Welcome to another issue of RPGamer's Currents. This week's video gaming news may be incredibly joyous, but the sky is not without dark clouds. As many of you know, two makeshift bombs recently went off in Boston, MA at the tail end of their annual Boston Marathon. Over a hundred people were injured and three individuals were killed.
When horrible things like this happen, the many denizens of the internet have a tendency to let out a collective sigh and say things like "What is this world coming to?" and "People disgust me." While I can understand the mentality behind this kind of reaction, I also think it's the wrong one. We don't know much about why this tragedy happened, who the perpetrators were, or how government will react in the future, but we do know the reaction of many people on-site. Paramedics, participants, and passersby risked their own safety in order to help people evacuate, attend to the injured, and council the wery. If anything, in dark times like this, we should be reminded that there are always good people in the world and that they typically outnumber the bad.
Boston, MA has played host to the staff of RPGamer on more than one occasion. During these difficult times, we would like to extend our heartfelt sympathy to its citizens. No words can quite convey our sincere condolence.
While there has been much in the way of unfortunate mainstream news as of late, we have been treated to some amazing gaming news. The latest Nintendo Direct broadcast was chock full of new game coverage (Mario & Luigi: Dream Team, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past 2, Yoshi's Island 3DS), slick improvements (Wii U UI update, Virtual Console update, Panorama View), exciting rereleases (Earthbound, Donkey Kong Returns, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons), and long awaited announcements (Bravely Default: Flying Fairy, Shin Megami Tensei IV (for UK), Game & Wario). It was a great day for video games, but it also highlighted a stark difference between Nintendo and its competition.
Since October of 2011, we've been receiving regular Wii, Wii U, and 3DS updates directly from the mouths of Global President Satoru Iwata, Nintendo Translator Bill Trinen, President COO (NOA) Reggie Fils-Aime, and more. Nintendo have also amped up their presence on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, and encourage people to reach out to those channels for questions, comments, and even troubleshooting. It's an impressive show of force, in terms of communication, but it also shines a light on how the times are changing.
We live in an age where traditional marketing has lost its impact. The days of soap operas actually selling soap between commercial breaks are long gone, and billboards have since been replaced with Facebook ads and promoted tweets. More and more, organizations are turning to communication channels to open an ongoing dialogue and promote their products to their audience. It's beneficial in both understanding what's wrong with your current offering and building customer loyalty through engagement. However, not everyone wants to chat with their customers.
Sony and Microsoft have gained a notorious reputation for being "press release" companies. You'll never know what's going on inside their divisions or what plans they have for the future unless they publish a press release. They both have communication handles on different social media networks, but those handles aren't predicated on feedback. Instead, they either link to a press release or promotional campaign. There's no engagement.
Sony has recently hit a bit of controversy regarding the UI changes of the PlayStation Store and its sporadic update schedule. Fans aren't pleased and news outlets aren't shy about pointing gaps in its service offering. In response, the company chose to do as it has always done: decline to comment. You'd think Sony would take the time to at least address the people asking when the next update is, but so far they haven't. Not in a press release. Not on social media (where they have 32 million Facebook likes and 1.7 million Twitter followers). Not anywhere. In the midst of media confusion and dipping consumer confidence, Sony has chosen to avoid saying anything and hope it all blows over.
Microsoft sits in the same boat. When the company recently chose to cease development on XNA for Xbox 360 and PC, they faced a fair amount of backlash from indie developers who enjoyed using the environment and gamers who didn't want to see indie gaming be phased out of the next generation of consoles. Microsoft has been criticized more than once for its lackluster support of the indie gaming service, few games able to make any significant headway due to advertising limitation and limited toolsets, but to axe development without consulting any of the parties that had vested interest was a communicative misstep the company is far too well known for.
The interesting thing about Nintendo's decision to open the lines of dialogue is that they've been pretty straight with their deficiencies. There has been an acknowledgement that fans aren't pleased with the lack of games for the Wii U and its UI challenges need to be addressed. As a result, they've made frequent updates where they note the dip in releases and announce further releases in the future. They've also enacted UI changes that we should start to see next week. It's refreshing to have a company that is okay with not being perfect, providing it can still have a good rapport with its consumers. I just wish Sony and Microsoft would take a few pages out of Nintendo's book and stop acting like walled gardens.
When I first heard about the OUYA, I honestly didn't understand the fuss. Playing Android games on a big screen television didn't sound tremendously appealing, considering the fact that I already had a phone. However, the prospect of any platform being open for indie gaming business is awesome in my book and I've actually been getting a little more excited for the grapefruit-sized moddable console. Unfortunately, my excitement — like others — is now waning.
The first public version of the OUYA hardware started shipping to Kickstarter backers on March 29, initiating what the company's CEO, Julie Uhrman, likes to call an "exclusive preview period" while the team adds and refines the system's features. What Ms. Uhrman might not have realized is that many of the tech websites like Engadget, CNET, and The Verge chose to back it immediately in order to review the initial hardware. They have since, and unfortunately their experiences with the $99 console are not exactly encouraging.
There are three common and very concerning complaints with the upcoming device: (1) The controller has sticky buttons, unreliable triggers, a lackluster design, and suffers from occasional lag, (2) the operating system features counter-intuitive design and a number of missing important features, and (3) in spite of 8,000 developers signed up to create products for OUYA, the quality and variety of the 104 games currently available is tremendously lackluster.
One of the first outlets to deliver a review on the product was The Verge, who gave the hardware a scathing 3.5/10 (the lowest score the tech site has ever dealt). The site's reviewer managed to get Netflix, Plex, Shadowgun, a Super NES emulator, and Angry Birds Space running on his console. However, he maintained that the complicated process required to do so will likely be beyond the capabilities of its 60,000 backers, let alone an average retail consumer. "They'll just want to turn it on and play some games," he said. "Boy, will they be let down."
Julie Uhrman has been on the defensive since — stating that this is just the first iteration of the hardware and that much of the product will be altered before and after the release. Which is fine, I suppose, as this is an early version of the console. However, why would anyone want to buy hardware with known controller issues that won't be addressed until OUYA 2 (if there is a second iteration)? Furthermore, how do they plan on addressing the camp of people that just want to plug in a console and start playing? A moddable console is nice, but gaming shouldn't feel like work. Right now, OUYA feels like work.
Once upon a time, social gaming was considered a big deal. After the success of Farmville, companies started joining the space en masse, larger publishers started obtaining whichever social game developers looked half decent, and Zynga (one of the early heavy hitters in the space) went public with an impressive IPO. For a while there, industry pundits were even pointing to Facebook games as the future of the video game space. Well, video game traditionalists can rest easy, as social gaming is seemingly on its way out.
Troubled social game publishers like Zynga, whose many financial, leadership, and legal challenges since IPO have been well documented, are facing a time of transition. Many people are still using Facebook, but far fewer of them are still using the social media platform from a desktop. Mobile is the future. Unfortunately, making the switch from social to mobile is not as easy as one might think. There are mobile games available that have social counterparts or are as easy to play as a social game, but companies like Zynga are locked into their current trajectory by investor demands and traditional customer expectations. There can be no lateral shifts.
Mega publishers like EA, however, are in a different boat. Not completely dependent on PC social gamers, it is opting to remove itself from the social-to-mobile transition altogether by pulling the plug on their last remaining social gaming titles (SimCity Social, The Sims Social, Pet Society, ect.). These titles were created by Playfish Games, a developer they paid a whopping $300 million for in late 2009. It is apparent that EA doesn't see the space as being financially feasible anymore.
Who knows how much longer we have to endure app requests from friends and family. However, I'd wager there'll be a significant decline in the number of requests in the near future.
It's usually pretty easy to ignore partisan statements about what gaming "really is." They're often being made by pundits, completely removed from the medium, who like to say ridiculous things like "video games aren't art." However, I take notice when the head of a major video game company says something completely asinine.
Crytek, which has always been known for its focus on hardware pushing graphics, is usually pretty quiet when it comes to industry dialogue, but co-founder and CEO Cevat Yerli recently told Xbox 360 Magazine something that almost makes me weep for the future of gaming. "People say that graphics don't matter," Yerli said, "but play Crysis and tell me they don't matter. It's always been about graphics driving gameplay." He went on to point to the value of the CryEngine and that, in many of the cases he was aware of, graphics make up "roughly sixty percent of gameplay."
I honestly find this kind of commentary adverse to appropriate development practices. The idea that graphics are king just seems a little superficial. Why would anyone want to play a game that looked pretty, but wasn't well written or featured sloppy mechanics? I guess that's why I've never been enamoured by the narratives or characters of Crytek games. All sizzle, no steak.
As you likely know by now, Adam Orth (the game director who took to Twitter to whine about people not liking the concept of "always on" technology) is no longer with Microsoft Game Studios. Naturally, this is being interpreted by the public as a direct result of the backlash he received for his somewhat insensitive comments. Mostly because that's exactly what it is.
Whether Orth left of his own volition or was asked to resign, we know he isn't at the company and Microsoft has opted to issue a formal apology for his words while also denying the inference that they were indicative of their next console's capabilities. Orth has since made his account private, taken down his LinkedIn account, and is likely sprucing up his resume.
Regardless of whether he was trolling his friend (which is still his claim) or not, this is an important lesson for anyone in the public eye: If you're going to say say anything over a social media platform, try to make sure it's something you won't ultimately be crucified for. Taking insensitive jabs at rural customers is never funny or acceptable. It just makes you a wang. A wang without a job.