And what of the older gamer?

30 11 2006

By Aleks Krotoski

Last week, a so-called “older” gamer posted to /. about his anticipated decline in gaming skills as his years continue to advance, and requested that the community suggest games that he should play if he were to never play again. While the resulting commentary belied the average (mental?) age of the /. contributor and the original post was a tad morbid, I had considered forwarding the intention on to this blog to see what our well-rounded and well-meaning readers might suggest to this 44-year-old guy who appears to think he’s on the brink of incapacity.

However, I was listening to the ever-entertaining Digital Planet podcast from the BBC and this week’s instalment raised the point that technology is driven by demand, which seemed a much more interesting frame for his request. Here in the West it seems our needs include escapism, high action and lots of rather unsettling bright flashes and loud noises on the games side, and on the general technology side, machinery which offers all of our needs in one handy packet (e.g., newfangled mobile phones) and software which brings us together (e.g., social networking websites and Web 2.0 apps).

But how will all of this change as we get older?

The example which the podcast’s Japanese interviewee used was to describe how different generations in his country use handheld computers. In particular, older folks who “have trouble remembering their PINs” simply touch their Palms to a reader on ATMs, and the locally stored information provides access to their funds.

Arguably, this is exactly why the Wii is so attractive to non-traditional gamers – and why Nintendo had a presence at the AARP last month. Their philosophy appears to be to respond to the demands of people who’ve never picked up a (confusing) controller in their lives, not to people who have games hard-wired into their brains.

So if, for the sake of continuity, this move on the part of Nintendo and Sony (EyeToy, SingStar etc) is aimed at gratifying the demands of people who are getting older, what else will we see in the future which concedes to the degeneration of the human body as the world’s largest demographic in history marches inevitably towards the geriatric ward?





We are not mainstream, because we are not good enough.

28 11 2006

What is the mass market, and what do they want? What actually qualifies as mainstream? Those phrases – “mass market” and “mainstream” – have been tossed about very flippantly by the videogames industry over the last few years, and in retrospect, there’s been very little analysis of what those terms actually mean to this medium. Admittedly, my own contributions in this column are probably as much to blame as anyone else in this regard – which is partially why I’m so convinced that now, as Nintendo’s Wii launches to a media reception so laden with the words “mass market” that it’s astonishing any other words can fit in edgeways, is an absolutely vital moment for videogame creators and publishers alike to step back and consider the real meaning of that term.

Conventional wisdom says that videogames are not mass market, and that they would very much like to be mass market – because as the name suggests, that is a bigger market, and hence more lucrative. Conventional wisdom points to the inroads made by products like The Sims, Singstar, Eye Toy, Nintendogs and Brain Training in bringing gaming to older generations, to women and to “non-gamers”, nods sagely and says “more of this, please.”

Bowing to this wisdom, we – and the specialist media and videogames publishers and developers themselves are as guilty of this as the mainstream media – make the implicit assumption that all of those things which we have traditionally enjoyed in videogames aren’t suitable for the mass market. We look at shoot ’em ups, racing games, action adventures and so on, and describe them as “hardcore”; the implicit subtext behind the coverage and marketing of most core, triple-A titles is that if you were one of the greasy mongrels who queued up for your console of choice on the night of launch, you’ll love it to bits, but you probably shouldn’t show it to your mum, your dad, your sister or your girlfriend, because they’ll never understand.

This is a gross oversimplification, and one which needs to be shot down – because it is responsible for some of the most persistent and poorly conceived product decisions this industry makes. It feeds off the idea that what “mass market” consumers want to do is play the digital equivalent of Desperate Housewives (thus leading to regular moans about how we don’t seem to make games that tap into the soap opera market and, god help us all, the Desperate Housewives tie-in game), engage in casual, non-narrative led gaming, and get drunk with their friends and treat the console as a glorified karaoke machine or some other form of party game. It leads to countless projects being funded which aim at creating “a game which appeals to women”, normally in the form of some atrocious and borderline insulting shopping, clothes-wearing and gossiping simulation – or better (by which I mean worse) again, the occasional effort at creating games to appeal to some other segment of society, such as gay men.

The very existence of this kind of thinking – and the prominence it is given within the industry – is perfect evidence of how immature much of the “creative business” thinking in this sector actually is. In the headlong rush to abandon the “mass market unfriendly” narratives games currently offer – space marines shoot aliens, cars drive really fast and crash spectacularly, wizards and sword-wielding barbarians battle against dark gods – we have forgotten something blindingly obvious.

These narratives are already mass-market. In fact, they are among the most mass-market stories which the world has to offer.

The industry has become so used to dismissing its own products as hardcore or niche that it has actually thrown a whole nursery school of babies out with the bathwater. Games industry conventional wisdom says that a narrative where space marines shoot aliens can’t possibly be mass market – but yet Aliens is one of the most iconic films of the last thirty years. Independence Day was one of the top-grossing films of its decade. Need I mention Star Wars? Our conventional wisdom dismisses wizards and barbarians and their fantasy trappings as being too hardcore to appeal beyond the existing gaming audience, but it’s perfectly obvious that franchises like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings have become a core part of global culture, with a universal appeal which far exceeds that of almost any videogame.

The problem is not the themes of videogames. It’s an altogether more bitter pill to swallow, but the problem is that with a few unique exceptions, videogames aren’t using those themes in an effective, gripping or mature manner. All too often, games fall short because while they do everything required to satisfy certain segments of the core gaming audience, they miss out on key aspects which would vastly expand their appeal – and from the gamer’s perspective, it can sometimes be hard to tell why a certain game achieves a level of mass market recognition, when another does not.

Take Halo, for example; a game which, by any standards, is an excellent first person shooter (in which, true to videogaming form, you play a space marine who battles aliens), but which is arguably no better – and in some respects is worse – than many other first person shooter titles on the market. However, Halo has achieved a degree of recognition in popular culture which extends far beyond the core gaming audience; it has been played by vast numbers of people who would normally never give a first person shooter a second glance, and has become so popular that despite the development problems afflicting the Halo movie, it seems likely to be made for the largest budget ever earmarked for a videogame franchise movie.

Why? Not because the moment to moment gameplay experience of Halo was brilliant – although that’s clearly important – but because of elements which went far beyond that. Halo had an interesting, involving plot; it had great characters, good dialogue, absolutely fantastic, atmospheric locations, and a wonderful sense of dramatic timing. It had convincing voice acting and utterly fantastic music, with an iconic theme which was equal parts stirring and haunting. These elements elevated Halo beyond the level of most videogames – and certainly, you could argue that the storyline was no better than many Hollywood popcorn blockbusters, but then again, most videogames fail miserably even at reaching those levels. More importantly, it made Halo interesting and accessible to countless people who wouldn’t give the majority of FPS games a second glance, and gave the game the momentum it needed to become a major cross-media franchise, not just 10 hours of mindless alien-shooting fun.

Halo is far from the only example of this – and it’s worth noting that there are also some games and franchises whose appeal goes far beyond the existing gaming audience, but remains niche in its own right. Silent Hill is a good example; a game whose audience, in my own experience, is primarily female, and which has successfully tapped a whole new group of people but whose own commercial success, while perfectly respectable, is not enormous.

This is another core truth about the mass market which the industry has failed to realise. The “mass market” is a myth; the reality is a huge collection of individual niches, some larger than others, but none of them all-encompassing. There is certainly scope for videogames to expand into new niches, as the example of Silent Hill – and indeed of Nintendogs, or Brain Training – displays. However, more importantly, right now videogames are failing to effectively harness their existing niches. Weak narrative, poor direction and pacing, unsympathetic characters, excessively complex control systems, bad music, graphics glitches and a host of other sins which are often forgiven readily by the hardcore are preventing the bulk of this industry’s product from having any impact with the vast majority of consumers – and even our military sci-fi or swords ‘n sorcery fantasy titles are utterly overshadowed by Hollywood’s most vacuous blockbusters.

The question currently being asked in the games industry is, “what new kinds of games can we create which appeal to the mass market?” This is the wrong question. The right question is, “what is it about our existing games that limits their appeal – and how can we change that?” That’s a harder question to ask, because videogame creators – from designers right through to publishing bosses – like to believe that their existing products are absolutely fine for their markets, and that it’s now time to conquer new markets. Until that attitude changes, videogames will never achieve the success within our culture that other mediums enjoy.

Rob Fahey
Gamesindustry.biz





Games Conference by Northern dev agencies unveiled

27 11 2006

Codeworks GameHorizon and Game Republic, the support agencies for game developers in the North, are joining forces for a new developers’ conference taking place in York on May 10th, 2007.

The Northern Games Conference is aimed at the entire UK games industry and seeks to explore the variety of opportunities in the games industry, from casual games to digital distribution, that are opening up to developers thanks to the introduction of new consoles.

GameHorizon is the collaborative network for the games industry in the North East of England and members include Newcastle-based Reflections and Eutechnyx, Venom Games of Gateshead and Atomic Planet, based in Middlesbrough.

Carri Cunliffe, manager of Codeworks, commented: “GameHorizon and Game Republic have been working in close collaboration for a long time now. Our organisations have the mutual goal of bringing the best skills and resources to Northern developers. The Northern Games Conference will mark the collaborative spirit and united front of northern game development.”

Game Republic, meanwhile, is the independent trade alliance designed to support game development in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Members include Sumo Digital, Team 17, Revolution, Rockstar Leeds and Kuju.

Charles Cecil, founder of developer Revolution and co-founder of Game Republic, added: “It’s a very exciting time for the games industry at the moment. Not only with the recent launch of the three new generation consoles but also with the opportunities offered in digital downloads and distribution, casual gaming and converging technologies. This is the ideal subject to launch the inaugural Northern games conference.”





Second studio for Swordfish

23 11 2006

via developmag
EA UK may be closing its NW studio, but Vivendi-owned Birmingham-based Swordfish could help those left in the region without a job as it opens a new office in Manchester, Develop magazine reveals.

The new studio has been devised to support the work done at Swordfish’s Birmingham HQ and will be managed by Mike Delves, who reports to MD Trevor Williams.

Swordfish’s teams are hard at work on a new project, a currently unannounced next-gen title. The team previously made Cold Winter, which Vivendi published before acquiring the company last year.

Spearheading a new recruitment drive for the studio, the office’s opening will help the team add some 50 people to its ranks – a big step for the studio and its publisher owner, which is also hoping to bolster staff across all of its studios around the world.

“There is a wealth of talent around the M62 corridor in the north west of England,” said MD Williams. “Our next generation projects require us to build on and expand our existing talent base, so we are looking for people with the right strengths, skills and talent.”

The move is also another step in the rising power of UK-based publisher-owned studios following the acquisitions of Sports Interactive, Juice, Lionhead and Climax Racing (by Sega, THQ, Microsoft and BVG respectively) throughout 2006.





Games Edu, Develop Conference and Expo confirmed for July 2007

23 11 2006

Brighton event due to take place July 24th – 26th

Brighton will once again play host to The Develop Conference and Expo, due to take place 24th – 26th July 2007, GamesIndustry.biz can reveal.

Following the success of last years’ event we have confirmed the date for next years’ conference, which once again promises to feature an impressive list of big name speakers and exhibitors.

It’s expected that Tandem will release details of the sessions and speakers early next week, which last year included industry luminaries such as Sony’s Phil Harrison, Epic’s Mark Rein, Sports Interactive’s Miles Jacobson and Lionhead’s Peter Molyneux.

It’s expected the Develop Conference and Expo will once again include sessions, keynotes and speakers from across the globe, with support from industry associations including the IGDA and TIGA.





UK Government must do more to support games – Braben

23 11 2006

Via GI.biz

“It’s actually getting worse for the way our companies operate”

Frontier Developments founder David Braben has warned that the UK Government is not doing enough to support the games industry – and that the situation is getting worse.

Speaking in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz to be publisher later today, Braben said, “There have been changes that have made being in Britain harder, in a sense. Of the people I knew back in the early 80s, how many of those are now in the States or Canada.

“The problem is we’re operating on a world stage. We’ve got the Canadian Government making it very attractive for developers to relocate or open an office over there. It’s not just Canada – Australia and the Far East as well.”

According to Braben, the difficulties for British games companies are compounded by the rise of outsourcing and recent changes to tax law “where we’re taxed a lot more unfavourably than we were before”.

“We’re not asking for special treatment like the film industry, but it almost feels like not only do not get special treatment, but actually it’s getting worse for the ways our companies operate,” he continued.

“Things like having to forward-forecast profits for next year for tax – I’d love to be able to do that, but we’re in a very unpredictable business, and therefore it’s extra difficult in our sector.”

Braben said he believes there’s a way to go before the games industry matures and is taken seriously. “To an extent, it’s the games industry’s fault,” he observed.

“We’ve got a very, very difficult task. Making something that’s interactive and yet compelling to everybody is a real Holy Grail… It takes a big change of mindset, and I think that’s coming.”





EU Investigates French Developer Tax Breaks

23 11 2006

French news agency AFP is reporting that European Union (EU) regulators are to open an investigation into whether proposed tax breaks for the French video games industry are illegal, according to EU rules.

The proposal would see French companies benefiting from a tax credit worth up to 20 percent of the cost of producing a video game, providing that it was an adaptation of an existing work of European origin or that it passed a government test of quality, originality and contribution to the expression of “European cultural diversity and creativity”.

The European Commission will try to determine whether the proposed tax credits for the French developers and publishers distorts EU competition or, as the French government claims, promotes cultural projects. EU laws allow individual states to promote culture only as long as they do not harm competition and trade between member states.

“We must be sure that the measure will promote only genuine cultural projects and that it will not have the effect of an industrial policy instrument in favor of the video games sector,” Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes is quoted as saying.

The French games industry enjoys a worldwide influence significantly larger than its modestly sized local market, including major publishers Ubisoft and Infogrames (the parent company of Atari). Individual developers have been less prominent in recent years though, after the demise of studios such as Adeline Software International (now No Cliché), Cryo, and Kalisto, as have games with an overtly French theme and artistic style.

In order to combat this decline, the French government initiated a set of measures in 2003 aimed at maintaining and developing its local games development community. Amongst other measures, this involved the formation of developer trade group Association des Producteurs d’Oeuvres Multimedia (APOM).

At this stage several educational and training initiatives were also proposed, along with the tax credit system currently under review. Such direct intervention from central government is unusual in the West, with only isolated U.S. states offering tax incentives for local developers.