Games, Guns, Politics and EA Earnings Call

“… there has been an  enormous amount of research done in the entertainment field about looking for linkages between entertainment content and actual violence, and they haven’t found any.  And I could give you long stories about how people in Denmark or the UK or Ireland or Canada consume as much or more violent games and violent media as they do  in the United States, and yet they have an infinitely smaller incidence of gun violence.”

- John Riccitello, EA Earnings Call, 31st Jan 2013

Like many non-Americans, I watch the current round of discussion in the aftermath of the (latest) tragic school shootings with mild bemusement. To me it reads as though the NRA blames computer games and basically anything and everything else they can think of except guns. And whilst the various industries and groups picked out rebutt the claims, they don’t seem able to respond in kind. Like:  It’s not the games, it’s the everything else including the guns. (I know how playground arguments go, that’s what you do.)

The part where the government then runs around consulting everyone and tries to think of some kind of quick fix doesn’t induce mild bemusement, that’s business as usual – except that the US government is more competent than our homegrown omnishambles.

Riccitello isn’t politically able to take a poke at the NRA  (too many US gamers and investors don’t want to hear that argument), but it is his job to defend his corner of the gaming industry, which is an uphill struggle when you can’t use one of your best arguments. As soon as he starts citing countries like Canada, the UK, Denmark, and Ireland (as per the above quote), it’s kind of implicit that:

  • Gamers are gamers. People are people.  So you can compare like with like in different countries.
  • One of the big differences between all of those places and the US is that they all have strict gun control, which may be relevant if we’re talking about gun crime.

In any case, EA are shuttering the Medal of Honor series for awhile, because the last game was a critical disaster that vastly underperformed in sales.   This is a purely business decision and nothing at all to do with the political climate. They’re enthusiastic about other shooters like Battlefield and again, they’re too reliant on selling shooters to criticise them or stop making them anyway.

So again, a bit of dancing on eggshells to put this across while backing the government’s call for research into video game violence and also asserting that there’s no connection between gaming and RL violence.

Gaming <—> Violence? Who knows?

We take tremendous joy in virtual violence. We squeal with glee when life-giving liquid squirts out of men’s necks. Does that cause violence? Probably not. I don’t have any concrete reason to believe so, anyway. But it gives violence an active, constant role in our day-to-day lives. We can’t just ignore that. We shouldn’t ignore that. It’d be outright irresponsible to do so.

– Nathan Grayson, Rock Paper Shotgun

Personally, I’m all for more research being done on links between gaming and violence. I doubt that gaming has much to do with violence, it’s as likely to be a substitute (i.e. people who might otherwise have gone out and got into fights may play games instead) as a normaliser. But I could be wrong, and it would be good to know more if we can.

And if it becomes less politically fashionable for devs to make ultra-realistic ultra-violent shmups then I won’t be complaining, since it increases the chance that more games will be made that I personally like. John Walker (also in RPS) argues that EA should not have canned Medal of Honor but instead use it to springboard a series of FPS games that challenges the players preconceptions and portrays the experience of soldiers with more choice (and therefore taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices) and less railroaded “kill X enemies” scenarios.

And I think “yes, that sounds interesting”, I’m playing through The Walking Dead at the moment and loving how it carefully explores its genre. I could imagine a war game that took a similar approach. But I don’t like FPS games, and that’s the problem in a nutshell. Your average FPS player may not be your average story-loving RPG fan. EA probably did the right thing to shoot MoH in the head.

Gaming News: Red Shirt Guy immortalised in WoW, Kinect Launches, EA halves losses, Lego Universe, Genetic Algorithms beat SC2

EA held an investor call this week and although I have summarised the main points of note below, it is instructive as to how most mainstream news blogs deal with new stories. A single investor call from the CEO was chopped up and served as multiple different news stories, one point in each. But they’re mostly based on various points made in the same presentation.

It’s really very different from the way the regular news is shown (I think I’d kick the BBC if they tried to report news this way) where usually there’s one main news stories and then some associated commentary to fill up the extra slots.

Compare mmo-champion to WoW Insider to see an example of comprehensive news vs chopped up news. (Not wishing to diss WoW Insider who do provide some added value via commentary and analysis on their news items rather than just posting a stream of single paragraphs.)

This week’s prophet of doom for SWTOR is BigPoint boss, speaking at the London Games Conference, who said:

“If you look at Star Wars from EA and BioWare, they estimated a development budget of over $100m,” he explained.

“This is an online game for many million of subscribers, so the publisher does not understand that a subscription model is not the future. With micro-transactions maybe I see the game having a chance but I don’t think that EA or BioWare will ever be profitable with this game.”

(Feel free to send me links to any blog posts, forum posts or news items about anyone being dubious about SWTOR’s future. Maybe I can make this a regular weekly item.)

And speaking of Star Wars: The Old Republic you’d like to vote on the new name for the Jedi Wizard, place your mark here.

The Story of Red Shirt Guy

It’s a fairytale story of geek meets geek king, impresses king with knowledge of obscure law, and wins a kingdom. OK, not a fairytale story although you wouldn’t really know that from the way people are spinning it.

Red Shirt guy distinguished himself by showing up at the Q&A session at Blizzcon (in a red shirt, yes) and asking a lore question that caught out Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s lore supremo.

I haven’t followed the story to a great extent after that but there were some videos on youtube, and Blizzard fixed the lore problem and also included a red shirt dwarf guy NPC in Cataclysm as a nod to the guy. Blacksen and his guild also decided that they’d like to do something nice for him so invited him to come raid with them and pick up a very nice and very lore-inspired mount in ICC.

Oh, and he also has Aspergers.

Kinect launches

This week also saw the launch of the Xbox Kinect controller, which allows a user to control a game by gesturing and moving around, rather than by using a manual controller.

Destructoid review Kinect, with answers to all your questions about ‘how much room do you actually need.’ I have also seen a report that Kinect has some issues with face recognition on dark skinned users (but I’d be astounded if they hadn’t tested that thoroughly before going live, because the PR would be pretty awful if that’s true.) It does highlight one of the difficulties with testing face recognition and voice recognition software – you need to test against a very wide range of faces, accents etc. so as not to be accidentally racist.

Kotaku review a bunch of launch titles here.

In an interview with Gamasutra, a spokesman claims that Kinect is going to outsell the iPad, and Microsoft commented elsewhere that they are forecasting 5 million sales this year.

EA halves losses

EA announced this week that they had a strong quarter and halved their losses compared with Q2 last year. Of course, they had a lot fewer sales as well and this is likely due to their current strategy of releasing fewer but ‘stronger’ games.

Recently released Medal of Honor also apparently picked up 2 million sales in the first two weeks. There’s also a slightly mismatched message coming out of EA about that game. One of their VPs said that MoH didn’t meet their quality expectations. Riccitello on the other hand said that it was a clear success and likely to become another franchise.

2 million sales is hardly a failure in anyone’s book, but still the game will likely be blown away by Black Ops which is due for release next week.

In F2P FPS news, EA also announced that they plan a PC Battlefield game that will be free to play. It is to be gritty and realistic. It sounds as though there will be some progression elements (learn skills, buy equipment and weapons) as well as the usual battleground gameplay. If you think it sounds a bit MMOish, so do they.

This is more about you jumping in with 32 players, maybe playing against strangers, a bit more of an RPG experience, more of an MMO way of approaching things.

If you like the sound of that, you can sign up for the beta here.

Other EA related news this week is that they apparently now have an agreement with Facebook to use Facebook Credits for virtual transactions in their FB games for the next 5 years.

Lego Universe

There was a time a few months ago when people were actually excited about a Lego Universe MMO. Then Minecraft came out and players realised that it provided all the building block related gameplay anyone would want without the annoying MMO Conventions. Right?

In any case, Lego Universe MMO went live a couple of weeks ago and the reviews are trickling in, it doesn’t sound as though it’s quite there yet.

I do very much suspect that Minecraft has sucked in many of the adult players who were intrigued by the idea of a building block world.

Genetic Algorithms applied to Starcraft 2

This is a story to warm the cockles of any computer scientist’s heart.  It came from slashdot, which linked to Louis Brandy, a compsci blogger who explains how someone else was able to use a genetic algorithm to calculate optimal SC2 build orders for the zerg.

If you’d rather read this in English, RPS have a summary here.

It’s pretty cool that the game strategy in SC2 is deep enough that this type of approach throws up some interesting new ideas. I don’t in any way think that knowing some great build orders makes the game faceroll, that’s crazy. Chess Grand Masters still beat chess computers too … for now at least.

Gaming News: Blizzcon, Why LOTRO F2P delay in EU, Medal of Honor and Fallout: New Vegas disappoint, Prof Layton vs Phoenix Wright, DDOS Minecraft attack, EQ2 Server Merge

demon hunter

 

So, Blizzcon was this weekend and as I noted yesterday, there weren’t any huge announcements from Blizzard.

Still, here’s a picture of the last Diablo 3 class, the Demon Hunter. And a link to the (cheesy) trailer.

Badass female? check.

Spiky plate armour? check.

High heels? DOH!!!

And of course, in D3, all classes are available as both genders so there will be a male demon hunter too, we just haven’t seen him yet. We can only hope that he gets to totter around in high heels too. (btw this trailer, despite the heels, is way more female friendly than 90% of the stuff you get from other game companies.)

Main announcements were:

  • Demon hunter for D3
  • PvP arenas will be available in D3. Apparently during the Diablo Q&A they clarified that they don’t plan for Diablo to be an e-sport, so they aren’t aiming to balance all builds.
  • Cataclysm to be available digitally so you can download it from Blizzard and have it ready to run on release day.
  • Defense of the Ancients style map to be available (free) for SC2, along with other new maps/ minigames. The SC2 DotA is going to use characters from Warcraft and Diablo as well as Starcraft, and sounds like a Big Deal.

Relating to DotA, Blizzard chiefs have commented in interviews that they are talking to Valve about rights to use ‘Defense of the Ancients’ and it sounds as though there is some confusion about who owns what. Doubtless the mod designer does own the name, but it’s true that a lot of people would associate it with Blizzard’s wargames.

Why was the launch of F2P delayed for LOTRO in Europe?

The general manager of Codemasters posted an explanation for the delay in the EU LOTRO forums. As has been widely suspected, it was due to legal/ contractual issues rather than technical ones.

We can confirm the launch is imminent and we should be able to announce the dates later this week/early next week.

I still resent Turbine for going ahead and launching in the US even though they knew these contractual issues had not been resolved. Will certainly bear that in mind in future.

Medal of Honor and Fallout: New Vegas both disappoint

Two big games were released recently but neither has really achieved greatness. Reviewers have not been thrilled and sales back that up.

Professor Layton to meet Phoenix Wright!

Apparently there is going to be a crossover DS game featuring Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright in a game that is described as a combination of puzzles and crime mystery.

That is just too much awesome for one tiny game cartridge to contain! If it doesn’t get released over here there will be … troub^D^D^D^D^D frantic ordering from overseas and heavy use of any friends who happen to speak Japanese.

Of course, I’d have to actually finish DQ9 first which doesn’t look to be happening any time soon. I was quite impressed that Reggie Fils-Aime claims to have spent 150 hours playing it too.

DDOS attack on Minecraft

How stupid exactly do you have to be to think that the best way to encourage an indie game designer to add more content to his game is to take down his server?

I’m not sure if the source of the DDOS attack has actually been proved but 4chan was mentioned in the link above, where a post was made claiming that the attack came from impatient fans.

I have no words. Tobold had a similar reaction.

EQ2 Servers Merge

SOE announced some server merges this week. These are (of course) subscription servers, which are still kept separate from the EQ2X F2P plebs.

This isn’t really a surprise because it’s been known for ages that the populations on some of those servers has been getting quite low. Whatever server merges may or may not mean for the game, it’s usually a good move for players on those low pop servers when a merger is done.

Player vs Developer comments about what it’s like being on one of the low pop servers that isn’t being merged. In this case, SOE have been reluctant to merge a RP server with a non-RP server, and he’s feeling as though his character has been abandoned.

Gaming News:Zynga as Farmvillains, Medal of Honor needs to sell 3 mill to get sequel, Move not a pre-order product, LOTRO goes F2P

OK, taking a brief break from Recettear to write up some news.  (RPS found it as addictive as I am, but I’m not really sure I’d be so fast to pin ‘game of the year’ accolades on a roguelike with an economic sim attached, however engagingly executed.)

It strikes me this week that gaming ‘news’ that makes the rounds is just as likely to be reactions to some strongly worded opinion piece (as per this week’s wave of excitement about yet another article noting that Zynga made a reputation from copying game ideas) as actual news.

Zynga as Farmvillains

The SF Weekly article that got everyone going this week includes some prize quotes from ex-Zynga employees.

“I don’t fucking want innovation,” the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. “You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”

This isn’t really news, as anyone who had ever compared Farm Town to Farmville can attest, and it isn’t illegal either – game mechanics aren’t really copyrightable per se.

CEOs in general prefer to gain a reputation as evil than as incompetent, and since Zynga actually makes more profit than Facebook, I imagine Mark Pincus is laughing all the way to the bank. And of course, now they’re busy buying up more innovative companies and probably will be keener to open up new markets for gamers who don’t actually like Farmville. Who knows?

What’s more interesting is the assumption that social gaming on facebook is a waning phenomenon. I’m not entirely sure how much of this is wishful thinking.

And whether you like Zynga games or not, journalists are reluctant to give much credit to developers or companies who do a really good job of polishing an existing design and selling it to a new crowd. It’s rarely just as simple as copying. The more evil things that Zynga did were to do with pushing dodgy or even fraudulent ‘free’  offers on people, and spamming the known universe with farmville and wants-to-be-viral marketing spam.

If you find yourself playing a F2P game and are annoyed at all the in-game adverts, inducements to recruit friends, or other anti-immersive popups, blame Zynga et al for bringing the levels of success enjoyed by these forms of sales to people’s attention. (Meanwhile I’ll be playing Recettear.)

Sell 3 million or go home for Medal of Honor

In a brief look into the mindset of gaming executives. the Medal of Honor executive producer this week said that if the game doesn’t sell at least 3 million copies, there won’t be a sequel.

This is just another indication of how the gaming industry is taking its lead from Hollywood.

Maybe Steve Jobs was right about iDevices owning 50% of the US gaming market …

Venturebeat has some numbers in on which devices Americans choose to play mobile games. And they claim that Apple is chasing hard on Nintendo’s heels in that department.

There’s a point where you have to take these figures with a pinch of salt, because people don’t necessarily play the same sorts of games on a DS as they would on an iPhone. It’s the same logic which says that minesweeper is the most popular PC game around the world. It may technically be true, but it’s all in the interpretation.

In any case, a larger gaming market should be a good thing for everyone, right? I also wonder how well the iPhones will be holding on vs Android in a year or so. Yes, people love their iDevices but do they really care whether it’s Apple under the hood as long as they have a nice shiny gadget with friendly UI (as many of the more recent Android devices do) to play with? Or at that point, do other factors come into play?

Paypal freezes indie developers account

Having mentioned Minecraft last week, it’s sad to report that the developer has had his paypal account frozen.

Hopefully it will just be that they weren’t expecting the sort of economic activity that comes with coding up a breakout indie hit game and when that’s sorted out and proven, they’ll release the cash. But paypal has a poor reputation, and if they are still allowing payments to go into the frozen account, that’s bad practice for any bank.

But if I were him, I’d be getting a lawyer.

LOTRO goes F2P (US Only)

Lord of the Rings Online, Turbine’s AAA MMO, has opened the doors to free to pay/ freemium players for the first time. It hasn’t been without some teething troubles – the usual queues and lag as masses of extra players hop over to check out the new free shinies.

Back in Europe, F2P launch has been delayed until at least the end of the month. I don’t have much to add on this except that it’s disappointing but better not to launch if the code or infrastructure isn’t ready.

Sony gearing up to go head to head with Microsoft over Move

Sony have been busy setting expectations this week about the forthcoming launch of the PS3 Move.

According to an interview with MCV this week, they have deliberately avoided a big, expensive wave of hype prior to next week’s launch. Instead, they’re looking for an ‘evergreen seller’ with the advertising set to ramp up after the device is available on shelves. In fact, their retail promotional tour in the UK is mostly heading for big supermarkets and not specialist games shops.

I thought that was an interesting, and probably wise, angle compared to the crazy hype campaigns that kick in for software launches.

And VP Marketing from the US Sony campaign agree that it’s not a huge budget endeavour. They can’t outspend Microsoft and won’t try.

Is crossplayer the fusion of single player and multiplayer?

This was an article on The Escapist that caught my eye, discussing where the lines are drawn between single player games, multiplayer online, and story driven.

Coming from an MMO perspective, I find myself puzzled because in games like WoW et al, that problem has been solved (for some value of solved). Feel like soloing? Fine, go solo. Feel like a battleground? Sure, go queue for one of those.

But this is a different approach, and one more akin to monsterplay in LOTRO, where you might not know in advance whether you are fighting NPCs or actual players. So there is the possibility for any of the AIs to be taken over and controlled by a real opponent.

I’m not really convinced about how fun that’s going to be. But it’s an interesting read.