US Gamers: 90 Percent of ELSPA are Liars

Do you even know what an overwhelming majority ninety percent is? According to the clearly un-biased ELSPA’s Intellectual Crime Unit (where’s the Law and Order spin-off for that one?), seeing someone playing DS without an R4 cartridge in the US is a rare site. I could spout some anecdotal evidence, but let’s look at numbers.

Assume that people who have the R4 never buy games and that they represent 90% of the market.

There have been roughly 20.67 million Nintendo DS consoles sold in America to date. Using the ELSPA estimate, only 2.67 million play legit carts.

There have been 6.54 million copies of Nintendogs sold in the US. Therefore, every legit user bought 2.44 copies of Nintendogs. With four versions of the game, I suppose that is theoretically possible, however extremely unlikely.
There have been 4.51 million copies of Pokemon Diamond/Pearl sold in the US. Therefore, every legit user bought 1.68 copies of Pokemon Pearl/Diamond. With two versions of the game, I suppose that is theoretically possible as well as long as the majority bought both copies of a ostensibly identical game.
There have been 3.95 million copies of New Super Mario Bros. sold in the US. Therefore, every legit user bought 1.48 copies of New Super Mario Bros... Huh?

As a DS developer, I am all about protecting IP. But when you lie about it, ELSPA, you weaken your stance as a group that can be trusted with providing developers and consumers any information whatsoever. I have no doubt that the R4 is causing people to pirate games rather than buy them, but we need to figure out (1) if this is really a problem and (2) how to deal with it in ways other than saying “seventy hojillion users are pirating games and no one is making money!”

United Vandals

I know that the hyper-OCD section of the Internet is already way tired of this whole Mass Effect – Fox News – Cooper Lawrence thing, but I found another morsel of this development fascinating. Apparently, as an act of revenge, hundreds of gamers went to the Amazon page of Cooper Lawrence’s latest book and wrote negative reviews by the score. While I would normally deride this as childish vandalism, I got to thinking about it.

Ms. Lawrence’s quote:

In her statement Lawrence, whose name was dragged through the mud for days, addressed the review-revenge strategy. “I believe that the customer-review feature on Amazon.com is not the appropriate forum to discuss an unrelated news segment. I appeared on a news program that provides an opportunity for debate on topics that have been previously covered by the media. Amazon’s customer-reviews feature functions as a platform to review a product sold on their site, in this case my book, the topic of which does not relate to video games and/or ‘Mass Effect.’ “

And I would normally agree with that. But then you really dig down to the tactic of review spamming and what do you get? Ms. Lawrence came on TV to tell legions of uninformed consumers lies about a product she had no familiarity with and whose comments likely cost the creators of said product actual money. What did the gamer hordes do in response? Told legions of uninformed consumers lies about a product with which they had no familiarity in the hopes that they could cost the creator actual money.

It’s kind of poetic when you put it that way.

Ms. Lawrence abused her power that Fox News had granted her and gamers abused the power Amazon.com gave them. The difference is that Amazon is removing said reviews while Fox airs no retraction. Now I’m sure she didn’t do it out of malice – she did it to promote herself and her books and show. She did it out of ego. Now, gamers don’t really have something to promote by wrecking Ms. Lawrence’s Amazon page, but they can hurt her ego and so that’s what they did.

I don’t condone leaving false reviews at Amazon. And I don’t condone lying straight-faced on national television.

This is really different than the juvenile rancor that surrounds every Jack Thompson media blitz as that is really just tongue lashing sans purpose. This retort by the unorganized gaming public actually shows the strength of the loyal, informed consumer – not by virtue of truth, but by power of action.

Phrase of the Week

Okay, kids. Via Jonathan Coulton, the phrase of the week is: “chicken-shit cockhole“.

Game developers have to deal with the same bullshit that he speaks of, except we have the beautiful cushion of a guaranteed paycheck (in most established places) to do so. In return, we give up some degree of creative freedom.

It’s easy to slag something on the Internet. Especially games. But I revel in wishing unique tortures on little punks who post 1/10 user comments on Metacritic or write some snarky comment on Kotaku about a game being shit. The game might be shit, but if you want to help anyone, at least try to be intelligent about why you thought so. I’ve done shitty games in the past that deserve to be slagged, but they deserve to be slagged with a modicum of class and intelligence because a team of twenty-two hundred killed themselves for a year-four years to get it out to you. You get a special exemption if you know what kind of Death Marches happen in these cases first-hand, but if you are some punk “game enthusiast”, you really should ratchet up the humility knob.

Also: There will be a special place in hell for Youtube commenters.  I don’t know what sort of social defects those people have, but it is best we quarantine them early and enforce some sort of castration program.

Red Carpet

I grimace at consensus accolades because they generally choose the least polarizing entry. It is the same for the Game Developer’s Choice awards, of which I am honored to vote on every year. Last year was the straw that broke the figurative camel’s back when Wii Sports won for Best Design and Gears of Drivel won Best Overall Game. Oh, and Twilight Princess won for best writing (aka Best Use of Same Fantasy Cliches As Every Game Since Gauntlet award) in a year where Dreamfall & Oblivion were on the ballot.

As you can tell, I’m in a foul mood today.

I digress. The nominees this year were pretty good overall. You can see them here. We get a call for nominations at the end of the year and all of my nominees but one actually made it to the final list (I nominated Skate for Game Desig, but it didn’t get a nod.) I give a favorable reaction to seeing Bit-Blot on the list for best debut. I haven’t gotten around to playing Aquaria yet, but it certain looks to be a labor of love. And double kudos to the throngs that must have voted Peggle for the iPod in as I hadn’t even thought of a non-DS platform in that category, but I totally want to re-do my vote at this point.

So unless I have a change of heart, here’s how I plan on voting:

Game of the Year: Portal (Call of Duty 4 better not win…)
Best Writing: Portal (Mass Effect better not win…)
Best Game Desig: Portal
Best Technology: Assassin’s Creed
Best Visual Arts: Bioshock
Best Debut Game: Aquaria (But only if I actually play it before the vote and it is deserving, otherwise, I’ll leave this blank)
Innovation Award: Portal (If Mass Effect wins here… I swear…)
Best Handheld Game: Peggle or Puzzle Quest, can’t decide yet.
Best Audio: Bioshock
Best Downloadable: Peggle
Most Underrated Overrated Game: Halo 3
Most Underrated Underrated Game: Assassin’s Creed
Most Overrated Overrated Game: Super Mario Galaxy (A 97? really?)
Most Overrated Underrated Game: Flow
President: Ron Paul (kidding)

The last five aren’t real categories.

Misinformation

This is what Game Designers have to deal with every time they tell someone over the age of thirty that they are a Game Designer.  Because we exist solely to corrupt kids. When there isn’t a Doom or a Postal out on shelves to vilify, folks with an agenda will just make one up out of whole cloth.

I only comment on politics to my closest friends, because honestly, I really don’t care what anyone else has to say on the subject, so I doubt you care what I have to say. But this kind of stuff is so important, that you have to fight. It’s not a matter of Republicans or Democrats – it is a matter of freedom and censorship. Both parties have arms that want to cripple any attempts at artistic expression. And these arms have money and power. What starts as a filler media hit-job can easily escalate into a full blown campaign – especially in an election year.

So fight it. Fight it with everything you have or studios will never want to risk putting out anything with any emotional impact. Every movie will be Beach Blanket Bingo and every game will be Pong.

All the games I’ve designed have been rated E. I like designing E games because I like the idea of families being able to play together. But given the opportunity, I would write the most emotionally-driven, meaningful, mature game I could muster because I think the industry needs that too. Games are not for kids and maladjusted manchildren. Games are a bold new art form and artists need to demand that it receives the same respect as the written word, music and film. Just because children’s books exist does not mean all books need be nursery rhymes.

You won’t read further postings on politics on this blog unless it pertains to this issue.

What a Great Year

Not that anybody cares really, but I personally enjoy reading other people’s “best of the year” lists in the hopes that I will find something new or change my mind about something I dismissed. Considering the AIAS nominations came out today and chock full of decisions I disagree with (I’ll leave it for another post or not at all), now seems like as good a time as ever. In an earlier post, I mentioned that I single out a few games a year as being my favorites and then I add them to a list (sort of a personal hall of fame) in order to go back at a later date and replay some of my favorites.

Here’s my previous list:

2001 – Halo, Ico
2002 – Splinter Cell, Jet Set Radio Future
2003 – Disgaea, Beyond Good and Evil
2004 – Katamari Damacy, Burnout 3: Takedown
2005 – Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan!, Psychonauts, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Meteos
2006 – Oblivion, Dead Rising, Guitar Hero II

This year it was very hard to pick three games. I started out only picking one (Ico was added to 2001 after the fact), then because I had a hard time choosing one I moved to two, then to three. I’m apprehensive about moving up to four because I don’t want it to be an “every game I played this year that was marginally good” list, but 2007 was so jam-packed with good content that it makes the whittling hard. So I’m going to put my ideas out there and whittle down from there later. Here’s what I came up with:

I can’t really say anything about Portal that hasn’t been said. It has a clever new game mechanic, a clever nontraditional villain, the best ending theme in gaming history and it bravely cuts itself short before overstaying its welcome. My expectation for Portal originally was that it was going to be a moderately distracting puzzle game. I didn’t foresee it being my game of the year.
Continuing with the theme of games I didn’t expect to be good, skate came out of nowhere offering the best control scheme I’ve seen in a while coupled with a huge interactive environment that was essentially the definition of a playground. I never enjoyed the Tony Hawk series, so the addiction to this game was very unexpected. I’m comfortable saying that this is the best sports title since Madden 2005.
From D3, a publisher I expect nothing but Japanese shovelware from, comes this original melding of puzzle game (yes!) and RPG (double yes!) Buggy as hell and laden with design flaws, but the strength of the core idea carried it to critical acclaim. The irony here is that I am a story snob and Puzzle Quest endeavored to have the most cliche story in the history of cliches.
This is the only game on my list of things to watch for at the beginning of the year (I first saw it at E3 06!) that actually panned out to be as impressive as I thought it would be. While it has it’s flaws, I don’t find it nearly as repetitive as some of the other traditional Game of the Year candidates (Mass Effect, I am looking at you).I was particularly impressed by how they could keep the city looking so beautiful while simultaneously having umpteen dozen unique NPCs walking around the world. I was reminded of the 360’s Hitman game where there is a Mardi Gras level and you walk through a crowd of 4 different people copied and pasted a hundred times over with synced animation. This game is next-gen. Add to it that it had a story, while incomplete, that I actually cared about (although I didn’t care about Altair at all, the supporting cast was well-created) and Assassin’s Creed was a winner.

I’m so surprised at the panning this game got from some critics. Maybe Ubi sent them some Ebola virus with their review copies? I guess they just want the same Zelda game again for the fifteenth time that they can’t be bothered with something that reaches new ground and pays for it by having some flaws.

It also gets bonus points for doing something that Splinter Cell made me do. After playing that game, I had a keen awareness for the next few weeks of where all light sources were around me. After playing Assassin’s Creed, I now notice any outcroppings on any wall I look at.

Peggle is the ambrosia of casual games. I bought it for PC and then for iPod and I will likely buy it again when it comes out on XBLA. There’s nothing magical about the game – it is just so well-crafted and addicting that one comes back again and again for just one more level. In a time where people claim to need 60-hours of cutscene laden, bloom-lit, emergent gameplay, it is nice to see that a well-designed casual game can still rake in gobs of money.
If you’ve ever heard me talk about games, you know what a snob I am for stories that are well-crafted, characters that are multi-dimensional and gameplay that enhances the story instead of running parallel with it. Hotel Dusk delivers, while trying out a unique choice in art direction that shows all of the characters as animation pencil sketches like in the infamous A-ha “Take on Me” video. I actually felt for poor Kyle Hyde, where he could have easily been a hackneyed hard-boiled ex-cop. If you haven’t played this game and you enjoy a good story half as much as I do, you owe it to yourself to play this game.

The fact that I don’t have Halo 3, Rock Band, DiRT, Mario Galaxy, HL2:Ep2, Guitar Hero III, or Bioshock on the list just goes to show what a great year it was.

Also, there are a number of games from 2007 that I haven’t played or completed but want to that may get added to the list post facto: Uncharted, Ratchet & Clank, Aquaria, Eternal Sonata, God of War II, &c.

On Demos

I was going to write a post about downloadable demos a while back, but I got sidetracked. This article on GameIndustry.Biz reminded me of it. The aforelinked article is a manager at Xbox Live and he complains that too many companies leave demos for too late and, well, basically half-ass them. I’m sure my company is included here. I 100% agree with the article, although it is a little vague.

What is the purpose of a demo? I posit that it is to entice customers who wouldn’t have otherwise considered buying your game into buying it. I emphasize the clause regarding potential customers because I think it is where publishers and developers err. This is a point that I will come back to, but it makes sense. The alternative is to make a demo for people you expect to be your customers to give them a taste and remind them about the game. That’s a valid motivation as well, but I doubt it is as lucrative. If folks are going to buy your game anyway, what profit is to be made on a demo?

So what we see on the market usually is a slice of a game that is cut to shreds. In Madden, for instance, you get one minute quarters with two teams. In Solitro Solitaire, you get one predetermined solitaire game that is the same no matter how many times you play it. My inclination is that developers and publishers do this because they are afraid of giving away the farm. If your demo is satisfactory, why would someone buy the game? Let’s give them as little as we can and make them pay for the rest. At least, I imagine this is their reasoning.

And the reasoning is totally wrong. Free demos are not truly free for the user. They have invested their time to download and play this game in the hopes that they will be rewarded. If you do not change their expectations about what the game is, then the demo is worthless; you haven’t given them anything in exchange for their time. The user will have the same opinion of the game as before they played. If they were going to buy it before, they will likely still buy it. If they were only curious before, they will still likely not take the sixty dollar plunge. So in order to create a demo that has worth (from a business standpoint), the developers and publishers have to give the players something that is unexpected.

I downloaded the demo for Skate after hearing a load of hubbub percolating around the net. I had seen some info about it internally, but I was never a fan of the Tony Hawk games (too complicated), so I doubted Skate would hold my interest. Now, if EA Black Box had put out a demo that was two events on a time limit, then my expectations wouldn’t have changed and I probably wouldn’t have ended up purchasing the game. But the demo had the entire tutorial, a handful of extra events and a free skate where the player could tool around and really experience why the game was different than Tony Hawk. For some users, they might have had their fill with this 30-minute demo and walked away. I’m sure it happened. To most developers and publishers, that is a failure. But if that user had dropped sixty bucks on the game and then got tired with it after thirty minutes, then that game is getting put up used and someone who really wants the game will buy it on the secondary market leaving the developer right where they started with only one sale.

But Skate convinced me in its demo. In fact, I played the demo multiple times. This is the hallmark of the successful demo. If I am playing a limited version again and again, I’ll likely pay full price for the unlimited version. With Madden, I don’t even get to play a full game. How am I to tell if I am going to like the full game? I get to see a little bit of new features and UI (maybe), but my expectations remain unchanged. The people who were going to buy Madden anyway will still buy it and the skeptics will still remain skeptical.

Lost Planet took a bold move as well. To most, they could dismiss it as just another shooter. But they released a multiplayer demo that was essentially fully-featured in that you could experience what the game was like and come back multiple times. No doubt this hooked people and got people to purchase the game based on the replayability of the demo.

If you don’t have a full game to give me when I pay actual money for it, then you can’t be giving away parts whole cloth in your demo. This I understand. So if you give me whole parts of the game, then I know there is more to offer and I’m not weary about plunking down some cash to experience it if I enjoyed myself in the demo. If you give me something worth playing on its own merits, essentially giving me value for my time, then I know the developer has confidence that their full game is worth what they are charging. If a game hides behind the slimmest of demos, I assume that the developer or publisher is afraid that people will see that there isn’t much content to their game.

Demos take resources to make. They require dedicated engineers, producers to get the demo through the approval process, QA to ensure standards compliance, etc. One would think that companies are smart enough to figure out that to get a return on that investment, they have to dangle a carrot in front of users noses, not just the scent of a carrot.