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09/30/2007 - 10/06/2007

Bungie Parts with Microsoft. Plus: A Message About Yours Truly

October 05, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. We'd covered the rumors earlier this week, but the news is now official: Bungie and Microsoft are parting ways. As stated in The Official Bungie Press Release, the brilliantly successful Halo developer (Halo 3 Sales have already surpassed $300 Million) will move forward as a privately-held independent company. Microsoft will continue to have a minority stake in the company. From the release:

"This exciting evolution of our relationship with Microsoft will enable us to expand both creatively and organizationally in our mission to create world-class games," said Harold Ryan, studio head for Bungie. "We will continue to develop with our primary focus on Microsoft's platforms; we greatly value our mutually prosperous relationship with our publisher, Microsoft Game Studios, and we look forward to continuing that affiliation through 'Halo' and beyond."
The move is a real shocker; typically you hear about promising studios being bought by big developers or media companies. Then, often a few years later, you hear about the studio closing or being split up. One thing you never hear? Studios once acquired going back to being independent! Until now. It's a remarkable move.

Apple fans still refer to June 19, 2000 -- the day Microsoft acquired Bungie -- as "Black Monday." Prior to that Halo was going to be a Macintosh game. But apparently the Bungie crew love developing for the Xbox, as they'll continue to use it as a primary platform. The press release also hints at some new IP to come, so we're expecting big things...

Fargo is Moving Back to GameSpy.com!

Speaking of big things, after nearly two years of being your host here at FilePlanet, starting next week I'll be moving back to sister-site GameSpy.com, which I helped to launch eight years ago. It's a homecoming that we're celebrating with a TeamFortress 2 LAN Party. If you'd like to continue getting daily updates from yours truly, Sign up for the GameSpy daily HTML Newsletter, and keep your eyes on GameSpy.com for more of my writing.

Meanwhile, Justin "Ferret" Ramos -- my right-hand-man for the last couple of years -- will be stepping up to grace the pages of the FileBlog. He'll keep you up to date on everything that belongs on your hard drive.

Posted by at 10:36 AM PDT
Edited on: October 05, 2007 12:26 PM PDT

Second Life's Impact and a Bigger Opportunity

October 04, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. The virtual world Second Life is a media darling. It's eaten up tons of column inches in major newspapers and magazines. But you know how these things go; as soon as something is built up, it's big news to tear it down. Earlier this week Boston research firm Yankee Group made some waves by announcing that Second Life's adoption rate has been plummeting since last year, and declaring that the 'hype outweighs its impact' on mainstream consumers. Lots of gaming media websites have picked up on the news.

But put away the funeral pyre -- let's take a look at the numbers in context. It's easier to have 30% monthly growth when you've got less than a million users; of course Second Life couldn't maintain that pace. This summer the service is still growing by 10-15% month-over-month, which isn't earth-shaking but it's still very healthy. And wouldn't you expect growth of an online service to slow during warm summer months when everyone is outside? It goes to show you: anybody can whip up a chart that'll show lines going down in order to shout doom and gloom.

Another statistic that's hard to parse out is the fact that Second Life users average 12 minutes of time in the game per month. Sure sounds low to me; but it depends on the ratio of active to inactive users. You don't need for every user to be active to have a dynamic, interesting online community.

Second Life
Second Life is intimidating and cluttered for new users.

So what's the deal with Second Life? Look, we all know it gets way more press than user activity in the game probably warrants -- I blogged about that ten months ago. That's not news. The truth is that Second Life is interesting to the media -- and to us! -- because it's exploring issues that will come up in future virtual worlds. It's a pioneer. It's an experiment.

But Yankee Group's Press Release, which has an agenda of its own, misses the point. "For virtual worlds and metaverses to achieve greater potential in the marketplace and grow beyond early adopters, the experience must be untethered to meet the needs of the Anywhere Consumer™." (Yes, they trademarked that term.) "Companies that provide remote access -- through mobile devices or other means -- to their web experience will have a greater impact than pc-centric companies."

In other words, if only Second Life were browsable on a mobile phone, it would be a massive cultural touchstone. That creative leap of logic makes no sense -- Perhaps someone should tell that to Habbo Hotel, a virtual world that has over 80 million accounts and no mobile phone tie-ins.

The real reason Second Life isn't bigger is because it's not easily accessible for your mainstream user. It's too hard to understand how to navigate and interact with the world. It's cluttered and scary. It's too hard to find the really good content. Second Life is immensely powerful as a virtual toolset: you can build or code a dizzying array of neat stuff if you have the skills. But it's just too complex to attract huge numbers of casual, impatient, non-computer-savvy, non-gamers. And as I said earlier this week... Simpler is Better!

The Yankee Group's report underscores one thing, though -- there's a huge opportunity still for someone to build a mainstream online virtual world, the kind of place that'll pack in tens of millions of active users. The opportunity is out there! And the things we learn from Second Life will get us there.

Posted by at 12:03 PM PDT
Edited on: October 04, 2007 12:10 PM PDT

A New Era in Gaming Unfolds

October 03, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. Call it the "Gesture" era, if you will. Veteran game marketer Bruce Everiss waxed about the impact of gesture controls in his blog, and he makes a good point: the way you'd interact with games was static for decades (variations of the joystick/joypad). It was only a couple of years ago that things started to open up.

Sony's Eye-Toy for the PS2 is remembered as a gimmick these days, but it sold like crazy for a season or two and remains most people's introduction to gesture-based controls. You simply stood in front of your TV and waved your arms around to make stuff happen. See an item on the screen? Reach up and touch it to interact with it. Want to shift your character's weight on a hoverboard? Lean back and forth. Intuitive and easy. "It is a pity that Sony did not realise what they had," Everiss explains, "otherwise the PlayStation Eye would have been built into the PS3."

On the other hand, Nintendo recognized gesture-based interfaces as a gold mine. Why? By changing the way you interact with games, you could open them up to a whole new audience. Shigeru Miyaomoto often talks about how intimidating modern game controllers are to non-gamers, which is why the Nintendo Wii opted for a controller that looks like a TV remote -- something most people are familiar with. It's got one big button under your thumb and you simply wave it around to play. It's much more toy-like. And it's already proving that it can get a lot of people playing games!

Where's the 'any' button?
In recent years game controllers incorporated a staggering amount of buttons, sticks, and triggers.
No wonder non-gamers were so intimidated!

Nintendo continues to experiment with alternative control schemes. I wouldn't call it gesture-based, but at the Nintendo press conference at E3 2007 the company introduced a controller that sat on the floor and tracked the player's shifting weight. I tried it out afterwards: You could flex your knees to make your character jump, or tilt your body to tilt a platform on the screen. It's at the heart of the upcoming game Wii Fit (See videos).

Thanks to the runaway success of the Wii (Nintendo's Stock is at an all-time high), we're going to see a LOT more experimentation with gesture-based controllers in the years to come. Today Next-Generation writes about In2Games, a company working on nifty gesture-based controllers for next-gen consoles. And it's worth Reading this article I wrote in 2005 about gesture-based controllers in development, based on a presentation at the DICE summit. The stuff you see in the movie Minority Report, where Tom Cruise manipulates computer displays floating in air before jumping on Oprah's couch, is totally within our grasp. (No pun intended).

It's going to be a great decade.

Posted by at 10:26 AM PDT
Edited on: October 03, 2007 10:32 AM PDT

Yaaaarrrrrrr! (And Other Deep Thoughts)

October 02, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. It's ironic that a group of people so historically despicable as pirates can be, a few hundred years later, some of the coolest guys around. Everybody loves pirates. Kids dress up as pirates for Halloween -- and by 'kids' I mean me, and by 'Halloween' I mean 'Most of the time.' While there have been a couple of attempts at a pirate-themed massively-multiplayer game, none are as ambitious as Pirates of the Burning Sea, which will be setting sail early next year.

Of course I bring this up because FilePlanet Subscribers can set sail as early as this week; a Pirates of the Burning Sea stress test is in the works for Thursday, October 4.

Sign Up for the Pirates of the Burning Sea Stress Test!

Pirates of the Burning Sea
En Garde, Fatty!

I've always said that building a pirate MMO would be a tough challenge, because you need to have a lot of variety in a game to keep people playing. I interviewed the Pirates guys on this very topic back in February of this year. Months later, now that the game is in place and getting that final coat of polish, you can see it all coming together.

A handful of features help Pirates stand out of the MMO crowd, with the theme being at the forefront: Sunny Caribbean isles and historically-inspired costumes give the game a feel all its own. Then you have the ship-to-ship combat, which is a major part of the game and gives you a much bigger sense of scale. Meanwhile, the actual character-fighting sequences have also been rethought; swordplay is important, and you'll want to watch how your opponents are moving and chose your moves accordingly. You can even practice dirty fighting techniques, like tossing sand in people's faces. Yar!

On a larger scale, players will ally themselves with the major world powers of the day and will fight amongst themselves for control of key islands and ports. This larger 'meta-game' looks to give Pirates of the Burning Sea a lot of longevity, not to mention some really engaging social dynamics. I'm looking forward to some real spectacle as groups of players collide across stormy seas, formations of lumbering 104-gun ships of the line opening fire on one another while nimbler frigates try to maneuver in for raking fire.

We just might get to see some large sea battles in this week's stress test. See if you can get aboard:
Join the Pirates of the Burning Sea Stress Test!

Posted by at 10:14 AM PDT

A Trio of PS3 'Killer Apps'?

October 01, 2007

My TeamFortress 2 Scout has a bat with your name on it. This past week has been all about Halo 3. GameDaily estimates that Microsoft's juggernaut sold 2.34 million units on its first day (including pre-orders), and Microsoft already announced that the game pulled in $170 million on its first day. Yes, Halo 3 brought in more money in 24 hours than the first day box office sales of Spider-Man 3 or the first 24 hours of sales for the final book in the Harry Potter series. Those numbers leave me reeling.

Sony is probably reeling, too; how can you compete with a cultural phenomenon? We got a glimpse of the counter-attack at the recent Tokyo Game Show, where the PlayStation 3 showcased the best it had to offer. And analysts are giving the company a chance to at least win over some big Japanese numbers. According to Wedbush Morgan analyst Michael Pachter, a frequent industry commentator, three games stood out to him as being big wins for Sony: LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Assassin's Creed.

You gotta love the look of LittleBigPlanet.

I can definitely understand the excitement around LittleBigPlanet (Read the GameSpy Preview or the IGN Preview). This is one of the 2008 games that I'm really looking forward to playing with. The gameplay is simple, fast, and fun... but more importantly, the game is built around making your own content. It's easy to build your own levels. As much fun as the game, in fact. It creates a kind of "You-Tube" roll-your-own sensibility that really revs my motor. But will it be enough to sell the system? I reserve judgment until I can play it for myself, but LittleBigPlanet doesn't strike me as something that will sell people on a $500 game system.

The next big gun Pachter singled out was Metal Gear Solid 4, the next in a franchise that historically has helped Sony move a lot of consoles. The Metal Gear name isn't as awe-inspiring as it once was, but the latest title brings a lot to the table -- and I'm not just talking about grey-haired mullets. First, there's the graphics. As expected, it's gorgeous, and really shows off why you should care about next-generation hardware. Then there's the controls, which are much-improved and drop you right into the action. Gameplay in general looks tight (See the GameSpy MGS4 Preview). But more importantly, there's the multiplayer! Check out GameSpy's hands-on with Metal Gear Online. It's a full-on multiplayer experience, and while we would've liked to have seen more game modes, it's still a riot. This PS3 exclusive can help the system get some serious traction, especially in Japan.

Lastly Pachter mentioned Assassin's Creed, which was an unusual choice, as it's not a PS3 exclusive. Will a non-exclusive game help boost up Sony's market share? It definitely doesn't help Sony woo people away from the Xbox 360, but still, it's a fantastic title that helps to set the bar for this generation. If you're talking about the Japanese audience -- who hasn't really embraced the Xbox 360 -- then Assassin's Creed might be the title that gets them to invest in the next-gen. Check out GameSpy's Preview or IGN's Preview from the Tokyo game show. This is definitely a game that will be living large in the coming months, with massive levels, dynamic gameplay, and tons of content to explore -- it really symbolizes next-gen gaming at its best.

The PS3 system is selling okay, contrary to rumors otherwise. But it isn't a breakout success like Nintendo's Wii, and it's got a ways to climb before it can match Microsoft's numbers for the Xbox 360. I'm excited about all three of the titles Pachter mentioned to investors, but none of them strike me as the kind of breakthrough games that'll change Sony's position in the market.

LittleBigPlanet, prove me wrong! Show me what you've got!


Posted by at 11:37 AM PDT
Edited on: October 01, 2007 11:56 AM PDT

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