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CliffHicks Blog

Someone gag Kutaragi

I was going to write about something entirely different today, but Kutaragi forced my hand.

I have to confess, I have no idea what's going through his head most times. He speaks, and I feel like on some fundamental level, it should make sense, but somehow, it doesn't. Let's take the above news story as an example.

Kutaragi considers the PSP a success. Sure, it did sell out up front, but since then sales have declined. Know why? It's not hard to see -- there aren't a lot of great games out for it. Most of the sales for it lately have been movies, and that's not good, kids. My flatmate has one. He owns two games for it - Lumines and Wipeout Pure. And nothing else. I'm with him on this. I haven't even bought a PSP yet, and I have a 90 minute commute every day each way. Of course, I haven't bought a DS yet either. But in the DS's defense, it's got a good library of games out for it, and a good number of better ones on the near horizon. The PSP's dance card is looking pretty empty for at least the next few months. And yet, the machine itself is a success in the eyes of its creator.

Read that story again and there's even more to confuse you. The PS3 is going to launch later than the 360, and it's going to cost more. And this, Kutaragi says, isn't a problem. Now technically he could be right. I've always been a big advocate of that the systems themselves don't matter, the games do. And without good games, a system is going to die on the vine, as I think the PSP is currently proving -- sorry PSP owners. Unless the PSP gets some killer games in the near future, the system could easily go the way of the Lynx, the Game Gear, the TG16, the Neo Geo Pocket and others. Because I've held a PSP for a good while in my hands and they're slightly uncomfortable. I wouldn't want to use one for long periods of time unless there was a truly fantastic game involved, and so far, I haven't seen that game yet.

If the PS3 launches with a huge amount of fantastic games, then maybe they can justify that huge cost. But you're going to need to have a game that sells the system. It's going to need to be something so fantastic, that I have to get the system on Day 1. Xbox didn't have that. Hell, PS2 didn't have that. The last console that had a single game that convinced me to buy the console was the N64 (yeah yeah, don't remind me -- it had its shortcomings. But hey, it had Mario 64, and Goldeneye, and Conker, and Zelda, among others...) and Mario 64. I don't mind shelling out $300 for a console. I'll pay that for the 360, on the premise that good games are coming. I've seen the developer list, and the fact that Sakaguchi-san and his team over at Mistwalker are making games for it is enough to convince me they have good talent coming. I didn't seen any great games from them at E3, but the system's going to be backwards compatible. Plus $299 is about what I expect to pay for a system at launch. $399, however, is a whole new ball of wax. At the $399 price point, the PS3's going to involve a more sizable investment, therefore my expectations of what the machine can do go up. Kutaragi says it's better than the Xbox 360 -- well, it's going to have to be, considering it costs more.

Pretty much everything we saw at E3 was smoke and mirrors when it came to the PS3, and for some people that's enough, but not for me. I'm a skeptic, a cynic if you will, and I don't have room for error. I know right now that I'll probably end up getting a PS3, just because I'm one of those people who needs to be in the know on all the systems out there. But I consider this a bad omen on Sony's part.

I was talking about the whole thing with a friend of mine who's in the development side of the industry, and he compared Sony's position now to Sega's position in 2000. The Saturn burned bridges with developers. The PS2 is starting to do the same. People complained about how the PS2 architecture was hard to program for, how it didn't have enough RAM, and all of those complaints... people found a way around them, but people also found they enjoyed programming for the Xbox more. And Sony's lead began to slip. Just like Nintendo's hesitation to let go of the cartridge format put them into third place, Sony's persistence on making machines that are theoretically quite powerful and yet are still insanely hard to program for could be the weak link in their armor.

Sony's not done yet and I'm not even beginning to count them out. But I see dark days ahead for them. And Kutaragi's denial does not give me hope. Microsoft's admitted there's a battle to be fought. Nintendo has said they have an alternative strategy that makes them sound like they want to be the guerrilla fighters of this console generation. And Kutaragi's claiming that there is no war; Sony simply hasn't cleaned away the carcasses yet.

It's a bad thing to see a leader in complete denial. This is not an omen that should please people. People have called him the Father of the Playstation, and I've heard him described as the Emperor of the Sony gaming empire.

Well, Mr. Emperor, you have no clothes on. Someone should've told you that by now.

The voice of games

So the actors wants royalties from making games, and people are debating whether or not they should get them. One group says that who listens to the voices in games? The other group says that the voices in games are just as important as any other aspect of the games.

Who's right? It's a matter of personal debate, but I must confess I come down much more in favor of the actors. Because games are changing. Sure, in the days of Pacman and Joust (when I started gaming), there weren't really any voices in games. That wasn't because no one wanted them -- that was because the technology wasn't there yet.

As technology's come along, voices have started to add more to games. In some cases a good voice cast can make or break a game. When there's particularly bad voice acting, it removes us from the experience of the game. You don't need help to find an example of bad voice acting in a game. Pick up a stone and throw -- you'll hit something.

When it comes to games with good voice acting, though? Hell, those are much harder to come by. If I could find a way to give James Woods $1 for his performance in GTA: San Andreas, I would. He really steals the show in the latter part. But San Andreas is full of great voice acting. Vice City was too. And I'm replaying Conker's right now, and I'd forgotten how much the voices really help add to the single player. The same was true for God of War. I might even play the next Bond game, even though the most recent ones haven't been great, just to hear Sean Connery do the lines...

When it comes right down to it, I don't mind voice actors getting a cut of residuals. Because if players are listening to their voices over and over and over again, they deserve to be paid for it. Let's just not let them get crazy with it, shall we?

Squeenix, get a new idea!

I want to open with a caveat: I am a big Squaresoft-Enix fan. That said, however, I want to send them a message, and the message is this -- we are ready for something new.

You want to be innovative. Right, got it, on the same page as you. You want to be successful. Don't blame you. Who doesn't want money? You want to be liked. Okay, you're not the prom queen, but whatever, I can go with it. You want to be a game company that sells games. Hey, baby, you're that already, okay? You're my star!

You want to party like it's 1997. Whoa there.

I understand a lot of people liked Final Fantasy VII. I've always thought VI was the better game, and I'm one of those crazy people who liked VIII, but that's just me. I understand that you wanted to do something with this massively popular title you made a while back, so you wanted to do a CGI movie on it. Fine, I've always liked your CGI, and I can stand to watch a movie. Hopefully the plot won't be as trite as the game. (Heh, jab jab.) But now you want to do not one, but several games about it? And there's a rumor that you're remaking the game?

Squeenix, you're breaking my heart here, baby. You can't do this to us.

You've got XII coming! What I saw of XII last year almost made me forget about how I didn't really like X that much. And I know you're still pimping out XI, but, I'm sorry, I've moved on to WoW. She treats me better, and, well, she's not as high on the upkeep, if you know what I mean. But XII! XII looked great! I know it's got ties to FFTactics, but I'm willing to overlook those kinds of things!

What happened to the old days? Where's the new ideas like Vagrant Story? I mean, it's great that you're branching out, doing stuff like Full Metal Alchemist and a new Musashi game, but I want you to shock me like you used to. I want multiplayer action RPGs like Secret of Mana again (and ones that don't require me and my friends to buy endless amounts of hardware -- I'm looking at you Crystal Chronicles!) or shooters like Einhander. Sure, you made some mistakes (I'll pretend that Bouncer didn't happen if you will) but you used to be trying to do something new!

This Code Age thing -- it could be good. Baby, I really want it to be good, but... so far I'm just not feeling it. Look, I'm willing to give it another chance, as long as you prove to me you've changed! But you've gotta change! I can't take being used like some common person who you expect to buy everything you slap the words "Final Fantasy" onto. I've got feelings too!

I know it's too late to stop you and your mad VII bent now, but if you're not doing a remake, you'd make me so happy. I'd respect you so much more in the morning... don't cheapen what we once had.

Violent Videogames Make Me Calm

I so didn't want to have to write about this, but really, it's going to keep coming up, so I might as well get my opinion on the matter out and in the open. You may have heard the latest in a string of stories claiming that violent videogames are corrupting the youth of America.

The latest target is "25 to Life," which is yet another GTA clone coming out in the next year. Part of the problem is that GTA's already out, so the amount of impact these troublemakers can get is minimal. "25 to Life" isn't out yet, however, so now that they've started early, they want to prevent it from teaching kids how to kill people.

I see at least half a dozen reasons why these people shouldn't be allowed to speak to any human being ever again, but let's start with the obvious ones. Attorney Jack Thompson has described these games as "murder simulators." He claims that the army uses these games to desensitize children. Here's a few facts for you, Jack -- violent crime in America is down, not up. Kids are less likely to commit crimes than they were before. And so far, you have yet to produce the proverbial smoking gun.

Because here's the thing they don't want you to focus on -- it's a scare tactic. The game itself isn't relevant. Games themselves aren't relevant. This has been done before, with pot, with rock'n'roll, with dancing and even with reading. There is always something somewhere out there that someone doesn't want you to see/hear/read/know.

If you want to cut down on violent crime, quit attacking the retailers and start attacking the parents. The game's rated M. This means only 18 and older people can buy them, and despite what you might think you've proven with your false sting operation, retailers are pretty good about this. Could it be better? Sure, but so could a lot of things, including gun laws, child supervision laws, schooling... I could go on and on and on. So if retailers don't sell them to kids, how do kids get them? Careless parents.

I know, that's the thing no one wants to hear. Parents are the careless ones. Parents are the ones who buy their kids these games. And, let's be honest here, games don't kill people. I've been a videogamer for a long time. I played tons of FPS games growing up. I deathmatched my way through college. I've played all of the GTA games. And you know what? I haven't killed a single person yet. Funny that.

If you really want to blame someone for violence in America, let's start with the parents. And past that, let's blame gun manufacturers. Because when a kid shoots someone, they do so... with a gun... that they got from their parents or grandparents.

Something somewhere is corrupting kids, if you believe the hype, and they won't stop trying to remove your rights until they find it. Speak out. Do something. Write a letter to your Congressman, or your Senator. Tell them to stop this pointless aimless crusade of theirs, otherwise you'll put someone in office who will.

Remember something, Senator... the kid who played all of those violent video games? He grew up. And guess what?

He votes now.

RTS Round and Round

Some genres seem to just phase in and out of fashion. It's a little weird, really. Some years, everyone's trying to clone something. Other years you can't get a good game to save your life.

Take, for example, the RTS genre. It's been quiet for a few years now. Sure, there was the excellent Warhammer 40k: Dawn of War, and a handful of mediocre other RTS's that didn't hold my attention, but there wasn't anything like the glory days -- no Starcraft, no Red Alert 2 (I don't consider Generals all that great, but maybe that's just me) ... I missed the great days of RTS. The last killer RTS was Warcraft III.

Now this year (or the next two years, rather) look like we could have a glut of them. There's the ever incredible looking Empire At War (and no, I'm not saying that just because I used to work with the Petroglyph guys when they were Westwood), there's Black & White 2 (which has one of the Starcraft folks doing a lot of work on it), there's another C&C game supposedly in the works, Chris Taylor is doing another RTS which he describes as the spiritual successor to Total Annihilation (YYYYYYYES!), Liquid is doing a D&D RTS.... where did all these come from?

I know, I know, I left out Age of Empires and Empire Earth, but let's be honest -- these are both too long term for me. I don't want my RTS games taking 4 hours per game. That's what I liked about Starcraft and RA2 especially -- they were fast, sleek, effective genre games that didn't make me plod. I want my games fast.

Back to what I was saying in an earlier rant, gamers today don't have as much time as they used to, and a lot more games to divvy their time up between. I don't finish a lot of games these days, because it's really got to be worth my time to do so. Still, I love RTS games. I love pretending to be a commander, sweeping his armies in on the fields to decimate waves of enemies. But I don't want to spend all day doing it.

To the companies who are building the RTS games of tomorrow, I must confess -- don't make it so a match takes four or five hours. Inevitably those games are decided in the first twenty minutes anyway, so the prolonged trouble only frustrates people more. That's what turn based strategy is for.

Keep my combat quick, accurate and deadly. Within an hour, I expect to be victorious, bathed in the blood of my enemies, or laying slain at his feet. I only ask that you give this to me.

Back to my original point -- there's nothing wrong with a genre going away for a while. It means we get to remember all the things we liked, and forget all the things we didn't. We can approach it with a new critical eye when we return and hopefully the original ideas will blow us out of the water.

And that's what all gamers want, I think. Not just pretty graphics, but a gameplay experience that gives us a fast and furious ride that we come back for.

The MMORPG bubble

In case you didn't hear, Warner Brothers just sold The Matrix Online to Sony Online Entertainment. And sure enough, there are dozens of people foretelling the death of the MMORPG genre all over again. It's an argument that's been made several times before, and strangely enough, I come down in the middle of it.

See, I can understand why people think the market's going to crumble, but I can also see why developers keep making them and why some of them still sell so well. Let's look at both sides of the equation.

Why the market could crumble

Let's face it -- the market could hit a ceiling at any minute. The games are timesinks, requiring major investments from players, not just in terms of time, but in terms of cash. There's a monthly subscription fee attached to these games, so you don't just buy it once, but again and again and again. But you do the same for cable TV. However these games cost a lot to develop, and they are high risk. If you succeed, you've got something that'll bring in bundles of money, hand over fist. If you fail, you've just blown all the resources of your company on a failure that may have cost you everything. For every World of Warcraft, there are a few Sims Onlines. Every time one of these games does well, there are others that are dying a few months out. Part of the problem is that these games take a good deal of time to play.

A lot of people said Miyamoto was crazy when he said that he thinks games are too long, but I think I understood what he meant. With so many entertainment experiences out there, I don't have 120 hours to dedicate to a game any more. I tend to pick and choose my gameplay experiences, and I like things that I can pick up, play for a while, then leave. That's one of the reasons I like playing World of Warcraft -- short gameplay experiences aren't unheard of. I'll go, play for an hour or two, then stop. I don't need to do 4-6 hour sessions (unless I'm doing an instance, which can take that long -- but that's why I save them for weekends, usually) and I can do other things that night. And there are other people like me out there.

If you subscribe to an MMORPG, you're often taking a large chunk out of the very small pie of free time you have. Time that you give to a lot of things -- TV, movies, reading, music... Which is why most people don't subscribe to more than one MMORPG at a time. Now, gamers play these (mostly) for a few years and then jump ship to the newer and better MMORPG when they come along. But if there are too many, and the market doesn't grow, you'll have new games without subscribers, and the market will die.

Why the market could be fine

There's a lot of genres this market hasn't touched, and people are finding new ways to try it all the time. They don't all have to be sword'n'sorcery games, because there are audiences beyond that. The Matrix Online, while an attemtp to do something different, didn't have the gameplay to back it up (and beyond that the last two movies weren't great...) and is on the decline accordingly. But there are MMORPGs about piracy in the works, there have been more sci-fi MMORPGs announced, there's a car wars type one coming out, but there's plenty more we can do with them. As much as I am getting tired of licensed games, I'd like to see a Tron MMORPG. I'm looking forward to APB and seeing if it can really deliver on the idea of a massively multiplayer GTA. I'd love to see an MMORPG about assassins, hitmen and spies -- really, where IS the spy MMORPG? With the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, MI6 and every other secret agency across the planet, you'd think it would be an obvious one to do. And real cities! Car chases! Mercenaries! Maybe even small gun skirmishes! Overthrowing regimes and installing puppet leaders! Wouldn't that be incredible? I'm probably thinking too big. But that's the easy part -- the ideas area all there, waiting for someone to try them.

In the end, the MMORPG market is like any other market -- it's going to have its ups and downs, and there's still lots to do with it. But in the end, I think it'll be better suited when it isn't a market, but a part of several other markets. Many years ago, I wrote a piece about how adventure games were dead. (I took some flak for it, but I was young and still learning.) Now I see that they aren't dead -- they've just merged into other genres. That's where we can go with MMO games. It's the wave of the future, I tell you.

RocketBall (a game of inches)

So what do you do when you have a few friends who are fairly decent at FPS games and a few more who enjoy them but aren't great at them? You find a variation that you can all play, that anyone can win and that everyone enjoys. For me and mine, that joy is RocketBall.

See, we like Halo 2. We're not online fiends, we don't play all the time and we certainly aren't devoted to it. But every so often we gather together and play this crazy little game variation called RocketBall. The premise, for those of you who haven't played, is that there is a ball loose in the arena. You win by holding the ball for a certain period of time (we're fond of 2 minutes), cumulatively (not consecutively, oh god no). And, to make things interesting, the person who holds the ball is, for the most part, unarmed. The same cannot be said for every other player in the game, because they all have Rocket Launchers. Sometimes we give them swords as secondary weapons. Sometimes we put secondary weapon on random. Almost always we pick a small map.

RocketBall doesn't work with anything less than 4 players, but is entertaining all the way up to 16 (although we've capped out at 12). Part of the fun lies in the fact that you will get players who have no intentions of picking up the ball, ever. They simply enjoy blowing people up, or attempting to blast the ball off the map, which has happened. Often times as a player is closing in on the ball, a hail of rockets will descend upon him or her, and you will see three or four other rockets joining yours. It's quite lovely, really.

But the trash talking is the best. The way it's set up at our place, there are four of us in my room, two to four of us across the hall and four downstairs. So people will often be yelling across the house -- taunts, insults, wisecracks, you name it... And no one is above or below trash talking.

Hearing one of your friends going "Woo hoo! Six seconds! New record!" is hysterical, but what's far funnier is the barrage of responses he gets in return. I like playing FPS's online, but the party FPS experience will never die, nor should it.

I thought I hated racing games...

...and then this weekend, I realize that may not, in fact, be true. It may just be that I hate simulation racing games, or traditional racing games. Regardless, I may have unfairly been badmouthing a genre while partaking in the better aspects of it.

All of this springs from the fact that I bought Burnout 3 this weekend.

Now, to be fair, there are racing games that I enjoy. I've always been a big fan of the Wipeout games (once I got over that steep, STEEP learning curve), and I liked Crazy Taxi (although I never became a total addict to it). I played and enjoyed Mario Kart, and I suppose that's a racing game too, but I think I always denied that by telling myself it was a KART racing game, which didn't make it a REAL racing game.

So my housemate and I are out scavenging used games this weekend (mostly to get another copy of Halo 2 for the house, so we could have our LAN party successfully) and I made an impulse decision to pick up Burnout 3, since it was only $20 new. A friend of mine has constantly been telling me it's a racing game for people who don't like racing games. And the game I was talking about the most at E3 was Full Auto, which basically looked like Car Wars on crack. We sort of walked past the Burnout: Revenge game because, well, we were in a hurry and had a lot to see. But when I got back from E3, my friend was constantly telling me I should just go spend the $20 and try Burnout 3.

Good lord, thank you Jon.

Any moment we weren't playing Halo 2 and the Xbox was on, it had Burnout 3 running on it. We were crashing cars left and right, savoring every minute of wonderful explosions. I was racing brutally fast and slamming people into walls, into lakes... you name it. I only stopped playing last night because I'm out of practice with my Xbox (too much time spent in World of Warcraft) and my hand hurt. So now I'm looking forward to Burnout: Revenge in addition to Full Auto.

Maybe I thought all racing games were like NASCAR (which never appealed to me) and Gran Turismo (which was too brutal and unforgiving for my liking). Maybe I hated the fact that the GT games had no real damage to speak of. Or maybe I just didn't like the fact that sim games, to me, aren't fun games. I know some people love that kind of thing and more power to them, but it's just not my bag, baby. The parts of racing games I like are the high speeds, the big crashes, the action movie feeling... what I like is arcade racers, not sim racers.

So to all the racing games I have unfairly dismissed or ignored, I hereby apologize.

When the war comes....

...which side will you be on?

Is it just me, or does the whole idea of "console loyalty" not sit well with you, either? I find it insane to think that I'm supposed to identify with Nintendo or Sony or Microsoft. It drives me crazy how endless legions of fans sit around and berate each other about how this number proves their system is better, faster, stronger.

This was my fifth E3 and let me tell you, I'm still not sold on the idea of any one company being "the leader." Sure, Sony has the installed market base (which means there are more PS2s in households than there are, say, Xboxes or Gamecubes) but in the end, that can change in any given generation, and isn't an indicator of who's better, simply who's more popular. Think back, those of you who are out of high school -- was the most popular kid in your school the smartest? The most wise? Hell, even the most fit? I walked away from E3 feeling like I'd gotten sales pitches from two companies about how their systems were better than the other guys and Nintendo's "news is coming!" approach. And you know what it comes down to?

I still don't care.

Sony's smoke-and-mirrors tech demo may have impressed some people, and others talked about how the 360's fall launch was going to let Microsoft decimate everything in sight, but it all comes down to the games. You can throw around console power stats all you like, but again I point you back to the games. It's all about the games.

Of the games I saw at E3, nothing made me go "Ohmigod! I have to have [insert console] now, right now, no waiting!" The closest thing I felt to that was Full Auto, SEGA's cars-with-guns game that appeals the deeply buried racing gamer inside of me that only enjoys racing games when techno music is playing, when rampant destruction is involved or preferably both. But even that wasn't a system-seller for me.

But I realize I don't represent most gamers. I do buy each console, a move that immediately puts me in the minority. I don't buy as many games as I used to, simply because I'm picky about where I can spend my time these days. And yet, I'm still pretty much in the know on what people are playing, what's good, what's bad, what's selling, what's not...

With all I saw at E3 this year, there wasn't anything to blow your face off. There wasn't anything that was so revolutionary, so redefining, that I had to tell the world about it. What there was ... was a lot of hype, and not a lot to back it up.

I'm not saying the systems are bad -- far from it -- I'm just saying don't attach to yourself to any console this early. Wait and see where developers you trust are going. See what games catch your eye. And don't associate yourself with any group that says "[console x] isn't going to have any good games!" Every console has good games.

It's more of a question which system has good games for you...