The Gaming Club
Gentlemen, I hope you won't mind if I take a break from talking about the art of games to focus on the business. Last night, the NPD Group released sales figures for the month of November. So rather than directly engage the "other notable releases" that Stephen discussed in his e-mail, I'll instead use them to make a larger point about the current health of the video-game industry.
Stephen mentioned You Have To Burn the Rope, Wii Fit, FIFA Online 2, and games for the iPhone/iPod Touch. These games all have something in common: They don't require the most powerful hardware on the market in order to function. You Have To Burn the Rope runs in a Web browser. Wii Fit runs on the Wii, of course, which, as one developer said in a memorable rant, is just two Gamecubes duct-taped together. (Please don't try that at home.) FIFA Online 2, if my Google skills haven't failed me, will operate on a Windows 2000 PC with a Pentium III chip and 256 megabytes of RAM. As for the iPhone/iPod Touch, while it does sit at the top of the smartphone food chain, it is no threat to the two-year-old MacBook Pro I'm typing this e-mail on, let alone a top-of-the-line gaming rig.
Two companies with a shrewd approach to minimum system requirements are Blizzard and Valve. Now, I don't want to overload you with a flurry of numbers. But if you compare the minimum specs for Blizzard and Valve titles like World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, Half-Life 2: The Orange Box, and Left 4 Dead with games like Crysis: Warhead, Call of Duty: World at War, and Fallout 3, you'll see that the former have designed their games to run on older, less-powerful machines. By doing so, they've made their games accessible to a wider audience.
Taking this back to consoles for a moment: Microsoft's Xbox 360 had a year's head start on the competition, and as its executives love to remind us, the bulk of all console sales during the last generation took place at $199 or less—the current entry-level price for 360. Sony was all set to achieve global domination coming off consecutive wins with PlayStation and PlayStation 2. Yet in just 24 months, Nintendo has blown past its rivals and continues to do so even though the 360 is now $50 cheaper than the Wii's suggested retail price. To put this Nintendominance in perspective, for the month of November, Wii (2.04 million) outsold Xbox 360 (836,000), PlayStation Portable (421,000), Playstation 3 (378,000), and PlayStation 2 (206,000) combined.
Now if that's Game Over as far as the console wars are concerned, why are the major developers and publishers continuing to spend the bulk of their budgets on Xbox 360, PS3, and high-end PC games? Part of it is because Nintendo's own games have historically dominated sales on its own platforms, and that's been true for Wii as well. Part of it is because the creatives and the suits at third-party publishers don't know how to address the expanded audience on the Wii; they've tried a number of things—some bad, some good—but many of their efforts have underperformed. Yet as Electronic Arts' well-publicized struggles demonstrate, the winner-take-all software market on 360, PS3, and high-end PC games can pose just as much risk to a publisher's bottom line.
Yes, the data show that the video-game industry's revenues continue to rise. But how sustainable is that when development budgets are tilted toward 360, PS3, and high-end PCs and away from the market-leading Wii and low-end PCs. If a remake of Resident Evil 4 sold extremely well on the Wii, surely there was an opportunity for Dead Space. The liberating sense of movement in Mirror's Edge could have translated well to the Wiimote and nunchuk. But because EA built those games for the top-of-the-line machines, the Wii wasn't even a possibility. So with Nintendo as top dog, I think it's time for publishers to throw it a much bigger bone by leading development on Wii, then up-porting the games to the more powerful systems, which should result in a larger addressable audience. (Hard-core gamers' flames coming in 3 … 2 … 1.)
Now that I've rendered unto Caesar, let's get back to the art. Chris, I have to say that I was somewhat confused by the game that you're asking for. Would you ask for a movie with the action choreography of Saving Private Ryan and the story of The Empire Strikes Back, told in the manner of Memento or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? The creator of Everyday Shooter, an abstract twin-stick shooter game, gave a speech at this year's Game Developers Conference where he talked about the need for developers to become more creative with inputs and outputs; as an example, he said that he'd been bored by Call of Duty 3 but that he might have been more interested if it looked like Rez. Me too.
While I suppose it's possible that Marcus and Dom could shoot Locusts with quotes from famous revolutionaries or turn their enemies into Seurat paintings, it sounds like you're asking for something more like Aliens-meets-The Thin Red Line, where commerce meets art in a $60 game. So I'll just say two things. One, if Truffaut was right when he declared that it's impossible to make an anti-war movie, because film makes war look exciting, imagine how much more true that is of AAA games and the accompanying imperative that they be "fun." Two, you should play thatgamecompany's Flower when it comes to Playstation Network next year. Thrilling controls; gorgeous visuals; minimalist but allusive narrative; it's so good that I've already said that "Flower is everything that Mirror's Edge should have been" while Stephen, in his rush to canonize, has declared it "The First Must-Play Game of 2009." It just may be what you're looking for.
Lastly, Seth: You're absolutely right about Epic's goal with Maria's scene in Gears of War 2. It's just that I question the goal. No one playing the game needs any more reason to kill the Locust than they've already been given. Just as You Have To Burn the Rope, You Have To Kill the Locust; we gamers are very good at following orders, and Gears 2 players are no exception. If we should ever become confused about our motivation, the way that the aiming reticule helpfully turns red when we move it over the enemy makes it clear: Shoot till they're dead, no questions asked. No, Maria's scene is there to engender emotion in the player, to add something approaching depth to the game, to show that Cliff Bleszinski and his team at Epic can do more than just bro-speak. It fails, not because of a lack of meaningful choice, but because they didn't let that impulse influence their game design.
We're told that, in our role as Marcus and Dom, we're shooting the Locusts to save Sera. Maria is from Sera, but Dom—Bleszinski, really—shoots her rather than save her. Compare that with the sequence in "Dirty Little Secret," the first chapter of Act 3, where Marcus and Dom must both hold either end of a "heavy bomb" and carry it to a door that must be destroyed. Both men are vulnerable during this sequence: They can't roadie run, their turning speed is reduced, and they can only use their pistols. So if you don't think that it would have worked to make the player carry out the mercy killing of Dom's wife, the sequence above is proof that Epic had the means to build an alternative interactive sequence around her. They chose not to.
They could have carried her to an extraction point on a stretcher while coming under fire. They could have defended Maria from a Locust assault while waiting for a rescue team to come get her. There were any number of interactive options at Bleszinki's disposal, yet he opted for the cheap, easy sentiment of women in refrigerators, shuffling her off the stage so that Marcus and Dom's great bromance could continue. When all is said and done, he lavished more care and attention—interactively speaking—on a bomb than he did on Dom's wife. You say Bleszinski avoided the rabbit hole. I hope that with Gears of War 3, he'll jump in.
Thanks for the exchange, and I'll see you all back here in 2009.
N'Gai Croal is a general editor for technology at Newsweek and blogs about video games at Level Up. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Seth Schiesel is a staff writer for the New York Times. He currently writes about video games for the newspaper's Culture department. Chris Suellentrop reviews video games for Slate.Stephen Totilo is the video game reporter at MTV News and editor of the site's blog about games, Multiplayer.