Our resident old-school gamer takes on the next—generation consoles
Squinting into the blazing Los Angeles sunshine, hundreds of journalists and industry insiders trooped dutifully out of a darkened soundstage on the Sony Pictures Studios lot last May. It was the close of the first major event at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo—better known as E3—the pivotal trade show for the video and computer gaming industry. The two—hour indoctrination into the wonders of Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3 video game console had peppered us with sales figures that heralded marketing triumphs past and present, enticed us with technical specifications that make your office computer look like a wind—up toy and treated us to never—before—seen demonstrations of dozens of games in the works. I joined a clutch of game—savvy colleagues and, even before the first free frosty beer hit my hand, had to ask: "Did you see anything in there you're really looking forward to playing?"
Let me put the question into perspective. As a segment of the overall economy, electronic interactive entertainment is anything but fun and games. The video game business had a rare down year in 2005—and still brought in $7 billion in the United States alone. Furthermore, the cock of the walk in the industry to date is unquestionably Sony. As of April, the company's PlayStation 2 had sold 101 million units, compared with 24 million Microsoft Xboxes and 21 million Nintendo GameCubes. So if you're Sony and you've gathered pretty near every industry opinion leader in one place for the big "reveal" of your next—generation standard—bearer, you want to hear some excitement at the end of the day. In this case, the buzz never was. Plenty of putatively new games were on display at the Sony press conference—shooters and driving games, futuristic warfare and the Second World War revisited, brutal beat—em—ups and sophisticated simulated sports. But aside from a new high—gloss finish, they were virtually the same games we'd played time and time again.
For the rest of the week I immersed myself in the maelstrom that is E3, experiencing the latest wares from the big three console makers—plus games for video game systems and computers from dozens of software publishers. And if you added up every one of the titles that amused or intrigued me out of hundreds of games on display, they might account for 5 percent of the total. Granted, the percentage of movies, TV shows or CDs that are worth my time is also pretty low. Still, it's disappointing to watch the vibrant gaming industry settle for mediocrity. Can anything stem the overwhelming tide of mediocre superhero smack—downs, been—there—done—that, hack—and—slash dungeon crawls and sports sequels that differ from their predecessors only in shinier equipment and updated rosters? I think so, but the answer isn't building boxes that blast through bits and bytes more effectively. Bottom line, it's kind of like shaving. You could hold in your hand the most perfectly balanced, exquisitely crafted razor, hand—carved from solid platinum by monks who devote their entire lives to the pursuit of tonsorial artistry, but stick a rusty blade in there and you're still going to have a lousy shave.
And the fact that too many decisions in the gaming industry are made to serve guys who haven't gotten around to shaving yet is part of the problem.
What Makes a Game Great?
Video games bear some resemblance to sports, with their emphasis on competition. And they certainly fit in the gaming category alongside Monopoly or chess or poker. But most of today's popular sports and games follow rules established generations ago. Tennis as we play it today has been around 133 years, golf since the fifteenth century—even Monopoly is 73 years old. Enjoyment is based on the player's ability to fine—tune performance within a well—established framework. Video and computer gaming, on the other hand, run on innovation. A major part of the fun is to tackle a new game. What can I do in this digital world? What are the rules? Which actions bring me rewards, and which bring down punishment? What strategies will help me succeed? Even if you've played hundreds of video games, new experiences are still to be had in this young art form—they're just hard to find among the racks of me—too crapola shoved onto store shelves.
Calling video gaming an "art form" may seem pretentious to the uninitiated, but if movies, television and theater can be lumped in with "the arts," then so can The Sims, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Games offer characters, tension and conflict, fictional worlds that are stylized representations of everyday reality. Aesthetic achievements in graphic presentation and musical scoring produce a profound emotional response both in the context of the overall dramatic presentation and in a gamer's appreciation of the pure artistry on display. Which brings us to the second driving force in the quest for excellence in video game creation: the quality of the content.
Bottom line: content trumps innovation in this two—part formula. It's a lot like TV. A show with an innovative premise, structure or presentation excites jaded viewers. But innovation alone won't hold an audience beyond the first week. Content that makes the most of new structural ideas is what delivers winning entertainment. Even well—established forms—sitcoms, police procedurals, hospital dramas—are fresh when the content is compelling.
Notice that technology is not part of my equation for a great game. Is it important? Of course, but not for its own sake. When I started playing video games, auto racing was a popular genre. The cars were represented by a few artfully placed dots on the screen that moved in simplistic patterns on a race course made up of dotted lines—and it was fun. Today, I can climb into virtual versions of every hot car I'll never be able to afford, put the pedal to the metal and become immersed in a high—intensity re—creation of the behind—the—wheel experience. Damn right, technology is important. But creative uses of the latest technology are few and far between.
Can bumping up the computing power change the gaming experience for the better? Absolutely! For example, Electronic Arts' Fight Night Round 3, available for Xbox 360 and soon for PlayStation 3, dishes up graphics that are more realistic than ever before. In it the players take on the roles of celebrity boxers throughout history, and the more my character looks like Ali when I'm re—creating the Rumble in the Jungle, the more I'm involved. Sounds good, but EA took the possibilities of better graphics one step beyond.
In every fighting game on the market, from boxing to martial arts to street brawling, on—screen meters, icons or readouts show how well you're doing. How close is your opponent to collapse? How much has your own strength waned? The Fight Night team looked at the stunningly realistic on—screen boxers they'd created and said, "Wait a minute—why do we have to tell the players how they're doing with text and gizmos on screen when they can see how the fight's going just by looking at the boxers?" The group added the option to wipe the screen clean. An entire layer of artificiality peeled away to reveal two guys in a ring, the toll of titanic combat dramatically clear in their cuts and bruises, the awful facial expression when a blow lands cleanly, the body language of pain and fatigue. Technology paved the way, but it was innovative thinking in the design phase and extraordinary execution by the artists and programmers that let gamers enjoy an amazing fighting experience without the bother of getting physically beaten to a pulp.
New Consoles, New Opportunities
Every few years the video gaming world hits an inflection point where a new generation of consoles is introduced—the Atari 2600 begat the ColecoVision which begat the Nintendo Entertainment System and so on down through the ages, and lo, it was good. Each generational advance means increased computing power for faster gaming action, improved graphic chips for a more cinematic presentation and enhanced audio for sound effects and musical scores.
The latest console generation actually kicked off last Christmas with the launch of Microsoft's Xbox 360, but the real test comes this year, with Sony and Nintendo joining Microsoft in the next—gen fray. And as the Japanese companies have finally opened their kimonos to reveal their plans for PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii (pronounced "wee"), we're seeing a fascinating strategic divergence. Standing toe—to—toe in a battle of hardware horsepower, Microsoft and Sony are attempting to bludgeon their opponents into submission with unprecedented levels of visual and auditory spectacle. Nintendo is taking a different tack.
Microsoft's Xbox 360 raised the bar on console computing power, delivering a spectacular multimedia gaming experience complete with HDTV support and surround—sound audio. It also can work as a "media extender" in a networked home, by playing back music, photos and video files stored on a home computer—not the primary reason you buy a gaming console, but very useful nonetheless. It's priced at $399 and $299—the lower—priced model lacks a hard disk drive and wireless controllers, though both can be added later—and I wouldn't be surprised to see a price drop before the crucial Christmas selling season.
Potentially the most interesting development, as Microsoft moved into the next generation of gaming, wasn't the upgraded hardware firepower but the improvements to the online gaming service, Xbox Live. Launched with the original Xbox (which for the first time offered as standard equipment the Ethernet port that is necessary for connecting to the Internet), Xbox Live began as a way to play head—to—head against opponents over the Internet. It's gained an increasingly important additional role with the new Xbox 360: serving as a way to distribute new software. Through the Xbox Live Arcade section of the service, players pay a modest fee (about $5) to download games to the console. Some of these are old favorites, like Joust and Robotron:2084, faithfully re—created for the Xbox 360. But the really fascinating titles come from independent developers who had previously faced difficulties selling games because of limited marketing budgets. The Xbox Live Arcade creates a marketplace where the indies—unbridled of manufacturing, packaging and shipping costs and the need to cut retailers in for a share of the profits—can suddenly make money while charging $5 or $10 a pop. What's more, every game available on Xbox Live Arcade has a free playable preview available, so consumers can try before they buy. By serving the game development community and feeding players' appetites for fresh experiences at reasonable prices, Microsoft's innovation has paid off.
Sony hopes to beat back the Microsoft challenge by unleashing a combination of cutting—edge tech and motion picture entertainment. When it comes to pure computing power, Sony arguably leads the console pack. In conjunction with IBM and Toshiba, the company has developed an extraordinary digital engine called the Cell processor. Without wading through too much technical bafflegab, the Cell processor has eight separate little brains on board, each of which works individually and simultaneously on a host of different tasks. In the personal computer world, the recently introduced dual—core processors from Intel and AMD handle two tasks at once, an improvement that led to a major boost in overall system performance. Now, in order to move zombies more efficiently and calculate the trajectory of post—explosion glass shards with anal retentive accuracy, Sony is bringing an eight—part processor into play. Sounds like nerd nirvana to me.
The company hasn't dropped the ball on the rest of the specs either. High—definition video delivers gorgeous visuals on an HDTV set as well as dramatic surround—sound audio. A built—in hard drive stores saved games plus music and photo files. But where's the innovation in the Sony PlayStation 3 hardware? It's largely found in the decision to include a Blu—ray disc drive as standard equipment. This drive lets PlayStation 3 owners play high—definition movies off discs the same size as today's standard—resolution DVDs.
Dedicated Blu—ray movie players (from consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sony) hit the market this past summer, with prices ranging from $1,000 to $1,500. Yet they lack the ability to connect to the Internet, which will be an important benefit of Blu—ray movie discs in coming years. PlayStation 3 plays the same movies, at the same resolution, for hundreds of dollars less, has the ability to connect to the Internet, and delivers lots of next—gen gaming goodness, too. However, the decision to build Blu—ray technology into the PlayStation 3 is a mixed blessing. Fundamentally, it has nothing to do with the ability to play more advanced games on the system. While it's possible that future programmers may require even more storage than their current DVD—based distribution allows, game developers I've spoken with are perfectly happy with a DVD's nine—gigabyte capacity. But Sony, as the lead developer of the Blu—ray format for high—definition movie discs, is at war with the competing HD DVD format championed by Toshiba, among others. And the PlayStation 3 is meant to serve as a Trojan horse for Blu—ray, infiltrating millions of homes with a device, attached to your big—screen TV, that delivers a breathtaking high—definition game—playing experience and, oh yeah, also ties you into the Blu—ray movie format. Then what's the downside? PlayStation 3 will ship in two models with prices of $500 and $600—far more expensive than the other consoles. And sadly, you don't want the $500 box, since it lacks an HDMI connector to take full advantage of high—definition video and ensure against future copy—protection decisions by the movie studios.
Sony is promoting a system that delivers excellent value as a combination game machine and high—definition movie player…except that less than 25 percent of Americans have a single high—definition TV set today, much less a houseful of them, and in the battle for family eyeballs, the game player isn't likely to beat out the "Lost," "CSI" and "Desperate Housewives" watchers for access to the HDTV. While I heartily applaud PlayStation 3 as a gaming machine, most pundits agree that titles running on the Xbox 360 look and sound equally fine. Yes, a blitz of cunningly crafted ads will pump up gamers' expectations during the Christmas shopping season, the first shipments of PlayStation 3 will fly off the shelves in November, and CNN will run stories about the phenomenal prices fetched on eBay to obtain one of these fetish items. But as the console wars progress, I wonder if a $600 box is going to be a compelling purchase for Americans with huge energy bills and $1.49 in the kid's college fund.
Which brings us to the price leader in our competition, Nintendo. Competing against Microsoft and Sony, whose gaming divisions are cogs in multifaceted electronic product conglomerates, Nintendo remains a pure gaming company. This has led it to a radically different video—gaming approach, one based more on creativity than computing horsepower. This has always been the company's strength—these are the folks who brought us Donkey Kong and Mario and The Legend of Zelda, games that can truly entertain the entire family. The worlds they create are frankly strange, but in the best possible way, with surprises around every corner, absurd situations that follow their own weird internal logic in an intriguing way, always packed with colorful sights and animation and sounds brimming with charm.
I was pleased to serve as a judge at this year's E3 for the annual Game Critics Awards. Writers and editors from 37 media outlets, ranging from the mainstream (Time, Newsweek) to the digerati (GameSpot, IGN, 1UP.com), scoured the convention for games that "will shape the future of interactive entertainment." The Best of Show award went to Nintendo's next—generation gaming console, the Nintendo Wii, due to ship this year in time for the holidays and priced at under $250. Despite the new console's bizarre name, I couldn't be happier to see Nintendo get a wet, sloppy kiss from the critics. While the others are throwing higher—powered hardware at the challenge of generating increased fun, Nintendo's latest console has more modest hardware specs. It won't even output a high—def TV signal like the others. But it boasts a radically different controller and games that had E3 crowds waiting up to three hours to play.
Nintendo's controller is a two—handed affair, a major departure right there. One part is called a "Nunchuk"—it has a small thumb— controlled joystick on top, mostly used to control an on—screen character's movement. The other controller component is a rectangular wand that uses motion—tracking technology to follow your movements in the air. When playing a gun—fighting sequence, you move your on—screen character around with the Nunchuk, aim your weapon with the motion—sensitive wand and pull the trigger. For sword fighting, you slash, parry and thrust with that wand for all you're worth (can't wait to get my hands on a Star Wars light saber in a Wii game). Want to play tennis? Toss the ball into the air with a quick upward flip of the wand, then bring the virtual racket down with a natural—feeling arm movement. For games that are best handled via traditional button mashing, that still works here. But when you can make Mario run and jump and execute special moves by pointing, flipping and wiggling a controller, it turns game play into a more involving experience, with maneuvers anyone in the family can learn without burrowing through manuals or requiring an eight—year—old's reflexes.
Nintendo was late to the party when it came to connecting consoles to the Internet, but it's on board with the Wii. While access to software development tools for indie game studios is still hazy, the company has announced that every Nintendo game that has been released for previous—generation consoles will be available for download to the Wii, unleashing a potent combination of nostalgia and first—rate gaming action.
Hope for the Future
Looking at the other Best of E3 award winners and nominees makes me less gloomy about the future of a prized form of entertainment.
The winner for Best Original Game (and best PC game) comes from Will Wright, creator of the most successful gaming franchise of all time, The Sims. Frankly, while I respect the artistry involved in creating the interactive system and component parts that allow players to control a virtual world in The Sims, it's never been my favorite pastime. The first time I failed to deal with a Sim's virtual bladder needs and suffered soaked trousers for my troubles, I was out of there. On the other hand, I find Wright's latest project tantalizing. It's called Spore, and challenges players to evolve life forms, beginning with single—cell organisms and advancing right up to intergalactic exploration. I had to try my hand at building my own creature at E3 and, while this is only one small part of the overall experience, it proved how intoxicating it can be to play God, especially when the means of manipulating reality so ingeniously balance power with simplicity.
On the hunt for innovation, Spore doesn't disappoint. Part of the pleasure of playing the game is wide—ranging exploration—as your critters master space travel they can visit thousands of planets, engaging the local residents through cooperation or conquest. But instead of hiring armies of artists to populate a universe, Wright substituted group dynamics for brute force: as players around the world develop a diverse array of creatures, their creations are uploaded and used to populate the in—game universe of other players. But you don't want your carefully tended population wiped out by some hyperaggressive kid out in the datasphere, right? Right, says Wright, and here's the solution: everybody uploads creatures, and copies are distributed to everyone who's playing, to live independently on the recipient's own computer. The Whiffleturd I built will proliferate onto thousands of other computers, but my own population remains unscathed unless I play badly on my own machine. Very smart.
Another winner embodying the twin virtues of innovation and content excellence is Assassin's Creed, a spectacular action—adventure game developed by Ubisoft for PlayStation 3. Set in the Middle East during the Crusades, this epic drama turns the controller—clutching player into a stealthy assassin, leaping across rooftops and hiding in crowded markets in pursuit of his prey. The cinematic presentation demonstrates the virtue of cutting—edge technology used well. The exotic locale teems with life and period detail. Even the crowds have personality—jostle these seemingly unimportant figures out of your way as you run through the square and you'll make them angry, thus calling attention to yourself and endangering your mission. Assassin's Creed makes you the star of a thrilling action—adventure movie—if that's not worth 50 bucks, what is?
I'm jazzed about Bioshock, developer Irrational Games's amazing fictional creation for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3. It drops you into a malfunctioning underwater city, clearly placed somewhere in the future but entirely decorated in art deco style, and inhabited by little girls with mysterious powers, hulking creatures in giant suits who protect them, and enough automated security systems to efficiently perforate you in an instant. This is a fully imagined world, populated with artificially intelligent friends and foes and irresistibly immersive in its sights and sounds.
As proof that it doesn't take gigabytes of storage and enough horsepower to run a small country to achieve heights of digital amusement, consider LocoRoco, an upcoming title for Sony's handheld PSP system. The animated graphics resemble an artfully illustrated children's book—simple shapes, bright cheery colors—but with a lively charm that's more compelling than layers of realistic detail. The challenge in this puzzle game is familiar—get your animated critter from the starting point to the finish line of each level—but the way you accomplish this goal is ingenious. Among its many control buttons, the PSP has two triggers mounted on the top left and right corners, where your index fingers naturally fall when holding the device. By pressing the right controller you virtually tip the on—screen world to the right, and the on—screen characters respond to gravity and move in that direction, and vice versa. That's all she wrote: make the world lean left or right, figure out how to use these simple controls to avoid puzzles and overcome barriers, and try to avoid giggling audibly at the charming on—screen action. It's a game that will intrigue my youngest nephew, but he'll have to fight me for it.
Ultimately, I think what's going to save video and computer gaming from the muck and mire of mediocrity is an awareness among the game developers and publishers that there's money to be made catering to a wider swath of the gaming audience. I'm a dedicated game player, but I'm not the 17—year—old boy with testosterone practically squirting out of his ears who constitutes the target audience for video games according to TV and print advertising. In fact, all that high—volume hype conceals an intriguing fact about video gaming today—it's not just kid stuff. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 69 percent of American heads of households play computer and video games. The average game player today is 33 years old. While 31 percent of game players are 18 years old or younger, a full 25 percent of us are over 50.
I started playing video games back in 1980, the days of Pong in bars and Atari and Intellivision in the living room. By 1982, I was editing a publication called Atari Age, delivering over a million copies of each issue to Atari 2600 console owners. My journalistic interests diversified over the years to include essentially everything that runs on electrons, but like many of my peers with children, mortgages and rapidly retiring hair follicles, I never gave up video gaming. Why should we? When we were younger men we discovered the entertainment value of listening to music, watching TV and movies, reading books and magazines, looking at photos of scantily clad women and playing video games. Why should we abandon any of these pleasures as we mature? In fact, video gaming is even more fun when you have something approximating an income and can snatch up the latest release without having to wait for a birthday check from Aunt Edith. And unlike sports guys who experience the inexorable diminution of performance as their bodies age, and may even have to give up a beloved activity altogether if their knees go hinky or something's not kosher with a hamstring, I see no reason I can't keep blowing the heads off aliens for decades to come.
Why does the maturity of the gaming audience make a difference? Because we are a more demanding audience. Every year, hundreds of thousands of newcomers enter the gaming marketplace, video gaming virgins who've never flown a spaceship or decapitated a zombie before, whose blood boils and wallets open at old ideas with a shiny new facade. But if a huge percentage of your potential audience is wise in the ways of the gaming world, you're going to have to work a little harder to impress us with your creative abilities. Why, for instance, are so few truly humorous games available, when comedy is such a mainstream entertainment genre? How can you tailor the game—playing experience to grown—up lives, where we may have a half hour at a stretch to play and want to save our progress whenever we're good and ready? And how about modulating the level of difficulty so we can actually see the ending of the games we've paid for with our hard—earned money, instead of tossing away the controller in disgust after hours of frustration? The high—powered equipment needed to create fully satisfying gaming experiences is out there—now it's up to the game developers and publishers to prove they're capable of creating something more interesting than mindless explosions, superior animation and freshly painted dungeons.
Steve Morgenstern is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor who writes often on technology issues.