Ever since the Nintendo Wii was released back in 2006 there seems to have been a resurgence in non-standard peripherals for consoles although most are simply motion based controllers in a fancy case. The issue with non-standard hardware was, and still is, that game developers can’t rely on a consumer having it and thus many choose to simply not use them. It’s for this (and other) reasons that Donkey Kong 64 had to include the Expansion Pak as their game was inoperable without it and its distribution in the market place could not be relied on. However it seems that manufacturing costs have become cheap enough to make custom peripherals like this viable and thus they have returned in greater numbers than ever before.
The big issue I see with things like this is that once a good idea comes along it’s guaranteed that there will be a lot of copy cat ideas that come out not too long after. In the absence of any interface standards governing their interactions with the consoles this inevitably turns into an arms race of who can win the most support from developers, most often ending in a duopoly of two competing standards that will likely never completely agree with one another. Whilst I’m all for competition in the consumer space I’m also for an open set of standards so that I’m not forced to choose between two functionally equivalent products based on who or what they support.
Which is why Sony’s announcement today of Project Morpheus, their virtual reality headset, is slightly troubling to me.
Since it’s still in the prototype phase details are pretty scant on what its specifications will be but it’s apparently rocking a 1080p display (I’m guessing there’s 2 of them in there) and can apparently do full 360 degree tracking. Predictably the motion tracking relies on the PlayStation Eye accessory indicating that it’s probably got most of the same technology in it that the DualShock4/PlayStation Move controllers do. There doesn’t appear to be any headphones built into it but if it’s got all the same core bits and pieces as a regular PlayStation controller than I’m sure there’ll be a headphone port on it. Essentially it looks like the Oculus Rift did way back when it first debuted on Kickstarter, albeit far more reliant on Sony technology than their product will ever be.
Therein lies the crux of the issue with peripherals of this nature. Sure they add functionality and experiences that would be otherwise impossible to accomplish on the platform by their own but when they’re built like Sony’s, reliant on a whole bunch of things that are only available on that platform, I almost immediately lose interest. As someone who plays across multiple platforms in the space of a year the last thing I want to do is flood my living room with all sorts of one shot peripherals that have no use outside a couple narrow scenarios. Instead I’d prefer one that works across a multitude, something which is technically possible (I won’t tell you how much research I did into finding a cross platform compatible arcade stick for the fighting games I play) but rarely occurs in the wild.
What I’m really getting at here is that whilst I’m super excited for these kinds of virtual reality devices to become commonplace I also want a set of open standards so that when you buy one you’ll be able to use it pretty much everywhere. Oculus Rift has a big head start on everyone in this regard so I really hope that they’ve seen this problem on the horizon and are working towards a solution for it. With something like that in place companies could then focus on making the better headsets rather than trying to coax everyone into their ecosystem. It’s probably a pipe dream, I know, but it would be to the benefit of everyone if it happened.
You don’t have to look far on this blog to know that I’m a Sony fan although my recent choice in products would tell you otherwise. I do genuinely appreciate them as a company as whilst they’ve made a whole bunch of mistakes they’ve also delivered some amazing products on the years, typically in industries where they’re far from being industry leaders. My relationship began with them many years ago when I first laid my hands on the original PlayStation console and has continued on since then.
Today they announced the next generation of their home entertainment systems: the PlayStation 4.
Whilst the event is still unfolding while I’m writing this there’s already been a lot of rumours confirmed, surprises unveiled and of course a whole bunch of marketing blather that no one is interesting in hearing. Among the confirmed rumours are the fact that it’s an x86 platform under the hood, the controller has a touchpad on it (among several other features including a Kinectesque motion tracking system) and a customized PC GPU. Of course the really interesting things are the features that have managed to remain secret throughout the various leaks and speculative sprees that have been occurring over the past couple months.
For starters it appears that the PS4 will come equipped with a whopping 8GB of GDDR5 rather than the 4GB that was previously advertised. This is interesting because the Durango apparently faced issues trying to integrate that amount of memory due to the bandwidth requirements and thus opted to go with DDR3 and a speedy 32MB cache to counter-act that. Sony has either made a last minute change to the design to get specification parity (although 4GB GDDR5 is arugably much better than 8GB of DDR3) or had this planned for quite a long time, meaning that they overcame the engineering challenge that Durango couldn’t (or wouldn’t, for various reasons).
One of the much speculated features was the integration of streaming services allowing users to share screenshots, game clips and all manner of things. Part of the leaked specifications for both Durango and Orbis hinted at an external processing unit that would enable this without the main GPU or CPU taking a hit. This has come to fruition and it appears that Ustream will the the platform of choice. Whilst I know a lot of people aren’t particularly thrilled with this (it seems a lot of us gamers didn’t get out of the anti-social gaming box we cocooned ourselves in during our formative years) for someone like me who reviews games it’s an absolute godsend as it means that my convoluted recording rig won’t be required just so I can get a few in game screen shots. Realistically this is just an organic progression of features that have been present in some games to making them available natively in the platform, something I’m sure the developers are thankful for.
There’s also a swath of remote play stuff which looks like a natural progression of the stuff that’s already in the PS3/PSP combo. Some of the pictures shown during the stream indicate that it might extend further than just the Vita and that’d definitely be something as not everyone (not even me, shocking I know) wants to invest in a Vita in order to get that kind of functionality. With their acquisition of Gaikai, which was ostensibly for the streaming backwards compatibility that’ll come for PS1/2/3 games, they do have the opportunity to take that same streaming and let you play your games anywhere with your PS4 providing the underlying grunt. There’s no mention of that specifically but all the key parts are there and that’d certainly give them a leg up on Microsoft when it comes to delivering a ubiquitous platform.
Fanboyism aside the PS4 does genuinely look like a great piece of hardware and the services that are being built on top of it are going to be really competitive. Sony has been lagging behind Microsoft for a long time in the services space and it looks like for the first time they’ll at least be at parity with them. We’ll have to wait for the Durango announcement first before we can make true comparisons between the two but if the leaks are anything to go by it’s going to be a good time for us gamers, whatever our chosen platform is.
Now if only they gave us a release date. That one delicious piece of information is curiously absent.
I missed the boat on many of Tim Schafer’s games. Whilst I was aware of the titles that rocketed him to game developer stardom (Monkey Island, Manic Mansion and Psychonauts) I never ended up seeking them out, even more recently when I’ve been told I have to play them. You can probably attribute that to the fact that many of my friends had Apple IIs or other similar Mac computers and as such weren’t able to share games with me, the primary one being the original Monkey Island series. Still his games seem to have something of a following and if the Kickstarter for the Doublefine Adventure was anything to go by I figured their latest release, The Cave, would be worth playing.
Upon starting up The Cave you’ll be greeted by a smooth talking narrator who introduces himself as the cave you’re about to dive into, something we’re told just to go along with. After a short setting of the scene you’re then introduced to the 7 playable characters that you can choose to bring with you on the journey. They are (in no particular order): The Knight, The Adventurer, The Monk, The Twins, The Time Traveler, The Scientist and The Hillbilly. Each of them has their own little story which you’ll dive into as you venture deep into the cave, revealing their troublesome past and hopefully work towards making their present a little better.
The Cave has gone for a stylized 2.5D environment, locking your movement to the traditional 2D platformer style which uses 3D models for everything on screen. Typically heavy stylization goes hand in hand with simplicity (as the choice to heavily stylize is usually done as a trade off for better performance) however The Cave’s various environments are drenched in detail with modern lighting effects, particle systems and intricate set pieces. All put together it works very well with each of the various sections of the cave having its own distinct feeling, especially the unique character rooms.
At the beginning you’re shown the group of 7 characters and you get to choose 3 of them to go along for the ride. The choice is arbitrary as no matter who you end up choosing you will be able to make it through to the end. Your choice of characters only affects the path you will take to reach the end although there are some sections which might go a bit quicker if you choose certain characters over others. In the end though due to the unfortunate choice of 7 characters rather than say 6 or 9 you’ll have to play the game through a full 3 times in order to see all of the character’s stories, if that’s of interest to you.
The Cave is your traditional puzzler/platformer, making you jump from platform to platform in order to find the right items to use in the right place or to pull various levers in order to progress to the next section. The twist comes from each of the characters that you choose to take on your journey as each of them has some kind of special ability that can be used to solve the puzzles. Now for the most part these abilities really only come into play during the character’s unique section of the cave but there are times during the intervening puzzles where these abilities might come in handy. The Knight for instance can go completely invulnerable which is kind of handy when you want to fall off ledges in order to descend quickly.
Thankfully there’s no real inventory to speak of so you won’t spend your time hoarding dozens of items in the hopes you’ll need to use them. Instead in The Cave each of your 3 characters can only hold a single item at a time. Whilst there are some puzzles that require all of your characters to have an item and be doing something with it most of the time it’s only the main character that needs to do so. However much like other puzzle games there’s no shortage of things which you can pick up and interact with which can sometimes have you holding things that serve no purpose what so ever. This is part of the challenge of course but its usually fairly obvious what goes where.
As for the puzzles themselves most of them are relatively obvious with solutions that come about organically or by trial and error should you get stuck. Usually frustration sets in when you’ve picked up an item at one place then placed it down to get another item that you need to use right then and there, forcing you to backtrack some distance to get it again. There were some puzzles which stumped me to the point of needing a walk through guide but most of them were me thinking a puzzle should was solved when it really wasn’t. There was one puzzle which I thought was a bit rough however (the final stage, very last puzzle if you’re wondering) which whilst not being rubber duck key sort of thing was still in the realms of “LOL DEVELOPER LOGIC”.
The Cave is well coded considering its simultaneous release across several different platforms however there was one quirk which proved to be endlessly frustrating and one hilarious bug (pictured above). The quirk seems to be due to the dual control scheme that The Cave uses, letting you control your characters with the keyboard or mouse (or both at the same time, if you’re so inclined). However if you click in a location and then try to use the keyboard, like I tended to do accidentally when resting my hand on the mouse, there’s a 3 second or so period where the keyboard just simply doesn’t respond. This isn’t due to my keyboard or mouse as I don’t have this problem in any other game and it caused no end of frustration when my characters wouldn’t move the way I told them to. It’s not exactly game breaking but it is incredibly frustrating so I hope it gets fixed soon.
The bug shown above is also nothing really serious, just a clipping issue where my character was able to swim through the ground, but there’s probably a quick fix to it that could be implemented without too much trouble.
I thought the story of The Cave was interesting but lacked any real depth to it. Sure the character’s backgrounds are explored decently through the cave paintings and their unique puzzle caves but none of them are particularly likeable or relatable. Now I get this is the point some what but their stories didn’t have any impact on me one way or the other. It’s made up for in spades by the fun and novel game mechanics so I guess what I’m getting at is that the story is serviceable but that’s not the reason I’d be playing the game.
The Cave is a solid platformer that brings in unique game mechanics and a pleasant art style to form a game that’s quite enjoyable to play. Many are seeing this as a teaser of things to come with the Doublefine Adventure and if this is true it should be shaping up to be something quite special, especially for fans of Schafer’s games. I had a good time with The Cave, although my second play through didn’t last particularly long (I stopped about half way through the first unique puzzle) but then again I’m the kind of player who gets rapidly disinterested in games I’ve already completed. The Cave is certainly worth a play through just for the unique experience it provides.
The Cave is available right now on PC, Xbox360, Playstation 3 and WiiU right now for $19.99 and an equivalent amount of points on the varying systems respectively. Game was played on the PC with 4 hours played and 19% of the achievements unlocked.
An old friend of mine wrote a post not too long ago saying that the FPS genre had almost run its course and was in either need of a reboot or a bullet. I agreed with him although countered with a single game that was, technically, a first person shooter but flipped the idea of what constituted a traditional FPS and got it all mixed up with some heavy RPG elements. Whilst I didn’t mention it at the time (mostly because the question was centred around player agency) Borderlands was another title in the FPS genre that felt like a breath of fresh air when compared to all the other generic shooters that have graced our gaming platforms over the past few years. Its sequel, released a couple weeks ago, stays true to the original’s FPS/RPG hybrid styling whilst provided some much needed polish in the areas that needed it.
Borderlands 2 takes place 5 years after the events in the original and with the vault opened and the monstrosity contained within it defeated a new valuable resource, a purple metal called Eridium, has sprung up all over Pandora. Handsome Jack, a member of the Hyperion corporation, notices this and secures the resource for himself allowing him to take over Hyperion. Jack now uses his power, as well as a giant orbital satellite in the form of a H which can be clearly seen from the ground, to control the inhabitants of Pandora. However rumours have been spreading of another vault contained on Pandora and a new set of vault hunters have come seeking its contents.
Just like the original Borderlands 2 sticks to cel shading for its graphics style and 3 years down the track its not looking any worse for wear. Whilst many have praised Borderlands 2 for being a graphical step up from its predecessor (and it is, in many ways) if you were like me and dived into the configuration files you would have been able to get similar levels of detail. That being said not having to do that now thanks to a menu that reveals all those options to you is a much better alternative and speaks volumes to the lengths that Gearbox has gone to in order to not make the PC version a bastard child of a port. Seeing as that was one of my main gripes with the original I’m glad to see this was addressed as I wasn’t looking forward to panning them again for it.
As I mentioned previously Borderlands 2 is a hybrid FPS/RPG with core elements of both combining together to form the core of the game play. The FPS portion, at its most basic level, is your typical run and gun affair with regenerating health (in the form of a shield) and chest high boxes littering the landscape to provide you with cover. The RPG elements aren’t as deep as full on RPG titles like say Skyrim but you’ve still got 4 distinct character classes each with a talent tree that contains 3 different paths in it giving you quite a bit of freedom in how your character ends up playing out.
Now whilst the basic aspects of the FPS part of Borderlands might not be too different from any other generic shooter the way in which combat actually plays out is nothing like it. Just like in the original each of the character classes has a unique action skill that can drastically change the way a fight goes. Since I choose the Commando I had myself a sentry turret that provided both added damage but also a distraction for some of the tougher enemies so that I could run up behind them and unleash hell in relative safety. Talking it over with my friends the Sentry gun is one of the most useful but apparently Zero’s ability (being able to turn invisible whilst leaving a decoy behind) is by far the most fun.
Of course there’s even more variation in the FPS aspects thanks to the near infinite amount of guns, grenades and other inventory items that can drastically change the way you engage hostile targets. Whilst there’s a couple simple mechanics like different types of elemental damage that are more/less effective depending on the type of enemy you’re facing there are many guns with ludicrous abilities that can transform a meagre character into an unbridled tool of destruction. Indeed finding such weapons are usually key to progressing past certain points and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a couple a long your way.
For me it was a rocket launcher called the Partisan Mongol which upon firing launched a barrage of rockets that did several orders of magnitude more damage than I was capable of unloading with any of my other weapons. This weapon became a key part of my arsenal as it meant that should I get into a jam and need to kill something quickly to get second wind all I needed to do was whip out my launcher and lay waste to whatever was in front of me. Sure it wasn’t fool proof and the amount of ammo it consumed meant it wasn’t particularly sustainable but considering I carried that weapon with me from level 20 something right up until the end just shows you how valuable weapons like that can be.
Your talent trees will also have a major impact on how you progress through the game. I played as a Survival Commando mostly because the initial talents went a long way to reducing the amount of down time I had to endure. As I went up in levels however the skills made me almost unstoppable as I was able to take massive amounts of pounding without breaking a sweat. Couple this with a couple other items like say an amp shield that imbues your weapons with extra damage at full charge and a build that was primarily defensive in nature suddenly becomes wildly offensive. In the end I settled on a build that reduced the cooldown of my turret skill by half and enabled me to have two turrets out at a time that both had shields on them, giving me both amazing survival power and an incredible damage output.
There’s also another levelling system on top of the regular one and its called, eerily enough (considering the title of my last Borderlands review), Badass Ranks. In essence they’re like a sub-achievement system, they’re only tracked in game, but you get ranks for completing things like setting a certain number of enemies on fire, using certain item abilities and performing all sorts of weird and wonderful acts. Once you rank up you’re then given a token that you can spend on a percentage based perk that can be things like increasing your shield regen rate. According to what Gearbox tells you these perks are unlimited and thus function as a levelling system that will continue long on after you’ve hit the 50 level cap. Unlimited is a bit of a misleading term though as its clear that as you level up the same perks you start to hit diminishing returns on them and I get the feeling that the upper bounds for many of them are in the realms of 10% or so.
In terms of overall polish Borderlands 2 is certainly leaps and bounds ahead of its predecessor. Gone is the GameSpy account requirement and the need to open up a rather excessively number of ports on your router in order for it to work. The menus are also not painfully console specific reacting much better to the additional input options offered by the mouse and keyboard of the PC platform. I did encounter some interesting and quirky bugs along the way and there was only one that actually broke the game in a serious way.
Minor plot spoilers follow:
For the BNK-3R boss fight I spent most of my first try of it running around looking for ammo drops to replenish my stash. Now I’m not sure if it was due to me being in a strange position or not but once it was past a certain percentage of health and Roland said something like “Now that’s a big gun” it jammed itself on the corner of the platform and then started violently shuddering whilst not getting anywhere. I figured it was just stuck and hopefully wearing its health down would trigger it to teleport out or get unstuck but unfortunately after wearing it all the way down to 0 health it just sat there. After jumping to my death (and eating the respawn cost) it regenerated all its health but was still stuck in the same position. The only way to get it unstuck is to reload and then hope it doesn’t happen again. Thankfully for me it didn’t but there are many people on the forums reporting the same issue so hopefully it gets fixed soon.
The writers have also out done themselves as the comedic tones that are interwoven in through a semi-serious plot make for a story that’s engaging, entertaining and completely hilarious at times. All of the characters have their own unique brand of humour and whilst I didn’t find all of them laugh out loud funny they all had their moments. Handsome Jack, your nemesis for the entire game, is also an extremely hateable character and they did a great job of making him a real douche bag. Needless to say that I spent the majority of the game just waiting for a moment when I could put a bullet between his eyes.
The story itself was good too and whilst I didn’t feel a deep emotional attachment for many of the characters (apart from Mordecai as I played him in the original) I did genuinely care about how the ending panned out. If pushed I’d say it was the game play that made it for me rather than the story but overall I’d rate it far above other titles in the FPS genre which usually only use a paper thin storyline in order to keep you going.
Borderlands 2 is an amazing game having taken all the ideals of the original and polishing them up to a glorious hue. All the complaints that I had about the original are gone and save for a few bugs the experience is seamless. Even for those who didn’t play the original Borderlands 2 offers a great FPS/RPG experience that is only matched by other greats in this hybrid genre like Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you’re one of the many who enjoy games with a long shelf life then Borderlands 2 is definitely a title for you as my play time is probably only a quarter of what’s possible.
Borderlands 2 is available on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 right now for $49.99, $69 and $69 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with around 25 hours of total play time, 58% of the achievements unlocked and reaching level 31.
Even though in my heart I’m a PC gamer I was never without a console growing up. For the most part I was a Nintendo kid, seeing every console from the NES upwards making its way into my family’s living room. That changed when I had my own job and enough money to buy a PlayStation 2, secluding myself away in my room to play Gran Turismo for hours on end trying to justify the $700 odd sum I had spent on this magnificent piece of hardware. Nowadays you’ll find every major console lining up beside my TV so that I can indulge myself in any title regardless of its platform.
The past couple decades has been quite an interesting time for consoles. They really came into prominence after the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1985 (2 years later for us Australians) and Nintendo continued to be highly successful with it’s successor. Their reign as the king of consoles came to an end with the release of the original PlayStation back in 1994 which saw Sony catapulted to the top of the console kingdom. Microsoft, seeing a great opportunity to compete in the gaming market, released the Xbox back in 2001 and whilst it didn’t dethrone Nintendo or Sony it enjoyed some mild success in the market, even if it wasn’t a success financially. The release of the PlayStation 2 kept Sony at the top for quite a while as neither the Xbox nor Nintendo’s GameCube could hold a candle to it.
The current generation of consoles saw another shift in the king of consoles crown, but not for the traditional reasons that gamers had come to expected. Whilst the PlayStation 3 was a technical marvel the Xbox360 hit the trifecta of price, performance and catalogue of good platform exclusives that helped build it up to the success it is today. Neither of them however could hold a candle to the success that is the Nintendo Wii. Aiming at their largest untapped market Nintendo created a console that appealed to non-gamers and gamers alike. The result being that they couldn’t manufacture the things fast enough, seeing wide spread shortages for the console that only helped to sustain the fever pitch surrounding it. With a grand total of 90 million consoles sold to date it’s well on its way to be the most successful console ever released, although it still has a long way to go to match the PlayStation 2 (coming in at a whopping 153 million).
The next generation of consoles is still some ways off however. Traditionally you’d see a new console generation every 5 years but the only ones with any official plans so far are Nintendo with their Wii U console which isn’t slated for release until sometime next year. Granted the current generation of consoles has aged far better than any of their previous generations what with developers finding all sorts of optimizations to squeeze extra performance out of them but even the best programming can’t hide the aging hardware that’s running in these consoles. It is then up for debate as to what the next generation of consoles will look like and there’s speculation that it may be the last.
Richard Garriott AKA Lord British, games industry celebrity and space tourist, has gone on record that he believes that the next generation of consoles will be the last:
IG: It’s always tough to completely change the way you look at things. The bigger the company, the more conservative they tend to be. Do you think consoles as we know them are doomed, or are we going to get a new generation, or is it just becoming irrelevant?
RGC: I think we might get one more generation, might, but I think fundamentally they’re doomed. I think fundamentally the power that you can carry with you in a portable is really swamping what we’ve thought of as a console.
IG: If we’ve got a smartphone that can do Xbox level graphics, which we’ve almost got, and I can hook that up to a TV and use a controller, what’s the difference between that and a console? It’s just whatever games are available.
RGC: Yes, exactly. That’s why I think there may be one more round of consoles left, but not many.
The idea of consoles going away isn’t a new one, hell there was a time when everyone thought the PC would be the dominant platform for all time, but them being replaced outright by mobile devices is a new one on me. For starters whilst you can get current Xbox level graphics on a handheld it’s always going to be a game of cat and mouse as to how far ahead the consoles are. Realistically current smart phones capabilities are only catching up to what was possible 5 years ago, not what’s possible today. Indeed once the next generation of consoles is released the smart phones (and other portable entertainment systems) will again be behind in terms of technology. The fact of the matter is you can’t shoe horn current generation technology into a portable form factor so I doubt we’ll see the loss of consoles after the next generation.
Although there is potential for the console market to be shaken up somewhat by the portable industry. The Wii showed that a console can succeed without having cutting edge technology in it (the Wii is basically a GameCube on the inside) and it’s that same market that gobbled up the Wii that will turn to other places for their gaming fix. Whether this will make the transition into some form of home based entertainment like consoles currently do remains to be seen however, but there’s definitely potential for it to happen.
As for the the future of console gaming? More of the same I believe. Whilst we may have seen some technical marvels in the form of the Wii, PlayStation Move and Kinect the bread and butter of these consoles doesn’t appear to be going anywhere, even in the face of challengers like the iPhone. For the non-gamer market however there’s a strong possibility that they’ll shift away from their Wiis in favour of their smart phones or tablets but there’s still a massive market that will crave the better graphics and performance that can only come from a console.
Any long time gamer (I’m talking about 10+ years here folks) will remember the time when the PC was the platform for all games to shoot for. It’s not that consoles weren’t good, by many standards the original Xbox and PS2 were quite capable machines at the time, it was more that PCs gave you the best experience and the limited input options for consoles made many games simply untenable on the platform. The next generation of consoles provided something different however, they were more than powerful enough to give a modern PC a run for its money at the time and the games on them were definitely a step up from their predecessors. What has followed is a massive boom in the world of console gaming and subsequently a decline in the world of PC gaming.
This is not to say that PC gaming is dead and buried, far from it. Whilst consoles might have taken the lion’s share of the gaming market there are still a great many titles that make their way onto the PC platform. For the most part however it is obvious that these games were developed with the console platform in mind first with paradigms that don’t necessarily make sense on the PC making their way into the final release. This process has become known as the consolization of PC gaming and it has been met with a lot of criticism by the PC gaming community. Whilst I don’t like what this means for PC gaming I do understand the reasons behind the shift away from the PC as being the primary platform.
Primarily it comes down to simple economics. Since the PC was the platform for so long many seem to think that it’s by far the biggest market. The truth is unfortunately that for the vast majority of the market the console reigns supreme with PCs making up a very small percentage of it. Take for instance one of the biggest recent retail releases, Call of Duty: Black Ops. Total units moved for this game in November last year were in the order of 8.4 million with only 400,000 of them being on the Wii, DS and PC platforms. Putting that in perspective that means that the PC release accounted for less than 5% of the total sales volume and data from previous years shows that this number is on the decline.
A single data point however isn’t enough to prove the theory and no one will argue that the Call of Duty series is a bit of an outlier in itself. However if you take a look at the sales charts for each platform it’s quite clear that PCs really are a niche market when it comes to games totaling around 3% of the total units moved. Of course 3% of a multi-billion dollar a year market is still a significant chunk of change but it’s comparable to say the difference in market share between Windows and Linux (and should provide some insight into why nearly no one bothers with developing games for Linux).
Just because PC gaming is becoming a niche market doesn’t mean it’s going to disappear anytime soon however. There are still many types of games, real time strategy being one of them, that just simply don’t work well in the console world no matter how much tweaking you do to the core game play. It does however mean that consolized games should be the expected norm for PC gamers and whilst that might mean a sub par experience it does have the added benefit of extending the life of our systems significantly, which I know is a small consolation. Still unless the PC somehow manages to draw crowds the size of any of the console platforms those of us who choose the PC as our platform will have to make do with what we’re given as the game developers of the world must give the crowd what they want.
There’s always risk in innovation. When you’re creating a new product or service there’s always the chance that nobody will want what you’re creating. Similarly whatever you end up creating could very well end up grating against the current norms in such a way that your product is almost wholly rejected by those its aimed at. A great example of this, which I covered in the past, was Windows Vista. In order for Microsoft to move ahead into the future they had to break away from some of their old paradigms and this drew the ire of many of their loyal customers. The damage that was done there is still being felt today with slower adoption rates of their latest product but had it not been for this initial failure they may not have been enjoying the level of success that Windows 7 has today.
In fact many pioneering products and services were first faced with dismal (albeit, mostly profitable) reception initially. Steam was a great example of this, debuting back in a time where broadband penetration numbers in many countries wasn’t particularly great and sought to deliver all games digitally direct to the consumer. Couple this with the fact that they were cutting out the publishers and distributors in the process the guys at Valve faced an extremely long, uphill battle in order for their platform to gain dominance. Still three years later they started to get big titles releasing on their platform and the rest, as they say, is history.
Interestingly enough I began to notice similar things happening with the Playstation Portable. Whilst the next version of the handheld, the NGP, is not going to be a digital only download device Sony has recently said that all games will be available digitally with only the bigger titles coming to the physical world:
“One thing we learnt from PSP, is that we want to have simultaneous delivery in digital and physical for NGP. Just to clarify that, all games that appear physically will be made available digitally, said House. He added, “Not necessarily all games have to be made available physically. And having the option of a digital-only method affords more creative risk-taking, and that’s because you don’t-have that in-built risk of physical inventory.”
For those who follow Sony you’d be aware of the dismal failure that was the PSP Go. Debuting at an insanely high price (costing just a hair below a full PS3) whilst offering little in the way of improvements the PSP Go was never going to be a phenomenal success. However it was particularly hampered by the lack of compatibility with its current gen brethren, doing away with the UMD drive in favor of a fully digital distribution model. This annoyed PSP customers to no end because their current collection of games could not be migrated onto the new platform (other than through nefarious means). Looking at the NGP there’s no way to get UMD games onto it but since most people are already aware that their current UMD titles will not have a format transition to the new platform they’ve avoided doing the same amount of damage to their next generation handheld as they did to the PSP Go.
Failure teaches you where you went wrong and where you should be heading in order to avoid making such mistakes again. Many successful products have been built on the backs of dismal failures, just look at satellite phones and radio for example. Sometimes it requires a risk taker to pave the way forward for those who will profit from the endeavor and hopefully that risk taker gets some of the kudos down the line. Digital distribution is one of those such areas where path has already been beaten and even some of the pioneers are continuing to profit from it.
My history with Sony can only really only be described as one of their fan boys. It all started well over a decade ago when I picked up my first Playstation, several years after they had been released. I loved that console dearly and when the Playstation 2 was announced I threw myself into wild amounts of debt with my parents so I could pick up one of the consoles on launch day. This extended to the time when they released their first portable gaming system, the Playstation Portable, as I convinced my then boss to let me take one home before the official release date. I’ve spent a good chunk of time with my PSP over the past few years and even still use it today for the odd game of Lumines or Guilty Gear. Still ever since some teaser images were released of it’s successor I’ve been eagerly awaiting its debut and yesterday afternoon finally saw an official announcement from Sony.
That there is the next generation of Sony’s portable gaming systems. On the surface it doesn’t look to be much more than an overgrown PSP with an additional analog control stick but the real meat of this device is in what’s under the hood, as shown by it’s impressive specifications:
|CPU||ARM® Cortex™-A9 core (4 core)|
|Approx. 182.0 x 18.6 x 83.5mm (width x height x depth) (tentative, excludes largest projection)|
|5 inches (16:9), 960 x 544, Approx. 16 million colors, OLED
Multi touch screen (capacitive type)
|Rear touch pad||Multi touch pad (capacitive type)|
|Cameras||Front camera, Rear camera|
|Sound||Built-in stereo speakers
|Sensors||Six-axis motion sensing system (three-axis gyroscope, three-axis accelerometer), Three-axis electronic compass|
Wi-Fi location service support
|Keys / Switches||PS button
Directional buttons (Up/Down/Right/Left)
Action buttons (Triangle, Circle, Cross, Square)
Shoulder buttons (Right/Left)
Right stick, Left stick
START button, SELECT button
Volume buttons (+/-)
|Mobile network connectivity (3G)
IEEE 802.11b/g/n (n = 1×1)(Wi-Fi) (Infrastructure mode/Ad-hoc mode)
Bluetooth® 2.1+EDR （A2DP/AVRCP/HSP）
Such specifications are becoming somewhat of a trademark of Sony, opting to go for the most powerful system they can deliver on a chosen platform. It’s been a double edged sword for them as whilst they can always claim the specifications crown their products are then hampered by their high cost, as illustrated with every console they’ve released. Still this thing is mightily impressive with connectivity rivalling that of today’s smart phones and processing power that hasn’t been seen before in a device of its size.
There are a few notable things to mention about Sony’s next handheld and one of them is shown in the picture above. That’s a capacitive touch panel that allows you to interact with the NGP, much like the touchscreen on any modern phone. Many companies have experimented with these in the past as a way to forego having a touchscreen, eliminating the need to touch the screen and leave fingerprints all over it. Interestingly enough though Sony decided to include a touchscreen on the front as well, meaning you can interact with it via both ways. How this is going to be used remains to be seen but its addition does make for some interesting possibilities.
Of notable absence is also any form of a media drive, ala the UMD. Whilst the format seemed like a good idea initially it was plagued by problems like reducing the battery life in half and lack of blank media like other formats. The former was an unfortunate problem that could never be worked around and the latter an attempt to stop piracy which failed miserably. Sony then attempted to revamp the PSP brand with the PSP Go which did away with the UMD in favour of digital distribution. However the PSP Go had abysmal adoption rates with many users outraged that their UMD collections were now completely useless. Still the PSP Go has paved the way for the NGP much like Windows Vista did for Windows 7 and the lack of any kind of media drive on the NGP shows that Sony is committed to a fully digital distribution network going forward.
Sony’s had a hard time in the portable gaming world but the fact remains they’re the only other company who’s still trying to take on the king of the market, Nintendo. Whilst the 3DS does look good on the surface its high price and the publics general disinterest in 3D means that Sony has a real chance to make a grab for the handheld crown with the NGP. However they have a real uphill battle ahead of them, especially when you consider that their new hand held will probably be more expensive than the 3DS. For a rabid Sony fan like myself it’s a no brainer, I’ll definitely be grabbing one of these on launch day just because it looks like such a versatile piece of kit. We’ll have to see if its worth buying as a game console when the time comes but it’s shaping up to be an interesting year for the handheld space.