NX Launch title speculation

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The NX should be in our homes within a year but what games can we expect to play on Nintendo’s new box? Nintendo has to strike a balance between releasing enough 1st party games on a regular basis to satisfy its fans yet not shoot its load too early and leave fans in a software drought for months at a time. After all, with Nintendo’s track record we can’t count on 3rd party support, especially if the NX turns out to be drastically different from the PS4 and the Xbox One – making porting more hassle than it’s worth. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild Legend-of-Zelda-Breath-of-the-Wild-Screenshots-02-1280x720

Nintendo have already confirmed Breath of the Wild will be an NX launch title1. No doubt this will please many hardcore Nintendo fans looking for a meaty title to get their teeth into during the launch period.

Personally I think Skyward Sword and Spirit Tracks are among the worst Zelda games Nintendo have released. Breath of the Wild needs to do something special to restore my faith in the franchise and after watching some of the footage that Nintendo have released I have to say this is shaping up to be one of the best Zelda games in recent years. That being said, Nintendo aren’t very forward thinking so Breath of the Wild could go either way. It’s all well and good offering us new mechanics, new items and a vast open world but will it have substance? Walking around a large open world scattered with a few fetch quests and several handfuls of heart containers placed slightly out of reach just isn’t going to cut it. Nintendo needs to make a believable, fun world packed full of a variety of side quests that offer up new experiences and offer unique rewards.

Chance: 100% 

Super Mario

Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel were both critically acclaimed2 and many fans were hoping that Galaxy 3 would find its way onto the Wii U. What we got instead was Super Mario 3D World which was also a fantastic game, although it didn’t quite hit the sale note that the Galaxy series did. So what does this mean for NX? Will Nintendo finally release a Galaxy 3?

The Galaxy series would undoubtedly make it into my list of favourite games of all time yet I think it would be a shame for Nintendo to bring us another. Nintendo needs to do what Nintendo does best and bring us yet another fresh, genre redefining Mario game that we know they are capable of. We want to be blown away with an all new concept that shows us why Mario is truly the king of platformers.

Nintendo have released six home consoles to date with only two of them (Gamecube and Wii) not having a core 2D or 3D Mario game as a launch title. The chances are then that Mario will either be a launch title or released within the launch window (a moving target, that let’s say for arguments sake will be within the first 12 months). Nintendo have a lot of fans to win back with the NX so a Mario game early on will be a no brainer, and let’s face it 3D World was released back in 2013 and aside from some smaller projects the team have been pretty quiet since.

Chance: 90%

Donkey Kong Country

We know that Retro have actively been working3 on an unannounced title since Tropical Freeze was released back in 2014. Based on Retro’s previous track record we could be looking at a new Metroid game, a 3rd DKC returns game or even revitalising another beloved Nintendo franchise. I’m playing this one safe then as I don’t think it’s a certainty that we’ll get another Kong game any time soon. Nintendo have been known to rest many well know franchises with Metroid skipping the N64 entirely while Donkey Kong has been put to bed a few times throughout the decades, coming back years later reinvented.

Chance: 33% 

Metroid

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Nintendo would do well to come out swinging with this one. We haven’t seen a core 3D Metroid game since 2007’s Corruption while a core 2D game last graced our screens back in 2004 in the form of Zero Mission (a remake of the original Metroid game). Of course we all remember the rather lack-lustre Other M4 which was a bit of a bastardisation of both the 2D and 3D games but even that, as the most recent Metroid outing was released in 2010.

Metroid producer Kensuke Tanabe stated to Eurogamer that a new entry in the series likely wouldn’t drop until the NX is released5 due to the development time of a new game. It’s also difficult to predict whether a new entry in the series will return to the games classic 2D roots or if Retro would pick it up for yet another Prime-esq game. While it’s not strictly an FPS, my guess is that Nintendo will want to offer up something within that genre.  After all the prime series looked gorgeous and was perhaps the Trojan horse to help sell the Wii to the FPS market.

I do think though that a new 2D Metroid could be on the horizon but this would suit a more niche audience and so Nintendo would do well to develop a 3D game first.

Chance: 70%

Kirby 

There’s no shortage of Kirby games, we tend to receive one in some form every couple of year. Be it a pinball spin off or a platformer with a new aesthetic, Kirby is constantly being reinvented, some love the franchise and some hate it. Kirby is a great addition to Nintendo’s library as the games are generally kid friendly but appeal to old skool Nintendo fans.

Kirby is arguably one of the lesser franchises that jumps to mind when thinking about Nintendo games so while the chances of getting at least a few Kirby games on NX is fairly high I wouldn’t hold my breath that there’s going to be one for launch. In fact, to date no Kirby game has ever been released on any platform for the launch date. Kirby doesn’t have the appeal to draw in gamers looking to invest in a new piece of hardware; instead this franchise should be used more as “filler” to bolster months with fewer 1st party releases.

Chance: 20%

Pikmin 4 

While not strictly a lunch title, the original Pikmin was a launch window game, releasing within a matter of weeks of the GameCube. Pikmin 2 followed around 2 years later, also for the GameCube while Pikmin 3 hit around 6 months after the Wii U launch – technically being another launch window game.

Back in August 2015 Shigeru Miyamoto confirmed that Pikmin 4 was nearing completion6 and with no word on progress since it has presumably been ported over to NX. The chances are then that Pikmin 4 will certainly be released within a matter of months of the NX launch, if not on launch day.

Chance: 80% 

Fire Emblem

SI_3DS_FireEmblemAwakeningAs an old school Nintendo fan I’m always surprised when a game emerges that I know nothing about – Fire Emblem is one such franchise. I was already familiar with Advance Wars but I’d never even heard of Fire Emblem until Awakening was announced for the 3DS. Glancing at sales figures, previews and news articles makes one thing clear since the release of Awakening; Fire Emblem is now more relevant than ever. A Fire Emblem game heading to the NX then seems like a no brainer.

With Fates releasing very recently for the 3DS it’s hard to predict what developer Intelligent Systems will do next. They may return to the sister series, Advance Wars or work on something totally different. With the huge sales enjoyed by Fates7 (even outselling the massively successful Awakening) Nintendo may decide to strike while the iron is hot and choose to release a follow up as quickly as possible. And what better way to release a follow up to a successful franchise than to develop it for a new piece of hardware that they are trying to push?

Although Fire Emblem is far more relevant than it’s ever been its important not to overstate how big this franchise is. Nintendo’s big hitters such as Pokémon, Mario Kart and Super Mario regularly shift in the region of 10 times the amount of copies that Fire Emblem can8. Why send out Fire Emblem to die when Nintendo could ship it during a slower period?

Chance: 25%

Pokémon

“Pokémon on a home console?” I hear you cry? Rumours are rife9 that the NX will in fact be a hybrid console, combining both the power of a home console, playable on a TV along with the flexibility and portability of a hand held.

Pokémon is without doubt one Nintendo’s most beloved, best selling franchises and since its inception back in the late 90’s the franchise has never skipped a handheld generation. With Sun and Moon arriving later this year it’s doubtful that we’ll see a new entry in the series for the NX launch. We don’t yet know what compatibility will be like with previous consoles though so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility to see a 3rd game to complement Sun and Moon. The last time we got a 3 game generation was back on the DS with Diamond, Pearl and Platinum.

Chance: 30%

Star Fox

Over the years Star Fox has gained average to good review scores10, with the most recent entry in the franchise, Star Fox Zero scoring among the lowest in the series. Nintendo need to plan their next move carefully. It’s fair to say Star Fox has never been among the top echelons of Nintendo’s all-stars so it would come as no surprise if Star Fox doesn’t make an appearance on the NX any time soon – if at all (Star Fox was notably absent from the Wii).

Chance: 10% 

Mario Kart

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Since being introduced on the SNES, Mario Kart has had a single release on every piece of Nintendo hardware (with the exception being the Virtual Boy). There’s no doubt that Mario Kart will make an appearance on the NX but what’s more difficult to predict is when it will see the light of day.

Mario Kart 8 was released around 2 years ago so it’s fair to say another entry in the series could be well into development but then again how often are Mario Kart games launch titles for a system? The answer is never. Although we’ve seen Mario Kart games during the launch window we’ve never actually been able to pick up a copy day and date with a new piece of hardware. The chances of Mario Kart NX being a launch day title then? Not good. The chances of it being released within the first year? Fairly good. 

Chance: 60%

Splatoon

Splatoon is a hard one to call, is this destined to become a staple Nintendo franchise or will fans see it relegated to the likes of Pilotwings, Wave Race and Kid Icarus, popping up every couple of generations with no real consistency?

Considering Splatoon was universally praised11, sold fantastically well12 and had its own range of Amiibo it seems only logical that Nintendo will continue pushing it in the coming years. Not only does Splatoon fill the role of a pseudo-shooter (a genre lacking from Nintendo’s 1st party teams) but it appeals to a wide range of gamers and offers online play, a market which Nintendo really needs to cater to.

Chance: 50%

Animal Crossing         

Animal crossing is another heavy hitter for Nintendo. The game uses a tried and tested formula and iterations don’t tend to offer much in the way of new mechanics but nevertheless fans lap up each entry in the series. Animal Crossing hasn’t made an appearance on the Wii U so there’s a good chance a game might have been in the works and is now being ported over to the NX.

Animal Crossing would be one of the better games to show off the capabilities of the NX. Taking the game on the move and street passing with other players then heading back home and visiting their village with your home internet connection all while enjoying the graphics on your HDTV seems like a great way to sell a new game in the series. 

Chance: 70%

Super Mario Maker 2 

Super Mario Maker was a great idea. Take the LittleBigPlanet formula; throw in a bunch of Super Mario Brothers items, power-ups and landscapes then create a bunch of near impossible obstacles or novelty music levels for friends to enjoy. After offering players all the recourses they need to faithfully recreate levels from the golden age of Super Mario Bros. what more can Nintendo offer?

Chances are a Super Mario Maker 2 would do something completely different. The less likely idea would be to offer players a Super Mario Maker 3D, featuring elements of games from Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and Super Mario Galaxy. Not only would this overwhelm players but seamlessly transitioning between these 3 generations of Mario games and mixing up mechanics such as FLUDD from Sunshine or planetoids from Galaxy would be an absolute nightmare.

The other, far more likely scenario then is to tackle a different franchise. How about a The Legend of Zelda Maker? A Metroid Maker or a Donkey Kong Maker? All 3 of these would work well and after up different, unique experiences. Imagine creating dungeons in a Zelda maker or creating sections of a space station in Metroid and deciding which doors can be unlocked with which upgrades? What about designing mine kart sections for Donkey Kong?

Sales of Super Mario Maker were pretty strong so Nintendo must have had the conversation about where to take the “maker” franchise next. That said, this type of game probably isn’t suited as a launch title to show off a system and its graphics. I’d expect to see a game like perhaps 2 or 3 years into the NX’s life.

Chance: 20%

Super Smash Bros. NX

Smash Bros. is now a staple Nintendo franchise, with an entry hitting each Nintendo home console since the N64. Each game in the series is received with overwhelming praise14, so what better way to celebrate Nintendo’s rich history and character roster than with an all-star game?

There’s no doubt that during the life of the NX a Smash Bros. game will release, the question is when? Furthermore who will develop the next game? The wait between Melee and Brawl was 7 years, while the 4th entry in the series Super Smash Bros. Wii U and 3DS came a further 6 years later. With that in mind were not likely to see a new game until around 2020, well into the NX life-cycle.

Series director Masahiro Sakurai has also expressed a desire to move on from Smash Bros. due to its lengthy development time and fan expectations. If Sakurai really is done then Nintendo will want to carefully select a worthy development team to take over the reins – this could take some time. All signs then point to the next Smash Bros. being a fair few years away yet.

Chance: 20%

  1. https://www.nintendo.co.uk/News/2016/April/Nintendo-provides-updates-on-mobile-NX-and-The-Legend-of-Zelda-along-with-annual-earnings-1102529.html
  2. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/super-mario-galaxy
  3. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/02/28/wii-u-is-a-powerhouse-says-donkey-kong-country-developer
  4. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii/metroid-other-m
  5. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-06-17-next-proper-metroid-prime-would-likely-now-be-on-nx
  6. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2014-07-20-pikmin-4-in-development-and-very-close-to-completion
  7. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  8. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427_4e.pdf
  9. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-07-26-nx-is-a-portable-console-with-detachable-controllers
  10. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/star%20fox/results
  11. http://www.metacritic.com/game/wii-u/splatoon
  12. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/pdf/2016/160427e.pdf
  13. https://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/sales/software/wiiu.html
  14. http://www.metacritic.com/search/all/smash%20bros./results
  15. http://www.gamesradar.com/super-smash-bros-creator-may-be-done-series/

The problem with… The last boss

I’ve been playing video games for the best part of 30 years but I don’t consider myself to be exceptionally skilled. I’ve never excelled at PVP games and I’ve never been top of online leader boards. I don’t mind a challenge but I don’t always crave it which is why I can enjoy an easy run through of Kirby’s Epic Yarn or get stuck into Demon’s Souls should the mood take me.

What I do have a problem with though is excessively scaling the difficulty when approaching the end of a game or when reaching the final boss. Generally speaking I think the concept of a final boss is outdated, sure in some cases it’s useful but it shouldn’t be the default. Did The Last of Us feel as if it were missing something for not including a last boss? Granted genres such as the RPG need a final boss, the whole purpose of progressing and in some cases grinding in a JRPG is to power up and become strong enough to obliterate the antagonist.

There have been a good handful of games that have left a sour taste in my mouth specifically because of an annoying or particularly difficult final boss. It’s almost to the point for me where an outstanding game can be relegated to an “ok” game purely based on that final impression that it leaves. So this then is what I’d like to discuss throughout this article. I’d also like to make it clear that all of the games I’m about to list have left an impression on me over the years for having issues when it comes to the final boss, some are old, some are new. I’ve specifically chosen to not revisit these games while writing this article as the point is this – these games did or almost did turn me off them just because of one final battle and that’s one of the memories I’ve been left with.

Of course spoilers will follow as we’re talking about the end of several games here.

Final Fantasy VIII

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Final Fantasy VIII was defiantly my least favourite of the PS1 trilogy of games, that being said I still enjoyed the game, the story and the characters. I’ve actually played through the game at least 2 times from what I can remember but I’ve never actually completed it. My problem with the final boss, Ultimercia isn’t necessarily with the battle itself but rather an overwhelmingly broken system. The draw system in my mind was undoubtedly flawed, permanently limiting the amount of magic you can store and use and forcing the player to constantly grind to “draw” more magic from enemies offered nothing new or exciting to the battle system. Sure it ensured players thought a bit more about each move. Should you really use the highest tier of Fire magic (Firaga), which you’ve only stocked 10 of when you could use the basic Fire magic which you’ve stored 99 of? Essentially though, I found the system at best a grindy nuisance and at worst game breaking.

When reaching Ultimercia for the first time I quickly realised not only did I need to level up my characters but I would also need to spend time grinding in order to draw useful magic. And here’s where I encountered the second problem – I had no way of returning to the world. I could be wrong here but I could only figure out how to access certain areas of the world map and if memory serves the towns were blocked behind magic barriers, preventing me returning to areas to stock up on items and equipment. I’m sure at the time I consulted walkthrough’s to figure out exactly how to return to different islands but it either couldn’t be done or it was too convoluted. And with that Ultimercia still reigns supreme.

My complaint then might seem more about the gameplay mechanics of Final Fntasy VIII rather than the boss but I’ll stress this, I had no problem progressing through the game up until this point. It was literally a case of I was powerful enough to progress through the entire game but not powerful enough to beat Ultimercia.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves

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Now hear me out – pretty much every game on this list I like, some I even love. Uncharted 2 is without doubt a superb game, it’s one of my favourite PS3 games but I can’t deny the last boss, Lazarević was a right cunt. In all fairness I play the Uncharted games on hard and crushing difficulties so I’m fully expecting to die a lot during my adventure. That being said the difficulty ramped up considerably during this fight to the point where I wanted to throw my pad against a wall and feed the plastic shards to Lazarević himself.

On top of being difficult, this boss fight was extremely dull, essentially it involved running around in a circle in order to hide from Lazarević then pop a purple ball of goo over him before he spots you. This process had to be repeated several times in a row and if you were attacked you were screwed. I remember attempting this boss fight many, many times in a row before I finally took the big bastard down.

Uncharted is one of those series where I really wouldn’t mind if they totally left out the final boss fights. There wasn’t really one in Uncharted 3: Among Thieves and I didn’t feel cheated because of it.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

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Alright, so I’m picking on Uncharted here. Naughty Dog are up there as one of my favourite developers and the Uncharted series is one of my favourite franchises of all time, so why am I complaining about yet another boss? Surprisingly I actually thought this boss fight was excellent, I loved it! Mechanically and visually this boss fight was superb, what I didn’t like however was the difficulty of getting through it.

This final boss fight sees Drake in a good old standoff with one of the games antagonists, Rafe. You engage in an epic sword fight with stunning animations and great mechanics, really impressive stuff. The fight itself consists of a series of attack and parry moves where you have to correctly block whichever side Rafe is about to attack you from. These moves feel so quick and difficult to judge that most of the time I either couldn’t react fast enough or I couldn’t quite figure out where he was going to attack me from. There’s also a bunch of quick time / button mash sections which aren’t so bad. I actually enjoyed this battle to begin with before I realised just how damn difficult it is. I think there are 3 or 4 checkpoints scattered throughout this fight but getting to each one became a real chore to the point where the novelty of the fight really started to wear off. It’s a real shame as this game is near perfect but perhaps the difficulty of the final boss could have been better balanced.

Donkey Kong Country Returns

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I distinctly remember how I felt when I finally finished Donkey Kong Country Returns. I almost didn’t feel like finishing this one, I was immensely frustrated with how broken this boss was. Whereas the previous games featured in this article felt too difficult, DKC Returns actually felt broken. I could pass off the previous boss battles in this article as me not being good enough, with this tough it felt like I needed a whole lot of luck – which in a game like this is unforgivable.

Tiki Tong is essentially a huge head with fists who floats above the stage, pounding down every now and again in order to squash the titular ape. So what’s to stop you applying general boss fight logic and carefully watching his attack pattern? Well that’s just the thing; Tiki Tong seems to break the rules of the game, attacking in ways that are seemingly unpredictable. The difficulty curve throughout the game seemed to gently ramp up but by the final boss it shot through the roof. Why frustrate players like this? I didn’t feel a sense of achievement for defeating Tiki, I simply felt like burning the cart and never returning to the game again.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

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Another broken, totally unfair boss fight, there’s no other way to put it. The battle against Senator Armstrong feels like a broken mess and offers nothing except frustration. As with Tiki Tong, I felt absolutely no sense of achievement for taking this big bastard down, I simply felt annoyed that developers, Platinum had deemed this a worthy end to the game.

The boss fight includes a bunch of quick time events where you have to slash in particular directions in order to stop Armstrong from hitting you with various projectiles. I can’t quite remember exactly what I was apparently doing wrong here but I couldn’t get the timing nailed down and he’d repeatedly pummel me. I seem to remember spending a couple of hours over the course of several nights trying to overcome this fight. I’d consulted walkthrough’s and asked other people who were playing the game exactly how I should kill him and I still had issues.

The worst thing here is that slashing in the correct directions was a broken mechanic in itself; I had to look up video walkthrough to figure out how to get around the broken system by moving the analogue sticks in very specific ways to allow the game to correctly recognise my input direction. Bosses like this are truly awful, why should I suffer because of a clearly broken gameplay mechanic?

Bloodborne

Bloodborne

Probably another controversial one for the list then is Bloodborne’s final boss Gehrman (which I’ve learnt isn’t actually the final, final boss but he happened to be the boss I defeated to see the end game). This Jerk doesn’t look anything special, especially in a game like Bloodborne where many of the bosses tower above you. Forget his looks though, this is one difficult boss who caused me to almost stop playing the game right there and then.

Now I realise Bloodborne, along with the Soul’s games are renowned for their difficulty. That being said I’d made my way through the game up until this point and I’d previously finished all the Soul’s games. My character was around level 100 by the time I reached Gehrman, which I’m guessing is pretty powerful considering a lot of people seem to finish the game around the level 70 sort of mark. I’d expected a challenge by the time I reached the final boss but after levelling up so much and killing every boss in the main game I imagined I’d prepared enough for this final encounter.

Gehrman charges right for you and he doesn’t give up so you’ll need to be quick and skilled in order to dodge, shoot and counter him. The problem here is I just never really got comfortable with the shooting to stagger your enemies mechanic throughout the game and by the time I reached the final boss I struggled to get this right. Regardless, I was able to stagger Gehrman multiple times but on the odd occasion he did manage to attack me I’d basically had it. So time and time again I respawed and had to start the battle again, and here is the underlying problem with the boss battles throughout this game.

I noticed fairly early on that the blood vials mechanic was either massively broken or so cryptic that I couldn’t understand or figure out how it worked. Generally speaking you have a set amount of vials (let’s say 10) that can be consumed to regain health. These vials can be obtained by killing enemies and collecting them as loot or bought. Once consumed, they have to be replenished – or do they? I never quite figured this out. Many times I’d start a boss fight, fully stocked up on vials, consume several then die. Once I respawned it was pot luck as to whether these vials automatically replenished themselves back to 10 or whether I was left with the amount I had when I died. This continually happened throughout the game during boss fights. Die – respawn – check vials. Sometimes they’d be full, despite using them during the boss fight, other times I’d be left with the amount I had once I died.

So although Gehrman was a difficult boss battle, the game mechanics made it infinitely more frustrating. I’ts no exaggeration to say that for every time I attempted Gehrman I was probably spending 15 minutes grinding the starting area to replenish my vials. 

Dishonourable mention 

DrinkBox Studios’ Guacamelee came to mind while writing this article but I’d realised it wasn’t the final boss that almost had me quit this game. Jaguar Javier, a boss towards the end of the game actually gave me the biggest headache while playing Guacamelee. In some respects this is the worst offender on my list as I wasn’t even at the end game when I encountered a boss that very nearly made me quite the game. 

Conclusion 

Many games take the approach of the action film genre where the main protagonist finally catches up to the antagonist of the film and takes them down in one final battle. Back when gaming was in its infancy the majority of experiences were action based and involved heavy amounts of slaughtering and thus a last boss was a nice full stop to a game whose ending generally consisted of a “The End” screen. Thankfully games are starting to mature as a medium and in cases like The Last of Us or Journey the narrative is good enough that the inclusion of a final challenge is not always appropriate for the player to feel satisfied.

Developers need to be bold enough and confident enough with the experience they have created to not have to shoe horn in a final boss battle. However if a boss battle is required then developers need to realise that offering one final challenge should be satisfying and not frustrating. A good boss battle should require the player to use the abilities and techniques they have built up throughout the game but not feel cheated by the difficulty curve ramping up inconsistently when facing the final boss.

The Vita – Sony’s love letter to the games of yesteryear and the hidden gems you’re missing

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Note: This article was originally published November 10th 2015 over at Playstation Enthusiast

I’ve always been a bit of a Nintendo devotee when it comes to handheld gaming. There’s something about Nintendo that just nails the handheld experience every time. Not only is the price point typically pretty good but you are generally offered a different experience than what you’re presented with on the big N’s home console counterparts.

Although I’ve owned every PlayStation home console I’d skipped right past the PSP because I found nothing about the system appealing. After all, what did I want with a multimedia device with big clunky mini-disc inspired game discs? Sure the PSP looked great but it didn’t really speak to me, it didn’t offer the experiences I was looking for. After all the PSP was well known for trying to replicate the PS2 experience on the move, I was interested in new experiences like using the touch screen on my newly acquired Nintendo DS. Eventually during the dying days of the PSP I decided to borrow one and I bought a couple of essential games to play on it (Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII).

Not long after my hands on time with a PSP the Vita was announced. Unfortunately it didn’t ignite my interest; I did however keep a close eye on its catalogue of games. So what changed? Why did I feel the need to dive in and finally buy a Vita? Certainly one of the more common complaints is the lack of AAA games on the device, what could I possibly want with it?

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Here’s the reality, the Vita will never please the gamer looking for the latest blockbuster. What it will absolutely do is please the gamer looking for the curve ball, the unique, crazy Japanese experience, the niche visual novel that nobody has heard of. There is a treasure trove of gold if you’re willing to take the time to look because unfortunately, Sony does a bad job of advertising not only the system but its unique collection of games. The Vita doesn’t have to be about Call of Duty, Mass Effect or Bioshock; the Vita is about Danganronpa, Tearaway and Freedom Wars. Indeed it was upon hearing about the imminent release of Danganronpa that ultimately convinced me that the Vita was worth buying, that and the recent announcement that the original 1000 series (with the OLED screen) was about to be discontinued. I had recently played through and enjoyed 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors on my DS and upon hearing about the visual novel-esq Danganronpa I started looking at other games that I might be interested in if I owned a Vita. I gathered a small list of games that I either wanted (but were not system sellers alone) and games that looked interesting but had previously passed me by because I didn’t own a Vita. The time felt right to grab a Vita, after all even if no other games would be released that interested me at least I’d got together a handful of games that I was happy buying a system for. And so my journey began.

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Here’s where it gets interesting, originally I didn’t want a Vita because much touted features such as cross-buy to me felt like a nice extra but not a reason to own a device. I’d rather have a great library of games exclusive to a system rather than the ability to play many of my PSN and PS3 games on the move. Over the next few months I started to notice sales crop up on the digital store for PS1 classics and I found myself grabbing bargains here and there for many classic games that had passed me by. You see I’d owned a PS1 but I primarily did my gaming on my N64 so I’d played Final Fantasy VII yet I’d missed out on Grandia, Wild Arms and the Suikoden games to name but a few. Rather than paying the outlandish prices some of these games now fetch on disc I grabbed them for £2 or £3 per game! I then started searching for great PSP games I’d also missed out on and I discovered delights such as the Patapon series and added Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, LocoRoco and Lunar: Silver Star Harmony to my backlog. Suddenly I found myself in a position where I couldn’t keep up with all the gems available to me and to top it off another Danganronpa released, I caught up with Persona 4 Golden and grabbed Steins;Gate. The vita really was turning into a love letter to the PlayStation legacy, offering not only some unique hidden gems but a library full of classic games from yesteryear. As for the “nice extra” in cross-buy I found myself downloading previous games I’d purchased for my PS3. Some of which were games I’d purchased several years ago, yet as soon as the Vita version was released it was available to me for free. What more could I ask for?

This sleek, small device has proved to be my go-to console of choice. I found myself disregarding my 3DS and spending many hours while in bed, commuting on the train or simply taking a breather from house renovation to play on my Vita. I could happily leave the Vita in my work bag, still in sleep mode from the previous nights Persona session and resume during my lunch break at work. It’s luscious OLED screen, its dual analogue sticks, the fully encased screen flush with the chassis and multi-touch screen. The Vita feels like a serious bit of kit, the total opposite of a Nintendo handheld. Don’t get me wrong, I still find myself sucked into a good 3DS game every now and then but my preference is generally with Sony’s handheld masterpiece.

Surely there are downsides though right? As previously touched upon, many gamers feel the absence of AAA games has left the Vita gasping its last breaths and yes, I’ll admit this is a deal breaker for many but it’s not the only problem the Vita suffers from. One of my biggest complaints is with the memory, unlike the PS3 and PS4 which both have the ability to easily replace the internal hard drive with any 3rd party 2.5” drive, the Vita uses proprietary memory – and it’s not cheap! You’re looking at approximately £1 per 1GB if you go all out and buy a 64GB card; go for something smaller and you’re going to get significantly less bang for your buck, somewhere in the region of £20 for an 8GB card. Keep in mind that many Vita games and all PS1 and PSP games must be downloaded and you quickly chomp through your GB’s! As the Vita isn’t exactly the must have gadget it doesn’t seem that 3rd party companies are even interested in trying to create their own memory cards for the system either so Sony have the monopoly on this purchase. For this very reason I find myself looking out for bargain Vita games on physical media, I have both a 16 and 32GB card so if I see a game cheaper in its digital form I’ll normally grab that over a physical copy.

The future looks pretty bleak for the Vita, with Sony exec Andrew House referring to both the Vita and PlayStation TV as “Legacy Systems”1. It’s also a pretty fair assumption that the handheld won’t see any big hitters so you can forget another Uncharted, God of War or Killzone. Likewise you can kiss goodbye to the once, much anticipated Bioshock game and don’t expect any sign of infamous. What I can promise you though is that even if the Vita were discontinued tomorrow and development on all titles was halted there would still be enough content on the device to satisfy even the most hardcore PlayStation fan.

A few Vita facts for you to digest:

  • PlayStation TV can be used with a selection of Vita cartridges or downloads to continue playing on a TV using a controller
  • You can stream many of your old PSN games from your PS3 and any PS4 game to continue playing over Wi-Fi via the Vita
  • Vita was originally codenamed “NGP” which stood for “Next Generation Portable”2
  • Uncharted: Golden Abyss is Vitas best selling game with around 1.46 million units sold3
  • Lifetime sales of the PSP far exceed that of the Vita with an estimated 80+ million4 units shifted, compared with the Vitas estimated 4 million5 or so units revealed during 2013

1 http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2015-05-27-sony-admits-first-party-lineup-a-little-sparse
2 http://uk.ign.com/articles/2011/01/27/psp2-announced-codenamed-ngp
3 http://www.vgchartz.com/platform/43/playstation-vita/
4 http://uk.ign.com/articles/2014/06/03/sony-discontinuing-psp
5 http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/jan/04/playstation-2-manufacture-ends-years

What makes a great sounding game?

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That well known phenomena we as sound designers experience, if the game sounds great nobody bats an eyelid. If the game has any audio issues at all they are quickly picked up on in reviews and on forums. And so the most obvious question to ask is what makes a great sounding game? I put this to Alyx Jones, a recent graduate of the University of Surry. “It might sound a bit pretentious…” she begins, “…but I think the best sounding games are those with something a bit different or memorable about the music”. Alyx believes games that allow for more experimentation are much easier to write music for and therefore lead to better sound design. She also stresses the importance of silence adding “I think it’s really important to know when not to put music or sound in places, Limbo is a really good example of this”.

After graduating with a very respectable 2:1 honours degree in Creative Music Technology Alyx had wasted no time in diving into this fast moving, often cut throat industry. The caveat being however that she was to do things her way and work on small scale indie developments, and so Silver Box Games was born. Not content with working on one project Alyx also began working on her own Oculus Rift project titled Wanderift. Why games development though? Surely for somebody primarily interested in composition she would have an easier time working in TV or film? “…film and TV is a very static experience” she states. Alyx elaborates by explaining how within a linear experience there is only one story to tell, and that’s done by the director. A game on the other hand is shaped by the player. I ask Alyx why a non-linear approach particularly appealing to her. She responds by informing me that:

“…it gives total immersion and I suppose an escape in so many aspects that watching a film doesn’t provide. To be able to create your own character and shape your own story and environment is so much more exciting than sitting and watching the latest episode of Eastenders.”

Growing up Alyx’s Gameboy never left her sight and playing games quickly became her favourite means of entertainment. With her love of music and technology the games industry seemed like the obvious choice. Alyx finds far more possibilities to experiment with audio in the world of games rather than film or TV, after all she states “technology is always changing and improving so the ability to constantly adapt and learn new things is a fantastic process to constantly be involved with.” But I digress, why was I asking Alyx about great sounding games in the first place?

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As it transpires she’s also a freelance editor over at The Sound Architect, an online audio resource for professionals and enthusiasts alike. Since early 2015 Alyx has been critiquing a range of smaller scale games including PSN releases such as Rain, Sound Shapes and the recently released Volume. With Limbo in mind I asked Alyx to give a little insight into what it is about the sound design in that game that is particularly appealing to her.

“Well, Limbo is quite a dark game and I think the music and sound design create that intense atmosphere so perfectly. The composer used a lot of analogue equipment to reflect the distant, bleak imagery of the game. It’s used sparingly in places, sometimes you can be walking and the only sound is your footsteps. I find the whole soundtrack quite experimental and creative, it’s mostly drones and he doesn’t use any real rhythms but I always remember how I felt playing that game.”

Sonically, another stand out game for Alyx is Proteus, an indie game in which the landscapes are procedurally generated giving different objects in the world their own unique sounds. Alyx remarks that “the audio is procedurally generated so if the sound were separated from the game it wouldn’t exist”. I thought this was an interesting choice as in some ways Proteus takes some of the sound design, or at least the presentation of the audio away from the sound designer and into the hands of the player. I posed this to Alyx who suggested “…if you have a soundtrack that’s just generic it’s not quite going to fit. How can you write music for a different environment every time? There are so many possibilities, it would be very time consuming!” So does this mean Proteus wouldn’t have worked as well with a standard approach to its sound design? Alyx doesn’t necessarily think the approach was better, but rather “more interesting” leading to “a different kind of experience”. This kind of process could lead to some interesting situations though; could the audio turn into a disaster if the procedurally generated landscape was a mess? “Well yes it could be considered “a mess” by the average listener”, Alyx remarks. I asked her to elaborate on this, she added:

“There are multiple approaches from a completely random selection of notes, chords, effects etc to a very structured system that might utilize music theory that would tailor more to a “western” listening audience. A totally random approach could use any pitch (not even adhering to western tuning), any velocity, any rhythm and note durations (the list goes on) so it is likely to not sound “pleasant”. It’s likely that a random approach wouldn’t be used commonly in games unless they were particularly experimental. Most composers have their own recognizable sound, the same as they aim to give particular games trademark sounds, so it’s perhaps a better approach to find a generative system that you can set certain rules that would give the game its own consistent sound (probably more likely in the case of Proteus).”

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Having an understanding of how sound travels and interacts with its environment is also very useful. Take for example a racing game. Real world phenomena such as occlusion, reverb and Doppler can all be made use of to improve the sound design and make for a more immersive experience whether in a realistic game or a fantasy setting. How can you achieve an authentic sounding racing experience if sound is not reflected off walls or other cars as it would be in real life? This may seem like a subtle technique but it breathes life and subtle cues into the game world. When another car passes by how can you achieve a sense of realism and more importantly speed without Doppler? Wouldn’t you also expect a car’s engine sound to be occluded when it disappears behind a mountain?

So we’ve established that some boundaries have to be put in place to ensure a pleasant audible experience is achieved. So what would an audio designer have to take into account when designing such a pallet of sounds and how do they ensure that these elements work well together? I proposed this to Alyx:

“To ensure elements work together you might group stems together by key or tempo and compose them in such a way that at regular intervals they might be changeable. It’s a similar approach to reactive music in games that would perhaps bring in a percussive beat as an enemy approaches to signify their presence in-game. Multiple layers are synched alongside each other and can either be switched seamlessly or use a stinger to cover up the “switch” when adding another layer or skipping to a new part of the composition. If you were being more experimental you might compose without rhythm or tempo, or maybe even without a key. You could create a soundscape in the same way by maybe grouping stems by timbre or frequency range, or a combination of both approaches. It really depends what you’re doing!”

Whatever the approach, one thing’s for certain, Alyx is sure that the music and sound design are both integral to the overall audible experience. She explains to me how important it is to have a good understanding of sound design within an interactive medium if the composer is to write an “informed piece of music to function as well as it needs to.” I thought this really backed up what Alyx had already touched upon when talking about Proteus. If Proteus were an indie film for example there would have been a linear soundscape, no matter how obscure the film was. Take this very same concept and apply it to an interactive medium that can be procedurally generated and you have a very different beast on your hands. Alyx goes on to explain this point by adding:

“… You may need to have a lot of layers that can be switched between but that can all play independently and in any combination; it’s very different from writing a 3-minute loop or a “score to picture”. There are no time limits, your music and sound environment need to have the ability to play infinitely and adjust to the player and game environment.”

So does Alyx consider herself a sound designer, a composer or both? After applying for several jobs in the games industry she realised that it wasn’t actually sound design she was primarily interested in. Instead she had subconsciously already decided she wanted to focus more on composition. After figuring this out she resigned herself to freelance work which is a wise move as very rarely these days will a company employ a full time composer. Generally audio staff are employed as sound designers; they might also create music as part of their job role but quite often a freelance composer will be hired. I really doubted that Alyx would have been able to take on a full time job even if she wanted to as her schedule is already pretty busy what with writing game audio reviews, working on indie games and taking on her recent role tutoring school children in the art of sound design, game design and programming during after school classes. On top of this Alyx also plans on returning to the University of Surry in 2016 to complete her masters in music composition.

We’d briefly touched up sound design going hand in hand with composition so I asked Alyx to name a few games she considered to have great soundtracks. The first to come to mind for her was thatgamecompany’s masterpiece, Journey which she describes as “…just so beautiful”. I then asked Alyx if she is influenced by her favourite works when creating her own compositions. Not exactly, rather she takes influence “more from the product as a whole” in that she does indeed use orchestral instruments but not to create classical or epic orchestral scores. In the case of Journey, rather than taking inspiration directly from the score Alyx is instead inspired by the feelings Journey’s music invokes. Another favourite is the Dragonborn theme from Skyrim, she elaborates on its impact by adding:

“I suppose on some level all the music I listen to shapes me as a composer. Perhaps in a way, I might listen to Skyrim and be really struck by the powerful vocals and the way the human voice can be used in a new language (the dragon language in Skyrim) to evoke that sense of power. I might use a similar kind of technique or think about how the voice can be used in different ways.”

Reviewing game audio and taking influences from her favourite scores all goes some way towards improving her own compositions. Alyx believes that the review process helps her understand and make decisions with her own projects and analyse why something may not be working. Alyx notes however that critiquing other peoples work is quite a difficult task.  She approaches a review by taking an analytical and logical approach, playing the game to completion and listening to the score during natural game play (where the developers intended it to be heard). Alyx doesn’t listen to the music in isolation as many scores created for games aren’t really designed to be linear pieces. “It’s the same when I’m writing music”, she adds. In much the same way as she reviews games Alyx doesn’t construct her music in a linear fashion as a continuous 3 minute piece for example as that’s not how the player will primarily experience it. Although over critical of her own work she does share some advice for other composers, “Take a break”! While she adds “asking friends for feedback is much better than trying to be too critical of your own work.”

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And so to answer my original question “what makes a great sounding game?” Different games can sound great for a variety of reasons from Limbo’s very minimalistic but atmospheric approach to Skyrim’s epic theme song and Proteus’ almost user generated soundscape. Music and sound design need to work in harmony by complimenting each other, not only in terms of frequency range but also in terms of placement. That said, the sound design must also be sympathetic to the visual style of a game, take Minecraft. By no means are the sounds in Minecraft the most unique, high fidelity assets yet they perfectly suit the blocky textures that Minecraft sports. A great sounding game can certainly be subjective but we have covered several factors that can ensure the sound design works from a technical and artistic point of view.  Analysing other great sounding games is a good place to start, as is experimenting with different techniques. Knowing what to use and where to use it, how sound interacts with the environment and how music should be woven in and out of that experience all help the audio to sit within the game world, blending into the experience. And so we come full circle by creating a sound design experience that the average player is oblivious towards but the audiophiles out there might appreciate.

Alyx and her work can be found on the following sites:
http://www.alyxjones.co.uk/
http://www.thesoundarchitect.co.uk/

Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Darren Wall

Darren Wall
Founder and editor-in-chief of Read-Only Memory

Notable books Darren has been involved with: Sega Mega Drive/Genesis:
Collected Works, Sensible Software 1986–1999

http://readonlymemory.vg/

You can follow ROM’s activities on Kickstarter here

Darren_Wall_01

Brad: Growing up, were you a SEGA or Nintendo kid?

Darren: I actually owned both a Mega Drive and a Super Nintendo (yup, I know… a spoilt kid!) but the Mega Drive hit me at the right time and as a result, my allegiance was always with Sega. I vividly recall firing up the Mega Drive for the first time and playing The Revenge of Shinobi. It was unlike anything I’d seen before.

Brad: My first console was a Master System but I actually became a Nintendo kid after getting a NES shortly after although I always dipped into the world of SEGA thanks to the early Sonic games on both the Master System and Mega Drive.

So what was the catalyst for forming ROM and what made you guys choose to first write about Sensible Software and then the Mega Drive?

Darren: I started Read-Only Memory because I thought there was a dire lack of in-depth, high quality history books on the videogame industry. I wanted to make definitive, exhaustive documents on great publishers, developers and games makers. Coming from a graphic design background, I also wanted the books to challenge what we’ve come to expect from videogame-related editorial design, aiming to make them look as timeless as possible.

Brad: Well it looks like a lot of people agree with you based on the Kickstarter success, I remember when I first saw the project I had to back it because there really is a lack of books like this. Last year I got Hyrule Historia which was pretty impressive so I was pretty blown away your book arrived. You really have put a lot of effort into it which can only be a good thing when you start looking for backers for a new project. Speaking of which, are there any plans to use Kickstarter to fund a third book any time soon?

Darren: Thanks so much! We certainly wouldn’t rule out Kickstarter in the future. Right now I’m keen to do our next publication without crowd funding and see how that goes. It will be very weird to just release a finished book one day – I’ve become so used to working on these books in public!

Brad: Do you already have ideas for your next project then and can you talk about it or is it still too early? On that note will there be any plans to cover other SEGA consoles or even a SNES Collected works?

Darren: We have several books in the pipeline, but frustratingly, there’s nothing I can reveal just yet!

Brad: What is your favourite aspect of collected works? Was there a particular piece of art or an interview you were really happy with?

Darren: Personally, I’m really happy with the way we presented the in-game pixel art. The book catalogues sprites and game backgrounds in a way not unlike a zoological catalogue – each character or level is given a ‘figure number’ and the section is followed by a legend, detailing the names of each figure (including regional variations). The actual amount of work involved in creating this section was pretty eye-watering – we enlisted the help of several screen capture gurus to aid us! I recall the Bare Knuckle/Street of Rage spread took about 3 days to put together in total… I’m not sure I could put myself through it again!

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Brad: While on a research trip for a Sonic Collected works book you happen to fly to a floating Island, Angel Island to be precise. Unfortunately the plane takes quite a bit of damage during the landing so you find yourself stranded. After finding some shelter in a cave (er… a mystic cave in fact) you find boxes full of Mega Drive games. The floor looks unstable so you decide to grab 5 of them and run for it.

What 5 games have you selected and can you tell me your reasons why?

1)  ToeJam and Earl

I love videogames that feel closely connected to their creator’s sense of humour. Treasure’s games always had this charm, as if the developers were crying with laughter throughout production. ToeJam and Earl is just such a title – the loving attention to detail suggests that developers Greg Johnson and Mark Voorsanger had a whale of a time creating it.

2)  Star Control

A distant spacebound cousin of Street Fighter II. The game’s melee mode allowed two players to pit hugely varied craft against one another in a deep-space arena with only a planet and a few asteroids for company. Anybody who has managed to vanquish a friend’s mighty Ur-Quan Dreadnought with a weedy Shofixti Scout will know of this game’s giddy highs

3)  Sub-Terrania

An often-overlooked late-era Mega Drive shooter, essentially a 16-bit reimagining of Thrust in the Turrican universe. The joy of Sub-Terrania was in mastering the controls; flying at high speed throughout the game’s atmospheric caves and perfectly arcing your gunfire into unsuspecting enemies.

4)  Rolling Thunder 2

I came to this finely-tuned cover-based shooter only a few years ago and devoured it in a single sitting. The thing that kept me playing was the thoughtful pace of play. If you try to tackle a Rolling Thunder game like Gunstar Heroes you’ll be out of action in seconds – the game forces you to take things carefully.

5) The Super Shinobi / The Revenge of Shinobi

This was the game that forever endeared me to the Mega Drive. In creating the book we discovered this title was intended to be a showcase for the graphical and audio capabilities of the console. The game fulfilled its brief delivered one of the best action platforming experiences of all-time.

Brad: From out of the shadows steps a mysterious figure brandishing a katana, you only have time to grab one game before making a run for it. Which game would you choose to save?

Darren: The Revenge of Shinobi without a doubt. It was the first console game I owned and I distinctly remember the awe I felt when presented with a perfect facsimile of the Sega arcade experience on my 14″ bedroom TV.

About the choices

ToeJam and Earl

Developer – Johnson Voorsanger Productions
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Mega Drive
Release – 1991

Star Control

Developer – Toys for Bob
Publisher – Accolade
Platform – Sega Mega Drive
Release – 1991

Sub-Terrania

Developer – Zyrinx
Publisher – Scavenger, Inc.
Platform – Sega Mega Drive
Release – 1994

Rolling Thunder 2

Developer – Namco
Publisher – Namco
Platform – Sega Mega Drive
Release – 1991

The Super Shinobi / The Revenge of Shinobi

Developer – Sega
Publisher – Sega
Platform – Sega Mega Drive
Release – 1990

The Problem With… Nintendo

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I’ve pretty much been a lifelong Nintendo fan, receiving a NES at about the age of 6. Since then I’ve owned every major platform they have released apart from the ill fated Virtual boy. I’m still a huge Nintendo fan to this day, but they really infuriate me with some of the stubborn decisions they make. Nintendo have always followed their own path and have consistently innovated and pioneered a lot of main stay features from the Rumble Pak to analogue sticks. At times though, Nintendo’s blind refusal to compete and stay relevant is just baffling.

There are several main points of contention that I believe Nintendo need to address. Without doing so they will find themselves drifting further away from consumer’s expectations.

Console Branding

Let’s start by tackling the whole branding shambles. Nintendo have always tended to stick to a familiar naming convention (as do Sony and Microsoft) and in the past this worked out relatively fine. It’s fairly easy to understand a Super Nintendo is better than a Nintendo and that a Game Boy Advance is better than a mere Game Boy.

Nintendo Entertainment System
Super Nintendo Entertainment System
Nintendo 64

Game Boy
Game Boy Color
Game Boy Advance

Starting with the Wii and DS eras Nintendo have increasingly made poor marketing decisions when branding a console or handheld. As many will remember, codename “Revolution”1 was later renamed Wii which wasn’t exactly a fan favourite. Many fans will remember the jokes and digs at the name during the early days of Wii. Nintendo didn’t learn from this negative reception, in fact they refused to let go of both the “Wii” and “DS” brands by naming their subsequent consoles “Wii U” and “3DS”.

The DS itself isn’t necessarily a bad name and indeed it sold in excess of 154 million units2 making it the second best selling console of all time behind the PS23. So poor branding couldn’t have really been a factor here, the problem comes from branding successive consoles with extremely similar names. The hugely successful sales of the Wii and DS family might be one reason why Nintendo decided to use these brands to encompass the Wii U and 3DS. The problem here is that the majority of people aren’t typical gamers, they don’t read up on gaming news on a daily basis and they don’t keep up with the happenings of major game companies such as Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft. I’d forgive the average parent then if they were under the assumption that the 3DS is identical to the DS other than the ability to transform DS games into stereoscopic 3D. After all, Nintendo had already released a range of DS consoles from the DS, DS lite, DSi and DSi XL, all of which were based around the standard DS model. The DSi had a handful of games that were not compatible with the DS and so it was essentially an intermediary step towards a new handheld, a DS 1.5 if you will.

To make matters worse Nintendo created the 3DS family which currently consists of 3DS, 3DS XL, 2DS (more on this in a moment), New 3DS and New 3DS XL. It isn’t exactly obvious if somebody states “I have just bought myself a new 3DS”. What does this even mean now? Are we talking about the most recent model titled “New 3DS” or is the person referring to a brand new original 3DS console as opposed to a second hand one?

The 2DS is yet another example of the poorly chosen branding Nintendo are becoming synonymous with. How does a parent differentiate between a DS, DSi, 3DS, 2DS and New 3DS, let alone the lite and XL variations? Ah, the 3DS is like a DS but with a 3D slider? So the 2DS is the 3DS without the 3D? Is it a DS then? No, actually it’s not a DS. My head hurts just writing this paragraph.

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The Wii U branding is even worse; just take a look at the announcement trailer4. The entire focus here was on the “new controller”, each new piece of text that flashed up on screen talked about “… the new controller”. In fact, there was no mention of the actual console (which looks remarkably similar to the Wii by the way, confusing the matter even more) and it was only shown on screen for a few seconds, in the background. The Wii’s unique motion controls were in part responsible for its huge lifetime sales. Many will remember the stories of elderly and children alike all enjoying a game of tennis on Wii Sports. The concept was simple, hold this thing that looks like a TV remote and just swing it as you would a tennis racquet. It’s pretty understandable that Nintendo may have come to the conclusion that a similar marketing strategy would work for the Wii U – advertise the controller, it will sell the system. There was only one problem; it confused a whole lot of people. What had they just watched? Did Nintendo just reveal a new controller for the Wii? Satoru Iwata later went on to acknowledge this marketing mistake5 yet Nintendo still don’t seem to realise the brand names themselves are causing some of this confusion.

Sony’s consoles are clearly identifiable; they all look different for a start. Sony use numbers to denote their home systems (PS1, PS2 etc…) while their handheld straight up use different names (Portable, aka PSP and Vita). Most people can easily understand that the PS3 must be the successor to the PS2. Can anybody not in the know really come to the conclusion that the Wii U is the successor to the Wii? Or that the 3DS is the successor to the DS but not the 2DS?

Nintendo simply need to step back and think about how their branding will come across to a consumer who knows nothing about their products. It’s all well and good for a consumer who reads games journalism outlets and lives and breathes games but what about a parent buying their 6 year old a console for the first time? If you must stick with Wii, then name the successor a “Super Wii” at the very least. Really though Nintendo need to shake off the Wii branding as the Wii U really hasn’t taken off as expected and the Wii is now known to many people as the console that collected dust and filled people’s homes with shovelware. Due to the confusion with the DS, 3DS, and New 3DS I’d suggest Nintendo move away from the “DS” branding altogether.

Horse Power 

I’m slightly torn over this one as I firmly believe game play is king, not graphics, not horsepower. There does come a point however where you wonder why Nintendo refuses to keep up with the competition. Iwata has addressed this issue before6 however, and he seems keen on Nintendo continuing to innovate and carve their own path through the games industry.

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Nintendo consoles are generally considered to be under powered compared to their competition. It’s easy to see why they go for this approach; they can use cheaper components and sell a system based on unique features and well loved franchises. Each system can then sell for a profit, which is unheard of in an industry of loss leaders7. The Wii U bucked this trend by selling for a loss8 but what is under the hood didn’t exactly scream “next gen” when the system was released back in 2012. Comparison charts between the current 3 home consoles9 only need to be glanced at to immediately see how under powered the Wii U is. In fact, the Wii U would be far more at home being compared to the PS3 and Xbox 360 which are 6 and 7 years it’s senior respectively.

There is nothing immediately wrong with Nintendo systems being under powered as long as there is a good catalogue of games. Fans will buy a Nintendo system for the Nintendo exclusive franchises, but will the average consumer? Hardcore fans are quite happy with the device sitting and gathering dust for several months a year while waiting for the next big exclusive. Nintendo have become many gamers secondary console of choice and for the majority of the year gamers will play with a Sony or Microsoft console then hop across to a Nintendo platform every couple of months to play an exclusive. And here we get to the real problem, 3rd party support. Having multiple consoles myself, I don’t really care if 3rd party support comes to Nintendo or not because I’ll just fire up my PS3 or PS4 and play games on those devices. However a large amount of gamers (particularly children) are not always in a position to have multiple consoles. They are left with a choice between a handful of really great Nintendo games or buying either a PS4 or Xbox One and playing their exclusives as well as a large amount of 3rd party games.

Nintendo could arguably dominate the market if they were to release a similarly powerful console complete with all of their historic franchises that consumers know and love as well as offering the same multi-platform games that both Sony and Microsoft provide. Developers would want to release games on the system because they wouldn’t have to create a stand alone, downgraded port just to run on that system. Porting games between PS4, Xbox One and PC is a fairly standard practice and can financially make sense. Porting a game to Wii U just doesn’t make great business sense because more effort has to go into the downgraded port and with such a small install base the risk isn’t worth taking.

As for the next system, well Nintendo have merged their hand held and home console R&D departments10. Many speculate that this merge may result in a future console being a hybrid device that can be hooked up to a TV and played like a traditional console as well as being portable. Whatever Nintendo choose to do going forward I believe they need to create a console powerful enough to compete with their rivals. Nintendo should take a hit on the sales of a new, powerful console and provide developers and consumers with a viable alternative to Sony and Microsoft’s offerings. This is the only way they will draw in 3rd party developers and increase their install base as a result. If Nintendo really want to impress they should look ahead to technologies that will be common place in 3 or 4 years time and aim to release a new home system in around 2 years time. This decision would allow for developers to easily port between all current consoles and PC as well as allow Nintendo to also show off powerful new exclusive games that wouldn’t be possible on the PS4 and Xbox One. If they wait too long to release a new system there will be early rumours of whatever Sony and Microsoft offer next, by this point many consumers will just hold tight until these consoles are released.

Cross-buy

Both Nintendo and Sony actively support multiple platforms yet Sony has been far more active in creating an eco system. When purchasing a game customers expect many will work across a combination of PS3, PS4 and Vita (if not all 3) all for one price. This isn’t always the case but there are countless examples of games being released and given away for free to previous customers, Dead Nation11 being one such example. Nintendo on the other hand haven’t made their ecosystem quite as friendly. This means that if you buy a virtual console game such as Mega Man on the 3DS there is nothing tying your Wii U account to that Mega Man purchase. In this instance you’d have to buy the game again on the Wii U if you wanted to continue playing on that platform.

I’m not aware of any sales figures that would highlight how many customers are buying a game twice because they want to play it on both the 3DS and the Wii U. Personally Nintendo are losing money from me as I hardly ever buy virtual console games because I don’t like the fact that Nintendo won’t let me play them on multiple systems. My digital library over on the Sony ecosystem however is pretty extensive, in part because I’ve had the ability to buy games on my PS3 and later replay them on my Vita. More recently games have then been ported over to the PS4 where I’ve had the option to download them again for no additional cost.

Nintendo online accounts, coupled with the lack of cross-buy feel downright archaic. What’s worse is customers cannot visit an online store to browse for and buy content. Generally when I receive an RSS feed from Sony informing me about a sale I’ll click through to the store and end up buying a few games if they take my fancy. It’s convenient to quickly log in and make a purchase while it’s fresh in my mind. Nintendo on the other hand don’t tend to have many sales and even when they do I’d have to be at home, boot up my console and head over to the shop then search for the game.

MvsDK

Nintendo are slowly making steps to improve their ecosystem as we’ve seen with Mario VS. Donkey Kong: Tipping Stars12 recently being announced as a buy one version and get the other one for free deal. We might yet make some progress, however this is labelled as a “Special offer”, potentially meaning in a few months time the offer will no longer stand. Keeping a back catalogue of virtual console games is also possible by using the system transfer to permanently move all purchases from the Wii to the Wii U. The catch here is that the virtual console games have to be played with the Wii U booted into Wii system mode. A small payment can be made to update some games to work in the Wii U OS, however the current virtual console library for Wii U is pretty lacking.

Now in terms of preserving the history that Nintendo are famous for they really need to sort out their virtual console. For a start we need at least some sort of preservation of existing purchases, I don’t want to be buying a copy of Super Mario Bros. For every Nintendo console I own. At the very least I’d like the ability to purchase a game and play it on my Wii U or 3DS without buying 2 copies. Ideally though, I’d like the Nintendo ecosystem to evolve enough so that I only have to buy a VC game once. At which point the game is tied to my account and I can access it from any future Nintendo platform. This might seem like a bad idea from Nintendo’s point of view because they’d only make money from one purchase but look at it this way, how often are consumers going to keep purchasing the same game over and over again? I know I’d buy more VC games if I thought I’d be able to access them on future platforms. That being said I know the Wii U VC library is lacking at the moment and part of that is down to porting games to work with the gamepad. There would have to be a compromise in creating a VC platform that would remain relatively unchanged on future platforms. Nintendo would need to avoid using time and resources continually porting old games to new systems. And don’t forget, Nintendo might then only generate one sale per game from veteran gamers but with every new generation of consoles comes a new generation of gamers who have all this history to discover. Think of it like iTunes, I buy a lot of my music digitally now because I can always access it through my account. If I had to re-buy my iTunes music every time I bought a new device I’d think twice about buying an album.

Nintendo Creators Program

If Nintendo haven’t already done enough to prove they have lost touch with their fans then the recent youtube program just tops it off. Essentially this program allows Nintendo to siphon off earnings from every youtube creator that posts videos featuring Nintendo games13. If a content creator doesn’t sign up to this program their content can be removed for copyright infringement. On the other hand they can choose to sign up and give Nintendo 30% of their total channel earnings or 40% for single videos14. There is no question of the legality here, Nintendo own the original material and are perfectly within their rights to take a cut of these earnings.

In the modern age the way we consume media is drastically changing. With the rise of on-demand TV and sites like youtube many people now consume media as and when they are ready. Consumers subscribe to their favourite channels not only to view various pieces of media but also to interact with content creators. Many channels now feature “Let’s play” videos, these consist of a content creator streaming themselves playing through a game. Some narrate their experiences, some review and critique games while others offer walkthrough advice. Most creators monetise their channels and make a small amount of profit for each view they receive so essentially these creators are making money by streaming copyrighted material that they do now own. This is where Nintendo decided to step in and cash in on their games being streamed.

miyamoto

So why is the creators program such a mistake? Aren’t Nintendo losing out on revenue if they don’t put this program into effect? Well yes but on the other hand many games companies are now getting free marketing. What better way to market a game than watching a likeable “real” person playing a game they have actually chosen to play rather than being asked to play? When viewers watch their favourite content creator having fun with a game they are much more likely to want to play that game than they would be from watching a very fake family in a studio “living room” all pretending to enjoy a game that they are being paid to advertise. So with Nintendo now forcing creators to pay a share of their profits many well known channels will be boycotting Nintendo games. Kinda Funny15 and PewDiePie16 have both expressed that while they admit Nintendo are within their rights to do this it’s not exactly a clever move. Colin of Kinda Funny went on to state that they will simply stop doing Nintendo content all together if this starts to affect them.

I’d just like to add that streaming a game cannot be compared to streaming a film or TV show. The core experience with the former involves interacting with the medium and making choices of some sort which you cannot do by watching a stream. The core experience with TV and film on the other hand is watching the content.

Nintendo should cut the creators program completely and let content creators stream Nintendo games without worrying about copyright infringement. Not only will Nintendo’s reputation improve from this move but they’ll benefit from the free marketing.

What else can Nintendo improve?

amiibo

Recently Amiibo showed just how loved Nintendo characters are but I’d like to see improvements here. Right now Amiibo are selling in their millions and are getting difficult to get hold of but how long can that bubble last? Nintendo need a way to keep the momentum going for years to come and the recently announced Amiibo cards17 and trial games18 should help see to that. Really though, I’d like to see Nintendo offering either full virtual console games or decent discounts on them. The other obvious idea is for a fully fledged Amiibo game in whatever form that might take. Characters could unlock parts of levels or new abilities and obviously a character model to play as in game. I suppose Skylanders is the obvious comparison but Nintendo have so many great ideas I’m sure they could come up with a unique twist.

Although trophies and achievements are loved by some and hated by others I think Nintendo are missing out on a similar system. If fans don’t care about these rewards, simply ignore them but at least allow fans who do like them to have something similar on the Nintendo ecosystem. I believe these reward systems can have value, for a start they lock a lot of people into the ecosystem. Player’s can look at all their trophies for all the games they have played on a system, when it comes to moving across to a rival they’d be losing all of their rewards. Secondly, Nintendo could incentivise collection of rewards by offering something similar to Club Nintendo. If 100% of the achievements are earned in a game the player might unlock a code for a virtual console game for example. Ok, so Nintendo would lose out on a sale here but they’d also be incentivising players to keep playing on their system and keep hold of their games for as long as possible.

Let’s go back to basics with the controllers. It’s all well and good having choice but having a Wii U with a game pad, motion controller and nunchuk as well as a classic controller is just overkill. Not only can this be confusing to new consumers but it also looks like an expensive system when at first glance a potential customer will wonder if they need all of these controllers on day one. 

Conclusion

I actually think Nintendo do get a lot right, they have a great back catalogue of classic franchises and as such they have a very dedicated fanbase. Nobody can deny that Nintendo innovate, who would have thought that motion controls would become so big over one console generation? Love or hate motion controls, there is no denying there was a point when every developer wanted a piece of the action with Sony and Microsoft also developing their own rival technologies.

Nintendo always experience peaks and troughs, going from such a phenomenal console like the SNES to experiencing low sales and a lack of 3rd party support during the N64 and GameCube eras. Nintendo have had huge failures in the form of the Virtual Boy and the Power Glove to huge successes that have changed the industry like the Rumble Pak and Analogue sticks. No doubt that whatever Nintendo does in the future they’ll have a mixture or sheer brilliant ideas and innovative games as well as a few failures along the way.

Nintendo are now playing catch up trying to get used to working with HD visuals a generation later than the competition. They have been late to the online party, having a pretty basic store, limited online multiplayer functionality and a lack of voice chat. Nintendo really do have the potential to rise to glory once again but a change is needed at the company. They really need to move with the times and reassess how they go about creating games and new technology. There is nothing wrong with keeping their core philosophies and inventiveness but they also need to look at what the competition are doing to stay relevant.

  1. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2006/04/27/introducing-nintendo-wii
  2. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/library/historical_data/pdf/consolidated_sales_e1409.pdf
  3. http://www.forbes.com/sites/davidewalt/2011/02/14/sony-playstation2-sales-reach-150-million-units/
  4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4e3qaPg_keg
  5. http://www.standard.co.uk/business/nintendo-boss-admits-wii-u-could-have-had-better-launch-6410045.html
  6. http://thebridge.jp/en/2013/10/nintendo-satoru-iwata-bdash#fn:2
  7. http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2006/11/8239/
  8. http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2012-10-25-iwata-wii-u-will-be-sold-below-cost
  9. http://uk.ign.com/wikis/xbox-one/PS4_vs._Xbox_One_vs._Wii_U_Comparison_Chart
  10. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2013-01-16-nintendo-plans-to-merge-handheld-and-console-teams-in-historic-shake-up
  11. http://blog.eu.playstation.com/2014/04/14/dead-nation-arrives-ps-vita-week/
  12. http://mariovsdk.nintendo.com/
  13. http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2015-02-05-nintendo-clarifies-youtube-revenue-share-program-asks-users-to-delete-non-nintendo-videos
  14. https://r.ncp.nintendo.net/guide//
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHlBzxc3P6A#t=319
  16. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/02/youtube-pewdiepie-nintendo-revenue-sharing
  17. http://www.nintendo.co.jp/ir/en/library/events/141030qa/index.html
  18. http://uk.ign.com/articles/2015/02/17/amiibo-to-unlock-nessnes-virtual-console-trials-soon

Working in QA – Part 2

pikmin-3-wallpaper-1 As a follow up to the “Working in QA” article I wrote back at the start of 2013 I decided it would be interesting to follow a new recruit through their QA career. I thought it would be an interesting approach to interview them and then catch up with them several months later. This would highlight several key points:

  • How they feel starting off in the games industry and their initial thoughts on the job.
  • Where they aim to take their career
  • Their inevitable run in with contract extensions (after all QA contracts only last for 3 months)

So, meet James Crozier, who after a bit of investigating I came across as he had just started working in QA. Our interview begins in April 2014 and takes place via email over the course of several weeks. As the interview starts James has been in QA for a week and he tells me that this is the first time he’s ever done any QA work but he’s really enjoying it so far. I asked him how he got the job and he informs me:

I regularly checked the Codemasters vacancies on the website and saw the QA technician job. I only applied to Codies because they make some of my favourite games! It’s also realistically the only big games company anywhere near where I live. I think it took just under a month for Codemasters to get back to me, but I got a phone call telling me there was a mix up where I didn’t receive the email inviting me to the interview so it was probably a shorter amount of time. The interview was a week after that.

I can understand James wanting to commute, after all QA contracts are short with no guarantee that you’ll be offered work in the future. Moving away from home to work in a fairly low paying job with a short contract is certainly a risky venture. Even so James still spends just under 2 hours a day driving to the Codies main office in Southam. Knowing what the QA interview process is like I asked James if he did any research to prepare for the interview. He spent some time looking at good bug reports as well as researching Codemasters history which came in very useful as he was indeed asked a “What do you know about the company” question during his interview. For many, becoming a QA temp is the first stage of the ladder with many going on to stay in QA in higher ranking positions while others move into development and production roles. Understandably then, most QA temps are coming straight from University or temporary jobs. In James’ case he quit his job at a supermarket, which he said was a “no brainer” of a decision. We’ve learnt that James had no prior experience with a QA role or the games industry in general. So I asked him to tell me about his education, was there anything he did to tailor his studies towards this industry?

In terms of education, I’ve pretty much tried to gear most of my studies towards games with a view to get into the industry. So it started with GCSE’s where I took Art, Graphics and IT followed by IT in my A levels. That got me on to a course at the University of Gloucestershire doing Interactive Games Design where I pretty much got a taste of all aspects such as modelling, coding, project management etc.

James goes on to explain how his degree indirectly helped with his transition into QA. He was already familiar with certain terms and abbreviations he came across, while he could describe some problems technically in his bug reports. Knowledge like this can help developers when trying to recreate a bug or fix the issue. It can be quite difficult receiving a bug to work on and not having a clue what the other person is referring to because they don’t understand what they are bugging in the first place. So far QA is pretty much what James expected it to be like, he got to grips with the bug database pretty quickly and got on with testing. In just a short amount of time though he’s noticed the repetitive nature of QA:

One thing I have found is that it can get really repetitive just checking the same thing over and over, but I’m so obsessed with gaming and racing games in particular that it doesn’t really get boring.

I ask James if this means he’s eventually going to tire of QA and aim to progress into development. He tells me that he’s actively working on his portfolio, creating a couple of models or projects every couple of weeks. This, he says, helps keep the skills and workflow he has developed over the last few years fresh in his mind. Regardless of the tedium and the progression in development I can tell James is really happy to have been given a chance to work in the industry. He goes on to tell me:

I’d be over the moon just to be given a shot at being in QA on a permanent basis as I enjoy it so much. While progressing into development would be awesome, I’m just trying to enjoy the three months I’m at Codemasters in case I don’t get another opportunity! With that in mind, after the contract I think I’d just try and get another QA position as it’s pretty much my perfect job. I know that might sound like I’m not aiming high enough but QA was always my goal back when I first decided I wanted to work in the industry.

We move on to talking about how James thinks working in QA will benefit him in the long run, aside from being a foot in the door of the games industry. He says he now has a better idea of what’s worth fixing and how much time he should spend on bugs that crop up in his own projects. Even so, after several weeks in QA, James is quite keen to progress through the ranks here, hoping one day he might eventually become a QA lead. With James being fresh to the QA environment and the games industry as a whole, our interview pretty much concludes there. I thought it would be good to give him time to reflect on his position and experience a few of the inevitable contact expiration dates. Not knowing where this would go James could have moved on within a couple of months. 2128997-169_pikmin3_review_wiiU_073013_08 Onwards to December 2014, 8 months since our interview began. I discovered James no longer works at Codies. I begin by emailing him again and asking first off why he left the company. I soon discover James initially had one contract extension (3 months), around July 2014 and that expired around October 2014. After this contact expiration James was not offered any more work. I don’t know the reason for this but contact renewals in this industry are a difficult time. Regardless of whether or not you have performed well, if a game has finished its testing period then there is a lack of work to go around. Developers will have moved onto a new project which would be in the early phases of design or development, in which case there wouldn’t be anything to test. Games which receive DLC and patches will retain a handful of QA but they clearly won’t require anywhere near the same amount of man hours as a full game. James explains that he never assumed he’d be in QA at Codies forever as he already knew what the industry was like in terms of temporary contacts. He tells me that his plan was to stay at Codies until they no longer needed him, at which point he’d look for other work, preferably with a permanent contract. James would return to QA if he could find a role with a permanent contract, however he goes on to note:

It’s really difficult to plan ahead with things like accommodation when you don’t know how long you’ll be there. I guess it’s okay if you’re single and have no commitments as you can just rent a room on a rolling contract but when you have a family and pets and you’re dealing with the usual six month to a yearlong contracts it’s really difficult.

After briefly looking for other QA roles James went on to work for a web design company as a developer as well as dealing with their social media. He has a permanent contract at his new company and as they are fairly small scale he says there is a “family kind of atmosphere” where his skills feel more valued. I ask him how he reflects on his time at the company, for example, what are the best and worst aspects of life in QA? I guess the obvious answer from somebody who is already a big gamer is that you get paid to play games, indeed this was his first answer. I’d stress at this point though that a lot of QA involves playing the same game for sometimes months on end carrying out tedious tasks in order to break the game. James notes that this didn’t matter to him personally and also mentions the social aspect of the job. He comments on working with “mostly people who are just as big a gamer as you and so there’s always something to talk about”. If you compare this to your standard office job there is never really a guarantee that you’ll share common ground with your co-workers. James then talks about the worst aspects of the job, I ask him to put aside the issues with redundancies and short term contracts as we’ve already talked a lot about this. His main concerns were to do with trust, he really felt like an outsider who had minimal contact with the development team. Personally from looking back on my time in QA I never experienced the issues James feels he had. I was given free rein to walk around the entire campus and indeed had friends who were part of the development team. I was able to directly email developers and some of them would ask me over to the studio to help recreate bug’s I’d found. Games development is a very secretive industry so I can understand why James might feel this way and he does acknowledge the security risks but for him, he felt like an outsider. Another point of contention for James was with the bug reporting process. James experienced situations where his bugs would be sent back as “Cannot reproduce”. From somebody who has worked in both QA and development I certainly see where his issues arise from but I also understand why this happens. Developers are generally working on “Bleeding edge” builds; basically the most up-to-date version of the game while QA builds will be slightly older. This is a result of working on builds burnt to disc, or waiting until a new stable build is released and distributed to the QA team. In some instances QA might enter a bug that has already been fixed but not yet incorporated in the QA branch. Regardless of the reasons, James did feel that his University degree and his knowledge were somewhat overlooked which he believes results in a “better not bug it” attitude.