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CURRENTS
Issue #144
November 7, 2013
Old Dog, Same Tricks
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. Here's a fun fact: before I had improperly shut down my computer earlier this week without saving the draft of this column, and spent the rest of that day obsessing over how I'd have to rewrite thousands of words. According to my psychiatrist friend, I was exhibiting traits similar to OCD because my level of caring for this column induced a drop in serotonin as soon as things went south. She maintains that it's the same thing that happens when you're in love and the problems with your partner make you go a little crazy. Crazy sounds about right. Speaking of things that I love, Pentatonix just released a pretty neat cover of a few choice Daft Punk tracks:

Losing that info made me start to think about the days when I would accidentally delete or lose a save file on an RPG that I was playing. Out of spite, I would typically refuse to return to that game and do all of that work over again. I'm kind of curious as to whether that's happened to you or not.

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • Have you ever lost a saved game file?

  • If so, how long did it take you before you played the game again?

  • If your most played game lost all of its saved data, how would you react?

It's no secret that gamers crave new experiences. When it comes to wish fulfillment, it could be argued that the video games we choose to engage in are determined by unfulfilled needs. Our day-to-day lives may be ho-hum in nature, but we can single-handedly save the world by night. There's a certain amount of power that accompanies the enjoyment we derive from our favorite pass-time. That being said, we can only save the world in the same fashion a certain amount of times before the enjoyment flat-lines and we go elsewhere. It's the reason why so few of us continue to play the same games over and over again, and the reason why stubborn mega-franchises like Call of Duty have become a running joke in our industry.

In fact, the internet is flooded with Call of Duty oriented one-liners and gags. What's the fastest way to be called a noob? Play any Call of Duty game online a day after release. Why did a twelve-year-old cross the road? To get to his next camping ground. A gamer takes an assault rifle into a COD knife fight — who wins? Depends, can the other stab his leg? Believe me, I can go on. There is a staggering amount of negative and critical memes aimed at pointing out what should be obvious: this franchise has problems, but, as it has sold in the past, the developers have chosen to continue to churn out the same experience. That is the longest running joke of this franchise, and to be honest it may also be the saddest.

To be fair, the Call of Duty franchise has continued to add variants to the formula whenever a setting became too familiar. After three back-to-back Call of Duty titles were set in war-time Europe, they introduced a Modern Warfare title to freshen the tone. Soon after, they took gamers to the Pacific during the Second World War — a place where the West has experienced their greatest losses at the hands of Japan. Gamers didn't welcome that experience with open arms, because it was yet another World War II game. That's when more pressure was put on the Modern Warfare series to perform. Thankfully, for Activision's sake, each title in the Modern Warfare series did sell exceptionally. The following complaints were always the same though: according to many gamers, each Modern Warfare entry felt like a rehash of the one before it. People were getting fatigued by killing beige people in the Middle East, if not offended by the portrayal of everyone who wasn't white. It was at this point that the Black Ops series was introduced. Enemies were more varied, action was more cinematic, and inventory felt more advanced. These games sold, but the complaints — again — circled back to the same formula, featuring mindless core gameplay and few narrative surprises. What was Activision's answer to this criticism? To introduce a new franchise titled Call of Duty: Ghosts.

Before we dip into the mixed reaction that Ghosts has received, we have to analyze certain consumer-led corporate expectations. In spite of the fact that gamers have been pointing the finger at Call of Duty's mediocrity since the release of Call of Duty 3, each game in the series has sold very well and critical scores for each entry have almost always hovered around 9/10. Regardless of the many problems that this franchise has always had, the developers have managed to release a new entry nearly every single year to nothing but a positive reception. If I were the CEO of Activision and my only way of gauging how well my most important franchise was doing was to look at Metacritic and raw sales data, I would probably think that the series was on the right track. Unfortunately, Ghosts has finally brought out the venom of professional critics.

Time will tell how profitable this new entry in the Call of Duty franchise is, but the reaction is decidedly mixed. In fact, there are more scores leaning towards 6/10 than 9/10. As much as I could take this time to revel in the hypocrisy that is the same professional critics citing the very same problems that the series has always struggled with and only now allocating a poor score, I'm going to focus on what they're actually saying.

According to Polygon in its 6.5/10 review, "Call of Duty: Ghosts is the best evidence in years of a franchise going through the motions. [...] Despite the changes to the multiplayer, Call of Duty: Ghosts too often feels like a me-too product, never breaking entirely new ground." They followed up these comments by categorizing the release as "an accountant's sequel, with just enough content to justify a new instalment." This was a sentiment echoed by Eurogamer. "The moment-to-moment thrills are still there," it notes in its 7/10 review, but they have become, "muted by expectation." They go on to state that the game's identity problems are compounded by a, "dimwitted, flag-waving, chest-beating story." Destructoid's Jim Sterling was far less kind in his scathing review, stating that "you can teach an old dog new tricks. [...] Ghosts, however, is a dog that simply doesn't want to change. It knows what it is, and sticks with it. It would be a respectable endeavor, if it didn't lead to such an underwhelming and predictable little product." He assigned a final score of 5/10.

There are outlets which predictably assigned 8/10 and 9/10 scores in spite of fully acknowledging that the series has run its course in terms of originality, but that can also be attributed back to expectation. In fact, Gamespot recently awarded an 8/10 to Call of Duty: Ghosts and a 6/10 for Batman: Arkham Origins, citing "not pushing the series forward" as a major problem for both games. Could it be that Call of Duty can get away with the same stock delivery because the series has already set a franchise precedent in terms of gameplay expectations?

Overall, your mileage with this new instalment in the Call of Duty franchise will likely differ. As with any game, there will be those who will find merit in its offering and those who don't. The point I'd like to make, however, is that more criticisms from fans and critics alike have surfaced with each successive entry in the Call of Duty franchise. As with Dynasty Warriors, Pokémon, or any EA Sports series, people can only play the same game so many times before they begin to realize that it is a problem. I fear Call of Duty has grown stagnant. The solution is either a hiatus or some radical changes. To be honest, I'd be fine with either.

Sources: Polygon, EuroGamer, Destructoid

For a while now, the Nintendo Wii U's lack of commercial success has made it fairly easy to forget about the PS Vita's problems in finding an audience. As long as one industry player is doing far worse, the critical eye tends to look away. That doesn't change the fact, however, that the PS Vita has failed to do what Sony and Michael Patcher thought it would: wipe the floor with the Nintendo 3DS. Like the PSP before it, the PS Vita is an impressive handheld device with a ton of potential that hasn't been realized. Far from destroying its competition, the PS Vita's situation actually looks dire next to the success of Nintendo's handheld. In fact, the PS Vita averages about 1/32 of the Nintendo 3DS' weekly sales. Things may be on the up-tick though for the high-end portable.

Sony recently revealed its second quarter numbers, citing its video game business as a contributing factor to experienced losses. The electronics giant blamed the decrease in unit sales on its PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PSP hardware being in market share decline with the advent of new technologies, as well as the negative impact of the PS Vita's recent price reduction. Costs associated to the development of the PlayStation 4 were also connected to the dip in profits, though it is expected that next quarter's financial situation will be more favourable thanks to a decline in development costs and the launch of an already highly reordered system. As a result of PSP and PS2 sales beginning to run dry, the company has been forced to cut its full-year estimates from previously forecasted profits of 50 billion yen to 30 billion yen. Interestingly enough, the performance of the PS Vita was the silver lining to an otherwise dark and stormy cloud.

The PS Vita sales were actually up this past quarter, with roughly 800,000 PS Vitas and PSP sold in total, compared to 600,000 in combined sales during the previous quarter. As previously alluded to, larger proportion of the second quarter's handheld sales belonged to the PS Vita, as PSP sales have begun to taper off. Maybe this boost in performance is due to the price cut. Maybe it has something to do with the buzz surrounding PS Vita TV. It could be that better games are finally making their way to the platform. Who knows? What's really important here is that the PS Vita's place in the market is finally solidifying.

Things are definitely improving for this "console quality on-the-go" system, but the hill ahead is still a rocky one. If the system is going to really help Sony's bottom line, sales need to be at least three or four times what they are now. People recognize the quality of the PS Vita's design and components, but consumer uptake will continue to be slow unless well received, original games begin to hit the platform in greater frequency. The new PS Vita model also should be released world-wide for a consistent price. Western gamers don't like the concept of buying a device when Japan can buy it for $50 less. Finally, something really needs to be done about the PS Vita memory cards. Paying $99 for a 32GB stick is a pain in the ass, and anyone who partakes in PSplus will tell you that a 4GB stick just isn't enough. Granted, if Sony can refocus on the PS Vita's viability after the PlayStation 4's launch, the shiny handheld may still follow in the footsteps of its big brother — becoming a great gaming device that doesn't actually lead in handheld sales.

Source: Sony

It is no secret that I'm a fan of Michael Baker's work in his regular Japandemonium column. He's had his ears to the ground of the Far East for years now, and is always a great resource for news stories we may not be privy to here in the West. Japan, like North America and Europe, is currently going nuts over the latest instalments in the Pokémon franchise. In a short period of time, Pokémon X and Y have already become two of the best-selling RPGs of all time. It's fitting then that last week's Famitsu magazine, issue #1300, featured a Pokémon centric questionnaire. Our man in Japan was cool enough to shoot me the results, in order to satiate my statistical side. The results of said surveying are limited in scope, as they only apply to participants in Japan. However, I think they offer some relatable insights as to why both versions of the game sold so well.

Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed bought Pokémon X, thirty-six percent of them bought Pokémon Y, and twenty-six percent bought both. Reasons for X included: "My friend got Y, so I got X," "Xerneas / Mega Charizard X / MewTwo X looked so cool," and (Michael Baker's personal favorite) "I wasn't sure, so I just picked it alphabetically." Reasons for Y included: "Yveltal / Mewtwo Y looked so cool," "I had a good feeling," and "I was gonna get X, but they were already sold out of that one." Interestingly enough, most of the people I know here in the West have purchased whichever game better corresponded to their sex-determining chromosome (Y for male, X for female).

Looking at the Pokémon themselves, fifty-six percent of those surveyed chose Froakie, thirty percent chose Fennekin, and only fourteen percent chose Chespin. Reasons for this overwhelming majority included: "His final form looks cool," "I always wanted to try a water-type," and (another favorite) "Because he looks just like my friend, lol." The most popular Mega Evolution was Mega Charizard X (26%), followed by Mega Ampharos (16%) and Mega Gengar (10%). No word on what the other 48% actually voted for. The most popular new Pokémon was Sylveon (34%), followed by Greninja (24%) and Noivern (16%). Again — no word on the remaining 26%.

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed chose the male protagonist, forty-two chose the female protagonist. There aren't any funny reasons listed for this; Michael speculates that it was broken down along either gender or cool/cute lines. When asked about their Pokémon playing history, those surveyed had previously played Pokémon Red/Green, Pokémon Gold/Silver, Pokémon Black/White, and Pokémon Black2/White2 the most — with Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire and Pokémon Diamond/Pearl not far behind. The most played entry was Pokémon Black/White. Finally, Professor Sycamore was voted the most popular character with Korrina trailing not far behind.

Interesting insights from abroad, complements of our own GaijinMonogatari. It'd be interesting if we could survey Western players and see why they propelled the latest Pokémon to the top of the charts. If I could speculate, I'd say that the new 3D art style and mega evolutions were the biggest reasons for local consumer interest, and that X has likely sold more than Y. Water types usually seem more popular than fire or grass when it comes to starters, so I'd wager that Froakie is getting some love here too. Of course, I could also be dead wrong. Regardless, a massive shout-out to Michael Baker for doing so much research on our behalf, and a personal thank you from me for being a swell guy.

Source: Famitsu

Final Fantasy XIV, in its initial form, didn't have the best of reputations. In spite of following up one of the most successful Final Fantasy titles to ever be released, I remember a number of gamers advising that I "steer to avoid." This high profile MMORPG, still fresh out of the womb, had gained a nasty reputation for unintuitive user interface, clunky question, bland environmental design, odd difficulty spikes, nigh impossible navigation, and a plethora of bugs and glitches. High ranking people were fired, apologies were made, and the damage to the Final Fantasy brand done by the disastrous initial release was fully acknowledged by Square Enix. It looked like the beginning of the end for the company's biggest cash cow. Thankfully, it wasn't.

In an unprecedented move, Square Enix president Yoichi Wada announced a new team to completely overhaul Final Fantasy XIV, led by Naoki Yoshida. This team would be responsible for generating content for the original version (mostly to bring it up to a point of playability), and to develop a brand new game which would address all of the previous release's criticisms. Fittingly enough, Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn begins shortly after the land of Eorzea is destroyed by a Bahamut induced apocalyptic event. With this perfect narrative background, Yoshida would implement a new game engine, greatly improved server structures, revamped gameplay and user interface, and a new story. Achieving something that many claimed would be impossible, A Realm Reborn released to a great amount of fanfare and a far more positive reception than its predecessor. I could take this time to gush about how greatly things have improved, but Michael Cunningham's review nails all the points I'd want to hit.

A Realm Reborn has been a success in a number of ways, but now it is finally having an impact on Square Enix's bottom line. We now know that the amount of paying Final Fantasy XIV: A Real Reborn users actually exceed that of Final Fantasy XI at its peak. According to a new Square Enix financial report for the six month period ending on September 30, the rereleased MMORPG has exceeded the company's expectations. As a result of a staggering 1.5 million registered players, the company will be revising its full-year forecasts from 59 billion yen to 61 billion yen. Square Enix also went from reporting a 2 billion yen operating loss to now anticipating an operating profit of 4.7 billion yen. This may not seem like a huge boom in the company's performance, but it's pertinent to remember that Final Fantasy XIV was dead weight until just recently. Perhaps the Final Fantasy franchise is finally pulling out of its funk.

Source: Square Enix

This is a newer section of RPGamer's Currents where we take a hard look at some video game industry rumors and attempt to assess how plausible they are. Nothing in this section has been officially confirmed, but who knows which rumors will float to the surface as fact in the future?

  • ReUmagined
    Recent rumors suggest that Nintendo is prepping a line of HD-remakes of seven classic Nintendo 64 titles, which would receive the same treatment as Wind Waker HD (updated visuals, add-ons, new play styles). Likelihood? Who knows? The main HD game being floated by this rumour is Super Mario 64, which would certainly sell if it now had Wii U quality visuals. It would be a cool series, but Nintendo has also said that most of their developers are focused on new games.
  • Assassins Creed Settings
    A "leaked internal Ubisoft email" has indicated that the Assassin's Creed series could have much more interesting locals in the future. 13th century Egypt, 14th century Ashikaga Shogunate Japan, 18th century French Revolution, 19th century Napoleonic War, and 19th century Taiwan were all namedropped. Likelihood? Possible. All of these locations would lend themselves well to an Assassin's Creed title, though I always am skeptical when "leaked memos" find their way to Neo-GAF.

That's it for this issue of Currents. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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