The Developer Journalist – The Developist

October 21, 2009 § Leave a comment

The role of games journalists has for a while now been a hotly debated topic amongst bloggers and commenters. Some argue that they’re role is nothing more than to present a buyers guide to their readers, whilst others believe they should try to be more, pointing gamers to more innovative titles that may be lacking in areas important to more superficial gamers.

Recently Dan Marshall of Zombie Cow productions and PCZone threw his comments into the debate. Marshall is in something of a unique position amongst game journalists, in that whilst writing his reviews he’s also worked on his own games, such as Been There Dan That and Gibbage. He believes this is a practise that’s helped him immeasurably, “I think all games journos should be forced to make a game somehow, see how they get on. It gives you a more rounded perspective.”

Whilst I agree that there’s a large amount of journalists out there who are wholly ignorant as to just how much work goes into the games we play, I don’t think forcing them into the other side of the games business is going to make them any better at their job.

When examining the issue, we first need to lock down exactly what the role of the games journalist is. From the first preview of an early alpha build, right up until the review of the final product, the writer exists as a means to convey to the reader exactly how fun a game is to play, and by extension whether it’s worth your money. In a perfect world reviews would consist of either three or four words; either ‘Buy this game,’ or possibly, ‘Do not buy this game.’

Obviously this world isn’t perfect, and a reviewer’s taste isn’t necessarily going to be exactly the same as their readers. It thus becomes necessary to justify your opinion on what makes the game fun, readers can identify whether they agree that these things make an experience enjoyable, and can come away from the review knowing more or less whether this game is for them.

Even with the best and most objective reviewers out there, personal opinion is likely to creep in to any piece of writing. How do we ensure that this doesn’t affect the effectiveness of a review as a buyer’s guide?

We try and make the views of the reviewer as close as possible to any of their readers.

If I’m reading a review by Destructoid’s Anthony Burch, or former 1Upper Nick Suttner, and personal bias creeps into their review, it doesn’t matter, because that personal bias is something we share.

If game journalists are all game developers in their spare time, then this creates a barrier between them and their readers. A game developist (developer-journalist, keep up!) is going to notice things about a game’s design which affects their view on the game either positively or negatively, but these intricacies are going to be lost on me, the reader.

Maybe the design of a certain mission is particularly intricate in a way that only a developer would notice. Perhaps the developist notices this, and it influences him to write a more positive review. Does this equate to a more positive experience on my part? Of course not.

There’s already so much distance between how a reviewer plays a game and how the consumer will play it, anything more and they might as well be playing different games. Reviewers have to complete games in an obscenely short period of time, have their games paid for, and often play in an office environment; in other words their experience with the game is already very different from ours.

Game reviewing is a tough job at the best of times. You have to deal with fallout from fans, fallout from developers, and if you add to this a requirement to be a developer as well as a proficient writer you’re not going to find many people capable of advising the gaming public on their buying choices.


Has Dead Space been Bettered by its Wii Offspring?

October 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

It’s clear by now that the Wii is a wholly different beast from the other two ‘current’ generation consoles. A weird control scheme, coupled with hardware that can’t compete with the big boys has meant that developers seeking to make the same game on the Wii as on its two older siblings have quickly found themselves hitting dead ends.

EA have realised this quicker than most, and Dead Space Extraction is the perfect example of this. It celebrates the fact that it’s on the Wii rather than trying to get around it, and it manages to feel truly at home on the console.

Even more surprisingly, whilst playing through it I started to feel like it might even be better than the original. Here’s why:

It’s shorter, and it uses this its advantage

The original Dead Space could soak up a pretty decent amount of hours. Although the game never felt too repetitive, it was hard to shake the feeling that there wasn’t really enough story to cover its entire length.

Removing one obstacle to your escape of the ship would inevitably throw up another, and so you could never really tell if you were actually getting anywhere nearer to your goal. For all you knew there were countless more missions awaiting your completion before your escape was possible. There were points when you could lose sight of the end of that game.

Extraction may be shorter, but this lends itself to a much tighter, more focussed experience. You’ve always got this goal to work towards, and the game avoids throwing up more obligatory obstacles in front of you to lengthen the experience. In other words, it feels like you’re constantly making progress.

This shorter play time length also means that alternative gameplay styles take up more time proportionally than in the original. Though you don’t have the freedom present in its predecessor, the sequences played in zero-gravity are as mind-bending as ever, and there are even a couple of vent-crawl sections, which have more than a whiff of Ridley Scott’s Alien about them.

My point is that although there was more of everything in its big Xbox and PS3 brothers, Extraction takes the cream of the crop, which leads to a faster paced storyline, and more variety in what you’re doing on a moment to moment basis, which makes up for the lack of freedom in your progression.

There’s a bad guy to focus your hate

I’ll keep this short to avoid spoiling the story for you, but at some point in the game you’ll have someone to fight against rather than just something. Although the original does this as well, the twist is handled much better here, there’s a personal connection, and a much deeper resulting level of hatred.

It’s crazy, but at least it used to be normal

Normality in the first Dead Space lasted just about long enough for you to get separated from your squad. You have no real experience of how this world was before the necromorphs made their appearance, no vision of normality to compare it to.

It’s pseudo-sequel does things differently. You see things as they’re meant to be twice during the course of the game, and this gives you a much better idea of the universe in which the fiction is set. It makes you miss the way things used to be, acting to incentivise your completion of the game in an attempt to return to it.

From a more subjective standpoint it’s a much nicer way to begin a game. You’re not floating through space towards what you know will be your doom, you’re doing your job, something we can all relate to.

This stuff is happening NOW

Dead Space was a game played in retrospect. You’re working your way through corridors, mess rooms, hospitals, and mining sites, all deserted, all empty except for your enemy. There’s always this feeling – a feeling I felt at any rate – that the interesting part of this story has already happened. The outcome of the struggle has already been decided, and guess what? We lost.

Extraction gets to be the same as this, but at least there’s a fleeting moment at its beginning where humanity still has a chance, and still has fight in it.

A story’s worth doesn’t come from its beginning or its end, but from its middle, which Extraction manages to present in ways the original failed to.

Your not just a man in a space suit

Although Dead Space’s aim was undoubtedly to make you, the player, more the protagonist than Isaac Clarke, it was hard not to have your sense of immersion blasted off into space when he refused to react to anything going on around him.

This isn’t a first person shooter, the Half Life model of storytelling simply doesn’t work as well here. It just feels plain weird to see Clarke treat the messed up environment he’s in with the indifference that he does.

Seeing someone kill themselves by repeatedly bashing their head against a steel wall? No reaction. Witnessing your crew members get killed off? Nothing. Finally seeing your girlfriend, after witnessing so many other messed up acts, and after so much time apart? Yes you guessed it, no reaction.

On the Wii it’s completely different. You play individuals that actually speak and have a voice, people who’ll react to what’s going on around them and hold conversations with their squad. These are people that help your understanding of what you’re experiencing, and people you can empathise with.

When I’m playing a game I’m not going to get connected to a man in a suit, I’m going to get connected to the man himself. Dead Space: Extraction manages to do that, and it’s story benefits tenfold as a result.

Oh and audio logs totally play out of the Wiimote’s speaker. It’s pretty awesome.

The PSP No-Go: Are Retailers Justified in Refusing to Stock the PSP Go?

October 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

When people start talking of a future without retail games, the topic of how retailers will react never fails to make an appearance. They’ve not been doing so well of late, first losing the revenue from album sales, as well as the continued demise of printed media, whilst everything continues its transition online. Logically the next step is games, and with the PSP Go! Sony, by eliminating the UMD drive and thus the need to buy anything other than the console from a physical store, have taken another large step towards this future.

For this system to work however, a certain amount of co-operation from retail is necessary. They still need to sell the console in the first place after all. In recent weeks various stores such as EB Games Austrailia, as well as the Dutch retailer Nedgame have indicated that they will not be stocking the new handheld.

Their reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, they believe that the price of the console is simply too high, which will mean low sales, and less profit generated. Secondly there’s the problem of them being completely removed from the sale of games, seeing as every piece of software for the console will be bought online, and downloaded directly. But are these good enough reasons for a boycott of the system? Have these stores shot themselves in the foot with this move, or are they simply reacting to market demands which to them make the console seem more of a PSP No-Go?

On first impression the price reason for the boycott doesn’t seem valid. Sony made a point when announcing the Go! at E3 2009 of saying that it was going to be sold with the same recommended retail price the original Playstation Portable had upon its release. Retail stores didn’t have a problem with stocking the original, so why do they have a problem now?

Even if they deem the price to be too high to make the console a runaway success, this is still a Sony product launch. A large marketing push, plenty of advertising, and word of mouth should ensure the handheld will sell a good amount of units, each of which the store will make a profit on. Believing demand for the console will be low could be used as an excuse to simply lower the amount of stock that they order in, rather than ordering none at all. A smaller amount of profit is surely better than none at all.

Perhaps the most interesting issue surrounding their boycott is that of digital distribution. Refusing to sell a product because it won’t lead to the sale of more products would be a ludicrous proposition in any other industry; you don’t see kitchen appliance stores boycotting fridges because they won’t be able to sell the customer food, nor do you see furniture stores not selling wardrobes because they don’t sell clothes. If you’re making a profit on the original item, why is there a need for it to necessarily lead to the sale of others?

If you look more closely at the situation however, there is a large amount of evidence to suggest Nedgame and co. may be justified in their position. Although the price may be the same, this new iteration of the handheld is being released into a market very different from the one it originally faced. The DS has in this time turned in to an unstoppable force, and the state of the world’s economy means that there are far less people around willing to shell out for a premium priced product.

This price point is made into even more of an issue when you consider the fact that there’ll be a pretty similar console in the form of the PSP-3000 being sold just down the aisle for much less, and importantly with an almost identical feature set. The 3000 can still download games, it just lacks the massive internal storage of the Go! which can be easily rivalled by simply upgrading the size of your memory stick.

Maybe this is a bad assumption to make, but I don’t think there are going to be many readers of this blog who’re going to willingly buy themselves this new console, and as a result the purchasing responsibility will fall on the less-informed, those who’ll see a PSP Go!on store shelves and buy one on that recommendation alone. Failing to get the console into their line of sight will undoubtedly hurt Sony a great deal.

It might be that the console, with its lack of new features aside from an aesthetic redesign may yet be the orchestrator of its own demise. Maybe retailers haven’t affected its success at all, maybe they’ve just looked at the console, and decided it’s a no go after all. We’ll just have to wait for sales figures to come out before we’ll know whether they were right or not.

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