Tagged: commentary

The Price of Progress Part 4: Overplayed

price-of-progress-overplayed

I’ve still got this stack of hastily scribbled notes and print outs stacked at the side of my desk so I figured it was time to get back to this series of posts and wrap things up so I can retire them to the shredder. Now, I like music and I like games so when the two get together I’m almost always ready to play but over the last decade or so of music/rhythm games things have started to get a little… stale.

It seems there are only so many songs ready to be licensed out at any given time and a very small stable of which publishers feel are the most appealing to their target demographic (and reasonably priced). It was fine back in 2003 when Karaoke Revolution and Amplitude were the only major music games that focused on popular American tunes, but six years later I’m starting to get tired of the same old playlists. Most of my research comes from MTV Multiplayer’s Music Game Trackfinder but it looks like the outdated utility has finally been retired with all my attempts ending in Page Load Errors (a fairly useless copy was preserved by WayBack Machine here). That’s a shame because it made seeing the trend a lot easier but I’ve still got those print outs on my desk where I tabulated the main offenders.

Featured in no fewer than SEVEN music games are Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, The B-52’s Love Shack, and The Jackson 5’s ABC. I’m sure you can think of several songs of your own that are just plain played out but a few of my personal infamous choices would have to be YMCA, That’s The Way (I Like It), and Celebration. I suppose for casual players it’s not much of a problem since they’re more likely to stick with just one or two music games on a single console, but why should we gamers be tortured with endless covers of Complicated just because we enjoy music/rhythm games or own more than one system? I understand that locking down those mega hits that the general populace knows is important but a strong and varied playlist will keep your game in my good graces a lot longer. Of course, you can supplement things with an online marketplace, but that’s another discussion entirely.

And that’s just American popular music, things get even uglier when publishers start dipping into public domain territory. Nintendo’s the big culprit here, filling both Donkey Konga games and Wii Music with everything from B-I-NGO to Yankee Doodle. You’ve got the tune in your head just from reading the title don’t ya? These are the ultimate overplayed tunes and, unless it’s whipped into an incredible remix, shouldn’t even be considered for your music game no matter how cheap the licensing may be. Things are also getting frustrating in the rock ‘n roll arms race that is Guitar Hero vs. Rock Band. Fighting back and forth for the ultimate catalog of songs, Activision and Harmonix are ensuring that no one will ever be able to play all the songs they like without owning the entirety of each series. Swapping discs, remembering how each game works, and owning a self storage unit full of plastic instruments is the only way to have it all.

What I’d love to see is publishers of these music games (the Big Four especially) reach outside of the comfortable triple platinum megastar category and start licensing niche and indie bands and test-market-certified catchy tunes. Cut a cheap deal and feature their songs in your music game at a discounted price or free for a limited time (a la the iTunes App Store). Your catalog of songs will swell exponentially, feature a rich diversity of styles, and you can brag to your uppety Executive friends that you “totally had that hot new band before anyone else”. Please? I can only handle Oops I Did it Again, Mambo No. 5, and Take on Me for so long before I give up on music games for the rest of my life.

“Hardcore is the Niche” says PopCap Co-Founder, and he’s right

I meant to post this closer to that casual talk from last week but this is still good stuff. On the latest Gamers With Jobs conference call the gang had Jason Kapalka, one of the co-founders and creative director of PopCap Games on to talk about casual and core stuff. At about 46 minutes in he blew my head by saying that “everybody plays casual games [and] the real sub genre, the niche, is hardcore games… [it’s just] that the niche has been the dominant one in [gaming] for at least the last couple decades.”

It strikes me as one of those unsaid truths that we all have probably acknowledged but never really talked about, it was just mind blowing to hear someone say it aloud. I don’t have much else to add without some feedback so let’s talk it up in the comments. What do you think?

The Price of Progress Part 3: Marketplaces

price-of-progress-marketplace

Sorry for the oversized image above but its swollen kilobytes say almost more than I can put into words. The advent of the Xbox Live Marketplace in 2006 was a bold move on Microsoft’s part, eschewing the traditional brick+mortar distribution channels and — for better or worse — allowing console games to be released and “fixed” at a later date. But that’s a whole other discussion.

Thanks to Microsoft’s marketplace we’ve become accustomed to weekly downloadable releases in the form of add-on content, videos, themes, demos, and entirely new games. Microsoft keeps the official numbers close to their chest but it’s become apparent that there’s a lot of money and mind share in keeping your games updated and relevant through these marketplaces. Sony was quick to announce their own online store — the PlayStation Network — though it went through some major redesigns in its first year. Even Nintendo, who refused to take their GameCube online last generation was quick to see the profitability behind weekly releases of both old and new games and now has three digital storefronts across the Wii and DSi.

And then there’s the music games again. Each of the big four have their own storefronts that live in separate branded shops beyond the reach of the console marketplaces. It makes sense to keep players within the “experience” of your game but more and more titles are introducing shops of their own and adding layers of unique interfaces. So you go through the Xbox 360 dashboard to your game interface to its own shop interface that’s usually pretty different from the rest of the game. Carry this formula across a dozen games, across three consoles and the whole thing starts to feel congested and confusing.

Another concern I have with all these marketplaces is content control and longevity. Think about your own town for a minute and picture all the sole proprietorships — the Mom & Pop stores — that have come and gone over the years. Empty retail space for lease with a dirty outline over the door that echoes “The Pit Stop” or “Scrapbooking Unlimited”. Just because Burnout Paradise has a storefront of its own within the game doesn’t mean there’s always going to be something new. The time will come when Criteron moves on and the Burnout Store will sit dormant, gathering digital dust. Microsoft’s and Sony’s respective music games — Lips and SingStar — serve as another example of struggling storefronts. Updates are announced on a monthly basis for Lips which gives people plenty of time to forget which songs are coming which week while SingStar goes silent for months on end with no new releases at all. Did you even know that there’s a LittleBigPlanet skin for SingStar or that they redesigned the SingStore interface to resemble the PlayStation Store? It’s too easy for these smaller game updates to get lost in the buzz of the big titles like a great sale at that corner store getting drowned out by Wal-Mart’s new Low Price deals.

I’m not saying we need a single black & white interface across all platforms and all games. I understand the allure of having your own in-game shop — it’s like having a website or a blog or a podcast for your game — but some content is best represented right alongside all the rest in a marketplace interface that your users already understand. Let Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo host and serve up your add-ons, it gives you more time and money to make the next batch of stuff even better.

The Price of Progress Part 2: Price

Pardon the crap text. I'm stuck with GIMP right now

Pardon the crap text. I'm stuck with GIMP right now

Last time I pontificated about the physical price of progress; the amount of content a single title can generate and the growing need for more storage. This time I’d like to take a look at the literal cost and how these downloads can really add up. From full downloadable titles to individual add-on items, today’s games don’t stop evolving once the press release heralds their availability. Most games nowadays receive at least one add-on that brings new multiplayer maps, gameplay modes, more content, and a price tag.

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Mature Link: Nintendo Going Big Brother on Users?

maturelinkFor a company who was so defiant of offering anything other than ‘just games’ until very recently, Nintendo’s little white box is shaping up to be a real big brother (and I’m not talking about a plucky plumber here). I doubt Nintendo has a master plan for subjugating the world’s populace by way of Wii Sports, but the growing library of service channels and exponential install base is bringing them closer to that kind of power.

It all started with the News Channel where a single source (ok, it’s the reputable Associated Press, but you don’t get a choice) brings Wii users a handful of headlines each day scattered across an interactive globe. Want a second opinion or another perspective? Sorry, you’ll have to hit the internet for that. You could use the Internet Channel on the Wii but since it’s buried away in the Shop Channel and costs 500 Wii Points I’m guessing most users aren’t willing to splurge.

Then there’s the whole Wii Fit craze and its accompanying channel where Nintendo, with little guidance from any reputable health organization, tells people how healthy they are by doling out arbitrary numbers. Unsuspecting consumers everywhere are on the hunt for Wii Fit, the mantra of “losing weight while you play” solidifying the image of the perfect workout in their minds as each frantic second passes that they’re unable to find it. Getting people hooked on the unreliable and ever-fluctuating Wii Fit Age is the worst number scheme to hit healthy living since Weight Watchers.

Japan has even more specialized channels like the upcoming Food Delivery Channel where Nintendo passes your orders onto 8,500 restaurants, and the Wii no Ma Channel video service that will offer up paid and ad-supported anime and lifestyle programming. The most worrying of them all though is the recently announced Wii Fit Body Check Channel. Coming in April, the channel will take your Wii Fit Age records along with your Personal Trainer: Walking pedometer data and pass it along to a “health professional” who will give you a virtual check up.

I grew up as a geek in the 90’s so I can appreciate the idea of the all-in-one set-top box, and I’m all for personalized services and ease-of-use designs. But who the hell is Nintendo to be collecting data about my body and sending it to someone they deem worthy to tell me how healthy I am? Yes, I can choose not to use these channels but will anyone else even be made aware that this is what’s happening when they check in with Dr. Mario? The Wii does pre-game warning images pretty well but when it comes to the finer details even the Wii Shop Channel — that collects credit card data — isn’t very heavy on fine print.

I used to bitch at Nintendo for not making the GameCube or Wii play DVD movies, now all I want is for them to go back to making just games.