Female Friendly?

14 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/orinrobertjohn/114430223/

Aleks talks about Eidos getting lower than expected sales on Tomb Raider: Underworld, and as a result saying they’ll possibly make Lara Croft more “female friendly”. What on earth does that even mean? Do Eidos have a clue why North American sales were so low compared to expectations? Have they tied that to American women not buying it?

I don’t know, but it’s a sore point for may gamers and developers, with the industry and especially publishers hung between what a rare piece of good reporting in the Daily Mail (really, of all places) calls the “Pink Plague“, and shallow appeals to heterosexual men.

Commenters on the Guardian Gamesblog piece point out that Lara always was a female friendly character to them:

It’s funny because the original tomb raider on PS1 did appeal to women. For many women (and older people) I know Tomb Raider was Playstation, it was a family game. She was an intellectual young woman travelling the world solving puzzles.

There really is a lot of potential to make Lara into a female role model rather than a sex object, but every chance most game companies will still screw it up. Other comments are tragically piercing and hilarious:

Going by previous games industry efforts, the next instalment will be Little Pet Shop Raider: Pony Sanctuary.

-Instead of killing tigers you have to dress them up in beany hats and necklaces. If they dig your style they wont attack. If you style enough animals correctly you unlock a fashion show.

– Sometimes Lara will refuse to unlock doors or lift items because she is having emotional issues with her bf. To prevent this Lara can use her in game mobile to chat inanely to her girlfriends raising her stats.
Medipacks are replaced by heat magazines and hot chocolate.

– Lara’s quest involves hunting a rare bangle that Grazia named their hot pick of spring 2009.

– Lara will refuse to walk anywhere, instead she can ring her ingame bf to pick her up and drive her through the temples.

– Extreme humidity will result in Lara’s hair going frizzy. If players cannot find hair straightners within a set time limit, Lara will throw a hissy fit and refuse to continue the mission

(CC image by Orin Optiglot)

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Industry Layoffs: First Person Perspective

13 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/bowbrick/1237202/

Gamasutra have been doing some fairly interesting games journalism recently, which is very encouraging in the face of so many sites that copy and paste press releases and add a bit of fluff around them.

This article, interviewing people recently laid off from games companies, has a few interesting perspectives from job hunters as well as wider commentary on the wave of redundancies and studio closures currently hitting the games industry.

Of course, layoffs significantly hamper fresh graduates by freeing up some very experienced people:

“I’m still looking,” he says, “but it’s far harder than I expected. While there seem to be quite a few jobs out there, there are also quite a few people hunting, which means that employers are now able to find the perfect candidate who ticks all the boxes.”

“In the past, a candidate could fulfill 90% of the role and it would be understood that the remaining 10% could be worked on. However, that ‘100% candidate’ is potentially out there in the large job-seeking pool. So the difference between getting that job and missing out could be a very minor feature or attribute.”

One of the things we’ve been discussing at the office is that a lot of firms, games industry or not, are using the credit crunch as an excuse to trim their more optimistic hires away, or even shut a mismanaged firm down while there’s still some of it left. It also functions as a signal to shareholders in other businesses, affecting confidence and making further layoffs likely. As the article and later a commenter point out:

“These layoffs are not the result of the economic downturn that is affecting other industries,” Mencher maintains. “Our industry is having record sales. What we’re seeing is a combination of the not-so-unusual year-end layoffs that we see every year at this time when games have been shipped… plus a few companies that are having troubles, like EA, which has been struggling for some two and a half years.”

These layoffs often come as a result of simple human instinct, much the same way the stock market’s rise or fall is often dependent upon investors feeling confident or scared. If Company A hears constant reports of how bad the economy is, then they also know that their shareholders will be worried, and so they go ahead and secure the bottom line with layoffs…regardless of whether or not actual sales figures would support that course of action.

The comments in particular are at a very high standard for an online news source.

(CC image by Bowbrick)





Companies Request LittleBigPlanet IP Whitelisting

7 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/sillygwailo/348769786/

LittleBigPlanetoid brought this very interesting nugget to my attention on Monday: Companies have been asking Media Molecule to add their IP to a whitelist for LittleBigPlanet, meaning that rather than being treated as copyright infringement, works based on their things will be treated as fan art or free marketing, and allowed to stay in place.

Sony have taken a very cautious approach so far: that nuking things from orbit is the only way to be sure. At first there were complaints of overly zealous moderation, and lack of explanation for it, but MM/Sony have worked with the fan community to improve this immeasurably. It’s very pleasing that they seem to be just as amenable with companies too; LittleBigPlanet is so polished that people want their IP to be in it.

Merely squashing copyright infringing user generated content is often a terrible step to take, as it’s generally non-profit making, and those who put their time and skill (of any level) into creating it tend to be the fans who care the most.

There’s a story from the Unreal modding scene I often use when talking about these things, but it seems like pretty much all of the blog, forum and news posts about it have rotted away as it was about 8 years ago (Blimey. Link rot could get a lot worse than we expect…). A modder named Patrick “BadKarma” Fitzimmons was making a Star Wars map pack for Unreal Tournament, and repeatedly got cease and desist letters from Lucasarts’ lawyers. After (IIRC) several years of justifying it as non-profit making, sophisticated fan art, and getting people to sign petitions on his behalf, Lucasarts eventually stopped with the threats and started tacitly backing them, with it going on to become a fully fledged mod.

The entire struggle threw the issues into very stark relief, with a protracted fight between Lucasarts and BadKarma that led to a lot of head scratching. At the time, Twentieth Century Fox had also gained a reputation for threatening and generally stamping on all mod makers who infringed their copyrights, to the extent that the verb “foxing” was invented to describe it. Conditions laid down on an Aliens mod for Half Life were basically: “Cease work, hand over all assets and copyright to us, delete all of your own copies of your work, and we reserve the right to still sue you even if you comply”. The problem with this is that the fans have put a lot of time, effort and love into their creations, and the companies are engendering disillusion by attacking their strongest devotees.

LittleBigPlanet is actually quite a nice compromise, acting as a sandbox that, hopefully, will keep the lawyers happy too. The news of whitelisting is excellent, and it seems likely that EA are on the list given some of the levels that have been permitted to exist there. Impressive, for a company that used to be regarded by many as the evil empire of the games industry.

(CC image by sillygwailo)





UK Games Sales Rose 23% In 2008

7 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/worldofoddy/2106447264/

The headline says it all; the BBC report on game sales, sourcing from ELSPA. Games are truly ascending into the mainstream, and without recession they would have done even better.

Sale shopping in late December and early January was very strange this time around. We’d wander into stores after saying “They’ve gone into administration, let’s take a look in there”. Places like Woolworths and Zavvi, while holding fire sales, had the smallest reductions of all on videogames. I would guess this is because they knew that they would sell at retail or wholesale regardless of any discount.

(While searching for a CC image related to record breaking, I found the above one of a very long chip by World of Oddy).





Monumental Get Another Grant

6 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/warrenh/2319200193/

Monumental Games recently moved offices in Nottingham, acquired half of Swordfish Manchester as it got into trouble, and now have another £140,000 grant. This time it’s from Northwest Vision and Media, and they were eligible for it thanks to taking on the extra office in a different region. That’s probably a happy but unintended outcome rather than a plan, as there are plenty of other reasons for Monumental to have acquired Swordfish Manchester and it’s not very long since they did.

It’s comparatively rare for games companies to take advantage of this kind of thing though, whereas it’s fairly common for film production all over the world. Good to see developers acting smartly even in the downturn, as we’ve previously heard a lot of cynicism from studios about readily available government support.

(CC image of coins by Warren H)





Happy New Year?

5 01 2009

http://flickr.com/photos/28481088@N00/3153656575/

2008 closed with bad news for the East Midlands, with Free Radical Design going into administration (Edge Online gave some of the best coverage), though so far it seems not liquidation. The gamers I know are quite shell shocked that they failed to find a publisher for Timesplitters 4, because they and those they know regarded its predecessors so fondly.

It was thought some staff would be retained, as was announced over Christmas: 140 people have been made redundant, and 40 have stayed on, with the administrators dropping strong indications that publishers are interested in buying the studio.

Codemasters and Monumental games were on hand during the company meeting in December, and it seems David Doak and Steve Ellis have left to start a new studio. These are very troubling times, with games booming yet games businesses struggling and risk averse, but some firms are still growing and, so far, doing well.

FRD was a massive indie to lose, but others are being set up. As well as Pumpkin Beach, Simple Lifeforms recently started up too.

(CC image of a new year bonfire by tanakawho)





GTA IV: The Current State of PC Gaming

12 12 2008

gtaiv-meltdown

GTA IV has been released for the PC, and compared to the April console releases it’s bedlam.

This blog post has a melodramatised summary of the installation procedure, but that’s still a lot of hoops to jump through: Install Rockstar Social Club, sign up for Windows Live, sign up for Rockstar Social Club, accept that it comes with SecuROM, update the various bits of software you’ve just installed, then contend with various potentially game breaking bugs.

Amazon user reviews have already plummeted to 1.5 stars out of five, and the tags are mostly “defective by design”, securom infected”, “malware”, etc.

For this to happen to one of the standout games of the year in making a transition from console to PC is phenomenal, both in terms of the developer/publisher not seeing this coming and as a look at the current state of PC gaming.

I played through GTA IV on the 360, and play it with friends online every week, and have never suffered half the aggravation PC users are having to go through with it. I was a died in the wool PC gamer for about 5 years, and because of this kind of thing generally don’t go back to it except through Steam.

The whole installation procedure, as described in the blog post above, is an astoundingly poor piece of UX design. Good software does it’s thing in the background rather than talking to you; it has a low cognitive load by not pestering the user.

Steam is a form of DRM; consoles are, in the words of Bruce Everiss, giant anti-piracy dongles. I accept this on both of these platforms, not because I’m apathetic about DRM, but because it’s an explicit condition of the platform and doesn’t shove itself down my throat.

I suspect things like Steam might be the only viable platform for PC gaming. It’s not that it prevents piracy, it doesn’t, Valve’s titles are widely pirated. However, it’s a convenient way to buy, install and play games. That’s what people are looking for, and a lot of PC developers/publishers are completely failing at it right now.