Thank God It’s Thursday News Report 04.01.04

Welcome to this very special April Fool’s Edition of Thank God It’s Thursday! If you’re looking for video game news, you’re in the right place. I’m Bryan Berg, and I thank you for stopping by.

Today’s a fun day – April Fool’s Day! That means that some of the news you read will be accurate… and some of it will be totally made up. It’s up to YOU to figure out which is which! HAHAHAHAHA!!! Once the Commentary hits, though, the joking is over. This week, it’s Microsoft’s turn to be dissected. What is the next X-Box shaping up like? You’ll find out what I think soon enough.

Before that, though, there’s some news to do. Take out your 411-sponsored Fine Toothed Comb (TM) and come along on a journey through all that’s fit to print – and some that’s not! Your job is simply this – spot the fake news, figure out which one of the Kliq came up with the bogus story, and e-mail me with your answers. If you get ’em all, you’ll get…. something. We’ll make you happy, don’t worry.

With that in mind…. let’s get it on!



TOP STORY: X-Box Price Cut
You’ve probably already heard that Microsoft is lowering the price of its X-Box console to $149, a price reduction of $30. In addition, a number of titles have been cut in price as well. The idea – now, you can purchase a new console and a top-quality game for the same amount that would have gotten you the system and nothing else a month ago.

Microsoft is banking on this doing some great business. After all, look at the GameCube. Once the price dropped on the Cube, it came out of near-extinction to challenge the X-Box as America’s #2 system. Won’t it be the same for the X-Box?

No.

The two examples could not be any more different. Let’s go back in time to last October, when the Cube dropped to $99 from $149. Nintendo lopped 33 percent off its price to get it to under $100, which was a very bold maneuver. In doing so, Nintendo told its audience that they want these people as customers, and if it means a hit in the bottom line, so be it. Combine that with Nintendo’s killer holiday lineup, and there was no real reason NOT to purchase a GameCube.

Compare this scenario to the one Microsoft finds itself in. X-Box now costs $30 less – Microsoft dropped the price about 17 percent. Yes, $30 is a lot of money. But all this price cut is going to do is convince somebody who’s already thinking about buying an X-Box to finally purchase one. In other words, this won’t sell a single system to anybody who wasn’t interested in buying one last week.

The point is, when the GameCube dropped to $99, it convinced EVERYBODY to take a chance on the system. A $30 price cut – at least one going from $179 to $149 – only gets a decent-sized group of people to take the plunge. Maybe that’s all Microsoft was going for. But when everybody knows their next system is just a year away, you get the feeling they could have done a little better.

Nintendo Has The Eye Of The Tiger
To combat Nintendo’s continued backward compatibility between handhelds, Sony announced today a special adapto to allow gamers to use Tiger Electronics handeld game software on the PSP. While not much is known at this time about titles and compatibility, a Sony spokesman said, ” Sony is proud that our new handheld MP3 Player, Cell Phone, PDA, GPS, Yogurt Maker, Minidisc Player, Can and Bottle Opener, Thermostat Remote Control, Midget Detector, and Video Game System will be able to support thse fine fine titles. Who says we need “content” anyway? A bunch of unwashed little… Hey you aren’t going to print that last part are you?”

Square Enix to retire Final Fantasy?
The latest word from Square Enix is that all is not well in Final Fantasyland. According to sources, in-house quality control has been very disappointed with the standard of recent games in the series; additionally, many of a FF Team programmers are reoprted to be feeling burn out from the pressure of rehashing the same old game every time.

“Ultimately, we’re artists” said one senior coder, who asked not to be named. “Artists have to develop their style, or they go mad. Look at Crystal Chronicles: People everywhere slated it because it had the FF name on it, but wasn’t FF. Every time we try to branch out and do something new, we get slated because ‘It’s not Final Fantasy’. The populace keep demanding that we rework the same game every time, and to be honest, I’m sick of it”.

Reports from other sources suggest that the in-house frustrations came to a head over the development of Final Fantasy X-2.

“We could have been working on something totally new and original” said one employee “but instead they made us replicate a game we weren’t entirely happy with in the first place. It’s destroying us.”

Members of the Square Enix board of directors were unavailable for comment, but a prepared statement faxed from their Japan offices stated “There are currently no internal problems within Square Enix. Company morale is at an all time high, and we anticipate no change to this situation”. However, the official denials are not discouraging the rumours. One reported source said “If they don’t give us something more fun to do, I’m going to quit. I hear Red Company have a good RPG department, so I might give them a call.”

XSN Sports Placed On Injured Reserve
In a surprising move, Microsoft announced that it will not release any first-party XSN Sports titles in 2004. The company has listened to complaints that the games (aside from online modes) are not up to the standards that EA and Sega Sports have set for modern sports games. The titles will return in 2005, hopefully much improved.

You know, it’s not as if these games were total trash. There were a LOT of good to be found in this year’s batch of XSN Sports titles. For example, NFL Fever 2004 had the best running game of ANY football game released last season. NBA Inside Drive wasn’t far from being a high-quality basketball game. Despite all of this, the titles are being scrapped this year.

And what does shelving these games for 2004 accomplish? Did NBA Shootout ever recover from its year of “retooling”? Do people even remember NBA Shootout? While none of the XSN titles were as bad as NBA Shootout, there’s always a chance that one or two of them might not be coming back.

And what becomes of the XSN Sports leagues? Once a major reason for sports buffs to purchase an X-Box, does the XSN Sports system die? Will it be found in the ESPN or EA games that will be released this year? This is the one thing that Microsoft had going for it above all other things, so it’s looking like we won’t have any new XSN Sports leagues to play in until 2005.

It’s always sad to see sports franchises take a year off. First, because you know it’ll never be the same with these games. Second, it’s a reminder of how homogenized gaming has become. If it’s not as good as the top two games out there, evidently it’s not even worth making. It’s like, why rent from a mom-and-pop video store when Blockbuster and Hollywood are right around the corner? The XSN games, for me anyway, fit a niche in my gaming repetoire, and now they’re gone for 2004. That’s sad.

Jay Fiedler to be on Cover of Madden 2005
(Routers) – Electronic Arts today announced that Miami Dolphins quarterback Jay Fiedler would grace the cover of the upcoming Madden 2005 videogame.

The game, due out in August, is the latest of Electronic Arts’ long standing Madden football videogame series.

“It was an ordeal,” said Larry Probst, CEO of Electronic Arts, “but I’m very happy that Jay will be joining the long list of Madden cover athletes. Actually, I’m just glad that somebody wanted the job at all.”

According to Probst, EA had negotiated with 35 different NFL stars before Fiedler finally accepted the job.

“Well, we started with Tom Brady, of course, “continued Probst, “but he was already committed to different projects. Then we went after Randy Moss, but he was still apparently under contract to Sega. Ricky Williams was worried about his photogenics after shaving his trademark dreadlocks off. We tried to go after Priest Holmes, Tony Gonzales, and Dante Hall but apparently there’s some Chiefs ‘team rule’ that prohibits them from representing video games.”

Probst said that the search, naturally, headed down to the “second-tier of recognizable stars” and that’s when they signed Fiedler.

Fiedler remarked, “At that point they offered me … well … I can’t disclose a number, but I don’t have to worry about any Joe Theisman injuries for the rest of my life … AND I’m finally out of hock to Dartmouth!”

When asked about the availability of the Super Bowl runner-up Carolina Panthers quarterback, Jake Delhomme, Probst simply looked at the questioning reporter and asked, “Who?”

Are Games Becoming Stale?
Recently, I’ve been involved in more than one profanity-laden debate about the current state of movies. Other people will ask me if I’d like to go see a movie, and I’ll reply with a colorful barrage of insults about the current movies. Generally, my argument is this – everything out there is either a remake, sequel, or “romantic comedy” chick flick. Show me something different, and then maybe I’ll waste an hour’s pay on a movie.

The same sentiment evidently applies in the gaming world. Recently, industry leaders have noticed a similar trend in the current palette of video games. They claim that too many companies rely on sequels and remakes, and don’t explore the field of originality nearly enough. And you know what? They’ve got a point.

In Japan, the top 100 games have been dominated by continuations of games or updated versions of classics. In 2003, there were TWO original titles out of the top 100. That’s a decrease from five in 2002 and ten in 2001. There’s definitely a trend here, and it’s not good. The news isn’t as bad in America, but the trend is still a relevant one.

One of the leading factors blamed is age, according to the Yahoo! news report. It is widely believed that today’s gaming audience is more “conservative” than in years past. What this means is that people won’t purchase a title unless they KNOW it’s good. This is why sequels and annual sports titles have done such good business. The average gamer is 29 years old now. This person has a house to pay off and food to put on the plates of their spouse and children. Gaming is a luxury, not a necessity. Therefore, the average gamer doesn’t have $50 to blow on a title that may or may not be good.

This is, of course, why renting games has become such a phenomenon. Unfortunately, with the average rental costing $7 (in New York, anyway), it’s not exactly a viable commodity for many people. For argument’s sake, let’s take the top ten rentals from last week, as stolen directly from Laflin’s report…

1. Mafia – PS2 (Original)
2. James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing – PS2 (Movie-based – Not original)
3. Ninja Gaiden – Xbox (Update of classic – Not original)
4. Need for Speed: Underground – PS2 (Sequel – Not original)
5. NFL Street – PS2 (Original – marginally)
6. True Crime: Streets of L.A. – PS2 (Original)
7. James Bond 007: Everything or Nothing – Xbox (Movie-based – Not original)
8. Tony Hawk’s Underground – PS2 (Sequel – Not original)
9. WWE Smackdown! Here Comes the Pain – PS2 (Sequel – Not original)
10. Mafia – Xbox (Original)

Of this list, there are four original titles. Mafia appears twice, so it’s really three. If you throw out NFL Street because it’s based on the NFL and not an original concept, there’s only two games with original content – Mafia and True Crime, both of which never would have happened without borrowing heavily from GTA’s gaming precedent.

And what are the biggest titles we’ll see in 2004? Sequels! Halo 2 is on the way, as is Doom 3. Madden’s always a big seller. Final Fantasy XI is already selling very well. In short, it’s possible that the year-end sales charts will be comprised entirely of games that have been inspired by other games.

While it’s one thing to be inspired by a game, it’s unhealthy when every game out there has been inspired by other games. Now, it’s up to the people with power – the same industry leaders who won’t release original games because of the supposed “conservative” modern gamer – to sell us on why we should buy their original titles. Give us a character we can identify with! Give us a game that doesn’t involve mission-based gameplay that revolves around killing people. Give us SOMETHING that hasn’t been done before.

The situation isn’t as bad as the movies – but it’s getting there. And it needs to stop. Now.

Quick Hits
Street Fighter Combo Pack? Rumor out of Capcom is that the upcoming Hyper Street Fighter II: The Anniversary Edition will be bundled with Street Fighter III: Third Strike. Presumably, the addition of the SFIII title won’t increase the price any. If this happens, it should be a VERY hot ticket.

More PSX Hardware Updates. The newest updates allows support of the DVD +RW format, along with recognition of Sony Cybershot pictures on CD-R and folder-based MP3 CDs of the same format. The update can be downloaded now or picked up from your favorite (Japanese) store on 4/21.

Paper Mario 2 On The Way. A sequel to N64’s Paper Mario is in the works and will be released in Japan later this year. The title will appear on the GameCube. No word on when this title will hit America.



Plugs
News Reports
Alex Williams – 411MAX: News News Revolution. Alex is glad that I posted his banner. Trust me, that thing is NEVER coming down… at least not until I get a Silver!!
You know, after R-Type Final, I thought there would be no more R-Type games?

Cory Laflin – Gamer’s Hangover News Report. Cory looks back on his formative years with a unique combination of fondness and angst. Question, though – were there actually grunge kids before or after Nirvana? I thought they all were metalheads before and punks after, but I’m not sure.
Personally, I’d love to just see a press release from Nokia that reads: “N-Gage 2: We F***ed Up The First Time.” With that sort of honesty, I would’ve given the thing at least a look out of respect.

Misha – The Hitchhiker’s Guide To Video Games. I owe Misha an engraved apology, as he’s tried IMing me like five times this week and I’ve been away each time. Sorry, bro. Hit me up again sometime soon and we’ll talk about Pink Floyd.
Marvin: If I had saliva ducts, I’d be drooling right now…
Misha: don’t worry, I’m drooling enough for the both of us…

Columns
Liquidcross – The Angry Gamer. This was his one from last Thursday, where he talks about old NES games that should be brought back and extended into sequels. Hey, why not? They’d be better than half the crap out there now. Would a “NES Classics: The Sequels” GameCube disc be that bad? Seriously.
Some might reject the game as “kiddie,” but that’s what stupid people said about Kirby, and he f*cking eats people.

Chuck Platt – A Thumb To The Eye. The column so good it was posted twice! Chuck’s attempt at an expose blows up in his face (sort of), and… ah, who am I kidding? You need to read this!
So, while I don’t believe word one of any of this, I do think it is everyone’s right to follow thier own beliefs. Just remember though, I have the right to say I was the chef from BurgerTime! in a previous life and steal your tomato, too.

Reviews
Alex Lucard – The Suffering (X-Box). Final Score: 9.0
Alex Williams – MTX: Mototrax (X-Box). Final Score: 5.5
Matt Yeager – Champions of Norrath: Realms of Everquest (Playstation 2). Final Score: 7.0



Commentary of the Week
Microsoft
Overall Profile
Many have accused Microsoft of trying to take over the world. While this is a stretch for the most part, Microsoft has its name on just about every possible computer function. From web-browsing software to productivity tools to small hardware, Microsoft has put its indelible stamp on the computer world. Video gaming is Microsoft’s first real venture outside the computer world, and its X-Box attempted to bring some aspects of computing, particularly the online variety, to gaming.

Goals
Microsoft’s overall goals appear to be the best in those areas which the company invests time and money. Most every facet of computing is dominated by Microsoft, and many would argue that X-Box Live is the ideal online gaming model. Now, Microsoft turns its attention to what it can do to become the best console across the board.

Console History
2001 – X-Box. The gaming world was at a loss for words when Microsoft unveiled its X-Box console. Many had their doubts about the purpose of the system; however, most gave it the benefit of the doubt due to Microsoft’s massive budget. While the system was released in 2001, the X-Box’s potential wasn’t realized until 2002, when the X-Box Live service launched. This service, along with the graphical qualities and hard drive that the X-Box already possessed, turned a nondescript system into one worth buying.

Important Features
– Internal hard drive (for game saving and CD ripping)
– Custom Soundtracks
– X-Box Live online subscription service
– DVD kit (sold separately)
– X-Box System Link
– Controller-S released in middle of system cycle

Other Important Appliances
Microsoft Software. From Office to Outlook Express to Internet Explorer, the average person uses more than one Microsoft application during the average day. Microsoft has experience creating interfaces that help users accomplish their goals and the dollars to ensure that these programs become the industry standard. This ability to give people what they want, even when they don’t know they want it, was instrumental in the creation of the easy-to-use X-Box Dashboard.

Microsoft Hardware. While limited to network tools, keyboards, and mouses, Microsoft’s hardware lineup is recognized among the industry’s best. What’s really interesting here is that Microsoft has limited itself to just a few key areas, rather than providing a solution to everything. Knowing what ventures to pursue and which ones to avoid has not only enhanced Microsoft’s reputation, but their profits as well.

A Look Ahead: X-Box Next
Overview
Not long after the debut of X-Box Live, the X-Box gained the reputation of a “niche system” – that is, the best system for online play. While Microsoft will not shy away from the online content, the company would prefer that its next system accomplish more than be the system of choice for broadband gaming. More specifically; with X-Box Next, Microsoft wants to give Sony a serious run for its money.

Important Features
Optional Hard Drive. It’s already well-known that Microsoft does not plan to offer a hard drive on X-Box Next. Unfortunately, this means the removal of Custom Soundtracks, a popular feature among current X-Box owners. Furthermore, Sony has just debuted its own hard drive,which may or may not be compatible with Playstation 3. The combination of these two factors will ultimately force Microsoft’s hand, and a hard drive will be available for separate purchase.
Backwards Compatibility Kit. Through the sale of a kit that is required for DVD playback, we have seen that Microsoft will create a buyer’s market for just about anything. We will see the same thing when it comes to gamers who wish to play their original X-Box titles on X-Box Next. Microsoft has already said that it is unsure if the new system can handle backwards compatibility. Of course it can! It’ll just charge $20 to do so.
MSN Messenger Compatibility. What’s the one thing that X-Box Live doesn’t allow you to do? Instant message your Friends list! Microsoft really dropped the ball by not including this sort of feature the first time around, and it won’t do so with X-Box Next. MSN Messenger will be available so that gamers can chat online with their Friends, as well as in game-specific chat rooms. Microsoft-brand (and other brands, presumably) keyboards will be usable with X-Box Next via USB port.
Controller-S. At this point, one has to wonder what more can be done with controllers. While it was a most unconventional move, Microsoft changed the default X-Box controller to the more sleek Controller-S. This is the controller that will be used with X-Box Next as well. No need to change a good thing, and this cuts down on R&D costs that could be better used on developing a nice launch lineup. Also, the X-Box Live headset will be compatible with X-Box Next.
X-Box Live. Have no fear – your existing one-year membership WILL be valid with X-Box Next. However, monthly rates will see an increase of $2 per month. After the first few months of 2006, annual memberships will be raised anywhere from $5 to $10, depending on how enrollment is. Gamertags, of course, can be carried from system to system.

Launch
X-Box Next will debut at E3 2005. It will be the first next-gen system to be viewed by the masses, which will do great things for the system’s marketability. True to Microsoft word, the system will be released in 2005, but not until early-to-mid November. This will not only coincide with the four-year anniversary of the first X-Box, but provide kids with a great toy to ask Mom and Dad for come holiday time. X-Box Next should come with a $299 price tag, which will include one controller, no game, and a two-month trial subscription to X-Box Live.

Microsoft needs a stellar launch lineup, and it should have one. Nothing launches a new system like a good sports title, and NFL Fever will return as a launch title on X-Box Next. Microsoft will have a relatively easy time garnering third-party exclusives, as companies will be eager to be the first ones to try the new technology. Besides, with no next-gen competition from Sony until 2006, every new title will be a next-gen exclusive for Microsoft. This is going to be a huge benefit for Microsoft; however, these companies need reasons to stay exclusive to Microsoft once PS3 launches in 2006. For this to happen, Microsoft needs to show these companies big numbers, which will depend on how well Microsoft can market its non-online features.

Prediction
Given Nintendo’s propensity for delays, Microsoft is guaranteed at least a six-month stay as the only next-gen system on the market. Those six months will prove to be the most important in the console developing career of Microsoft. Microsoft needs to communicate to the world at least one good reason – aside from X-Box Live – why they shouldn’t purchase a PS3 once it’s available. By the middle of 2006, X-Box Next sales may have already slowed. That can’t happen if Microsoft is to succeed in challenging Sony for its crown.

The likely scenario: X-Box Next loses some of its thunder when PS3 launches. However, Microsoft able to offer a better online service and is able to get a good enough amount of third-party exclusives to close the gap somewhat. It’ll still be Sony’s market, but Microsoft will be a clear-cut #2 by the end of the next console cycle, with eyes firmly focused on #1.



I hope you enjoyed today’s edition of Thank God It’s Thursday. It was a fun one, believe me! Don’t forget to send in what you believe was fake and, more importantly, who wrote that fake content. If you do… you’ll be special. Not that you aren’t already!

Thanks for reading. See you next week – Nintendo goes under the crystal ball next Thursday!