29 March 2013

Single Player Isn't Going Anywhere

Single player gaming is dead. Right?
Well, perhaps not. In a world where developers are seemingly endlessly talking about always connected experiences and dynamic multiplayer modes it may look like solo experiences are going the way of THQ (too soon?).
And yet, for all that box ticking, it seems this is simply not the case, if anything, the opposite is happening.
Research by the EEDAR has shown the number of game including multiplayer has in fact fallen quite dramatically since 2007. In that year a mere 24% of Xbox 360 and PS3 games shipped with a multiplayer component. In 2012, almost double that number, 41%, were developed solely as single player experiences.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of this shifting change is that until this research was made public no one was even aware that this trend was occurring.
“You can see that in 2006, one year into the release of the Xbox 360 and the launch year of the PlayStation 3, 67% of the games had online multiplayer, 58% had offline multiplayer and 28% had no multiplayer,” Geoffrey Zatkin, the Chief Operating Officer of EEDAR informed the Penny Arcade Report.
“By 2012, you can see that only 42% have online multiplayer, a drop of 25%, 44% have offline multiplayer, a drop of 14%, and 41% have no multiplayer, a rise of 16%. So, over time, fewer and fewer high definition console games are including multiplayer as part of their core offering,” Zatkin added.
“Multiplayer, when executed well, can be the heart of the game and is often what keeps people playing for extended periods of time. Best-in-class multiplayer, such Call of Duty, Halo, Madden, FIFA, League of Legends, World of Warcraft, etc. is awesome,” Zatkin explained. “A lot of the success of these games, both individual titles and franchises, is a result of their superior multiplayer execution.”
The difficultly with including multiplayer in games is that it’s often an expensive feature to implement and there are many cases where its inclusion is not a guarantee of success.
“Multiplayer is a game feature, and not every feature belongs in every game.  Including multiplayer for the sake of having multiplayer doesn’t make sense.  Multiplayer should be included because it makes the game better,” Zatkin commented.
“I don’t know that BioShock 1 or the upcoming BioShock: Infinite (this research was conducted before the game’s release) would be a better game for the inclusion of multiplayer.  Or BatmanArkham Asylum & City, Dragon Age I & II, God of War 3, Skyrim, Heavy Rain or Fallout 3.  OrBraid.  Or Limbo.  There are a lot of great games whose core experience didn’t include multiplayer.”
This means developers are more hesitant to add multipayer segments to games where it does not belong or where its inclusion might divert resources from other elements leading to a generally inferior product.
It’s notable of course that God of War: Ascension, the first game in the series to include multiplayer, is widely believed to have been created solely to add that mode. Furthermore, Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel, which launched on the same day as BioShock Infinite in North America will likely perform significantly worse because it is going up directly against that behemoth of a single player gamer than it might have otherwise.
(Of course, it should be pointed out that at one point the plan was to include multiplayer inInfinite and Ken Levine was very passionate about the idea.)
Regardless it’s undeniable that some of the greatest successes of this generation have been single player games and the demise of this genre has been dismissed as exaggerated by Arkane’s Harvey Smith.
The Dishonored developer, speaking to GamesIndustry, Smith said “What people say each cycle is, ‘Fill-in-the-blank is the new thing.’ And if you’re old enough, you remember when it was live-action video games.
“At another point it was MMOs. At another it was social games. At another it was multiplayer shooters. And none of those things are bad; they’re all great. But what the reality seems to be is we keep adding types of games and finding new player groups for those. The market seems to be expanding” Smith added.
The developer went on to add that he hopes games specialise and do some things really well rather than a lot of things adequately.
“You have to do something well that the other guy’s not doing. That’d be nice, right? Instead of a handful of games that all try to do the same thing, I hope there’s some specialization happening and people are going to have to do one thing well or three things well instead of trying to do the same 12 things everyone else is doing.”
If games like Dishonored, which Bethesda have confirmed will become a franchise, and Skyrimcan be entirely single player experiences and perform well regardless will inspire others to take a risk and leave their game as a solo experience.
Perhaps the most surprising admission of this new reality comes from EA labels president Frank Gibeau who has called DRM, or digital rights management, “a failed, dead-end strategy” in the wake of SimCity’s chaotic launch. Of course, you have to expect EA to mount such a defence in light of what’s happened and whether this becomes a practical reality within the publisher remains to be seen.
Gibeau has after all said:
“I have not green lit one game to be developed as a single player experience. Today, all of our games include online applications and digital services that make them live 24/7/365.
“For all the investments we’ve made in mobile and social, we never abandoned consoles. We are working closely with the console manufacturers and we are very excited about the Gen4 consoles that will be launched in the months and years ahead.”
The EA executive later went on to clarify saying:
“You can have a very deep single-player game but it has to have an ongoing content plan for keeping customers engaged beyond what’s on the initial disc. I’m not saying deathmatch must come to Mirror’s Edge.
“I still passionately believe in single-player games and think we should build them. What I was trying to suggest with my comments was that as we move our company from being a packaged goods, fire-and-forget business to a digital business that has a service component to it. That’s business-speak for ‘I want to have a business that’s alive and evolves and changes over time’.”
It will be interesting to see how Gibeau and EA carry this philosophy forward. Especially if Gibeau succeeds outgoing EA CEO John Riccitiello.
Ubisoft meanwhile has dropped DRM for all PC games as a result of player feedback.
Some of the biggest games of recent years which have multiplayer components are not bought for that purpose. Who bought Tomb Raider for its multiplayer? Or Uncharted? Would BioShock Infinite’s sales really be much better if there were multiplayer modes?
Multiplayer is a great feature when it fits into the game its made for, Mass Effect 3 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood spring to mind, but unless developers take the time and are given the proper resources they’re wasting their time.
The reality is sometimes multiplayer is more trouble than its worth and sometimes, from both narrative and gameplay perspectives, it simply makes sense for a game to be a solo experience.
Single player games may fade over the years to come but it seems, for now at least, that they’re not going anywhere.

18 March 2013

The State of Wii U

The 18th of November 2012 saw the launch of Nintendo's Wii successor, the Wii U in North America, 12 days later, on the 30th, Europe got their hands on the system. Crowds gathered eagerly in the cold for their chance to experience the first of the next generation of home consoles. From there it's safe to say things have gone downhill for the system. Now heading into it's fourth full month on the market it seems the console's prospects are decidedly grim. 

Sales of the Wii U in US during January stood at a mere 57,000. Neither the PS3 nor the Xbox 360 have ever had such a poor month in the seven years since the release of those systems. Things improved slightly in February to 66,000 (roughly a 12.5% increase).

Some sites remarked the sales actually represented a 45% improvement on an adjusted basis, however, even taking into account that February was a shorter month with fewer shopping days and other factors it's difficult to justify such figures.

That doesn't mean there aren't silver linings to the sales data.

Macquarie Capital analyst Ben Schachter went so far as to describe them as "good", on the grounds they indicated Nintendo would meet their reduced sales target of 4 million by the end of March - they had originally intended to sell 5.5 million units by that point.

Also worthy of note is that over 70% of system sales are for the more expensive premium model.

Somewhat more impressive is that the Wii U has sold 2.6 million units so far. During the PlayStation 3’s comparative launch period 2.4 million consoles had been purchased by consumers while 2 million Xbox 360s had been bought by a similar point in that system's availability on the market.

Wii U figures have been buoyed significantly by Japan which has snapped up some 633,000 Wii U's over the Christmas period. Looking beyond Nintendo's home territory however the situation becomes somewhat bleaker.

Though Wii U sales figures for Europe aren't officially available industry insiders believe the number of consoles sold on the continent in February number in the low 10,000s. An utterly abysmal number if true and resulting from Nintendo's virtually non-existent marketing campaign in the region as much as from a sparse release schedule and the company's (and dedicated game devices generally) inability to carry over the casual market so effectively captured by the Wii.

GameStop's president Tony Barlet recently commented that the chain has seen "lower than expected" sales of the system and adding there's a need to "increase consumer awareness of the new features available on the Wii U and its tethered tablet features."

UK retailers have also called for a new strategy and a price cut.

Tesco's Johnathan Hayes commented that the system "has not captured the public's imagination yet. We believe we need a 'killer app' on the console to drive interest and sales."

While both ShopTo.net's James Rowson and Game Centre's Robert Lindsay remarked that the majority of consumers simply aren't aware the Wii U exists.

Even the Wii U's most ardent third party publisher supporter, Ubisoft, has stated their belief that Nintendo needs to drop the price of the system "in order to find its public", a strategy which worked wonders for the initially struggling 3DS. While Ubisoft remains "optimistic" about the console it's difficult to see how Nintendo can maintain the current price point for long should sales remain as they are in the US and Europe.

Further dampening the system's viability as it currently stands is the lack of developer support for the platform. The highlight of Nintendo's consoles has always been its first party content yet with games like Crysis 3 (which had a Wii U version developed) skipping the platform along with the delay of Rayman Legends so that the game could be ported to PS3 and Xbox 360 and the newly announced Saints Row 4 bypassing Wii U the pickings are looking increasingly slim for prospective Wii U owners. 

Zelda and other major Nintendo franchises will arrive on the platform at some point, the question is; will it be too little too late when they do?

In a poll of over 2,500 US developers it was found that only 6.47% were interested in developing for the platform. If Nintendo wish to turn around the Wii U’s fortunes they’ll be required to either throw significant cash as developers or rely on their own franchises – neither course appears, on the surface at least, to be enough.

As Nintendo's bigger IPs begin to arrive on Wii U as the year goes on they'll have to compete with the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox 720. Both these systems may well be $500 but will come with both returning and new IPs as well as boasting more powerful processors with improved memory. Technology doesn't always decide the fate of a console, the PS Vita is significantly more powerful than the 3DS yet sales have consistently lagged behind.

The same is true of the PSP and DS not to mention the Xbox and the PS2 - the bestselling console of all time.

What justification Nintendo will have to sway gamers to the Wii U when that happens is difficult to determine and will no doubt revolve around their core franchises which have always been enough in the past. Even the GameCube saw some of the finest games of all time and finished third in that generation a mantle the PS3 has arguably assumed in terms of game innovation.

Though it’s also possible that the PS3 will in fact ‘win’ the current generation of consoles around 2016 globally if not in the US where the Xbox 360 is set to overtake the Wii, something which is also very close to happening in the UK. 

With casual gamers either unaware of the Wii U or having migrated to smart phones and tablets and core gamers setting their sights on the next offerings from Sony and Microsoft Nintendo need a strategy to stand out and sell hardware, Mario and Zelda will only get them so far.

Industry analyst Michael Patcher has said Nintendo “misfired” with the Wii U before speculating the company will never recover. The 3DS continues to perform reasonably well but now Nintendo needs to justify the Wii U. Nintendo’s collaboration with Skylander-like near field communication (NFC) models for a Pok√©mon based game may go some way towards achieving that goal but until them Nintendo have their work cut for them.

At the very least, there’s always Bayonetta 2.

10 March 2013

Mass Effect 3: One Year On

A year ago Mass Effect 3 was released on March 6th in North America and on March 9th in Europe. For such a high profile launch perhaps disappointment was inevitable yet the scale of the backlash could never have been pre-determined.

By and large BioWare's release and the concluding part of Commander Shepard's story is commendable even if rarely reached the heights established by Mass Effect 2 and further moved away from the series RPG roots. Of course, the biggest controversy which the game generated concerned its ending, and it was around this element of the game that the reaction by players was most overwhelming.

Much has been said of the much maligned conclusion to the tale and while it will be never be possible to tell with any great accuracy whether those who disliked the ending were a significant majority or impressively vocal minority their determination, if nothing else, should not be quickly dismissed.

Nor should they be considered 'entitled'. They are not the first consumers to petition the creators of a project to change it, nor will be the last. One of the earliest examples of this came about over a century ago when fans of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes demanded he bring the famous detective back - Doyle duly complied.

While BioWare's attempts to appease fans are admirable, there was no need for the studio to produce the (free) Extended Cut which addressed some of the plot holes and other issues that had been raised. And there certainly wasn't any need for Citadel, the greatest DLC BioWare have ever produced (in my opinion). Granted, $15 for a love letter to fans may seem disingenuous, yet it truly worth the money for a heartfelt sendoff to Commander Shepard and his/her squad.

Not everyone can be pleased and not everyone has been. Perhaps BioWare have lost some fans permanently over what are seen as the relative disappointments of Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 3 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. This would be a lasting shame, the studio's titles are still better than a great many games and it remains to be seen if these fans carry through with their threat of boycotting the company.

There are those who continue to work towards making a 'better' ending to title, of course, as with the ending itself their success or failure will be a matter of opinion and whether, after a year, there are enough people to care.

Koobismo, the creator of the Marauder Shields series of comics will see the series to a close and in so doing create what may be the ending Commander Shepard deserved all along, a subjective matter of course.

Others will seek to make their own mark on the Mass Effect universe and the fate of the first human spectre.

One fan, Gerry Pugliese, has been working for almost a year on Mass Effect 3: Vindication, a project which has bloomed into a 500 page response to what some see as the game's pitfalls complete with the title's official soundtrack - something not many composers or studios would agree to - as well as professional voice talent in the form of Lora Cain (Trudy and Red Lucy from Fallout: New Vegas).


This type of dedication and passion should never be disavowed and illustrates just what BioWare's games can do - the interest and the love they can invoke in those who play them. 

Mass Effect 3 served to progress the series with a multiplayer mode that never felt tacked-on and has been consistently supported by free DLC and bi-weekly challenges. It concluded many tropes of the Mass Effect series admirably (curing - or not - the krogan genophage is one particular highlight) even if the game did sometimes wander into that lamentable videogame belief that emotion = sadness (the fates of Mordin and Thane spring to mind).

Some fans will never be appeased but if they can look back on the series BioWare created and fond memories of it than perhaps it wasn't all in vain. Personally, I have much to thank the franchise for.

One of the pieces I submitted when applying to write for Levithyn concerned Mass Effect 3's ending (it was never actually published) while my dislike of the conclusion - significantly lessened by time, the Extended Cut and the absurdly excellent Citadel - and was the second piece I had ever written on the subject of videogames - the uproar also brought me into contact with many I now consider friends.

The point is that games can bring people together, even when it's a togetherness borne out of anger. The Mass Effect trilogy, and not just the conclusion of Commander Shepard's story, did this in a way few games can. That will always be something to be thankful for. 

Commander Shepard won't be in the next Mass Effect but I for one will happily delve back into that wonderful world BioWare crafted.

01 March 2013

Assassin's Creed IV and What it Might Mean for the Series

Developers and publishers have a delicate balance to strike in the progression of a series. There are the competing needs of making money, which makes annualisation a highly tempting prospect, and the possibility that doing so will be the very thing that drives the franchise into the ground (in many cases to be rebooted in the following years as is the case with Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider).

Ubisoft and the six studios it has working on yearly instalments of the Assassin’s Creed franchise walk this very narrow tightrope. For all the aspects of Assassin’s Creed III that worked there equally as many that did not. The game felt tired, the protagonist uninspiring and Anvil engine stuttered under the limitations of current generation technology. 

With the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flags following a series of leaks it seems Ubisoft’s biggest title will once again hit PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U (though don’t be surprised if Black Flags follows Watch_Dog’s lead and launches on PS4 and Xbox 720).

Connor’s gone and in his place is a new Assassin and a Caribbean setting. One of Assassin’s Creed 3’s most popular features was its naval battles (though I personally never warmed to them) and from that perspective a game which will likely heavily expand upon this feature makes sense. And with this step Ubisoft are moving further away from the template which made the series great.

Innovating and adding new ideas to a franchise is by no means a bad thing and I will quite happily defend Ninja Theory’s controversial DmC Devil May Cry reboot and the alterations within to anyone. Yet there is a difference DmC maintained the core combat mechanic of the previous entries in the franchise, wrapped up as it was in a new aesthetic and new backstory.

Naval battles, popular as they may have been, were a marked divergence from all other aspects of the series. There was no stealth element, social or otherwise, and instead of close contact ‘personal’ kills there was instead the clamour of cannons bombarding another vessel. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s Leonardo Da Vinci special weapons missions felt similarly unconnected which is presumably why they – or something like them - were not carried forward.
The concept of an open-world pirate’s game is an enticing one but should that game be an Assassin’s Creed title? That’s something that won’t be answered until the game is released but there’s little reason to suspect it is. While naming it Assassin’s Creed IV seems to follow too soon in the footsteps of Assassin’s Creed 3.

Granted this is likely due to the game’s hero being a new character yet it seems to suggest a radical step forward for the series when that may well not be the case, Assassin’s Creed 3 did not match the level of innovation and streamlining of Assassin’s Creed 2 which made that game the best in series to date (in my opinion at least).

It was the focusing of core elements in Assassin’s Creed 2 which made it such a fantastic title. These were namely the killing and cities. AC2 refined and expanded on the combat that had brought down the original while expanding on the vibrant and large cities that had always been a core attraction of the series.

While this will no doubt form a part of Black Flag one must wonder quite how much they’ll be present. Will stealth, social or otherwise, feature into the game in any meaningful capacity? We don’t know yet but frigates blasting each other across treacherous sea leaves little hope for features which made the series so compelling.
The trailer for the game launches on March 4th and we should know more then but as it stands Black Flags looks to be a marked departure for the series. Again the concept is solid, but that doesn’t mean it has a place in the Assassin’s Creed universe.
Will any of the towns or villages of the Caribbean match the scale and vibrancy of the cities of the Holy Land or Italy? It seems unlikely and it was the complex cities of past titles that proved one to be of the franchises’ most alluring prospects.  

There is another issue to consider with Black Flags if the game is exclusive to this generation of consoles and the Xbox 720 follows the PlayStation 4 in denying backwards compatibility. Presuming the title launches in November or there about – it has been reported that the game will launch on the 29th of October - there will likely be some gamers who cannot buy it having traded in their console to buy the 720 or PS4.

If the game is released across both generations of systems, which is likely, then there’s potentially another problem for Ubisoft; namely, that they prove to be their own biggest competitor. Watch_Dogs will likely capture the cash of those willing to try new IPs (which tend to perform better around the launch of a console). Gamers tight on cash will have to ask themselves whether they want fifth Assassin’s Creed game in as many years or a brand new and promising IP (not to mention the other launch titles for next gen systems).

Should either of these scenarios, or both of them, come true Assassin’s Creed may no longer be quite the force it is today. Annualisation has run many series into the ground, even Activision expects this year’s Call of Duty title to see reduced sales – likely a combination of series fatigue and the launch of new consoles - that fate may or may not befall Assassin’s Creed but if it does taking a few years to recapture the essence of what made the series great while simultaneously doing what needs to be done to progress the series in a meaningful manner would be no bad thing
Black Flags may go on to be a roaring success in terms of what it’s trying do and as one of my favourite franchises of this generation I wish it every success in the next but I also hope Ubisoft keep to the core of the series and don’t do anything too rash with their new seafaring Assassin. It seems unlikely.

Until then,

Vittoria Agli Assassini.