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Monthly Archives: January 2007

Game On

I had high hopes for Game On as we caught the train down to London village early on Saturday morning. The travelling exhibition was coming to the end of its run at the Science Museum and I had finally managed to clear a weekend in order to nip down to the capital to see the show that claimed to delve behind the scenes of gaming culture and show it off to the masses.

The exhibition had toured around Britain for the last couple of years and boasted over a 120 games from the last thirty-plus years of gaming, as well as early versions of all three next-gen consoles throughout its time. Everything was playable and it was a veritable playground for boys and girls (although primarily the former) or all ages.

Unsurprisingly they started at the beginning. As you walked through the entrance you were met with a batch of arcade cabinets and a DEC PDP-1, a hulking piece of metal and circuitry that was the “platform” of choice the very first game, Space War!, way back in 1962.

As you snaked through the displays time slowly caught up as you first passed pong machines and tape driven machines, edged your way into the early 80’s via the grey slab NES and fell into the present with preproduction boards on Tomb Raider and a running demo of the PS3’s Motor Storm.

I wandered around aimlessly at first, trying to catch a handle on what was there and what I needed to play before being kicked out. Pretty much everything had a people circling around it but the queues were never too long and for the majority of the time I hung around the arcade machines waiting for a go on some true, old school classics: Centipede, Asteroids, Galaxian, et al. A lot of these games everyone has played but usually via some port onto a new system or using a horrendous ROM that was freely available; I took this as my chance to actually play these game they were intended and in their original form.

Pretty much every original, old game I played whilst there felt so much better than any update or rip-off version I have played of it and I put it solely down to the controls that each of those cabinets had. I never had the experience of an arcade when I was younger and so frantically moving the now over-sized joystick or spinning the ridiculously large tracker-ball cannot be compared to a keyboard or a joystick you get in modern conversions – each one gave the game in front of me a whole new dimension to the fun and the feel.

For me best in show came down to the vector graphics of the classic Asteroids and the tracker-ball spinning joy of Missile Command. Whilst I sucked at both I really enjoyed the sense of panic that Missile Command could produce in you as you saw projectiles rain down upon your poor cities and knowing that you could just not move that ball fast enough to save them. With Asteroids it was the vector graphics that got me, a style I love, especially the way they almost burn into the screen to produce such vivid colours. Asteroids shaded it, though.

I have to admit I hardly touched any games that were created from the mid-80s onwards as I either have dabbled in many or still have access to them now. I preferred the really historic ones, those you couldn’t hook up to the television.

What did disappoint me about the whole things was the lack of history and information on offer to those who did not have a grasp on video gaming history. One wall was adorned with a colourful timeline that documented the main points in my hobby’s history but there was no information on a per-game basis; young kids were playing Ms Pacman and Galaxian but I’m pretty sure that the majority of people had no idea how those titles fitted into the evolution of computer games, what inspired them and what came after them. To most it was just a room full of blinking, interactive pictures, which I felt was a great chance missed by the organisers.

And now for something completely different

I am going to make a shocking statement: the gaming industry is dominated by large franchises and annual updates. Each year in the run-up to Christmas you can pretty much guess what the new releases are even if you haven’t been keeping tabs on the surge of previews and reviews that flood the gaming websites from August onwards.

Need for Speed, Splinter Cell and his Tom Clancy stable mates, FIFA, Pro Evo, the Sims, Madden, Call of Duty, Medal of Honour, the latest Disney film, all of them roll out of their development houses year on year for the festive role call and tend to sell off the back of their name first and the quality second. People know exactly what they are getting with these products and are happy with that.

There can only be so much you can do in a year and I think a lot of people understand that a year isn’t that long in terms of game development. Sure EA can pump out a FIFA a year but it only tends to be every three-years that it gets an overhaul and the feel of the game changes, in between times you get tweaks, the odd new trick and updates squads. And for the fans it is the latter that is the most important: no matter what the sports game may be they want updates and they want to make sure they are not missing out.

Now imagine if these games, not just the sports games, came out every 18 months or two years. How would their situation change?

Significantly, I doubt they would be handed as much slack as they are in the reviews or by the buying public. On annual updates people expect minor upgrades and fixes, not a complete rewrite, but when you start to fall into the second year of development people expect a lot more. At this point simply throwing in a couple new tracks or stadium is not going to cut it.

The fact is with annual updates you keep your brand in the public eye and you tend to get away with doing less as long as people know that eventually you will give them a full sequel at some point.

Taking this in mind, Ubisoft handled both Rainbox Six and Ghost Recon on the original Xbox in a very similar and intelligent way when it came to their sequels and expansion. To try and cash in on the success of the original games both series created mission packs to keep fans going during the lull in between full games. These packs used the exact same engine as the main games, incorporated a few minor fixes, the upgraded Live functionality and more importantly cost far less than the price of a full game because of the comparative ease at which they were made.

The question is how do you like your sequels? Thick and fast but you know there is a revamp around the corner, ala Need for Speed, or do you love a series that steps off the shelves for a couple of years but comes back with something that attempts to live up to the expectation that has build in the meantime, step forward Halo.

I know which I prefer.

Now with added Beta!

And so the great Halo 3 Beta sign-up continues in all its various guises with the announcement that Beta keys will ship with copies of Crackdown, the super-powered GTA-a-like from the creator of the original GTA Dave Jones.

Now whilst I am quietly looking forward to this title, the prospect of tearing up a city by not only conventional means but using an over-powered cop who can leap tall buildings with a single bound appeals to me, I do know many people who are simply not impressed by what they have seen or are underwhelmed by the demos they have managed to get their hands on.

Extrapolating slightly, I think it is quite safe to say that this sentiment reaches out further than the gaming circles I move in and Crackdown is not going to be the nailed-on success that Gear of War was, something which you could have predicted for the latter months before its actual release. Gears was Microsoft’s big mature-rated game for the festive period and it hardly left the gaming public’s conscience in the run up to Christmas as Cliffy B and co kept ramming it down our throats. By comparison Dave Jones et al have had their moments in the spotlight but there nothing like the media coverage we saw for Epic’s show piece.

So, what do you do when you have a product that you think will under-perform in the market place? That’s right, slap a demo of your next highly anticipated release in with it.

Call me cynical but I believe this is exactly what has happened here; someone at the top of Microsoft thought of a great way to increase the sales of Crackdown and it was to bundle in with it the ability to get your hands on an early version of Halo 3. There were rumours that they may charge for the privilege of beta-testing and this is probably their way of doing so.

Of course they are not the first to play such tricks; back in the late 90s Konami released Zone of the Enders complete with a demo of their highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid 2. ZoE went on to shift well over a million copies and whilst it wasn’t a bad game it was definitely the demo that helped shift it in such large quantities.

Will Crackdown hit six-figures if the Master Chief comes as a pack-in? I doubt it, but then again I do believe this game can stand on its own merits and not just as the opening salvo of what is sure to be year of Halo 3.

There is, of course, a second way to get a Halo 3 Beta key but to get it means facing a three-hour session of online Halo 2 play where your patience will constantly be tested by whiny American twelve-year olds as they complain bitterly that someone took “their” sniper rifle whilst at the same time proclaiming your “n00b” status to anyone unfortunate enough to have their headsets turned on. Me, personally, I’m going to spend the £40 on Crackdown.