Welcome to a new issue of RPGamer's Currents. This week, we'll be discussing the dynamics of handheld video game system adoption and Nvidia's Shield, why people should be wary of both the crowdfunded Shadow of the Eternals and OUYA console, and how challenging sales forecasting in a AAA game industry appears to be. That's not to say that all the latest industry news is negative, though.
EA has opened a new DICE studio in LA, GREE is finally shrinking (this news is less positive for social gaming enthusiasts), Nintendo won a patent dispute with Motiva, Bioshock Infinite was a commercial success, and Namco Bandai has posted their best annual results in years. There's a lot of good happening in the video game landscape right now. It's just not as much fun for me to drone on about.
In non-gaming awesome news, a revised version of David Bowie's Space Oddity was recorded by Commander Chris Hadfield (a fellow Canadian) on board the International Space Station, making it the first music video filmed in space, and is currently going viral:
It was produced by Andrew Tidby, who hails from my hometown. Very cool!
Shield, the upcoming handheld console from Nvidia, will begin shipping to retailers in June (with pre-orders opening May 20, 2013). Shield is powered by the impressive Tegra 4 mobile processor and can purportedly play "console quality" games while still being on the go. The processor is capable of high res video over HDMI to external displays and includes advanced sound processing that Nvidia says rivals Beats by Dre laptops. According to the promotional material, the device is capable of five to ten hours of play time or twenty-four hours of HD video playback. The screen is five inches and features a 720p Retinal multi-touch display with high pixel density. This new handheld also runs a "pure" version of Android, which I'll assume is Jelly Bean, and includes both Gmail and the Google Play Store. In addition to supporting all Android-based games and available TegraZone titles, this handheld is capable of streaming games from a home Windows PC over Wi-Fi.
The retail price of this overpowered handheld is being set at an astonishing $349 (US). That's right — Shield will be a handheld device that sits at the same price-point as a Premium Wii U console, and $50 more than the PlayStation Vita 3G model. Both the Wii U and PlayStation Vita have struggled to find an audience at $300+, but Nvidia, amidst a period of financial prosperity for the company, feels confident in the upcoming handheld's chances of finding an audience. Of course, now the big question is whether it has what it takes to be disruptive in the marketplace. My opinion is that it doesn't.
The first question we need to ask before looking at Shield's chances of survival in the wild is, "what is this product's value proposition?" This overpowered clamshell is hitting the market after five years of research and development, and yet it doesn't attempt to revolutionise the way we game. Shield simply gives you a beefier Android device and makes your PC games slightly more portable. That said, it will only play your Windows (no Linux or Mac) games if your graphics card is strong enough to handle it and you're willing to stream the content locally. This, by extension, means that you're fresh out of luck if you have a sluggish internet connection or aren't playing the Shield in your own home. It makes little sense. If I can only use my home's Wi-Fi to stream my games, why wouldn't I just playing those games on my home PC? Are they assuming that I'll want to game from the toilet? A portable console should be portable, and the claim that this is device "can play computer games on the go" is fraudulent.
Beta features, Micro HDMI, and expensive price. Go team.
If I were to take this device on the go, I would only have access to TegraZone and Google Play Android titles. The TegraZone platform has just over 75 games, most of which are overpriced and lacking in quality. Google Play's Android games aren't exactly known for their deep and enriching game experiences either. So why even buy a Shield if you have an Android smartphone?
Nvidia has also failed to acknowledge it's hefty competition. In a world where Nintendo's extremely recognizable IPs have led its handheld systems to crush every new market entrant (NGage, Game.com, Gizmondo, Game Gear, WonderSwan, Neo Geo, Lynx, etc.) save Sony's PSP, what does Nvidia have at their disposal to sell systems? They certainly don't have a Mario, Link, Sonic, or Nathan Drake to hock these devices to younger audiences, and that's where portable systems producers make the big bucks. Adults may buy portables, but it's the eight to twenty-five year old crowd that buys handhelds in hordes. What parent during the Holiday season is going to buy a tablet/controller/PC hybrid for their nine year old over that of a Nintendo 3DS or PlayStation Vita? The Shield's competition is both too strong and well established for it to sell on powerful hardware features alone.
The entire mobile and portable gaming market is trending towards hardware that allows you to be social with others, share content, stream video, and try new apps. Nvidia's Shield, on the other hand, seems too focused on improving upon relics of the past. The handheld's streaming features are impractical and its actual mobile gaming content is lacking in both quantity and quality. I can't see it being marketable to younger demographics or their parents, there is an obvious lack of well known first-party (or even third-party) IPs, and I don't think Nvidia has actually taken a hard look at its handheld competition. At a price point that high, I think Nvidia has already shot themselves in the foot. Shield looks to be another Gizmondo.
Though not a commercial success upon initial release, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem has since become something of a cult classic. Writers and gamers continue to cite it as one of the greatest psychological horror video games ever released. It's won numerous awards, continues to rank on various "best of" lists, and tracking a decent copy of the game down today can be a troubling task. Suffice to say, this Lovecraftian horror title is highly regarded by gamers everywhere. Fans that have been hungry for a sequel.
Precursor Games, a new startup based out of Hamilton, Ontario, recently revealed what they called a "spiritual successor" to Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. Shadow of the Eternals will be a crowdfunded, episodic psychological horror title available only to Wii U and PC platforms. Unlike most crowdfunded projects, Shadow of the Eternals will have a AAA approach and isn't predicating its funding success on a concrete target. With 33 days left to go in its campaign, Shadow of the Eternals has raised $155,980 in private paypal donations and almost $55,000 on Kickstarter. This is far off from the project's goal is $1.5 million. On Kickstarter, if a project doesn't reach its initial goal, all money has to be returned. With Precursor's private crowdfunding, contributions can be seen more like donations.
So, if we posit that gamers are hungry for a sequel and could make one happen with their own cash, what could be stopping this crowdfunded project from knocking its financial goals out of the park? Several things, actually.
Precursor Games is a new studio which is comprised mostly of former Silicon Knights developers. Its CEO Paul Caporicci and infamous Chief Creative Officer Denis Dyack also hail from this studio. Why is this relevant? Well, Silicon Knights went from being the darling of the Canadian video game development scene to a national embarrassment in a fairly short amount of time. Not only did this studio initiate a frivolous lawsuit against Epic Games over Too Human's engine (which ultimately left the studio on the hook for $4.5 million in countersuit damages), but the studio also allegedly shifted resources away from critical and commercial flop X-Men: Destiny to an Eternal Darkness 2 pitch demo. The entire staff was quietly laid off last July and the office's assets were sold off to cover debt, without an announcement of official closure. All of that adds up to shady business practices, most of which have been attributed to Silicon Knights leader Denis Dyack.
I'm intrigued, but my wallet remains unopened.
Dyack is right up there with Peter Molyneux and Richard Garriott in terms of outspoken game designers that are more known for their approach to video game media than they are to the games themselves. Reports have come in about his behavior during the development of X-Men: Destiny, and his former staff were quick to cite him as the factor behind contract breaching resource shifting and funding leaching. It would appear that he was using Too Human and its intended trilogy, which has since fizzled, to hedge his bets on Silicon Knight's development future. This was a bet he lost, and his role on the X-Men: Destiny project has been described as both "aloof" and "uninvolved." Something tells me that his presence as Chief Creative Director isn't doing Precursor any favours. Caporicci has been quick to distance himself and his new studio from Silicon Knights, but It's not helping his case that the company's staff, equipment, and even art assets all come from the now defunct studio.
Another element working against this crowdfunding campaign is Precursor's choice of platform. At this point in time, Shadow of the Eternals is planned only for Wii U and PC releases. Where the company is operating on the Crytek Engine this can probably be changed in the future, however, I don't think the Wii U's low install base is helping their funding efforts. Some would also argue that the episodic content approach is another thing impacting funding targets, but it honestly makes a lot more sense that a digital release be episodic.
I love Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. I also own a Wii U and would love to play it more often. However, at this point in time I haven't contributed to crowdfunding for Shadow of the Eternals. Precursor is untested, bears a lot of ties to a studio that I have bad blood with, and the private crowdfunding approach they have taken doesn't sit well with me. I'd imagine that I'm not the only one in that camp.
Amidst negative early preview period product reviews, numerous controller and usability complaints, and being beaten by phones in benchmark tests, OUYA has announced that they've tapped into further funding and delayed the official retail launch.
The company recently announced that a new round of investment has been made to couple a new addition to its board of directors. Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers is heading up a $15 million investment in the (hopefully) disruptive console company, with the Mayfield Fund, Nvidia, Shasta Ventures, and Occam Partners also coming in. Bing Gordon, who spent twenty-six years at Electronic Arts and also serves on Zynga's board of directors, will be joining the team at OUYA.
The secured $15 million will be used in part to secure exclusive games and retailer promotion for the system, as well as prepare for international launches. According to CEO Julie Uhrman, the company has already shipped early backer units to over 110 different countries and currently maintains retail relationships in the US, Canada, and the UK. The have an interest in rolling the grapefruit-sized console out in other countries as well.
Since the somewhat negative reception to the backer consoles, the company has been busy working towards the full retail release. Uhrman says that the team has been busy refining the discovery process, adding curators to the store, and refining the system's UI. As for hardware, the retail version will have tighter trigger mechanics on the controller and wider faceplate openings to prevent buttons from getting stuck. Personally, I'm hoping that they address the sluggish and imprecise control sticks.
The retail release was previously set for June 4, but has been pushed back to June 25 in the US, Canada, and the UK. That adds a bit of breathing room to ensure a better distribution and tweak a few things, but I'm not sure it's enough time to work out all the kinks. Backer reception so far has been a collection of complaints such as: the controller is useless, it's too hard to mod or run programs on, the UI is bare bones and unintuitive, game selection is sparse, and shipped orders don't always come in the best of condition. I'm not going to say that the upstart console can't recover, but it's not looking great at the moment.
I know, I know — I ranted about this in the last issue of Currents, but the way in which the video game industry has transitioned into a AAA-oriented landscape is not a good thing. Last week, Capcom released financial results for the ended March 31, 2013. The experience has been revealing, to say the least.
Resident Evil 6 felt a lukewarm reception critically, so it makes sense that sales suffer a bit, but has apparently sold 4.9 million units. Not shipped. Sold. That's a lot of sales. In fact, it was enough to make the game the fourth best-seller in Capcom's history. Yet, somehow, it is now seen a failure and disappointment.
Capcom had originally projected the Resident Evil title to sell 7 million copies within one year of release. To provide a bit of perspective, the best-selling game in this survival horror franchise is Resident Evil 4 at 7.03 million copies. Those sales occurred over the course of six years, with staggered releases on three separate platforms. Expecting 7 million copies sold wasn't stupid because a Resident Evil title was incapable of that performance, so much as their sales forecasting was on too short a time-line and the critical reception was too cold.
So, why were their sights so high? Was it greed or something more insidious? I'd wager they had to. Resident Evil 6 has been cited as the largest undertaking Capcom had ever dealt with, and sales targets were set to match. I'd wager that this target was almost like a "break-even point" for the game to cover bloated development and marketing budgets, which can be related back to the Capcom attempting to appease everyone instead of just fans of survival horror. Not to beat on the same drum too often, but I'd rather they just make a solid AA title with a reasonable budget than another AAA blockbuster aimed at dudebros and COD gamers.
This is a new section of RPGamer's Currents where we take a hard look at some video game industry rumors and try to assess how plausible they are. Nothing in this section has been officially confirmed, but who knows which rumors will float to the surface as fact in the future.
Nintendo Adding Smartphone Apps to Wii U
"Sources" are saying that Nintendo is in the process of modifying its hardware to run smartphone apps. The stipulation being that because the game industry is becoming more mobile-oriented, the Wii U would have more appeal with mobile apps. Likelihood? Not great. Google Maps Street View didn't make a lot of sense on the Wii U due to the console's limited mobility, so I have a hard time believing that more smartphone-like apps will hit the stationary hardware. It should also be noted that Nintendo has much stricter guidelines on eShop content than Apple or Android.
Sonic Making a Grand Return
Our favourite blue hedgehog has been oddly missing since the release of Sonic Generations (no, I don't count Sonic Dash for iOS). However, Sega may be working on a new release in the Sonic series. The company has filed a trademark for "Sonic Lost World" in Europe for use with video games. This could spell a social game or another mobile title, but fans have their fingers crossed for a new main series entry. Likelihood? Who knows. Based on how much I legitimately enjoyed both the 2D and 3D sections of Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations, I want to say that the modern Sonic series is back on track and ready for a new treatment. It could very well be another side game though.
An End to Microsoft Points
The Verge is reporting that Microsoft will soon be killing off the MS points system in favour of a universal gift card that could be used across all Microsoft platforms and purchased using credit cards or in retail shops. The site has also presented images of what it says the cards will look like, with an Xbox controller predominantly featured on the front. Likelihood? High. MS points have always been an inefficient means to purchasing DLC, but this makes sense where Microsoft is currently unifying its platforms and competitors have already made the switch.