Wednesday, July 16, 2008

2008 E3 Press Conference Impressions

Microsoft's E3 Press Conference
After watching Microsoft's E3 Press Conference, I have to say that I was quite impressed. They seem to have covered quite a bit. They had plenty of games for their hardcore audience as well as several things for their casual fans.I thought the Xbox Live announcements were very strong. Sure, avatars are a direct rip-off of Nintendo's Miis, but they seem to have improved upon them. They are cartoonish but have a more realistic style about them. And it appears that Microsoft will actually be adding content to their avatars unlike NIntendo with their Miis.The new dashboard seems very clean and easy to use. Teaming up with Netflix is a stroke of genius. I think that will be a huge coup for Microsoft.Microsoft also scored big with Square Enix. Besides the shocker of the Final Fantasy XIII announcement, three additional RPGs were also revealed. Four Square Enix RPGs for a Microsoft console is quite a change from the past. I almost felt like I was watching a Sony press conference.

Nintendo E3 Press Conference
I have to say that Nintendo's press conference was a bit on the boring side this year. They really focused on the casual gamer while leaving everyone else out in the cold. Satoru Iwata did say that new Mario and Zelda games were being worked on for the Wii, but with no video and no other information, it's is hard to get excited about that announcement. Nintendo's biggest news seemed to be: Wii Music Wii Music looked fun, but it truly looked like something geared towards kids. I can imagine my kids banging out some noise, but I don't see myself playing an imaginary saxophone anytime soon. Wii Sports Resort This actually looks like it might be more fun than the original Wii Sports. The addition of the Wii MotionPlus should be a huge boost to a game like this. Animal Crossing While it looks fun, it also looks like more of the same. Same graphics, same characters, same tasks. The new online portion looks promising, but nothing earth shattering. Wii Speak This microphone for the whole family looks to be the perfect solution for Nintendo. Since everyone in the room can hear what is being said, it makes it a much safer choice for kids. My only question is how well will it work. Can Wii Speak pick up everyone's voice in a big room when it is sitting on top of your TV? Wii MotionPlus This looks to be the most promising item Nintendo showed off. Too bad this wasn't available from day one. I doubt it will work with older games, but for new games it will offer a never before seen experience. True 1:1 motion between the player and his character. I think this will be huge once developers get a chance to incorporate it into their new games. The big news for the DS was Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars. This will certainly be a nice addition to an already great library of games. If only Nintendo had announced a game of that magnitude for the Wii.

Sony's E3 Press Conference
I thought Sony's press conference was a solid effort. They revealed interesting information for both casual gamers and hardcore gamers. Sony's movie and TV download system is interesting. While Microsoft's deal with Netflix might prove to be cheaper for consumers, Sony adds the benefit of taking video on the go by transferring to your PSP. For PSP owners, this is great news. Home still seems a few months away. I tend to be on the optimistic side on this. Everything Sony has shown about Home looks very nice. I think this is too important an area for Sony to fall down on. That's why I'm betting Sony pulls through on Home. LittleBigPlanet was shown again and still looks incredible. This game alone looks like a reason to buy a PS3. God of War III and MAG were also shown. It's safe to assume the GOWIII will be a special game. MAG looks promising, but we will have to wait and see on this one. Overall, I think Sony had a nice show. Definitely better than Nintendo and on par with Microsoft.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Developer Interview: Brian Meidell Andersen

This is the second in a series of interviews I am doing with video game developers. The first interview, with Japanese game developer Shuichi Ishikawa, can be found here.

In this interview, I had the opportunity to talk (through email) with Brian Meidell Andersen of The Game Equation (Bo Cordes, Brian's partner is mentioned in some of the Q&A but he was not interviewed) about casual gaming and it's impact on the gaming industry. Brian had several interesting things to say regarding casual gaming and I hope you enjoy his interview:

First off, I was hoping to get some background on both of you. What companies have you worked for and what games have you worked on?

I'm a and previous companies most relevant to our current endeavours are IO Interactive, Titoonic (maker of high quality web games) and now-defunct networkleague (multiplayer gaming middleware/service company). The most well known games I've worked on are "Hitman: Blood Money" and "Hitman: Contracts".

Bo is a and before going into the games industry at IO Interactive, he worked with cutting edge virtual reality at Aalborg University in Denmark. He has worked on "Hitman 2", "Hitman: Contracts" and "Hitman: Blood Money".

In a recent article on, you mentioned you were fed up with large-scale game production. What about large-scale game production did you grow tired of?

There were several things, but I think they all stem from the same problem.

As the game machines capabilities grow, the number of things that are expected from a game grows with it. For example, the first game that introduced ragdoll physics touted that as a special feature. Today, better ragdoll physics are simply expected, together with normal mapping, per pixel lighting, and many other features that were unique selling points when they first appeared. To keep up with the bleeding edge, it requires that you either outsource a lot of work (either directly or by buying middleware like Havok), increase your team sizes or lengthen the production cycles. Any combination of these three methods will increase your production costs, sometimes by a lot. The more money it costs to produce a game, the more power is handed to business people, and their trained response is typically to take less risk by copying proven success. This has a tendency to change game making from a highly creative process into factory work.

In my eyes, making good games is inherently a very creative process, where the best people have a combination of immense technical skill and a great deal of creativity. It used to be that most game developers were people like this, but today I think these key people are usually supported by a number of people who are simply good craftsmen, be it programmers or artists. In most large game teams, I think there are a handful of people that are critical for the game to be an inspired piece of work. These types of people are often innately uninterested in factory work. There are of course cases where some of these creative, talented people actually like the big corporate environment, but I haven't met too many of them.

I grew tired of this situation, and the direct consequences like colleagues quitting, big teams, long crunch periods, unrealistic deadlines and unrealistic sales expectations. I have a strong feeling that it has gotten better since I quit in late 2005, but I wasn't willing to sit around and wait for it to improve.

What about the casual game business attracts you?

There are several things. Most importantly, the games are of a scope that is realistic for a few people to do well in a reasonable amount of time. For example, Deep Blue Sea was made by a team of two people in the span of 4.5 months, except for the sound which was contracted from an external composer. This makes it possible for a company to be competitive and successful without having to endlessly expand the company simply to keep up with the market.

Second, the direct consequence of the modest resource requirements is that developing a title represents a much smaller risk. This makes it more possible to try new things in terms of both gameplay, themes, format, marketing, distribution and so forth. This is not something we have exercised so far, but we are certainly planning to.

Another attractive aspect is the norm of purely electronic distribution methods. This means a much shorter path from developers to consumers and thereby less overhead.

I went to your website and noticed that right now you are strictly PC/MAC. Is releasing a value title ($20-$30 range) out of the question for the 360, PS3 and Wii?

Developing a regular boxed title to sell in that price range is out of the question for most developers. However, the barrier for entry on the consoles seems to have been lowered a lot with the arrival of the new digital marketplaces like XBox Live Arcade, PSN and WiiWare. The console companies seem to be going out of their way to bring the casual market to their consoles, and I think that is a great move for both themselves, the consumers and the developers.

That said, the technical and financial prerequisites for developing for these platforms still makes that market inaccessible to most of the casual games developers currently targeting desktop computers.

Do you have any plans to work on any titles for Xbox Live, PSN or WiiWare?

We're looking into it, but there are no details that I can share at this point.

Casual games seem to have found a home on the Nintendo DS. Any plans there?

We're looking into it, but there are no details that I can share at this point.

Last night I went on to your website and downloaded the demo of Deep Blue Sea (which I enjoyed quite a bit). While at first glance it looks like your typical tile swapping game, there is quite a bit more depth there. There are actual objectives, missions and even a store for upgrades. Do you feel this game is a fair representation of the kind of games you want to create?

I think Deep Blue Sea is a good game, especially for the development resources we put into it, but our long term ambitions are greater. Deep Blue Sea was in many ways an experiment in minimalism - it was made with programmer graphics and the only contracted work was the music. The focus was primarily on gameplay, a solid progression ramp and accessibility. For future titles we are planning to put more resources into production value, and developing our technology.

I noticed on both of your games, Deep Blue Sea and Constellations, you point out the original music that was created for both. I find that interesting because I think music tends to take a back seat in most casual games. How important is music to you in your games? Do you compose the music yourselves or do you work with a musician for that?

Quite important. Music and sound is immensely important to establish atmosphere in a game, and I think a relaxing atmosphere is a very important aspect of a casual game. We contract a very talented composer named Rasmus Hartvig for the music and the principal sound design.

Is there anything else you are working on right now that you can talk about?

Not at this time - we'll make a public announcement when that changes.

What are your long term plans for The Game Equation?

We're planning to develop and release casual titles as we push our technology along. Eventually, we are hoping to also find a viable market in the space between casual games and big budget games.

Do you feel that many of your peers in the gaming industry feel the same as you about working on big budget games?

Yes. Though most of them definitely still prefer it to creating casual games.

Due to the rising development costs, do you think we will eventually end up with two kinds of developers...those who produce $15 million games and those who produce casual games with few developers in between?

Actually, I think that has been the situation until now, but we're moving away from that, towards a more varied game ecology. The online console markets and sales channels such as Valve's Steam seem to be able to support games that are somewhere between casual and big budget games, since many of their customers are people who are more hardcore gamers than your typical casual gamer. Indie games for non-casual gamers have existed for a long time, but there haven't been a lot of clearly defined sales channels for them - the developers have proudly been cutting their own paths.

It seems that the major game companies are increasingly interested in the casual market, so I don't think the separation you mention will happen. Rather, I think it will move the other way, where the big companies will have teams of varying sizes that produce a much more full spectrum of games, from casual to big budget titles. There'll probably also be a good deal of mergers and acquisitions in this process. In many ways, I think it will be a miniature replay of what has happened to the "big" game industry in the last many years.

I was shocked when Sony announced the original price of the PS3. Most systems start to sell well after a $200 price point has been reached. At $500 and $600, the PS3 was years away from that price point. It seems very difficult for a developer to make a big budget game when the install base is going to be so low. On the other hand, consumers who pay $500 or $600 for a new system want to see something big and exciting that takes advantage of the latest technology. It appeared that Sony put developers and consumers in an awkward spot. Do you think there is a lesson to be learned here? Is it possible in the next round on console wars that we won't see the same leap in cutting edge technology due to high cost? And that maybe hardware companies will take a different approach like Nintendo did this round with the Wii?

I don't think there is an inherent problem in selling a console for $500-600 as long as people are buying it, which they seem to be. Sony and Microsoft might take less chances when designing their future consoles with emerging technologies, but I don't think they will stray radically from their current competitive areas of graphics, sound and processing power in the way Nintendo did. I think the Wii will probably make them consider adding unique interaction features to the console, but not as a replacement for raw power.

The PS3 in particular has taken a lot of abuse in the press, but I honestly believe it is going to do just fine in the long run. I am guessing here, but I think the high price point from Sony was an unfortunate necessity, not something they planned. The price to be paid for the awkward spot you mention mostly lands on them - failure is not an option for the PS3, so whatever it takes to make it an attractive developer target, that's what they'll do.

As a sidenote, I think the fact that the press has declared the PS3 unattractive to develop for is a business opportunity in disguise for smaller companies. According to wikipedia there are at least 5.6 million PS3s out there. There are only a handful of games on PSN right now, and the people who shelled out 500 bucks for their PS3 are likely happy to pay 10 bucks for something that is a bit of fun, and which really shows off some aspect of their consoles abilities. That's 5.5 million content-starved people who can potentially visit PSN and see your game among only a handful of games. Those are a lot better odds of selling copies than what you get in the PC/Mac casual games industry.

Where do you see the gaming industry in 5 years and where do you see yourselves in 5 years?

As mentioned under the "rising development costs" question, I think we'll see more big players moving into the smaller games space, and more sales channels will be established for smaller games that are not typical casual games. Rotating developers into smaller game teams once in a while would also help make life better for the overworked developers at the big companies, and maybe hold on to some of those key people I mentioned earlier.

As for myself, I hope I will be at the helm of a small but successful game company publishing fun games for both the casual and less casual consumers.

Finally, what will it take for developers to turn casual gaming into a big business?

Casual gaming itself is already big business. If you mean what it takes for a new developer to make their casual game into big business, I'd prefer to answer that question a couple of years from now, once we've managed to do just that.

End of interview.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed it. Just a note, this entire interview was done through an email Q&A system. It was printed here in complete form with no editing to preserve the original spirit of both the questions and the answers. Once again, I'd like to thank Brian Meidell Andersen of The Game Equation for his participation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Nintendo Releases New System Update for WiiWare

Tonight, Nintendo released a system update for the Wii. It is for the upcoming WiiWare portion of the Virtual Console. The system is necessary for everyone who wants to download WiiWare games. Nintendo also said that anyone who downloads the update now will not need to download anything further in order to download WiiWare games when they become available May 20th.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sega Saturn Classic, Burning Rangers, Coming to the Wii?

According to the current issue of Retro Gamer (, Sega is thinking about a Burning Rangers sequel for the Wii. Sonic Team USA leader Takashi Iizuka dropped a possible clue:
"It's not my title, but I hear there's a lot of demand for a sequel, to bring out Burning Rangers on Wii so...we'll see."
Burning Rangers has developed quite a cult following considering it's rather mixed reviews. One has to wonder how much the sales of another Saturn classic on the Wii, NiGHTS, will effect the decision to make a sequel for Burning Rangers.

Sony Announces New PS3 and PSP Bundles Plus DUALSHOCK 3 Details

Sony Press Release:
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz., February 26, 2008 – At its annual retail and publisher conference Destination PlayStation, Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA) announced details of upcoming PLAYSTATION®3 (PS3™) and PSP®(PlayStation®Portable) (PSP-2000) hardware bundles with two of the most highly anticipated 2008 titles. The company also announced the April 2008 availability of DUALSHOCK®3 wireless controller in North America.

To coincide with the much-anticipated North American launch of Metal Gear Solid®4: Guns of the Patriots in late Q2 2008, SCEA will introduce a PS3 bundle, which will include an 80GB PS3, the upcoming blockbuster Metal Gear Solid®4: Guns of the Patriots and a DUALSHOCK 3 wireless controller for $499 (MSRP).

SCEA also announced the June 2008 availability of the limited-edition God of War® PSP Entertainment Pack for $199.99 (MSRP). The God of War Entertainment Pack will include a “Deep Red” PSP with God of War himself, Kratos, silk-screened on the back of the unit, a copy of the highly anticipated upcoming God of War: Chains of Olympus game for PSP, the hit comedy movie from Columbia Pictures, “Superbad™,” on UMD™ (Universal Media Disc), and a PLAYSTATION®Network voucher to download Syphon Filter®: Combat Ops from PLAYSTATION®Store. The stand-alone version of God of War: Chains of Olympus launches on March 4, 2008.

The odd thing about this press release is the PS3 bundle. It includes, what was previously thought to be discontinued, an 80GB unit. Is this the same 80 GB that Sony has been selling, or it a stripped-down version? As of now, we will have to assume it is the same. But, we shall see.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

PS3 Best Blu-ray Player Available?

According to, Sony's Playstation 3 is the best Blu-ray player on the market. Why is that? Read the following quote,
"The numbers refer to Blu-ray "profiles." There are three Blu-ray profiles: 1.0, 1.1 and 2.0.

Profile 1.0 or "grace period" profile Blu-ray players simply play the movie and start around $399. They tend to be kind of slow and there have been some player and software compatibility issues, which are two reasons I don't recommend them, especially when there is a far superior alternative available for the same $399. All of the stand-alone players on the market now (save one) are Profile 1.0.

Profile 1.1 or "Bonus View" players play the movie and add a secondary video decoder for picture-in-picture special features. There is only one Profile 1.1 model available, a $499 Panasonic. More will be coming later this year, priced from $349 and up. The Sony PlayStation 3 supports Profile 1.1 now and is available for $399.

Profile 2.0 or "BD-Live" players will play the movie, support Bonus View and add an Internet connection for Web interactive content and firmware updates. The Profile 2.0 standard is not fully developed and is expected to launch sometime in 2008. The PlayStation 3 will support BD-Live via a firmware update when Profile 2.0 is launched.

The obvious message here is: if you want a Blu-ray player, get a PlayStation 3! It is the fastest, most reliable Blu-ray player available, can be updated to Profile 2.0, and is priced the same as an entry-level Profile 1.0 player."

This is certainly great news for Sony. You would think they would be advertising this as much as their games. If Nintendo can capitalize on the casual gamer, why shouldn't Sony do the same with movie enthusiasts? Start advertising the PS3 as a Blu-ray player in as many audio and visual magazines as possible. Once these people get on board, they might even decide to try a game or two.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

The Video Game Industry Needs a ‘Roger Ebert’

Does anyone care what video game reviewers think? A better question might be, does the average consumer know where to turn when seeking advice on what games to buy? Here is a simple question: How many video game reviewers can you name? If you live and breathe video games you can probably name 2 or 3, at the most. The average consumer couldn't name a single one. Compare this to movie reviewers. The average consumer can surely name at least 2. Why is this? I think one reason is that most people over 30 still think of video games as a kid activity that you outgrow. The number of older gamers is definitely growing, but the kiddy perception still lingers. Another reason could be the lack of trusted reviewers. Most people who read video game reviews probably never even notice who is writing them. And why should they? There is no true authority in video game reviewing. There are no ‘Roger Eberts’ in the video game industry. But there needs to be.

This isn’t to say that there are no current video game journalists capable of achieving this. The gaming industry may need to mature a bit before taking this next step. Gamers who remember getting an Odyssey 2 or an Atari VCS when they were first released are just now reaching into their 40’s. And every year that passes, more and more older gamers will be talking about gaming as much as any other industry. The opportunities will be there for them to widen the scope of gaming. Part of that widening is already happening. Several non-gaming websites have active gaming sections:,, and others. And with this, more and more consumers are exposed to video games. The more people that are exposed to gaming, the more the game playing populace will expand. Once critical mass is hit, we could see a change in the way people view video game reviewers.

What I’m talking about here are people who are capable of reaching both hardcore gamers and casual gamers. The ‘Roger Eberts’ of the world are viewed and read by more than just movie fanatics. Even casual movie goers know exactly where to go to find a review when they need one. But casual gamers seem absolutely clueless when they are in need of a review. That is mainly because these gamers don’t know where to go to find good reviews. Or at least, reviews that they trust. Most casual gamers’ information comes from asking a kid working in the video game department. That is rarely a good idea. Have you ever gone to a theater with no clue what to watch and ask the ticket taker his advice?

Once a ‘Roger Ebert’ emerges in the video game industry, video game reviews will be more common place and be more accessible to casual gamers. The more mainstream gaming reviews become, the more the industry will grow. And, the more it is legitimized. And that will be good for all video game fans, hardcore and casual alike.