Tina K. Russell

September 16, 2008

Giving gamers what they want

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Tina Russell @ 4:05 pm

Peter Moore Interview: Part Two | Technology | guardian.co.uk
What was the key lesson you took out of the failure of Dreamcast?
You know, failure’s a tough word! It didn’t quite get there. I was angry with Sony at the time, but in their shoes I probably would have done the same thing. They did a tremendous job – and it’s a story they repeated in 2005 with Killzone – where they promised the consumer something they probably believed they were going to deliver, but they never did. PlayStation 2 – it was the emotion engine it was games coming to life, Real Player was going to be on there, a full network browser… and they just never delivered.

But what they did was place doubt in the consumers’ mind. It was pre-emptive guerrilla PR, in the same way that three E3s ago I got lambasted for what I did with Xbox for 360, because I was determined we were going to show real footage even if it was alpha or beta. And then Sony came up with that Killzone video – and they still haven’t shipped the game! Have you seen the video?! The game will never be the video! But what they did again was they placed doubt. I mean it’s a classic PR tactic.

Mr. Moore, a bit of a hero of mine (it’s a bit sad that he’s now heading up EA Sports; the job of churning out more Maddens is so easy, it’s practically retirement for someone like Moore, used to fighting high-stakes battles against competitors not crippled by corrosive exclusive deals), explains two things here. He explains the widespread use of utter baloney in game marketing, the practice of presenting “gameplay target” videos and unrealistic feature lists and attempting to keep a straight face as you pass them off for the real thing.

But also, he digs somewhat uncomfortably into my childhood. I can remember, in the horrid throes of middle school, attempting to defend my console of choice—the Dreamcast, awash in absolutely brilliant games that year (Skies of Arcadia, Samba de Amigo, Jet Grind Radio, on and on…)—against a wave of slightly-informed classmates and teachers convinced by a Newsweek puff piece that the PS2 would make breakfast in the morning and tuck you in at night. I would have exploded had I heard the PlayStation 2 referred to as a “set-top box” one more time, or that it would be an “all-in-one” entertainment hub for your house. None of that happened, and the PS2’s “multimedia” capabilities basically started and ended at sub-par DVD playback (and any online or social functionality barely happened at all). It didn’t matter. The damage had been done… it didn’t matter that the Dreamcast had proven hardware and a stellar library of original games and the PS2 had jaggy graphics and retreads of last year’s has-beens. The Dreamcast still lost, and the injustice of it all haunts me to this day.

Anyway, Sony’s current woes—PSP and PS3 have recovered and are doing well for themselves, but of course Nintendo is owning everyone right now—have made it considerably better for me. It’s not just that I wish ill on Sony, although I would put a curse unto the seventh son of the seventh son of Ken Kutaragi if I could. It’s that the “innovator’s dilemma” prophecy has been fulfilled and people would rather buy something that is cheap, interesting, and fun now rather than a bulky, bloated machine with a torrent of unspecified, future promises of greatness. (I will be extremely surprised if “PlayStation Home” has any notable impact.) DS’s victory over PSP—though they do have appeal in rather different markets—felt like a moment at which I could exhale. I might get a PSP sometime, given the money. (After all, what Dreamcast fan could pass up two-packs of Crazy Taxi and Power Stone?) It’s true that Nintendo appeals beyond the hardcore crowd, but I’m in the hardcore crowd, so I’m always willing to venture through the idyllic plains of Mario Land and into the treacherous caves of the enthusiast market.

But, what I feel is central to what Peter Moore discusses—Sony’s clever and disingenuous use of pompous malarkey, a tactic which I thin is wearing thin—is a central conceit in the videogame industry, with games shoveling more and more of “what we want” into our ostensibly willing mouths. More and more action games that are bloodier, easier, and shorter, more and more insanely detailed environments with a torrent of unnecessary light bloom around each corner, more and more expensive machines prone to more and more hilariously awful hardware failures from attempting to strap too much to the trunk of your fun-machine. Now, of course, I’m specifically talking about games for the “hardcore” crowd; as I’ve mentioned before at length, most games don’t fall into the category of hack-and-slash action-adventure, and certainly not the most successful ones.

But as a member of that hardcore crowd, I want to tell game companies to quit giving us more of the same, more of what we say we want. Surprise us. Surprise me.

I may have built, in my head, the perfect blueprint for the Sonic game that would be massive, epic, and so entertaining that it would pull the series out of its long-standing doldrums for the rest of game history; but, what I would like most would be a Sonic game that I didn’t think of, one that brings the concept back to its roots in a totally different way, one that makes me feel the franchise is as new and fresh now as it was back in 1991 (rather than betting the farm on various unwieldy experiments year after year).

When I play a game, I analyze it for all its flaws and faults; I can’t help it. It’s habit. I’ve been playing games for too long. But, when I play a game and it passes my whole internal checklist for common problems, I still feel a bit empty inside. A game that’s everything I ever wanted misses the mark for precisely that reason. If it contains nothing I never realized would be so much fun, it’s merely better than average.

So, I appreciate Nintendo’s philosophy of gaming partly because it brings gaming out of the core of your life and makes it something fun to do on the bus or in your living room on your off hours. (Nintendo games also tend to focus on the social component of gaming, something too often ignored outside the world of PC LAN parties.) Much as I appreciate those light-hearted affairs, though, I grew up on games and I still want the occasional epic. It was hard to play through The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and not feel like you’ve played this all before. This game was the Zelda experience, made gritty and realistic and polished to an impeccable shine. This was what we’ve been clamoring for for years, and now that we have it, how do we feel?

…A little bit empty inside.

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