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Thursday, January 07, 2010

2010 Gaming Predictions

Note that my predictions are generally based on uninformed hearsay and the occasional rumormongering. So with that dash of new optimism - let us look forward.

Nintendo will throw more hardware at the problem
I would like to say "Nintendo will give third party developers what they need to succeed" ... but I just don't think they have the interest at the moment. Sad as it is, the Wii's current plight probably works for Nintendo. Worse case scenario is that sales begin to drop, but that still leaves a huge pool of people to sell crappy license titles (for which Nintendo is certainly seeing some cash) and more hardware (accessories to measure your heart rate, for instance, so that you can see just how much the console is boring you).

A new HD-enabled Wii wouldn't shock me, but I'm not calling it just yet. This is more than just tweaking a few pixels here and there, and it would be ramping up Nintendo's console schedule ... and I don't think they're losing enough cash for that. Earliest suggestions from the pundits is 2011 - which will be in time to really do battle with Sony and Microsoft's motion technology.

Which brings us to...

3D, Motion Tech will be mostly talk
Despite the big splash Microsoft and to a lesser extent Sony has made out of adding new functionality like Natal, 2010 isn't when we're going to be knee deep into it. I'd guess we'll see a near holiday release of any big changes to the hardware and 2011 is when the software will really come to play. Whether Sony makes a big push for 3D gaming is hard to say - I'm still not buying into the idea that 3D sets are going to be viable in our near future.

We start to hit the graphics ceiling
In previous generations, year to year would prove out large changes in the how games looked on consoles as better compression and data algorithms were moved from chalkboard to chips. The gains of these kinds of tricks seems to have already slowed down for at least the 360 and PS3, making one game with awesome graphics look quite like another game with awesome graphics. Take Uncharted 2 as an example - quite possibly the best graphics put on Sony's console to date, but not a generational leap like we saw with some PS2 games.

Add in the fact that developers are beginning to question if some statistics like 60 FPS will really turn out not only a better product, but also bigger returns ... and I think the next real push from developer's won't be better graphics - but better animation, lighting, visual effects in general ... i.e. - better set design.

2010: Year of the DLC
All three console makers have fully embraced downloadable content and 2009 moved us past the "Age of Horse Armor" as it were ... we're finally seeing real expansions, real content and now that the PS3 and 360 are into both Netflix and Facebook ... extending the consoles past merely grabbing game content. 2009 also saw a huge push into games we'd normally think of as disc only titles becoming available for download ... and 2010 will continue to push that envelope.

One twist for a "Wii HD" that I can think of is Nintendo not pushing their graphics hard, but release a console which a) upscales the current content and b) serves essentially as a Roku. It would be a small enough change that they could release it ahead of 2011 ... but I don't really see it happening.

MMO's come to consoles
Sony is in the lead here, with Free Realms and Sodium One - though one is a free MMO that doesn't have a publish date and the other is a Sony Home space few people seem to have heard about. Still, we also have MAG coming up, which supports a ridiculous amount of people online ... all adding up to the notion that the network and the hardware will be able to handle it. This leaves the "but my PC knows my macros" rationale ... which I doubt will be a real barrier.

Remember, DC Universe is due out early in 2010. The real breaking point for the genre will the game that charges a monthly fee.

OK, that's that for now - might have more later or at the very least a 2010 wishlist.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

2009 - Games In Review

2009 was pretty good year for games. Let's hit a few of the trends and games that made it so:

PlayStation 3 finally matures
Sony said around the time the beta for Home was announced that they were done focusing on hardware and wanted to focus on software. Home itself continues to be a mixed bag (and by mixed, I don't mean an even mix) - but Sony finally delivered the goods. A strong showing from both cross-platform and exclusives means that PS3 owners aren't missing out when it comes to the top games of the year, and some like Uncharted 2 provide a damn good reason for owning the console just on their own. Next year will continue to be interesting as Sony seems poised to roll out "premium" online services (though what that will actually mean to users is a bit of a mystery).

The decline of the Wii
If there was one word to categorize the Wii's library at the end of the year it would be: shovelware. Swamped with license titles that would make George Lucas blush, the main reason to own and use a Wii remains Nintendo's own offerings. Sadly, decent titles directed at mainstream/hardcore players regularly undersold on the platform, despite its massive audience.

This hasn't really stopped Nintendo from continuing to sell a bunch of the tiny white boxes, but as not only the price of 360 and PS3 consoles decline but also HDTV's, the future of the Wii's dominance is very much uncertain. Sorry, Nintendo, but the honeymoon is officially over.

The 360 ... stays the same
What's interests me the most about the 360 is how rugged the platform remains. No, I don't mean reliability, although 2009 may be the year that Microsoft finally put to rest quality issues which have plagued the box for years. I mean its ability to continue strong sells and a solid library despite such issues, losing the HD war, not really being able to successfully upgrade the offering, etc. Microsoft clearly made the right decision when they got out early and made strong connections.

Yet next year Microsoft will clearly not be comfortable with this stance. Natal, probably new hardware configurations, even more additions to Xbox Live - 2010 promises to be good to 360 users.

Originality Continues To Pay
EA began reaping the benefits of titles like Dead Space and indie hits continued to sell well on both the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live - with stars like Flower even making several Game Of The Year lists. It's going to get weird when "indie" becomes "mainstream", but thankfully we're not quite to that level of cognitive dissonance just yet.

Just how much are we pushing those graphics?
There's an interesting juxtaposition at place with the PS3 getting a larger share of cross-platform titles as well as more exclusive titles - you have exclusive developers claiming the PS3 has plenty of room to grow ... and several cross-platform titles where the PS3 has worse (though often only slightly) graphics and/or performance. Just how much prettier are games can get is in question ... though we do have a spiritual successor to Shadow of the Colossus arriving soon.

The DS gets real competition, and it rhymes with iPhone
I gotta say, I've nearly lost all interest in my old DS now that I carry my iPhone with me. Apple's popular smartphone has proven it has the hardware chops to play fully 3D games, comes with a variety of online options, and has the industry standard for an online app store. Nintendo probably isn't sweating the sales numbers - but for the first time it is playing some catch up in the handheld arena, and not to either Microsoft or Sony.

We get some goddamn good games
People, I haven't even bought Brutal Legend or Assassin's Creed 2 and everything indicates they are quite awesome. I haven't even cracked open Borderlands. Mostly to blame are the two major time suckers - Demon's Souls and Dragon Age: Origins ... which are both some of the finest RPG's ever made.

...and some major disappointments
The Fallout 3 DLC was the biggest downer for me this year. I was extremely excited to see that it was coming to the PS3 and that excitement was met with hands down the buggiest experience I've had on any console, ever. Crashes, slowdowns, and very uneven content in general - this was a rare instance where a good game was probably better left alone.

Oh, and the No Russian thing
Some readers have wondered why I've fixated quite so much on Infinity Ward's No Russian mission within Modern Warfare 2. The scene, which everyone knows by know, depicts a lengthy and brutal slaying of civilians in an airport. When the scene was first leaked there was some condemnation and Infinity Ward told everyone to wait until the scene could be viewed in context.

Let me specific - the scene disturbs me. But Infinity Ward's response is what we should really be worried about. It was essentially two pronged, one being a completely bullshit explanation of the scene's integral role in telling a story. Modern Warfare 2 had a story that could have been written by crack addicted chimpanzees. The scene is integral only because someone had a massive yearn to depict Russians invading Burger Town and this was the best they could muster to kick that off.

The other prong being potentially far worse: it's only a game. And sure, lots of gamers will take solace in this. It was by far the most oft heard defense. As if we've been beaten down by Jack Thompson's insanity for so long that we feel like we need to remind each other that this isn't really a murder simulator and we really actually know real people aren't dying.

The problem isn't the gamer, but the game. By having a high profile title like this do something so low, so horrific, and use "it's only a game" as an excuse gives carte blanc to every other developer to do the same. Put in what you want. Story schmory. It's only a game.

Roger Ebert just got that much closer to being right - games aren't art. Not when they treat themselves like that.

So Happy New Year, Nathan Drake
I think that's long enough for the first post of the year. My favorite for the whole year is by far Uncharted 2. Naughty Dog's title is, for me, the anti-Modern Warfare. Whereas Infinity Ward couldn't must two plot points that made any sense together, Uncharted 2 was at least as good as any big budget Hollywood fare - and often much better. Great graphics, great writing and great gameplay. That's what makes game art.