What I'm working on:

Various write-ups.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Way I see It: The Value of Exclusive Games

The Way I See It is a category of pieces that represent my personal opinions or reasoning on subjects I enjoy or have a lot to say about. Though at times the write-ups may be built on well-researched and verified information, as a general statement, I do not speak with absolute authority on any given matter covered. Thank you for your time.

Hello!

In the ever growing dialogue of the games industry today, it isn’t uncommon to see positions evolve or shift in unexpected ways as things trend away from what we’re familiar with. One of the stranger things I’ve been seeing more commonly written and said is that exclusive titles don’t matter: that they aren’t notable in the grand scheme of the gaming space.

I disagree with this perspective in most regards.

Today, I'll be presenting my views on the matter.

An Elaboration


I believe that exclusive software has an inherently important role in upholding and establishing the value of a console, as there's nothing more important in incentivizing the purchase of dedicated gaming hardware than the games it allows users to play. I'll be detailing my reasoning by answering the most common statements made to undermine exclusives as I've seen them said.

Exclusives don't sell consoles.


It's true that console sales don't necessarily spike when an exclusive comes out, but the reality is that not even massively successful third party titles will typically do this. In other words, your console sales aren't booming directly because the big Call of Duty came out, but the big Call of Duty is released when it is because that's when console sales start to really pick up.

With holidays, tax breaks, and sales seasons, there are times of the year when consumer spending really explodes. This is why you see some games release within the same week as something like Call of Duty and get "sent out to their death" as might commonly be said. Not to be brave, subversive, or put up a front, but because it's the period wherein the highest potential lies for well marketed games to sell.

Leaving this digression aside, let’s look at how software does affect sales.

Some like to say that exclusives don’t sell consoles and that the system-seller as a concept is all but dead. It isn’t unreasonable to observe that these have become less common, but the fact of the matter is that the present isn’t the only period of interest when regarding how these titles affect the market: there are past and future sales to consider as well.

Outside of the ever rarer circumstances where a game comes out and has folks buying hardware in droves, most people make their purchase decisions in more dynamic terms. Many folks purchase a console immediately at release or when they're financially able on the promise of games that haven’t been released or even announced. These preemptive sales are an example of consumers that are attracted to the potential library when looking at the pedigree of first party releases on previous consoles. Many other folks stay in the market for years without picking up hardware, waiting to choose the system that represents the more attractive established library of software to suit their interests.

All this is to say that while, yes, there are other factors involved, successful exclusives do have their own role in incentivizing the purchase of a console, whether or not it’s linearly apparent.

The attach rate for exclusives isn't that high, so what's the point?


Some bring up the idea that individual exclusives don't typically maintain the highest attach rates as an argument for their lack of worth, but an immense attach rate isn't necessary for individual or collective success. In fact, there are actually a number of reasons that exclusives are valuable outside of a direct relationship to hardware sales.

The individual profits of these titles aren't negligible and bring with them further opportunities for the development of future software. Within a circle of first-party development studios, certain exclusives maintain success so great that they can cover the costs of lucrative endeavors, allowing first-parties to invest in creative and unusual projects that wouldn't otherwise be made in such a high-risk environment.

First party exclusives are also typically the software that best exemplify the capabilities of the hardware that they're on, serving as an example for the rest of the industry and a great backbone at the start of a console's life-cycle as third party developers familiarize themselves with the potential of the devices and their features.

Another important consideration is that the most powerful form of marketing next to a vocal consumer is the software itself. While the success of an individual game may at times seem meager, the collective library of unique content built overtime serves as an attractive incentivization for consumers late in a console's life cycle. It also bolsters general perception of the brand on multiple fronts and demographics through specific experiences that resonate with different groups, casting a wide net in the market.


Exclusives are bad for the industry.


This is a strange statement that has little basis in economic reality. It seems to define the industry as the consumer in specific, when it’s actually an ecosystem that includes the consumer and the competing corporations vying for their interests.

It isn't personally convenient to have to purchase a different console than the one they have in order to enjoy certain software, but it is specifically that longing that serves as the basis for an exclusive's value. Any given first-party wants to incentivize their own hardware in particular with exclusive games and services so that you choose their device over the alternatives in the market, furthering their success as a company.

The closes thing to a reasonable argument for this position that I’ve seen is the suggestion that exclusives would sell better if they were available on competitor consoles, yielding a greater deal of profit. This is a very simplified perception that doesn't recognize the complexities of the market.

Every game on a given platform provides a bit of profit to the console maker, who collects a licensing fee for each unit sold. The more successful a console, the more consumer software purchases exclusive or otherwise will be made for that particular hardware, exacting a healthy stream of revenue to that first-party. By throwing away software exclusivity, a valuable incentive in making consumers consider one console their primary gaming device is lost. This is aside from the fact that profits per-unit would be less lucrative anyway thanks to one first-party having to pay another first-party a portion of their earnings. This is also why third-party partnerships are also so notable in recent generations: exclusive content or early launches are meant to encourage the player base to choose one system over another, benefiting the developers through big marketing pushes and the console maker through our patronage.

This is a market of companies fighting for consumer interest using many parameters, of which exclusives are one. This competition breeds cheaper hardware costs, better services, the development of unique software, and more variety in the market. If anything, exclusives have a hand in making the industry better on most fronts.


Closing and Afterword


Exclusives are an important part of how the industry operates. Though this is true, I do recognize that they aren't the singular factor in what makes one console attractive over another. Pricing, marketing,  third party support, hardware functionality, dependability, and convenience all have their place, and as time has gone on, many new parameters like social services and online functionality are added to the table for customers consider.

These all feed into the one thing that truly does matter most: perceived value.

The Xbox One has a limited pool of exclusives but reasonable third-party support and sits at a distant second. The Wii U has a wealth of critically and commercially well received first-party exclusives, but almost no third-party support whatsoever. It's widely considered a failure. The PS4 represents a varied and ever expanding pool of first-party exclusives and big third party support with pivotal partnerships as well. It maintains more than double the sales of its closest competitor.

Though a fairly simplified example that doesn't lay out every factor, this generation stands as a strong allegory to a very important fact: Now more than ever, a good foundation and a strong balance of support are needed to stay relevant in the consumer mindshare and flourish in the market.

Exclusive games are a notable part of those needs.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My E3 Impressions

E3's over, and it's been an interesting ride. Overall, I think this was a weaker year than most, but there have definitely been some promising announcements and trailers to come out of it.

After having written up my thoughts and predictions during the lead up to the event, I thought it'd be fun to follow up with my impressions now that it's all said and done. I'll only be covering the big three here, but I think Ubisoft deserves a shout out for their stand-out showing, so congrats to them for a strong presentation.

Let's start with Microsoft.

Microsoft



Dense but disappointing

I've been very lenient in my perspective on Microsoft over the last few years with regards to their position and strategies in the gaming space, appreciating the potential and intentions they've put forward. Regardless, this conference has made it clear to me that the things keeping the Xbox hardware on the consumer's backburner will stay on the forefront.

Overall, I'll say that Microsoft's conference was well structured and rich in the one thing that I believe matters most:

Software.

Unfortunately, the selection represents very little in the way of surprises. No shockers. No jaw droppers. No new first-party announcements outside of Forza 7, and that franchise releases on a schedule. There were a few nice looking titles on the third-party front, however. 22 exclusives were touted, but at best, they all will also launch on PC, and at worst, are timed exclusives that will launch on competitor hardware in the future. Even the big showcase game that closed out the show, Anthem, is fully multi-platform. Good news for gamers who have competitor hardware or a reasonably built PC, but not a sure-fire way to sell folks on Microsoft's consoles particularly. This strategy hasn't proven to provide strong incentivization of the Xbox One in the past, and I'm doubtful of it being the case in the future.

The Scorpio was revealed as the Xbox One X and was the centerpiece of the conference. It will launch on November 7th at 499 USD. The price is very sensible and is in line with my expectations, but it isn't really much to work with. I initially thought that selling at a loss at 399 USD would be how they might try to get aggressive against Sony's offerings and really force them and Nintendo into a tough spot with regard to cost, especially with the standard Xbox One now retailing at 199 USD. Unfortunately, I don't think a solid enough case was made for the purchase of an Xbox One X to any but a very particular niche of enthusiast as it is. No service shifts or major software motivations mean that launching at 399 USD probably wouldn't have been a worthwhile risk to take, so I'm not docking points for them not going that far with it.

Looking at the state of the market, I also wonder how well the Xbox One X can really do, even under ideal circumstances. With the PS4 Pro representing only a modest amount of PS4 sales at 399 USD, it seems that the premium user base is limited to begin with, making the greater extreme of Microsoft's new hardware seem as though it has a little less potential for greater market penetration. As an entry-level console, though, the standard Xbox One's new price becomes attractive to those on a budget. At the least, I think we might see something notable come of that in the long run.

So what's the conclusion? Is this a better conference than years past? In many ways yes. It's a good format with little fluff and a big focus on software. Was it one that posed a reasonable deal of added value to the Xbox line of hardware? No, unfortunately, and this was definitely the time to have pushed for it. In my predictions piece, I said that this show would be one that would speak to the future of the brand. I think it's abundantly clear now that Microsoft is set on supporting their greater ecosystem as a whole beyond all else moving forward, and that's something that has and will come at the expense of the market's perception of the Xbox One's worth.


Sony



Functional but unexceptional

I was expecting a more restrained conference from Sony thanks to the slew of upcoming software that's already been announced, but I didn't quite expect it to be this reserved.

Ironically, I think my expectations were a bit higher than they would have been otherwise, not just because of Microsoft's new console reveal, but because of their own past showings as well: for two years and twice as many conferences, I'd expected a shrinking presence or a smaller number of titles on stage, but Sony defied those expectations time and time again.

This year, that definitely wasn't the case.

The conference was streamlined and shorter than any previous one may have ever been at under an hour long. There were about 17 titles shown off, of which 13 are exclusive and 9 new. PS VSVR definitely got a lot of love, with 6 of those new games being for the headset. This is an expected and necessary play, as PSVR has been relatively successful and needs nurturing to be sustained as a platform, giving folks who've already bought in more to enjoy and those on the fence more to consider. For the primary platform, however, there were 3 announcements, of which two were exclusives: an expansion to Horizon Zero Dawn and a remake of Shadow of the Colossus. Pretty meager selection on that front, unfortunately.

Exclusives like Gran Turismo Sport, Knack 2, Everybody's Golf, and the Crash Trilogy were on the show floor, but oddly enough, didn't get any love during the actual conference. Another oddity is the lack of fulfillment to Shawn Layden's promise of big announcements with regards to Japanese games. Outside of perhaps Monster Hunter and Shadow of the Colossus, these were mostly absent as well. I think that this may be a reactive result of Microsoft's showing.

Coming into the show, I took the bet that Sony would route some of their big announcements to E3 to combat the potential mindshare draw from Microsoft, but it seems that they didn't think it was necessary. TGS and the Playstation Experience are coming up, perhaps even Gamescom or Paris Games Week on top of those, and I'm very sure that there's key content being saved for those conferences, but the small selection presented during the conference makes me wonder if some of the content that was going to be highlighted today was held back after Sony saw Microsoft's showing, perhaps deciding it wouldn't be worth squeezing themselves dry. It sounds odd, but the primarily video-based format certainly makes that kind of reactive play a lot easier to pull off.

All told, I wouldn't say Sony's presentation was bad by any means. It's represented a focus on the value of the Playstation brand to the primary consumer through a selection of software from their first-party stable including two games from their biggest franchises, a crowd-pleasing demo of a promising new title based on a major property in the broader entertainment space, and a remake of a game recognized to have widely affected the modern game design landscape. It also presented notable third-party partnerships with Activision's Call of Duty WWII and Destiny 2 on stage, the reveal of Capcom's Monster Hunter: Worlds, and Bethesda's Skyrim VR. It's just that, outside of the VR front, this was a conference that didn't provide much to feed the overall fervor and hype that's already been established prior.

Fortunately for Sony, their market share means that they don't necessarily need to do much more than they have to keep themselves on top and maintain momentum, giving them a bit of room to breathe and space out their announcements for the next two conferences in the year. However, empathizing with how this might be the soundest strategy for them doesn't mean they get a free pass when it comes to judging their presentation on its own merits.

My verdict? Functional, but not very impressive to the core gamer that's in the know, especially when held up to their last few showings.


Nintendo



Short but substantial

Nintendo’s Showcase was a very brief affair. At less than 25 minutes in length, it’s notably shorter than even Sony's presser before it, making it seem less like a presentation and more like a headliner to the Treehouse Live streams succeeding it. Fortunately, the right content was chosen to fit in that time frame.

The conference consisted of the expected Switch content with Xenoblade Chronicles 2, Fire Emblem Warriors, Super Mario Odyssey, Breath of the Wild DLC, and Pokken being highlighted. Splatoon 2 and ARMS also got a bit of visibility, rounding out the full 2017 first-party release schedule. Beyond that, we also got to see new Kirby and Yoshi titles announced for 2018 releases, and two heavy hitting reveals were made with Metroid Prime 4 and a new core Pokemon title confirmed to be in development. There was some third-party love as well with games like Fifa 18, Skyrim, and the recently announced Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle getting some space and the announcement of Rocket League coming to the platform.

Nintendo isn't very conventional with how they promote their content. They typically announce games about 9 months to a year out from release at most and elaborate on or reveal them through small, focused digital presentations throughout the year. Though this is true, Nintendo did well even by more typical press-conference standards.

Their showing reiterated on the strength of their 2017 Switch line-up, which consists of at least one major exclusive release for every month until the end of the year. It also reinforced their commitment to third-party relationships with a smart selection of high-demand titles that exemplify the functionality of the hardware. Nintendo subverted expectations with fun and surprising announcements of new first-party titles coming beyond this year, and they weren't wasteful with their selection either: They provided confirmation of a new Pokemon game instead of a full reveal and stayed their hand on announcing Smash Brothers, which could have easily cannibalized the sales of the other fighters they have on the release schedule.

Overall, Nintendo had a good showing that bolstered the value of their brand and brought in some major crowd-pleasers. The only thing keeping the Showcase from having been excellent by conventional terms is that they didn't cover all their bases. Of course, with Treehouse Live streaming through the same channels as the Showcase and giving the 3DS a prominent spread of promotion, previews, and new game announcements, I doubt that's hurt them in the grand scheme of things.

Friday, June 9, 2017

My E3 Predictions and Thoughts

E3 is almost upon us, and it's going to be an interesting one. With a new console being detailed and a bunch of games on the horizon, I decided it'd be fun to write out some predictions and thoughts about what we might end up seeing. I'll be focusing on the big three for this particular post, and I'll be starting with Nintendo.


Nintendo



A Background


Coming off of the underwhelming -to say the least- floundering of the Wii U in the market, Nintendo seems to be back in full-force with the Switch. An early success story, Nintendo can't produce enough of the things to meet the overwhelming demand, even 3 or so months after the fact. With a success that seems to hearken back to the wildfire of the original Wii, Nintendo has something in their hands that could easily be quite special.

If it's handled right.

So far, things are looking fairly solid on all fronts. Strong first-party titles have been strategically lined up for release throughout the year book-ended by the critical and sales darling that is Breath of the Wild, as well as the highly anticipated Super Mario Odyssey. Though third-party developers seem to be a bit more cautious about supporting the new hardware, Nintendo and Nvidia have gone out of their way to ensure that the ARM based Switch is a console that's easy to port games to and easy on the pockets with cheap dev-kits.

There are some short comings, of course. The upcoming online app is supposedly a needlessly cumbersome solution to a standard feature set found on competitor hardware, dev-kits are actually still hard to get a hold of for smaller developers, and a few early units have shown up with defects. Fortunately, the low cost of the online service and inclusion of game-pass style feature, the increase in production, and quick customer service have shown that Nintendo is listening and very wary of its weak spots.

We can't forget about the 3DS. Nintendo's handheld series of devices still holds strong and essentially monopolizes the dedicated handheld space. With the New 2DS XL coming and their pledge to continue supporting the hardware up until at least 2018, Nintendo seems convinced that there are still some legs to these pocketable Pokemon machines. Did I mention that there are more Pokemon games coming? I'd say that alone is a pretty compelling way to reinforce commitment to the product.

Currently, I'd say that Nintendo's steadily moving in the right direction. Investors are happy. Partners are happy. Customers are mostly happy.

What'll the future hold?

Terms of Success


Let's start with the Switch.

To be commercially successful, I don't think that Nintendo has to do that much at all. Knowing that this presentation is a short one focused on titles coming this year, it seems all too apparent that Nintendo's can still ride high off of the demand built by what they've promised already. It's Nintendo's responsibility to create a strong backbone for the Switch to ensure that both customers and developers are confident in the hardware, and so far, it seems that they're doing just that.

To be successful in terms of building further excitement in the gaming community at large, however, is something that requires the introduction of a reasonable amount of new software or services. E3 conferences are known for bombast and surprises. Nintendo's more segmented approach to staggering announcements throughout the year is great for maintaining mindshare during what might constitute seasonal lulls for the competition, but it leaves them with lower highs to work with. Splatoon 2 may be well anticipated and Super Mario Odyssey may be one of the heaviest hitters that can be brought out, but the fact of the matter is that we already know that these titles are coming and the general gaming audience will likely be looking for the unexpected.

Now for the 3DS

Nintendo's insisted on a commitment to their dedicated handheld console of family. It won't take all that much to convince folks that they're not leaving these portables behind and the cards are all on the table for a strong showing this year. The New 2DS XL will need to stand front and center to really drive home their intent. This is new hardware that may interest those who haven't picked up a 3DS and is the easiest way to show that they're still putting their money behind that line. With upcoming games like Hey Pikmin!, a new Professor Layton, Ever Oasis, Miitopia, a slew of Kirby titles, and, most importantly, a new set of Pokemon games, there'll be more than enough to make sure that the 3DS is still a part of the conversation moving forward.

Predictions


With the 2017 focus and so much of that schedule already on the table, I'm actually expecting a deeper look at what's already been announced for the Switch and solid release dates of those titles. I think that we'll finally hear more about Skyrim and that we might get an one MAYBE two completely new games aside from the leaked Rabbids Kingdom Battle Game, but that any other unexpected titles will likely be re-releases of titles from the Wii U era, just to add some variety to the selection over the coming months. I doubt one of those games would be Smash Brothers, as Arms and Pokken are already coming this year to fill out the fighting game genre. Looking at the calendar, I think that Fire Emblem Warriors will likely take an October slot and that, if it's still on course for this year, Xenoblade 2 will come in December after Super Mario Odyssey.

I think that we'll get a bit of a mention of Nintendo's online service, but not necessarily much more than a brief overview that includes the cost, highlights the game library perk, and some features we already know about. I also think it's safe to say that we'll get a short trailer that shows off the first half of the Zelda Expansion Pass before its release. I'm not expecting much of the second half of the expansion, but I think it'd be nice to get a glimpse of what the story might be about there.

The 3DS will likely have a place in the Spotlight as well, but I think that it'll take up closer to a third of it at most. There’ll probably be a few quick glimpses at upcoming titles and the New 2DS XL, and maybe even a little promotion for Fire Emblem Echoes. There's probably some room in there for Nintendo's mobile games, so I think that we'll actually see one of their next titles announced.

Perhaps Animal Crossing.

Overall, I think that the Showcase will just about meet or slightly exceed tempered expectations, but that it won't be seen as a very exciting showing in more general terms or to the viewer coming in looking for a slew of crazy new games. I think that there WILL be a surprise or two either during the Showcase or in the Treehouse stream afterwards, but that Nintendo will pace themselves and stay the course with making future announcements through Directs later this year and at the start of the next.


Sony



A Background


This generation has been firmly in Sony's grasp.

The Playstation 4 is going as strong as ever with hardware sales and shows no signs of significantly slowing. Sony's library of games is ever expanding with full and console exclusives, the first two quarters of this year alone providing a slew of critical and commercial hits from various genres and niches.

PSVR's also doing exceptionally well in the grand scheme of things. Though production is slow, the hardware has just recently passed a million units sold through, making it the first mass-market VR headset to meet that milestone.

Looking at the last few years, it's a little hard to believe that Sony could possibly have more to announce. With E3, the Playstation Experience, and other conferences, Sony easily could have spread themselves thin, and though they've pulled out of Gamescom and Paris Games Week in 2016, it's still staggering to consider the amount they've announced over the years so regularly. A new God of War, Gran Turismo Sport, The Last of Us Part II, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, Days Gone, and Spider-Man are just SOME of the games coming exclusively to the PS4, and that's leaving aside console exclusives, remasters, and games from third-parties with exclusive content.

Sony's already promised so much for the future. Can they possibly keep up the pace for E3?

Terms of Success


Sony's got a whole lot of software to work with this year to make an entertaining conference.

What we already know could be a great set up for a solid holiday line-up and a generous start to 2018 with a little breathing room to spare. Though this is the case, I also think that Sony would do well to announce a few surprises to be safe and make sure that they leave the conference with as much of a chunk of the industry mindshare as they had coming in. The terms aren't certain, but the fact that Microsoft is coming into this E3 with a hardware launch means that it's a pretty good idea to try and make a striking impression where possible, even if it means taking away a bit of the oomph from future conferences this year.

Speaking of Microsoft, the competition is introducing variations of unlimited Game Rental services that seem as though they offer greater value and functionality than Sony's PS Now. Depending on the potential value of these packages, there could be merit to making a change on that front, but I do think that they could hold off on this until the market speaks to how important these offerings are to them.

PSVR has been relatively successful since its launch, and I think that there's a lot of potential sitting there for Sony to take advantage of. In fact, the success of the hardware is such that Sony is in the position to lead the fray in mainstream VR thanks to their stable of First Party developers and low barrier of entry. It'd do Sony well to take some time to show their support for the platform, highlight future releases, and maybe announce a few more games.

A mention of the Vita would also likely be nice to round out all their bases. The handheld still sees a few independent releases here and there, and a short reel might be a nice nod toward the aging portable.

Predictions


I think Sony's conference will likely be very well rounded out.

There'll be a PSVR showcase, talking on the success of the hardware and highlighting upcoming games that'll be compatible with and made for it. There'll likely be a brief mention of the Vita, but I don't feel that it'll have even as much of a mention as it did last year. I think there might be a shorter Indie reel to show off interesting titles coming out for the Vita, but definitely some indie love for the PS4.

I think that it's very likely that there'll be an Activision presence in the form of Destiny 2 and Call of Duty: WWII. I also don't doubt the possibility of other major third-parties like Ubisoft taking the stage with some well anticipated future releases.

The meat of Sony's presentation will likely include various trailers that highlight their upcoming first-party releases, with major titles like the new God of War closing off or introducing the show with a set-piece driven demo. There'll very likely be three or four new games announced, of which one could be Sucker Punch's new title. The time is right to hear a bit more about Insomniac's Spiderman with Homecoming on the horizon, so I wouldn't be surprised if we finally get to see more of that. Gran Turismo Sport is a guarantee for the conference and should finally be given a release date. I'd like to see Dreams finally presented as something that's nearing release, but I have doubts that it'll make a notable appearance just yet. If it DOES show up, I think we might see PSVR support announced for it. I don't think that The Last of Us: Part II is far enough along to have more than a mention before the Playstation Experience, but who knows? We may get lucky there.

Because they've got the advantage of going on a more than a day after Microsoft, I think it's fair to think that they might have a reactive strategy in mind. I don't think it's very likely, but if the Scorpio is given a low price, I'll say there's a chance that we could see a price-cut for the Pro, standard, or both PS4s.

Overall, I think that Sony will have a very well-received, content-dense showing. It's hard to make very specific predictions about them because of how much they already have in the oven, but the ingredients are definitely there for a great conference. The wild card that could take away Sony's thunder is Microsoft, and even then, I think the worst that they can do is well.


Microsoft


A Background


Microsoft's been a very strange story this generation.

With unfortunate messaging, a higher price tag, less powerful hardware, and the intention to ship with a restrictive always-online infrastructure, the Xbox One made its way out the starting line needing to overcome a deeply ingrained negative perception of the masses. Microsoft very quickly turned around on their always-online design and over time, corrected course on many other fronts. Fortunately for them, sales were respectable, positive even, when looking back compared to the 360 in the same span.

Unfortunately for them, they didn't compare well to the Playstation 4.

Sony managed an early win that's carried through to today, no doubt aided by Microsoft's early stumble. But it isn't all that simple. Since Phil Spencer became the head of Xbox, he's gone on to make strong pro-consumer decisions for the benefit of Microsoft as a whole. This was a very welcome, if not admirable, change of pace and direction. A change that's, over time, been going a little too far. While the Xbox One started off with a reasonable first year of interesting exclusives to set it apart as a console, the year that followed had seen most of them come to PC. This eventually peaked with the introduction of Play Anywhere, an initiative that allows owners of games that are a part of the program to be played on PC or Xbox One. It doesn't sound bad does it? In general terms it's actually quite nice. But it also means that no major title that releases moving forward is exclusive to the Xbox One.

To gamers at large, this is a convenience: you don't have to buy a console to play these big games. For the value proposition of the Xbox One a consumer product, however, it's a distinct problem. This is a decision that seems to have been made in service of the greater Windows Ecosystem, but it very clearly comes at the expense of building up the unique worth of the Xbox One when put up next to the competition. This is further compounded by the ever dwindling number of Microsoft fronted titles released over the last year and a half or so outright. This isn't just a lull, either: the release schedule moving forward is sparse as far as we know it, and the titles that ARE coming will also be playable on PC if consumers so choose.

Over a year ago, Microsoft stopped publicly sharing sales figures for the Xbox One hardware. Numbers that have been glanced from research groups put the console at approximately 26 million units to the Playstation 4's nearly 60 million.

With the announcement of the Scorpio coming at Microsoft's conference, do they have the cards up their sleeve to really push the Xbox One as the more enticing place to play?

Terms of Success


Microsoft is this E3's underdog.

There's a lot to prove and, fortunately, a lot of room to prove it. Being the company that's announcing new hardware automatically grants a sort of interest that little else can and makes sure that most eyes in the industry are on them.

There are a fair number of things that I think Microsoft needs to get right for a good showing. Let's start with the Scorpio.

Microsoft's new console is being touted as the most powerful dedicated console that'll hit the market. I don't at all doubt this will be true by far, but power alone won't win most gamers over. Price and messaging are paramount to making sure that the hardware is well received. There's a careful balancing act that needs to be played on these matters, and I think that successfully pulling it off will make for a strong foundation moving forward.

Pricing may seem like a pretty simple thing. Make sure it's cheap enough so that folks see it as an attractive proposition and you should be good, right? Though that may be the case, there's actually a lot that rides on the price when you're looking at a package like this. The Scorpio is functionally so powerful that it might as well be a PC. Heck, with a Windows 10 based OS, it could very well be one. If the price isn't within the margins of standard consumer expectations, the budget imbalance could make potential buyers expand their scope of consideration. That is to say: Why buy this game console when I could spend a hundred more dollars for a PC that plays all the same games and does so much more? Needless to say, that's a line that should be avoided unless Microsoft actually decides to sell the Scorpio as a competitively priced PC, which comes with its own challenges and advantages.

Pricing ties into messaging, which is another important matter. Microsoft needs to push the value of their hardware not as A place to play, but THE place to play. At its core, the Scorpio must be presented as the answer to a broad range of gamers' needs, and not just something for a specific kind of consumer or hobbyists. The services and software that surround it during the presentation must exemplify its value and functionality very well.

In more broad terms, these ideas regarding messaging apply to the entire Xbox line of hardware. Services and software need to show folk not how valuable they are to "the gamer" but "the gamer who plays on the Xbox One family of consoles". It may seem less friendly in the grand scheme, but it is necessary for these systems to be a reasonable valuable proposition when compared to other consoles or PCs. It's important that these devices have experiences and features that can't be had anywhere else. That all comes back to what is the most important thing to a console outright:

Software.

Microsoft needs to showcase fresh new software that can only be played on their dedicated gaming hardware. It needs to varied, it needs to be appealing, and it needs to come out regularly if possible. There are only three big titles coming out right now that we know of: Crackdown 3, Sea of Thieves, and State of Decay 2. They're all also releasing on PC.

There needs to be more games, and some of them need to be fully exclusive.

Predictions


I think that Microsoft will have a decent showing.

The Scorpio will take up a moderate chunk of time to be introduced -perhaps more depending on how many games they have that are ready to show- and that most software presented afterwards will be contextualized with how they feature improved visuals and performance on it. I think that Crackdown 3 will make a showing and be used to display the native power of the console when compared to how the standard Xbox One requires the cloud for the advanced damage simulation touted.

We'll see the reveal of Forza Motorsport 7 as is expected and will also likely be used to show off the power of the Scorpio. Though the next Halo is said not to make a showing, I think that we will see something like a visual update to Halo 5 Guardians for the Scorpio. I also think it's very reasonable to assume that we'll see a sort of assurance of software partnerships through a video or graphic displaying all of the developers on board to make content that takes advantage of the power of the new hardware. I do think that we'll see a few actual unexpected game announcements, but I can't honestly be sure of what they might be. Ideally some new stuff to really help expand that stable of IP moving forward.

I think that the Xbox Game Pass will get some time to shine alongside a price reduction for the cost Xbox Live Gold. I think that there's a slight chance that the standard Xbox One might see a permanent price cut.

I think that the Scorpio will cost 599 USD at most. I see this as past the border of reasonable expectation for your typical consumer, as those who just play on console will see hardware that costs this much as an excessive investment and those who play on PC will likely decide that they could build comparable hardware that does more and is more modular for the same amount or less in a short span of time. I think the highest that they should reasonably go is 499 USD and not a cent more. The price that'd directly confront Sony and give them chase would be 399 USD. I don't think that's what it'll launch at, but I do think it would be the smartest decision if they did, even if they had to eat the cost for a while.

If I had to pick a specific price from the range, I'll go with 499 USD being what they launch at.

My most outlandish prediction would be that the Xbox Scorpio could actually function as a standard Windows 10 PC. This would be a real game changer, but the number of things it affects with regards to market perception makes it hard to say that this would definitely be the smartest move.

Overall, I think that the conference will be controversial, but positive. It'll also be one that speaks to the future of the brand as opposed to providing immediate fulfillment.

I really hope Microsoft does well. Regardless of how things go, it's the conference that stands to impact the industry the most moving forward, and is definitely the one to keep an eye on.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Ideal Nintendo Franchises for Mobile

Though it was only a few years ago that most of us thought we'd never see the day, Nintendo's finally gone ahead and dipped its toes into making games for mobile.

With the release of Super Mario Run, Fire Emblem Heroes, and Niantic's wildly popular Pokemon Go, there's no questioning the power of Nintendo's brands when presented to the wider market. This bodes well as a sign of the value that comes with bringing Nintendo experiences to lifestyle hardware that most folks own, allowing them to market their properties further to an audience that may not have been interested otherwise and expanding their potential consumer base on all fronts.

What seem most exciting, however, is imagining what franchises Nintendo will bring to our phones next. Will they make something new to take explicit advantage of mobile hardware? Will they go back to dormant franchises and try to use them to build interest for future titles? Or will the release their mobile games to coincide with big console releases and in between them to help keep up the general mindshare for their products?

Regardless of how they decide to line things up, one thing's for certain: there's a whole lot of potential on this new frontier. I believe that we'll likely see a lot of interesting games come out over the coming years, but here are just a few that I think would make a great fit for our phones. 

Rhythm Heaven



This is a simple, fun series of –you guessed it– rhythm games! With short levels and simple controls, a title from this franchise would be a great fit for mobile devices.

Rhythm Heaven’s single-input design means that there's little chance of confusion for first timers and that it's a rare example of a game that loses no functionality in its translation to phones or tablets. It’s the kind of unconventional gameplay experience that'd easily be understood by anyone, gamer or not. Don't be fooled by this fact, however: Rhythm Heaven games are known for providing exceptional challenge and being very hard to get perfect runs in. This is a textbook example of a "Easy to pick up, difficult to master" experience that draws in so many players of every demographic and interest.

The visual design is also simple and unique, with charming and funny animations indicating the quality of your performance during play and making for an entertaining experience for bystanders as well!

Speaking of bystanders, turning a phone sideways and providing multiplayer variations of games would be a great way to get folks interacting and sharing enjoyable experiences, either cooperating to complete a round or competing for a highscore.

Typically, games in this series are segmented into sets of minigames that end with a remix stage. This is a great foundation to select a pricing model would allow the game to be attractive as a onetime purchase or as a reasonable segmented investment through cheap sets that expand the base download. Add in some free seasonal or event-based packs, and it'd be sure to stay on people's minds for a long, long time.

Overall, I think that Rhythm Heaven on mobile could easily be a runaway success, and I'd love to see the franchise become a household name and get the love it deserves.


Warioware



The Warioware series of games are novel, wacky, and charming experiences that are hard to put down. They're known for taking advantage of and highlighting the various features of the hardware they're released on, and mobile is very enticing fit for that sort of design.

Made up of moment-long microgames, Warioware is inherently structured for quick, short play sessions and could very easily be a great draw for those looking for a bunch of variety and value. The fact that mobile devices are almost universally built standard with cameras, accelerometers, gyroscopes, vibration, microphones, and light sensors provide the potential for a release that’d offer more diversity and creativity than any other title in the history of the series.

The focus on taking advantage of the hardware also means that very interesting multiplayer functionality could be introduced to tie into Nintendo’s social philosophies and get people interacting on a single phone or across multiple smart devices.

I think pricing considerations for a Warioware title would be pretty much identical to the ones necessary for Rhythm Heaven, which has a similar structure. This means that Nintendo could easily learn very direct lessons about the best way to present either game to potential consumers in the mobile market and ensure greater success moving forward.

Nintendogs



Nintendogs is a charming pet simulator that found great success on the DS series of handhelds. With its adorable premise and simple but engaging systems, it's sure to find an audience on mobile.

This is actually the franchise that I think might be Nintendo’s golden ticket to capture the interest of folks that don’t keep up with video games in any capacity. It’s also an attractive proposition to fans of previous titles in the series, as it’s another example of a game that lends itself to being even better on mobile than it was on the 3DS. This means there’d be no compromises in play experience and tons of room for expanding functionality.

Mobile notifications mean that users will get easy access to the status of their animal companion and that taking your dog for a walk might need YOU to take a walk, making it a great lifestyle application that’d encourage increased quality of life, sitting in line with Nintendo’s initiative without the need for additional hardware. Social functionality could also make its way in through these walks, allowing players whose pets cross paths to interact with one another and exchange gifts in a manner comparable to StreetPassing, further incentivizing physical exercise and social engagement.

A lot of folk would be willing to buy something like this, but if Nintendo took the free to play route, there'd still be a lot of avenues to monetize the game in a way that would respect the player and still turn a profit.

Things like adopting your first dog being free and additional slots/space for more requiring a onetime fee. Cosmetics and non-essentials would be great for those looking to invest in their space or partake in contests, and those who have no interest don’t have to worry about being locked off or being given a hard time.

Add in a little social-media integration for good measure, and I think that a new Nintendogs for mobile would be a definite winner.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

My Criticisms of Breath of the Wild

The following write-up consists of my criticisms of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. There are some spoilers, so look sharp.

Last time I talked on Breath of the Wild, I gave my general impressions separated from what might be considered spoilers. Today's post is a reflection of the things that I found questionable, misguided, or that needed to be improved. I initially thought that this would be a spoiler heavy write-up, but I can safely say that, outside of the portion where I talk about Ganon in the Maintaining Tone section, it's pretty clean. Enjoy!


Technical Issues


Let's get this out of the way to start. I'm not going to sugarcoat it, and I'm not going to exaggerate:

There are framerate issues.

These drops aren't usually extreme or frequent throughout the majority of play time and haven't degraded my personal enjoyment of the game, but they are absolutely worth noting. I’ve found that slowdown is most prominent at two major villages, some parts of Death Mountain, and in the Great Plateau, the latter of which is particularly unfortunate considering that it’s where the game starts. Sending a Moblin rag-dolling will typically cause stuttering or a momentary freeze, and that’s definitely the worst kind of performance dip in the game. Fortunately, Breath of the Wild keeps reasonably stable most of the time and patches have been released that make it so that frame drops are even less common than before.

The handheld mode on the Switch version allegedly ran with little to no problems even before patching, so that's great. However, I can't help but find it odd that, with a sizable GPU speed boost, the docked mode doesn't run just as smoothly when resolution’s been bumped up. With handheld mode already running well, I'd think that doing this would at least allow for parity of performance assuming that there weren’t somehow an increase in CPU dependent processes or disproportionate graphical changes. Maybe there's some other bottleneck causing this? Regardless, it’s unfortunate, and I feel there should have been an option to allow docked mode to run at 720p instead of 900p if this were the case.

It's important to mention that the game actually hasn’t been optimized for the Switch when looking at its peformance. This means that there’s a great deal of potential for improvement moving forward for Breath of the Wild and that further work can easily benefit future titles that use the new engine. Personally, I'm playing primarily on the Wii U, and it’s worth noting that the game was designed with that hardware in mind. Because of this, there aren’t any obvious avenues of improvement I can really point to. There's a chance that there'll be tweaks where possible until the second content pack from the expansion pass releases, so we'll see how things are changed by then. 

Otherwise, though not perfect, things are pretty good right now.


Voice Acting


Voice Acting is a weird topic.

There have been two very clear sides of the fence on whether or not proper VA should be introduced to the Zelda franchise, and Nintendo's first foray into this is a compromise between both. This is to say that the game’s cutscenes feature full-VA, but Link himself is as quiet as ever.

I think that functionally, Voice Acting can allow for more expressive and deliberately paced interactions that better reflect the emotional state of the characters speaking than plain text typically would. Fortunately, Nintendo leverages this potential in helping define the turmoil Princess Zelda experiences and reinforcing the personalities of other characters much more respectably when considering the limited screen-time they're given.

I don’t believe that anyone was necessarily miscast, and I was actually pleasantly surprised by how fitting I came to find the voices by the end of the experience. Though this much is true, I do have a problem with the delivery of some lines. Mipha in particular is a notable case, as I found that her actress maintained a general consistency that ironically made at least two scenes sound very unconvincing within their emotional context. I don’t know if this is partially a shortcoming on the Voice Actors’ side, but I do recognize the difficulty that could have come from Nintendo’s secretive nature during production and how that allegedly results in very constrained context to work with for VAs.

Another problem I have with the delivery of many lines comes in through unfortunate pacing. This undermines the impact of their content even further, not to mention that some of the lines seem a little odd to begin with. Thinking through this, I realize that these things are likely the result of the localization team attempting to write within the constraints of particular timing and work with the Voice Actors to match set lip-sync. I appreciate that this was likely very challenging to do, but I’m doubtful many will consider these qualifiers when their immersion is broken or when they feel that something is off. In the future, I hope that things change to facilitate better delivery and that there are less constraints on everyone involved.


Maintaining Tone


In two ways, the game seems to have trouble sticking to what it wants. The first problem is how the game portrays Link and what that means for how players engage with him throughout their adventure. The second is inclusive of certain aspects of how the game portrays the need to face Ganon. These may seem like they wouldn't constitute much of a problem on the surface, but for a game that is centered so heavily on facilitating a certain kind of experience, I feel that they're important to consider. Link in particular is worth noting as I feel that how they handle his character is something that can easily go beyond this title and affect the entire series moving forward.

Link


Link is typically supposed to be a stand in for the player. He's mostly blank so we can plant ourselves into the world with little to no problem or sense of disconnect. Though it seems like this is still the aim with the character in Breath of the Wild, there are unfortunately a few things that undermine and conflict with it.

To start, players could usually use their own names when playing a Zelda game. That isn't the case this time around due to the introduction of voice acting requiring characters to refer to Link by name. It's a small, necessary change, but it seems stranger than it might otherwise because Link himself still doesn't have an active voice. This was a decision that reflects the goal of maintaining his connection with the player as indicated by the following quote:

"If Link said something the user doesn't agree with, that relationship between the user and Link would be lost" -Eiji Aonuma

However, the way that NPC interactions are handled stand in stark contrast to this. While funny, many of these engagements imply that Link has an eccentric, often sarcastic personality and, time and time again, would say things in ways that most players would not themselves. It doesn't help that these responses also don't seem to match Link's mannerisms in cutscenes.

Taken in terms of the full package, all of these things seem to indicate a conflict of intent. Link is kept a silent protagonist and is even given a specific reason for choosing to hold his tongue, but the game has been made in a way that makes that seem true in only the most superficial sense. I can't help but feel that this could have been dealt with a little more carefully. As it stands now, the compromises make it so that Link is either a meagerly characterized individual and/or a partially jarring conduit into the world. 

Not ideal on any terms.


Ganon


While Breath of the Wild is constructed to facilitate and encourage exploration at every turn, certain things go against that almost universal direction.

The primary objective marker text, Impa, The Great Deku Tree, Princess Zelda, and a few lines from other characters will egg you on to face Ganon whenever you make major progress. You aren't forced to do so, but a fair number of things make it seem like it’s what you should do. Ganon himself was designed to stay out of the way of the adventure to avoid piling on additional, unnecessary narrative and constraints that would reduce player freedom. This makes how he's presented by these subtle nods particularly odd, as it does precisely what the developers were trying to avoid with little to show for it at the end of the day.

Encouraging players to cut their adventure short by posing the dire nature of confronting Ganon in these ways could easily end up taking away from the enjoyment of the experience, as he doesn't represent the same purpose as a more traditional boss fight in other games.

Facing him isn't climax: It's closure.

In much the same way that the rewards in Breath of the Wild aren’t really the treasures at the end of the road but the journey itself, Ganon is more of a garnish than anything else. Dropping everything to be the hero with the expectation of the greatest challenge yet and the satisfaction of overcoming insurmountable odds will leave you wanting for something far more fulfilling than you'll end up getting. Ganon isn't difficult to face if you're prepared, and while the game is designed to allow you to fight him whenever you’d like, the ending doesn't represent any sort of major payoff.

I think that these little nudges were made in an attempt to strike a balance on basis of how different players approach the game. Yes, this is an enormous open world built for exploration and discovery, but there are those who’ve come in with the expectation of, or an interest in, a more linear experience and won’t feel that the conclusion is impactful without having this monstrous enemy colored as an imminent threat. Unfortunately, I think the payoff is limited on these terms as well.

With no real post-game, swaying players to seek this narrative conclusion early might have them feeling disconnected from the world when returning to complete other content and explore, and that's not something I think should be humored when it comes to an experience of this nature. Unfortunately, parts of this are necessary to make for a compelling narrative, and the nature of massively open-world games that give you this much freedom doesn't exactly mesh well with doing that. Regardless, I still feel that pulling a few punches would have allowed the story to be just as effective while easing the sense of urgency that goes against the experience it's been set in.


Final thoughts


If you've read this far, you might have seen my criticisms and thought "These are really mundane things to nitpick. Where are the real complaints?". The fact of the matter is that these really are the most notable problems I have with Breath of the Wild. 

This is a great game that succeeds in the majority of its endeavors, and though it will be refined and improved on in the future, what is here is a brilliant experience with a strong foundation that's ripe to be learned from and well worth enjoying. I think that the shrines are extremely enjoyable, that the combat is superb, that the attention to detail is awe inspiring, and the degree to which the game respects player intelligence and choice to be notably appreciable.

That doesn't mean there aren't other things I didn't like, but those are more a matter of preference as opposed to flaws in execution or failures in design. On that note, I'd like to list a few things I want to see in the future, whether they be in a sequel or through the content packs coming later this year. I think we'll be getting some tweaks and changes in the Expansion Pass, so maybe I'll get lucky and find that one or two of them happen.


A more robust map marker system              

Breath of the Wild is a brave game in providing an open-world full of content that its willing to let you miss or find on your own terms. The map isn't filled with pre-configured markers that tell players where to go; instead, players are given 100 map markers and 5 way-points to assign and save themselves when on their adventure.

Though I appreciate this implementation, I can't help but think that they could take it farther and provide more robust charting options. I'd love the ability to attach notes to markers and save secondary overlays  with my own supplementary material drawn on top. The touch screen is already on both consoles the game is available on, so I don't doubt this sort of things could be added in an intuitive way.


Full Silence, Full VA, or a more thoughtful implementation of both

While the first attempt to bring Voice Acting to the mainline Zelda series has been quite commendable, I think giving players the option to change audio tracks or turn off VA outright would be a great feature.

I'd also like them to consider how they go about Voice Acting a fair bit more carefully moving forward. Link doesn't have a speaking voice, yet interactions with those that do indirectly characterize him to avoid making things seem unnatural. I don't personally think the story in Breath of the Wild necessarily gained enough from voice acting to call it an undeniably great inclusion, and the balancing act played for Link's character probably didn't do it any favors. Ultimately, I hope that whatever's done next is planned in conjunction with all aspects of Link and the player in mind from start to finish and that the direction taken is communicated internally to ensure a cohesive result.


A real Post game

The nature of Ganon and how pivotal he is to the world means that a real post game isn't a simple thing to set up. For the story DLC, I'd like to see the constraints that make this true somehow overcome, if even in a meager way from a player content standpoint. Enemies would have to permanently disappear from the game world, certain recipes would become much harder to make, and the dialogue and routines of many NPCs would need to be modified to reflect Ganon’s defeat. Unfortunately, all of this would require a great deal of work and realistically would add little content overall. I’d be pleasantly surprised if Nintendo actually went this route, but I hope that they at least keep the possibility of this in mind for future games that adopt the open-air format.

Fortunately, I do think that there’s room for an expanded resolution in the second DLC pack considering that Princess Zelda wants to go to Zora’s Domain at the end of the game. This is something that I would more than welcome instead if it were on the table.