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Jul 16

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E3 is underway and Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all presented their keynotes. Microsoft left the whole gaming community in shock by anouncing Final Fantasy XIII would be available on Xbox 360. Sony couldn’t match Microsoft’s anouncement, but did alright with a few interesting titles coming up — nothing earth shattering. And then there’s Nintendo.

It seems Nintendo has entirely abandonned their core fans. The two biggest titles at their keynote? WiiSports 2 (including awesome mini-games like throwing a frisbee to a dog) and Wii Music.

I don’t get Wii Music at all. As far as I can see, you just waggle your wiimote randomly while pressing buttons when you feel like it (no rythm necessary) to play bad Midi versions of hit songs like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “Yankee Doodle”. I wish I was kidding.

When asked if core gamers would feel left out of Nintendo’s line-up, Regie Fils-Aime (president of Nintendo of America) had this to say:

“How could you feel left out?” Fils-Aime said. “The Animal Crossing that we’ve been hearing about that people wanted. Fully connected to the Internet, go to other people’s towns. Plus, as I said, Grand Theft Auto on the DS. How do you feel left out with those types of announcements?”

So their best anouncements for core gamers is Animal Crossing — a game more casual than The Sims — and GTA on DS. Now GTA for DS would be cool if it were presented as anything more than a logo at this point. They didn’t even go as far as showing concept art for the game. Take 2 — GTA’s publisher — had nothing to say about GTA DS at their own press conference.

If Nintendo’s E3 keynote is representative of their current priorities, then it’s obvious they do not care anymore about gamers looking for deep gameplay. They now focus entirely on the casual cash-cow. Will third party developers bring what core gamers want? One can hope, but so far third party Wii games have been lackluster.

Jul 12

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After a long wait, Apple has finally enabled third party applicaations to be installed on the iPhone and iPod Touch. All applications are distributed through the iTunes store, where a lot of games are already available. What will be the impact of this on the gaming industry? Will the iPhone dethrone the DS as the portable gaming system of choice, or will it be forgettable, like Apple’s previous efforts at getting games on their systems?

From a developer’s standpoint, the iPhone certainly has a lot going for it. The hardware is surprisingly powerful — with 620 MHz CPU, 128 MB RAM and 3D acceleration, it might even be better than the PSP.

Since it’s connected to Wifi and cellphone networks, the iPhone is essentially always online and since it’s a phone, users will carry it around with them at all times. I believe there’s a lot of potential for games using the always-on, always-at-hand nature of the system.

Finally, the distribution system for applications is really interesting. Contrary to console manufacturers, Apple does not consider applications sales to be its main revenue stream — they’re in the business of selling a platform. As such, they give back 70% of sales price to developers. That’s a much larger slice of the pie than what game developers usually get after distributors and brick and mortar stores take their slice. Getting rid of middlemen can only be good.

Still, the iPhone is not the perfect game development platform. One big question is whether users will care about games at all. They didn’t buy the iPhone to play games initially after all. Cellphone gaming hasn’t taken over the world, so it’s quite possible it won’t take over the iPhone world either.

Another problem is input. The iPhone is not a gaming device and has such it doesn’t have the buttons a typical gaming device has. The multi-touch screen is great and motion sensitivity is nice, but sometimes the best interface is pressing a button and you can’t do that on the iPhone. This limits the types of games that will play well on the system.

Finally, while the distribution system is nice, it doesn’t solve the problem of funding and marketing. Making a game takes a lot of people and time, which requires money. If you want people to know your game’s out and why they should care, you need marketing. Publishers are good at funding gaming projects and marketing them, so I don’t think we’ll get rid of the publisher-developer relationship just yet.

Overall I’m cautiously optimistic about the iPhone’s potential as a gaming platform. If good games come out and grab the public’s interest, it might be a very interesting system. On the other hand, it may become just another way to play Bejeweled and brain training games while on the bus, like the rest of cellphone gaming. Time will tell.

Jul 5

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There’s a long and fascinating interview with Ron Gilbert on Gamasutra where he speaks about his next project, Deathspank, episodic games and the way the gaming industry works. Well worth the read.

Here’s an excerpt:

 You know, the movie industry certainly has its share of space marine movies as well. There are big blockbusters that are shallow, but they make hundreds of millions of dollars, and I think the movie industry is pretty good at taking that money and funding a lot of more indie movies, and smaller movies, and movies for niche audiences. And I think the game industry needs to move into that model.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with Halos and Half-Lifes, and all these other things being out there. But I would like to see companies like Microsoft, and EA, and all these people take some of that, and really start to support different levels of titles. And I think if the industry continues to be financially successful, we will eventually start to see that; so I think that’s actually a very positive thing.