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CURRENTS
Issue #145
November 22, 2013
Hate Out of Ten
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. So, we finally have a new generation to occupy our time. I know this because the past three months have been consumed by media outlets talking non-stop about the PS4 and Xbox One. Has anyone else found this to be wholly exhausting? I'm very tired of reading about both of these next generation consoles and I'm certainly tired of writing about them. To me, it feels like content overload. Every headline I see now is like "The PS4 Won't Do This Random, Unnecessary Thing Launch" or "The Xbox One Probably Watches You In the Shower." It's all too much. The rampant speculation, shallow fanboy wars, and Adam Sessler's Twitter freak outs have fatigued me towards this next generation. I miss the simple days of video gaming, and that's what this week's video is all about:

Meet Satchell, like a bag. He has a show called Satchbag's Goods that's dedicated to talking about video game aesthetics, emotional resonance, and entertainment value. A Graphic Designer by day and video reviewer by night, his show is always beautifully shot and often features well-constructed and rounded arguments about why we experience video games the way we do. I highly recommend that you subscribe.

Any long-time reader of RPGamer knows that I'm not a huge fan of review scores. Don't misunderstand, I very much enjoy reading reviews, but I feel like assigning a number to simplify a game's quality is a bit haphazard. I use that term, rather than arbitrary or subjective, because I believe assigned scores to be a weird mix of personal whim and previously defined criterion of quality. The problem being that the use of any criteria doesn't really mesh perfectly with reviewer opinion.

If any criteria could be applied universally, review scores for very different games could then be compared without accounting for personal taste. To provide a general example of this concept, GameSpot once gave Shadow the Hedgehog an eight-out-of-ten. They recently reviewed Killzone: Shadow Fall and assigned a score of seven-out-of-ten. Both of these titles had the same review criterion applied to them. Now, if the review score criteria put in place by the website had standards that were always followed to the letter, we could assume that Shadow the Hedgehog is a better game than Killzone: Shadow Fall because it happens to have a higher score. I can't say for certain whether that is true or not, as I honestly haven't played either, but user Metacritic scores would infer otherwise.

The way anything will be reviewed is very much dependent on the reviewer. There are certain things that can be detailed objectively, such as a plot synopsis, in-game features, or types of multiplayer, but for the most part reviews are a platform for someone to detail their experience with whatever is being reviewed. To that end, they are intrinsically subjective. Whether a reviewer deems the music, art style, gameplay mechanics, or tone of a title to be of high quality will rest mostly on their own preferences. They have to be, as there are no universal standards for what is considered to be "good." Looking at art as an example, some people like hand-painted landscapes, others prefer abstract, and some hate both. And really, that's a good thing. All of us have brains that work differently, so it only makes sense that we tend to like different things. So, if you'll now humour me by temporarily accepting the premise that all reviews are subjective in nature, why exactly are we trying to fit them into an objective box with review scores?

Naturally, my opinion on review scores isn't a slight against RPGamer or any other major video game website that implements them. Again, I very much enjoy reading reviews and certainly find value in them. However, we need to establish why using review scores can be a disservice before digging into why we're actually talking about them today. People and publishers take these numbers way too seriously. More often than not, readers will either skim or skip the content of a review in order to see what the final score of a game is. Unfortunately, numbers are way too simplistic to effectively convey the many attributes of what was being reviewed. This is obviously a big problem when it comes to games, but it is less reasonable when number scores are assigned to next generation video game consoles a day after their launch.

In as much as I understand that mainstream audiences want solid impressions on a video game system before they choose to buy it (or in some cases to use as ammo in their fanboy wars), does it really make any sense that we apply a review score to a piece of hardware that is destined to change over time? I'd argue that it doesn't. It makes sense to assign a one-time judgement on a video game's perceived quality because that game has finished its development cycle by that point. Consoles however, don't typically stop developing at launch.

We have to remember that a piece of gaming hardware isn't just a device that plays video games. It is essentially an ecosystem. It grows and changes over time. Looking back over the previous generation, there were many examples of how the look, feel, and use of hardware didn't stop at launch. The Xbox 360's UI went through at least five major overhauls, and the console itself had three drastic redesigns. The PS3 also has seen three hardware redesigns, but its features also grew as new controllers, such as Move and the PS Vita, were added post-launch. Finally, the Wii's solid software offering today is likely the biggest change that console has seen since launch. All three were released with fanboys warring over their "objective worth" and websites assigning arbitrary judgements on which was the best based on technical specs alone. We are now at the launch of a new generation and those short-sighted assessments of the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii are wholly useless. In fact, shortly after each release those reviews would have been useless. As will these PS4 and Xbox One reviews in a few months from now.

Media outlets seek to provide impressions on the PS4 and Xbox One's UI, hardware, software, and accessory quality today for early adopters, but all of those things can change in an incredibly short time. The Wii U for example had a UI that I was infuriated by at launch, but even six months later it was much improved. To that point, these devices don't stop improving. They are fluid in how they progress, and as we adopt different ways of gaming they will grow with us in terms of capability. These console reviews, however, will never account for that change. None of these review sites will ever return to reassess the many ways in which the console has changed and adjust the previously administered score. And yet, there are people who take review scores very seriously.

There's no doubt in my mind that some people will never pick up a Wii U, PS4, or Xbox One based on the limited information provided to them by a short-sighted day-one review score. These people will go on believing that the PS4 is a seven-out-of-ten for the rest of this generation because the websites that once reviewed it haven't told them otherwise with a score since. To that, you could point the finger at the people who were foolish enough to only base their judgements on a number. You would be right in doing so too. However, the websites who conditioned them to respond that way also bear a part of the blame.

No video game console should ever have a number score assigned to it. Not at launch. Not ever. Part of this goes back to my complaints of number scores begin tied to subjective experiences, but mostly I'm upset that these one-time scores of day-one experiences will have a legitimate impact on how well the console is received. These reviews may be informative, but the number attached to them is a disservice to the video game industry.

Sources: GameSpot, Metacritic

I'm going to be blunt and state that I'm not really of fan of how Nintendo has operated within the online space. The friend code system is less than optimal, the eShop prices of full retail games rarely go down, and the decision to sync purchases to a device rather than a single account was moronic to say the least. In the past, many defended Nintendo by stating that they were simply new to the online space and these poor decisions were simply growing pains. That excuse doesn't fly anymore.

It has been eleven years since the Gamecube's Modem Adapter was released, and I'm no longer in a charitable mood when it comes to overlooking Nintendo's poor online planning. Keep in mind that video game consoles today aren't just vehicles to play games. There has to be something of value outside if its basic competencies to keep people around. I think Nintendo almost understood that notion with the Wii, based on the availability of WiiWare and Virtual Console, but we needed more. To that end, Wii U and Nintendo 3DS owners will be pleased to learn that an upcoming firmware updates will finally enable shared eShop balances and Nintendo Network IDs, a Nintendo 3DS YouTube app, and a handheld version of the Miiverse. These updates will certainly improve the online ecosystems, but they're just not enough.

A lot of people value being able to play with friends at a distance, and Nintendo has been dropping the ball on that front for years now. Maybe, that's because its NNID and friend code systems are so rudimentary. Had they approached this generation with more sense, they would have implemented unified gamer profiles from the get-go with distinct, non-numeric identifiers like Sony and Microsoft have done. The great thing about this concept is that added new friends and interacting with those friends is easy. Currently, however, getting new friends and maintaining those relationships is not intuitive on either of Nintendo's platforms. We need better friend lists, more ways to connect, and adding friends has to become less onerous. This is a competitive disadvantage which has contributed to lackluster online play, and I'd argue that it's one of the major reasons why Wii U owners don't get the same multiplayer experiences as their PS3 and Xbox 360 counterparts.

The Miiverse is a wonderfully social community and a huge advantage to the Wii U, however, it is also far from perfect. You can "Yeah!" pictures and comment on recent posts, but the experience isn't very deep because interaction is limited to whatever is recent. It's like a forum without the historical context necessary for real discussion and relationship building. The community is already there, but lacks cohesion as it operates on a feed instead of hosting different silos of discussion. If the Miiverse had chat rooms, personal walls for each visitor, or user-made areas of discussion, the experience wouldn't be so flighty and impersonal. For Nintendo's sake, I also hope they get over their fear of smartphones as the Miiverse experience should also be brought to iOS and Android, as Microsoft and Sony have done with their online networks.

I'd also like to see some sort of reward or recognition system put in place. Regardless of where you stand on Trophies and Achievements, it's hard to deny that a lot of gamers like to feel as though they've perfected a game. To that end, adding some sort of recognition system could push gamers to get the most out of the games they play. If Nintendo could tie these into the Miiverse community, it would only strengthen the gamer's willingness to be social about how they play games.

Finally, the Virtual Console and eShop both need more love. Keep the prices high if you want, but more content needs to be there. It makes no sense that all of the classics that are currently available on the Wii aren't already on the Wii U. The transferring process cannot possibly be that time intensive, and the Wii U is in dire need of playable software. Browsing also needs to be streamlined, as the front page of the eShop is not nearly comprehensive enough to find everything you're looking for.

I feel like Nintendo is moving in the right direction, but not fast enough. There's a lot of social gaming infrastructure that could or should be implemented to better develop the attachment gamers feel for their Nintendo consoles. The company can't leverage Mario's charm forever, and sooner Nintendo offers more the better I believe their systems will sell.

Source: Nintendo

Before the PS4 had launched, Sony was forced to respond to reports of defective press and contest-winner units. At the time, they claimed that these "isolated incidents" were affecting roughly 0.04 percent of systems shipped. Later, they revised that figure to less than 1 percent and attributed the issues to shipping damage. As of yesterday, there were also several reports of Xbox One consoles refusing to turn on, eject disks, and connect to the internet. Microsoft has yet to comment on the frequency of defect or the assumed reason. In both these cases, gamers have been jumping to conclusions and assuming the worst about these next generation consoles. That needs to stop.

Maybe this can be attributed to the drama surrounding the infamous "red ring of death" experienced by the initial design of the Xbox 360, or that gamers just spent half a month's rent on something that could break. Regardless, an unfortunate side-effect implementing advanced technology that isn't "tried-and-true" is often the failure of that technology. Some companies like Apple and Nintendo skirt these issues by using older technologies, making their devices less powerful by extension. Others, like Samsung, Sony, and Microsoft, will use the most advanced technologies possible and hope that any initial defects are caught in the quality assurance process. If units do experience failure, the amount effected is never a large percentage. In fact, I'd argue that the "red ring of death" phenomenon was the exception and not the rule.

Did you know that the PS2 and Xbox faced a number of defeats both at launch and long after? Probably not. Those were the days before the "red ring of death" gave fanboys fodder to war with each other and media outlets something to talk about. I too experienced a failure with three of my Xbox 360s, but I was never really pissed about it because Microsoft would always pay to have it sent away and a repaired model returned to me. That's the thing. Console defects happen when new technology is introduced. So long as the company is willing to treat you well, why make a mountain out of a molehill?

Sources: Sony,Microsoft

Two new video game consoles are now on the market, which means that technical websites are already unscrewing the hardware and estimating the costs of components. While I've yet to see a teardown for the Xbox One, a few have already popped up for the PS4. According to the folks at AllThingsD, chips take up a big proportion of the cost of the PS4's internal components. A large AMD microprocessor costs about $100 to build. The other big cost is memory chips. There are no fewer than 16 individual memory chips in the PS4, costing Sony about $88. The cost of the processor and the memory works out to $188, nearly half of the total cost, according to the technical website. Other costs are related to the hard drive, wireless chips, and optical drive, and proprietary designs (controllers, motion tech, Bluetooth, etc.). All-in-all, they assume that the cost to build the device hovers around $381.

This suggesting of Sony only making an $18 profit on each sold device is garnering some interesting reactions. It's apparent that people take these teardowns very seriously — almost as if they demonstrate how cheap a company is. When ISuppli did a tear down of the Nintendo 3DS, they determined that the device would cost about $103.25 to build. At the time, it was selling at retail for $249. Commenters were pissed that Nintendo was making such a profit when they "could have reduced the price for the gamers." In the case of the PS4, commenters appear to be very happy with the suggestion that they're getting value for every dollar they drop.

Here's why that's a problem: these teardowns involve estimating the prices of chipsets, custom plastic molds, and unique technologies. Not only is it not a scientific process, but the teardowns are only concerned with the costs of components alone. In that sense, they're actually misleading. Picture yourself going to McDonalds to buy a Big Mac. To you, this is a complete product made of certain components. Each of those components would cost less combined than the burger, but that doesn't mean that the cost to build the burger is only the combined cost of the meat, bun, vegetables, or cheese. The people who make the Burger have to be paid. The people who deliver the components of the burger to the restaurant have to be paid. If the burger has to be delivered after production, that person needs to be paid. The burger also needs marketing materials. A console would work in the same way.

I would actually estimate the price of the PS4, including labour, workflow, marketing, and delivery costs, to be more like $500 per device. You may scoff at that evaluation, as it would mean that Sony is losing money on each device, but it is pertinent to remember that most console manufacturers make their money off game sales and not units sold. Before you take a console teardown at face value, please remember that a lot more than the cost of components goes into making a shiny new console.

Sources: AllThingsD, ISuppli

This is a newer section of RPGamer's Currents where we take a hard look at some video game industry rumors and attempt 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?

  • A Game of Adaptation
    Telltale announced that they were working on some "dream IPs" recently, and IGN recently reported that "multiple sources" say it is Game of Thrones. Likelihood? It's plausible. They've worked with a number of popular series in the past to much success, and there have already been GoT video games (which were terrible). I'm not holding my breath until I hear something official though.

That's it for this issue of Currents. You'll see another issue again in a couple weeks, but stay tuned to RPGamer for all the latest RPG news, reviews, previews, and interviews.

Your dork from the Great North,

Trent Seely

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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