Neil Young: Mobile is Coming of Age

30 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/holgman/762821724/

A few weeks ago I blogged about Neil Young leaving EA, and today Newsweek have revealed the nature of the company he’s setting up:

I repeat: what the heck is ngmoco?

Young plans to focus on developing and publishing games for iPhone class mobile devices.

That’s it?

No, there’s more. “I want ngmoco to feel like 1st party for the iPhone,” says Young. “I want customers to feel like there’s somebody out there that’s building games, that’s financing games, that’s helping games get made that take advantage of what the device does really well, and gets beyond porting a PSP game or a DS game. Young cites Nintendo as a lodestar for the way the Japanese developer-publisher has built games like Nintendogs, Brain Age and Zelda that show off what the DS is best at. “The iPhone is a unique device, right? It has a camera in it. It will be a 3G phone. It will have GPS. It has a touch screen. It has accelerometers. It’s got good graphics performance. It’s got all your media on there. My instinct is, the type of games that will make people want to buy more iPhones or more devices of that class are the types of things that really showcase the capabilities and bring what we know as game designers together with what Apple has delivered as a platform

Convergent devices are creating rapidly expanding territories for games to move into. The high degree of novelty should lead us to expect widespread experimentation and correspondingly high failure rates. As well as a few new commercial successes, convergence will probably lead to the emergence of some innovations that are driven more by culture than profit.

(CC image by HolgerE)





“Casual” Taking a Chunk From “Hardcore”?

30 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/bcostin/238021681/

Ben Cousins, Executive Producer of Battlefield Heroes, claimed this week that

[the] gulf between core and casual games was akin to that of cinema and TV. And, like TV, casual is set to take a chunk out of the core market.

To quote him:

“[Like games retail] cinema is all about your week one box office,” said Cousins. “But, like casual gaming, TV is all about growing your audience over time.

“Cinema and TV now coexist,” he added. “TV didn’t kill cinema, but it took a big chunk out of it.”

Ultimatley, online and web games will “become very mainstream”, predicted Cousins, saying that games will experience the exact same things which film and music have experienced – that is, the move away from hardware-driven delivery of goods to software-driven delivery.

There are a lot of ways to nitpick his argument that I’ll avoid. The main one is that core and casual, like TV and cinema, are both very different things, and games are at a very different position to the one cinema was in when TV came along. Games haven’t yet deposed TV the way TV and radio gutted Vaudeville shows; in the present environment, all media are suddenly struggling to get to grips with digital networks.

I’m not surprised that things may look this way to Cousins from the inside of a large publisher. EA reallocated a lot of resources to the Wii and casual over the past few years, and at first had not been prepared for such a transformation in the market.

However, there’s an established market for “hardcore” games, and while casual may be growing faster at the moment because it was such a neglected market until recently, all sections of games are experiencing growth right now. The traditional gamers aren’t suddenly going to desert FPS and RTS games for Peggle, Bejeweled, or Battlefield heroes.

Cousins cites digital distribution too, and that casual games fit more easily with this, but bandwidth is going up. There are too many trends for simplistic comparisons to be useful right now.

(CC image by bcostin)





Pinnacle Offers Third Way To Market

27 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/druclimb/424411496/

Distributor Pinnacle are experimenting with an offer for developers to get games to market without using a publisher. It aimed squarely at people who already have work to put out, rather than the traditional process of pitching, greenlighting, investment, acquisitions, etc.

Gamecock is not dissimilar, but they’ve just done a deal with a publisher. It’s still to be seen what they’ll become. We’re a service provider.

People have traditionally known Pinnacle for pick, pack, ship, sales – they wouldn’t have associated us with marketing, PR or financing products. What we don’t want is a load of people saying, “Give us a load of money and we’ll make you a great game.” We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in people who need assistance to get over the line without conceding control.

The talk all sounds very similar to GameCock, and the distributor taking over some publisher roles without others is just a part of the impending blur around digital media.

We very firmly see ourselves as the missing part of what a developer would need to form a publishing stategy. We have developers who don’t need any contribution to development, but who don’t have a licence to publish. We can offer them that, so long as they can satisfy the requirements. Every single deal is different. Generally, you’ll find the developer name on the front of the box, and on the back you’ll find ‘Distributed worldwide by Pinnacle Software’.

Head over to MCV for the full interview.

(CC image of mountaintop by Dru!)





Collaboration, Not Castigation

27 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/oberazzi/2591066780/

The Games Up? campaign has been on the warpath for the past few weeks, with plenty of angles emerging other than the “trade body moans at government” one that was getting so repetitive. This is a good thing for the UK games industry, but provocative statements don’t always have a place.

The Games Up campaign today claimed that a ‘shocking 95 per cent’ of UK games development degrees were not creating capable graduates talented enough to enter the games industry.

Said MacKinnon: “The argument that British universities are failing to equip graduates with the rights skills for industry cannot be applied across the board because there are universities that are getting it right.

“What we need is better collaboration between industry and universities.

“The model that exists at Abertay University is one of very strong industry involvement, focussed on producing graduates that can work and have the requisite skills to do so, but are still broadly educated to university graduate level.

“The need is not to generally castigate universities for failing to meet industry needs, but for industries to work with the universities to identify appropriate graduate outcomes that reflect these industry needs

Lachlan MacKinnon is absolutely right – there are even non-Skillset accredited unversities out there who are producing high quality graduates. Games Up? are also correct in saying that most degrees are not up to scratch, but the way to rectify this is discussion and collaboration, not a stern telling off for universities.

(CC image of graduates by Tim O’Brien)





Third Party 360s?

27 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/shaymus22/113418923/

Normally, I wouldn’t bother posting something on the basis of a rumour, but this is the most interesting one I’ve heard in a long time:

We’ll tell you what’s up with Microsoft: new hardware options. It may sound totally insane — trust us, we did a double-take the first time Qmann whispered it in our ears — but word has it that Microsoft may begin allowing third-party manufacturers to create Xbox 360 hardware. And we’re not talking about peripherals, people; we mean hardware that runs 360 game discs created by someone other than Microsoft. It’s a novel way of dealing with that red ring issue, don’t you think?

I think this would quite literally be a stroke of genius.

It would greater enable hardware to adapt to the end of five year cycles through convergence with other devices, e.g. a Blu-Ray 360, or whatever is around in 2 – 4 years time. It seems like a next step from the multiple SKUs that Microsoft has been offering, from the Core to the Elite. TVs, set-top boxes etc could be sold as “360 capable”, sneaking the hardware into all kinds of other sales.

In this respect it’d be the opposite approach to Sony with the PS3: Instead of a high end console that does many other things, licensed 360s could be whatever people primarily wanted, with the capability to play games also in there.

It would mitigate problems like the Red Ring Of Death, while also offloading a lot of Microsoft’s customer support to licensees of the technology. It would allow all kinds of platform tweaks and revisions, ala firmware upgrades for Blu-Ray players. If Microsoft were getting license fees and even royalties, much of the worry about attach rates and marketing would be passed on to third party manufacturers.

It would further help to shed any residual nerdy image gaming has, because manufacturers are likely to try all manner of convergence and aesthetics. This would be especially apt for Microsoft, who have a “men-in-suits” image themselves while many customers for the Xbox are still imagined to be fanboys and stereotypical teenage gamers.

It was an open yet standardised specification coupled with some proprietary technology that allowed the PC to be launched and become such a dominant platform (Though the legal cloning of IBM’s proprietary BIOS probably helped to propel it even further).

Licensing of 360 technology seems a little too good, and too lacking in conservatism, to even possibly be true. Microsoft own the chips this time round though, and could do it. On the downside, the opening of such a platform would probably work in favour of piracy. Nonetheless, Apple, Microsoft and Sony, among others, have all been talking about the convergent future, and money is following. Multiple SKUs and interchangable faceplates seem like a mere stepping stone on the way there.

(CC image: 360 in the fridge by shaymus022)





NYC Apartment Has Games, JJ Abrams Has Rights

25 06 2008

NYC Apartment

Last week the New York Times ran an article on a stunning apartment overlooking Central Park, which had various puzzles and games built into it for the owners. The article is here, though may require a login to view (try bugmenot.com).

What Ms. Sherry didn’t realize until much later was that Mr. Clough had a number of other ideas about her apartment that he didn’t share with her. It began when Mr. Klinsky threw in his two cents, a vague request that a poem he had written for and about his family be lodged in a wall somewhere, Ms. Sherry said, “put in a bottle and hidden away as if it were a time capsule.” (Ms. Sherry said that her husband is both dogged and romantic, a guy singularly focused on the welfare of children, not just his own. Mr. Klinsky runs Victory Schools, a charter school company that seeds schools in neighborhoods around the country, as well as an after-school program in East New York that his own children help out with regularly.)

That got Mr. Clough, who is the sort of person who has a brainstorm on a daily basis, thinking about children and inspiration and how the latter strikes the former. “I’d just read something about Einstein being inspired by a compass he’d been given as a child,” he said. The Einstein story set Mr. Clough off, and he began to ponder ways to spark a child’s mind. “I was thinking that maybe there could be a game or a scavenger hunt embedded in the apartment — that was the beginning,” he said.

The flat is full of keys, ciphers, puzzles and hidden compartments. The article is an absolutely fascinating read, and there’s a slideshow here.

Paramount have now bought rights to the article from the NYT, apparently for a film to be produced by JJ Abrams, and I’m not surprised. He gave a fascinating talk at TED about mystery last year, about how it is a potent element in creating compelling experiences. Games and puzzles, by combining this with specific objectives, are among some of the most compelling experiences we’ve produced.





IGDA: Crunch Analysed

23 06 2008

http://flickr.com/photos/jasonliebigstuff/383505086/

Today, the IGDA have posted a very good article about crunch by Evan Robinson. His fundamental assertion is that crunch can quickly create negative value and actually decrease productivity, and he has plenty of citations from other industries to back this up.

Here are some highlights that give the gist of the article, but it’s well worth reading if you want to understand the issue in more detail.

More than a century of studies show that long-term useful worker output is maximized near a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Productivity drops immediately upon starting overtime and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks.

I’ve spent 20 years developing and managing software projects. Every year that passed — and every project I worked on — fueled my growing conviction that Crunch Mode is grossly, destructively, expensively inefficient. It’s common sense that the more hours people work, the less productive they become. But, over time, I noticed that the productivity losses that result from working too many extra hours start taking a bigger toll faster than most software managers realize. As I dug around, I was stunned to discover that I was hardly the first one to figure this out: my observations have been common knowledge among industrial engineers for almost a century.

Astute readers will note that there is a point, b , where working more hours doesn’t create more value. In fact, after b , each additional hour worked produces negative value. How can this be?

Chapman’s diagram of the work curve assumes that a working day of a given length is maintained over a considerable period of time. Thus it incorporates both simple and accumulated fatigue into its model. At first the declines in output per hour simply reflect the effects of fatigue on both quantity and quality of work performed toward the end of a given day. But eventually daily fatigue is compounded by cumulative fatigue. That is, any additional output produced during extended hours today will be more than offset by a decline in hourly productivity tomorrow and subsequent days.

This is a good instance of game development being able to benefit from knowledge gained in other fields, hopefully studios will take heed. I’m sure the ones that do will feel the benefits swiftly.

(CC image of Cap’n Crunch bumper sticker via JasonLiebig)





Neil Young Leaves EA

20 06 2008

Boom Blox

N’Gai Croal broke news on Wednesday (early hours of Thursday GMT) that Neil Young has left EA to form a new company. Of note is the litany of games Croal cites him as working on:

During his 11 year tenure at EA, the affable Brit captained such projects as the ahead-of-its-time alternate reality game Majestic and the well-received licensed game The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Following that, Young was put in charge of Maxis during the production of Sims 2 before being promoted to vice president and general manager of EA Los Angeles, where he supervised Medal of Honor Airborne and Boom Blox. Before his departure from EA, Young was heading up EA Blueprint, which was exploring the creation of adventurous new intellectual properties with smaller teams and budgets.

With the four horsemen of the gaming apocalypse now riding*, even the biggest, slowest players are frantically trying to innovate with games such as Spore. Is it possible that they still not moving fast enough? After all, Phil Harrison and Raph Koster both left Sony because the company wasn’t fast enough off the blocks on social gaming.

* “Casual, ARGs, Convergence and Big Media” as far as it appears right now. The word “apocalypse” only has negative associations by context, in itself it’s a fairly neutral word





Casual Games Cost 12K To Develop?

20 06 2008

Speaking at the GameHorizon conference, Geoff Iddison, CEO of Jagex, claimed that it only takes around £12,800 to develop a casual game.

“We launched FunOrb with a low budget, adding games every two weeks. The cost per game is less that $25,000. That’s bearing in mind that we’ve got [development] infrastructure already in place and that it depends on [whether it’s a] single or multiplayer game.”

Perfectly true, but as the commenters point out, they’re making flash games and the work is outsourced to China. Development costs in the UK would be significantly higher, and clearly there’s going to be a larger gamut of budgets running between that and more traditional game development.

What I find more interesting though is the undercurrent to the comments of “Those aren’t proper games!”. Plainly what was once regarded as “the games industry” is becoming the blockbuster part of it, with plenty of other businesses rushing into the lower budget spaces underneath.

Casual is certainly a viable proposition now. To illustrate, here are a few more stories just from the past few days on casualgaming.biz:

Portals will now get developers to sign exclusivity deals. MumboJumbo in particular are seeking to differentiate themselves from other casual game publishers/developers by positioning their games as “premium casual games”.

Majesco’s performance is getting better, and all on the back of non-hardcore game content seen as being aimed at more casual players.

Big media are continuing to rush towards game development with handfuls of cash. Nickleodeon in particular seem to be trying to cover the entire gamut of game development, with everything from two casual portals to console titles.

Pictured above is Peggle, the most perfect casual game yet. A lot of game designers have massive problems with the way it offers disproportionate rewards for what is largely a game of chance, but it sucks in hardcore gamers like nothing else, and with content that’s decidedly not aimed at them. Truly, finger ingested crack.





Phones and Motion

19 06 2008

Sony motion sensing phone

I’ve spoken before about Bruce Sterling citing mobile phones as a “technological black hole”, sucking in a long list of other devices and putting them in our pockets (You can see the talk he raised this in here, about 12m 50s in). Gaming devices are going to be no exception.

We’re a long way off having a phone that can plug into an external display and run games well, but convergence is inevitable. While each new step can easily confuse people at first, the trailing edge catches up until a given form makes sense to people, or fails altogether.

Sony Ericsson’s new motion sensing phone is yet another thing pushing this trend forward, as are the games demoed on the iPhone at Apple’s developer conference last week.

Of course, both of these companies are attempting to capitalise on the popularity of the Wii, but it shows the growing involvement of other sectors with games is spreading beyond the purchase of games companies, and into more deep rooted involvements and collaborations.

Mobile developers have had a difficult time for the past few years, with clunky interfaces, lack of standardisation and weak hardware meaning mobile gaming has been a footnote on the portals of European network operators, earning a pittance in comparison to call charges and ringtones. It’s become a chicken and egg problem, with the lack of attention attracting shovelware while at the same time damning well crafted games.

Better displays, processing power and motion sensing could prove to be the factors that tip mobile gaming into the mainstream. While these phones are nothing on the PSP and DS, they’re certainly surpassing previous generations of handhelds.