A new week is upon us, as is a new issue of Currents. Things have gone from busy to chaotic recently. Trying to balance new content for the site, finalizing rewrites of an upcoming novel (you'll hear more next issue), and preparing for PAX East have led to more than a few sleepless nights. However, you can expect a ton of slick interviews, hands-on details of new and exciting games, and a plethora of event media in the very near future.
There are plenty of interesting topics in this issue, but we'll be starting with gender representation in video games (in case you weren't aware of the trope, the title of this issue is actually an allusion to how women can be killed, injured, or depowered as a plot device in certain media). A few weeks back, I wrote an editorial about female representation and its role in RPGs, but more recently there has been an abundance of media regarding big publishers and their hardened disinterest in female protagonists. We'll get into the nitty-gritty of that news shortly, but for now please enjoy the controversial Anita Sarkeesian's first video in her multipart series Tropes vs Women in Video Games:
Enough damsels in distress. Industry coverage awaits!
Female representation in video games seems to be a more important issue these days. Rightfully so, as the "women don't play video games" mentality seems to have had some adverse affects on the industry. A few months back, after Bioshock Infinite's ho-hum box art went public, Irrational Games' perpetually blunt Ken Levine publicly discussed Elizabeth's bumping to the back cover. It was his assertion that the female main had to be relegated to the back cover of the game's case, lest the presence of a woman turn young men away from purchase. Not long after, Naughty Dog recalled a situation when it had to fight for the main character of Ellie to remain on the cover of The Last of Us. Now, the developers of Remember Me, a platforming action game whose female protagonist has the uncanny ability to manipulate the memories of her targets, have gone public with how negatively industry stakeholders reacted to the concept of a female main character.
In an interview with Penny Arcade, Dontnod Entertainment's creative director Jean-Max Morris detailed how hard they had to fight to get the main character they wanted. "We had some [publishers] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that." He then discusses the odd industry mentality that men canít control female characters or experience those characters in heterosexual relationships, lest it make the players — whom they understand to only be male — sexually awkward. To Morris, this tunnel-vision thought process is what is inhibiting the medium from maturing and allowing for a more immersive experience. I would have to agree.
Excellent games like Beyond Good and Evil and Mirror's Edge did manage to star female protagonists, but unfortunately both games didn't sell tremendously well. According to Geoffrey Zatkin of EEDAR, a leading provider of video game research, that is probably because their publishers didn't really put the promotional effort in. "Games with a female only protagonist, got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually," said Zatkin. He argues that this is the result of a "general feeling" from industry marketing that it's hard to sell mass-market games that feature a female protagonist. No hard fact.
This year's Tomb Raider seems to be the exception. The series reboot was a commercially successful game that featured a realistic, flawed protagonist who happened to be female. This revamped Lara Croft is a strong step in the right direction and was heavily promoted by its publisher Square Enix, but many have rightfully argued that it was only able to get away with a female protagonist today due to Tomb Raider's legacy. A legacy that originally got its start with a well-endowed sex object for teenage boys to drool over.
If you were to look around yourself, you would likely notice a diverse world. There are people of different races, sexes, ages, orientations, creeds, and physical/mental capabilities, but so little of that diversity is currently represented in our media. It seems like most games available today are being marketed steadfastly to white men between the ages of 15 to 24 years old, and anything that deviates from that norm is typically left in the cold by its publisher. If we really want fair representation it looks like it is something we'll have to fight for. That fight is worth it though. Not just because it's the right thing to do from a gender equality perspective, but also because more dynamic and realistic characters would likely make a better overall gaming experience.
The most interesting thing about executive culture today is how the internal politics play out to the public. The official statement from Electronic Arts indicates that John Riccitiello, originally appointed to CEO in 2007, will be stepping down, effective March 30, to allow for "leadership transition." As a result, the company is placing former EA CEO and current Chairman of the Board Larry Probst to serve as executive chairman, effective immediately. While he ensures the company continues to run, an executive search firm will be headhunting for the vacant CEO position (prep your resumes, if you're interested).
That is the official statement though. It's well known that in executive culture "stepping down" is code for "ceremoniously fired." Riccitiello, whose resignation letter was filed with the SEC, owns up to his parts in the events that led up to this outcome. "The progress EA has made on transitioning to digital games and services is something I'm extremely proud of. However, it currently looks like we will come in at the low end of, or slightly below, the financial guidance we issued in January, and we have fallen short of the internal operating plan we set one year ago. EA's shareholders and employees expect better and I am accountable for the miss," he noted in his letter. Which, while apt, is a very nice way of saying, "We know financial outlook isnít good, and I get to bite the bullet for it."
Cowan and Company analyst Doug Creutz wasn't quite as kind about the CEO's departure. "Riccitiello's first and biggest mistake was underestimating how deeply the rot had set in at EA when he assumed leadership; we do not believe his successor will face a similar problem," Doug Creutz wrote in a note to investors. "Riccitiello's reign has often been a difficult one for the company; shareholders have seen EA's stock lose more than half its value since he became CEO in 2007. The company has missed earnings guidance on a semi-regular basis and ceded market leadership to Activision Blizzard. We think the first half of Riccitiello's term was marked by flawed strategy while the latter half was impacted by spotty execution. That first year of Riccitiello's years at EA included expensive acquisitions, too many games in production and time wasted chasing the Nintendo Wii, followed by a failed reboot of the Medal of Honor franchise and most recently a shambolic launch of SimCity." Electronic Arts now presents an interesting investment case, according to the analyst, focused on the ongoing transition to a digital games business, the growth of mobile and the boost to core gaming with new consoles.
Naturally, EA stock took a jump after Riccitiello's resignation announcement. Electronic Arts' stock is up over 2.6 percent in after-hours trading following the news and is now trading at about $17 a share. This may be temporary good news for the company, in the wake of a potentially disastrous financial quarter, but it's even better news for an industry that doesn't have a lot of love for the mega publisher. EA won the Consumerist's "Worst Company in America" title last year and is up for nomination this year has well. There has never been a repeat winner for the Golden Poo trophy (yes, it looks how it sounds), but EA could easily break that tradition with both the resignation of Riccitiello and blunders of Metal of Honor: Warfighter and SimCity still fresh in mind. In the same vein, Kotaku recently posted a hilarious article chronicling the best John Riccitiello jokes twitter has to offer.
However, not everyone is happy about this development or the media's reaction to it. Former Xbox head and current Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore is not amused and not afraid to call people out over it. "Kotaku reveling in what, due to their self-smugness, they don't realize is a sad day for our industry, which is the platform on which they actually make money. John not only helped propel our company and interactive entertainment into new experiences, thus enticing millions of new people to become 'gamers', his work leading the ESA in recent years has helped ensure that we don't experience the fate of the music industry," Moore said of his former boss. "Sad loss for all of us who had the pleasure of working with him as we emerged from The Burning Platform."
It is definitely a time of change for both the industry and the company, but I would hope that they see this as an opportunity to get their act together. Regardless of which former industry leaders chime in to defend Electronic Arts, companies donít get nominated twice for the "Worst Company in America" award if they're doing all the right things. EA needs to stop approaching industry like it's a marketing-by-the-numbers game; if your releases are of high quality, they will sell. Otherwise, more financially unfortunate quarters await on the horizon.
SimCity has had a rocky opening. The North American launch earlier this month was crippled by a number of technical issues, with Electronic Arts' server architecture resulting in bugs and lengthy wait times for players to get into servers. Naturally, this has led to EA committing to the addition of more servers and a full time operations team working 24/7 to resolve issues, but the damage has already been done. Recently, users and professional critics alike slammed the online-only game on Metacritic with the professional score now standing at a low 64 out of 100 and the user score, based on over 3000 reviews, wallowing in a sad 1.7 out of 10, SimCity is looking less and less attractive to potential virtual homeowners.
According to Maxis General Manager Lucy Bradshaw, "SimCity is an online game and critics and consumers have every right to expect a smooth experience from beginning to end," in a internal memo posted by Polygon. "I and the Maxis team take full responsibility to deliver on our promise." Bradshaw also acknowledged that reviewers have been docking the game as a result of the server issues, and that Maxis is working to "manage this as closely as possible." Polygon's own review of SimCity dropped from a 9.5 out of 10 to an 8, and sits at a 4 as of this writing. Shifting review scores is a bit unprecedented in this industry, but itís a standard I stand by in the case of the online-only SimCity.
In spite of the huge audience disappointment coupled with the game's rocky release, Electronic Arts has announced that SimCity has sold more than 1.1 million units within its two week launch window — citing 54 percent digital sales with 44 percent of all sales coming through EA's Origin online platform. "SimCity had a great weekend with sales strong across both North America and Europe, adding to overwhelming demand at launch that has us tracking well beyond expectations for the game," said EA COO Peter Moore. "SimCity is one of the storied brands in gaming, and Maxis delivered a game re-envisioned and engineered for the online age." An interesting statement, considering that EA Origin has asked affiliates of its LinkShare to "stop actively promoting" SimCity on their websites — presumably to give Maxis a bit more room to get its act together.
The games still isn't where it needs to be, but EA has offered one free Origin game in a marketing mea culpa to the connectivity issues. Interested users must purchase and register their copy of SimCity prior to March 25 and claim their free game by March 30. Offered games include standard editions of Battlefield 3, Dead Space 3, Mass Effect 3, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Bejeweled 3, Plants vs. Zombies, and the deluxe edition of SimCity 4. I'd argue that it is does little to aid the ailing reputation of Electronic Arts, Maxis, or SimCity in the wake of a terribly planned release, but if you're interested in checking out this offer you can view it here.
Samsung recently unveiled the very sexy Galaxy S4 smartphone at a press event in New York. With an eight-core processor (a little excessive, eh?), 5-inch Super AMOLED screen, and the lightest polycarbonate body in the world, this Android phone is looking primed for your pocket. Unfortunately, it also looks primed for a lawsuit.
Along with the phone's release, Samsung has a number of accessories lined up. One of these accessories bears an uncanny resemblance to that of an Xbox 360 controller. The eggshell white piece of hardware features dual grey analog sticks, a suspiciously familiar d-pad, four primary face buttons with a yellow-red-blue-green/YBXA configuration, and shoulder buttons. It pairs with a the phone via Bluetooth, but also includes an upper cradle in which the phone can sit — as though it were a dedicated handheld.
Accusations of plagiarism on Samsung's part are nothing new to the tech world, but just look at this device. This accessory isn't inspired by the Xbox 360 controller. It is the Xbox 360 controller. Expect things to get litigious really quickly.
Phantasy Star is celebrating twenty-five years, and while the fan-fare isn't as cacophonous as Final Fantasy's 25th Anniversary, SEGA is excited to be celebrating the accomplishment. On March 30th, the publisher will be holding a very special one night symphonic tribute to the Phantasy Star Series, promising special guests and tracks from nearly every Phantasy Star title released.
Sympathy will feature famous voice actress Atsuko Enomoto and Yuki Naka, who will be hosting the celebration. The Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra will be providing music, as conducted by Masamichi Amano, and Shenmue composer Takenobu Mitsuyoshi will be the vocalist for the Go Infinity piece.
SEGA will also have a number of exclusive music item codes for Phantasy Star Online 2. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that I will be unable to attend the event. Still, itís nice to see Phantasy Star getting some much deserved acknowledgement.
Pixar Vets Make Games
A group of Pixar veterans has officially established its own video game studio, Steel Wool Games. This new studio has signed a deal with UK-based publisher Ripstone for its first game, Flyhunter, which is expected to be released this summer. The studio co-founders remain employed by Pixar Animation, which has no involvement in their indie game development, but boast impressive artistic klout. Keep an eye for what's to come.
Is Disney Executing Order 66 on LucasArts?
Star Wars: The Clone Wars was recently cancelled, much to the dismay of many fanboys. Looking around at other Star Wars properties now owned by the big mouse in the sky, Star Wars 1313 stands out. Disney has supposedly been quiet with LucasArts employees over that game's future and has been rumored to have frozen the studioís hiring. Considering how Disney is known to farm out the development of IPs to external studios and the fact that Junction Point Studios was just shuttered, will LucasArts be around much longer?