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CURRENTS
Issue #150
February 20, 2014
The Sum of Eight Consecutive Primes
Front Page

Welcome to another issue of Currents, where video game industry headlines are broken down and editorialized. This week, I'm trapped under several layers of fluffy white stuff. It's snowed almost every single day, which wouldn't be a huge deal if I didn't live in the inner city. Bylaws, being what they are, require me to move my car before 7pm, park it in a lot a few blocks away so that the plows can come by and sweep the roads, and then pick it up the next day before 7am. This means spending an hour after work digging out my car with a dinky shovel and setting my alarm stupid early to pick it up, only to go back to bed again. Suffice to say, my love affair with snow is long since over. However, my love affair with bootleg Pokémon games has just begun:

Clumsy transitions aside, February has actually been a pretty interesting month as far as video game news is concerned. Irrational Games was shuttered, Index Corp. became Atlus Corp., Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII was exactly as nonsensical as people had assumed it would be, Warner Bros. Montreal decided to not fix the bugs in Batman: Arkham Origins in favour of DLC production, we may finally get to play the new Doom game soon, and the PS4 has been selling extremely well. We won't be discussing any of that this week though. Instead, I'd like to begin the 150th issue of Currents by talking about Nintendo.

If I could ask you readers some questions this week, they would be:

  • Can the Nintendo Wii U recover at this point?

  • What made you purchase or avoid purchasing the Wii U? Has that situation changed at all?

  • Moving forward, what should Nintendo's hardware strategy be?

The Wii U's relatively poor sales performance has been well documented by more than enough industry pundits and gamers. Every day dozens of sites publish the same editorial, and it's always called "How the Wii U Can Make a Comeback" or something along those lines. It would appear that everyone has a clear idea of how Nintendo can turn things around. I'm not going to make that claim. I'm also not going to say that the system is already on its deathbed. Nintendo's failure to properly market their next generation home system has been so well documented and discussed that I truly feel both redundant and fatigued as I write this. However, I do feel confident that the most recent Nintendo Direct was indicative of the company's current stance on the platform: let's do what we've always done and hope people start buying. For me, that's a problem.

Nintendo's current administration, under the helm of Iwata, is responsible for one of the least successful launches in the company's long history. This is a fact and we should accept it. Regardless of how you feel about the system's capabilities or potential, you — like Nintendo — cannot deny that the system lacks the same general market appeal of the Nintendo Wii and the next generation standards of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. The Wii U, in its current state, doesn't widely appeal to any large audience outside of Nintendo enthusiasts and that hasn't helped the company's bottom line. The last time a Nintendo brand product flopped this badly with mainstream consumers (The Virtual Boy), the console giant pretended as though it didn't exist, lost game design innovator Gunpei Yokoi in the aftermath, and was forced to immediately move on to other projects. To that end, Iwata might be hitting the unemployment line at some point in the near future if history repeats itself. I get the impression he doesn't want that.

Nintendo has recently been altering its strategy. Actually, "altering" is probably too strong of a word. We'll say "vaguely tweaking" for now. The company initiated a $1.1 billion share buyback, assumedly to ensure that management won't be pressured by activist investors on what they will do next. That being said, Nintendo hasn't been tremendously clear about what they will do next. First, there were rumors of a new Nintendo console that melded home system with portable environments — a rumor which fell in line with what Iwata previous claimed would be the future of all Nintendo products. Next, Nintendo announced that they would be open to the idea of mergers and acquisitions — keeping in mind that "open" doesn't actually mean "willing." They also allowed some of their treasured IPs to fall into the hands of trusted second and third parties (i.e. Hyrule Warriors), assumedly with hope of boosting the Wii U's lacking library. Finally, Nintendo has opened up a bit to experimentation by allowing a few free-to-play games on their online stores, working on smartphone apps, and allowing major releases, such as Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze, to not use the Wii U tablet controller's screen at all. All of this was neat, but nothing here screamed "radical shift" to me. I was hoping for more in the next Nintendo Direct to sway the tides.

During the most recent Nintendo Direct, Nintendo made several announcements regarding the much beleaguered system. Bayonetta 2 and Monolith Soft's upcoming title had gameplay trailers, Mario Kart 8's official release date was unveiled, GBA games were confirmed for Virtual Console support, and Little Mac has been added to the roster of Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS. Considering the dire situation of the Wii U, you may have found this update to be somewhat underwhelming. Not because the games which were presented aren't exciting, but rather that their presence was predictable. Nintendo just isn't breaking any new ground here. You might say, in response to my criticism, that releasing big games to force people to buy their systems has always worked for Nintendo, so why stop now? To which, I would reply: because that doesn't seem to work anymore for Nintendo.

Let's take a look back and examine Super Mario 3D World. The game was released to a lot of fan-fare, review scores have been universally high, it's been called "Game of the Year" by a number of respected media outlets, and yet Super Mario 3D World was a flop. Yes — I realize that the game has sold approximately two million units, but the far less innovative New Super Mario Bros. U sold over 2.15 million, Super Mario 3D Land sold over 8.29 million, and Super Mario Galaxy sold over 10.4 million. Two million units sold over the course of three months is not an impressive figure as far as Mario games go. In fact, it's downright depressing. The Wii U is still struggling in spite of the fact that it has an amazingly unique first-party title. Sadly, big games don't mean big sales if your console isn't appealing in the first place.

Nintendo is ignoring the obvious. Hardcore gamers who talk about technical specifications, multiplayer, and pristine graphics have been turned off by this console. Trying to get them interested is a lost cause. General audiences, on the other hand, don't seem to understand how it differs from the Nintendo Wii. The company has failed to communicate the value and differences of this console, and continues to fail by using traditional solutions. New games with shiny graphics won't save the Wii U. It needs a better online ecosystem, stronger third-party support, smarter advertising, more indie titles, an intuitive UI that either takes full advantage of the tablet controller or ditches it completely, and better pricing on digitally available titles.

It could be argued that Nintendo should give up on the Wii U and focus on rectifying all of the console's problems, along with its current technical shortcomings, by introducing a new home system. Sadly, I'm getting the impression that nothing outside of the norm is going to be done to correct the course by the current Nintendo administration. I want to say that I'm rooting for Nintendo, but this short-sightedness shouldn't be supported. When Mario Kart 8 and the new Super Smash Bros. fail to sell dozens of millions of Wii U consoles — and they will fail at this — Nintendo's administration may finally have to deal with the fact that the company has mismanaged both its time and money from the very start. If things remain as they are, 2015 may herald a new President of Nintendo and the announcement of a new Super Mario game... for iOS.

Source: Nintendo

Sonic Boom has been announced, and the dreaded Sonic Cycle has begun anew. Fans who had doubts in Sonic Team after Sonic Lost World (and every Sonic game outside of Colors and Generations) seem to be pleased to see development change hands to two Western studios. In changing hands, our fuzzy heroes have also changed looks. Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy have all had their designs tinkered with to be more edgy and relatable for the kiddos. Ignoring the fact that Knuckles appears to have been on steroids since we last saw him, the most significant redesign is to the blue hedgehog himself. Sonic has grown roughly two feet taller and now sports a scarf. The game is set to work in concert with a new television show called Sonic Boom, in which I'm guessing Sonic only listens to vinyls, wears ironic trucker hats, DJs part-time, and liberally quotes Foucault. I have no clue if this is the right move for Sonic's character, but I'm more concerned with whether this is the right move for the Sonic franchise itself.

No, this is not the first time a Sonic game has been given to an outside company. Aspect did an amazing job with Sonic the Hedgehog: Triple Trouble for the Sega Game Gear. Sonic Boom, however, is the first main Sonic game that is being developed in the West. Before you get out your torchers and pitchforks for my insinuation that Westerners can't design games as well, please understand that I have no doubt in the technical pedigree of Big Red Button or Sanzaru's staffs. After all, much of Big Red Button would have departed Naughty Dog in 2008 and Sanzaru have worked on a number of excellent Sony titles, including Sly Cooper. My only concern is the integrity of the final product, as American sensibilities will undoubtedly affect how Sonic Boom looks, feels, and plays.

Regular readers of RPGamer will know that I love to gush about Silent Hill, even though it isn't an RPG and technically I shouldn't be talking about it without linking it back to character progression, questing, and other facets of the genre. It's my favorite video game franchise of all time. Silent Hill 2 is my favorite game. You could say that the quality of the franchise is important to me. Well, the series changed when development was handed to a Western studio. A series that had previously been predicated on atmospheric horror and subtlety, common to Japanese media, had suddenly shifted to being extremely action-oriented and boasted aesthetics that didn't adhere to previous franchise entries. Whether these Americanized games were good or not is purely a matter of opinion, but the way the games controlled, felt, and looked was certainly different as a result of the people who were now designing them. I'm concerned that the same thing would happen to the Sonic franchise.

There's no way of knowing how Sonic Boom will turn out at this point, and, to be fair, there's a chance that Sonic Boom could be one of the best Sonic games in years. That being said, I know things will change in some regard with the new team behind the blue hedgehog and the Sonic Cycle is indeed vicious. We likely have a long wait until real gameplay is available, but I'm reserving my excitement for now.

Source: Sega

Flappy Bird had a meteoric rise. Created by developer .GEARS in Hanoi, Vietnam, Flappy Bird was an addictive game that embraced both nostalgia and extreme difficulty. Within no time at all, this game became one of the most popular titles on both the iOS and Android stores, making around $50,000 a day in ad revenue from 50 million downloads. The frustrating results of playing this game have been all over Tumblr, Reddit, and 4chan. It's safe to say that its difficulty is also responsible for a number of now-broken phones. To call this game's popularity a phenomenon would be an understatement. So, it was a bit surprising when Flappy Bird suddenly disappeared after only 28 days on the market.

Developer Dong Nguyen announced the removal of this mega-popular game via his Twitter account. He tweeted, "I am sorry 'Flappy Bird' users, 22 hours from now, I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore." At the time, Nguyen wasn't terribly straightforward as to why he would cease supporting the game, stating: "It is not anything related to legal issues. I just cannot keep it anymore." However, he eventually came out and stated that the game was "too addictive" to remain available. As noble as that might be, I'm sure he also didn't appreciate the accompanying attention received with Flappy Bird's massive success.

With all that being said, the real story here is not that Flappy Bird was successful and suddenly went away. All of the facts of the situation speak for themselves in that regard. The fascinating part of this tale is how it became such a huge phenomenon without having a huge marketing budget or using shady PR methods. Some initially assumed that Flappy Bird was some sort of scam — a misconception that Nguyen inadvertently perpetuated by denying requests from the press for interviews. However, developer Zach Williams scraped all of the written app reviews from the iOS App Store before the game was removed and determined, based on 68,000 submitted written reviews, that the positive sentiment towards the game was genuine in nature. People didn't like Flappy Bird because it was a cheap fad; they supported the game because it was legitimately challenging and embraced nostalgia in its design. It was just too damn popular for its own good.

We now experience the aftermath of Flappy Bird. Both Apple and Google's smartphone app stores have been flooded with Flappy Bird clones, both companies are denying any further submissions with the word "flappy" in the title, and phones that still have the game on it are somehow going for thousands of dollars on eBay. It's a strange world we live in. Regardless, the good news of this situation is that Nguyen is still developing games. It's clear that he has talent at making addictive on-the-go titles, and I expect his future releases to be quite successful. Sadly for Flappy Bird, its destiny was to go into the dark night not with a bang, but with a quiet flap.

Sources: Mashable & Twitter

Sometimes you realize that your fat pants have become your pants. You freak out a little, hit the gym, and prepare yourself for swimsuit season. Well, I dare say that the PlayStation Vita will be looking pretty slick by June. After months of anticipation, Sony has finally announced the availability of the Vita 2000 in North America. More exciting, this new model will be available in a bundle that includes Borderlands 2, an 8GB memory card, and six DLC packs — all for the low price of $199.

The Vita 2000 was released in Japan last year and just recently shipped in the UK. The new design is 15 percent lighter and 20 percent thinner. Vita fans may also want to upgrade for the better battery life on this new slim model. However, some have taken issue with the inclusion of an LCD screen instead of the original Vita's OLED. According to critics of this design revision, the new screen will make the graphics of some games look relatively washed out. That being said, I've seen both models in action side-by-side and the differences are truly negligible.

Vita sales haven't been terribly impressive since the next gen portable was introduced, however, Sony has recently experienced a surge in sales as a result of the PS4's success. Clearly, the ability to use this handheld in conjunction with the PS4 is a huge selling point. The hope is that this new hardware revision does what the DS Lite did for the original Nintendo DS — makes it sell like gangbusters. It should, as this is a decent build, but Sony still has the hurdle of expensive storage units to overcome. Considering the fact that 48 percent of games sold for the Vita are downloaded from the PSN, I hope Sony gets to that next.

Source: Sony

In a sense, I'm somewhat surprised that EA's corporate headquarters hasn't had to employ riot police yet. It seems as though a majority of their "business maneuvers" are oriented towards sucking as many dollars out of their fans' pockets, while at the same time frustrating them with micro-transcations. I'd argue that people can only be abused for so long before they either become militant or just go away completely, and it's starting to feel as though EA's good will has run dry.

The latest in a long series of antagonizing business practices is the revival of a cherished IP with the intent of throwing dozens of pay walls at whoever might succumb to its nostalgia. Oh, and if you don't like the game and how it is oriented, EA will do everything in its power to spur you away from giving it a one-star rating on the app store. Shady business practices for the win, right?

Dungeon Keeper has a lot of problems. Sure, it boasts strong presentation values as free-to-play mobile titles go, but it certainly doesn't live up to the Dungeon Keeper name. If user reviews are any indication of how it is being received, the game appears to have a reputation for being unimaginative, idiotic, frustrating, and a complete waste of time. It also is the epitome of free-to-play done wrong, and it somehow makes Square Enix's All The Bravest look like a legitimate gaming experience in comparison. Take a second and indulge in that statement.

Disregarding how EA completely fumbled the ball on franchise trajectory and micro-transaction abuse, it's important that we focus on the real problem at the core of Dungeon Keeper's terribleness: I can't tell the world I dislike it, because EA won't let me. Critical scores have leveled off at 42/100 on Metacritic, but are a 4/5 on the Google Play store. This phenomenon is a head-scratcher for sure, but it turns out that this high score can be explained by EA's questionable filtering of reviews. After playing Dungeon Keeper for a period of time, players are presented with a question, asking them if they believe the game deserves "1-4 stars" or "5 stars," and only the "5 star" option takes you to the Google Play store. The "1-4 stars" option only allows you to email EA about why you dislike the game. If that doesn't sound deceptive to you, you're dreaming in technicolor.

Why, as a corporate entity, would EA continue to undertake such atrocious business practices knowing that critics are watching so closely? How could EA have possibly thought that this would have gone over well? Hell, even Dungeon Keeper's creator Peter Molyneux has used the media to call out this entry in the series for "crucifying the patience" of the player, not that he could have voiced that criticism on the App store itself. At this rate, I can only expect that EA will once again be nominated and receive "Worst Company in America" for a third consecutive year. And they'll deserve it.

Source: Games Industry

That's it for this issue of Currents. Shout out to Sarah McGarr for the new 'Currents' icon. 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,

Seely Trent

Stalk me on Twitter: @InstaTrent

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