Pinball Arcade is a very good explanation of why Farsight Studios– the team behind the excellent Pinball Hall of Fame series– has been out of the spotlight for quite some time. Rather than producing a new disc-based experience with several tables to choose from, Farsight has borrowed a page from Zen Studios and has delivered an experience that is very open-ended with more tables expected in the coming months. The overall Pinball Arcade package doesn’t have the bells and whistles that Pinball FX2 has, but it does deliver realism with proper ball and table physics and actual tables straight out of the arcade.
Pinball Arcade costs 800 Microsoft Points via Xbox LIVE Arcade, or $9.99 on the PlayStation Store. The purchase entitles players immediate access to four tables: Tales of the Arabian Nights, Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, and Theatre of Magic. The first two tables should sound familiar to those of you who have played the two Pinball Hall of Fame games. Arabian Nights was part of the Williams Collection and Black Hole was found on the lesser-known Gottlieb Collection. The other two tables are completely new, and they’re quite good. Two more tables, Medieval Madness (a returning table from the Williams Collection) and Bride of Pinbot (a new table) will be the first DLC tables available, likely arriving in May.
Of the four initial tables offered in Pinball Arcade, Theatre of Magic is the most attractive and most accessible to all skill levels. Scores are high, flippers are long, and the table objectives are pretty straightforward. Racking up a billion points or more can be a common occurrence once you learn the ins and outs of the table, and there are some neat secrets to unlock. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not is another very good table, although it’s not nearly as easy to learn. It does have a rather interesting sense of humor and a jewel collection system that can open up some nice bonuses, such as double scoring, Super Jackpot shots, a Million Plus shot, and more. Black Hole, for the uninitiated, is highlighted by a separate lower playfield that is basically played upside down. Flippers are at the top and having the ball drain without opening the right outlane gate (via drop targets) beforehand leads to disaster. Finally, Tales of the Arabian Nights challenges players to collect jewels and save a princess from an evil genie. A spinning lamp shot in the upper middle of the playfield is key to earning big end-of-ball bonuses and learning the timing for specific ramp shots is vital to mounting a run at a high score.
One fact needs to be understood when talking about Pinball Arcade: It’s not Pinball FX2, Marvel Pinball, or Zen Pinball.
Zen Studios has made very impressive strides in delivering quality pinball experiences, but Zen’s strength has been making pinball accessible to everyone and very social. If you try Pinball Arcade after having spent many hours playing Zen’s pinball games, you’re going to probably get rather angry. Balls tend to be lost a lot quicker. Scores tend to be lower on at least three of the four current tables. The social element has been replaced by a crude user interface that doesn’t really promote a community. At the same time, for those players out there who have had experience with actual pinball machines, Pinball Arcade is very close to the real deal and a fair amount of skill is required to score well.
The ball physics in Pinball Arcade are slower than what we’ve seen from Zen Studios. It will take time to adapt to the slower speed and calculate shots accordingly. Some players may prefer Zen’s faster pace, but faster and lighter physics aren’t realistic. If you’ve had a chance to hold a pinball before, you’d know that they’re quite heavy. Heavier objects tend to move slower. It’s not impossible for ball speeds to increase, especially when it’s been affected by bumpers or gaining speed off of a ramp, but speeds on actual pinball machines tend to be a bit slower than what we’ve seen in most pinball simulations.
The physics engine in Pinball Arcade is excellent, but the game isn’t without its problems. Some players may have a hard time finding a camera angle that is comfortable. Varying camera angles for plunger skill shots are missing, for whatever reason. This leads to a lot of trial and error when trying to execute them. There are also some bugs that can affect the game, such as balls hopping over flippers. So far, these haven’t been anything more than an annoyance; however, until a patch resolves bugs like these, it’s important to note that they do exist.
Each table is accurately modeled after its real-life counterpart. You’ll notice little visual touches like light reflections and moving parts on certain playfields. In my experience, the frame rate has been very consistent, even in multiball situations. There have been times when the action will stop for a moment, especially when balls are being launched into multiball play. This has thrown off my concentration at times, but it hasn’t been a game-breaking problem. The in-game scoreboard has been smoothed for high-definition. I tend to prefer the option of keeping it more pixelated, but no such option exists here. This is a minor stylistic quibble, but one that I was nonetheless surprised to see.
The sound and music for each of the four tables is accurate and authentic. Aside from Black Hole, the other tables all have great music and voice work to hear. The mechanical sounds aren’t quite as crisp as we’ve been hearing in the last few tables from Zen Studios, but this isn’t a dealbreaker by any means. It is worth noting that Black Hole has a very droning, robotic sound that plays repeatedly in the background. It probably will drive many to turn the volume down before long, but it’s certainly authentic.
I realize that Pinball Arcade isn’t perfect, but its flaws don’t prevent a recommendation from me. It’s realistic, authentic, and makes players work hard for their leaderboard spots. It doesn’t have the social or community feel that Zen Studios has worked hard to implement for its pinball experiences, but Farsight Studios does have a solid foundation in place with actual tables and the most realistic physics engine around. Whether you’re an old-school arcade rat like me, or if you’re just a fan of pinball in general, Pinball Arcade is worthy of your 40 quarters.
Note: Playing time was spent on the Xbox 360 version, which was self-purchased on April 4th. The PlayStation 3 version is available now.
I’ll admit this: I was not at all a fan of the new swing and putting systems implemented in Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 13 after playing the demo and after the first hour or so with the Collector’s Edition of the game.
Nothing felt intuitive or appropriately introduced, so the change was jarring after what’s generally been the same old thing for the past few years. I was forced to learn things on the fly, such as how the game wanted the swing to be and how to adjust properly for certain situations, like elevation or in-between distances for certain clubs. I understand that golf is a game of trial and error, and that mistakes in swing mechanics or choosing the wrong club for certain situations can be costly, but Tiger 13 really hammered that lesson home early on. If you asked me for a recommendation after the first hour, I would have said to stick with last year’s game.
That first hour has given way to multiple hours of play with Tiger 13, and I’ve learned many of the nuances of the game’s new mechanics. I had to figure out when to transition from my backswing to the followthrough without executing too much. I still struggle with the putting, which is quite difficult to nail down due to timing issues, but my success rate is growing. I’ve become more consistent with my shot quality, I’ve learned how to calculate carry and distance a lot better, and as you can see in the image above, I even carded my first ace. I’m liking the game a lot more than I did and think that the new mechanics were a great decision. It’ll be a bit of a challenge to go back and play older games with the older swing, calculating power and distance by the backswing instead of where I’m aiming and hitting the “perfect” shot. The core gameplay here is the main argument for recommending Tiger 13 for a purchase. It’s a battle at first, but is rewarding for those patient enough to learn how to leverage what’s new.
The career progression in Tiger 13 is better than last year, which is another point in the game’s favor. Each step in the career progression is longer, and it’s now possible for an amateur player to qualify for The Masters if he or she wins the final event of the Amateur Tour. It’s possible to win The Masters as an amateur and earn a PGA Tour Card on the spot, but if not, possibilities such as exemptions for certain PGA Tour events and/or a spot on the Nationwide Tour await. Winning The Masters as an amateur isn’t necessarily the best outcome for a player’s career, as it’s impossible for a player in that situation to qualify for any other major event in that first season. A Top 100 ranking is required to qualify for a major, and I couldn’t crack that barrier until the FedEx Cup postseason events occurred… despite winning all but one event.
Unfortunately, recommending Tiger 13 isn’t clear-cut as the game has issues with bugs and is as much a display of golf as it is a devious microtransaction strategy.
I don’t know how some of the bugs made it into the final version of Tiger 13. There are issues with commentary stuttering and skipping, automatic replays after shots show completely different outcomes, crowd reactions are woefully inconsistent, and there are times when the game actually alters your lie or position after shots. I could see these things happening a time or two, but the frequency of these bugs appearing during my personal experience has been very surprising. One instance was an automatic replay that triggered after I knocked an approach shot stiff, within 2 feet of the hole. The replay showed a ball that landed a good 10 feet from the hole, causing me to scratch my head. The replay of my ace showed a ball that didn’t even go in the hole. Yes, that’s right. I got robbed of my replay on a hole-in-one. It’s frustrating.
The microtransaction strategy is apparently in response to negative feedback from many players and reviewers to forcing additional DLC courses into last year’s single-player mode. The idea is that coins can be earned during regular gameplay, and that these coins can be used to purchase rounds on DLC courses so as not to have to pay for them. Any course that is “fully mastered” by way of accomplishing a certain list of objectives is unlocked for good. These objectives for full mastery require multiple rounds in many cases, and the coin cost for successive rounds on DLC courses increases significantly. This means that a lot of course grinding is necessary to earn enough coins to earn these additional rounds. Yes, technically it’s possible to earn all of the courses, but that requires a steep time investment. Of course, rather than grind, you can buy the courses outright… which is what EA wants in the first place. Thankfully, this year’s game does allow for locked courses to be swapped out of PGA Tour seasons for unlocked courses. The game makes it a point to tell you that you don’t have the right course, however, and asks if you want to buy the course first.
The microtransactions don’t stop there, either. Pins are now power-ups that work for a limited number of uses. Some pins add value to stats, some affect playing conditions, and others add XP or Status Points (for online-based Country Clubs). Coins earned during gameplay can be used to buy new pins or refill tokens for existing pins, but that becomes a conflict when you’re trying to budget those coins for playing on and unlocking additional courses. Collecting the pins can be somewhat addictive, especially since some pins have varying tiers of strength or effect and collecting pins for holes on one course can have a big effect on end-of-round rewards. I like the way pins have changed from decorations in last year’s game to a boost this year, but the conflict is hard to overlook.
Since I bought the Collector’s Edition of Tiger 13, I got some extra courses that “regular” players didn’t get. What surprised me was that the Par 3 course at Augusta National wasn’t included in the regular version and is DLC. Considering that the Par 3 competition is synonymous with The Masters experience, this wrinkle is in bad form. If Augusta National is– or continues to be– the highlight of EA’s golf franchise, then the decision to take out a part of that experience is questionable at best. I was also surprised that EA actually decided to market its “authentic Green Jacket presentation” from the Collector’s Edition as DLC. Those of you who didn’t get it aren’t missing much, aside from 30 seconds of Jim Nantz narrating over a generic cinematic of your created golfer in his Green Jacket as he or she stands in front of an oddly swaying group of unrecognizable former winners. That’s it. Really.
If you didn’t buy last year’s PGA Tour game, then I can recommend this year’s game a little more. The new swing mechanics really do add to the experience once you learn how things work. The new career progression is fun, and the mix of new and repeat courses is a good one. The bugs are tough to overlook, and there are instances where the in-game caddy offers some truly mind-boggling advice, but I’ve had a lot of fun with Tiger 13 and my enjoyment level is actually rising as I play it more. Having said that, if you still have last year’s game and enjoyed that, I don’t think there needs to be any urgency to upgrade– especially at full price. Since any DLC courses purchased for Tiger 12 don’t carry over, you lose them in Tiger 13.
Personally, I’m in a similar situation to that of Kotaku’s Owen Good. I like Tiger 13, but Tiger 12 is going to remain in my library. Last year’s game, to me, did a lot of things right. The caddie, while occasionally annoying, served a solid purpose as he set up shots when I needed them. I loved the focus on Augusta National, chasing Tiger Woods through Masters history and feeling some reverence for one of the most recognizable venues in golf. Hopefully next year’s game can take what worked over the last two years and combine that into one of the best golf games ever designed. Until then, I have two very good to great games to tide me over.
Note: I strongly recommend reading Owen’s review and this one by Destructoid’s Samit Sarkar. Both offer deeper perspective and individual views on Tiger 13, and raise some great points about the microtransactions I mentioned and more.
After spending some time thinking about why there’s been an uptick in press activity talking about how pricing for Xbox LIVE Arcade games has been rising of late, something clicked. At first, I thought it was weird that people were talking about it now, given that it’s been a trend for well over a year now, as I posted here back in May of 2010. But then… it made sense to talk about how XBLA games are getting more expensive. Why?
Microsoft will be rolling out a new 1600 Microsoft Points cost level for XBLA games soon.
You could see it as soon as Microsoft‘s next Arcade promotion. At first, the new pricing level will be rolled out across a few hand-picked titles… but the new standard will spread and should be in wide use by Q3 2012, if not sooner. Publishers and developers will likely cite increased development costs as reasons for the increase– along with natural inflation– but it’s worth wondering when or if enough is enough for consumers. How far is the industry willing to push its limits before the market is priced out of caring about these games, in general, or is that even a fear at this point?
The 1200-point plateau has had its share of winners (Bastion, Shadow Complex), but there have been some stinkers (0 Day Attack on Earth) and unexplained pricing decisions (RayStorm HD) that tended to make the plateau a questionable one. There are still some games that buck the 1200-point asking price, like Ms. ‘Splosion Man for 800 points, but by and large most consumers expect new releases to sport the higher price tag. The expectation is that consumers will be conditioned to gradually accept the new price point, as well.
The problem with adopting this new price point will be for publishers and developers to prove the value of their games, especially when some new full retail titles can be purchased for the same amount of money. Games with this price point should and will be subject to tighter review standards and criticism. Expectations for graphics and sound, gameplay, and replay value all rise a little bit. This is why Microsoft will need to be selective with the games that are chosen and green-lighted to sport the new price tag. If games come out of the chute that don’t impress as much as they should, reaction to the increase will be negative and could adversely affect sales moving forward.
Even if consumer conditioning takes longer than desired, don’t expect this move to be reversed or for it to not happen. With the next generation of hardware on the horizon, games across the board will be more expensive in some way– whether it’s directly at retail for $70, sporting fewer features in lieu of DLC down the road, or perhaps even renewable licenses. The standard for downloadable games will undoubtedly move to $20 each. The industry’s path towards getting more revenue will continue unabated, and there’s plenty of confidence that consumers are far too invested to move on to another form of entertainment at this juncture. It might be a bit of a gamble, but revenue continues to be strong despite rising prices and fewer features for software.
Looking at the calendar, we’re less than two weeks away from what will be one of the most important E3 events in recent memory when it comes to what I call the Hardware Trinity– that is Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Each of the three companies have issues to address. Nintendo is facing lackluster 3DS hardware sales and the lame-duck status of the Wii until its new platform is launched. Sony has to deal with the aftereffects of one of the largest online security breaches in history and major losses in the last year. Microsoft may seem bulletproof, but the stagnant nature of the Kinect sensor and a slow trickle of software for it call into question the viability of the technology.
Here are some expectations as to what each company will deliver in their press events in order for each to bring its “A” game (in order of occurrence):
At first glance, Microsoft should be able to break out of the gate at 9am on the morning of June 6th with guns blazing. I’m fairly certain that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 will be one of the first things shown. Microsoft is going to work with Activision to push Modern Warfare 3 very hard for the next 5 months, and Activision should be more than happy to take the stage for the company that’s currently got all of the sales momentum going for it. Obviously, Gears of War 3 will play a major role in the press event as well. There will be other “core” games shown; I believe that Microsoft learned its lesson after last year’s event skewed almost exclusively away from the “core” crowd and felt eerily similar to Nintendo’s 2008 E3 presser that felt almost one-sided (Vitality Sensor, anyone?). No Halo presence at E3, despite the importance of the IP to Microsoft, doesn’t seem likely. The question is… in what form will we hear about it? New game? HD remake of the original? We will see.
The one thing that Microsoft must do is to re-ignite interest in the Kinect sensor. More games are needed– and more quality games are needed, to be more specific. Games that come off as Wii ports are not going to hold anyone’s interest, especially when you consider that the Wii is almost at the end of its lifespan. More original software, including games that are going to interest more than just the passing game player, has to not only be announced… but shown and available for demonstration. It’s true that Microsoft wisely marketed the Kinect and it sold a ton of units; however, what was the last genuine killer app for it? Dance Central is now 6 months old, as is Kinect Sports. As time marches on and new games continue to appear at a snail’s pace, the relevance of Kinect will gradually ebb. Consumer confidence and excitement in the Kinect peripheral must be restored, and quickly.
One last thing to be on the lookout for is some kind of new hardware announcement. Rumors have been flying lately, ranging from a full-on successor to the Xbox 360 to another Xbox 360 hardware revision that adds 3D support. While the exact nature of the rumors has been scattered, the theme has been the same. The other thing that has me leaning in the direction of some sort of new hardware announcement is the extremely limited attendance list for the press event. This makes me think that something big is going to go down that Monday morning, and it wouldn’t shock me at all if it was hardware-related. Stay tuned.
To say that Sony has had a rough past six weeks or so is an understatement. Granted, PlayStation 3 hardware sales for April were promising– thanks to Mortal Kombat, Portal 2, and SOCOM 4– but having no online network for nearly a month and still being without the PlayStation Store (and its associated revenue) is damaging on many levels. Sony has become an easy target for the press and has spawned doubt from its userbase. Sony is hoping that its showing at E3 will wipe the slate clean and set focus on games. There will almost certainly be a segment of the press event that serves as an apology for what happened, but will quickly move forward from that… and it’s the right move.
I’m still expecting a $50 price drop for at least the 160GB PlayStation 3 SKU. Some believe that Sony can’t afford it after recent events, but I think it’s a necessity. The PS3 platform– despite its quality software exclusives and free-to-play online service– needs a kickstart to renew consumer confidence and enthusiasm. I’m not sure that other SKUs will follow suit, but I’ve been calling for this drop over the last few months and E3 is the perfect backdrop for price cut announcements.
The press event should revolve around three main topics: PSN, PS3 software (especially exclusives), and NGP. I’m not sure of the order, but all three of these are major facets of Sony’s business plan for the rest of 2011 and beyond. Sony will rally behind the re-opening of the PlayStation Store with news of some kind of exclusives there. PlayStation 3 retail software exclusives, like Twisted Metal, Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, and others, will be talked up and demonstrated or shown. As for NGP, there are lots of variables at play. Release date, pricing, and launch software are all likely to be covered. Price is the variable that concerns me the most; if the 3DS is struggling at $250, it stands to reason that a $300 NGP will do the same in a challenging economy… even if the software lineup is good. Despite my concerns, I think that $300 to as much as $350 is where the NGP will launch. Timing is less certain to me. Will Sony have enough software in the chute to realistically launch this year? I’m not sure. My gut is leaning towards an NGP launch in 2012, but I will not be shocked if a late November/early December launch window is announced.
After the incredible runs of success that the Wii and legacy DS platforms had, saying that Nintendo is “in trouble” is a silly statement; however, Nintendo is now facing a period of uncertainty that hasn’t been seen in some time. The Wii lovefest is over, even in the face of price cuts for hardware and software. The 3DS has stumbled after a quick start. As we await the unveiling of Nintendo’s next platform, what the company announces for the next 6 months will be very important. Will more titles be added to Nintendo’s budget line of Wii software? Will Nintendo announce price drops for the DSi platforms? Where are the 3DS games that will convince consumers to part with $250, which amounts to being the most expensive Nintendo portable in the company’s history?
What Nintendo announces for specifics when it comes to its new console will be incredibly important. At this point, I am predicting that the price will be at least $300. In fact, my prediction is $349.99 for the hardware. This would be a gamble in several respects. For starters, it would be the most expensive hardware that Nintendo has ever released. It would also, despite being the newest console on the block, be the most expensive one on the market. Perhaps the power of the hardware will justify the price, but anything over $300 is unprecedented for Nintendo. As for the launch date, 2011 doesn’t seem likely at this point. March 2012 seems to be the earliest launch date for the hardware, but that’s atypical of Nintendo’s console launch strategy. Many of Nintendo’s consoles have launched either late Q3 or sometime in Q4. If Nintendo sticks to that schedule, 2012 could be far too late given that the Wii continues to sink in hardware sales with each passing month. Even a title like The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword isn’t a definite system-seller for a console that’s clearly on its way out… but more on that shortly. As with the NGP, I won’t be shocked if Nintendo’s new console hits this November… but I don’t see it happening. Launch software is anyone’s guess.
While it’s certainly way too early to dismiss the 3DS platform, it’s painfully obvious that Nintendo is going to need to take a fair amount of time during its press event to show the audience that new software is coming– and soon. Yes, Ocarina of Time is coming in a few short weeks. More remakes are following, too. And then? Aside from the Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid IPs, what else do we have? A new Mario game is certainly important, and Kid Icarus will likely wow the crowd (again), but the real problem is consistency. The conveyor belt of new releases needs to be running more consistently to fire interest. I think that this will happen, but Nintendo must hammer this point home and show a stronger commitment to the platform than it has so far.
That leaves the future of the Wii, and honestly, there shouldn’t be much of an expectation. Whether it’s due to market saturation or the expiration of a fad, the Wii seems to have run its course at retail… at least in terms of hardware sales. The result of price cuts to $150 remains to be seen, but there were cuts in April and yet the Wii finished behind the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. This indicates to me that sales will continue to be flat. Wii Play Motion may sell well, but won’t move hardware. The release of Skyward Sword is still very much up in the air; in fact, I still believe that there’s a better than even chance that the game won’t make it to the Wii at all. Nintendo has promised some Wii news, and absolutely must deliver that news by way of compelling software and not trumpeting more movie-licensed games since that’s about all that can be seen on Coming Soon lists for the platform. If Nintendo isn’t launching its new console this year, the company is in danger of losing consumers to Sony or Microsoft without good reasons to buy or keep the Wii.
The E3 press events set the stage for the actual show. They’re where most of the news and announcements come from. They set the expectation level and get people and press buzzing. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will each have a chance to bring their “A” games. The time for preparation is almost over. Starting on June 6th, we’ll all be keeping score.
We all know about the unfortunate downtime with the PlayStation Network, which has been sporadically offline for parts of this month and has been completely down for nearly a week straight. Playing games online has been impossible, and the timing couldn’t be worse with three major releases hitting just prior to the outage. PlayStation 3 users are now faced with the dilemma of trying to play games alone or via local multiplayer, which is something foreign to many newer game players who have been trained over the course of this console generation that it’s all about online and all about multiplayer. Instead of hours of playing Call of Duty with friends in other states, players must now be satisfied with having people over and playing in split-screen. In the worst-case scenario, they’re left to play the solo campaign, which has been the weakest link of many games within the past year.
You would think that a long-duration outage like this would remind publishers and developers that solo play is important, but it’s very easy to interpret comments from Geoff Keighley after his interview with Valve’s Gabe Newell and Erik Johnson as a dismissal of single-player importance:
Portal 2 will probably be Valve’s last game with an isolated single-player experience.
This is another sign of growing sentiment within the video game industry that the importance of single-player games has been supplanted by a multiplayer focus along with online play. Frank Gibeau, label president for EA Games, echoed such a sentiment last December. While Newell and Gibeau’s comments are the only ones to have gone public, it’s foolhardy to think that the movement is not catching on with other companies. It’s another sign that the industry is setting the trends and consumers are forced to either fall into line or find a new form of entertainment to partake in.
We’re already seeing the decreased effort in single-player modes of play. More and more games are delivering solo campaigns of about four hours in length. We saw it with Kane & Lynch 2. We saw it with Medal of Honor and with Homefront. Some are even talking about Portal 2 taking them between 4-6 hours to complete, although defenders of the game charge that the game isn’t possible to finish that soon. If you’re someone who doesn’t take part in multiplayer or if you don’t play online, doing the math indicates that you’re basically paying $15 an hour for these games. Movies and music are substantially less expensive, in comparison.
We’re also seeing multiplayer modes forced into formerly single-player titles. Bioshock and Dead Space were excellent solo adventures, and yet their sequels had multiplayer thrown in. Resident Evil 5 took the series into the realm of forced co-op, where you couldn’t play alone as you were given a CPU-driven buddy to play with. Castlevania: Harmony of Despair takes the series from its successful solo roots and punishes anyone who plays alone, forcing co-op play onto anyone who actually wants to have fun playing it. Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is another, although somewhat more forgiving, example of this trend, too.
Why is the industry so quick to dismiss the single-player experience? When happens when an online service goes down, which happened to Xbox LIVE a few years ago and is currently affecting PSN? What happens when your internet service provider has c0nnectivity issues or goes down completely? If today’s games are more about connectivity and playing with others, wouldn’t the $60 spent on each game be a waste at that point? Defenders of this trend fall back on the same list of excuses:
- It’s only for a few days.
- Why not go outside and do something else?
- Surely you have other games to play.
- Stuff breaks; just deal with it.
L.A. Noire is one of the most anticipated games of 2011. The premise is unique, as gathering evidence and solving cases are going to be at least as important as any other features of gameplay. The motion capture looks amazing. The voice acting sounds fantastic. There’s a lot to be excited about when the game finally emerges next month.
Unfortunately, L.A. Noire is also set up to be one of the most segmented game releases in recent memory. In fact, unless you own a PlayStation 3 and you purchase the game from both GameStop and Wal-Mart, you will be missing out on some cases that make up the overall experience. Other retailers are offering DLC items– which are bad enough– but this move to start ransoming parts of the single-player experience based on which retailer you buy the game from or on which console you have is, well, a crime.
Rockstar Games, the publisher for L.A. Noire, is quick to point out that the exclusive cases that consumers get for preordering at either GameStop or Wal-Mart will be available as paid downloadable content some time after release. This is not a victory for anyone other than Rockstar, which gets to make even more money off of consumers for content that, arguably, should be in the game to begin with. The console-specific DLC is going to be a strengthening trend throughout 2011, as Sony and its “Only on PlayStation” mantra seems to indicate that the company is looking to foster the addition of specific content in multiplatform games that are on the PlayStation 3. Retailer-specific DLC, however, is the biggest problem.
Game reservations have their importance. Purchasers for retailers like having some sort of metric to use when determining how many copies of a game that they need to order to satisfy consumer demand without buying too much. Reservations used to be a lot simpler. Back in the days of FuncoLand, for example, you just gave your name and phone number to an employee. That gave the store manager some idea of how many copies that his or her store would need when the game came out. In return, sometimes there were small trinkets that publishers would provide in exchange for this. T-shirts, dog tags, and other small tokens of appreciation changed hands. The big problem with this “honor system” was that many customers would not follow through on the intent to buy reserved games, leading to excessive copies of games floating around. When GameStop (and other retailers) moved to asking for a small down payment, the thinking was that the exchange of funds would respresent an early investment in the game and that more consumers would follow through and buy the game when it came out, or shortly thereafter. Reservation bonuses from publishers were still around to sweeten the pot. Up until this console generation, the preorder system made sense for all sides; retailers knew how much to buy from publishers, publishers made their money, and consumers were guaranteed their games and sometimes got something tangible out of the deal.
Then… this console generation happened, and now the reservation system has gotten way out of hand, and it’s the base consumer that loses out.
Publishers still get what they want, as retailers are still buying their games. Gaming-specific retailers use reservations as metrics to determine an employee’s worth, forcing employees to aggressively seek reservations from consumers and make the game-buying experience less cordial and more like an interrogation. Reservation bonuses are rarely tangible anymore; we’ve gone from t-shirts and pens to downloadable content like extra guns and costumes, which used to be included for free in games a generation ago. When it comes to part of a gameplay experience, such as levels, characters, or cases, these bonuses become items of ransom. In order to get these parts of the game, you have to reserve it at specific retailers… or you pay extra for it as DLC at some point, meaning that the $60 game is no longer $60.
Now, with L.A. Noire, it’s not just one retailer that has this “ransomware”. It’s now two different retailers, each with its own specific case to offer. Even if consumers cave to GameStop and reserve the game there, a case (or potentially two) is still missing. It’s simply not possible to buy the full game with $60. It doesn’t matter how insignificant that you may consider these DLC cases to be, the fact is that they’re part of the overall game and have been stripped out for ransom– or for alternate revenue above and beyond the arguably exorbitant price tag that remains for these games.
The reservation “bonus” is no longer a bonus. It’s the ability to get closer to playing the full game as it was intended. It’s legal extortion, and that’s one case that Cole Phelps won’t be taking on come May 17th.
Namco’s Ridge Racer series and I have a long history.
Nearly 16 years ago, I played Ridge Racer for the first time on an import PlayStation unit at an independent game store. I was hooked almost instantly. It’s not that Ridge Racer necessarily did anything different than other racing games that I’d played before, but it was colorful, fast, and the music stayed in my head long after my play session came to an end. I knew from that night on that I would be spending $300 on a PlayStation come September 9th, 1995… and that was only the beginning.
I’ve played almost every Ridge Racer game since. Ridge Racer Revolution was decent but felt more like an extension of the original when it debuted in 1996. Rage Racer followed in 1997, and it was a stark contrast to the earlier games as earning money for winning races and choosing the right car for each race were much different than the straight arcade style that the Ridge Racer games were known for previously. Ridge Racer Type 4 made tweaks yet again with the Real Racing Roots ’99 campaign, improved visuals (like taillight streaks), and a jazz-infused soundtrack that still rates as one of the best around. I still own all of these, save for the original Ridge Racer, which I’m hoping makes its way onto the PlayStation Store at some point.
When I bought my PlayStation 2 in 2001, Ridge Racer V was one of the games I got at the same time, along with NHL 2001, SSX, and Swing Away Golf. Ridge Racer V was a big jump in terms of graphics for the series, and the return of the original Ridge Racer course with a new coat of visual paint was amazing to behold. The lighting effects blew me away and the framerate had been greatly improved over the 30fps from the original PlayStation title. These visual improvements didn’t get in the way of classic Ridge Racer gameplay, which was very important. The interesting story mode was gone, in favor of a return to a more arcade-style feel, but Ridge Racer V felt like a return home for a franchise that had undergone changes for the previous two installments– and that was fine by me.
Getting an Xbox 360 and a PlayStation 3 over the course of this console generation, I bought Ridge Racer 6 and Ridge Racer 7, respectively. I wasn’t initially a fan of the new focus on drifting and gaining nitrous boosts, but it grew on me. The visuals were improved once again, and seeing Ridge City in high definition was– and still is– jaw-dropping. I still own all three of these games, as well. As with Ridge Racer V, there were nostalgic nods to previous games in the series. Music tracks from past games were available for download. The infamous Ridge Racer helicopter looked better than ever, as did the original Ridge Racer course– which was beautiful in its familiarity. Ridge Racer 6‘s World Explorer mode was an interesting way to approach single-player racing and the accent on collecting cars was reminiscent of Ridge Racer Type 4. I prefer Ridge Racer 7, if only because it feels like a more complete version of Ridge Racer 6 and the ability to adjust and tune vehicle parts was welcome.
When I found out that Ridge Racer 3D was going to be a launch title for the Nintendo 3DS, I knew that I had to have it… even though I really didn’t know what to expect from it. Screenshots weren’t exactly promising,, but I was still excited. The prospect of Ridge Racer in 3D was admittedly pretty cool, and I had faith that we wouldn’t see a disastrous effort like we’d seen with Ridge Racer DS… which was a sloppy port of an already-weak game in Ridge Racer 64. In a sea of average launch titles, I had hope that I could count on Ridge Racer 3D to be a good complement to Super Street Fighter IV.
Then… I played it. A lot.
Ridge Racer 3D won’t win any awards for technical achievement. The frame rate returns to the the PlayStation’s familiar 30fps and lots of visual touches that we’ve been accustomed to seem to be missing. The game really doesn’t do much to break the mold that was set by the others in the series, but it’s still a fantastic experience and was meant for me, the Ridge Racer fanatic. It’s all about fan service, and Namco delivers it in spades with this game. Bits and pieces of many of the games that I mentioned earlier are here: classic race circuits, classic music, and classic gameplay. Car models aren’t all that detailed, but seeing them approach (or blow by you) in 3D is pretty amazing. Seeing tracks from Ridge Racer Revolution, Rage Racer, and even variations of tracks from Ridge Racer 6 makes me smile. Music tracks from older games join with new creations to fill the soundtrack, and the built-in psuedo-surround effect from the 3DS’ speakers adds to the quality. The Grand Prix progression is a cross between Rage Racer and Ridge Racer 7 as points are used to buy new vehicles and upgrades. The gameplay is pure Ridge Racer, no matter whether you use the D-pad or the analog disc, as you tear around the track and deftly drift through corners and hammer the gas to straighten out. There is an option to drift “on demand” with a button press, similar to Tokyo Highway Battle, but series veterans not only won’t need this… but they won’t want it.
The formula feels similar to what Namco did with its Ridge Racer release for the PSP, but with a 3D coating. The experience is pretty long; a couple of hours into the game, I’m only just now unlocking the second tier of cars with more power and speed. I’m aiming to turn in a review for Gaming Nexus, but may do one here as well. What I can say, even at this early stage, is that Ridge Racer 3D is already my favorite 3DS game and looks to stay that way for at least a few more weeks.
Thank you, Namco, for giving me the game that I didn’t know I wanted.
Although I’ll be doing a more in-depth analysis of sales numbers over at Gaming Nexus in the next day or two, I wanted to log some quick reactions to the hardware sales numbers that I’ve been seeing across the web that were released recently.
First, here are the numbers for December, as I’ve seen them:
- Nintendo DS: 2,500,000 units sold
- Nintendo Wii: 2,360,000 units sold
- Xbox 360 : 1,860,000 units sold
- PlayStation 3: 1,210,000 units sold
These results fall into line with what I expected, for the most part. Microsoft admitted that supply constraints hurt them in December, which I anticipated would happen. Nintendo managed to capitalize on this and come away 500,000 units ahead. Sony, meanwhile, managed to post a decent number of PS3 sales… but was still over a million units behind the leader.
Microsoft should be happy with its results overall. The Xbox 360 was the only console to sell more units in 2010 than in 2009, which is more impressive when you consider how much effect that lingering recessionary effects have had on the economy. It’s no secret that Kinect has been huge for Microsoft in Q4, bolstered by strong marketing and word of mouth. You have to wonder what might have been possible if Microsoft hadn’t run into supply issues in December. I still think that the Wii would have won out, but the final tally would have been a lot closer between the two. It’s clear that, although Wii still outsold the Xbox 360 overall in 2010, momentum is on Microsoft’s side heading into 2011. Without the “newness” factor for hardware like the slimmer Xbox 360 and the Kinect, Microsoft will be challenged to deliver a varied and strong software lineup to stay in the driver’s seat.
Nintendo righted the Wii ship a little with decent December in terms of sales. Comparatively speaking, however, Nintendo’s victory was hollow when you notice that Wii sales were down a whopping 38% YOY. Put that number next to a 42% increase YOY for the Xbox 360 and you can argue that Nintendo wasn’t a winner at all. What surprised me about Nintendo’s performance is that Super Mario All-Stars didn’t seem to be a factor. The best selling Wii game, which ranked 2nd overall for December, was Just Dance 2. Donkey Kong Country Returns ranked 5th, and Epic Mickey finished in a respectable 6th place, moving over 1.3 million units. January looks to be challenging for Nintendo and the Wii as there no significant software is slated for release on the platform in January. Conversely, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 each have pretty big releases this month. It’s not only possible for the Xbox 360 to pull back out in front this month, but the PlayStation 3 could surprise.
Speaking of the PlayStation 3, the good news is that over 1.2 million units were sold. The bad news is that the PlayStation 3 still finished dead last in overall sales. Gran Turismo 5 did move over 550,000 units, but that number is underwhelming when you consider the time of year that the game was released. The best thing for Sony to do now is forget about 2010 and focus on the year at hand. If all of the first-party titles on Sony’s slate for 2011 actually make their deadlines, this could be a bit of a comeback year. Killzone 3 and MLB 11 look good in Q1, and then Resistance 3 and Uncharted 3 should hit it big in Q4. I still believe that a price drop sometime in 2011 is going to be key for Sony to make any kind of competitive move against Microsoft and Nintendo… but we’ll see if that actually comes to fruition.
December was another great month for Call of Duty: Black Ops, which was the best-selling game of 2010 despite being available for only 52 days. With the first map pack due on February 1st, look for sales to stay steady or slightly increase this month– especially late. Just Dance 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood also continued to sell extremely well, and I expect that trend to continue this month, although I do expect numbers to decrease at least slightly. The software sales chart had three Wii exclusives on it, which was most likely a good reason why Nintendo wound up back on top with the Wii. I think that Just Dance 2 will keep selling well, but the longevity of Donkey Kong Country Returns and Epic Mickey is far less certain. Epic Mickey‘s strong sales bode well, I think, for January’s results as I expect one more Top 10 finish.
Look for a full-on analysis of December’s sales figures and my outlook for this month over at Gaming Nexus soon. In the meantime, feel free to react and comment below. Who do you like to be on top this month? Can Sony turn things around with Little Big Planet 2 and Mass Effect 2? Can Microsoft maintain their momentum? I’d love to hear your take.
There once was a time that I was really excited for Microsoft‘s Game Room project. It sure sounded like a great idea, in spite of some arguments about pricing and game selection, I figured that the combined libraries of Atari, Konami, and Activision would supply us with games for a long time. Now, less than a year later, the project is in disarray. Updates have been inconsistent. The application and leaderboards have been buggy. There have been more obscure games released than familiar ones. Microsoft has arguably distanced itself from the project with little to no word of mouth about it coming from within the Xbox community.
In short, Game Room has been a huge disappointment… and the fact that there haven’t been any updates yet in 2011 (aside from a patch) certainly doesn’t give me any hope that good things lie ahead for the troubled application. What went wrong?
For starters, the uncertainty and eventual collapse of Game Room development house Krome Studios hurt the project significantly. Without stability on the development side of the project, quality faded pretty early. There were technical issues with Game Room from the very start, as servers crashed repeatedly which denied high scores and replays from being saved and uploaded. There also didn’t seem to be any quality control on the part of Microsoft Game Studios, which was surprising given the fact that the Game Room project anchored the Block Party promotion last winter. This lack of quality set the stage for the letdowns to come.
The next problem had to do with inconsistent updates. After the initial wave of games released along with the application last March, updates dried up for weeks and users quickly lost interest in Game Room. Microsoft’s inability to strike while the iron was hot cost the Game Room project valuable momentum, and gaming press sources started speculating early that the project was doomed. While updates did eventually begin rolling out with occasional consistency, there have been a few times within the first year where updates stopped altogether. This led to more speculation about the future of the project, especially once news that Krome had folded became public. There have been no updates for the past two weeks, and after Sunset Riders had been confirmed for release to the press late last year, the game still has not been posted for sale.
When the updates have come, there simply hasn’t been a good mix of familiar titles and rare gems. The titles from Konami‘s library have been the biggest area of offense in this aspect. It’s nice to be able to play TwinBee and The Main Event, but where are Gradius and Double Dribble? We haven’t (yet) seen Rush’n Attack, but we got its pesudo-sequel in Missing in Action. Why did it take so long to get Blades of Steel up for sale? The title selection has just been too weird; more familiar titles are needed to foster any kind of interest from anyone other than diehard arcade fans… and even they might not know of some of the Konami games that we’ve seen posted so far.
I’ve also noticed that Microsoft community staff, like Larry Hryb for example, all but ignored the Game Room project when talking about Xbox LIVE Arcade after a few weeks. It’s easy to get the feeling that Game Room is not at all a priority to Microsoft; consequently, why should consumers care when Microsoft obviously doesn’t? Yes, I see it occasionally advertised (in a less than prominent fashion) on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace… but when’s the last time you saw it mentioned on Hryb’s blog or on one of his Major’s Minute video shorts? It’s been too long, and the lack of support from Microsoft here is inexplicable. Again… Game Room is less than one year old, yet Microsoft has all but forgotten about it or sworn it off. That’s some excellent follow-through right there.
As someone who’s invested a lot of time and Microsoft Points on games for the Game Room project, I’m frankly tired of being jerked around. If the project is dead, then I would appreciate the decency of Microsoft announcing it instead of stringing along what few consumers are left who still maintain at least a passing interest. If Game Room is not dead, then Microsoft needs to be more proactive and not fix the problems that continue to plague the application… but they also need to dedicate themselves and the development team to getting the project moving again. Show some interest. Revive the Facebook page and Twitter feed and resume telling us what we can expect to see. Get back to licensing some familiar titles and make sure that the emulations are at least close… no more running games at half the frame rate or completely missing sound files (I’m looking at you, Asteroids.).
Either way, it’s time for Microsoft to show some accountability for Game Room. The lack of support for the project, combined with the decision to drop the highly successful 1 vs. 100 project, indicates to me that Full House Poker is doomed before it even arrives this spring. The trend has already been set.
Although we’re officially into 2011 now, it’s not quite time to turn the page when it comes to sales numbers as figures for December 2010 should be trickling out over the coming week or two. Here’s a snapshot of what I expect those numbers to indicate:
I expect strong hardware sales numbers from both Nintendo and Microsoft. Based on supply issues for the Xbox 360 in the month of December, I am calling for Nintendo to sweep the top two spots for hardware sales in December with the DS and Wii platforms, respectively. The Nintendo DS continues to sell remarkably well, given a tame slate of software and the impending release of the Nintendo 3DS platform by the end of Q1 ’11. Nintendo DS SKUs are less expensive than their console counterparts and the portability of the devices makes them hits with multiple demographics, especially pre-teen consumers. Wii sales were fueled by a one-two software punch; Just Dance 2 continued its strong sales for the holiday season and demand for the limited Super Mario All-Stars package helped to move consoles. I still believe that the Xbox 360 will wind up being the best overall sales performer for Q4 (and possibly the entire year), but the Wii should close the gap as least somewhat thanks to a strong December.
Microsoft can thank the hype machine behind the Kinect camera for causing sellouts of Xbox 360 consoles in many locations. While sellouts certainly indicate strong demand, the associated supply woes likely will relegate the Xbox 360 to third place in December. Although Microsoft certainly talked a good game by logging some huge projections for Kinect penetration, I think that the company might not have been logistically prepared for the number of consoles that have been moving in Q4. It’s interesting to note that supply replenishments did start trickling into retail channels just after December 20th, but I fear that the calvary arrived just a little too late for Microsoft to pull out a late sales victory.
Sony is expected to bring up the rear in hardware sales again with the PlayStation 3 and PSP platforms, capping a forgettable holiday hardware sales season. Gran Turismo 5 was pretty much the only draw for the PS3 for the holidays, and any hype or excitement regarding PlayStation Move was tempered by poor availability and the strong presence of Kinect. There was strong demand for standalone PlayStation Move controllers, and the item was among the hardest to find over the holiday season– and that includes Kinect and Xbox 360 250GB units– but PlayStation 3 console hardware was abundant and generally sat on store shelves. As for the PSP, the quick spike in sales in late November and into early December is expected to have tailed off as the month progressed as new software was scarce for the platform.
Here is the list of expected sales rankings for each platform in December 2010:
- Nintendo DS
- Nintendo Wii
- Xbox 360
- PlayStation 3
- Sony PSP
Expect to see Call of Duty: Black Ops dominate the software sales chart for a second straight month. In addition to strong word-of-mouth support and solid review scores, multiple retailers discounted the game by $10-$20 during the last two weeks of December which helped to move units. I also expect to see strong numbers from Madden NFL 11, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and Super Mario All-Stars. Super Mario All-Stars likely sold through over 90% of its one-time allocation to retailers in less than one month’s time, which is evidence that that consumers are not only still excited for the Mario IP– but that a budget-conscious title (4 games for $30) is a force to be reckoned with. Just Dance 2 for the Wii should continue its hot trend, but The Michael Jackson Experience may yield disappointing results as too many games seem to be crowding the Wii dance game genre. Expect a decline for Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit in December, as the title seemed to run out of gas early with consumers and retailers.
2010 Winners and Losers:
Since we’re wrapping up 2010, it’s time to look back and name a few winners and losers for the year that was.
In hardware, your big winner is Microsoft. In a year where it looked like the PlayStation 3 could catch up to the Xbox 360, Microsoft not only outdistanced its HD competition but also pulled ahead of the Wii in successive months in Q4. The new “Slim” hardware revision invigorated sales in the second half of 2010, and the release of the Kinect motion sensor in November added to the platform’s sales momentum. It will be interesting to see how close the overall hardware sales race in 2010 between the Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii ends up.
Your hardware loser for 2010 is Sony. Poised to make up ground on Microsoft and coming off of building momentum from a price drop in the second half of 2009, supply woes negated a strong software lineup in Q1 and Sony was never able to recover. The release of PlayStation Move looked to stem the tide, but masterful marketing of Kinect by Microsoft and a tepid slate of Move-enabled games kept Move from really being a threat in Q4. Roles seem to have reversed as we roll into 2011, however, as it’s now Microsoft that’s dealing with some supply issues. We’ll see if this year holds a different fate for Sony.
The big software winners for 2010 are Red Dead Redemption and Call of Duty: Black Ops. Both games showcased impressive sales numbers for their respective launch windows. Red Dead Redemption might have been a slightly more impressive performer, given that May was a significant month for software releases, but both games moved millions of units and generated tons of revenue for their respective publishers.
The big software loser for 2010 is Electronic Arts. Sure, there was success in games like Madden NFL 11 and Mass Effect 2, but the cancellation of NBA Elite 11 and less-than-stellar sales of Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf 11 and NBA Jam landed a black eye on EA Sports. Sales consistency needs to be a target for ERTS in 2011, and the company has reduced the number of software titles to be released in FY ’11 to try and compensate for what was a down year overall for the software giant. Bioshock 2 is an honorable mention in this category, as retailers struggled to unload tons of unsold copies of a game that never came close to matching the success of its predecessor in terms of overall quality or consumer reaction.
Look for in-depth analysis of sales data here as it becomes available in the coming days. As always, reaction and comments are welcome.