Rapid Fire 08.19.04

Welcome to the second edition of Rapid Fire! Thanks for making it back to Inside Pulse and joining us as we bring you the most recent happenings in the industry, not to mention some of the best reviews and opinion around! I’m Bryan Berg and, once again, this is Rapid Fire.

A big thank you to everyone who wrote in about last week’s column. I had a lot of insecurity about the format, which turned out to be just nerves. Turns out that everybody loves it! Good to know, and hopefully it can become even better in time. But what struck me even more than anything format-related was the reaction to the release date stuff. Every letter I got was in total agreement with what I said, which is a good feeling. But it’s also a bad feeling because while we all go through hell just to get our latest games, there exists a whole society of higher-ups who couldn’t care less. That’s detestable, and these people should be ashamed of themselves.

Yesterday, I went to Target to pick up Hot Shots Golf Fore!, as it was slated for “release” on August 17 and GameStop’s website advertised it as shipping within 24 hours. So I figured the game might be available from my favorite store. Of course, they didn’t have the game yet. Meanwhile, my brother was able to pick up his Goodfellas Special Edition DVD on Tuesday – the very day it was scheduled to come out.

So why one and not the other? Who knows? I guess they’ll never learn.

Anyway. There’s something new I’d like to try this week, and it’s something that you may (or may not) have seen other writers do. Say I get a letter that deserves bringing up in the column, or another writer says something that I have a response to. Instead of having a regular “Plugs” or “Mailbag” section (those can get kind of boring), these noteworthy issues will be handled in a little segment I would like to call…

Get it? Rapid Fire? Firing Back? HA!

Nevertheless, it’s time to begin Firing Back. We’ll open this one up with a few words from Myles McNutt, who writes…

The problem with the PSP, especially compared to the DS, is that its market IS the PS2 market. They can try to claim it as the iPod of the future, but they’re still offering games that are markedly similar to the PS2 Library. There is nothing for the PSP, thus far, that makes me think “New Experience”. And, selling this thing as an iPod killer, a music and movie juggernaut, and everything in between will only further water down its quality as a gaming machine, where Sony has the most clout at the moment. Sony may be trying to create a new handheld market, but their target is pretty well their console market.

And this is the problem…they’re targeting a machine with PS2 Quality graphics and PS2 Ports to people who OWN PS2s. These are people who can buy GT4 and play it on their TVs, not having to shell out $300 and another $40-$50 for a copy of the game to play it on the road. And, if they do buy both, who buys the same game for both systems. They are segmenting their own market by allowing even the same game, direct port or not, to appear on both systems.

McNutt pretty much hit it on the head here. While the PS2 market certainly is a viable one, it’s not necessarily the market that buys handhelds. Nintendo has done a wonderful job of making sure the Game Boy Advance has something for everybody, and that’s why the GBA sells the way it does. You can’t really say the same with the PS2. Is there any evidence that supports this group of people shelling out another $300 for a portable PS2?

Not only that, but does this group even want to pay that kind of money just to play the games they already have bought once for their PS2? Sony’s asking a lot of its fans here, and this writer thinks that Sony’s doing a little overestimating. Remember, Sega once thought that every Genesis owner would buy a Sega CD and 32X, and look at where THAT logic got them.

Like McNutt said. Nothing new, same games that need to be re-bought, ridiculously low battery life. All at the price of a new console. This is why Sony is the ultimate heartless corporation. That system isn’t black for no reason, you know.

Next up is Dan Belenkov, who sent me the best letter ever…

Mr. Berg;
Hey Brian, long time reader, first time writer. You know, I just read your recent article on release dates and such. I have to say, you are 100% correct. This IS unacceptable and it makes me, as a consumer, feel used. That is why I have just sold my PS2 and my games to the EB down the block. I refuse to be treated like that, even at the expense of no longer being a gamer. So I just wanted to thank you and let you know that it has helped make this decision. I will not send my money to an industry that doesn’t support me back.
Dan Belenkov

When I first got Dan’s letter, I was shocked that the piece he’s referring to was that moving where it could influence someone this much. Then, I started to feel bad. Like, what if Dan got the urge to play Madden in a few weeks, but couldn’t because of a decision I helped him make? I’d hate to be responsible for a situation like that.

But now, I think about it and I’m really thrilled that Dan set an example for every gamer out there who’s fed up. The release date issue is one of those things that people have always sort of dealt with in gaming, but without getting too mad about it. It’s something people are used to, so they don’t even question it. But judging from the feedback I got this week, people are starting to realize that there’s no rational explanation for the treatment gamers are subjected to by the bigwigs in the industry.

I felt used yesterday when I went into Target and they didn’t have a game that was supposed to be “released” on Wednesday. So did a lot of other disappointed folks. And if there was a widespread way to express this emotion the way Dan did, I’d be all for that. Remember when people had that “Don’t Buy Gas on This Day” letter going around? Sure, things didn’t improve right away, but gas is finally below $2 per gallon on Long Island. That’s a long way from the $2.29 we paid just two or three months ago.

The problem is, how can you pick a day to react against an industry that is apparently too good to set dates? I’m not saying to pick a day where we all go and sell our PS2s, but there must be something that we can do to better our situation. We’re part of a society where the Powers That Be treat us like we don’t matter when the reality is that we are the ones that feed their families. You’ll read later on about an “independent research” study that claims that only the biggest titles can make a profit. And why do you think that is? Because the big titles – namely, sequels – are the only games that present some semblance of loyalty to gamers. There’s more to say on that later; still, that’s as close as you’ll come to a sign of good faith from corporation to blue-collar gamer. That’s just sad.

Then there’s Misha, who blames the gaming public for buying trash like Catwoman and Tomb Raider when they should be putting their money toward a more quality product. I’m in total agreement here. The only reason why companies make games like Catwoman, in a three-month span no less, is because they know people will buy these games no matter what.

The other night, my girlfriend and I were watching some Lifetime movie where Jefferson from Married With Children kidnaps this girl and makes her work for his child porn ring. My girlfriend was outraged that Jefferson would do this to the girl. I was outraged that there was an audience for the child porn to begin with – after all, if nobody was interested in seeing it, Jefferson wouldn’t have to kidnap the girl because he couldn’t make any money off of her.

Not to compare games like Catwoman to child porn, mind you, but the situations run parallel here. Companies only make what they know will sell. That’s why you see Tomb Raider sequel after Tomb Raider sequel. Beneath the many detractors lie a small, but vocal and cash-laden minority who clamor for new adventures each year. And as long as people are willing to pay for these games, they’ll continue to be made.

In his debut column, A.J. wonders if people will be able to afford the new technology that awaits us – more specifically, the $500 PS3. Methinks this is just a ploy on Sony’s part to see if people will actually be willing to pay $500 for the system. If not, they’ll lower it to $350 or even $400 and everybody will think Sony’s doing them a giant favor. Either that or the industry leaders are just trying to price out the industry in order to see how much they can possibly charge without alienating too much of their fanbase. We’ll see. But I doubt they’re really going to charge $500 for the PS3.

Cory dedicated his whole column to comparing NFL 2K5 and Madden, which is what I planned to do. So I’ll do it in short form.

Modes: Madden. I couldn’t stand buying crap for my Crib. I can’t stop playing Rushing Attack. Those mini-games are seriously addicting.

Graphics: Madden. Maybe it’s because I watched all those “Bonus Features” that talk about how great the art is, but Madden is a very beautiful title. Not that ESPN isn’t, but Madden takes the cake here.

Sound: ESPN. I’ll take the NFL Primetime music over that “Last Day of School” rubbish any day.

Control: Madden. Even though the Hit Stick is supremely overrated, the amount of control you have over your running back is excellent.

Replayability: Madden. Like I said, those mini-games. Can’t stop!

Appeal Factor: ESPN. A lot of people got ESPN when it was $20 and then decided they didn’t need to pay $50 for Madden. Although if the two games were released simultaneously, you might have a different story.

Addictiveness: Madden. Have I mentioned the mini-games yet?

Balance: ESPN. The curve on ESPN is perfect, so you go through the difficulty levels while you develop your entire game. In Madden, you might be able to throw like a Pro, but only run like a Rookie. That’s not good.

Originality: ESPN. The VIP is the only thing that matters here.

FINAL SCORE: Madden 5, ESPN 4. If you factor in the price, you have a virtual tie. You really can’t go wrong with either one; however, all things being equal, Madden offers just a little more. And the Collector’s Edition content is great. It really makes you feel good to support the franchise, which is going to go a long way next year.

THE INDUSTRY: And The Survey Says…
If there’s one universal truth about the business of gaming, it is that the industry is run by idiots. Because of the idiotic nature of the people in charge, gamers and gaming journalists alike are often left in the dark when it comes to the future of gaming. So, every once in a while, an independent group will do survey research and report the results. The results, of course, are so blatantly obvious that anybody could properly guess the outcome. Still, when people see the words “independent research panel”, they react as if it’s the most important thing they’ve ever heard.

Fortunately, there are some people out there who don’t rely on such ridiculousness to spark interest in this crazy industry we call gaming. Therefore, when the International Data Group did a study on top CEOs to see what they thought the future held for the gaming industry, yours truly felt it necessary to wade through the BS and get to the truth.

Here are some of the more notable contents of the report. The IDP information is in italics; my thoughts in normal text. Enjoy.

According to Wes Nihei, the editor-in-chief of GamePro, “The console segment is in mid cycle.”
Wrong. The console segment is in the third stage of this particular cycle. You can divide a console’s life cycle into four stages. The first occurs when the system is just released and it’s the hottest thing on the market. The second stage is when games start to become packaged with the system, and/or the price is cut for the first time. The third stage consists of market-sensitive price cuts, which means that if one system gets a cut in price, the rest do just to keep up. And the fourth stage happens when the new system comes out and the company vainly claims to “support” a system that is no longer relevant.

By this definition, we are well into the third stage, as we have been for quite some time. Price cuts are done competitively to gain market share, not to offer “the best for less” or any such nonsense. We have seen the best that each system has to offer, and the minds of the industry – including customers – are focused on the next generation.

People aren’t interested in buying a current console because of its technological abilities. They’ll buy because the system happens to have the right price tag and the right angle. You might buy an X-Box because of X-Box Live. You might buy a PS2 just because you never had one and you’ve always wanted one. You might buy a GameCube because it’s $99. That’s about it. Nobody is buying their first system – that’s what happened two and three years ago. The situation now is much different.

Potential price cuts by Sony and Microsoft would serve to enhance console business.
Talk about obvious. Obviously, the more consoles sold, the more money that goes into the business. But I don’t think that price reduction is the be-all and end-all that the CEOs would have you think it is. There’s a far more practical solution that is totally avoided here, and it’s one that requires more attention than any proposed price cut. Look two paragraphs down for the answer.

Nihei goes on to state, “Everyone is hoping for price cuts on hardware – and say the health of the industry is tied to both Microsoft and Sony giving in this year.”
Nihei makes it sound like the entire gaming world will go up in smoke unless X-Boxes and PS2s are cheaper in December than they are now. Which, of course, is totally asinine. How does selling more systems now help launch the successors to these systems in two years?

The real key to the industry’s “health” is better gaming. Let’s face it – today’s games pretty much suck. If it’s not a sequel, licensed game, or sports title, nobody’s going to buy it. So the industry must give people reasons to PLAY, not just to buy. It’s one thing to sell a system to somebody. It’s another thing to get that person to buy ten games a year. And if the games weren’t such crap, we wouldn’t even be discussing the industry’s health right now. You’d think a group of gaming CEOs would get this.

As for the proposed price cuts, they have already been announced for Europe. So you know that the American market isn’t far behind. But it still won’t change anything. Microsoft won’t gain anything from dropping in price because they know Sony will just do the same thing. You still have the same competitive ratio of systems sold, but you’re making $30 less per sale. Who’s going to agree to that deal? And how does that help the industry at all? You then have to sacrifice the quality of your games, which actually hurts the industry more than any price cut could help it.

At this point in the console cycle, price cuts have less effect because everyone knows that these systems will be worth nothing in two years. Besides, if you already have an X-Box and GameCube, do you really need a PS2? Of course not. You’re better off saving for the PS3. If A.J. was right about its price, you’re going to need to start now.

Independent developers are having a tough time due to rising development costs and the narrow tastes of the gaming public. The fact that only the biggest hits yield a profit will lead to more mergers and buyouts so that the smaller developers can stay alive.
This is one we’ve been dealing with for some time now, and it’s nice to see higher-ups actually noticing this. It’s a total Catch-22, and it sucks. Video game development now rivals motion picture production from a cost standpoint. A major development studio doesn’t want to take a chance on something innovative that might sell. The studio wants a sure thing.

That’s why we’re seeing so many sequels and big-name releases – they’re guaranteed to reach the public. And an EA can turn a crap game like Catwoman into a decent seller because of its marketing budget. EA could, hyopthetically, strike a deal with GameStop to have a demo of Catwoman available in every store. This would let people try the game before they buy it and, more importantly, keep other demos out of the store. The independents can’t compete with these bully tactics and they’re left with two options. They can either merge with a major studio, who certainly will ensure that only their safest ideas become reality, or they can simply quit. Either way, there are original visions that will never be seen. Maybe the next Mario has already been left on the cutting room floor because studio bigwigs felt it wouldn’t yield a profit.

There’s a lot that goes into modern gaming. Developing the game is just part of it. Then you have to advertise it, buy off certain review publications, and get the game into stores. There are a lot of independents who can’t handle all of that, yet they have something to offer the industry that the industry doesn’t currently have. Unfortunately, that “something” will never see the light of day because nobody can afford to take risks anymore. We probably never will see the next Mario. All we’ll see is the current Mario for the next ten years. Why? Because people are still buying Mario.

The people who complain about the lack of originality in gaming are the same people who persuade Nintendo to pump out more Mario games by buying every single one they put out. Nintendo feels like they’re doing the right thing by putting Mario in every game they have because people seem to love him so much and they’re just giving the people what they want. And the people buy. But the people also get mad because all they see on the market is sequels and the same characters they’ve been seeing for years. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s the way the companies see it, and that’s why they go with the proven cash cow.

The truth is, the game companies have no idea what the people want. So they make what they think people will buy. Not to mention that it’s much easier (and cheaper) to develop a game if the foundation has already been laid with a previous game. So that’s why we see so many rehashes out there.

Is there any hope for the small, independent developers out there, full of ideas but short on the cash and connections necessary to make it big? You’d like to hope that at least a few of these groups will make it. But the realities they face are harsh. The fickle public is content to spend its gaming dollars on games almost void of originality. Development costs are already sky-high, so you can imagine how high they’ll be for next-generation systems. And the “retail hole”, which Nihei describes in the IDG report as a profit-sucking center, keeps small companies from obtaining the distribution necessary to manufacture a hit game.

It’s a total Catch-22, and it sucks. But that’s the nature of the beast. Just like Blockbuster and Hollywood came and closed out your town’s mom-and-pop movie rental business, the EAs of the world will destroy these small companies. Gaming will be a completely non-original activity, but a very profitable venture for those with the capital to be competitive. And Big Business will claim yet another victim.

And there you have it. A hodgepodge of information about what’s wrong with the industry and why the people in charge of said industry are too foolish to know what’s happening in their line of work. At least it gives us plenty to discuss, eh?

So that does it for this week’s Rapid Fire. Thanks for joining us today, and we’ll do it again next Thursday. Have a good one!