Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. Now that we've reviewed some of the more provocative headlines of 2013, I'm finally ready to dig into 2014's headlines. As per Currents' tradition, the year has started out a bit slowly. January and February are traditionally lacking in video game news and controversies. However, that isn't to say that the few stories we have seen aren't exciting. We'll be discussing Machinima, Nintendo, Microsoft, and more. To get us in the mood, let's listen to my favourite Final Fantasy battle theme:
I featured a BitSymphony remaster in the last Currents as well. This YouTube channel is a project based on video game music remakes. Definitely check them out if you're a fan of remixes or remasters.
If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:
- Has the Xbox One/Machinima controversy affected how you view these two companies?
- Do you implicitly trust video producers, knowing that they might be paid to say (or not say) certain things?
- Would you expect video producers to disclose whether or not they are paid by advertisers?
It's recently been revealed that the folks at EA and Microsoft have been crafting PR pay-per-view contracts with third-party video producers in the YouTube Machinima network, as well as on TV spots like Conan's Clueless Gamer. In these contracts, it was agreed that a certain amount of money would be paid out based on view count and that the producer must say positive (or at least neutral) things about the product. While I'm sure these types of deals aren't new to the world of video production, their recent discovery has antagonized many gamers and raised a lot of questions regarding the motives of producers.
I'll start by disregarding the notion that "it's okay because everyone probably does it." Precedent doesn't make perfect, and there's no grey area in paying media outlets to neuter their editorial independence. Some may claim that the media is overblowing what is probably normal practice, but its pertinent to remember that business ethics and professional integrity are paramount to games journalism. To that point, YouTube's Machinima gaming network has indicated that its integrity can be bought for just under $3 per thousand views. Not to say they bare all the blame. It could be argued that all participating parties are of questionable status right now, and not just because this makes for poor PR.
Do you ever wonder why most blogs and professional media sites like to state where they got their copy of the games they review? Or why so many websites have ethical guidelines regarding how they approach covering content? They aren't doing it out of the goodness of their hearts; the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires as much in their professional guidelines concerning the use of endorsements and testimonials in advertising. The FTC demands full disclosure when there is "a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement." This document (16 CFR Part 255) actually offers a specific example of a video game blogger who gets a free game system that he later talks about on his blog. That blogger would need to disclose that gift, the FTC says, because his opinion is "disseminated via a form of consumer-generated media in which his relationship to the advertiser is not inherently obvious." Guess what? The guidelines applied to these writers also apply to video producers on YouTube.
If the video makers disclosed that Microsoft or EA was paying extra for these videos and if they were allowed to say negative things in those videos, we wouldn't really have a story to talk about. Sadly, that's not the case. According to a leaked copy of the full legal agreement behind the Machinima Xbox One promotion, video creators "may not say anything negative or disparaging about Machinima, Xbox One, or any of its Games" and must keep the details of the promotional agreement confidential in order to qualify for payment. That's the kind of professional ethics violation that the FTC isn't fond of.
Now, in order to skate regulatory FTC hot water, a spokesperson for both companies said the following: "This partnership between Machinima and Microsoft was a typical marketing partnership to promote Xbox One in December. The Xbox team does not review any specific content or provide feedback on content. Any confidentiality provisions, terms or other guidelines are standard documents provided by Machinima. For clarity, confidentiality relates to the agreements themselves, not the existence of the promotion." That, hilariously enough, didn't mend the situation as it claims that "precedent makes perfect," which is an assertion which doesn't traditionally hold up to scrutiny.
Machinima sent a second statement to The Wall Street Journal further explaining the situation, stating that it usually requires channel partners to make clear they're involved in a promotion and apologizing for the controversy. "That didn't happen here and we're evaluating why," the statement said. "All participants are being asked today to include our standard language going-forward. We apologize for the error and any confusion." Didn't happen here, and we're evaluating why? Not an excuse.
Microsoft then indicated that it is halting the program, and trying to bring existing videos in line with the FTC's requirements. "We have asked Machinima to not post any additional Xbox One content as part of this media buy and we have asked them to add disclaimers to the videos that were part of this program indicating they were part of paid advertising," wrote a spokesperson. This is all being stated in spite of the fact that the media buy had already ended by that point. You could say that they were trying to cover their butts with misinformation.
Beyond potential legal implications, the newly revealed Xbox One arrangement raises concerns for gamers about who they can trust (both among companies and third-party reviewers), and where the line between paid advertising and seemingly organic content is drawn. To be frank, there could be a ton of large publishers who are currently paying your favourite reviewers to say (or not say) certain things.
Professionally integrity is important, and the FTC standards aren't there just to police reviewers; we have them to ensure we can trust the motives of opinion. It's sad that the only way we can currently ensure credibility is through leaked documentation. We should be making an example of EA, Machinima, and Microsoft to ensure that full disclosure exists in the future.
Regulars of this column will remember how fatigued I've become with speculation revolving around the Nintendo Wii U. No, it isn't selling well. Yes, it has some good games. No, it isn't as powerful or as well aligned as its competition. Yes, It still has a shot at life. That's basically how I feel on the matter. Not everyone is in the same boat though. The Wii U certainly has its defenders and detractors, but it also has a lot of rumours surrounding its death. One of which is the introduction of a new console that melds handheld, Wii U games, and stronger processing power. Normally I don't comment on rumours and conjecture in the main column, but I'm making an exception in this case — specifically because it represents an interesting possibility.
Regardless of how you feel about Nintendo remaining in its traditional market or entering new ones (such as the mobile space), we should all recognize that the Wii U has under-performed. Nintendo has failed to communicate the Wii U's value and it has sold worse than conservative estimates had led us to believe it would. It is the company's worst performing home console ever, and the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of leadership. They didn't consult any third party developers on the Wii U's design or horsepower, and the lack of hardware technical specs and software availability has absolutely hurt its standing among even the most dedicated of consumers. In short, Nintendo botched the Wii U and it has both hurt the company's bottom line and jeopardized its relations with publishers and developers alike. These are facts, and we must accept them.
With all that said, how can Nintendo come back? If you ask me, price cuts and new software won't solve this problem. It certainly didn't for the Dreamcast. Firing Iwata or putting Mario games on smartphones won't help either. What Nintendo needs right now — and I can't stress this enough — is to surprise us. To that point, the Nintendo Fusion isn't the worst idea out there. I know, I know; it's just a rumour that someone probably thought up and posted on NeoGAF. I understand that this is all speculation, however, it also may be exactly what Nintendo needs right now.
Think about it. The 3DS has been one of the most successful pieces of hardware we've seen in recent memory. The Wii U does have a lot of great games, but people won't buy it because it seems underpowered and too closely branded to the Wii. Also, third party developers have already indicated that there is no way they could port most PS4 and Xbox One titles to the Wii U. The obvious solution would be to release a console that takes advantage of all of Nintendo's current strengths, while improving upon its noticeable weaknesses. Enter: The Nintendo Fusion.
If the Nintendo Fusion were released with a unique play-style and technical specs comparable to the Xbox One and PS4, Nintendo could be a player in the market again. People don't think this could ever happen because Nintendo has never done this, however, Iwata has said in the past that if the Wii failed completely they'd make something else and try that instead. I see no reason why that logic would have changed, and I don't think introducing a new console will hurt them from a branding perspective.
People like to harp about how one abandoned flop can ruin a company. They cite the Sega Saturn and say that its abandonment in order to focus on the Dreamcast marked the company's downfall in the hardware department. That's not a fair analysis though. The Saturn wasn't what developers or consumers wanted. It was overpriced, too hard to design games for, and didn't hold up against the competition. Sticking with it would have been a definite waste of resources and time. The Dreamcast, on the other hand, was an amazing console with an unfortunate fate. It didn't sell poorly because of the damage caused to Sega's brand by abandoning the Saturn. In fact, it sold exceptionally well for a time. It's just that the far superior PS2 hit the ground running and Sega couldn't keep up. In that instance, Sega's problem was that they didn't wait long enough to see what the competition was going to do and released something that couldn't compete in that console generation. Sound familiar? It should to Nintendo.
I know it's unlikely that the Nintendo Fusion will happen. I know that hoping for a new hardware solution to this problem is probably futile, considering how current Wii U owners and Nintendo stockholders would likely react to them abandoning the Wii U in favour of spending money and time on a new console. However, there is a chance, as small as it might be, that Nintendo will find a new solution that doesn't involve clinging to the Wii U. Who knows? Someday Nintendo may treat the Wii U similar to that of the Virtual Boy — an experiment that failed, but taught an important lesson.
I remember back when Zynga has the worst name in mobile and browser-based gaming. It would appear King has surpassed them. You may know the company by its most successful title: Candy Crush Saga. You know, the game that perfectly ripped off Bejewelled by using pieces of candy instead of jewels. Well, apparently they have a name for cloning other games and even filing trademarks to defend their cloned games against games that aren't even trying to rip them off. Go figure.
Matthew Cox, one member of Stolen Goose, has made allegations that publisher King.com directly copied his game, Scamperghost. On his personal website, Cox says that Stolen Goose was in talks with King vice president of mobile game Lars Jornow to bring Scamperghost to King's RoyalGames portal. During negotiations, Stolen Goose decided that an alternate online portal, MaxGames.com, made a better offer, so they parted ways with King. Cox says King then had another developer, EpicShadow, clone Scamperghost to create Pac-Avoid. In an email to Stolen Goose about the situation, Jornow explained that King had decided to sponsor a similar game. When Cox emailed Pac-Avoid's developer, EpicShadow, he was told that the second developer was asked by King to clone the game.
"First off, sorry that we cloned your game for Lars of King.com," wrote EpicShadow's Matt Porter in an email. "Lars approached us one day explaining that you had signed a contract, had been working with him on finishing the deal, and then got a better deal and backed out. He asked us to clone the game very quickly, and even wanted to beat the release of the original game."
According to Cox, no such contract was signed. Porter told VentureBeat that his team was paid $3,000 to clone the game, and did an exceptional job copying. Just a cursory glance at the two games will tell you immediately that they rate almost perfectly identical.
This cloning accusation was just the latest in a series of IP controversies for King. First came news of the company's recently filed EU trademark on the word "candy." This was a confusing trademark, but the publisher said it would not be enforcing its trademark against all uses of the word — just those it felt were infringing on its rights or in danger of confusing players. That said, it didn't stop King from taking aim at The Banner Saga for using the word "saga."
King challenged a trademark filing by developer Stoic for the name of its debut game, The Banner Saga. In its challenge filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office, King alleged that The Banner Saga was "confusingly and deceptively similar" to King's own use of Saga in its games. Following some outcry over that decision, King released a statement saying it was not trying to stop Stoic from using The Banner Saga name, but had to file a challenge or else it would have been easier for other companies to make illegitimate use of the word.
Regardless of who is right and who is wrong, 2014 has been rocky for King so far. At least, in terms of public relations. I'm not going to harp on the hypocrisy and double-standard at play of King willingly duplicating other companies games and subsequently taking legal action against those it feels are duplicating their duplications, but I think its pretty clear that the company is at the very least shady. If I were an indie developer, I would avoid them like the plague.
In a move that harkens back to 2011's purchase of the Halo franchise, Microsoft Studios has acquired the rights to the Gears of War franchise from Epic Games, including rights to all existing and future games, entertainment experiences and merchandise. In addition, Black Tusk Studios in Vancouver, BC will take over development of the Gears of War franchise and Rod Fergusson, former Director of Production at Epic Games on the Gears of War franchise, will join Microsoft and play a key studio leadership role at Black Tusk. I understand why this was done, as the Gears of War franchise has sold in excess of $1 billion, but I can't say I'm not fatigued by the continued sequalization of this and other Microsoft exclusive series.
I purchased and enjoyed the first three Gears of War games, but by the end of the trilogy I just felt tired about the aesthetics and lack of innovation. The same could be said about the Halo series. Every game felt the same to me. There was nothing new to cling to. To that point, I didn't enjoy Gears of War: Judgement. It somehow felt even less polished than its predecessors and even today is missing some crucial multiplayer features. I guess I wasn't the only one to feel this way either, as it only sold about a quarter of what its predecessors were able to.
It's times like these when I have to wonder whether or not Phil Spencer is asleep at the wheel. I know that may sound harsh, but seriously — why exactly should we care that you've purchased a franchise you've milked to death already? Gamers don't necessarily want more of the same. I would prefer he announce that a new game was in development that took advantage of all of the Xbox One's capabilities. Maybe harp on how creative developers could be using this unique technology. Instead, he's basically decided to rely on old staples to ship consoles. Well, to me, that sounds lazy.
While it may raise eyebrows, Namco Bandai will be changing the company's name... to Bandai Namco. At a board of director's meeting held on January 23, Namco Bandai announced that beginning April 1, the names of its 31 subsidiaries — including six domestic and 25 overseas — will change from Namco Bandai to Bandai Namco. The reason for the change, the company said, is to "elevate the appeal and value of the Bandai Namco brand overseas." You could say I'm confused by this decision.
After pondering for two days over how the brand could possibly be improved by this change, I've honestly come up with nothing. I get that they were always known as Bandai Namco in Japan and I guess that could be reason enough to rejig things, but I just don't think this alters any brand appeal. Some people are calling it marketing technique to grab attention for some of their upcoming releases, such as Dark Souls II and Super Smash Bros. for the Wii U/3DS. Others are claiming that the placement of the letter "b" is obviously far ahead of that of the letter "n" in the alphabet. That means that any list that categorizes the company alphabetically will see them appearing much earlier than they previously would have. Finally, a few have told me that "BanNam" just sounds better than "NamBan." I think all of these reasonings are kind of dumb.
If swapping the order of two well known words improves brand standing, I would like to humbly request all readers refer to me as "Seely Trent" from now on.
Source: Bandai Namco
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,
Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent
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