Thank God It’s Thursday News Report 01.15.04

Hello, and welcome to this snow-filled edition of the Thank God It’s Thursday News Report! Great to have you here for more of the gaming news and commentary you’ve come to expect from 411 Games. Bryan Berg here to bring it all to you. Thanks for stopping by.

This week’s looking to be a good one, with a ton of news and a lot to say. So let’s jump right in!

TOP STORY: Nintendo Losing Confidence in the Cube?
They didn’t quite come out and say it… but if you read between the lines, you might suspect Nintendo of being a little too preoccupied with their “future product”. The product, which will be released in America in May, has been described by Nintendo President Satoru Iwata as “A product of a different nature”. In other words, it’s not a Cube add-on, as I predicted way back in August.

But the telling part of Iwata’s conference about the new system is what immediately followed the “different nature” quote. He told the media, “This is the year that we put up a serious fight with this new product.”

In a previous interview with a Japanese news service, Iwata expressed doubt in regard to Nintendo meeting its goal of six million Cubes sold worldwide in this fiscal year. Add that to Iwata’s quote about only being able to put up a “serious fight” NOW, and you’ve got a president who doesn’t seem to think much of his GameCube.

When you’re talking non-stop about your new product, dropping hints and saying how great it is, while not actually saying a thing about it, all you’re doing is getting people speculating as to what said product might be, NOT how it might perform. That’s where Nintendo is faltering here. Because when they announce this product to be whatever it might be, some people are bound to be disappointed. Why? They’ve had all this time to create these very crazy ideas as to what the product might be, and Nintendo’s vision didn’t quite match theirs. Will these people conform to Nintendo’s vision? That’s hard to say. However, if Nintendo had just come out and said “We’re making a new system, and it’ll be out in May”, it would have been a much better situation.

You might disagree with that last part, arguing that such a statement would devalue the GameCube. And you’d be totally correct. But didn’t the President of Nintendo just damn the Cube anyway, even before announcing what this new product is? If you look closely enough at what he’s saying, he is admitting that the Cube falls short of expectations, but this new product is going to take the ball and run with it, further than the GameCube was ever capable of. And that’s NOT the image you want to present when you’re trying to sell one system and get people interested in another unknown entity. And isn’t this very type of poor focus and not showing the best side of the system that got the Cube into such trouble to begin with? No matter how you look at it, this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the Nintendo GameCube.

PSP = More Than Just Games?
Onto a company that has a well-laid out plan. Sony’s PSP has been confirmed for a global 2004 release, and developers are lining up to put out their best for the new handheld. Note that “their best” does not necessarily mean games – the PSP is trying to showcase itself as not just a game machine, but as a multi-faceted device capable of a number of tasks, including functioning as a navigational system and maybe even more.

To make this easy for you, here’s a list of potential publishers and where they stand in relation to working with Sony on PSP software. This all comes from

Sega: Would like to expand its scope beyond games and into the realm of “Digital Entertainment Content”.
Konami: Wants to have software out by launch. Feels that a new system is the perfect way to test out original software concepts and ideas.
Namco: Wants three Namco titles available at launch.
Capcom: Would like to develop sofware to be available at launch.
SquareEnix: Considering what software to make if the decision to develop for the PSP is made. No matter what, though, no ports.

The PSP is looking more promising all the time. Sony Computer Entertainment VP Masatuka Saeiki has spoken about how the ideal PSP game is one that can be played while walking around and is an everyday-type of game. These companies listed should definitely be able to provide Sony with what they need. December 2004 could be a very interesting time to follow the handheld wars.

Phantom Publishers
If you read TGIT last week, you know that the Phantom was finally unveiled at a Las Vegas convention last Thursday. This could have been seen as a change in the way the Phantom was presented by Infinium Labs. Rather than have the system be a myth for eternity, Infinium could have chosen this time to show us what this system is really all about.

Well, it looks like Infinium is back up to its old tricks. Earlier this week, the company posted a list of the Phantom’s game publishers on its web site, only to take it down hours later, claiming that it was “by no means a complete compilation of games available on the Phantom”. Before the list was taken down, reported that titles from Take-Two Interactive were on the list, among other big names in the industry.

So the question is, why would Infinium tease gamers like this? Is this just another attempt to get us to want what we can’t see? Or did they do the stupid thing and not get approval from these companies ahead of time? You’d have to think that at this point, Infinium has no idea what the hell they’re doing. I doubt their plans for the Phantom read, “Then, in January 2004, we’ll release a list of publishers, then take it down two hours later! That’ll be sure to drive up interest in the Phantom!” No. This has been one of the most bizarre system pre-launch promotions ever seen in gaming, and usually this kind of strangeness results in less-than-stellar numbers in terms of sales (see N-Gage, Nokia).

So You Wanted To Be A Game Industry Player…
If you’ve ever had an interest in what it might be like to work in the video game and computer industry, you might want to check this one out. On January 31 in San Francisco, The Game Initiative is holding a conference called “How To Break Into the Game Industry”. This is focused on students and anyone else who’s looking to get a break in this competitive field.

Unlike a lot of areas out there, video games is a growing industry that sees many better days ahead. If you’re in the San Fran area and you’ve ever considered a career in video games, you owe it to yourself to look into this. The conference will feature speakers from various major publishers with the chance to interact with these big players, ask them questions, and create contacts in the game industry. The site for the “How To Break Into the Game Industry” conference is here.

MLG Schedule Changes
Major League Gaming has announced some changes in their 2004 schedule. Here is how it’s going to play out, when, and where:

Dallas – March 2004
Boston – April 2004
Los Angeles – May 2004
San Francisco – June 2004
Chicago – July 2004
Seattle – August 2004
Atlanta – September 2004
Las Vegas – October 2004

These tournaments give out huge money to the winners and are ultra-competitive, so if you’re in one of these areas, you should try to check out MLG.

Is “X-Box Next” Next?
According to Microsoft Japan X-Box division chief Yoshihiro Maruyama, the next X-Box is now in the works. Unofficially titled X-Box Next, the system will be smaller than its rather large predecesor and will not be available in Japan until 2006 at the earliest. But the big news here is not the release date; it’s the date in conjunction with another important release date.

At this point, Microsoft is undecided in regard to whether it wants to release X-Box Next before Sony drops the PS3 in stores. The company is said to be weighing the pros and cons of this crucial decision as we speak. Fortunately, there’s a lot of time between now and 2006, which is when Maruyama believes Sony will be putting out the PS3.

Notice how the comments made by Maruyama don’t bury the current X-Box, as Iwata’s comments about Nintendo’s new product served to kick dirt on the GameCube. This is simply setting up the gamer for something down the road, while not doing anything to hurt the positioning of the current system. Which is how things SHOULD be done.

The prospects of a second X-Box are very enticing, as long as Microsoft is able to hurdle over two potential road blocks:

1)Backwards compatibility. There’s no reason why Microsoft can’t find a way to make X-Box Next play games from the original X-Box. Not that it’s a crucial selling point, but it’s obviously feasible and so should be included.
2)X-Box Live carryover. Microsoft should ensure that if someone buys a 12-month subscription to X-Box Live, then purchases X-Box Next two months later, this person should have 10 months to use X-Box Live on X-Box Next as part of that 12-month subscription. It shouldn’t be a problem, but judging from what other companies have done in terms of screwing the customer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see gamers get the shaft here.

If Microsoft can pull these off, X-Box Next should be successful in both the short and the long term. It’s tough to say whether it should be released before or after the PS3; if the product is good enough, it won’t even matter.

Liquidcross – The Angry Gamer. LC takes a skeptic’s angle on the typical “What To Expect In 2004” column. Nicely done.
Each of these has a sliver of hope, but I’m not going to go into great details about that; my job is being negative. Go read Retrograding if you want happiness and sunshine.

Misha – We Want Our Tea Back. There’s a really good piece in here about innovation in gaming, and how the simplest ideas can translate into great games. Add this to Lee’s “developers aren’t having fun” piece from last week and we can have a 411 Games “How to Make Video Games” feature!
What has happened to the boundary-pushing nature of games, replete with fresh ideas? The answer is that it’s still there… It’s just not often noticed.

Alex Williams – 411MAX: News News Revolution. Alex attempts to inspire us all to play DDR, especially those who were afraid of looking stupid…
Anyway, don’t feel like a doofus when you get up on that stage. EVERYONE looks like a doofus playing that game, no matter how good they are. Myself included.

Cory Laflin – Gamer’s Hangover News Report. If Gamer’s Hangover wore clothing, it’d be dressed in all black this week. At least the Chiefs made it to the dance, bro. Just think – you could be a Jets fan. The Jets, by the way, SHUT OUT Peyton Manning in last year’s Wild Card round. So THERE.
It wasn’t that long ago that they were 9-0 and a lock for the Super Bowl. That same team didn’t even make the AFC championship game and it’s all Greg Robinson’s fault.

Alex Lucard – Retrograding. Alex looks ahead to 2004 (which is already here) by picking a quasi-Game of the Month for each of the 12 months in 2004. Here’s where you’ll figure out how to budget your money this year. Below is a sample from his preview River City Ransom for GBA…
But it’s the little things that matter most. Lines like “BAAAAAAARF!” Eating plate after plate of food but getting free smiles. Merlin’s mystery shop. The fact gangs will expand and contract their territory.

Chuck Platt – Clap Hands, It’s News Happiness Time. Chuck’s back this week with a solid column that’ll make you clap your hands (HA!). His commentary is awesome, and I’m going to use aspects of it in mine this week as well.
Manhunt is not a murder simulator, a “Se7en” style videogame journey through the snuff film underworld, or an inheritor of GTA’s throne. No, Manhunt is the first game that doesn’t hide the fact you are not in control anymore.

Lee Baxley – Mid-Week Mid-Boss News Report. Lee’s back to doing both games and anime under one roof, and it’s nice to see it all together again. And there are new blue headings for each section! I’m impressed.
Konami paid a visit to San Francisco’s Metreon center to show off some of their upcoming game titles. Two of those titles just happen to be fairly major RPGs! Whoopie!

Alex Lucard – I-Ninja. This might be the funniest review posted on 411 since Soul Calibur 2. Wow. You gotta read this one.
So really, if you rent it over a weekend, you will sate your bloodlust and then have 35$ to spend on something else. Like rat poison for when you teach small children to commit seppuku in their math class. Math sucks! NINJAS RULE!

Commentary of the Week
Before you read this commentary, be sure to read Chuck Platt’s commentary from Tuesday’s Clap Hands. If you haven’t done so, read that one first, then come back.

Earlier this week, Chuck Platt criticized Rockstar’s Manhunt for thoroughly removing the veil from the eyes of gamers – they are no longer in control. Manhunt is a game where you are told what to do, then you must control your player, who does what you tell him to do, which is what you’ve been told to do. In essence, it’s a big runaround that, if you think about it, kind of depresses you. After all, control is one of the most important parts of ANY game. That you might be losing control over your character is not an easy thing to take.

Now, I haven’t played Manhunt, so I can’t speak on that one. But Chuck’s use of tennis games to describe how gamers have lost control is one I could totally relate to. As a sports gamer, I’ve played a lot of these games. And while some semblance of control might be lost, we are so much more thoroughly involved in these games. By “involved”, I mean that we are emotionally attached to the game, be it the “main character”, the situation they’re in, or any other level of attachment you might feel.

To illustrate this example, we’ll look at two categories. One I’m familiar with (sports); one not so much so (RPG’s). Let’s tackle the latter first. The appeal of a RPG has always been that the player becomes attached to the story and (hopefully) the characters. The player helps the characters grow, as it’s the player’s effort that allows the character to gain levels. The player sees the character change and sees the character deal with some pretty rough circumstances. Throughout the progression of the story, the player grows attached to the character (or characters) he or she has spent so much time with, almost as a sort of parental figure. Say what you want to about the originality of FF7, but the death of Aeris threw a LOT of people for a loop, as this was the last thing they’d expect. And odds are good that a lot of people were actually sad because of this development.

RPG’s are the easy ones in showing how involved we get with games today. That’s their job. A good RPG has you feeling the story, talking about the story, and thinking about the story, to the point where you can’t wait to play again. Sports games are a little different in that you need to be a fan, but are every bit as involving.

The appeal of the current sports game is that the player can now control their hero. If a player dreams of being Marshall Faulk, that player can do so in Madden. If someone out there has ever pretended to be Kobe Bryant in a game of one-on-one, all they need to do is pop in their favorite NBA game and they can do so in video games as well. Like an RPG, it’s the fantasy element that comes into play here – the idea that you’re IN the story because YOU control the success of the main character, or the star running back.

If you’re a huge sports buff, you know what I’m talking about. Play a season in Madden as your favorite football team. Then watch your favorite team play. I guarantee you that you’ll end up liking certain players better as a result of your Madden experience. You might yell at your TV in hopes that your team’s coach will put in a certain player who’s “awesome in Madden”. Or you might have the same reaction, but in a negative light. Or you might wish your create-a-player was available to suit up for your favorite team.

The create-a-player, like the RPG character you model after yourself, is a huge source of involvement and attachment. If you’re like me, you’ve created yourself and a bunch of friends and family members to play for your team. And if you’re like me, you’ve gotten mad at the REAL PEOPLE because their create-a-player blew a play. You’ve taken a total fantasy, like playing on the same field as your heroes, and turned into an attack on a friend because they didn’t hold up their end of the bargain in terms of letting you live your dream.

That’s how involved we are in games today. And when you’re that into it, you don’t really need control. You’re already in the game! Chuck Platt doesn’t indicate whether if, in the grand scheme of things, it’s better or worse that we had more control in Pong than we do in Virtua Tennis (as in, Pong is not necessarily a better overall GAME than Virtua Tennis). And he might or might not think, as I do, that the more INTERACTIVE experience would have to take place in Virtua Tennis. In Virtua Tennis, your player is there in front of a crowd who wants you to win. And for 10 minutes, YOU are there in front of a crowd who wants you to win. And for 20 hours, you’re the young knight who has to recover crystals, or save your girlfriend, or any other such RPG task. We’re in the game, and I’d rather be in the game than control somebody else.

And now, TGIT is closed for the next six days. Don’t worry, there’ll be more next Thursday. But stay here at 411 and read Alex Williams tomorrow and everyone else throughout the week. Thanks again for reading, and see you next Thursday!