Thursday, August 30, 2012

Nintendo in trouble, and why the next generation cannot save them

There’s no denying it, Nintendo is struggling. Although posting a loss for the first time would hardly seem like a company on the slide there are more issues at work here than meets the eye. Please note this is an analysis from someone who loves games, and reads news both gaming and business and world related, it is not intended as an insider view at all and it certainly is based upon my assumptions and observations, so take them as you will.

This ‘next’ gen of Nintendo’s is built soely on gimmicks, namely the obvious 3D capability of the 3DS and the slightly less obvious tablet controller of the WiiU. Both of these smack of desperation in the concept, look at the 3DS and it’s announcement at the peak of the 3D fad, everything was in 3D, movies, games, TV all being marketed as this massive selling point and for a time it was and I must admit that I was excited for the glassesless  3D tech and yes it works as advertised does it make for a more compelling gaming experience? I’d answer no. Every game I’ve played on the 3DS the feeling of depth sure has been there but not one has needed it, you could have chucked any of Kid Icarus or Tales of the Abyss onto the DS and they still would have been successful (maybe a revision that included the circle pad). It seemed like Nintendo was shouting, ‘hey guys you like 3D, right?’ 

Truth was we saw it as a novelty, nice in patches but we still not how we want to consume a majority of the content. Even Sony who was championing the 3D angle with the PS3 and their TV lines have relegated games with stereoscopic 3D as nothing more than a bullet point. Even with movies, it’s the big dumb ‘blockbusters’ that get 3D, and people put up with it because they must, it seems not because they want to.

Nintendo took a gamble that 3D was what consumers want, they lost that one. In the end you get the evolution of the DS that gives you games that look better but unfortunately the average smart phone now can produce far better looking games. Now I’m not saying the Smart Phone market is going to destroy the hand held market that Nintendo has dominated for 20+ years, but already it’s teetering on the edge, the metaphorical boulder just hanging over the head of mobile gaming. I’m not going to say for a second this is a Nintendo only problem, Sony looks like it has tried for the second time with the Vita and it seems like it is burning, I suspect Sony has tread these waters too often now and unless something dramatic occurs this will be their last hand held. I digress, though.

Think about it you have in your pocket (or bag) a device which makes calls, has a near constant data connection, has a massive library of games that cost between nothing and around $20 as a maximum as well as playing music, video and almost anything you can think of through the expansion of apps and it does it better than the 3DS does these things natively. Admittedly a lot of games on iOS or Android don’t click with me because on-screen controls are, to put it plainly, ineffective, lack feedback etc, etc (everything that has been said 100 times before is true). The thing is that even with these issues they will satisfy some 90% of smart phone owners, and despite the shortcomings of the platform in comparison to the 3DS, it sure does suit me on the go.

Now let’s turn our attention to the Wii’s tablet controller, oh I’m sorry, the WiiU. Yes that’s right Nintendo can’t get the message across this is a whole new console. It hasn’t helped that in all promotional material that white box appears alarmingly similar to the Wii (even though we have no idea what it will look like at all). I’m not saying that the core will be confused, the core know the ins and outs of the industry follows news with fanatical passion, the problem here is those just on the edge those that know games a little maybe buy 2 to 3 games a year that find out technology news from the BBC or CNN. This console and campaign just hasn’t been doing enough to differentiate itself to those consumers on the fringe and that’s a worry.

A new console or a new peripheral?

The next problem is the controller. Now think for a second, just one will do, what made the Wii wildly popular? That’s right the ability to appeal to a wider audience, now good or bad and whatever your thoughts on appealing to the ‘casuals’ it sure as hell made a lot of money. Now think on this the attach rate of software was poor, yes Wii Fit and Wii Sports sufficed for a large portion of the community but balance out the fact that Nintendo never loses on hardware (until recently). How many Wii’s were sold? Yeah that’s a fair chunk of change. Now think on this what made that console so ridiculously popular with the casual market? I’d bet it’s the fact that you had a controller that would work using basically 2 buttons and motions that while not exactly 1 to 1, translated what you did in the real world into the game world.
Now as a parallel think on the tablet market, what has made this product explode in popularity? Without fully studying consumer habits and marketing research I would wager that some of the top answers would come back as portability, simplicity of use, vibrant display. Now this is speculation but the touch resistive displays in the DS and 3DS have tended to be pretty lacklustre, looking dull and only useful for menu selections and very limited gameplay options. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot you can do with a touch interface but I am sceptical about how many compelling experiences you can create and add to that there is still the option to use Wii-motes and that 360 styled controller. To me it seems like an each way bet, in that they have no idea how compelling the tablet will be as a controller so they can bin it and transfer across to another scheme when it doesn’t work as planned. Also think about your tablet, or any tablet you’ve used ever how many buttons did it have? 2 or 3 perhaps?  Now look at the tablet above, yeah it's not as simple and frankly it looks a bit cumbersome.

I sure hope as a gamer this comes off but to be perfectly honest I can't see it happening Nintendo has been producing fantastic games and consoles for 30 years, I hope it all doesn't come crumbling down with the WiiU, here's hoping Nintendo know what they're doing.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mulling the Mass Effect Ending OR: How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love the ending

The below was (mostly) written prior to the release of the ‘Extended Cut DLC’, I have also provided some follow up thoughts on the way the reworking has been handled.
In the period since the release of Mass Effect has been released much has been made of the ending either for or against, mostly the latter, of course, or at least more of the latter are making themselves heard.
That is neither here nor there in the end, the game ended how it ended and I would be thoroughly satisfied if it was left at that (obligatory potential spoiler warning).

Watch out they're coming to destroy the ending!
Image from (Bioware Attributed Image)

This whole saga essentially proves what people have known for a while, gamers have the feeling that they are entitled to get what they want in a product. No other creative medium would the adoring (or not so adoring) public demand a rewrite, could you imagine Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg being demanded to recut their films because of fan demand (some would argue the possibly should have at times, and even George Lucas who is quite prone to a recut, has never done so at fan’s request…it’s always self serving and for his vision which by now that vision is more than questionable), it beggars belief that Bioware would lack the confidence in their vision and actually comply with these near rabid fans.

The main issue seems to be that the endings didn’t take into account your choices throughout the series, and let’s face it, it doesn’t. That’s not a fault that’s a vision, one of those ones that does matter. This game had to end. No trickery just a statement of fact, it had to reach a pinnacle all the story lines had to converge to one point. What my belief is that these people wanted an option where it was sunshine and roses, Shepard lived and we could continue making choices, like whether he retired to Neptune’s 2nd largest moon or spent his retirement hanging out in seedy bars continually picking up girlfriends (or boyfriends, no discrimination here).

In case you missed all 3 games, it’s a pretty bleak scenario; the Reapers are harvesting parts of whole civilisations and destroying the rest. It was pretty obvious that there was some sacrifice was going to be made. The ending basically boils down to the same choices you make in every scenario, a paragon, a renegade and a somewhere in the middle solution, which like all your previous actions, have consequences to others, it’s just that Shepard has basically one way he can go to save life in the universe, the ultimate sacrifice.
And major plotlines actually do take into account all your choices and wrap up those major plotlines elegantly. Does it tie directly into the ending, well no, but to have consistent plot lines running through the 60 to 90 hours these games could potentially last for, it is an astonishing feat and to be tied up so convincingly is an impressive feat, and I know that when I lost a potential war asset because of choices I’ve made not just in the third instalment but the first and second too.

 Others have complaints about the lack of exposition, with consequences to those friends that we held near and dear, which I guess ties back in to the above point as well. To be honest I wouldn’t be a fan of the campy 5 years later…’Wrex retired to Omega 5 after the war, and still looking for love and a cure for the genophage’. I could see the collective roll their eyes at that one, ultimately does it matter? This has and always has been Shepard’s Story, the team members ultimately tools to make your life easier, sure we grew to love some of them and loathe others but ultimately what happened to them doesn’t matter, you sacrificed yourself so they could live, ultimately giving further context wouldn’t give any more impression that your choices mattered, maybe I hated Wrex and only grudgingly let him survive to the third game, because he seemed to be the most useful way for my game to progress, I’m so upset that he’s living peacefully on Omega 5, see how this works? In fact this leads to a weird case where Bioware were never going to win, regardless of what loose ends they did or didn’t tie up there would have been someone who wasn’t happy with this thread or another wound up. It’s arguably a problem that games have over any other medium, we’ve all spent 60 plus hours shaping and moulding the character, he is part written character, part avatar for each individual, it’s hard not to feel invested, that this is really our story not written by a group of people in a room halfway across the world, writing not only to make a great product, but to fill out their own vision.

A possible concession is that the game does try to cram in a lot of information into the last 5 to 10 minutes that had not been previously alluded to. That’s fine, ultimately I do agree. The revelations could have potentially been dolled out through the game through information that you pick up as you finish major questlines but on the whole I’m Okay with it too. The ending is a point that no other civilisation has reached, it’s fairly reasonable to assume that no one else had this information to dispense, either. I’ll be the first to concede that it is all just a little bit hokey, that some of the justification of the Reapers seems a little nonsensical, why didn’t they start the cycle with the emergence of the geth? Why wasn’t the failure of this current cycle be explained? It raises more questions than answers, yet it still fits, not every story needs to be explained in detail and sometimes leaving you wanting more is better rather than crapping on in 4 hour cut scenes to wrap every last detail.
Mystical super holo-program or convenient hole filler? 

Ultimately the caving of Bioware to the outcry of disgruntled fans makes all my arguments a moot point; sure it’s not a new, reworked ending, which I am glad there was not a capitulation to the wants of the vocal minority. Instead we get some extra scenes, which ‘add context’ so perhaps those 4 hour cut scenes are abound after all.    

Addendum: The Extended Cut was actually everything I wanted to be, considering that it was decided 'it' must exist. I am extremely pleased that they stuck to their guns and the outcomes are essentially the same. It gives greater context to why the reapers are destroying and why your choices are what they are. It also even manages to give the finger to those who said the original 3 choices are not in line with the character they built, well guess what deciding against all those gets you? That’s right by refusing to choose you actually destroy all advanced civilisations, puts these decisions into context doesn’t it?
Maybe it reveals that this game is about sacrifices, doing things for the greater good not about crafting your character as you like, how quickly people forget that the decisions you made were always constrained in one way or another.
All in all the ending stays true to the vision (making some points in my above ramblings essentially moot) while still adding to both the mythology of the Mass Effect universe and providing greater context to why these decisions are set out before you.
All in all these are great ways to wrap to wrap up the series whether you stick with the original ending or go with the extended cut (despite my earlier reservations).

Hello World!

So I've been thinking of starting a blog for quite a while now, I'm a gamer who as more or less been there done that, hence being jaded, you know the one, always on forums complaining about Assassins Duty: Modern Battlefield 7 or whatever 'megachise' (heh, Mega and Franchise in one, I'm so clever) is due for release.

I'm not really taking a specific 'take' on the industry and I'm very much an outsider, rumour and speculation may be rife and unsourced.

Opinions are mine and I make no apologies for what I think, whether you agree or not.

Also the world does exist outside these walls, so grin and bear when I talk about politics and current affairs.

Until next time.