The End of a Console Era

Xbox ConsolesThe video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.

Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.

In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.

There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.

The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.

My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.

Screen Shot 2013-04-27 at 19.10.04Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.

It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.

I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.

Requiem For The PSP

The PlayStation Portable isn’t a dead console yet, but it’s days are certainly numbered. In December, it’ll be six years since it’s initial Japanese release, making it comparatively aged compared to Nintendo’s various models in the DS range. Vultures are already circling, with developers claiming they already have PSP2 development kits and photos of an Android-powered PSP Phone being leaked to Engadget.

Before the media completely consign the PSP to the electronic cupboard of history, I’d like to pay tribute to it for it is: an underrated system which has been plagued by bad management decisions and short-sightedness.

The PSP is a quality piece of hardware. Back in 2004, when the PSP was first revealed the screen was stunning compared to other media devices at the $200 price point. The screen was several times the size and resolution of the screen on the Game Boy Advance and DS, and far sharper then either. In terms of hardware configuration, it’s processing capacity and graphical abilities were closer to the PS2 than to the original PlayStation. PSP models remain considerable more powerful then the Nintendo DS or the released specifications for the 3DS.

Standing at the forefront of gaming technology, the PSP should have been a massive success. It wasn’t. Instead, it has spent much of it’s lifecycle towards the bottom of hardware sales charts with dwindling support in game stores. UMD copies of many games are now quite hard to find, simply because they have been produced in small runs compared to games on other consoles.

So what factors left the PSP in this situation?

  • Lack of a “Killer Game” – The success of the DS was almost ensured by the release of Mario Kart DS and Mario 64 DS. Established titles such as Pokemon and the Final Fantasy III remake helped to cement this. There was no killer title for the PSP. The launch line-up was devoid of highlights, with the established Metal Gear brand being turned into a not terribly popular a card-based-combat game.
  • Short-Sighted Distribution System – The PSP was the first major handheld games console to feature a wi-fi connection and writable media. From day one, the potential existed for the PSP to be used to buy small, Xbox Live Arcade style games online and to access indie games. Sony effectively ignored this potential by allowing the PlayStation Network Store to stagnate for two to three years while Microsoft were forging ahead with digital distribution on consoles.
  • Quashing Homebrew – The PSP is easy to code for and would have been a godsend for small developers. Except rather then supporting them with an online indie game store, Sony continually tried to block people from installing homebrew software on the PSP.
  • Bonding To The PS3 – The PS3 was designed to work with the PSP. Nothing wrong with that. The problems started when Sony made PS1 games playable on the PSP but only available for download on the PS3, cutting out a large chunk of their market. This problem is now resolved, but support for PS1 games would have been something that should have been there from day one and independent of the PS3.
  • Lack of Platform Titles – Platforming games are the bread and butter of handheld gaming. They are sadly lacking on the PSP, despite the potential existing for platformers from defunct consoles to be ported to the system in the same way they’ve been ported to the Wii, Xbox and DS. More homegrown intellectual properties, such as Ratchet and Clank would also have helped the system, although lack of good, first-party titles has been a problem which has plagued Sony.

The PSP is not a perfect system. The analogue ‘nub’ is a particular point of contention, while some have criticised it’s shoulder buttons and battery life. Still, it deserved a far better life then it ended up with. It had the potential to change the handheld market in the same way the PS1 changed the console market. It failed, almost entirely to make an impact however, allowing the Nintendo DS to completely dominate the handheld games market.

There were a lot of brave decisions in the design of the PSP, as there were with the PS3. The choice of a disk drive and the propriety UMD format was one while inclusion of a web browser and the recent release of a version without the UMD driver were others. Some of these worked out and some didn’t. I will continue to use my PSP, no matter what Sony release to succeed it and I am very glad that I bought what turned out to be a very good piece of hardware.

Moving To Make A Kinect-ion

I remember when the Wii was first announced. I loved the idea. I was even a vocal defender of it’s name. As soon as I could, I went and placed a pre-order with my Friendly Local Video Game Store. I got my Wii not long after launch due to the delays by the time the system went on sale in Europe, and I was blown away by how much fun it was playing Wii Sports with a group of friends. On the other hand, I was left cold by Zelda: Twilight Princess. Not because it was a bad game, but because swinging a controller around in an action-RPG felt clunky and uncomfortable compared to using a keyboard and mouse or a control pad.

My impressions of the Wii remained that it was very much a party machine. The games I had the most fun with were the ones which emphasised group play, like WarioWare: Smooth Moves, Rayman Raving Rabbids and MarioKart Wii. Eventually, I realised that I just didn’t play my Wii enough even when I did have people round. I traded it in when I moved to Edinburgh. I don’t regret selling my Wii for a second.

My experience with the Wii should really be enough to put me off both PS Move and Kinect for Xbox 360. One is pretty much a copy of the Wii’s control system with claims to be more accurate while the other is an unknown quantity with more similarities to unsuccessful control systems for the PlayStation Eye and Xbox Live Vision then anything else. Yet, I find myself vaguely drawn towards both systems.

The game which really has me interested in the PlayStation Move is Time Crisis: Razing Storm. This is a new, expanded edition of Time Crisis 4, released specifically for the Move. It also comes with two other rail-shooter games, including one pirate based one which looks like absurd, silly fun. I had great fun in my student union playing Time Crisis 3 and I’d love to be able to do that with my friends at home. I’m also interested to see how Little Big Planet 2 (the sequel to the PS3’s most successful game) and EchoChrome 2 (sequel to a rather nice PSP puzzle game) will make use of the controller.

Sadly, three games which look pretty damned good just aren’t enough to justify spending £100 on a Playstation Eye, two controllers and two navigation controllers. A few more interesting looking games might have me persuaded, but the list of games which are intended to use Move looks quite uninspiring, with many of the games likely to be perfectly playable with a normal DuelShock3 controller. There are also some games which look a bit rubbish and similar to the shovelware titles which have flooded the Wii games market.

If the line up for the Move is uninspiring, then I’m not sure what that makes the Kinect line-up. Of the games announced so far, the only two which I intend to buy are Fable III and Forza Motorsports 4, both of which are likely to be excellant and work perfectly with my existing gamepads. I have absolutely no interest in any of the other games, although I’m sure that Microsoft’s flagship titles – Adventures, Joy Ride, Sports and Kinectimals won’t actually be bad. I’m also dubious about how well the control system will actually work in the real world.

My skeptiscism about Kinect isn’t helped by the fact that I already own an Xbox Live Vision Camera, which was not a worthwhile investment. It came with two games which it was used as a controller for, one of which was called Totemball. It was pretty much unplayable. To quote GameSpot (via MetaCritic):

If you already have the camera, you might as well download TotemBall. But don’t expect to get much enjoyment out of it.

Maybe I’m being a bit too harsh on Kinect. After all, Microsoft has given me around five years of enjoyable gaming, using controllers which fit my hands comfortably (as compared to PlayStation controllers, the PSP and DS Lite, which I find uncomfortable to use). They’ve also had a lot of good exclusive and first-party games, many of which I still play regularly. Ok, so my first Xbox did RROD (thanks to Fable II), but I can forgive these things.

So I’m not going to write Kinect off altogether…yet. I’m quite open to the fact that it might help change my perception of how to control a game in the same way that the iPad and iPhone changed my perceptions of how we should be interacting with computers (something which is being realised in the form of Microsoft Surface). I won’t be holding my breath…but then I never expected to be as impressed with my iPhone as I was.

Sony and Microsoft are both making allusions to Move and Kinect being extensions of their respective system; a stepping stone which will turn 7th generation consoles into the 8th generation. I don’t really buy that, and I don’t think that either the Xbox or the PS3 are suddenly going to steal the Wii’s casual and party gamer market. Rather, I think that both MS and Sony are going to fail to sell many Move and Kinect devices. Mostly because the number of gamers who own both an Xbox or a PS3 and a Wii is vast. Gamers are fickle creatures however, and the lure of motion gameplay with high quality graphics may be too much for some. We’ll have to wait and see.

The Quotes of the Civilization V Debut Trailer

Looking at the feedback which is appearing around the internet, it seems that people are questioning whether or not the quotes in the debut trailer for Civilization V are real.

I am happy to confirm that all of them are real and listed below for your contextual pleasure, but first lets recap the trailer itself, courtesy of Machinima.

In order, the quotes are:

A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long supressed, finds utterance.
Jawaharlal Nehru

Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India and is considered one of the greatest Indian statesman. Along with Mahatma Gandhi, he is considered one of the architects of free India. Members of his family are still active in Indian Politics.

The second quote is from a speech by General Douglas MacArthur. It is slightly altered from the original. The full quote reads thusly:

Duty, Honor, Country: Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.

Douglas MacArthur was a five star US General, credited with masterminding some of the most significant victories in World War Two. He was also the American commander during the rebuilding of Japan from 1945 to 1950.

The third quote is the only one which is from ancient history. It is attributed to the the Athenian general Themistocles, who defeated two Persian invasions but eventually became a tyrant. The quote originates from Plutarch’s biography of the general:

I never learned how to tune a harp, or play upon a lute; but I know how to raise a small and inconsiderable city to glory and greatness.

Quote number four is from Otto Von Bismarck. A German aristocrat, Bismarck was responsible for uniting nearly 20 different kingdoms to create the Second German Empire. He is still regarded as a great statesman, not least for his use of realpolitik – the idea that political decisions should be taken on a practical rather then ideological basis.

Not by speeches and votes of the majority, are the great questions of the time decided — that was the error of 1848 and 1849 — but by iron and blood.

The penultimate quote is from Mao Zedong. Better known as Chairman Mao, he led a largely successful but bloody uprising in China which led to the country which we know today. While the quote specifically refers to Chinese communism, it is equally applicable to any mass movement.

I have witnessed the tremendous energy of the masses. On this foundation it is possible to accomplish any task whatsoever.

The final quote is from Eleanor Roosevelt. Despite often being overshadowed by her husband’s reputation, Roosevelt was a diplomat and activist in her own right, campaigning for human rights and specifically the rights of women and children. The UN Declaration of Human Rights is often specifically credited to her.

The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.

Civilization V is due out in Autumn 2010.