Tuesday, September 22, 2009

PS3 Backwards Compatibility Update

Oddly enough, this Sony update comes to us from SEGA. The prominent third-party game publisher's press site leaked rough minutes from a meeting with Sony that were promptly downloaded by the good folks at Objectif-SEGA.

The memo includes a lot of information that was probably supposed to stay secret, but the important bit is that it sounds like the rumors of Playstation 2 games for premium download on the Playstation Network are true, and that Sony will be rolling out their newly patented software emulation to support the initiative.

Of course, the trouble is that this is no kind of news at all for anyone who likes money. The useful information is still being omitted: will this Playstation 3 software emulation support playing PS2 games on disc? If it won't, it is still crippled functionality being marketed as a feature.

Demand more, people.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mass Market Effect

This is going to be brief.

Mass Effect has what is probably the best combat system ever developed for a console/computer roleplaying game.

This does not mean it warranted a premium-downloadable-content bot-match arena.

BioWare, I love you guys, and I realize you're neck-deep in bringing us Mass Effect 2, right now, but could you at least warn a die-hard fan that his $5 won't net him any storyline content?

Caveat emptor, I suppose.

Speaking of Mass Effect 2, I'm a bit nervous that the new plot seems to involve an entirely new crew, and that the plot seems to diverge from the Reaper threat established in the first game. I have no doubt that the game will be excellent -- BioWare has a nearly spotless track record -- but I am disappointed that many mysteries that went unsolved in the first game will continue to be unsolved at least until the third game in the trilogy, and that relationships forged in the first Mass Effect will only have passing impact on Mass Effect 2.

Still, much remains to be seen. Mass Effect 2 is still largely an unknown quantity. Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


The big console news right now is the price drops and redesigns going on, and one of the aspects of the Playstation 3 redesign is the absence of backwards compatibility from the new models despite Sony having recently patented a system for software backwards compatibility running on the PS3’s Cell processor.

I hear all the justifications. Some of them are good. Most are not. Sony’s Director of Hardware Marketing, John Keller, claims that backwards compatibility is “not as big as a purchase intent driver as you may be hearing,” which is ridiculous, considering that the currently marketed PS3 units are not backwards compatible, so it is actually impossible for backwards compatibility to be a purchase intent driver. Good show, Mr. Keller.

Some fans claim that the need for backwards compatibility just isn’t there. That it is only relevant at the beginning of a console’s life, when there is not a sufficient catalog of next-gen titles to support the console. Others argue that no one wants to play last-gen games anymore, or that they just don’t even if they have the capacity. This is obviously not true, or Keller wouldn’t casually remark that “it’s all people ever talk about.” Frankly, that’d be a red flag for me if I worked in marketing. But then, I don’t. I’m not going to get into the quality or breadth of the PS3’s game library here – that’s too much a matter of opinion.

Here’s my take: a lack of backwards compatibility in a popular mainstream gaming console is dangerous. It’s obviously not going to bring about the end of days or anything, but from a consumer’s perspective we should all be concerned about it. It is functionality that should be included in next-gen consoles. We paid the money for the last-gen games; we should not lazily accept the loss of the ability to play them. Video games are not like books or movies or music. Books require no operating system to use, and paper is almost a universal medium. Movies and music can be copied from last-gen media onto next-gen media with a minimal loss of quality and no loss in utility. But a video game depends not only on the media it is printed on but also the operating system of the console or computer it was designed for. When that operating system becomes defunct, so does the game.

Yes, Playstation 2 systems cost $100 brand new, today. But what about tomorrow? When the consoles disappear, the Playstation 2 library is gone. There will be future attempts to resurrect it for the sake of nostalgia, like Nintendo’s Virtual Console on the Wii, but these downloadable content libraries are slow to grow, incomplete, and still dependent on yet another operating system – not to mention the fact that they require a second purchase of the game! Every time a console is made obsolete and its successor is not backwards compatible, hundreds of creative works are lost to the playing public, and their return is entirely dependent on the vagaries of manufacturer foresight. Video game console manufacturers are historically not the most foresighted organizations, as evidenced by Sony’s seemingly willful ignorance of their consumer base’s interest in backwards compatibility.

This concerns me. Video games are the books and movies of the next century. It is too easy to imagine a world where, say, the Lord of the Rings came out for George Allen & Unwin’s UnwinBox in 1954, but was never ported to Houghton Mifflin’s PlayMifflin 3 in the 1960s, and therefore failed to become the cultural phenomenon that inspired an entire genre of fiction as well as fantasy roleplaying. This is not an acceptable vision of the future of creative expression. This sort of thinking on the part of hardware manufacturers needs to stop.

Of course, John Keller is something of a denial expert, who passionately refuted the existence of the PSP Go! and PS3 Slim prior to the release of those two system revisions. Sony has a wonderfully self-aware commercial out now that captures the resultant hilarity far better than I ever could here. The only way to know for sure what the future holds is to wait and see.

But this gamer won't be buying a PS3 until backwards compatibility is confirmed.

Price Pointing

A short time ago, BBC Radio 1’s website Newsbeat featured an article by Dan Whitworth, calling attention to a British price hike for the upcoming Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. The new Call of Duty will apparently retail in the UK for £55, rather than the usual £45. Apparently UK gamers are up in arms about it, although judging by the reactions from Dan’s interviewees, it’s not going to affect their purchasing decisions. Maybe that’s because they’re already willing to pay the equivalent of US$75 for a game Americans only pay $60 for. What’s another $16?

We Americans saw a similar phenomenon in the US around the inception of this latest generation of console gaming hardware in 2005 and 2006 when the price point for a new video game jumped from $49.99 to $59.99. I don’t remember a particular fuss being made about it at the time, although debate still rages in the community as to whether games were worth $50 in the first place. It’s this ‘price point’ mentality – this idea that no matter what the content of a video game (or, for that matter, a roleplaying sourcebook), it is worth a certain amount of money simply because it belongs to a certain class of commodity.

It is difficult to argue this point about video games because of the multiple genres involved, all of which have very different standards of quality. For instance, I may find it ridiculous that Halo 3, a ten-hour game, retails for the same price as Lost Odyssey, a 50-hour game, but that is largely because I am a roleplaying gamer, unlikely to get much enjoyment from Halo 3’s robust multiplayer system. But on the other hand, it is a often a challenge to find two games in the same genre that are wildly disparate in content, largely because the games with lesser content often suffer from other failings that cause them to be panned by the community.

Fortunately this generation of games has at least one example I am very familiar with. Take Shadowrun, another contemporary of Halo 3 that shares both the ‘shooter’ genre and Halo’s publisher, Microsoft. Shadowrun has no single-player content, which suggests a lower price point, but its matchmaking is also vastly inferior to Halo 3’s, and its bot AI is considered to be so bad that Halo 3’s complete lack of bot AI is preferable. These latter elements mandated a lower price point, and one was eventually reached – through market pressures. The game was retailing new at $29.99 only a few months following its release.

But the point is that both games started out at the same place, in terms of cost to the consumer: $59.99. Why was a game so clearly inferior to its contemporaries priced so highly?

Admittedly, in recent years we have seen game publishers set lower prices for ‘second-string’ video game titles, between $25 and $40, but this typically has nothing to do with quality or quantity of content and everything to do with brand. The big releases are all still right up there at $60, not including ‘special editions’ that can run anywhere from $70 to $120 or more. Now, I’m not saying that video games on average are not worth $60. That’s an argument for a different post, and probably a different blog. What I’m asking is, “Why is EVERY game worth $60?” It seems to me that gamers need to use some of that consumer market pressure that drove the price of Shadowrun down so quickly to convince game publishers that we are smart enough to notice that not all video games are equal. Maybe this means some of them will become more expensive than $60. But it sure as heck should mean that many of them become significantly less expensive.

This same phenomenon is visible in the roleplaying game industry. Wizards of the Coast raised the cost of the core rulebooks for Dungeons & Dragons, 3rd Edition, from $20 to $30, and we all grumbled but didn’t argue. Their press releases were right, after all – the price point on the books had not risen for twenty years. It was time. I do not begrudge companies responding to the forces of inflation. Now, books a fraction of the size of those core rulebooks retail for $35, and major sourcebooks can retail for as much as $50. But the real issue is that again, these numbers are irrespective of content! Page count for a $35 sourcebook can range anywhere from 100 to 300 pages. So I’m forced to ask, “Why?”

Why is a 100-page book worth the same amount of my money as a 300-page book? Why hasn’t the community used its collective consumer power to do something about this? Why are we so content to throw our money away on these hobbies?

It’s certainly not that we aren’t aware. People notice these things; I know they do. I’ve heard them complain. But no one ever seriously eschews making a purchase as a result. Video gamers might wait until a game hits the shelves used to pick up the occasional title, but if it is something we really want, we’ll buy it new – or as soon as it shows up used, in which case we’re essentially paying full price anyway, and for a lower-quality product.

Perhaps we ignore these ludicrous price-point strategies because we recognize that spending money on these things is a waste to begin with, and we acknowledge this at such a basic level that we are not enraged by the blatant discrepancies. Personally, I think it’s time we all got a bit more active and conscientious about the value of our dollars. We owe it to ourselves, but more importantly we owe it to the hobby.