After lots of speculation about Madden NFL 25 not seeing a Wii U release, Electronic Arts confirmed it via a recent statement (courtesy of Nintendo World Report):
“We will not be releasing a Wii U version of Madden NFL in 2013. However, we have a strong partnership with Nintendo and will continue to evaluate opportunities for delivering additional Madden NFL products for Nintendo fans in the future.”
Let’s get the hyperbole out of the way first. Not having a Madden game in 2013 will not kill the Wii U. It’s instinctive to think that a lack of EA presence on the platform could be akin to a kiss of death, similar to what we saw with EA spurning SEGA and the Dreamcast. This is a different animal, I think. Yes, the lack of sports games will hurt attempts to position the Wii U as a primary console. There’s a pretty large base of consumers who buys sports games, and not having the most popular sports IP in the United States on the Wii U platform diminishes its sales potential. This doesn’t mean that the Wii U is finished, however. Nintendo still has its stable of strong IP to draw from that can’t be played anywhere else. It’s similar to what we saw back in 1999 and 2000 but Nintendo’s IP stable is stronger. If EA doesn’t come back to Nintendo, perhaps circumstances regarding some sports licenses will change… such as the current exclusivity deal between the NFL and EA. We’ll have to wait and see on that.
While Wii U will battle on, it’s undeniable that losing Madden for a year– combined with no NHL game, no NCAA football game, no PGA game, and no MLB game for this first full calendar year for the new platform on the market– is a painful loss. There also isn’t any assurance that FIFA will see a Wii U release. That would mean that only the NBA would see a Wii U game. Perhaps sports games don’t sell on Nintendo platforms, but when you’re trying to establish sales momentum ahead of competition from Sony and Microsoft and with the likelihood that both new consoles will see at least a Madden game this year (if not also an NHL game), that’s a considerable disadvantage. For sports game consumers looking to upgrade early, the Wii U simply isn’t an option without support. It’s one thing for the games to sell quietly; it’s another for the games to not even be there as a potential lower-priority selling point. I understand the claims from Nintendo supporters that “nobody” (read: very few) buys Nintendo systems for sports games, but not being one of the platforms that a multi million-selling game is going to be on is viewed as a negative by many. Like them or not, sports games are a very important cog in the video game economy.
I understand the cries of “Not fair!” and “EA sucks!” from Nintendo supporters. The rather quick dissolution of the “strong partnership” that EA and Nintendo reportedly had not too long ago is certainly suspect. Perhaps there’s something to the theory about EA’s pitch to Nintendo regarding Origin going south killed that relationship, but there are other factors to consider. Unit sales for the Wii U platform are historically low, tracking the lowest in the first six months at retail since the Nintendo 64 some 17 years ago. Could EA make a return on its investment to port its games over to the Wii U since the install base is so low and since sales of most third-party games on the platform are terrible? Given that EA is trying to scale back projects and save money, perhaps this wasn’t as “personal” a decision as some see it and it’s more of a business decision based on success potential. I think that’s a plausible scenario, but unless the truth comes out from EA brass (which I doubt), we’ll probably never know for certain.
I do think that there’s some culpability on Nintendo’s end here, too. Nintendo’s struggles with third-party relations are worsening, and this apparent divorce with EA is the biggest loss yet. What have Satoru Iwata and his staff been doing to keep EA engaged, if anything? Why isn’t Nintendo reaching into its war chest to make it worth EA’s while to keep supporting its platforms with games? Where has Take-Two been? Where is Konami’s Wii U support? Why didn’t Tomb Raider make it? There are lots of questions and no answers from Nintendo brass, aside from the now-popular Internet meme of “Please understand.”
At some point, Nintendo has to make a decision about third-party relations. Nintendo, at this point, has few allies in the ranks. Ubisoft is still supporting Wii U, but the concession of Rayman Legends moving from exclusive to multiplatform and seeing a significant delay was a blow. Capcom is there to some extent. There’s some question as to Activision’s trust in Wii U, with an air of uncertainty regarding a version of the newest Call of Duty game for the platform. Early reveal notes pointed to releases for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC; however, the Wii U was not mentioned on the list of platforms and retailers are not taking reservations for a Wii U version. I even witnessed a Call of Duty: Ghosts preorder for Wii U get turned away as the customer was told that the game isn’t coming. We don’t know whether it’s coming or not. Some claim it is, but Activision has been coy with its answers to questions about the situation. That absence is not helping Wii U’s perception to customers. If Wii U doesn’t have sports games and (at this point) doesn’t have Call of Duty, there’s no real impetus for people to sink $350 into the platform unless they’re Nintendo diehards. “Old” platforms like Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are getting it. It’s a safe bet that the new Xbox is getting it. It’s likely that the PlayStation 4 is getting it. Those last two platforms are fine in not yet being confirmed. The new Xbox isn’t even revealed yet (but will be on May 21st, when the first full reveal of Call of Duty: Ghosts will be shared during the event), and we know the PS4 exists but don’t have many details yet. Compare that to the Wii U, which has been on the market since last November and can be purchased right now. No Call of Duty? No Madden? Possibly no FIFA? Those are perception problems and point to weakness in the Wii U’s software catalog. Again, where is Nintendo in this? Is there not enough clout for Nintendo to get Activision to show its hand a bit?
In the worst case scenario, we will find out if Nintendo fans are right about first-party software being all that Wii U needs to thrive. I don’t believe that to be a good scenario for Nintendo– or, at least, one with a positive outcome. SEGA also had a fairly strong first-party lineup, complete with sports games, RPGs, arcade games, adventure games, and more. SEGA was unable to weather the third-party drought after a strong launch lineup and a solid & steady first-party release slate. Key third-party support is very important to the overall success of a platform, and without it, a very long and uphill battle awaits for Nintendo as its competition gets assault plans ready.
I’ll be very interested to see while attending E3 just what Nintendo’s strategy is. The leaders at Nintendo are not dumb and I’m sure that there will be a plan of attack. I just hope that it’s a good one.
Between SEGA Europe‘s painful restructuring and Activision‘s dismantling of Radical Entertainment, this week has been another one of those weeks that we’d rather forget. It’s always unfortunate when people lose their jobs, and downsizing doesn’t often instill confidence that the affected industry is moving in the right direction. These moves are a continuation of the state of correction that the video game industry is in– especially in the console sector. The market is shrinking, and not enough money is being made to keep moves like these from occurring.
I know that when I remark that events like these aren’t surprising or that the market is shrinking, many people react quickly and negatively to my observations. “Stop with the doom and gloom” or “Things aren’t as bad as you claim” are popular responses. I don’t make these observations to earn praise, and I know that very few gaming fans like hearing these things. I’m simply calling things as I see them, and there isn’t a whole lot of good news out there to talk about.
The console sector has had an amazing run, especially since the PlayStation era began. The consumer base had steadily grown before the Wii took the market by storm and sold tons. A lot of studios saw success and expanded before we saw the opposite begin to happen during this console generation. These runs of success don’t last forever, and consumers are finding other entertainment options. Consoles are no longer the undisputed gaming platforms. Consumers are splintering into other areas, like PC, mobile, and social methods of gaming. Most consumers who wanted consoles have them now, as it’s been 6-7 years since the current generation of consoles was introduced… and at least some of those consumers are moving on. Perhaps it’s partially because of stagnation due to an anomalously long console cycle. Maybe the economy forced a change in spending priorities as consumers got older. It’s possible that the time isn’t there anymore for some consumers to play video games like they once did.
The correction in the console market feels much more painful because it’s coming down off of a huge period of sales. Nearly 40 million Wii units have sold since November of 2006 in the United States alone. Another 55 million combined Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 units have sold over the course of this console generation. That’s an awful lot of hardware. It was a boom period for the first half of the console generation before things began to recede… and now, we’re seeing sales decline to levels similar to 2004-05 when the previous generation was running out of steam. Perhaps we see a significant resurgence in sales when Gen4 really gets going sometime in the next 12-18 months, but there’s no guarantee.
I’m not going to come out and say that the console sector is dying. I know that might be your gut reaction to what you’re reading, but it’s not my point. I firmly believe that there is a solid nucleus of consumers in place to support Gen4 and that at least some profits are out there for the taking. I don’t expect console sales to fall off a cliff in Gen4, but I also think that it’s unreasonable to assume that another 100 million consoles will sell in the US when we tabulate Gen4 data in another 7 years. Unfortunately, since the bar is set so high, there’s going to be disappointment from investors and analysts when consoles don’t set records for another generation. There’s the possibility that investors pull back and, with the focus being on “AAAA blockbusters”, more studios and companies could face restructuring and/or closure over the next couple of years. A shrinking market– and declining sales– can’t support projections of 5 million units sold as a success. Not anymore.
I understand that many of you want to hold onto the idea that Gen4 hardware will reinvigorate the market and that trends will turn around. Several industry people that I have great respect for have cited this reasoning repeatedly. I believe that is a possibility and could very well happen; however, I personally am not convinced that the solution to ending this correction period is that simple. Many different variables come into play. How much will Gen4 hardware be? Will software prices rise again to offset expected rises in development costs? How will digital distribution expand? Will the economy find a foothold and begin to rise with confidence, or will a double-dip recession occur at the worst possible time for the console sector? As these puzzle pieces fall into place, I’ll feel more confident in my own outlook or may start shifting my line of thinking in a different direction.
For right now, based on the data and trends that are available, I see no reason to change my thought process. More studio closures are possible to likely in the next 12 months, and I expect YOY sales comparisons to remain moderately negative for the balance of 2012.
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.
I’m working a lot of hours this week at the store, covering for our manager who has been away at a conference. Since my time is limited, I’m condensing a lot of my thoughts into a blog post. Things will hopefully return to something close to normal next week.
I’ve been talking a lot about retail observations on Twitter, and I’m going to start mentioning some of them here as we gear up for what should be a busy holiday season. Working on the front lines in gaming retail gives me decent perspective on trends and customer reactions. Here are a few notable observations that I’d like to attempt to analyze further:
Halo: Reach reservation numbers have surpassed Call of Duty: Black Ops numbers on the Xbox 360.
This took a long while, but with a giant push over the last week or so, Reach is reigning supreme for the moment. Numbers for the base game are outpacing “special” SKUs by about 2:1, with the Legendary SKU being second, followed by the Limited Edition and then the console bundle. There’s no doubt in my mind that Reach will be the best-selling game for the month. What will be more interesting to me will be whether Black Ops reservations will explode much like they did for Reach just prior to release. I’m also a bit surprised that we still haven’t seen news of a multiplayer beta of any sort for Black Ops; both Reach and the upcoming Medal of Honor reboot saw betas which arguably helped to fuel reserves… but Activision and Treyarch have both been mum, even after a rumored September 1st revelation that never materialized. I still believe that Black Ops will outpace Reach by the end of the year on the Xbox 360 platform, but the strength for Reach right now is indisputable.
Metroid: Other M is struggling.
It’s not too often that a first-party Nintendo release is disappointing, but Metroid: Other M is one of those rare titles. It’s been facing adversity on two fronts. The first problem is that the game strayed from Nintendo’s recent trend of releasing first-party titles on Sundays by releasing on a Tuesday. The second problem is that the game has been receiving some criticism from various sources on the internet, ranging from issues with the controls to focusing too much on story to even issues with sexism. Many reviews have been generally positive, but the complaints about the control scheme have prompted actual reserve cancellations– which is a rarity in and of itself. Moving four copies of a major Nintendo release on its launch date is underwhelming, to say the least. I will be curious to see how it fares in NPD charts; sales were better on Day 2, but there were still several more preorder cancellations.
Motion controls could have a rough time this year.
The release of the PlayStation Move is about two weeks away, but interest has been lukewarm at best. Lack of demo software and tangibles, combined with a lack of general knowledge about it for both consumers and retailers, has led to a cautionary “wait and see” approach. Sony isn’t overly bullish on Move for Q4, and that’s probably a good thing. Reviews of the first wave of games have been mixed, which hasn’t helped the situation. As for Microsoft’s Kinect device, interest has again stalled after a brief spike– presumably due to some in-store videos and advertising. Reports from the GameStop conference in San Antonio on Kinect were that there are still some hitches with the hardware and that there weren’t a lot of impressed people. As with Move, Kinect really doesn’t have much in the way of software or tech demonstrations that allow consumers to see what their $150 would be getting them.
Consumers are reacting swiftly to the Xbox LIVE price hike.
Much like people who stock up on batteries, bread, and water before a big storm, consumers are buying up Xbox LIVE subscription cards at their current rate before the price hike takes effect. The general consensus seems to be that consumers don’t want to quit the service, but there are a lot of questions as to why the increase is happening now. The move towards hoarding cards is free profit for Microsoft currently, but the overall effect of the price hike on subscriber numbers may not be felt for up to a year from now.
Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and R.U.S.E. could be retail disasters while NHL 11 and Kingdom Hearts look strong.
Does anyone even know that Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions and R.U.S.E. hit retail next week? If reservation numbers are any indication, then the answer is NO. While the situation for R.U.S.E. may be more geared to being a new IP, the fact that Spider-Man is getting such a cool pre-release reception by consumers should make Activision a bit nervous. Not that another Spider-Bomb would be all that surprising, given the track record of recent releases starring the web-crawler, but it seems as if Activision isn’t even trying with Shattered Dimensions. There may be some interest when the game arrives at retail next week, but given the strong pre-release interest for both Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep and NHL 11 for next week, it seems clear that Spider-Man will be taking a back seat. Again.
Online Passes are ineffective.
Despite offering Online Passes for pre-owned copies of games like UFC 2010 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, there are very few takers. Sales of Tiger 11 overall have been weak and UFC 2010 just saw another price drop for new and pre-owned copies as sales of the game have been all but dead. There haven’t been, in my observation, many trade-ins (and subsequent sales) of pre-owned copies of NCAA Football 11 and Madden 11, but when they’ve been sold, offerings for the Online Pass have been met by, “I don’t play online, anyway. Why spend the extra $10?” If publishers are looking for ways to gain a significant share of the pre-owned market, it looks like they will have to resort to other means at this point… although the true tests for Online Pass programs will come with Medal of Honor and Call of Duty: Black Ops.
That’s it for today; I hope you find these trends at least somewhat interesting. I’ll certainly try to post more of these trends and my analysis as we move forward into the busy holiday shopping season and the inevitable crush of new games that come with it.
After a hiatus of nearly two weeks, I was able to spend a bit of time playing games Sunday night. I tried out my two newest games– Modern Warfare 2 for the Xbox 360 and New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii– and I wanted to give some impressions of both before heading off to bed.
Let me touch on Modern Warfare 2 first. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating before I go any further: I am not very talented at first-person shooters. Borderlands may be the exception, as I’ve become more skilled playing that, but that may be more due to leveling up my character than it is my improving at these kinds of games. So… why did I buy Modern Warfare 2 then? I guess I needed to see what all of the hype has been about. I suppose that I could have rented it since my new place here in Arizona has a Blockbuster store less than 5 minutes from me… but I wanted to give the game its due time.
I played for about an hour, and I do like the game in spite of my lack of ability. The aesthetics are great, and there’s certainly a ton of action. I did play through the No Russian level that’s been one of the focuses of controversy surrounding the game, but playing through it myself had no real effect for me. I think I understand why No Russian was put into the game, but I think that a non-playable cutscene could have been used for the first half of the stage– which is what most people who bristle at the game point to. I can also see where some of the imagery can be unsettling, as picking off wounded civilians who are attempting to crawl to safety is a very cold act. What bothers me is that, due to Infinity Ward’s decision to make the stage optional, there’s no real payoff for playing it… and that’s after clearing the second half of the stage, which is considerably difficult. Sure, you may develop a stronger hatred for the game’s antagonist, but I believe this could have been achieved a different way.
Modern Warfare 2 is intense. Bullets zip past you constantly and you must keep your head on a swivel in order to survive. The snowmobile scene, which was first unveiled at E3 earlier this year, is remarkably tense. I’m still very early in the game’s campaign, but I do like what I’ve experienced so far. Spec Ops is a nice added touch, with different objectives and a choice of playing alone or with friends. The game’s multiplayer mode is easily its strongest asset, though. As long as you keep the voice chat off (or play with friends), it’s an addictive experience and the additions that Infinity Ward made to streaks and player progressions make for a game that literally has infinite replay value– provided that these kinds of games are your thing.
I’ll be spending more time with Modern Warfare 2 this week for sure.
As for New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii, the game feels like a welcome return to the roots of the series. Not that Super Mario Galaxy was bad or anything, but New Super Mario Bros. feels familiar and yet has just enough new things added to the experience so that it truly feels like the standalone game that it is. I played through a handful of stages, including the first sub-fortress, and had little problem getting through any of them. “Getting by” isn’t enough in a game like this, however; it’s all about the secrets and finding all of the hidden things in each stage, like Toads or special gold coins. It’s almost as if you can play the game in a variety of ways. You can play for speed runs through the stages. You can play to find all of the coins. You can play with style, or challenge yourself to run through a stage without powerups. The formula may be 25 years old, but it doesn’t age.
I’ll have more to say about both of these games in the coming days, but I wanted to get some thoughts out while the images were still fresh in my mind. For now, though, it’s off to bed.
WARNING: This entry pertains to footage of Modern Warfare 2 that was leaked onto the internet recently. This entry may spoil certain aspects of the game for you, so… if you are absolutely insistent on staying spoiler-free, please close this browser window now.
OK, then. For those of you who are left, you either knew about this footage already or you’re pretty laid back about spoilers. Either way, thanks for staying on to read the rest of this.
Let’s set the scene. The leaked footage shows the player walk into an airport from an elevator after a lengthy briefing (which is in French in the video). The airport, as with many others, is bustling with people. As the game character and his party walk into the airport terminal and approach the crowd, the party (and the player) opens fire on the innocent people, slaughtering dozens in a hail of bullets and leaving pools of blood everywhere. Screams echo through the gunfire and chaos prevails as the party picks its way through the airport, continuing the killing spree as they proceed.
I don’t really need to spoil any more for you. There’s a lot of things about the footage that are unclear, such as what the player’s role is in this level. Theories are circulating mentioning that the player is either a terrorist or an undercover agent working under a terrorist guise, but nothing has been confirmed. We’re left to draw on our conclusions and theories. Is this level setting the stage for some sort of revenge by fostering sincere hatred for the terrorists and what they did? We won’t really know until we play the game next month.
What is clear, however, is that– especially if you’ve seen the footage– it’s some of the most chilling and disturbing footage that I’ve ever seen in a video game. It’s terrifying that a game can create such a plausible scenario like an airport massacre, complete with the aural and visual setting to heighten the experience. What’s worse (to me, anyway) is that the player can actively participate in the bloodshed. The footage clearly shows the player picking off innocents. Is actively participating in terrorism something that we want video games to offer, especially considering the fear of terrorism affects our daily lives?
I understand that it’s “only a game” and that most people in their right minds wouldn’t dream of attempting to breach airport security, let alone start pumping bullets into scores of innocent travelers. Video games have navigated through charges of being “murder simulators” before, despite the negative press that the Grand Theft Auto series attracted. I don’t think that anyone should have to tell a developer or designer what’s appropriate and what isn’t.
Here’s what really scares me, though:
If the mainstream media gets wind of this footage, Activision and Infinity Ward could be in for a very rough time of things. No matter how the footage ties into the game’s story, what cannot be ignored is that the player and his party are engaged in the terroristic act of killing innocent people in a realistically portrayed scenario. Since the continued (though false) perception is that video games are for kids, I can almost see the supersensationalism in the press at work here. Questions like “How can a game like this be made?” and “What if children get their hands on this game like they did Grand Theft Auto?” may pop up. Politicians and even the White House may have some sort of reaction. Retailers may come under fire for stocking the game, and the ESRB could possibly be forced to reconsider its rating. The possibility of a major overreaction is very real, and for what? Exposition? Controversy?
For now, we wait. There’s no doubt that Modern Warfare 2 is poised to be one of the biggest-selling games of 2009, so it will be interesting to see if there is indeed and media backlash to this footage and how Activision and Infinity Ward choose to respond to any criticism. I have a feeling that this topic is going to heat up sooner rather than later, so we’ll revisit it then.
In the meantime, look for impressions of Forza 3 and Tekken 6 tomorrow or Friday.
It must be nice for prominent players in this industry to be so bullish. Despite recent downward trends in sales and despite the worst economy that the world has seen in generations, the video game industry is determined to think that this recession won’t affect them. We’ve seen resistance to price drops, a company actually raising prices for the re-release of a platform that’s been dead last for months, expansion of DLC and less content on actual game discs, and even the possibility (or threat?) of tacking on a paid subscription service to a popular FPS franchise.
Are you kidding me? Come on. Really?
Look around you, game companies. Look at the number of states with double-digit unemployment rates. Look at the number of foreclosures that are happening almost every day. Look at the renewed upswing in the cost of gasoline. Look at how some of the biggest companies in the United States are going belly up. In spite of government predictions and the usual spin… the reality is that we’re still in a recession, people. The amount of disposable income for the average person is gradually decreasing. Unlike we saw during the last console generation, when consumers were buying multiple consoles and had a larger amount of money to spend on entertainment, we’re seeing pullbacks now.
So, tell me… what makes you think that (allegedly) removing content from games in order to try and extend revenue via DLC is a beneficial idea? It wasn’t that long ago when developers would fill a DVD or CD to its limits with features and content. We got all of our extra costumes, bonus stages, and other stuff as part of a $50 package. Sure, there was no way to extend the life of the game via DLC then, but we still generally got more for our gaming dollar than we get in this generation. We never saw missions, gameplay modes, or extra costumes held out of games before… but we do now. Allegedly. Even in downloadable games, we’re seeing incomplete efforts that ask us for additional funds to unlock the rest of the game. (I’m looking at you, Taito.) I’ve said it before, and I’m going to reiterate it here: Downloadable content, despite a few bright spots, has been this generation’s epic failure. In many cases, it’s little more than a extra revenue stream for publishers which allows then to hold game content that we would have gotten for the standard price of admission five years ago hostage.
I know that I talked about price drops when I discussed May’s NPD figures, but it’s worth mentioning again since the issue of the poor economy and the gaming industry’s “out of touch” approach to the situation are at the epicenter of today’s entry. Nintendo’s NPD victory in May was a hollow one. Looking at the numbers for 2009 so far, Nintendo Wii sales are sliding southward– even if those numbers are still better than those of its competition in Microsoft and Sony. When decently-selling games like Wii Fit, EA Sports Active, and Punch-Out!! can’t move consoles, perhaps a change is in order. On Sony’s end, I can understand the potential damage from dropping the price on a console that they’re already losing money on, but poor installed userbase numbers are eventually going to cost Sony– especially in the third-party publisher field. Something has to be done to not only help spike sales of the PlayStation 3… but to also give the exciting 2009 exclusive releases a chance to succeed. A worse move for Sony was to price the PSP Go for $250, which is $80 more than the dominating competition in the Nintendo DSi. Yes, it’s got on-board memory now, and yes, you no longer need UMDs… but so what? Lastly, while Microsoft neither gained nor lost in May, you have to wonder whether the Xbox 360 has reached its maximum audience already. Aside from Halo 3: ODST (which I’ll get to shortly) and maybe Modern Warfare 2 (which isn’t an exclusive), Microsoft hasn’t yet shown much for 2009 that will possibly generate an upward trend in hardware sales. In all three cases, price drops of some sort make sense… but all three companies will argue that sales are fine and that consumers will come around in this challenging time. Right.
Finally, we come to the issue of game pricing. Just when you think that $60 was already tough enough to take, we get a blatant cash grab in Guitar Hero: Smash Hits and the potential of a $60 Halo 3 expansion disc in Halo 3: ODST. I know that I just talked about Smash Hits in my last entry, but it’s solid evidence of how publishers think that any game is worth full price– when a fair number of them most certainly are not. Bungie and Microsoft recently did an about-face when talking about ODST and the $60 price point, citing that the game is now much more than an expansion. Maybe the truth is that Microsoft knows that Halo fans are willing to pay $60 for a new game in the series, no matter what it is. Much like Activision knows with Guitar Hero– or Square-Enix knows with Final Fantasy– consumers will pay for the name, and not necessarily the game. It’s a dangerous assumption to make, however; especially in a recession, when games are harder to afford.
I understand completely that this is a business, and that all of these companies are out to make money. Price cuts in hardware and software or the revision of a cheap and easy revenue source in downloadable content aren’t easy choices to make. On the other hand, these companies need to stop turning a blind eye to the recession that’s going on around them. If you continue to raise prices or insist that price cuts are definitely not the answer, there is a growing risk that an industry that has grown in leaps and bounds over the last 14 years will regress back to the niche hobby that few would admit to and fewer would spend big money on. The need to not only attract new consumers, but to also retain ones that are still fresh into gaming, is paramount to the continued growth and success of this business that so many of us know and love.
Wake up, people, before it’s too late.
I should have known.
In fact, when I was in line to pick up my copy of Guitar Hero: Smash Hits on the day of its release, there was also one lone copy of Ghostbusters for the 360 sitting next to the seemingly endless number of Smash Hits copies. I had a bout of insecurity, asking myself if I was doing the right thing. $60 isn’t exactly chump change. I had already made the trades at GameStop to be able to afford the game… so it wasn’t like I could have backed out of a purchase altogether. Besides, if Ghostbusters is, in fact, a direct sequel to the movies, I never saw Ghostbusters II and therefore wouldn’t have understood the story… right? Right?
I tried to maintain my excitement as I drive home with my new game. After all, Smash Hits had all master tracks on the disc… and some wrist-breaking songs from before Guitar Hero went south as a franchise. I was especially looking forward to checking out Play With Me by Extreme, Bark at the Moon by Ozzy Osbourne, and The Trooper by Iron Maiden. During the drive home, I attempted to justify the expense to myself, but I had a feeling that I was in for some major disappointment.
My feelings were accurate.
Paying $60 for Guitar Hero: Smash Hits means that you’re part of the problem. You’re basically telling Activision– who’s already done this kind of thing once by charging full price for another Guitar Hero expansion disc with its Rocks the ’80s compilation back in 2007– that it’s OK to overcharge for a repackaging of the same game that we’ve already paid for at least once that has little or no advantage over past games. In some ways, Smash Hits is worse than Rocks the ’80s; Smash Hits offers nothing new in terms of content and has charting and instrument mix issues. If you want to sell this to me for $30 or even $40, that’s fine… but $60 is a money grab that I was impulsively stupid enough to contribute to.
Let’s talk about the content of the game. There are two big selling points for Smash Hits. One is that the disc contains many of the more popular or notable tracks from earlier games in the franchise and centralizes them. These tracks, unlike the Wavegroup covers that we got for many of the tracks in Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero II, and Rocks the ’80s, are all master tracks. The other selling point is that these songs are all recharted and scored for full band support, including vocals, drums, and bass guitar.
Now, come on. Songs that we’ve already played, in spite of the fact that the covers have been replaced by masters, don’t equate to a $60 game. Neither does the new charting and instrument support. Sorry. It also has Neversoft’s GH Tunes support (which I never used in Guitar Hero World Tour or in Guitar Hero Metallica)… but that’s still not worth $60. Guitar Hero Metallica had more tracks and most of its material was new to the series. World Tour implemented band support for the first time, had many new tracks, supported DLC, and introduced GH Tunes. These two games make valid arguments for fully-priced entries in the series; Smash Hits doesn’t come close. Even Rocks the ’80s introduced new tracks… but Smash Hits does not.
Once you get into Smash Hits, the progression feels a bit like that of Guitar Hero Metallica in that you open up new tiers by earning enough stars through earlier tiers. That’s fine. There are tracks in Smash Hits that I’d rather not have played again, anyway, so being able to skip around them in order to progress through the game is great. If I want to, I can go back and play them to increase my score after I’ve unlocked everything else. After making your way through the game, though, you come to a stopping point; in order to unlock the last tier– which arguably has some of the best songs on the disc– you are required to have played all of the other songs on the disc. I can see if you’re playing on Expert difficulty, as the game should be challenging you to do everything but the kitchen sink to win, but forcing players to trudge through all of the earlier songs to get to the last few when playing more casually is weak. What’s worse is that Encore performances for each tier only happen when you’ve played all of the songs in a tier first, instead of playing a tier until you’ve accumulated enough stars to move on; it’s almost as if Beenox (the development team behind Smash Hits) said, “We know there’s not a lot of replay value here, so let’s force players to play everything… it’s make the game longer.” What a genius idea. Actually… no. No, it isn’t.
Then we come to playing the songs themselves. There are two significant issues to that pop up in a fair number of tracks. The first issue lies in the charting. While some of the charting changes are decent, others are questionable in that you don’t know which guitar you’re being charted for. When playing Message in a Bottle by The Police, the charting towards the end of the song alternates between lead and rhythm guitars. May I ask why? What’s worse is that the songs have been edited differently, so they almost never end the way you remember or expect them to. Several tracks end rather abruptly (like Boston’s More Than A Feeling). Queen’s Killer Queen has you strumming to a keyboard rather than guitar in the first few measures. Now, if you remember playing the same song in the original Guitar Hero, you’ll recall that Harmonix made the decision to just have players wait through the piano solo and play along with the actual guitar when it came in. Yeah, it can be tough to have to sit there and wait if you want action, but hearing just a keyboard or piano playing as you strum a guitar is just broken; it’s like hearing a cow say, “Oink!”
The other issue lies in the instrument mixes. Some instruments sound terribly distant at times. This is the first time in the series that I’ve noticed something like this. Sure, you can go into the Options menu and manually adjust the instrument mix, but if we’ve never had to do this before, why now? Is it because these are master tracks now, and the balance is off? I guess it’s possible, but it’s weird having to strain to hear certain guitar parts.
I’ll admit that I only own a (wired) guitar, so I don’t have any band experience in Smash Hits. Perhaps having these songs playable for four parts will make the game worth it for some players… but I honestly don’t see how. Also, if you’re a vocalist, good luck with some of these tracks. Even though I (kind of) sing for a living, I’d never attempt some of these.
Fool me once, with Rocks the ’80s, shame on you. That disc with the last one that Harmonix worked on under the Activision label before they moved on to MTV Games and developed Rock Band. I don’t know who to blame for that fiasco, but that was two years ago. Unfortunately, if you fool me twice, as Activision and Beenox did with Smash Hits, then shame on me. I knew even when waiting in line that I wasn’t going to be happy with this game, but I still bought it. Sure, I didn’t know that there were going to be problems like the ones that I’ve addressed here– which made the experience worse– but I knew deep down that this wasn’t going to be worth the asking price. Now all I can do is hope that my words and experience will prevent others from doing the same impulsive thing that I did.
From the press box:
Activision, Inc. (Nasdaq: ATVI) today unveiled a new consumer initiative to expand the company’s Wii portfolio this Fall. Dubbed “Wee 1ST”, the brand highlights the company’s games that were developed specifically with the Wii in mind.
“The Wii is introducing new audiences to gaming,” said Dave Oxford, Activision Publishing. “Clearly, the Wii’s accessible controls are changing how the audience plays games and how we look at game design. This initiative is designed to showcase games that take full advantage of the Wii’s capabilities.”
With the Wii on track to be the leading platform by Christmas, the company’s move to expand its offering has been in the works for more than a year. The first titles under the “Wee 1ST” brand include Little League® World Series 2008, Rapala® Fishing Frenzy and Dancing with the Stars™: Get Your Dance On. More games will be announced in the upcoming weeks, all of which will hit shelves this holiday season.
The “Wee 1ST” brand is supported by a national television and print advertising campaign scheduled to kick off this fall. New branding is featured on the front of all boxes and at retail locations nationwide.
Are you freaking kidding me? This new initiative says to me, “Wii is for kids. Let’s get on that.”
Admittedly, I do have some interest in the Little League World Series game… primarily because I do watch the LLWS on TV every summer… but do we really need another Dancing With The Stars game?
Sure, we do: As much as Activision needed this initiative. Here’s the logo, if you’re interested: