25 January 2013

SimCity BETA Impressions: The King of City Builders?

The new SimCity looks so much sharper than its predecessors as a result of the GlassBox engine and while visually it may be far removed from the likes of SimCity 4000 it soon becomes apparent that this is very much a traditional city builder.

This is both SimCity's strength and weakness. If you're looking for a solid game to spend hours tailoring away to build the city of your gaming dreams than the 90 or so minute long BETA (more of a demo really) should reassure players looking for just that experience as well as long term fans of the series.

Those looking for something truly revolutionary however are likely to be disappointed. The BETA puts you guides you through a tutorial which covers all the basics, building roads, creating the franchise's traditional residential, commercial and industrial as well as bringing electricity and other utilities to your citizens. Perhaps the most contentious change is the game's always on DRM and the permanent connection of your settlement to the other cities in the region.

Though this aspect was missing from the BETA the tutorial showed players how it works by tasking gamers with arranging for an AI controlled city nearby to collect your sim's garbage. It's a simple process which takes place with the press of a button, the benefit being you don't need to have your own polluting waste-dumps which drag down the value of nearby properties at the expense of your city's budget.

This connectivity isn't the only thing that's changed from past titles. You can no longer build a subway system, a popular feature of previous SimCity's (you must instead settle for buses) and perhaps most frustratingly you cannot alter the terrain of your city to add mountains or lakes and so on as you could with all other entries in the series.

Another aspect which was somewhat annoying was the relative small size you're allowed to build on. After the tutorial BETA users have an hour to build their city and test out the game's features, despite many buildings and amenities being precluded from the BETA I still found I had nearly used up all available space. This isn't to say more couldn't be done with rezoning and demolishing structures to build new ones but it was concerning.

While it is possible that the finished game will feature bigger maps or the ability to purchase more land to expand your city the option did not appear to be present in the trial.

Despite those gripes SimCity is a rich experience layered with information. There are bars and graphs for virtually any statistic you might want to know; your citizens' happiness, the value of their property, whether they're within reach of your city's bus network. The list goes on.

Occasionally the city's populace will also alert you about what you can do, or need to do, in order to keep your budding metropolis running. Protests will form outside City Hall demanding a new school or clinic, occasionally bubbles will form over houses with the occupants giving you an idea of how you're doing or what you need to do. Sometimes an adviser will approach you with a goal, such as reaching 25,000 citizens, the usual reward being access to new buildings.

Specialisations also form part of the new SimCity. These allow you to decide the direction of your city. You can choose to turn your city into the next Wall Street or the next Vegas. Only a low level gambling den is available to build in the BETA, so it isn't clear if selecting a specialisation locks players out of the others.

Ultimately SimCity appears solid if unspectacular and that isn't necessarily a bad thing. In some ways it may be the SimCity fans have been waiting for, an evolution of the franchise if not quite a revolution. Maxis have called this game 'the king of city builders' and though it is a pity the title fails to reach for emperor of the city builders the developers have certainly made a good attempt.

17 January 2013

On the Potential Closure of HMV

On Monday it was revealed by the media that HMV would close. The next day the stores were open crammed with people bargain searching though the chain wasn't taking gift vouchers, if Ireland, where HMV is a separate entity, this was odd as the Irish branch had not yet filed for administration.

Today, all HMV stores in Ireland were closed and the company's 300 or so staff in Ireland were left in the dark.

The comparisons with GAME's demise are obvious. When that chain went into administration the shop floor assistants were equally out of the loop, the retailer's demise being reported to them not by management but by the media.

GAME left Ireland entirely and if HMV does there'll be Xtravision (which itself went into administration last year - though it emerged largely intact from its examinership (the Irish version of administration)), GameStop, Smyhts and Tesco.

That seems like a fair amount of competition, right? Except it isn't, in Ireland, HMV were the cheapest of the lot. For example just this week DmC was €47, in GameStop it was €55. Tesco are no cheaper, unlike the UK (for those curious it's no cheaper to ship new releases to Ireland from Amazon where the conversion from £ to € for DmC is €45 on top of which is post and package (Amazon charge for delivering to Ireland).

With HMV gone the average price of a game will go up by €8, and with HMV gone what's to prevent GameStop, already Ireland's largest games retailer from increasing their prices further? (Though admittedly the weak economy might be a deterrent in that regard.)

There were people throwing CDs at HMV staff yesterday when they're gift vouchers were denied and one grandfather who stole three games in exchange for the €40 voucher he had bought for his grandson that the shop assistants refused to take, because they had been ordered to. The staff didn't deserve that, they are looking at losing their jobs and were doing as they were instructed.

And that's the thing HMV staff, in my experience at least, were always nice and knowledgeable (my only grievance was being asked if I wanted to protect my games for €2 every time I bought one but again they were required to ask).

Of course it also highlights the demise of physical media, long foretold and effective in music for a decade. Netflix and Hulu took their tool more recently (although Netflix only launched in Ireland late in 2012), the rest went to piracy. And the demise in the gaming sector - an estimated 9% in the UK last year - as a result of fatigue with the current generation, the rise of alternatives in smart phones and tablets and the cost of games (ironic given HMV's status as cheapest for new releases) made this juncture inevitable.

All of this has been said with much greater depth and insight than I have afforded it here. But ultimately I enjoyed browsing in HMV, if it was posters in the basement, the games, or the box sets reduced from (admittedly) ridiculous prices to something affordable in the sales. In the end I suspect games on disc will be a novelty item much like the continuation of vinyl as a medium but that day is not quite here yet and until then I like getting my hands on something I can hold.

That's really the reason why I'll miss HMV if it goes.

03 January 2013

Can we Really Expect Sony to Block Used Games?

Sony has made a number of controversial patents applications in recent years, including for one that would allow for gameplay to be interrupted by interactive advertisements, the latest of these applications to come to light has led to speculation that the PlayStation 4 (or Orbis) will have a block on used-games, even offline.

Neither sound particularly in tune with what gamers might want from the Japanese company's next console yet there are two initial points to be considered here. The first is that, at present, they are simply patents and not all patents are implemented. The second is to note that as Sony has control over the usage of these features in gaming devices nobody else can use them, obviously in terms of direct competition that means Microsoft.

Yet Redmond itself holds the patent for rewarding certain actions during gameplay, i.e. achievements, either meaning Microsoft have never pursued Sony, Steam et al for illegitimate use of their patent or they have reached an agreement with their competitors for trophies and so on to be a feature in games. Furthermore, there are persistent rumours that the Xbox 720 (Durango) will come with a Blu-ray drive as standard, Blu-ray of course being a Sony propriety technology.

Therefore there is clearly some degree of either cooperation and common usage of patents across the industry or a benign neglect to pursue their misuse, which seems odd given the highly competitive nature of the market. This is important to note as I suspect Sony would not be naive enough to pursue and put into use these patents if they alone did so but whether or not Sony and Microsoft are Machiavellian enough to implement these features together is quite another matter (there have also been reports that the next Xbox will block used titles).

Should one of these companies disable the long held practice of playing second hand titles on their systems they are potentially, if not almost certainly, driving customers into the arms of their competitors. If they both do it there's really only Nintendo left, PC of course having had its own mechanisms to prevent used games being played for quite some time.

This is why it seems unlikely Sony, or Microsoft, would take the risk independently. If both deny gamers the option to play used games, on the other hand, they will have destroyed the replay market in a single stroke.

Analyst Michael Pachter agrees: "This reminds me of SOPA and if Sony puts the technology into the next PlayStation and any publisher attempts to limit the playing of used games I expect the backlash to be similar."

Pachter goes on to note that first party titles make up only 10% of sales for Sony so the company would ultimately benefit little from the move also commenting on the potential damage done by the migration of gamers to Microsoft's next machine as a result of the use of the technology.

The analyst also commented that neither "Sony or any publishers are currently foolhardy enough to take the risk."

But just how easy would that be to do?

While they might have the ability to implement an anti-used game feature they would face opposition most obviously from gamers - especially not exclusively those who predominately buy second hand - but also from retailers who would be directly hit (used games sales have been estimated to make up 40% of GameStop's market value). And finally from the law.

Currently of course there's nothing to actually prevent the sale of used games yet last year the European Court of Justice, Europe's highest judicial body, ruled that consumers cannot be prevented from selling used digital content, including games.

The implementation of the ruling will be a complicated and lengthy process and while the ECJ does not have jurisdiction over the US or other parts of the world the likelihood of digital resell option being rolled out in other region but not another is slim, there would no doubt, be uproar coming from those in the unaffected regions.

If you can't be blocked from selling digital content then can console makers really stop you from reselling and reusing retail games? I wouldn't imagine so, there's no law to prevent people driving second hand cars after all.

Still the day when we'll be able to sell digital content easily is a long way off but even so for either Sony or Microsoft to block the usage of retail games seems a equally distant. We'll know for sure when E3 kicks off in 158 days (yes, people are already counting) and at least one, but probably both, companies show the world their new consoles.

Until then even the very prospect of a feature that can block used games is going to have a big impact on gamer discussion and retailer share-price, as can be evidenced to the tanking of GameStop's shares after Sony's patent was revealed: