The Alpha Male Poses of Activision

June 27, 2009 § Leave a comment

Bobby Kirtick surprised most of the gaming world last week when he publicly expressed doubts that Activision would always be a publisher of Playstation games to The Times. His comments are based on Sony’s sales figures for the Playstation 3, the sales of which have lagged behind those of Microsoft’s 360 and the Nintendo Wii in the majority of the month’s since its release.

Kirtick’s comments are strange, not least because of their uniqueness, because whilst sales of almost all of Activision’s games have been stronger on 360, their PS3 counterparts have not sold badly. During the development of a game, the porting of assets to different consoles is a task which occurs later in the development process than many other things, and as such the cost of producing games would not be much reduced should Activision choose to stop supporting one platform.

Some, such as GiantBomb’s Jeff Gerstmann, have speculated that this discontent with sales figures may come as a result of Activision’s heavy reliance on peripheral based games such as Guitar Hero. These games take up a large amount of shelf space with the accessories commonly sold with them, and as such negotiations must be made with retailers to take these items in the first place. The supporting of several consoles he reasoned, may make these negotiations much more difficult for the publisher, which recently announced that the next installment of it’s popular Tony Hawk franchise would be bundled with a skateboard controller.

Kirtick did however choose to disclose what Sony could do to redeem itself. His statement that “they have to cut the price” echoes what many have been saying for some time now, though Sony has on multiple occasions denied that any such plans exist. This denial is not unexpected however, as console sales inevitably fall after such an announcement, as consumers wait for the cut to occur before making their purchase.

However likely these threats are to take place, the fact remains that they were made by a very powerful figure in the industry. With its merger with Vivendi, publisher of the massive multiplayer online game World of Warcraft last year, Activision became the largest videogame publisher in the world, overtaking long time rival EA, publisher of such titles as The Sims 3 and Madden. Ceasing support from Activision would be a serious blow to Sony, with titles from the Call of Duty and Guitar Hero franchises failing to make a return to the console year on year in the future.

Sony responded quickly to the threats, with their claims of positive growth and a boast of three hundred and fifty new titles coming to Playstation platforms this year. Interestingly they chose not to comment on the advice that they lower the price of their console. This may be due to a price drop that the PS3 may receive this autumn, though such reports, which included leaked pictures of a PS3 slim from its factory in Taiwan, have yet to be confirmed.

More a test of how well a newspaper style approach to writing would work in a video game context, this story nevertheless interested me greatly.


The Sims 3 Review: The Land of the Green Diamonds Continues

June 14, 2009 § Leave a comment

It was always going to be troublesome making a sequel to a game with eight expansion packs. The Sims 2 now lies as a bloated beast, full of features incrementally added throughout the years in small £20 packages, but unbelievably its long overdue sequel The Sims 3 doesn’t feel the least bit castrated. The same winning formula has been carried over, the fat trimmed, the remains toned, and what remains is something that is as engrossing as ever.

The Sims 3, like its predecessors, is not a hard game to understand. You take control of ‘Sims’ virtual people who must be guided through their life, their jobs, their relationships, and as always, their trips to the bathroom. Chances are though, with the massive success of the franchise, you already knew that, just like you know that it’s never as simple as letting your Sim’s life simply run its course, that the game is much more intriguing than it would initially seem.

As always, the Create-a-Sim mode is your first port of call when starting a game, and typically it’s more powerful than ever before. Not content with just giving you control over every curve of the body, the editor now supports the ‘Traits’ system, whereby instead of choosing an amount of points to coincide with your Sim’s personality you instead pick five traits to define them. These range from the useful (ambitious, brave, lucky) to the destructive (evil, slob) to the seemingly aesthetic (excitable, evil) but this emphasis on personality extremes rather than a sliding scale makes for a game which is much more interesting to watch. With no limitations on how many ‘good’ traits a player can choose the temptation exists to game the system by choosing the most useful traits for each Sim, but by doing so the player will miss out on some of the game’s most amusing features.

With such a robust character creation system its a shame that you hardly ever get to see it. Unlike in The Sims 2 where you took control of an entire neighbourhood, The Sims 3 will see you take control of just one family, and any additional households you make must be played in an entirely different game save. This change allows for every person in your town to grow old at the same rate as your Sims (so you’ll never be faced with the awkward situation of out-growing your teenage heartthrob) but also means that you only ever experience the game from one viewpoint – there’s no hopping out to check out how that family across the street lives – which leads to less variety in the game, unless of course you’re willing to have multiple save games.

As much as I’d like to say The Sims 3 is a completely new game, that simply isn’t the case. Instead what I can say is that whilst every major mechanic from the previous game exists here in some capacity, nearly all have received some sort of tweaking. Career progression for example is no longer completely binary. Whereas before you’d have to have 3 friends and a logic skill of 5 to get a promotion, now you’ll progress up the career ladder for simply going to work for long enough. There still exists an incentive to get these skill points, as doing so will get you promoted much quicker, but this removes the much of the stress involved with trying to reach the top of a career track, leaving you free to explore the entire town without a load screen in sight.

This relaxing of the requirements needed for promotion, as well as the decreased emphasis on keeping your needs met, allows a much greater level of involvement with the world created. There are exotic ingredients to grow, challenges to complete, and a huge range of skills to learn, all of which means your much more likely to spend your playtime cooking hot dogs for your neighbours in the town square rather than making sure your Sim doesn’t take a wizz in the shrubs. There’s more stuff to do than there’s ever been before, and the game is careful to remind you that it’s all possible.

The game does have some rough edges. Sims will warp in and out of vehicles rather than opening the door, which makes having that expensive car in your driveway much less cool than it could otherwise be, and the absence of any form of cutscene for important points in a Sim’s life diminishes what importance they hold. Part of me however, wants to look at these shortcomings and forgive them when there’s so much content in the game. Less forgivable is the small amount of customisation options for certain items such as hairstyles, which starts to rub off badly on EA when the Sims 3 site is full of additional items that can be downloaded for a charge, available from day one.

If you’ve read this far, then I can at least assume The Sims mildly interests you. The Sims 3 removes most of what made the previous games boring to the non-fan, and adds enough new stuff to make it worthwhile abandoning those old expansion packs. Of course if you always hated the entire idea of the Sims then your choice here should be a no-brainer, it is after all, still The Sims.

Dialogue in Games

June 8, 2009 § Leave a comment

Many developers seem to have taken the fact that actions speak louder than words, to mean that they should ignore the strength of dialogue altogether. The intricate weaving together of tonality as well as factual information that not only develops a game’s story, but also its characters, its settings, and its structure as a whole is pivotal to most movies but has been largely ignored in the interactive portion of most games. You may be able to learn much about a character from their actions alone, but when complemented by stunning vocal work, their personality is so much more pronounced and defined. Unfortunately for gamers, dialogue isn’t conducted in the spirit of the medium at all in most titles, it is predefined, and offers little in the way of choice for the player to sculpt to make his own.

This almost certainly stems from the inability of current day technology to simulate human speech. Whilst visually we’ve gone from strength to strength, and have reached a stage where a character can be given lifelike animation without the presence of an actor, speech still needs such an individual to produce it in the first place, and as such become impossible to edit on the fly, as is the opposite with animations which can be blended into each other to give the player complete control. Part of me thinks that if companies invested in new sound technology with the amount of gusto they do into graphics, then sound and the vocal work contained within it, could be miles ahead of where it is today. Whatever the cause the result is the same, it’s very hard for developers to allow the player to control a character vocally.

Some games will opt to have a completely mute protagonist. The player will control everything the character does on-screen, and so there’s no disconnection between the two. Half Life is the most famous example of this, but we must also remember that Claude from GTA3 never spoke at all. These games were much more immersive than others with a speaking protagonist, you don’t play as Gordon Freeman, you are him, and this pays off in dividends for the game’s narrative.

Some games relegate dialogue entirely to cutscenes, the wholly un-interactive leaning post for old school game design narrative. When I’m playing Metal Gear Solid, I don’t have an active role in it’s story, I’m just watching events as they happen, and in between these events I’m simply guiding Snake along. I’m not playing his role in any sense, because he does far too much without me. Uncharted does the same thing, it’s narrative is passive, and seeing as that’s clearly what Naughty Dog were going for, they get full marks from me.

Interestingly some games have tried to give the user power over dialogue, the most recent example that comes to mind being Mass Effect, with its use of dialogue trees. Whilst this is definitely the best way of allowing the player to completely assume the role of the lead protagonist, (hence role-playing game I presume) containing any part of a game within its own minigame can make it seem much less important than it actually is. It’s not a central part of the experience as other actions such as shooting are, but in the best works of fiction dialogue is always hugely important.

To my mind dialogue is as important as any other action you can perform as a character. You could even say it’s more important than your trigger, depending of course on what kind of character you’re playing as. It therefore follows that dialogue needs its own corresponding buttons to control on the gamepad. You could as an example use the d-pad for such a task, having the up button illicit a positive response, the down negative, the right could cause some sort of query to be asked, perhaps if the player needs something repeated, and the left could be a simple ‘Hello’ button, to initiate conversation with an NPC. Yes it’s a basic system, but it’s a start, and would hopefully leave most players much more connected to their lead character than many games today.

The more we examine such a system the more we realise how difficult it would be to pull off. A huge amount of voice samples would need to be recorded, to avoid the repetition that would kill the believability of your character, and all the dialogue needs to make sense as a conversation at the end of the day. If such a system were to be successfully implemented however, just imagine its possibilities, walking into a town and having a natural conversation with an NPC before heading out on a quest, actually getting to control the confrontation with a final boss before ripping it a new one.

Yes it’s impossible, and yes it’ll almost certainly not happen in our lifetime, but it’s a nice idea isn’t it?

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