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)





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)





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.





Games Criticism

8 12 2008

Beyond Good and Evil

As I mentioned last week, the relationship of the games press to game developers and gamers is something that has been bothering me a great deal for the past few months. I don’t want to write a lengthy analytical missive pointing out what’s wrong and offering solutions. Opinions on it are two a penny, and mine is that the solution is yet another cultural process that is going to happen automatically.

For decades, games journalism has largely consisted of a small group of dedicated enthusiasts speaking to fellow enthusiasts. This eventually seems to terminate in large scale dedicated news outlets with a high turnover of news; often copy pasted from press releases and refed through truncated RSS feeds designed to drive ad impressions. The sum total of all that effort is to create a news source which is only worth skimming over, much as the writers seem to have skimmed over their own sources.

There are scant examples of people digging beyond press releases. Hit Self Destruct did a little digging here on recent events at NCsoft (as well as saying a whole lot about games journalism), and Wonderland mentioned the launch of Sony’s new credit card, which in itself is an horrific non-story, other than the fact not a single other place mentioned the very high APR. In the case of all those other sites, that’s not news reporting, it’s publicity.

When Leigh Alexander recently wrote about possible salary fixing in Montreal, Steve Gaynor jokingly tweeted at her: “What’s this shit, actual journalism? Come on Alexander write a preview or something”.

That’s the thing. Very few people involved are unaware of the dynamic between publisher, developer, and player, and the resulting flaws in games journalism. The games industry is kind of stuck with the culture it built, and cultural change is glacial. The uncomfortable gulf between good reporters and critics who don’t understand games and people with highly specialised knowledge of games who are stuck in the industry is closing, but slowly and naturally rather than in any revolutionary sense.

I already highlighted Tom Armitage and Offworld in the past week, and I’d like to add Duncan Fyfe and Iroquois Pliskin. Both of those posts are specifically about the industry press and criticism, and both are also excellent bloggers.

All media, no matter how long established, still has some tawdry, shallow attendant journalism and reviewing, as well as elitist circles that chatter about the necessity of audience education (Which is sometimes worthy, and sometimes nothing more than an attempt at memetic reproduction). The presence of such extremes and everything inbetween is simply an indicator of a healthy culture. Exactly the same stratification is going to occur with coverage and discussion of games. Just as with every previous form of media, it’ll take a long time. The good news is that it’s inevitable.

(Image from Beyond Good and Evil)





Little Big Outrage

21 10 2008

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or this is the only source you look to for videogames industry news, you’ll probably have heard that Little Big Planet is delayed, and all copies recalled, due to there being phrases from the Koran in the soundtrack.

Copies are still available in some places, with pre-cut versions fetching more than double the retail price on ebay. Fairly redundant, since they patched the music out of it as soon as they knew and the game is largely dependent on being online.

The BBC have the most interesting coverage of this, though already, Sony seem to have handled it well and it’s turning into a non-issue:

Manzoor Moghal, of the Muslim Forum think-tank, explained that words from the Koran should not be set to music because the words are seen to have come directly from God.

He added: “We must compliment Sony for taking decisive action by withdrawing these games immediately, and releasing a version that is not offensive to Muslims.”

It can’t be a good place for Sony and Media Molecule right now, though ultimately I expect this is all good mainstream marketing for the game. The really interesting thing about this crisis is that it underlines just how atrocious and unfounded the past religious hoohah surrounding Resistance was.

The BBC piece reminds us of the ire Sony once attracted, by way of Resistance developer Insomniac including Manchester Cathedral in PS3 launch title Resistance. After throwing a double barreled ecumenical ninny-fit and blathering on about gun crime for months, the church found that visitor numbers and interest in the cathedral had been boosted, no doubt due to the large amount of PR baiting they did during the “controversy”.

Given the tropes built around videogames in the 80s and 90s, it was understandable for them to be concerned about power fantasies involving shooting up churches, and I can see their outrage beginning with that assumption. However, I think it was inexcusable for them to willfully ignore that the content of the game wasn’t built around such ideas, even when it was repeatedly brought to their attention.

I wonder how the British tabloids will handle this, if at all? The gutter press have been vilifying both videogames and muslims for years now; and despite that muslims have a much more legitimate cause for complaint than Manchester Cathedral did, will the press suddenly jump to the side of games now they’re fashionable? Alternatively, will there be “Games company appeases Islam, yet ignored our dear old Church of England!” headlines? I really hope not, but could see hacks going for exactly that angle.

All very consternating, and poor Media Molecule are stuck in the middle of it through no fault of their own: The music they licensed has been around for longer than the game. Phrases from the Koran in LPB are an honest mistake, with Media Molecule in fact trying to do a very good thing in licensing music from small artists and labels. Nonetheless, the offence it could accidentally cause is genuine, much to MMs consternation.

(CC image by rutty)





Press in Flames

10 09 2008

A quick update on EA’s marketing stunt from Monday:

Photos of the petrol station are on Flickr, and Games Radar has a couple of pictures of the resulting queue.

MP Lynne Featherstone has waded in and demanded an apology. One again from the BBC:

“Whilst a lucky few might have got free petrol, hundreds of residents have faced misery”.

The Liberal Democrat said: “Trying to recreate Venezuelan-style fuel riots on the streets of London is completely irresponsible and downright dangerous.

“Hundreds of local residents have faced misery on their daily journeys this morning.

“They deserve an apology for being the victims of such an ill thought-out media stunt.”

Ill thought-out is hardly the term, more inconsiderate. Even in that respect though, the whole stunt is well thought out. Localised negative effects, in EA’s eyes, are probably a very small price to pay for the amount of coverage they’ve got for this. Google is teeming with news results, some of which have video. All of them have something like “The stunt was by Electronic Arts, to promote the Mercenaries 2: World in Flames game.”

It’s hardly surprising that it got shut down early due to traffic disruption, not to mention the British Government’s crackdown on firearms over the past decade or more making it very risky to tote an imitation gun in public. Nonetheless, using a commodity to hack a common motive and attach a brand is clever even if it did annoy lots of people. Opportunities to do something that effective are rare, or at least rarely used.

(CC image by Evan Hamilton)





Inflammatory Marketing

8 09 2008

This is disruptive yet amusing. Electronic Arts took over a petrol station and gave away over £20,000 worth of fuel to UK drivers. Why? To promote a game of course. They have made national news and done something that people will talk about a lot. The resulting marketing will be worth way more than an equivalent ad spend.

There are plenty of local residents unhappy with the disruption, and plenty of contented motorists. The BBC quoth:

Prince Davis, 37, who queued patiently for a quarter of an hour for free petrol, said: “This is a genius idea, whoever thought of this should be promoted.

“I’ll definitely be buying the game, you’re never too old to play computer games.”

Louise Marchant, from Electronic Arts, said the scenes of queuing mimicked aspects of the game.

She explained: “It’s set in Venezuela, you play a mercenary and fuel is used as a currency.”

(CC image by Sam Hailstone)