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01/21/2007 - 01/27/2007

The PlayStation 3 Ripple Effect

January 26, 2007

It's how you become awesome. I saw over on Joystiq that analysts think soft PS3 sales could spell trouble for big publishers like EA. The thinking is this: because big publishers like EA have pinned 31% of their sales as coming from the new platform, their stock could take a dive as Sony's console continues to stagnate at retail. You can read the analysis here.

Not being an expert on the quirks of the stock market, I can't say if that will be the case. But looking at the big picture, I can't see the slow start of Sony's new platform as something that'll bring the whole game industry down. Microsoft is tracking right along its projections and Nintendo is blowing away its numbers. Meanwhile the PlayStation 2 sold more than any other system this holiday. So gamers aren't out there sitting on their thumbs just because the PS3 is expensive or doesn't have a lot of quality content yet -- there are plenty of other games to buy for other systems. Companies like Electronic Arts have a pretty diverse lineup across all the platforms, so weakness in one platform can be made up elsewhere.

Example: UbiSoft had great numbers this past season, specifically because Xbox 360 and Wii games were flying off the shelves. Speaking of which, the "Throw the cow" minigame in UbiSoft's Rayman: Raving Rabbids for the Wii is now a party game staple at my house. Usually after a lot of drinking. But I digress.

What Will Happen with the PS3?

Is the picture really that bleak for Sony? Among most of the gamers I speak with, the PS3 is too expensive and it doesn't have enough quality games to make it worth buying. So what's going to change? Not the price: PS3 price drops aren't likely in the near future due to the hardcore hardware. That leaves us to look at the games.

Here, the picture is a little brighter: If you take a look at GameSpy's Most-Wanted Games of 2007 and IGN's Most-Anticipated Sony Games of 2007, there are still a handful of Sony exclusives that'll make the system shine. Heavenly Sword, Metal Gear Solid 4, Lair, and Warhawk top my list.

In other words, the developer support is too strong to allow the system to fall completely flat. The PlayStation 3 is going to be a major player in the coming years, even if the system won't dominate the market like its older brother did. The only question remaining is if Sony can find a way to make the price less of a gut-punch before Microsoft and Nintendo get too far ahead.


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Posted by at 10:13 AM PST
Edited on: January 26, 2007 10:19 AM PST

A Second to Talk About Second Life

January 25, 2007

It's how you become awesome. Throughout the last year, the virtual world Second Life has been all over the news -- the kind of media blitz that, to me at least, makes it look like the company is trying to get acquired. Howabout that huge spread in Wired? To date I haven't really blogged about Second Life all that much because a lot of the hype was empty. While over two million users have signed up to check it out, only around 25,000 log in every day, and Second Life creator Linden Labs estimates only around 10% of the users are regulars. That's a substantial community, but it's hardly the next big virtual frontier that we've been promised since we read Neuromancer and Snow Crash. Personally, I think Second Life is a little too awkward to use to crack the mainstream, and if you ever log on, it's too hard for a new player to find the good content. Download the Client from FilePlanet and see if you agree.

All that said, I really support what the guys at Linden Labs are doing. Second Life is a trailblazer! It's tackling issues here in 2007 that virtual worlds will be facing for the rest of the century. It's built a community from scratch, allowed its members to retain the rights to the content they create, and it's even developed its own economy. My hope is that Second Life spawns a number of imitators, each better than the last, until one day something 'clicks' and a single virtual world explodes onto the scene and achieves a critical mass of mainstream users.

So I felt I had to step in and say something about the latest not-so-flattering Second Life story circulating. Silicon Valley gossip site Valleywag posted a story comparing Second Life to a Pyramid Scheme, based on the experiences of economist Randolph Harrison, which triggered off a debate on Slashdot. It gets a little technical but Harrison's work is a fantastic read -- here's a number-crunching egghead really testing, tweaking, and pulling at the core of the Second Life economy. I have to take issue with his conclusions, however.

Making Money in a Virtual Economy

Harrison asserts that vast numbers of users can be 'duped' into spending cash into the game with the expectations of returns. (A quick Google brings up articles like this one, posted just this week in a mainstream news outlet). However, the cash isn't very liquid: Harrison claims it's hard to pull money out of the system in large amounts. He then concludes that a small number of major players in the world, who control the majority of the in-game currency, are the only ones who can see any returns -- that they all but control the value of the currency. He goes on to compare Second Life to a Pyramid scheme or Ponzi scheme, where only the people at the top see any real returns.

It's a fun read, but a little divorced from the reality of Second Life. Despite the media hype, this virtual world is still a relatively small community. The exchange rate between the Linden (the in-game currency) and the Dollar is pretty flexible -- anyone dumping a lot of cash into the system or pulling a lot out will destabilize it. Take Anshe Chung, the virtual real-estate tycoon who was featured on the cover of Businessweek. At the current exchange rate, she has enough virtual cash to be a millionaire if she sold it all for real-world Dollars. But she can't -- if she started dumping her holdings that fast, the value of the Linden would plummet. My point is that the exchange rate is real, but it's based on the supply and demand of a relatively small system. That system breaks down if you, say, throw tons of money into Second Life hoping to make huge returns. (If that's why you signed up, it sounds like you joined Second Life for all the wrong reasons.)

But the reality is that Second Life can support small businesses. A close friend of my brother's is an artist who runs a real-life tee-shirt printing business. She started making shirts in-game and discovered a couple of things: 1. Her artistic talent translated into the virtual world with just a little effort 2. Not many people in-game have the skills to create a shirt that looks good when wrapped around a model and 3. running a virtual shirt business is hella-easier than a real-world one. In the real-world she'd have to set up a screen press for limited shirt runs, guessing the colors that would sell well. If she was wrong, she was stuck with excess inventory. But in Second Life, she can custom-create shirts on demand in whatever color the player wants, and sell it for a premium. Cost of goods? Well, virtually zero -- it's all digital. It's a great business.

To wrap it all up: Second Life may not be the paradigm-shifting ubiquitous virtual world we all want. But it sure as hell isn't a pyramid scheme. What it is is one of the most interesting things going on on the 'net right now, a massive experiment giving gamers a taste of what's to come. Download the Client from FilePlanet if you want to check it out. Be patient -- it's hard to settle into the world when you start.

What do YOU think? Mail me! Digg This!


Today's Geek Stuff:
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Posted by at 10:21 AM PST
Edited on: January 25, 2007 10:39 AM PST

We All Want to Want Stuff

January 24, 2007

It's how you become awesome. All this week GameSpy.com has been counting down The Most-Wanted Games of 2007. The crew has really taken it over the top this year -- don't miss the crimes each game is charged with on the sidebar, such as Super Smash Bros. Brawl being accused of assault with a deadly mascot.

The feature will be rolling out all week, with new categories each day:

• Action/Adventure (Coming Later Today)
• Roleplaying (Coming Thursday)
• Shooters (Coming Friday)

...as well as each editor's personal top 5. But the best way to enjoy the feature is to just Start at the beginning and page through.

Choosing games for these lists each year is a tricky art. It's not like picking the Game of the Year, where the games are actually out and you can try to compare them objectively. Here, it's more spongy. You've got to go with your gut, evaluating games based on what little you've seen so far. Sometimes it's hard to call (check what we wrote about Halo 3 in 2006) -- but that's part of the fun. It's actually a little easier in 2007. Last year, the PS3 and Wii loomed large on the horizon, with little visibility about what the games (much less the systems themselves!) would be like. This year ... the battle is on.

What are YOU most looking forward to? Hit the GameSpy forums where a debate is raging!       -Fargo

Today's Geek Stuff:
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Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 10:14 AM PST
Edited on: January 24, 2007 10:41 AM PST

Burning Crusade Breaks Records

January 23, 2007

It's how you become awesome. The news is out: World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade sold 2.4 million copies worldwide in the first 24 hours alone. [UPDATE: Earlier I'd mis-reported that the sales figures were for North America only]. That's a sales record that shatters anything previous. To give you some context, the original World of Warcraft game had previously held the 24-hour sales record... by moving 240,000 copies. These days, a PC game that sells a million units is considered a successful product -- so the response to Burning Crusade so far is what we in the industry would describe as crotch-kickingly phenomenal.

I have a number of observations:

• Once your MMO has eight million subscribers worldwide, customer churn is your biggest concern (in some ways even more important than finding new customers.) Big expansions are a way to keep the game relevant, new, and exciting to people so they don't move on to something else.

• If you had asked me before, I would've said waiting more than two years for the first expansion was a bad idea (EverQuest II released three expansions in the same time-frame, although to be fair their market position demanded that they be more aggressive). But the overwhelming uptake of the expansion shows that the audience is still around and still hungry. Blizzard's famous patience and perfectionism prevailed.

• PC games have historically never blown through retail like this. The difference is that this is an online game, with a massive online community. It wasn't enough just to get the expansion: you wanted to get into the new content first. Every hour counted!

The full GameSpy.com review is coming soon, but GameSpy's out-of-the box impressions are all positive. IGN's Impressions were a little more reserved. As for me? Sleepless nights abound as I lay waste to the new content. It's clear to me that the games industry will be talking about World of Warcraft for many, many years to come.


Today's Geek Stuff:
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Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 10:31 AM PST
Edited on: January 24, 2007 11:59 AM PST

"Enough with the Dwarves Already!"

January 22, 2007

It's how you become awesome. Reader Rhys Yorke dropped me a note about Friday's piece regarding the MMO options out there. Rhys has a Collector's Edition Burning Crusade sitting, unopened, on his desk ("Every time I consider opening it and installing the disks, I remind myself how many hours I lost playing..." he admits). He also writes a bit about how he was underwhelmed by Vanguard: "I believe Vanguard: SOH has an excellent concept, but I found it lacking in execution." He cites too many races/classes causing a game balance nightmare and a bland art direction that taxes his PC for little benefit. So, why is this die-hard MMO player so blah about the biggest games on the market? He answers:

"With WoW being what it is, why are fantasy MMORPGs flooding the market? Vanguard, Warhammer, Lord of the Rings, DDO, Lineage 2, etc... I'm getting a little weary of elves and wizards as I am sure are many people." -Rhys

So why does fantasy dominate the market? There is an answer to that question, and most people would be surprised to discover that it's not either 1. Lack of creativity among game developers or 2. Risk-adverse publishers afraid to publish non-fantasy material. The real answer lies at the very core of massively multiplayer online game development -- it starts with the game design, the decisions that are made on paper before a single line of code is written.

The Goals of an MMO Game Design

Currently, most massively-multiplayer games work under a similar business model: expensive to produce and very expensive to maintain, these games are meant to pay for themselves by retaining monthly subscribers long after the game ships. An ordinary game can afford to have a gamer buy it, play it for two weeks, and then put it down -- the financial model for an MMO demands that gamers keep playing it, with most requiring several months of subscription fees per user before they can break even on development costs. That means:

1. The game has to be big. If it can be explored overnight, players will churn too quickly.

2. It has to have variety. A game without a series of distinct locations or evolving gameplay to continually engage people won't keep them opening their wallets a month or more after they bring home the box.

3. It has to be relatable. I believe there's a market for 'niche' MMO games, but they have to be developed by very small, very smart game studios. For anyone trying to build a triple-A title that's going to hold its own on store shelves, a big audience is a requirement, and that means the theme of the game can't be obscure and hard to figure out.

4. It has to be repeatable. In order for a game to be big, it has to be populated with activities that people can enjoy again and again -- such as combat. (The tough part is doing this but still upholding guideline 2 -- variety! Player-vs-player combat helps here.)

5. It has to facilitate group play. The social nature of these games is a major hook to keep people subscribed. Naturally, if people aren't grouping together or don't have reasons to group up, the game will quickly pale.

6. It has to convey a sense of progress. One reason people stay subscribed to an MMO is because they feel they're constantly moving forward and evolving within the game world.

Of course this is a short list, since there are plenty of other concerns that occupy designers, but it illustrates why MMOs always veer toward familiar themes. You can see a lot of great game ideas don't hold up under this scrutiny. An online wild west game sounds awesome on the surface: Prospecting! Gunfights! Horses! Stunts! But it just doesn't offer enough variety over the long haul -- it's locked to a specific environment, with a limited set of enemies, unless you throw a fantasy twist to it. Science-fiction games have to wrestle with guideline number 3, relatability, since you have to explain all the technology to new players. I'm curious to see how Pirates of the Burning Sea solves these challenges: if you're fighting pirates, exploring jungle islands, and sailing ships in level 1, what are you doing at level 20? 40? Six months later? One year later?

On the other hand, the fantasy theme provides ready-made solutions to all these problems. People intrinsically understand the basic rules (chain mail is better than leather armor, wizards can cast magic, etc.) Fantasy worlds can be spectacular and full of variety. Fantasy literature is all about groups of adventurers going on a voyage together, so it's a perfect theme for multiplayer, with built-in class definitions to offer variety. Most importantly, there's a ready-made progression from a low-level grunt to a thunderous badass on a mount with glowing armor and weapons.

Of course I'm not the first to make these observations. One of my favorite presentations at an industry event in the last couple of years comes from Damion Schubert, who gave a speech entitled Moving Beyond Men in Tights at the Austin Game Developer's Conference. Although the speech isn't available online, summaries are available here at GamaSutra, as well as on Raph Koster's Blog. A longtime veteran of the MMO scene, Schubert delves into detail about why you see the same sort of combat systems over and over in RPGs and more.

Fortunately, there are games that buck the trend. Developers can address a lot of these issues with very cleverly-designed games that focus on the user community as an ongoing hook -- EVE Online is a great example (you can check out a free EVE trial at Fileplanet.com). In fact, to get back to reader Rhys and his letter that kicked this whole thing off, he's been playing a lot of the space epic himself: "I decided to give EVE a try once again - fantastic! Though it's not a hot brand new title, the developers have made strides in improving its interface, gameplay, everything. It's quite impressive and it's quite easy to see that they put care into their player community. It's a refreshing change."

As always, email me your thoughts. Digg This!


Today's Geek Stuff:
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Hardware Links Courtesy of Voodoo Extreme:

Posted by at 11:21 AM PST
Edited on: January 22, 2007 11:27 AM PST

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