is a passive medium--and I can't change the events about to unfold.

Consider my other options on a given weeknight. I can throw in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and I decide whether I follow the light path or indulge my dark side. I can pop in Freedom Fighters, and suddenly I'm throwing Molotov cocktails at the Soviets who have taken over New York City. Or, if I were smarter and had a longer attention span, I could play through Age of Mythology: The Titans, advance a civilization, orchestrate a detailed campaign, and [gasp] even learn something.

Now we're talking!

Games are taking over. Consider that a recent Gallup Poll showed that 71 percent of teenage boys had played a game in the Grand Theft Auto series. Setting aside violence and video games for a separate discussion, can you think of a TV show that reaches 71 percent of teenage boys?? I can't. Our own GameSpot users report spending an average of 15 hours a week playing games and only 11 hours watching TV. After a long day of work or school, we're all just looking for something that's fun, challenging, and doesn't insult our intelligences. And games have answered our call.

So, Mr. Network TV exec, you've seen my entertainment options. Still think it's just the Nielsen numbers that are messed up?

Three-Way Dance

Professional wrestling, whether you love it or you hate it, is just one of those bizarre staples of society that seems like it just shouldn't exist yet won't go away. Pro wrestling itself has existed for ages and has enjoyed peaks of popularity the likes of which many TV executives would give up their first born child for. Yes, it's choreographed; yes, the acting is awful; and yes, it's all just completely stupid. All of these points are valid. But you know what? None of it matters. It's still entertaining stuff, and regardless of stupidity, people watch it. Lots of people. Perhaps not as many as when the WWE (or WWF, as it was known then) was in its heyday, but professional wrestling is still a lucrative industry. No one is more aware of this fact than THQ, the current holders of the WWE license and the publisher of the SmackDown!, Raw, and WrestleMania franchises for the PS2, Xbox, and GameCube, respectively. Year after year, these titles garner more attention than 90 percent of the releases in a given year, and they sell insanely well for what many still consider a niche market. As a fan of both professional wrestling (the medium itself, not as much the WWE these days) and wrestling games, I've often been quite pleased with THQ's entries into the wrestling market. Especially in the previous console generations, when the Yuke's-developed SmackDown! series was just getting its start, and the N64's Aki Corporation-developed WWF titles were all the rage. As the years have worn on, however, I've found myself increasingly displeased with THQ's bizarre need to release entirely different games on each console.

Do we really need three different versions of The Rock every single year?

Ever since THQ began making wrestling games, they've felt it necessary to use completely different developers, game engines, and titles across each platform. When they had the WCW license, the PlayStation got WCW vs. The World, WCW Nitro, and WCW/NWO Thunder, while the N64 got WCW vs. NWO World Tour and WCW vs. NWO: Revenge. Eventually, THQ's WCW license expired, and, in what was considered something of a coup at its time, THQ picked the WWF license off of Acclaim. More console-specific titles followed, including the first two SmackDown! titles for the PlayStation, and WrestleMania 2000 and WWF No Mercy for the N64. This trend of splitting up the consoles amongst development teams has been going on ever since. Yuke's continued the SmackDown! titles when the franchise graduated to the PS2, tried its hand at one Dreamcast game before Sega ceased production, and eventually took on the GameCube (although with a separate development team from the SmackDown! team), while THQ licensed Anchor, the development house behind Ultimate Fighting Championship for the Dreamcast, to handle the Xbox WWE Raw franchise. Confused yet? Well, you should be.

Although things have gotten a bit easier to keep track of since THQ stopped titling each and every wrestling game something totally different and started on the path toward true brand recognition, unfortunately, they never quite grew out of the need to make a completely different game on every supported console. Back in the day, when the SmackDown! franchise was going through its early growing pains, a lot of people used to groan on and on about how the Nintendo 64 got all the good wrestling games. Now, the tables have turned. SmackDown! on the PS2 has become the definitive wrestling franchise around, leaving GameCube and Xbox owners to enjoy the proverbial shaft. Sure, the WrestleMania franchise on the GameCube isn't bad, by any means, but when compared to the highly polished and extremely fun SmackDown! games, it simply can't compare. As for the Xbox's Raw franchise... Well, let's just say that there is a good reason why many of the people behind WWE Raw 2 evidently don't have jobs anymore.

Something tells me that Def Jam Vendetta won't be EA's last wrestling game.

Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that, really, no other game company does this. Wrestling games have, to a certain degree, practically become sports titles, in that each installment provides some incremental gameplay changes, a roster update, and maybe a new mode or two. Yet, if you look at any other publisher of sports titles, like EA or Sega, you'll note that they don't divide up different versions of their football games amongst each console. It isn't Madden NFL Football on one console, and then Al Michaels NFL Football on another, with different game engines, modes, graphics, etc., on each. No, it's the same brand and the same game on every console. This level of consistency is important not only for brand recognition but also because of resources. Think about it for a second. EA is, in essence, the largest third-party developer around, and yet they don't spread out their available resources trying to make totally different football games for each console. When it comes to WWE titles, THQ has Yuke's work on two completely different games and hires another developer to work on a third game--all for the same license. Why? Why spread your forces so thin? Why not just take the strongest title you've got, focus all your efforts on it, and make it available for every console, thus doing your best to please all of your targeted audience, not just the ones who own the one console that has the good wrestling game.

I've been a longtime fan of THQ's wrestling titles and will likely continue to be, so long as they continue to produce at least one great franchise. That being said, I do very much think that THQ is definitely going to have to change how they do things in the near future. The WWE is not anywhere near as popular as it was when THQ picked up the license, and, although people do continue to buy the games, competition is on the horizon. What do I mean? Well, let's just say that Def Jam Vendetta isn't likely to be EA's last attempt at a wrestling game. Considering how well that title turned out, it stands to reason that EA will be making a sequel, and, along with its recent announcement that it would be working on a game featuring the superstars of the WWE's only real (albeit marginal) competitors, NWA-TNA, it does seem that EA wants to get back into the wrestling business. Sure, THQ still has the top wrestling license, but without a more focused approach, that license isn't going to carry them forever.

Product Placement is Here

Duff beer for me. Duff beer for you. I have a Duff. You have one too!

Product placement is a subtle form of advertising where a corporate sponsor pays money to have their products and logos used and displayed in the context of other media. One of the more famous examples of this in the modern era was the use of Reese's Pieces candy in the Steven Spielberg film, E.T. Today, product placement permeates almost every form of entertainment media, from sports to film to television. Star athletes get paid obscene amounts of money to wear a specific brand of shoe or to use a specific brand of equipment (for instance, LeBron James' and Tiger Woods' $90 million and $100 million deals with Nike, respectively). BMW won a lot of mindshare by having their MINI Coopers used in the film The Italian Job, where the cars were arguably bigger stars in the movie than the actors. Even the fake brands used in "The Simpsons" television show are well known to the public. The fact that every Simpsons fan knows Homer loves Duff beer is arguably the clearest indicator that product placement works.

Most of the time, product placement can have a positive effect, because having real brands displayed can add realism. It's better to see a character on screen drinking a can of Coke rather than a funny-looking can labeled, "Soda" or "Cola," which could break your suspension of disbelief. Where it gets annoying is when the product placement slams you over the head like a flashing pop-up ad. The same Coca-Cola that worked so well as just a bit of refreshment for a character becomes an absolute nuisance in American Idol, where the contestants wait anxiously in the obnoxiously red "Coca-Cola room" and sit on the red "Coca-Cola couch."

Antoine Walker has his Adidas Superstars on in NBA Live 2004.

Slowly but surely, product placement has made its way into video games. Though there have long been games based wholly around products (anyone remember Yo! Noid, the Domino's Pizza game, or Cool Spot, the 7up game on the SNES?), we're seeing more subtle product placement creeping into video games. Sega's Crazy Taxi lets you drive customers to Pizza Hut and KFC, instead of a generic pizza parlor or chicken joint. Racing games, like the Gran Turismo series, have always been judged based on how many real-life cars and aftermarket parts makers they can license. Even the tracks have realistic advertising banners for related products, like motor oil and tires. Sports games, like NBA Live 2004, have unlockable shoes, as well as all the players in the game who wear their real-life sponsors' brands.

That Puma warm-up jacket might be a little bloody after this standoff is over.

It's even gotten to the point that publishers are sending out press releases to proudly proclaim product placement (try saying that five times really fast) in their games. Just this past week, Activision announced that the characters in their game True Crime: Streets of LA are wearing clothes from Puma's latest fashion lines. Last year, Electronic Arts announced that McDonald's and Intel would be featured in The Sims Online, allowing virtual characters to scarf down brand-name burgers while playing with their Pentium-powered computers.

So is all of this product placement a good thing? Is it fair for us to pay money to play a game and be subjected to ads? I'm of the mind that product placement is a good thing when used the right way. Racing simulations can be a lot more fun and convincing when the developer gets the right to use real-life cars, like Hondas, and you can purchase real-life upgrades, like K&N filters and such. The use of real shoes in NBA Live 2004 was a cool idea and adds something to the game because shoe brands are a huge part of basketball culture. The use of Puma clothes in True Crime I'm indifferent about. I don't think it necessarily adds that much to the game, but it doesn't detract from it either. Where I would draw the line is if gameplay is fundamentally swayed or changed by the use of a brand. To use an example from films, I hated it when BMW won the rights to provide James Bond's car. He's a British secret agent who has always driven British makes, like Aston Martins and Lotuses, so it doesn't make sense that he'd switch to a German manufacturer.

Like it or not, product placement is growing more popular in video games as they become a more mainstream form of entertainment. Hopefully, we'll see publishers and developers using it tastefully, and, hopefully, they won't resort to really tacky uses of product licenses.

GameSpot Confessions

To Our Loyal Readers:

I'm the new intern here at GameSpot. Not long ago, I was just a regular reader of the site, like most of you who are reading this right now. It was a time of innocence and blissful ignorance--a time when I wasn't privy to the harsh realities of the gaming journalism business.

My, how quickly opinions can change. After being here scarcely a month, I've come to discover the harsh reality of GameSpot's nature. As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it's important that the loyal readers know this.

GameSpot is Teh Bias.

This is, unfortunately, the sad truth of it. Some of the most outspoken critics of the site were right, and the rest of us were too naive and unintelligent to realize the stark truth. Indeed, one would think that editors could put aside their petty favoritism when writing reviews, but they cannot. The editors around here regularly get into "disagreements" over which gaming system is the best. I must wear earplugs whenever I intend to do any work around here, as the caustic verbal insults between editors fly back and forth in this office. Sometimes, things get even more serious. Consider that part of my job as an intern includes cleaning the blood off the carpet before it can stain.

Two editors discuss which console is best.

These unfair biases, possessed by the editors, translate directly into scores. The numerical score is, of course, the most important part of any review, and so the score is determined first--always based on the editors' system preferences. After the score is chosen, an editor produces a fake laundry list of supposed problems a nigh-perfect game has and uses this list as filler for the actual review. According to GameSpot mythology, at one point, the editors actually spent time playing the games they were reviewing. After awhile, however, they realized that no one was actually reading reviews, but were, instead, far more concerned with the numerical score, which is why the editors don't bother spending any time playing games.

The alternate version of the myth is that the editors realized just how much they sucked at games and gave up playing. This is the version I believe more, as every so often, someone will try to play a game around here. It is another part of my job to replace editors' controllers when they break them out of frustration. This happens frequently. The notion that the GameSpot editors suck at games was a theory posited by the same intellectuals who surmised that GameSpot is, indeed, biased. Once again, they couldn't have been more correct. The most confusing part is that it's impossible to tell what kind of bias the editors possess. It's like the biases are always changing. One day they'll overrate a particular system's game, and the next day they'll underrate one. It's very confusing, really. But the bias must exist, somewhere...

To be quite honest, I'm not really sure where the bias comes from either. Does it really make any sense to have an emotional attachment to a box that consists of plastic and silicon and is worth a mere couple hundred dollars? Is it really sane to feel a bond with a company, based thousands of miles away, that cares more than anything about a bottom line? Think about it. The editors here have access to every console out there right now, as well as a plethora of good games that are available for them. And yet, they ignore a good percentage of the great games just because of what system they're on. What kind of idiocy is that?

I'm sure this news comes as a horrible shock to some of you, while to others it probably comes as sweet validation. Fortunately for our readers, I've come to save the day with a host of improvements that will hopefully cancel out the effects of the bias that is so prevalent here. Even though GameSpot just recently added a bevy of site enhancements, I'm sure that it will adopt these additional features if enough users sign a poorly written online petition about it.

Since GameSpot already has a built-in tracking system, an upgrade to this would be to allow our users to choose which console is their favorite. Every time they log into the site, these insecure users would receive a pop-up window saying, "Way to go, champ! Your console is the best one!" Next, they would be able to select, from a list, games that they are definitely going to buy. When a game they have selected is released, the score that is displayed would be the highest one available on the Web. If no decent score was available, well, then it'd get at least a 9 by default. We at GameSpot certainly don't want to make users feel bad about their choices. I mean, it's not like anyone at a review site should, you know, criticize anything. Lastly, users would have the option to see a reduced score for games on platforms they don't own. Anything to reinforce their decisions will make users feel a lot better, I'm sure. Ignorance, as they say, is bliss.

In the meanwhile, I hope everyone out there can learn from the example set here, and remember that blind loyalty to a gaming system or company is pointless. Furthermore, I hope you can remember that GameSpot is here to provide information to those of you who want to know whether or not to buy a game. If you are going to get a game anyway, regardless of our score, then, really, what's the point of obsessing? You really don't need our validation.

Where Have You Gone, Luke Skywalker?

It's hard to pin down the date when I first started computer gaming. It was probably way back in 1985, when I persuaded my mom to buy me F-15 Strike Eagle for the Commodore 64. (If you played on one of these, you're the definition of old-school.) My buddies and I would stay up all night playing F-15, and it made so much of an impression that one of them grew up to be a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. So it goes without saying that I've been at this for a long, long time. Over that period, I've seen whole genres rise to prominence and fall to abject ruin, including two of my favorites--space sims and flight sims.

It's a damn shame that space sims have completely collapsed as a viable segment of the industry. Games such as Wing Commander and X-Wing helped make PC gaming what it is today; Wing Commander alone practically drove the widespread adoption of Sound Blaster cards. Meanwhile, the X-Wing sequel TIE Fighter is a permanent fixture on my personal "Greatest Games of All Time List." I know that I'm not the only one who would drop to my hands and knees in an instant and beg George Lucas to make a new X-Wing game, which is saying a lot considering how many of us now despise him for the Star Wars prequels. Unfortunately, the odds of X-Wing coming back are about as likely as the Red Sox beating the Yankees in the playoffs. Why is that? Well, one reason is that publishers say that gamers today don't buy games that require a joystick, and they have the sales data to back that up. But I also think that the genre also fell into a rut, as gameplay never really evolved due to technological limitations. Freelancer was Microsoft's big attempt to turn the tide, but it arrived years behind schedule and was too little, too late. Now we can only just imagine what a modern X-Wing game would look like with today's multigigahertz processors and insanely powerful video cards. Sigh.

Yet there is hope for those of us who cut our teeth on flight sims. While space sims are virtually dead, flight sims are, at least, on life support. Five years ago, there seemed to be a dozen major flight sims in development. Now there are just two. There's trusty Microsoft, churning out the beloved Flight Simulator series. The big news this year, however, is Lock-On Modern Air Combat, which should be the proverbial 2,000-pound, satellite-guided bomb. If you haven't played the demo yet, you seriously should. It's graphically the most amazing sim I've ever seen, and everything from the aircraft detail to the sound effects are nothing but jaw-dropping. If you're the type who would rather turn-and-burn in a dogfight than fiddle with avionics all day, the gameplay is scalable to your needs. So if you're looking for an easier learning curve, this should be the sim for you. Definitely check it out! (I remember showing a video of the game's A-10 to an Air Force vet, and he went out and preordered the game the next day.) Let's just hope that Ubisoft can work out all the bugs and get this thing out the door this year. It's been delayed long enough.

Finally, don't misunderstand my love for the oldies as a sign that I'm some stick-in-the-mud curmudgeon who does nothing but complain that today's games are no good. I love playing the latest titles as much as I love reminiscing about games past. It's just that right now there isn't anything I like better than leading my online squad into the weapons cache warehouse of America's Army, guns blazing and frag grenades flying. Frankly, I think America's Army is the best, most fun you can have online right now, and the even better part is that it's free! (Yeah, yeah, and if you want to be an old stick-in-the-mud and complain that it was technically taxpayer funded, I think the math worked out to the point that we paid about two cents each for it.)

That said, I can still say that I pray that one day Lucas will see the light and give us the X-Wing game we deserve. And I'm ready to drop to my hands and knees in an instant, George.

Games of the Year

Over the past few years, the holiday season has taken on a new meaning for gamers, thanks to the game industry's desire to release what seems like every game we've waited all year to play in a three month span. Games like True Crime: Streets of LA, Call of Duty, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Mario Kart: Double Dash!!, Max Payne 2, Need for Speed Underground, and SOCOM II are just a handful of some of the games that are hitting store shelves now. So what's the reason?

The obvious answer is that this time of year sees more people spending money on everything, including games. Wouldn't you buy Max Payne 2--or whatever game you really wanted--no matter what the date on the calendar was? Sure, you could make the argument that parents are more likely to buy a game for their children during the holidays than any other time of the year, but isn't the main demographic of gamers said to be between 18 and 24 years of age? If so, aren't publishers making it harder for the core group of gamers to go out and buy games since the holiday season is the one time of year most people spend their money on presents for others?

Looking back at the best-selling PC game of all time... The Sims was released on January 31, 2000--well after the holiday hype. Sony has Gran Turismo 4, which is almost certain to be one of the best-selling PlayStation 2 games of next year, scheduled for an April 2004 release. One might argue that only big names, like a GT4, can get people into the stores after the holidays and that an average game without a big license or name on the cover needs to try and catch the holiday traffic, which is a fair argument.

Hollywood, for example, has its big summer season when all of the blockbusters are released nearly back to back. In fact, releases are even scheduled around dates set by competing films. Hollywood also has a surge during the holiday seasons, as if the impending release of The Matrix Revolutions and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King weren't enough of a reminder. So why don't video game publishers try to capitalize on the summer months, when the market isn't flooded with competitors and people seem eager to spend money on entertainment? Perhaps with the warm weather, most publishers think gamers are simply not likely to buy games since they may be more apt to go outside. Whatever the case, publishers simply don't release as many games during the summer as they do during the holiday season. Some publishers do realize that the 18-to-24-year-old crowd has more money than at any other time of the year, since, for many, the summer allows their part-time jobs to become full-time with the absence of school. Look at the release calendar for this past summer, and you'll see games like Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Sure, they're few and far between, but some publishers do realize that the gaming audience does, in fact, buy games during the summer months.

As the game industry continues to grow, I believe we'll actually see more and more developers releasing games during the summer months and throughout the entire year. I don't think the holiday season will see a drop off in game releases, but, rather, game releases will pervade every Tuesday of the calendar with more and more titles.

Liam Jordan
GuestSpotter

Now Playing: Tetris (gb), Final Fantasy VII (ps), Zelda: the Wind Waker, SSBM
Eagerly Awaiting: Deus Ex 2, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children (seriously, this movie is like pure nerd crack), more GC games with obscure Beatles references.

Zen and The Art of Tetris

Ever since Socrates questioned his fellow Grecians, while wandering the streets of Athens, mankind has searched for the meaning of life. Just as numerous as the various theories of life are its metaphorical translations. A wise man once likened it to a bowl of cherries, Pythagoras thought it similar to the Olympics, and Forrest Gump said it was like a box of chocolates. I intend to put forward my own analogy: Life is like a game of Tetris. Allow me to expand.

You begin with an open rectangle with all the possibilities set out before you--just like the childhood feeling of wonder at just how much the world has to offer. However, before you begin, you have to know the rules. Once the training is over, some feel disappointed, for there are only a small number of combinations that your four squares can be put together in to make pieces. However, you can take comfort in the safety of your rectangle, where, at least, you know the blocks will fall. When you look at it, the blocks are all you have, so you must use them every which way you can. Your blocks are you resources, so use them wisely.

Now you can really start the game. The ultimate goal of Tetris is to move your blocks, as they fall to the bottom of your rectangle, to increase the number of complete lines you make. Each of these completed lines is like a personal achievement, and these lines add to your score--a number which you can put your name next to when the game is over. Some people would prefer to have no rectangle at all and would let the blocks fall wherever they may, but most of us would argue that such a philosophy would make line-building very hard. Often there have been arguments between existentialist and capitalist Tetris players. The existentialists do not score very high but have much more interesting block formations. The capitalists get a higher score but, eventually, make mistakes.

At a certain point, most people realize that a game of Tetris truly cannot go on forever. While at the beginning, we are full of hope, and we see the game going ever-forward. Unfortunately, the grim reality sets in when the blocks start crashing down. You'll start off well enough, making doubles, triples, and even scoring the occasional Tetris. You'll think that it's your lucky day. But as your score increases, so do the levels. The blocks go faster, and you have too many gaps. Apparently, the piece at hand doesn't fit any of them, and you blow it. You leave a gap in the line because you have to keep going on to the next one. You wish you could go back to when things weren't moving so damn fast so you could have fixed those gaps. You know deep down that these mistakes were avoidable and had you just played it a little different, you could have gone on for much longer.

You really start to notice time flying by once level four kicks in. You see those gaps and you start to forget how easy and carefree the early levels were. Now you have to stay alert because you have lines to make and a score to look after. If you keep making gaps, like you did when you were young, you'll run out of room. So you play your blocks wisely, and you play more conservatively. As your score steadily rises, you start to think about the end, more and more.

The reality creeps up on you that once you get to level nine the pieces are going to fall too fast, and you won't be able to keep up. Your friends will tell you to pause for a while, go somewhere else, and stop obsessing over making lines and scoring, but the sound of the lines coming together is what draws you back in. The levels keep climbing, and you keep scoring, but your weary body cannot keep up like it used to, so you start making more and more mistakes. Your friends tell you to give in, but you don't listen, and you strive on.

Level nine finally hits you, and suddenly everything becomes clear. You don't have to keep going. There is more to Tetris than making lines. You look down at the tidy pile of lines you have made over time, and your score really isn't that bad. You realize that the blocks are falling too fast now, and it's hard to keep track. You see how little space you have left in the rectangle, and you realize it's impossible. You give up. You stop moving the blocks, and you just sit back and watch them fall. It's very peaceful, just watching. The blocks go by, and you don't worry about a thing. The last block falls into place, and you know the next one will go over the edge. You just close your eyes and wait for the "game over" music to play.

And that's the end. Your friends and remaining family are left wondering what went wrong, and the children see the final score and dream of reaching such heights someday. I look back in real life, and I just wish there was a little box on the side that tells you what piece is coming next.

THE END

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