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Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Rumour Mill: PlayStation 4 to Block Used Games?

I'm not usually the sort to be posting rumours on my blog, but this one just seemed too good to not contemplate - if only for a moment at the very least.

According to 'reliable sources' speaking to gaming news site Kotaku, the new PlayStation 4 - or Orbis, as it is possibly going to be named is possibly going to be due for release in the 2013 Christmas season. Aside from the intriguing name (which, when put in conjunction with Vita, forms the Latin phrase Orbis Vita, or Vitae to be precise, meaning Circle of Life), there are two rumoured 'features' that are really rather concerning, at least how I see them.

First on the list is the supposed out-of-the-box incompatibility with PS3 software. Now I know, I know, the PS3 swiftly eliminated backwards compatibility with PS2 software, and the world kept on turning. However, I am getting increasingly unable to see my television set amidst the wealth of cables, transformers, adapters, and indeed hardware itself that surrounds it. I physically have no room to keep other consoles in the living room. For me, my Wii's backwards compatibility with my Gamecube software is brilliant, I can store the Gamecube itself away in the loft somewhere for posterity, but I just have one little console sat under my television.

This is the most reliable photo I could find for the potential new console....
There are bound to be plenty of sensible and well-reasoned arguments for leaving out backwards compatibility - a cheaper to produce and thus cheaper to buy piece of kit being the obvious one. However, cynical as I am, I can't help but think that there isn't somewhere, tucked away in the mother-ship that is Sony HQ, a little spark of 'genius' that says this just gives us a good reason to re-release PS3 games with slightly updated visuals a little way down the line and sap more money from consumers the easy way, as opposed to investing in innovation or creative, new ideas. As I said, I'm a cynical old git - and probably, most people won't care one iota about not being able to play their PS3 games on their shiny new Orbis or whatever it will eventually be named. We'll have to wait and see.

The second 'feature' - and I use this term, oh so loosely, is the rumour that the console will actually block users from playing used titles - if not completely, then very noticeably. The most likely application of this is that used software sold in stores will only be able to run in a 'trial', or 'demo' mode on any machine other than that to which it was originally registered. Users would have to then pay to unlock the full game.

In principle, this isn't a bad idea, let's be honest. This saves publishers having to implement and maintain their own 'Online Pass' systems, it means that developers get money from used game sales, and thus the industry itself makes more money all round - all fine and dandy surely? What is not such a spectacular product of this feature is that the rumour also suggests the Orbis will insist on an internet connection in order to play games - as, much like Steam, they will need to periodically check for the registration state of the software.

Oh dear.

It does appear that Sony may have single-handedly removed one of the greatest bits of ammunition in the Console vs. PC debate - copy protection. The point of a console - at least in my mind - is to be able to plug in and play games immediately - no faff, no installation, no online checks, and no internet connection unless I want to play multiplayer. The Xbox dashboard and enforced PS3 installations are bad enough - if I am going to be forced to keep my console connected to the aether at all times, I surely might as well just invest in a new gaming PC and retire back to the small office I crawled out of around the N64 era when consoles stole my interest. I'm already beginning to spend more and more time on Steam than I ever have done - if this rumour were to be fact, it would certainly give me a major kick further into Valve's realm.

Personally, I think this concept is a thousand times more awesome...
I am in complete agreement that developers should get some return from used game sales, no question - especially when stores push preowned over new so freely. However, I think the hardware-level is the wrong place for this. It needs to come from the retail level. A percentage of sales should go directly back to the relevant developers and publishers. It's not a difficult bit of mathematics really. A console-wide lockdown on used game sales will put off a huge number of potential buyers. I for example, have bought preowned games at knock-down prices only to discover hidden gems that I otherwise would never have played. I'm much more likely to then buy further titles either in the franchise, or from the same developer. I'm sure I can't be alone in that purchasing pattern. What will happen to that market if buyers know they may potentially be buying something that they won't even be able to rinse for trophies, at the very least, if they find they can't stand it. 

How much will used games even sell for under this new scheme? £1? £5? How much would they be to unlock? Paying the full original retail price would be stupid, as you might as well just buy new. How will a value be placed on an unlock code?

What happens if Microsoft's new console doesn't have a similar system? Why would people buy an Orbis if they could buy the new Xbox, safe in the knowledge that they can still buy preowned?

It's a very interesting situation to consider, and could drastically change the face of games retail and consumer buying. I know it would have a huge impact on my own personal buying habits that's for sure.

However, this is obviously still rumour. We don't even know that Orbis is the definite name, let alone any of these other potential sticky issues, so I won't throw my toys out the pram just yet. We'll wait and see how it all goes down in the end...

Monday, 5 March 2012

Ghosts, Gulls & Goats: Analysing Reactions to Dear Esther

For me, experiencing Dear Esther was like a balmy summer's day. I didn't really mind the meandering paths, the dead-ends and the ambiguous (at least at first) story because it all came together to form a comforting blanket - a warming glow that suggested that so much more was still capable of coming from my favourite entertainment medium. Walking around the deserted island for the best part of an hour and half, I felt more relaxed, more calm, more utterly serene than I have for a while - in the real or virtual world. The heart-wrenching story that unfolds across such a short (in game terms) narrative time line only helps solidify the feelings not only of solitude, but of a form of self-discovery. You have no real clue exactly who you are playing as, but nevertheless, you feel for them; you appreciate every line of masterfully delivered prose almost as if they were coming from your own mouth. 

Subsequent playthroughs offer surprising levels of continued depth, and I found myself stumbling upon new sights and small changes to the game world, as well as slowly forming my own interpretation of the game's plot to more and more refined levels of detail. This is not a one-playthrough-wonder; there is so much more here for the eye that pays attention to the finer details. Even if one takes a step away from the immersive experience itself and looks upon it as a piece of technology, it is impossible to not occasionally stop and simply stare in awe at the visual and auditory depth on show. If ever a screenshot key was a good addition to a game, this was it.

Emerging into the night...
As is to be expected of course when anything pushes the boundaries of a medium, Dear Esther has wildly split the opinions of critics and consumers alike. It is an undoubtedly Marmite-esque experience; I have yet to see a 'mediocre' score afforded to it. Some of the reasoning behind the scores however opens up some very interesting avenues of enquiry into players, gameplay, perceived value and the future of the industry on a broader scale. For a game with such an apparently plain face, it has truly sunk its Hebridean mitts into the heart of gaming and given it a mighty good jiggle.

I'm going to start with money. Everything, after all, revolves around it whether we like to admit it or not. Starting out as it did as a free-to-download mod for Half-Life 2, Dear Esther had the benefit of being able to be experimental without offending the wallets of those who did not find its unique brand of entertainment agreeable. However, when the lovingly re-crafted commercial release asked for the relatively miserly sum of $10 (or £6.99 for those who drive on the right side of the road and eat pies), suddenly there was collective rage from a significant portion of consumers. It was as if charging such a fee for 90 minutes of thoughtful, artistic and narratological expression was some sort of personal attack upon them. Yet I'm sure these very same people will pay upwards of such prices to see a film of similar length (and, most likely, significantly less artistic expression) at their local cinema. Or invest in a DVD or Blu-Ray. The first of these is a one-time experience, and films on disc have similarly minimal replay value. In my opinion at least, if I was going to pay that price to experience a story alone, I would pick Esther; the added beauty of the world it presents is merely an additional bonus.

This apparent unwillingness to put money forward for a game (I say 'game' purely for simplicity; to define Esther as such is somewhat misleading as I will elaborate on) such as this is indicative of a bizarre attitude that consumers seem to have developed. It is almost as if, for a large portion of gamers, that games are designed, developed and published on a budget of nothing. Ergo, their perceived value is incredibly low. Is it possible that the rise of gaming on iPhones and Androids, with titles from prices as low as £0.69, has biased the way that the average consumer views their game purchases? I can entirely understand why - if I can buy titles like Angry Birds for under £5 (with many hours of gameplay attached to it), why would I spend more on a title with a mere 90 minutes of play time? But, here is where the real crux of the matter is in my opinion - expectation, and classification.

The Armada by candlelight...
Dear Esther was developed using the Source engine. This is gaming technology, used to make games. It was released, firstly, as a mod to an existing (and, whilst very good, nevertheless very formulaic) first-person-shooter, the connotations of which would have carried over in at least some small part to anything associated with it. The commercial release, whilst stand-alone, was still developed on a game engine. It's release on Steam, a platform for the digital distribution of games, served only to reinforce game-based expectation and subsequently, game-oriented appraisal.

One forum member stated that "the game is classified on Steam as 'Indie', 'Casual' and 'Adventure', which is very misleading". Well, if we ignore 'Indie' (no arguments about its Indie status surely?), I agree with this statement. Classifying Esther as Casual puts it semantically in the same league as the aforementioned Angry Birds, or Peggle, or Bejeweled, or just about anything by Zynga. I think Steam is in need of a new classification category, as clearly Esther does not comfortably fit the existing pre-approved genres in the medium.


This is where this article gets particularly awkward. It is very difficult, in fact near enough impossible, to defend the ground upon which Esther takes up refuge without sounding like some unbearable gaming 'elitist'. Whatever you say, you infer a gaming hierarchy, with yourself squarely on top, and the great unwashed, uneducated gaming masses beneath your princely feet. 

I am certainly not of the opinion that the people that didn't like Esther are moronic, narrow-minded and brain-dead, incapable of using the squishy substance between their ears to interpret ambiguity; an argument that is notably rampant on many forums. These are merely people that prefer their game-based entertainment to have other qualities. Nothing wrong with that at all.

The people who certainly are narrow-minded, and damaging to the potential future of the medium as one for eliciting genuine emotional response and for storytelling, are those that insist that "the developers chose the wrong medium". Those that insist story such as this should be relegated to the background behind the elements that "make a game a game, such as interactivity". What makes this much worse is that a lot of those individuals that I have noticed pushing forward this point of view are games critics; professional journalists who would be first out of the traps to slate a game for being 'generic' or not 'pushing the medium forward'. It is the very blending of rich, detailed and thought-provoking story with the flexibility of game technology that paints such a bright and varied future for gaming. It is titles such as Dear Esther that show just how far the medium has evolved from the days of alien-blasting, Goomba-stomping simplicity, and indeed, just how much more untapped potential there actually is. Should Dear Esther have been more interactive? Should it have contained more 'gamey' elements like puzzles? Maybe, but then, it wouldn't have been the same experience. It would have become an uncomfortable blend of narrative experimentation and shoe-horned puzzle elements. Guess who would be first in the queue to complain then?

So, should it be judged as a game? Should it be judged as a short story? Perhaps a graphic novel, or an interactive work of art? Maybe all of these things combined? It certainly can't be placed against the same benchmark as the majority of games. 

Some would say it shouldn't even be on the same bench.

I'm sure this will have wriled a few people - or at least got the discursive juices flowing. All comments welcomed...