Grand Theft Auto IV

30 04 2008

Grand Theft Auto hit retail on Tuesday, and is expected to eclipse the launch of Halo 3 last year. GamesIndustry.biz reports that play.com was receiving 80 orders per minute on launch day (though it doesn’t specify how long for), and Jason Kingsley of Rebellion has spoken up for Britsoft:

“This is world’s biggest launch in the games market and the intellectual property is actually British made, he explained. “I think that’s fantastic. It should be celebrated.”

Mainstream press coverage has been surprisingly positive, if quite formulaic, with much of it devoting a lot of time to “Other forms of entertainment have sex and violence too”. This is old hat for game developers, but nonetheless a vital part of pushing this conceptual framework out into culture. Plenty of editors and writers, along with their audiences, could still do with having this point hammered home.

NPR have said many of the same things, but it’s by far the most thoughtful piece I’ve seen in this vein.

Edit: Richard Bartle has written a fairly crowing but pragmatically brutal piece for the Guardian:

They’re no more concerned about “moral decay” or “aggressive tendencies” or any of the other euphemisms for “ohmygod I don’t understand this” than you are about soap operas.

We’ve definitely hit a turning point in the cultural dialogue, with so many more things emerging that we can point to as “games”. Fears over videogame violence are soon going to seem as irrelevant and niche as the same fears over comics.

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Byron Review Published

27 03 2008

Byron’s Works

The Byron Review has now been published, and so far there are no big surprises. It takes a much more balanced tone than Gordon Brown talking about games and knife crime.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.

These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

The full report can be downloaded from the DFES website, and the BBC have mirrored it too. From their coverage:

Dr Byron has said games should have just one set of symbols from the BBFC on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for films.

Pegi ratings will now appear on the back of boxes.

It actually makes sense, even though some are bemoaning an extra layer of legislation. The video rating symbols given to cinema, VHS and DVDs are a part of the cultural consciousness of the UK populace. They have more mindshare and impact on people than PEGI labels, and I think adopting them will do more to impress upon people that the games industry is responsible than any amount of PR for PEGI.

Additionally, it lowers the cognitive load imposed on non-media savvy parents choosing games for their kids. The mechanics of rating decisions obviously have to be different from one form of media to the next, but to combine that approach with a single recognisable set of symbols is very sensible. Consumers don’t need to understand rating procedures (though I’m certainly not arguing for any lack of transparency – it is both vital and fascinating), in fact between turning 18 and encountering the issue with games, age ratings are something I forgot about almost completely. It doesn’t matter how good a shiny, new, self-regulatory rating system is if consumers are expected to learn it from scratch. Existing, well known symbols can get the job done much more efficiently by exploiting prior learning.

When the Byron Review (so far) seems to be so balanced, it’s unfortunate that people will misread it as an irresponsible industry getting a well deserved kicking. Some people will even read it that way and trumpet it as a success, but you know what? Screw those people. Just about every case of anti-game media coverage in the last few years has illustrated just how unreasonable and prone to fantasy the anti-games lobby is. They can tell whatever stories they like, but they are not and still won’t be the people driving these policy decisions.

“The games industry is reasonable” is a much stronger statement to make to the public on the basis of the Byron review than “the anti-games lobby scored a point”. They didn’t, the games industry is just going through some admittedly uncomfortable steps on the compromise-riddled road to public credibility and de-facto acceptance.





M Rated Games in Decline

7 02 2008

ELSPA Ratings 2007

ELSPA have put out a breakdown of the ratings assigned to games in 2007, and found that games rated M are declining:

The E category saw the largest increase over last year, accounting for nearly 60% of ratings assigned overall. The M (Mature 17+) category represented 6% of the overall ratings assigned, down from 8% in 2006 and 12% in 2005.

It’s often been said that M games are a minority of those released, and it sits interestingly with the amount of attention and criticism game get on the basis of them, even from game developers. I guess sales might tell a slightly different story to ELSPA’s ratings pie, but nonetheless, it really shouldn’t take much more than this to create a deafening silence from unfair media outlets.

Also, where’s Adults Only in the breakdown? Has it almost entirely disappeared due to large US retailers refusing to stock it?





Burnout Box Art

4 02 2008

Burnout Paradise

We were very pleased to see the box art for the recently released Burnout Paradise. When compared to the old box art, it’s much a more grown-up and aesthetically pleasing cover.

At least in part, it’s probable that the choice was made because burnout has attracted so much controversy before, to the point of having ads banned. There are also allegations of plagiarism, but regardless, it’s great to see games that are adopting an adult approach to visual design, in the sense of maturity rather than “mature content”.





Mass Retraction

30 01 2008

Cooper Lawrence

Cooper Lawrence, the psychologist who savaged Mass Effect on Fox News last week, has issued a retraction of her statements. Quoted in the New York Times (link has reg wall), she said:

In an interview on Friday, Ms. Lawrence said that since the controversy over her remarks erupted she had watched someone play the game for about two and a half hours. “I recognize that I misspoke,” she said. “I really regret saying that, and now that I’ve seen the game and seen the sex scenes it’s kind of a joke.

“Before the show I had asked somebody about what they had heard, and they had said it’s like pornography,” she added. “But it’s not like pornography. I’ve seen episodes of ‘Lost’ that are more sexually explicit.”

Fox, of course, are not so fair and balanced:

Electronic Arts, the giant publisher that owns Mass Effect, has asked Fox News for a correction. A Fox News spokesman would say only that Electronic Arts had been offered a chance to appear on the channel.

Intransigent media outlets notwithstanding, it’s great to see a games business fight back successfully against bad press and get some huge coverage in the process. Hopefully this will be a touchstone for further videogame controversies, causing people to question rather than swallow negative coverage and more easily take up opposition to it.





Mass Effects

24 01 2008

Mass Effect

Mass Effect recently received a proper hatchet job from Fox News and a writer named Cooper Lawrence, who’d never seen or played the game but leveled various accusations at it. EA have actually mounted an incredibly cogent defense, first seen here at Kotaku:

Your headline above the televised story read: “New videogame shows full digital nudity and sex.” Fact: Mass Effect does not include explicit or frontal nudity. Love scenes in non-interactive sequences include side and profile shots – a vantage frequently used in many prime-time television shows. It’s also worth noting that the game requires players to develop complex relationships before characters can become intimate and players can chose to avoid the love scenes altogether.

FNC voice-over reporter says: “You’ll see full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex.”
Fact: Sex scenes in Mass Effect are not graphic. These scenes are very similar to sex sequences frequently seen on network television in prime time.

FNC reporter says: “Critics say Mass Effect is being marketed to kids and teenagers.”
Fact: That is flat out false. Mass Effect and all related marketing has been reviewed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and rated Mature – appropriate for players 17-years and older. ESRB routinely counsels retailers on requesting proof of age in selling M-rated titles and the system has been lauded by members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. In practical terms, the ratings work as well or better than those used for warning viewers about television content.

At the very end:

The resulting coverage was insulting to the men and women who spent years creating a game which is acclaimed by critics for its high creative standards. As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness.

Do you watch the Fox Network? Do you watch Family Guy? Have you ever seen The OC? Do you think the sexual situations in Mass Effect are any more graphic than scenes routinely aired on those shows? Do you honestly believe that young people have more exposure to Mass Effect than to those prime time shows?

This isn’t a legal threat; it’s an appeal to your sense of fairness. We’re asking FNC to correct the record on Mass Effect.

Sincerely,

Jeff Brown
Vice President of Communications
Electronic Arts, Inc.

Emphasis mine. You can watch the original Fox News segment here.

It’s quite astounding to see this letter after years of watching the games industry do an appalling job of defending itself, at best being merely litigious, at worst provocative and childish. It’s quite a big step for EA to take such a reasoned approach.

The same can’t be said of Mass Effect fans, but their reaction is quite a funny fulfillment of the words “Don’t fuck with the internet”:

Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk have recently seen a sudden influx of reader reviews on product pages attributed to Lawrence’s book ‘The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace with Your Inner Overachiever’ after she participated in the scathing attack against Mass Effect.

[…]

Currently 346 ‘one star’ reader reviews have hit the Amazon.com product page in the wake of the FOX News item, with gamers venting their spleens vehemently at Lawrence through a variety of damning criticisms against her and her book – including product picture submissions calling her reputation and credibility into question.





Metacriticism

18 01 2008

Metacritic

At the Guardian, Keith Stuart has an interesting interview up with Marc Doyle, games editor of Metacritic:

I was watching the new Fox Business Network shortly after Super Mario Galaxy was released. The anchor was interviewing Reggie F-A of Nintendo, and across the bottom of the screen was a banner stating that the game has received a Metascore of 96. That floored me. More and more businesses and financial analysts are referring to Metacritic numbers as an early indicator of a game’s potential sales and, by extension, the publisher’s stock price. Apparently, they’re able to use quantifiable review data as a predictor of a games success before the NPD sales data is officially released.

The interview is overspill from a gamesblog column, which also has points out a flaw in aggregating review scores:

Others are worried about the homogenisation of score data. “Now, one rogue bad score can really drag down your average,” says PR veteran Cathy Campos, who handles the press for developers such as Lionhead and Bungie. “I worked on a game which quite unusually had scores which ranged from 100 to 33 – the Metacritic average (75) did not reflect the fact it was evidently a love-it-or-hate-it title.” In this way, quirky titles like Space Giraffe and Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games are lost in a grey goo of apparent mediocrity.