Wednesday, September 22, 2010

32. video games and the fall of japan

squaresoft's final fantasy (1987)
my apologies to the land of the rising sun.

just off the heels of TGS '10 (the tokyo game show for those not in the know), a few key people in japanese gaming have been saying that japan's long era of dominating the video game industry is over, and western studios are the new leaders in that sphere.  and these aren't small fries spouting opinion either - these are real industry heavy hitters, like keiji inafune (father of mega man and onimusha) and hideo kojima (the brains behind metal gear solid).  it's even been covered by the new york times.  i never really stopped to think about it, but it's completely true.  growing up as a nintendo kid in the 80's and 90's, my favorite games were all from powerhouse japanese studios - squaresoft's final fantasy, capcom's street fighter and side scrollers, and of course nintendo and shigeru miyamoto's pantheon of classics like mario brothers and the legend of zelda.  that was then.  save the princess, slay the dragon, and save the world by means of jumping on heads and whipping boomerangs.

but this is now.  who are the big guys these days?  nintendo not withstanding, you don't see a whole lot from namco, tecmo, capcom, or the other eastern houses.  let's look at some popular games of our time: halo, call of duty, guitar hero, madden, world of warcraft.  what do they have in common?  all software gems of the west.  these days it's electronic arts.  microsoft.  activision/blizzard (on whose idiot ceo i will be writing a full feature on in the near future).  and why?  because the market, not to mention the consumer, has grown exponentially in the last 20 years.  in the western world, games have come a long way from basement d&d sessions and action and adventure.  they're evolved from just something that people play for leisure into fully immersive experiences that have the power to shape pop culture and mainstream media.  you can use wii fit to get into better shape, party and social games to keep in touch or hang out with friends, or full out RPG's if you want to lose yourself in a cinematic odyssey.  example: xenosaga episode I (ps2) provided roughly 80 hours of gameplay for the full story, as opposed to super mario world (snes), which i have beaten in under 30 minutes.  and world of warcraft?  you better have at least 9 friends, a headset, and a few hours just for the final raid encounter in their wrath of the lich king expansion.

bioware's mass effect (2009)
japanese studios just can't keep up.  their game market has declined 20% since 2007, while the american market is up 10%.  what do the japanese masters have to say about it? capcom's keiji inafune was very blunt about TGS:  "i look around tokyo games show, and everyone's making awful games; japan is at least five years behind."  pretty serious stuff.  he went on to say "capcom is barely keeping up," and further, "i want to study how westerners live, and make games that appeal to them."  he understands how much of the market we make up now.  if he did study us what he would find is a fundamental difference in what japanese gamers enjoy versus americans and the west.  he'd find stark cultural differences, that americans put such a high value on individuality and freedom, that the games that allow that will sell better.  not to mention that we love our guns, so FPS games are highly popular.  japanese games sometimes have the tendency to be linear, story/quest-driven (even though the write excellent stories), as in doing anything sometimes has a string of prerequisites before it can happen.  western gamers generally seem to be more focused on openness and customization of the story catered to them - mass effect, dragon age and fable are all examples of this.  these three changed the story and outcomes over time based on decisions the player made with their characters, and were all very popular

as far as inafune's claim that capcom is barely keeping up, he's right.  i used to be one of their biggest fans and they're starting to lose me with rehashes of 15 year old games instead of  releases of original quality titles.  their last real success was dead rising, which was catered to the west (and of course, the latest zombie craze).  their upcoming reboot of the devil may cry series on the other hand, which is being recrafted to appeal to western audiences, actually made me angry.  for other japanese companies, what does namco really have outside of tekken?  when was the last time tecmo's slogan of "100% games" was true?

devil may cry is evidence simply localizing game production for targeted audiences isn't always going to work.  globalization has hit the game market, and japanese studios are going to have to adapt to their new audiences.  square-enix president yoichi wada put it best - "how do you truly globalize? i think you have to work with people who grew up overseas, who grew up breathing the culture. it’s impossible otherwise." "the game industry is constantly changing. everybody’s joining the market. you just don’t know what’s coming next."

on that note, if any game studios are reading this, i'll be more than thrilled to consult.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

31. if you're havin' halo problems i feel bad for you son, i got 99 problems but a hard drive ain't one

halo: reach
back when games still came on cartridges, figuring out how exactly to play them was a no-brainer.  you put the cartridge into the slot and turn it on.  that really didn't change at all when cartridges moved to cd's for the psx, dvd's for the ps2 and xbox 360, and ultimately blu-ray discs for the ps3.  then it got a bit more complicated - add ons for hard drives and wifi units became pretty much necessary to turn gaming consoles into media machines and give the user online social capabilities.  and game consoles come with those devices built in these days - the ps3 always has and now the new xbox360 slim does as well.  even further there's a 360 slim with a 4GB hard drive unit inside for only $199.  this sounds like a good thing overall - not needing as many peripherals anymore.  but it can also bring its share of problems.

i always thought consoles had an advantage over pc's in a couple arenas.  one of them is compatibility - i don't have to worry about my console's systems specs to play a game, because the game is created specifically to work on my console.  no need to bench my video card or upgrade memory.  software and hardware always work together hand in hand.

unfortunately that's not true for the new halo: reach game.  now i'm not a huge halo fan but i can understand the draw, and the latest version had people flooding malls and game stores everywhere to get their grubby hands on a copy.  but as it turns out, if you want to play a little online co-op, and you have one of the new $199 xbox360 slim units,  you might get the following error message:

"One or more players do not have an Xbox 360 Hard Drive. An Xbox 360 Hard Drive is required to play co-op on Xbox LIVE or system link."

... eh?  and it becomes a head scratcher.  everyone says they have hard drives.  the microsoft FAQ on halo say that this message directly points someone not having a hard drive.  so you figure it can't be you because there is a hard drive, just inside.  so some other noob is to blame.  yelling ensues, accusations of noobery are flung around, and some meatheads find each other in real life where an all out brawl ensues.

a grim tale, to be sure.

xbox 360 slim 4GB edition, $199
but in this situation, much to your shock and chagrin, you are the problem.  the memory unit inside the $199 version of the xbox 360 slim doesn't actually count as a "hard drive" but a "memory unit." meaning what?  you guessed it - you have to buy a retail xbox 360 hard drive, and it'll set you back around $130.  this problem has also been reported for halo 3: ODST, so this is probably a bug that affects all halo online co-op play.  which is even more awesome.  how on earth did microsoft not test this out?  online play is the thing now - single player games are quickly being overshadowed by the online realm.  this is doubly annoying because it's not like playing online is free.  a 1 year subscription cost for xbox live gold will set you back 50 bucks.  a modest cost, but a hard cost nonetheless.  triply annoying because nowhere on the halo tech specs does it list a hard drive for co-op play.

so the final damage?  your $199 xbox 360 slim + your $129 hard drive = $328.  wouldn't it have just been easier to buy the full xbox 360 system with a 250gb hard drive for $300?  just goes to show, you get what you pay for.

bravo microsoft.  really, excellent work making your users happy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

30. alleged game addiction, idiotry, and more ridiculous lawsuits

20,000 hours is an extremely long time to be doing anything - even the basic function of living.  20,000 hours translates into 833 days, which further calculates out to 2.28 years.  it's enough time complete more than half of a 4-year bachelors program while maintaining a healthy social and family life.  it's enough time to finish most masters degree programs after graduation.

i think you get my point, it's enough time to do some serious things.  or play some games instead.  maybe some call of duty, or some madden.  even some world of warcraft, if you're into that.  sorry.  did i say games? i meant game, singular.  that's what a guy named craig smallwood did - over a period spanning from 2004 through 2009, the hawaii native spent 20,000 hours playing NCsoft's lineage II.  lineage II is a sequel to its namesake, one of many online games springing up from the booming south korean market.  featuring (in my opionion) incredible artistic detail, it received mixed reviews from critics.

now let's put that into perspective - for those 6 years he spent 38% of his life playing lineage II. but that's not even the most ridiculous part.  he actually sued NCsoft for an undisclosed amount of funds for negligence and gross negligence, for not disclosing the addictive nature of the game.  apparently you see, if he know the game was so addictive, he wouldn't have started playing in the first place.  i understand that game addiction is possible, as i once noted an acquaintance of mine who routinely skipped physics for guild meetings.  but this particular incident doesn't smell right to me.  these were the counts smallwood brought forth against NCsoft: (i) misrepresentation/deceit, (ii) unfair and deceptive trade practices, (iii) defamation/libel/slander, (iv) negligence, (v) gross negligence, (vi) intentional infliction of emotional distress, (vii) negligent infliction of emotional distress, and (viii) punitive damages.  but that's still not the most ridiculous part.  after NCsoft moved for dismissal, alan kay, the presiding US district judge, refused to dismiss parts of the claim - he only dismissed counts i, ii, vi, and viii.  so the counts of negligence, gross negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, in his judicial opinion, "remain viable."

now a quick sidebar:  every computer game i've ever purchased installs with a nice long end user license agreement (EULA for short) that you should actually read before you complete the install.  i myself play world of warcraft and i sure as hell read mine -  ain't no one sneakin' a fast one on ol' nene.  it's how i know that blizzard (the warcraft people) isn't liable for loss of data, goodwill, or work stoppage (love how they threw that one in there) that i may experience.  playing the game means i agreed to that.  all games, including massively multiplayer online games, have a similar clause.  one of the big ones in MMO games is exchanging in-game goods for real world money, which NCsoft ultimately banned smallwood's account for.

so shouldn't all of this prevent ridiculousness of this magnitude from moving forward?  someone who claimed an inability to stop playing a game, but fully able to press charges once he broke the rules and wasn't allowed to play anymore?  direct EULA violations and a banned account in play?  according to the judge on record, the EULA included a "choice of law" clause that indicated that interpretation of the agreement would be governed by texas law.  and guess what texas and hawaii prevent people from doing?  that's right, they prevent them from waiving the right to claim gross negligence in advance.  well, damn.

let's be real, this guy is just pissed he got caught breaking the rules and lost his account.  and the present state of law is letting him have his way.

wired has judge kay's ruling on the counts here, and you can read a good analysis of the case from steve roosa at freedom to tinker.