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.





The Art of Digital Distribution

1 09 2008

(Above: Preliminary artwork from the development of Braid)

It’s unprecedented: The Daily Mail have given a gushingly positive review to a videogame, Braid. The Daily Mail, of course, has been at the front of many a “ban this sick filth” campaign against nearly every controversial game of the moment. As Destructoid put it, “British tabloid in game-liking SHOCKER!”.

Anecdotally, even my older brother, who only rarely plays games and hates most of them, watched me do a speedrun of the game this weekend while I explained the story to him. At the end, his words were “This is a significant piece of work”.

Since it’s a 360 exclusive, many will have to wait until the PC version of this is out, and luckily it’s likely to have fairly low system requirements. In the meantime, Gamasutra have an article about the development of the game’s art style, going from the basic programmer art through many iterations to the final product. It’s an interesting read, though a little fragmented due to originally being a series of blog posts. There are more in the same series there.

It struck me during this weekend that there weren’t really many propositions that would make a game entering the market at £10 look good or desirable next to £50 new releases like GTA IV. Am I a snob for thinking the idea of a £10 price point in brick and mortar retail kind of smacks of the cheap multipacks of Spectrum cassettes to be found littering cash and carries during the late 80s? Indie games can’t possibly hope to compete in the AAA arms race, and as a result it’s likely that a rack of boxed XBLA titles would create a bargain bin perception.

Digital distribution is the perfect medium to bring indie games back to the fore and reward experimentation though. Braid, Castle Crashers, RezHD, and Pixeljunk Eden are all things that have caught my eye over the past month, but in the past 5 years of my gaming there was very little in the same vein to be had. As a result, in one month since signing up for xbox live, I’ve spent more on games this past month than I usually do in most. There are PS3 titles I’d be buying digitally if I owned the one in our house too. £40 – £50 price points lead me to contemplate AAA purchases carefully, and I don’t make many. £10 for something that will keep me and a housemate entertained for a quiet weekend is a steal.

Digital distribution is a strange current where technology and culture mingle and drive each other. In the case of music, there’s an absolutely overwhelming amount of content, but with games, it’s still fairly easy for a single one to stand out and be remembered. I feel quite privileged to be able to observe a new form of media adapting to new technology.





Microsoft Cracks Japan?

18 08 2008

Bruce Everiss posted this morning about the 360 apparently selling well in Japan:

So the effect of Tales of Vesperia will be to lift the 360 to a higher sustained level in the market. And at this higher level, because of word of mouth and peer pressure, there will be far more organic growth. It is a step up and what Microsoft need in Japan is a series of similar incremental jumps, with the market continuing at a higher level after each one.

He’s possibly a bit eager in describing it as a triumph for Microsoft, and a commenter offers some perspective on this:

I’ve seen good 360 sales in Japan before. Notably Blue Dragon (where Microsoft ticked all the boxes for success and Japan still resisted them) and, courtesy of Namco again, Ace Combat 6. The effect is not long-lasting and we’ve had enough instances of a good week of Japanese 360 sales to tell us not to get over excited because things may (and do) calm down pretty quickly.

It’s good to see the 360 getting a little traction over there, but it’s important to consider the reduced supply Microsoft will have been giving Japan ever since the lack of interest at launch there. They aren’t exactly selling out at EU or US stock levels.

(CC image of the Akibahara by heiwa4126)





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)